Small Wonders

The PDA, smart phone, camera and MP3 player are pocket rockets that deliver a large charge

Twenty years ago the coolest technology I owned sat in a particularly hideous glass-and-chrome stereo system wall unit. Ten years ago my show-off system was impressively perched on a faux wood-grain pressboard computer desk (there wasn’t much budget left after ponying up for that first blazing-fast Pentium processor). Now, finally, I can show off my favorite new tech toys without worrying about choosing appropriate furniture to enshrine them—the big winners for 2004 tuck neatly in my pants pocket. Americans may be getting larger by the minute, but the most exciting gear just keeps getting smaller. My entire music collection, several groaning shelves-worth of CDs, now goes everywhere with me wherever I go in a hard-drive MP3 player that weighs just a few ounces and fits in my pocket. My smart phone can do many of the jobs my desktop computer ordinarily handles, yet it nestles neatly in my suit jacket pocket. And while I still love the SLR camera I sling over my shoulder, it’s the brand new wafer-thin 5-megapixel digital, nonchalantly plucked from my top shirt pocket, that’s getting the major “ooohs” and “aaahs” from my technophile friends. Here, then, a dozen of today’s biggest hits in small-tech.
iRiver iHP-120
Going toe-to-toe with Apple in the digital music player business is a daunting proposition, but iRiver has come up with a viable contender, delivering several valuable features that are missing from the current-generation iPod. The tale of the tape shows iRiver matches iPod on height, width and weight (4.1", 2.4" and 5.6 oz., respectively), if not depth (0.75" versus iPod’s 0.62"). In practical terms, it’s a toss-up. The iHP-120 boasts a 20-gigabyte hard drive—not the largest on the market, but competitive with the iPod offering in the same price range—and, with a 600-hour music capacity, plenty big enough for all but the most obsessive music fans.
Where does the iRiver have a leg up? Start with a built-in FM radio, with up to 20 station presets for quick tuning and support for international broadcasting standards. Another key difference is battery life. The iRiver keeps pumping out the tunes for a solid 16 hours on a battery charge, whereas the iPod poops out at around eight hours.
Where the iHP-120 really shines, though, is recording capability. I’ve started using the device to record interviews and meetings through the built-in microphone or the included plug-in external mic, and the results are crystal clear. What’s more, it’s easy to transfer the files to my computer for playback, transcription and storage. And the iHP-120 can hold hundreds of hours of voice recordings at a time.
Recording isn’t limited to voice. Plug in a standard audio input, or even a digital optical cable, and you can record first-rate music files directly to the iHP-120. Save the results to compressed MP3 format or, if you expect to tweak them later on a computer, opt for the uncompressed WAV file format.
There are still a few rough edges in the iRiver package.  The control scheme is adequate, but nowhere near as polished as Apple’s elegant user interface. Transferring music to the device is drag-and-drop simple, but accessing track information (artist, album, genre, etc.) is buggy. And while you can play back lists of songs you’ve created on the computer (called playlists), you can’t create a list directly on the device,  the way you can with iPod. Still, the one-two-three combination of FM radio, lengthy battery life and extensive recording capability makes iRiver’s iHP-120 the right choice for many users.
$400, or 800-399-1799
Rio Nitrus
It seems ungrateful somehow to complain about the bulk of a hard-drive-equipped iPod-style portable music device that shoehorns thousands of songs into a box roughly the size of a deck of cards. But truth be told, there are times when an even smaller player would be a much better fit—particularly something that slides unobtrusively into a top shirt pocket, for example. And if you’re the sporty type who thinks sweating to the music will help you live forever, the bump and bounce of a boxy MP3 player during a workout can be black-and-blue inducing. Until recently, though, truly tiny MP3 players had one major drawback: they merely held an hour or two of your favorite tunes.
Enter a Colorado-based start-up company called Cornice, which developed a 1-inch hard drive with a remarkable 1.5-gigabyte storage capacity. Several companies, including Creative Labs, iRiver, RCA and Rio, have incorporated this technological breakthrough into portable music players, but it’s the Rio Nitrus that most artfully combines sports-car-sleek design with ear-pleasing music reproduction. The Nitrus stores nearly 400 high-quality MP3 digital audio files (about 25 hours) in a 2-ounce, 3" x 2.4" x 0.6" device that fits neatly in the palm of your hand. The combination of a bright red joystick and a scroll-and-click thumb wheel controller makes finding the tunes you’re after fast and easy, and the audio quality is excellent. What’s more, despite its petite dimensions, the Nitrus is a heavyweight when it comes to battery life, clocking in at a robust 16 hours of playback before recharging (double the iPod’s running time). And for the aforementioned music-loving gym rats, there’s a nice little bonus: a built-in stopwatch.
$199, or 800-468-5846
Fisher FVD-C1 CameraCorder
What makes this a gadget lover’s dream? It takes digital photos. It also shoots digital video, without using videotape. It’s shiny and sleek, small enough to fit in a jacket pocket and expensive enough to ensure you won’t see it everywhere. Best of all, when you cradle it in your hand and prepare to shoot, it feels for all the world like a ray gun.
As a dual-personality device, the FVD-C1 is more successful in its role as a digital still camera than as a movie camera. With 3.2-megapixel resolution (fine for 8" x 10" prints), a surprisingly powerful 5.8x optical zoom lens and a small but potent built-in flash, snapshot photographers should be perfectly satisfied with their images. The automatic settings handle diverse shooting conditions nicely, delivering well-balanced exposures with good overall sharpness.
The video mode is certainly a kick to use, but even a casual viewer will be able to tell that the results weren’t shot with a standard camcorder. The FVD-C1 shoots highly compressed MPEG4-format video. This is great for transferring to your computer and e-mailing to friends and family, or posting to your Web site. I wouldn’t want to shoot once-in-a-lifetime events in this format, though, because the level of detail can’t compete with digital videotape.
That said, you won’t find a digital device more fun to use than the FVD-C1. You can master all the basics with a bare glance at the manual (the camera even has a female voice to guide you). The included software offers lots of photo-tweaking and video-editing options, and the generous 512-megabyte memory card, included at no additional charge, provides plenty of recording capacity right out of the box (491 high-res stills or 30 minutes of highest-quality video). Given the carry-it-anywhere convenience of the pocket-friendly recorder (4.25" x 2.5" x 1.25" and 6 oz.), you’re likely to capture stills and video in situations where you just wouldn’t carry a more conventional camera or camcorder.
$900, or 818-998-7322, ext. 433
Canon PowerShot SD10
It’s easy to understand why Canon introduced the SD10 at a New York fashion show. This is one seriously stylish camera. Unlike other digitals, the SD10 comes in four colors to coordinate with your mood and wardrobe: glossy piano black, iridescent white, shiny silver and (my favorite) a warm polished bronze. At a svelte 3.6" x 1.9" x 0.7" and weighing a mere 3.5 ounces, it’s the right size to toss in your pocket and go. While photo enthusiasts can take advantage of some advanced features if they search for them, most users will simply be grateful for the point-and-shoot ease of use Canon provides. The company’s advanced DiGiC image processing chip makes it difficult to take a bad picture, even in challenging lighting situations.
The big missing feature is a zoom lens. Yes, there’s an electronic “digital zoom,” feature, but as always it’s a poor substitute for a lens that physically zooms in and out to frame your shot. This shortcoming is partially overcome by a 4-megapixel resolution that provides enough detail to let you enlarge an image and crop out extraneous bits on the computer before printing. And when it comes to close-ups, the SD10 focuses as near as 1.18 inches from the lens and fills the screen with fine detail.
Bottom line: given the price, I think buyers deserve a real zoom lens, but the combination of eye-catching camera, easy operation and handsome photographs will make fashion sense for many buyers.
$449, or 800-652-2666
Sony Cyber-shot T1
A tiny titan of digital photography, this groundbreaking Sony delivers 5-megapixel resolution, enough to blow up images to 11" x 14" prints and beyond, in a camera body that’s only 0.8" inches deep, making it the smallest 5-megapixel model on the market. To look at the camera, with no telltale lens snout sticking out, you’d assume it lacked a zoom. But a 3x optical zoom—a superb Carl Zeiss lens at that—is mounted vertically inside the camera body, with a prism bending the light downward to the image sensor below. As a final bit of camera design bravado, the back of the camera is filled with a generous 2.5-inch LCD panel for shooting and reviewing your pictures. It’s large enough to instantly show off your latest snaps to a crowd. When you consider that that most digitals, even the big honking ones, offer only 1.5-inch LCD screens, it’s even more remarkable. To round out the package, there’s a desktop docking cradle that conveniently holds the camera when you upload photos to your computer, charge the battery, view pictures on your TV or even when you run a slide show on that big LCD screen.
As for camera operation, you’ll get fine results with a simple point-and-click, while advanced amateurs can choose between metering modes, focusing systems and flash output levels. One welcome feature not usually found in this class of camera is the autofocus illuminator, a light that comes on just before shooting in very dark situations to allow fast, accurate focusing. Additional software features show a good understanding of how people actually use their digital cameras. For instance, in e-mail mode, the camera automatically creates a small, file-size version of the photo you take for sharing via the Internet in addition to the full-resolution image you’ll want for printing. No question, this is a consumer-oriented camera, but I’m betting the T1 will appear in the pockets of many pro photographers as their carry-everywhere gear this year.
$550, or 877-865-7669, x7430
Sanyo VM4500
Now that taking photos with your cell phone has become a been there, done that feature, Sprint is kicking the multimedia experience up a notch with a new service that lets you capture short video clips (up to 15 seconds) with your phone and send them to an e-mail address, another cell phone and/or a Web-based online gallery.
Now I have to be honest with you. I’ve been carrying a camera-equipped cell phone for the past year and, other than shots taken in the line of duty as a reviewer, I’ve used the phone to take two photos, and immediately discarded them both. Maybe I’m a visual snob. Certainly I’m curious about the higher-resolution phones set to arrive early this year. In the meantime, though, I’m much more excited about the downloadable “Muppet Show” theme song ring tone than my phone’s snapshot capability. But it seems America doesn’t agree with me. Camera phones have become very popular here; they’re absolutely everywhere in Japan and also in parts of Europe. So, if I assume you care about cell phone photography, I can assume you’re really going to enjoy the VM4500. It takes snaps as good as I’ve seen from a phone, aided by a built-in light, and the video clips (complete with sound) are middling-quality but offer high giggle factor. You’ll pay just $5 extra each month for the video-sending service, so what the heck.
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