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Holiday gadget guide

From digital cameras with built-in printers to super hi-fi CD players to talking computers for your car, there's something for all the gadgetly inclined this year.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 29, 1999


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Sony’s Aibo

It's probably too late for holiday gadget givers to ask, "How much is that Aibo in the window?" Sony's $2,500 robot dog sells out as fast as the company makes it available.

Gadget lovers, though, have a wide range of choices this year. The common theme: more, better and faster devices at lower prices.

In addition, some gadgets that had the field to themselves last year have competition, from handheld scanners to portable MP3 music players. A few new devices spice up the selection, too.

Here's our annual sampling of electronic goodies:

Pixel this

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Fuji Photo Film Co.’s FinePix PR21 PrinCam

It's a camera! It's a printer! It's both! Fuji Photo Film Co.'s FinePix PR21 PrinCam has 2.3-megapixel resolution (the more pixels, the sharper the picture) and prints a credit card-size photo. It costs about $900.

Digital cameras follow what seems to be a golden rule of technology: They keep getting more features, as prices drop. Consumers with basic photo needs or who just want to give digital photography a try will find cameras starting at less than $200. Some cameras are beginning to feature zoom lenses, such as the Kodak DC280 Zoom (www.kodak.com), which can be found online for about $600.

Consumers seem to favor cameras that have "removable" storage: In other words, the photos are stored on a disk that can be taken out of the camera. The Epson PhotoPC 800 (www.epson.com) is a 2.1-megapixel camera that has been seen on the Net for less than $600, and Sony's Mavica line dominated the September bestseller list from market research firm PC Data, with four of its models in the top five. Prices range from $486 to $958.

If you prefer digital photos that move, the $150 Video Blaster Webcam Go from Creative Labs (www.creativelabs.com) hooks to your PC to let you do video over the Web, or it can be used away from its PC base to snap still pictures and capture video snippets.

For serious audiophiles

Listening to music keeps reaching new heights -- in quality and cost. Sony and Philips invented what they call Super Audio CD, which surpasses the compact disc in sound quality but doesn't make your old CDs obsolete (www.sel.sony.com/SEL/consumer/sacd/). Sony offers two SACD players, one at $3,500 and the other at $5,000. (A Sony spokesman says the higher-priced one is aimed at professionals, while the other will do fine for home users.) About 40 titles ($25-$30 each) are available in the new format. Serious audiophiles who have heard the system say it makes a difference. Coming next year is another new format, called DVD Audio.

Blame it on Rio

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Diamond’s Rio 500

Last year, Diamond's Rio (www.diamondmm.com) was the only portable player available for people who wanted to download music in the MP3 format from the Internet. Since then, interest in MP3 skyrocketed and competition popped up in the player market. The new Rio 500 stores up to two hours of music, double last year's capacity, and costs about $270. Creative Labs, maker of the Sound Blaster sound card, came up with the Nomad (www.nomadworld.com), which not only offers MP3 music, but also an FM receiver and voice recording, with prices ranging from $200 to $275 or so. RCA's Lyra MP3 players (www.lyrazone.com) range from $200 to $250. Samsung (www.samsung.com) chipped in two versions of its Yepp player, $170 and $250, and in 2000 will offer a Photo Yepp that displays still graphics and lyrics for $400. Still more are on the way.

The video scene

Digital television made its debut in the Tampa Bay area this month, but no one expects residents to rush out to buy TV sets that can cost $5,000 to $10,000 (not to mention a lack of digital programming).

All is not lost for videophiles: The boom continues for DVD (digital video disk) players, which offer better picture and sound quality. The number of movie titles available in this format has increased to about 5,000, and prices for players are beginning to fall to the $200 mark.

Sales are expected to reach 3-million units this year, up from 1-million last year and 400,000 two years ago, according to Jim Barry of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association.

It's tapeless

Never seems to fail. It's a key moment in the ball game or your favorite TV show and the phone rings. What's a couch potato to do?

Take a pause -- in the show. The personal video recorder is digital, storing your favorite shows on a hard drive, not a tape. That allows you to pause a "live" TV show if you're interrupted and pick up again where you left off. From Replay Networks Inc. (www.replaytv.com) comes ReplayTV 2020, a personal video recorder with twice as much storage capacity as the company's previous model. The $699 device, like Philips' competing TiVo, can be programmed to search for and record a user's favorite shows. Replay's new model comes with 20 gigabytes of storage space, enough for 20 hours of programming at "standard" quality or six or seven hours at the highest-quality setting.

While Replay is sold online, TiVo (www.tivo.com) is available in retail stores, ranging from $499 to $999, with a monthly, annual or lifetime fee for program access tacked on.

Too hot to handle?

The Palm Pilot (www.palm.com) is the undisputed king of the digital assistant market. But a new gadget is getting considerable attention: Handspring's new Visor (www.handspring.com), with its deluxe model at $249. It has a slot for cartridges that contain games, reference guides and MP3 music. But the start-up company ran into all sorts of problems after the device was introduced in September: Its Web site wasn't ready, its phone system got overloaded with callers and deliveries were late. The company posted an apology on its site and says it has things under control now.

Hitting the highlight

Yellow is out, at least for highlighting. Last year, Hewlett-Packard introduced the handheld CapShare (www.capshare.hp.com) for people who wanted to scan information, store it digitally and then transfer it to a computer or other device with an infrared sensor. HP now calls it an e-copier, and its price has come down from $699 to $499. Meanwhile, the Siemens Pocket Reader (www.pocketreader.com) weighs less (3 ounces versus 12.5 ounces) and costs less, $99.95 during a holiday special, $169.95 regularly. It transfers information to computers through cables.

A computer for the car

As if driving U.S. 19 or Dale Mabry weren't distracting enough, along comes the AutoPC from Clarion (www.autopc.com). This $1,299 Windows CE computer works on speech recognition to allow a driver to change radio stations, get directions from a Global Positioning Satellite system and "read" e-mail while steering. The control module fits in the dashboard, while the computer and a six-CD changer go in the trunk.

The cordless phone -- as art?

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BeoCom 6000

Bang & Olufsen (www.bang-olufsen.com) not only calls the BeoCom 6000 a "telephonic work of art," but also a "design masterpiece." It has a solid brushed aluminum base and a choice of four colors for handsets. The $475 phone accommodates up to six handsets on its base, stores up to 200 names and numbers and is equipped with caller ID.

Continuing the fashion statement, you can, if you wish, match your cell phone with your outfit du jour. The Nokia 5100 and 6100 series cell phones have removable face plates. On the 5100 you can snap them into place. The 6100 requires a screwdriver. The interchangeable face plates are available from Nokia (www.nokia.com) or third-party suppliers, mostly on the Web. Try www.gost.fi or www.mobileart.com.

For the traveler, the Ericsson I 888 (mobile.ericsson.com/ec_cws30_live/spg.asp?template=homepage) gives coverage on five continents, so U.S. travelers don't have to change phones if they're, say, going to Europe. It lists for $299.

Under the microscope

What do you get when toy giant Mattel teams up with computer-chip giant Intel?

The QX3 Computer Microscope, for one thing. This $99 device hooks up to your computer through a Universal Serial Bus and sends magnified images to the computer screen.

It can work from its stand or as a remote device (as far as the cord will allow) to let your kids examine microscopic life near the computer. Reviews have been mixed about the picture quality, but it's predicted to be a hot seller.

Video game wars

Serious video gamers have a decision: Buy now or wait till next year. Sega (www.sega.com) raised the stakes for video game players with the release of its $199 Dreamcast system in September. It offers smoother gaming, richer graphics -- and Internet access.

While many expect strong Sega sales through the holiday season, the buzz has begun for industry leader Sony's PlayStation II (www.sony.com), which will include entertainment possibilities beyond games: a DVD player and surround-sound capabilities.

Video-game bragging rights are at stake. Even with PlayStation II looming, Sony has warned that there may be a shortage of its current PlayStation system and claimed it sold 1-million of those units at $99 since the Dreamcast debuted. Sega says it sold 750,000 Dreamcast units in the first eight weeks in the United States.

Power to go

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StartMeUp

The car battery's dead, you forgot the cell phone and no one is around to help. Never fear. Technology is here. StartMeUp (www.startmeup.com) from Future Labs (in a partnership with Polaroid) plugs into your car's cigarette lighter and recharges the battery in about 5 minutes. It weighs about 6 ounces, fits in a purse or glove compartment, stays charged for three years and costs about $20. Use it once and toss it (the company say it's environmentally friendly).

SecureStart from Bolder Tech is a renewable resource. This one connects to the car battery directly, and it can be recharged for multiple uses. It weighs less than 5 pounds and is expected to cost between $100 and $150 at Sears stores.

Mighty mice

Speaking of a holiday glow, even the forlorn and usually forgotten computer mouse got a make-over this year.

Microsoft's Intellimouse Explorer uses optical sensors, not a rubber ball rolling over a mouse pad, to move the cursor. Those sensors glow red, and it works on any surface. That's a nice bonus for those who have computer desks that aren't the right height, or that don't have enough room for a keyboard and mouse pad on the slide-out shelf. The Intellimouse Explorer costs about $75, and for that money you also can use it as a night light. Check www.microsoft.com.

More jolts for mouse traditionalists come from Logitech (www.logitech.com). Offerings include a Special Edition mouse, a cordless model that comes with four different colored shells (blue, red, orange and dusk) for about $50.

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MouseRugs

For those who prefer the rubber ball on the pad, FiberLok has expanded its line of $24.95 MouseRugs (www.mouserug.com) that include museum reproductions from the National Gallery of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the St. Louis Art Museum.

Roll on, mouseketeers.

A Mad world

Mad magazine still gets it, even digitally. Broderbund (www.broderbund.com) offers a boxed set containing the complete issues of the humor magazine from 1952 to 1998 on seven CD-ROMs called Totally Mad. Listings for each disk remain faithful to the magazine's irreverence: the Early Years; the Early Years, but Not the Earliest; the Latest of the Early Years; Somewhere in the Middle Years; the Earliest of the Late Years; the Relatively Late but Not as Late as the Latest Years; and the Latest Years.

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Mad magazine CD-ROMs

It has search functions, all the covers and enough Alfred E. Neuman for the biggest fan, for about $60 on the street.

For higher-brow tastes, the Complete Geographic: 110 Years of National Geographic is available on (no kidding) 31 CD-ROMs (or four DVDs). This Broderbund title goes for $119 or so.

E-mail, plain and simple

Everybody loves e-mail, the No. 1 online activity. Not everyone loves or wants a PC just for e-mail.

Enter the MailStation from Cidco (www.cidco.com). This gadget plugs into a phone jack and lets users send and receive messages. It allows for up to five users, stores about 400 messages and weighs about two pounds. It has two pricing plans, one where the device costs $99.95 with unlimited e-mail for $99.95 if paid a year in advance, or $149.95 for the device and $9.95 a month for unlimited e-mail.

Another phone-based device is PocketMail (www.pocketmail.com) from Sharp. PocketMail works by placing the telephone receiver on the device. The device costs $100-$150, and it also has $9.95 a month or $99 a year options for the service.

One for the millennium

Not everyone will squeeze into Times Square on New Year's Eve, though years from now we're sure to hear stories that "I was there when 2000 rolled in." Here's a chance to get some evidence to back up that tall tale: You can own the "Official Light Bulb of the Times Square New Year's Eve Ball." The Philips Halogena 2000 light bulb is expected to be available in December at Home Depot stores. No price was given, but if you don't want it as a memento, just put it in your favorite chandelier.


-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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