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Great Grown-up Gadgets

An open letter to Santa lists the best in electronic gifts for adults
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005

(continued from page 2)

SunRocket also lets you choose a second phone number outside your local area code, a very interesting wrinkle. If, for example, you live in New York but most of your relatives live in Seattle, you could add your own Seattle number. Calls placed to that number still ring through to your home phone in New York, but your callers are only charged for a local connection. Dad will be so proud of your family-friendly frugality.

The most critical questions, of course, are voice quality and reliability. In my testing, using the SunRocket equipment with an Optimum Online cable modem, calls came through loud and clear. In fact, my daughter said the VoIP service sounded better than our regular landline. And speaking of kids, giving a SunRocket system to your college-bound pride and joy, who surely has high-speed Internet access at the dorm, could save you enough on long distance each month for a fat fistful of fine smokes.

$199, or 800-786-0132

Plantronics Pulsar 590
I don't know that anyone's actually ever strangled to death on a headphone cord, but I've certainly had more than a few uncomfortable jerks and jolts as the wire between the MP3 player in my shoulder bag and the phones on my head came up short. How cool would it be if you could leave the player in the bag and listen wirelessly? Turns out it's very cool indeed, as I've learned by experimenting with a series of new wireless headphones powered by Bluetooth. You've probably heard of Bluetooth—it's the technology that lets people wear tiny headsets and talk on their cell phones while appearing to be communing with unseen demons. Until recently, Bluetooth headphones were all right for mono, low-fi cellular calls, but not ready for music devices. The change is a new flavor of Bluetooth, providing stereo and surprisingly clean audio with minimal interference—you won't want to lean on the microwave oven while listening to your favorite tunes, but that's a small restriction compared with the electronic leash of wired headphones and earbuds.

The best Bluetooth headset on the market today is the new Plantronics Pulsar 590, which allows you to connect to an audio device and your cell phone simultaneously. You can be listening to music and, when a call comes in, the Pulsar automatically switches over to take the call. Hang up and it's back to your personal hit parade. The traditional over-the-head design is perfectly comfortable (unlike a rival behind-the-neck model with fine audio and miserable fit), and the microphone, attached to a short stalk on the right-hand side, did a fine job during cell-phone calls. While the primary use is on-the-go MP3 playback, the wireless system works fine with any device equipped with a standard headphone jack, including portable CD and DVD players.

One feature does deliver less than meets the eye. Controls are built into one headphone cup to control audio playback, but since it relies on a system that's not built into any popular portable player yet, it's more teasing than pleasing. Even without the remote-control option the Plantronics is a welcome addition to any music lover's digital arsenal. It comes in two versions, with or without the small Bluetooth transmitter disc that connects to a portable audio device (models 590 and 590a, respectively). Unless you're planning on using these strictly with your cell phone, go for the full kit.

$200, or 800-544-4660

Archos AV700
I've been a big fan of portable media players—devices that store not just music but recorded video and digital photos on an internal hard drive and play them back on a built-in LCD screen—since they first appeared. Some of my friends, though, have snickered at the screen size of these portable devices, which come in at about 3.5 inches measured diagonally. Now, for those who value additional screen real estate over pocket-size portability, there's the Archos AV700, with a generous seven-inch wide-screen display that's wonderful for personal viewing (a great in-car substitute for a portable DVD) and big enough to share. If your computer can record TV programs (machines using Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition are ideal), it's point-and-click easy to fill the Archos with shows. If not, you can record directly on the AV700 using the included docking station. Add music and photos from your computer (a simple drag-and-drop operation) and even directly from a digital camera (via a USB cable), and you've achieved portable entertainment nirvana. Two models are available, differing in hard-drive size. The basic 40-gigabyte version holds up to 160 hours of video, 20,000 songs, or 400,000 photos. Go for the whopping 100-gigabyte model and the specs kick up to 400 hours of video, 55,000 songs or a million photos. Using higher-quality files will obviously cut down on these capacity figures, but that's still a lot of entertainment in a 20-ounce package. Both models deliver audio and video quality that's just fine for on-the-go amusement, and the battery life is very good—figure about four hours for video playback or 30 hours for music. And unlike your friendly, neighborhood iPod, you can carry a spare battery if you choose.

40-gigabyte model $600, 100-gigabyte model $800, or 949-609-1483

Philips WACS700 Music System
What if you like the idea of whole-home audio, but don't have the computer savvy or hands-on inclination to set up and manage a wireless network? Let Philips handle the dirty work for you with its Wireless Music System, a complete solution that maximizes listening pleasure while minimizing high-tech hassles.

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