You've taken care of everyone else -- now treat yourself to a high-tech toy
OK, you've stowed the Santa suit in the back of the closet for another year, your family has all the goodies and gewgaws they "subtly" hinted for, and you have more new ties, socks and old-movie DVDs than any three men should own. What about the cool digital delights you were lusting after? Sorry, my friend, if you want cutting-edge gear, there's no use relying on the relative generosity of family and friends -- it's time to take the tech plunge and make nice to yourself, with one of these guaranteed-to-please groundbreaking products. We've searched out the market for the best and coolest of the tech world. Along with the most recent developments on some of the usual suspects -- the PDA that's packing the most features into the least space, the latest greatest TV remote, a camcorder that redefines crystal clear recording -- we've uncovered some gadgets that perform entirely new functions: an the electronic jukebox that stores not only audio but video, a watch that brings Dick Tracy to life, TVs and stereos that aren't tethered to the wires in your wall, and much more.
Bose: QuietComfort 2 Headphones
When Bose introduced the original QuietComfort model three years ago, it set new standards for noise reduction technology in consumer headphones. Slip them on aboard an airplane and the background drone that so effectively sandpapers your nerves virtually disappears, leaving the movie soundtrack or music you're listening to clear, rich and satisfying. I've been known to use the Bose phones on a plane with no audio playing at all, just to enjoy the silence they provide. The effect is welcome in other situations: noise reduction makes a big difference on my local commuter rail trip, and even walking down a city street.
On the other hand, the original QuietComforts were big, honking headphones -- much too large to fit easily in a standard briefcase. Another matter was the separate little box dangling from the cord that held the electronics and battery, a less than elegant solution. Ultimately I had a love-em-and-leave-em relationship with the product -- love the sound, but leave 'em home rather than haul them around.
Now, Bose reclaims its place of honor in my traveling gear with the QuietComfort 2, which delivers the same noise-canceling technology in a far more portable package. The earcups have been slimmed down substantially and, equally important, they now swivel to fold flat for easy packing. The battery and electronics are incorporated right into one of the earcups, eliminating the dangling device dilemma. Comfort and fit are excellent, with nice plush cushioning on the earcups and headphone band. And the sound? It's excellent -- perfect for everyday listening, even if you're not eating honey-roasted nuts at 30,000 feet.
$299, www.bose.com or 800-999-2673
Kameleon 8: Home Theater Universal Remote Control
Looking as if it belongs on the Jetsons' coffee table, the face of the Kameleon 8 appears entirely blank when it rests unused. As soon as you lift it, however, it illuminates with a spacey blue glow, revealing "virtual" buttons -- labeled areas to press on the touch-sensitive screen to make your audio and video gear obey your commands. This light-up technology is great in a darkened room (assuming you can find the remote in the first place), but where it earns its name is in its ability to completely customize the display to handle the task at hand.
For instance, when you push the DVD button, the entire display changes to show only appropriate DVD-related controls. Same goes for TV, CD, cable receiver, VCR, personal video recorder and auxiliary devices (up to eight devices in all). By limiting the current display to only the relevant choices at any given time, the Kameleon fits lots of clearly labeled controls on a compact remote without trying to crowd dozens and dozens of buttons into a small area, as seen on many universal remotes. A plethora of preinstalled codes correspond to different manufacturers' products, plus a learning mode lets you train the universal remote by pointing your current remote at the Kameleon and mashing the buttons a few times. And if that fails for a product because it was created after you bought your Kameleon, the devise can be subsequently programmed into the remote via the telephonic Call Center. And if you want one-touch control of several home theater components -- say a button that will turn on your audio system, flick on the TV and start DVD playback -- you're in luck. The macro function can handle a string of commands easily, and programming it doesn't require an advanced degree in gadgetology.
$99, www.mykameleon.com or 800-276-3841
MSN: Direct Watch
As an early adopter of all things digital, I've strapped more than a few electronically enhanced watches on my wrist over the years. The one from Timex that sucked information into built-in memory by reading a series of flashing bar codes when the watch was pointed at a computer screen was pretty cool. I also tried a watch with a full-fledged computer -- kind of ingenious, but so big it was completely incompatible with long-sleeve shirts. This time, though, I've found a watch that combines high-tech sizzle with practical benefits. Want to know the latest sports scores? Stock quotes? Weather reports? Traffic info? Just gaze into the face of your MSN Direct Watch and all will be revealed.
Yes, the good people at Microsoft are now in the digital watch business -- they're not making the watches (licensees Fossil, Suunto and a few others handle design and manufacture), but they've created a radio technology for sending information wirelessly and receiving it on your wrist. What's more, the watches don't have to be big bruisers to pull off this impressive feat.
To make this happen, Microsoft has created its own wireless data network, beaming information via bandwidth leased from FM radio stations. You buy the watch, then subscribe to the MSN Direct service ($9.95/month or $59/year). On its Web site, you can customize the information you want to receive. You can even upload your own calendar information, so when a meeting's about to begin, a reminder pops up on your watch. And, just for fun, you can even download new face designs to spiff up the looks of the digital LCD.
Various models, with prices starting at $129, www.msndirect.com; Fossil at 800-449-3056 or www.fossil.com.
Sony: Clie UX50
In a world of look-alike Palms and Pocket PCs, this innovative Sony handheld is a whole new ball game, packed with high-end features yet barely larger than a deck of playing cards. The flip-up lid houses a beautiful wide-screen color LCD display -- kind of small but, with a high 480 x 320 resolution, very readable. On the base is a keyboard, reminiscent of the thumb-typeable Blackberry arrangement, just large enough to be practical, with a noticeable "click" when you press, which helps maintain accuracy. The sleek silver and black body boasts precisely the kind of gee-whiz Sony design that makes strangers peer over your shoulder in airports and coffee shops.
OK, it looks cool, but what can it do? For starters, the UX50 offers all your basic Palm organizer functions: address book, calendar, to-do list -- you know the drill. Then it adds a built-in digital camera with adequate resolution (640 x 480) for on-screen display on the Clie or a computer screen But here's the powerhouse feature: two different forms of built-in wireless communication.
First there's Bluetooth, a technology that's been more hype than hurrah for several years but finally seems to be coming into its own, primarily as a way to connect wirelessly with Bluetooth-equipped cell phones. That combination means you can type a message on the Clie and send it out via your phone -- pretty slick.
Or, better yet, find yourself a wireless hot spot and jump right onto the Internet with the included Web browser and e-mail software, using the Clie's built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking capability. More and more homes and offices are using wireless networking to link multiple PCs, and the UX50 is climbing aboard as well. But there's also a real boom in hot spots, public places where you can access the Net using a Wi-Fi device. Some charge for the privilege, some are free for the taking (Bryant Park in New York City, for example). Either way, with a keyboard-equipped Clie and a wireless network connection, you've got a communications powerhouse in the palm of your hand.
$700, www.sonystyle.com, 877-865-7669
Sharp: AQUOS LC-15L1 wireless LCD TV
This is one of those products that I just didn't believe would work right, and yet somehow, Sharp proved me wrong. The idea is certainly appealing -- a flat-screen LCD you can use anywhere in your home and not just view broadcast TV, but DVDs, cable and satellite, too. Here's how it works: the Aquos has a built-in wireless receiver and comes with a separate transmitter box that you attach to your video sources (it can handle four at once, so you can hook up cable TV, a DVD player, a VCR and a baby monitor camera, for example). Charge up the TV battery and you're off, roaming freely while The Matrix Reloadedfollows you everywhere.
I walked into the demo certain that picture quality was going to be mediocre or worse -- the system uses 802.11b wireless networking, which doesn't handle all that much data and is subject to various forms of interference. I walked out a believer -- sound and picture were crystal clear over a range of about 100 feet. The set itself is handsome enough, with a brilliant 15-inch high-contrast screen and Mickey Mouse–ear speakers that pump out plenty of volume for a portable. You can even use the remote control to change the channel or the video source back at the base station transmitter, a very nice touch. Sharp claims a battery life of about two hours, and you can always plug the set into a wall outlet when you're planning to sit and watch for a while.
$1,799.95, www.sharpusa.com, 800-237-4277
The marriage of a cell phone and a PDA has always seemed like a match made in heaven, but it's produced some ugly children over the years. The first attempts were basically digital bricks that you were supposed to lug around and press against your head to take a call. More recently, these combo devices have slimmed down little by little, but it took the miniaturization mavens at Samsung to deliver the holy grail of phone/PDA hybrids -- a device that's the size and shape of an ordinary cell phone, and a small one at that.