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Holiday Gadgetry


Philips' Amby system.

The holiday season brings a bounty of smaller, cheaper, faster - and digital - devices for the home.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 30, 1998


The "D" in holiday this year stands for digital.

It seems to be the key word for gadget givers. The electronics industry is cranking out more digital products, from phones to cameras to computers, that have more functions, work faster and cost less than they did a year ago.

We've been doing some browsing, looking for items that strike us as cool, different or just interesting. We've thrown in a few accessories, and provided Web addresses where possible.

VIDEO: Look Ma, no tape

It is almost time for a TV show you want to tape, but the only tape available has your favorite episode of The Brady Bunch on it. What is a videophile to do?

ReplayTV (http://www.replaytv.com) eliminates the tape. The company says its recorder automatically finds the shows viewers want and stores them digitally for later playback. It can store up to 6 hours of programing, with another 20 hours of storage available at extra cost.

It has the familiar functions of pause, fast forward, rewind -- and even instant replays of live television. If the doorbell interrupts your viewing, you can pause the show -- even if it is live -- and not a miss anything when you resume. It even promises a setup for viewers to create their own "channels" of favorite shows.

The company is expected to ship its home theater models this month, with prices starting at $995.

Also expected to get attention are a number of devices that allow users to record their own digital video discs.

DIGITAL PHOTOS: It's a snap

A couple of years ago, digital cameras cost thousands of dollars for so-so quality. Now, the cameras produce better quality that matches, or comes close to, film, and can be purchased for hundreds of dollars. Even Barbie (http://http://www.Barbie.com) has a digital camera this year.

Companies have added audio and video capabilities to some models, along with crisp LCD viewfinders. While consumers have many choices and price ranges from which to choose, the Nikon Coolpix 900s (http://www.nikonusa.com), which costs about $800, was the choice of an audience at a "face-off" with competitors from Kodak and Sony at the recent Comdex show in Las Vegas.

Digital camcorders also come in many flavors, with models from Sony, Sharp Electronics, Philips Electronics and Panasonic getting attention at Comdex. Though more expensive than camcorders that use tape, experts were impressed with their photo quality as well.

In fact, the quality of digital photos has improved so much that prints as large as 8- by 10-inches should look good. And for those prints . . .

PHOTO DISPLAY: A printer, a darkroom

Digital photography seems fast and simple. Take the picture, transfer the data to a PC, then print it out.

Lexmark International Inc. (http://www.lexmark.com) makes it even faster and simpler. Take the picture, then print it out.

The Lexmark Photo Jetprinter 5770 eliminates the PC by acting as a digital darkroom so photographers can go straight from camera to paper. The printer is expected to retail for about $350.

Not to be outdone, the Polaroid Corp. (http://www.polaroid.com) introduced its ColorShot digital photo printer. It connects to a PC and produces a print in 15 seconds, faster than using a traditional PC and printer. Its suggested price is $299.

Microtek (http://www.microtekusa.com) is coming out with the ImageDeck, which it calls a "stand-alone scanning appliance." It scans color photos and documents without a computer connection. It doesn't connect to the computer, but does have floppy and Zip drives. The company says it will cost about $500, and it is expected by year's end.

And a coming attraction for those digital photos: Sony (http://www.sony.com) has a prototype of an electronic photo frame (photo). Take a photo with a Sony digital camera on a special disk that holds up to 120 photos, and put the disk in the frame. It shows the picture of your choice, which you can change for a little variety on your desk or wall. It is not known when that will hit the market.


TRAVEL TOOLS: On the road again

The geographically challenged have run out of excuses. A number of companies have devices that take advantage of global positioning satellites to tell you exactly where you are.

TravRoute's Door-to-Door Copilot (http://www.travroute.com) is an in-car navigation system that works on a portable computer, using voice commands. You tell it where you want to go, and it talks back with the directions, as well as displaying a map. The system costs about $300.

The Earthmate by DeLorme (http://www.delorme.com, $159) also attaches to portable computers or hand-held devices. The receiver is small enough to fit in a shirt pocket.

For those who don't have a portable computer, the Routefinder PNA by DATUS Inc. (http://www.routefindergps.com) is an all-in-one device that gives a range of information, from directions to route calculations. It costs $1,344.

WIRELESS: The whole world in your hands

There are not a lot of places to hide anymore, with hand-held gadgets and cell phones available to stay in touch.

One device makes the whole world your oyster: The Magellan GSC 100 can send and receive short e-mail messages anywhere on Earth, using the Orbcomm (http://www.orbcomm.com) system of 28 small satellites. The 32-ounce device runs $999.

Phones follow the main theme of technology: smaller, more functions, cheaper. The Nokia 9000il (http://www.nokia.com) combines the traditional functions of talking with such high-tech needs as e-mail, faxes, personal organizer and Internet access -- and it weights less than a pound.

Motorola (http://www.mot.com) takes size to a new dimension with its StarTac V3620, about an inch thick and small enough to hang around your neck or clip on to a tie or scarf. It is expected to cost between $500 and $700, and it won't be available until next year.

An accessory that may come in handy for these small devices is Hewlett-Packard's hand-held scanner, the CapShare 910 (http://www.capshare.hp.com). The $699 device (photo_ can scan documents, display the document on an LCD screen and then transfer the data to another device with its infrared sensor.

COMPUTERS: The price of PCs

The price of personal computing keeps falling, though there are some signs that more consumers want more power and features than low-end models offer.

Last year, the sub-$1,000 market came into its own. This year, emachines has pushed the market down to $500. The emachine (http://www.e4me.com) started rolling into stores this month, with a starting price of $399 (without monitor) for a computer with a Cyrix 266 megahertz multimedia chip, 32 megabytes of random access memory, a 24X CD-ROM, 2.1-gigabyte hard drive and 56K modem. Monitor prices start at $100.

Personal digital assistants, such as the popular Palm Pilot, and hand-held computers also continue to get more features and more powerful. For example, the Sharp Mobilon Tripad (http://www.sharp-usa.com) features touch-screen technology for writing recognition. It also allows the user to set it up as a writing tablet, even an easel. It is about an inch thick and weighs about 3 pounds. It will cost about $999 and should be available soon.

Another feature to consider when looking for a computer is what the industry calls "footprint." In English, that means how much space it takes up. The all-in-one iMac from Apple (http://www.apple.com) touts its space-saving design and ease of use. Another step toward the small footprint is the flat-screen panel, which is not only cheaper but offers a crisper display than standard monitors. Intel showed a couple of prototypes at Comdex that will shave how much space a system needs, and Hitachi has a model (VisionDesk 1330) that is only 7.5 inches thick, including a built-in liquid crystal monitor.

DECOR: The passe plastic look

Let's face it: Computers can be an interior designer's worst nightmare. That off-white plastic look just doesn't seem to fit with any decor.

So leave it to a Beverly Hills, Calif., company to come up with something a bit more elegant. Company president Dennis Oberhofer calls it "the luxury end of the computer business" in a news release.

Oberhofer Hand-Crafted Computers (http://www.oberhofer.com) gives buyers a choice of hardwood covers for their computers, with cherry, maple and mahogany among the selections.

Of course, elegance carries a price. A wooden keyboard can run $650; a wooden "classic mouse" $350; a wooden monitor $4,995.

For a completely different look, the Panda Project (http://www.rockcity.net) of Boca Raton has cube-shaped systems starting at $895 (without monitor).

STEREO: The sounds of music

Imagine a portable personal stereo that doesn't skip or jump while you're walking or exercising. In fact, imagine such a device with no moving parts.

Diamond Multimedia's Rio (http://www.diamondmm.com) stores and plays back music downloaded from the Internet, as well as music you digitally record off your personal compact discs. Its chip can hold 30 or 60 minutes of music, depending on whether one chooses near-CD or CD quality. Additional chips (the size of postage stamps) cost $50 or $100. The company says it is aiming the device at gamers and college students, where digital music is hot. The company won a court fight with the Recording Industry Association of America, which was concerned the device would encourage music piracy.

Sony's MiniDisc (http://www.sony.com) did not replace cassette tapes after its introduction in the early '90s. But the technology has evolved. The consumer electronics giant has the MDS-PC1 system, which connects a computer to any audio component for an editing, recording and playback system. It costs $399. Sony also has an MD Bundle 5, which includes a home recording deck, a portable player and some disks for about $350. The disks are about 2.5 inches in diameter.

GAMES: The hot seat

You can't just play games anymore. You have to feel and hear them to get the full gaming experience.

Enter the Intensor (http://www.intensor.com) gaming chair. Five speakers, with all the trimmings, built into the chair give players the jolt they want. It is portable, and retails for $300 to $600.

And parents, take heart. It also can be used with headphones.

Also for the young at heart, let's forget Furby for a minute (please), and talk about a more challenging high-tech experience for kids. Lego Mindstorm (http://www.lego.com) allows children 11 and older to design and program their own robots. Not only can kids build a robot they control, but they also can put together robots that react to each other.

And expect more of this type of gadget in the not too distant future. Sony exhibited a smart robot prototype at Comdex that will react to how it is treated by a child. Handled well, it will be nice. Handled harshly, it won't obey.

WALLETS: The sound of money

As you can see, holiday shopping can be hectic and expensive. The credit cards could be smokin' -- or beeping.

The Beeping Wallet from Kopel (http://www.beepingwallet.com) may help. It starts beeping, every 20 seconds for 5 minutes, when a credit card is removed from the wallet. The company says it is a good way to help avoid losing or forgetting your plastic. The wallets range from $20 to $40.

HOME NETWORKS: Coming attractions

One of the next "big things" in technology will be networking in homes to keep family members connected.

Ambi by Philips Electronics (http://www.pcstuff.philips.com) connects a PC and a TV, and allows someone at the TV and someone at the PC to use different applications at the same time. It communicates wirelessly, and the devices don't have to be in the same room, or even on the same floor of the house.

Using a remote keyboard equipped with an infrared sensor, people can view and manipulate information on the TV screen much as they would with a computer.

It is expected to cost $500 to $700, which is in the range of today's low-end PCs.

 

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