The Wired World of Sports
The thrill of victory…the agony of defeat…the comforting glow of an LCD readout…we went spanning the globe to bring you the best of digital athletic and outdoor gear. And even if all that cool performance-enhancing "Six Million Dollar Man" gear is still just a laboratory dream, and those infomercial ab-building electrical gizmos received mixed reviews at best, don't give up hope. Here are a dozen digital devices designed to make your athletic training more effective and your outdoor activities a lot more fun.
Super Satellite Guidance
Whether you're a sailor, fisherman, hiker, hunter or just a sap like me who habitually loses his car in humongous mall parking lots, a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver can be an aggravation-reduction device or even, quite literally, a lifesaver, pinpointing your position and direction wherever you wander by reading data from overhead satellites. The top-of-the-line Meridian Color from Magellan boasts an easy-on-the-eyes, high-contrast color screen -- a huge improvement over the typical black-on-gray screen found on most models. But beauty is more than skin-deep in this case. There's also an extensive built-in North American database of highways, waterways, roads, airports and more, plus the option to add a memory card and download detailed street-level or even topographical maps. Controls are surprisingly simple, operation is speedy, and the system is accurate to within three meters (i.e., less than the length of my hide-and-seek-playing car).
$500, www.magellangps.com, 800-707-5221
For nighttime excursions -- hiking , biking, rock climbing, camping, you name it -- the Photon Fusion LED Lamp from L.R.I. is the most practical, powerful way to see where you're going. Using LEDs instead of conventional bulbs means lighter weight, brighter light and much longer battery life; figure about 24 hours of continuous illumination at medium brightness on a single set of three AA batteries. The Fusion lamp features four brightness and three strobe settings, plus a single, red LED to be to protect your night vision. Weighing just over six ounces with batteries, and equipped with a headband and a mounting clamp, the Photon Fusion makes leaving your traditional flashlight at home a very bright idea.
$82, www.photonlight.com, 877-584-6898
Wrist Heart Monitor
Wristwatches that measure your heart rate have been around for quite a while, but what seemed like a slick way to monitor your workout didn't work out that well, because to pick up your pulse rate you had to wear an uncomfortable chest strap. The Mio Shape watch from Physi-Cal Enterprises is an elegant alternative: a lightweight, digital model that reads your heart rate with electrocardiogram accuracy without strapping you in. Just place two fingers on the front sensor buttons, press gently, and in seconds, you'll know precisely how fast your valves and ventricles are racing. Knowing when I've reached my aerobic target heart rate is the be-all and end-all of the Mio for me, but the more anal retentive can also calculate food-intake and calories burned. Oh yeah, it also tells time, with chronometer and alarm functions.
$129.95, www.gophysical.com, 877-566-4636
Club-Head Speed Gun
Beltronics, known for building high-performance radar detectors for lead-footed drivers, now turns its sophisticated radar technology to a different kind of driver entirely: the one that fits in your golf bag. The SwingMate accurately measures the speed of your club head. No need to hook electrodes to your clubs -- just place the device three or four feet behind the ball (real or imaginary), set it for the club you're carrying, and swing away. The digital readout displays swing speed and the distance the ball should travel based on that speed. The SwingMate stores up to 10 readings, calculates your average speed, and can even recommend the right club to use for a specified distance based on your personal performance. Battery-powered and portable, SwingMate is the perfect driving range companion -- informative, useful and, best of all, completely silent when you muff a shot.
$140, www.beltronics.com, 800-341-2288
Golf-Shot Range Finder
Judging distance by eye is inevitably a hit-and-miss proposition, and hitting and missing is not exactly a golfer's favorite experience. That's where the handheld Yardage Pro Tour laser range finder comes into play. Just point it at a pin, bunker, tree or trap (the 6x magnification and visible crosshairs make pinpoint spotting easy), press a single button, and you'll instantly know what you're up against, within one yard. The Yardage Pro Tour weighs just 6.8 ounces and comes with a handy belt-clip carrying case. And despite the intimidating "laser" in the product name, the Yardage Pro uses invisible, eye-safe infrared energy pulses -- reassuring if you're concerned about your fellow golfers, disappointing if you were hoping to give the foursome dragging their heels in front of you a long-distance hotfoot.
$350, www.bushnell.com, (800) 423-3537
Speed and Distance Watch
It may look like a standard Timex Ironman model, but the extraordinary Ironman Speed & Distance System actually keeps track of your every move (which, in this case, is a good thing). A GPS receiver tracks changes in your location from moment to moment and uses the data to calculate your speed and distance traveled, which is then sent to the watch via a wireless connection. Accuracy is very impressive -- better than 95 percent in most environments -- and the information can be sliced and diced to produce a multitude of useful training information, including current, maximum and average speeds; pace, average pace and best pace; and distance traveled. And, as a bonus, the watch sets itself with atomic clock precision via the GPS signal.
$200-$225, www.timex.com, 800-448-4639
With a 99-year history of making fine knives and cutlery, Imperial Shrade Corp. moves into the digital age with this unique all-in-one device for outdoor recreation. Yes, with the i-Quip you get the usual complement of pocketknife essentials: cutting blade, saw, scissors, Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, bottle opener, can opener and corkscrew. But there's also a water-resistant computer module with a digital clock (including alarm and stopwatch), altimeter, digital compass and barometer, with a backlit screen for easy reading. There's even a convenient compartment for storing a cigar lighter.
$250, www.schradeknives.com, 845-647-7600
If you can see it, you can snap it with DigiBino DB100, an innovative binocular/digital camera combination. You start out with a fixed-magnification 7x roof prism binocular, compact and comfortable to hold, with a standard focusing knob mounted between the lenses. Flip up the 1.6-inch LCD screen mounted on top, though, and you have a digital camera at your disposal, ready to grab a snapshot of whatever you're watching. At 1,024 x 768 resolution, pictures look great when transferred to your computer for e-mailing or posting to a Web site, but aren't really sharp enough for creating large printouts. Resolution isn't the only reason you wouldn't want to use the DigiBino as your only camera -- since you're always shooting with a high-powered telephoto lens, it's hard to use close-up. ("Honey, Daddy wants to take your picture -- why don't you run a block or two away?"). It's better for grabbing a snapshot of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, Tiger at the tee or a scrumptious sun worshiper on a passing boat.
$392, www.pentax.com, 800-877-0155
Long-Range, Two-Way Radio
Inexpensive two-way radios have come a long way from the GI Joe toys you played with as a kid. The GMRS7000CH Audiovox radio is the first model with a maximum range up to seven miles under ideal conditions (over water, for example). The looks are a bit stodgy, but practicality more than makes up for its lack of styling sizzle. With 15 main channels and 38 subfrequencies in each, you should have no trouble finding a free channel for you and your friends to grab and gab. For hands-free operation, the VOX option lets you transmit automatically whenever you speak, without having to hold the Talk button. Another feature I found useful is a dual-watch mode that monitors two channels -- that way, if natural or human interference garbles one channel, you can easily switch to an agreed-upon fallback position.