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2000 holiday gadget guide

This year's high-tech crop includes an abundance of music players, personal organizers and communicators, digital cameras, video game consoles and more.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 27, 2000


It's getting to be a familiar lament for the holiday shopping season: So many gadgets, so little time.

The electronic toy box seems to be overflowing with gadgets and gizmos this year, except of course for those seeking the prized and scarce Sony PlayStation 2 video game system. Even those gamers have alternatives from which to choose.

So, we've done a little shopping, surfing and comparing to see what looks interesting, useful, cool and quirky. Web sites are provided where possible.

And for those cruising the Web: Consumer Reports magazine offers tips about online shopping, a review of some of its top-rated products from the past year and explanations of features on some gadgets, such as digital cameras, at www.ConsumerReports.org/news/holiday/.

The sound of music

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The Nomad Jukebox MP3 player
It was just two years ago when the first portable MP3 player hit the market. Now everyone seems to be making players for the music format that can be downloaded from the Web. Of course, they come in different shapes, sizes and functions.

The first models played only 30 or 60 minutes of music, depending on the size of the chip inside, but new players are expanding those limits. The Nomad Jukebox ($499.99, www.nomadworld.com) can hold about 150 CDs' worth of music on its 6-gigabyte hard drive.

The players give music lovers more flexibility as well. For example, the Mambo-X P300 Portable MP3 CD player ($200, www.mambox.com) handles MP3 files on CD-R or CD-RW discs made at home as well as conventional audio CDs.

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Digisette’s DUO-MP3
Digisette's DUO-MP3 ($299, www.digisette.com) plays digital music as a stand-alone device that looks like an audiocassette tape. But the whole device also can be inserted and played in most audiocassette players, which furthers the life of that old boom box.

People who want to look good while enjoying their personal stereos may want to check out Sony's w.ear (www.sel.sony.com). It eliminates the headband in headphones with earpieces that connect to a portable stereo. But they also can make a fashion statement, offering colored caps to cover the earpieces. The w.ear costs about $30, and extra sets of caps are $6 a pair.

Can we talk?

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Samsung’s Uproar digital phone and MP3 player
Ah, the good old days, when people simply talked on phones. A much simpler time, indeed.

But companies keep cramming more and more into phones, making conversation a sidelight. We reported this summer that wireless phones that offer Internet access and e-mail promise more than they can deliver, particularly for the consumer market. But at some point this stuff will become a reality.

The current cutting-edge phones merge the cell phone with a personal organizer for easier use and more functions. Handspring's VisorPhone ($299, www.handspring.com) is supposed to be available before the end of the year. Sprint's TP3000 ($400, www.sprint.com) is scheduled for release by December.

The Samsung Uproar ($400, www.samsung.com) allows people to download MP3 music from the Internet (and listen with a stereo headset), surf the Web, use it as a personal organizer and, yes, talk. And that's all with a handset that weighs about 4 ounces (a hefty 5.4 ounces with an extended battery).

For those who want text but not talk, Motorola's Timeport P935 Personal Interactive Communicator ($399.99, www.motorola.com) has wireless Net access and e-mail and synchronizes with PCs. (A nice touch on the Motorola's Web site: It lets you type in the ZIP code to make sure the product works where you live.)

One cordless phone gives people more room to roam while talking: about 5 miles from its base station. The EnGenius cordless phone (starting at $335 for a complete package, www.engeniusphones.com) also can be used as a two-way radio. It seems to be pitched toward a business market, but if you really want to hide the phone from a teenager . . .

Give 'em a handheld

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The clip-on VisorPhone
The challenge for consumers looking for personal organizers may be finding one. Parts shortages may make them scarce this holiday season.

Once mainly used for calendars, notes and other mundane chores, handheld organizers have added Internet access and e-mail functions. Many come with full-color screens instead of shades of gray. And they have caught the fashion trend, with some devices available in various bright colors. Prices fit a variety of budgets, ranging from $149 to $499 or so.

Sony entered what is getting to be a crowded market with CLIE ($399.99, www.sony.com). It has the advantages of a lot of storage with Sony's Memory Stick technology, but it doesn't have a color screen.

In addition to models from market leader Palm (www.palm.com), others getting attention this year include Compaq's iPAQ series (www.compaq.com), Handspring's Visor (www.handspring.com) and Hewlett-Packard's Jornada (www.hp.com).

Check out reviews at www.pocketnow.com and www.pdabuzz.com.

Digital cameras

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FujiFilm FinePix 4700 Zoom
Here's a snapshot of how the digital camera market works: The Fuji FinePix 4700 Zoom (www.fujifilm.com) made its debut in May at $799, a camera with lots of pixels and features. An online check this month showed the price down to about $640.

The trend continues: Digital cameras get more powerful and more affordable, from cameras for kids, such as KB Gear's JamCam 3.0 ($99.99, www.kbgear.com), to fancy models costing hundreds or thousands more for hobbyists.

A few tips for those shopping: If you're not familiar with digital photography, you might want to choose a relatively inexpensive model, which with today's technology will take more than acceptable family photos. As you get more comfortable and can afford it, explore more expensive cameras.

Companies that have quality reputations in film cameras, such as Nikon and Kodak, tend to get good reviews for their digital camera quality.

Ziff-Davis' Digital Camera Center (www.zdnet.com/special/filters/sc/camera/) is a good resource to check if you're in the market.

Seal the deal

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The Brother CoolLaminator with laminated samples
You took the digital photo. You printed it out. Now you want to protect it. You don't hear much about laminators, but we found two that look interesting. And neither uses heat.

The Brother CoolLaminator ($199, www.brother.com) has a variety of features, including automatic trimming. More portable is the YOU2 Cool-Seal Laminator ($34.99, www.leitz.com), which weighs in at about 2.5 pounds.

Couch potato gear

As if sharper pictures and better sound weren't enough, DVD players now have more buttons for couch potatoes to push.

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Samsung SyncMaster 150MP flat-panel display
Couch potatoes can have a film festival with the Samsung DVD-C600 ($329, www.samsung.com), which holds five discs at a time. A day of movie watching can include viewing frame-by-frame, slow-motion and searches to jump from one scene to another.

The Hitachi DV-P305U DVD ($199.95, www.hitachi.com) has a zoom function that allows the viewer to pick a spot on the screen and magnify it. The player also lets you fast forward and rewind in different speeds.

But a few clouds are on the DVD horizon. The first DVD recorders have hit the market, though these early models are not for the faint of wallet (about $4,000). The industry hasn't settled on a technical standard, so expect confusion as consumers try to sort through three competing formats when prices hit an affordable range. It's sort of the VHS versus Betamax battle again.

And while holiday sales are expected to be strong, not everyone is enamored with what they see in DVD.

Personal video recorders from TiVo and Replay haven't caught on widely, though experts expect sales to pick up.

And to watch this stuff, the Samsung SyncMaster 150MP ($1,119) and 170MP are flat-panel computer monitors and stand-alone TV sets, with lots of bells and whistles.

The hunt for PS2

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Sony PlayStation 2
Right after the PlayStation 2 went on sale in October, we checked the classified ads. Talk about inflation: A $300 video game system was being offered for up to $1,200. We're not talking about a collectible here.

So, for those who don't want to pay a king's ransom and prefer to wait for supply to catch up to demand (unlikely in time for the holidays), we offer these thumbnail sketches of other video game systems:

Sega's Dreamcast costs $149.99, half the PlayStation 2's suggested price, and it has more and better games than are available for the PS2.

Sony's PS One ($99.99) is a sleeker version of Sony's original PlayStation. The smaller unit can play any of the PlayStation's library of 800 games, and new games will be coming out for quite some time. An additional benefit: The PS2 plays most of the original games, so if you buy the new machine later the games are still good.

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Nintendo 64’s Pokemon-branded video game console
Nintendo 64 ($99.99) might be called the Pokemon machine. Kids who love the little critters have a lot of game choices, but it's probably a dark horse in the holiday sweepstakes.

Game Boy Color ($79.99) from Nintendo has at least another year left in it, with a steady stream of titles planned, including Pokemon.

Gamers' gadgets

Just playing a game isn't enough. Now, accessories let players experience a game on both video consoles and PCs.

Microsoft's Sidewinder GameVoice ($50, www.microsoft.com) lets you direct games on your PC with voice commands given through a headset, as well as chat with other players online (using, of course, MSN Messenger). It is Windows only, however.

For those lucky enough to get a PlayStation 2, Saitek (www.saitekusa.com) has a dual-purpose DVD remote ($20): Players can plug their game pad into it and it also controls the game system's DVD player, so people can enjoy either from a distance and not be tethered with a cord.

The mighty mouse

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Apple’s optical Pro Mouse
No longer is the computer mouse just a device to help navigate around a computer. Now it's getting a feel for the on-screen action, as well as taking shape as sort of a hood ornament for the desk.

The iFeel mouse ($39.95) from Logitech (www.logitech.com) vibrates as it moves across pull-down menus, dialog boxes and other areas on a Windows desktop and the Web. It has a different feel for different areas, so users will know by touch where they are.

For mobile computer users, Targus' Mini-Mouse ($49.99, www.targus.com) is an optical mouse about half the size of a standard mouse for maneuvering in cramped spaces. It also comes with a converter that allows older laptops without a USB port to use the mouse (although the computer must run Windows 98 or higher).

Apple Computer's new optical Pro Mouse ($59, www.apple.com) isn't quite a hat trick, but it's a far cry better than the "hockey puck" mouse that used to come with its Macintosh computers. The sleek, transparent Pro Mouse scores on ergonomics and useability, but still features only one button.

The oval shape fits snugly and comfortably in the hand. And there's no confusion over which end is up, as there was with the round mouse. As an optical mouse, the Pro Mouse has no moving parts -- ball and wheels -- that can get gunked up and cause the cursor to skip across the screen. Plus, because it has no ball, it moves more smoothly over a mouse pad or any other surface than a regular mouse.

Easy exercise

Lee Iacocca has changed his pitch line. "If you can find a better bike, buy it," he now proclaims. Bike? From the former head of Chrysler? It's true.

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E-Bike’s 36-volt LE

Iacocca is peddling the E-Bike (www.ebike.com), an electric bicycle that runs off a battery. Ranging in price from $995 to $1,695, the E-Bike can go up to 18 miles an hour and has a range of more than 20 miles on a single charge, depending on the model. The Mini E-Bike also can fold up for easy packing.

It's a stretch

First we had exercise videos. Now we can turn to the PC for advice.

Harbinger's SportsStretch programs ($29.95, www.sportstretch.com) include a CD-ROM and a 97-inch stretch rope for exercises to help people warm up for golf, running, tennis and fitness. The programs take about 10 minutes, with additional exercises available on the Web site.

Another gadget for the fitness-minded is the SportBrain ($99, www.sportbrain.com), which you wear on your belt. It tracks your running and walking throughout a day, then you link it to the company's Web site through phone lines to see how you've done. It measures such things as distance and calories burned and allows you to track progress day to day.

Batteries not included -- or needed

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Freeplay Energy’s self-powered S360 Radio
Okay, so we're getting a little practical with this one. But it's better than socks.

Since we live in prime hurricane territory, it seems natural to consider emergency supplies and equipment. Normally when a hurricane threatens, people flock to stores for supplies. And it always seems as if the batteries are the first things to sell out.

But what if the flashlights and radios didn't need batteries? What if you could just wind them up and use them? Freeplay Energy (www.freeplay.net) has self-powered radios and flashlights that could come in handy during storms, camping trips or whatever.

The 2020 Flashlight ($59.95) gives 10 minutes of light if you crank the handle 60 times (hey, it's exercise!) or you can use its rechargeable battery for up to two hours. The S360 Radio ($69.95) plays for 15 minutes with 55 turns of the crank. It also has a rechargeable battery, an AC/DC adapter and solar panels, so it can play using the sun as its power source.

A roadblock for car thieves

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Sears’ DieHard Security battery and remote control activator.
The car battery is not something we think about every day, and certainly not as a security device or a holiday gift.

But Sears' DieHard Security battery ($169.99) can stop thieves before they take off with your car. The battery has a built-in security system that is set with a remote control device. If someone tries to start the car, with a key or otherwise, while the device is activated the battery cuts off power. Disarm the device and the car starts normally.

A breath of fresh air?

The lowly 79-cent roll of mints just can't compete in a high-tech era.

So take a deep breath and exhale . . . into the Breath Alert from Tanita ($29.95, www.tanita-scale.com/breathalert.html). The palm-size monitor measures sulfur compounds from bacteria in the mouth and gives a reading on a digital display in seconds.

And if you have a breath problem, well, just take out that roll of mints and pop one.

* * *

- Times staff writer William Lampkin and correspondent Robb Guido contributed to this report, which also includes information from Times wires.

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