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Stay Sane on the Plane

Our guide to taking the edge off the many hours of cramped airplane time with a trove of portable tech—from noise-cancelling headphones to super laptops to e-books and gaming—will keep you sane on the plane.
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

(continued from page 2)

With the new 3DS system, Nintendo is pushing boundaries in several intriguing ways. The headline feature, of course, is a 3-D display that works without wearing special glasses. And it does work surprisingly well—since you are holding the 3DS in your hands, it’s relatively easy to position it in the “sweet spot” where two separate images are seen by your right and left eyes, creating the 3-D effect. There’s a second, conventional touch screen on the lower panel, plus the usual array of buttons and a new analog controller, sort of like a squat joystick, that adds superior control for smooth movement. And, taking a cue from the Wii game console, built-in motion sensors provide yet another game-control option.

There are three, count them, three cameras in all, one of which faces the player. The other two face outward, allowing 3-D photography (unfortunately, the photos you take won’t play back on a 3-D TV set). The 3DS is compatible with existing Nintendo DS games, many of which are intriguing for grown-up players (I’m still a fan of the Advanced Wars strategy titles). They’ve also cranked up the processing power to support a new generation of games, with impressive results. Especially noteworthy are augmented reality games, which take live video from the front-facing camera and overlay game objects and effects on top of the image. In combination with the motion sensors, I was able to move the 3DS around, find enemies appearing all over the room and shoot at them. When I missed, it appeared to poke a hole in the live video background, a very slick effect.

The initial line-up of games for 3DS wasn’t awe-inspiring. Best of the bunch: The Pilotwings Resort flying game uses the 3-D effect well, while the Rayman animated adventure is a classic in the run-and-jump genre, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is a first-rate strategy game. Happily, Nintendo is bringing out the big guns before the end of the year, with versions of Mario Kart 3DS, Star Fox 64 3D and the irresistible Super Mario 3DS. What’s more, they added Netflix software to the 3DS platform, so if you’re a subscriber and your flight has Wi-Fi, your handheld console will double as a movie player.

eBook Readers

There are lots of eBook readers, but the big three contenders are Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Touch Reader and Nook Color.

The decision between black-and-white (Kindle and Nook Touch Reader) or color depends largely on what you read, where you read and how often you’re willing to charge the battery. The Kindle and Nook Touch both use the same six-inch electronic ink display, with a sharp, high-contrast, paper-like appearance. The matte screen doesn’t glare or wash out when you read in bright light, which sets the monochrome readers apart from the Nook Color (and the iPad, for that matter). Electronic ink technology uses no electricity to maintain the on-screen display. With the wireless connection turned off, you can read thousands of pages without recharging. Of course, you can’t read in a pitch dark room, since the screen doesn’t light up, but airplane reading lights provide perfect illumination, and cases with built-in lights are available.

As the name implies, the Nook Touch Reader lets you move from page to page by stroking your finger across the screen, or touching the left or ride edge. The balance between a natural-feeling page turning motion and the possibility of greasy fingerprints on-screen is one you’ll have to weigh for yourself. The Kindle has buttons for page turning, and a full physical keyboard for typing in notes and shopping in the online store.

The basic Kindle uses a Wi-Fi wireless connection, while the Kindle 3G offers Wi-Fi plus cellular connectivity. While the Kindle 3G costs more, there’s no fee for using the wireless connection, providing a shop-anywhere experience. The Nook comes in only one model, with Wi-Fi. Another difference between the two: the Kindle can play back audiobooks and MP3 files, while the Nook Touch is mute. The Nook has a portability advantage, though, at about an inch shorter and an ounce lighter.

The Nook Color is nearly the same overall size as the Kindle, though the screen is a bit larger (seven inches), and it weighs nearly twice as much. The big draw here is the high-resolution, touch-screen, color LCD display. Some find that reading for long periods on its a backlit display is more tiring than with the reflective displays on the black-and-white readers. Others like the brightness of the screen and the ability to display color images. As you’d expect, battery life is much shorter with a color screen—Barnes & Noble ballparks it at eight hours of reading.

The strongest suit for the Nook Color is reading magazines and children’s books in their full multihued glory. The experience still isn’t flawless, since magazine layouts weren’t designed for a seven-inch screen. You can zoom in and scroll around, or you can call up a special Article View and have the text reformatted to fit the screen, but it’s still not like the luxurious printed page you’re currently reading. Photos and illustrations look great on the Nook, though, and you can fit a huge stack of books and magazines into one small device. Barnes & Noble has also put extra effort into creating enhanced children’s books, which can be read conventionally by the parent or child, or read aloud by a professional recording.

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