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Traveler's Tech

We test the best portable gadgets for the streetwise
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005

(continued from page 1)

Philips Personal Sound System
You deserve a little pampering when setting up camp in a far-flung hotel room, and this ingenious updating of the classic AM/FM clock radio makes a fine take-along treat. In addition to an FM radio and alarm clock, the Personal Sound System offers MP3 playback, so you can be serenaded with your personal Top 40 while making last-minute changes to a PowerPoint presentation and wake up to your favorite tunes instead of the local shock jocks and country crooners. With 256 megabytes of built-in memory, you can store about four hours of high-quality MP3 music. A line-in cable jack makes it easy to pump your computer sound output through some decent speakers instead of the crummy built-in squawkers found on most laptops. It makes a big difference when whiling away the time playing DVDs or games on your computer.

Sound quality is impressive for a device this size, thanks to a pair of titanium drivers that reproduce crisp treble and a surprisingly convincing level of bass with enough volume to fill a small room and piss off the folks next door. The Personal Sound System can be plugged in, of course, or run off rechargeable batteries that last about 10 hours.

I've always preferred carrying my own clock radio on the road—it's so much easier than trying to figure out how to set the hotel-room model when you're bleary-eyed from airport delays and stressed out over waking up for a critical morning meeting. Now, thanks to the PSS, I combine this practical strategy with the pleasure of having Jane Monheit sing me awake in the morning.

$150; 7.7" x 2. 3" x 2.1", 12. 4 oz.; usa.philips.com or 888-744-5477

TomTom GO 700
For those of us who suffer from Directional Impairment, getting there is definitely not half the fun. That's why I'm a fan of the TomTom GO car navigation system, a complete GPS unit in an 11-ounce package that moves conveniently from car to car (and packs easily in a suitcase). The centerpiece of the TomTom GO product is its navigation software, which creates turn-by-turn directions based on your current position (read from overhead satellites) and the destination you enter using the touch-screen display. Maps are simple enough to follow at a glance, with a variety of views available (including a 3D perspective drawn from the driver's point of view that I find particularly helpful). You never really have to take your eyes off the road and look at the map, though, since there are also voice-guided turn-by-turn directions, spoken loud and clear through the built-in speaker. No GPS-based navigation system is perfect (there's a built-in fudge factor in the satellite information that can confuse the system on closely spaced parallel roads, for instance), but the TomTom system is as good as any I've tested, and never strays far from spot-on.

The company's latest product, the TomTom GO 700, adds two valuable improvements to an already first-rate system. First, it has a built-in hard drive preloaded with street-level maps of all 50 states and Canada (the earlier model required users to download the maps they wanted to lower-capacity memory cards). The 700 model also incorporates Bluetooth technology, allowing you to use the system for hands-free calling as long as your cell phone supports wireless Bluetooth communication. With the TomTom GO 700 along, the prospect of a rental car in a strange city is starting to sound a lot less intimidating.

$899; 4.5" x 3.6" x 2.3", 11 oz.; tomtom.com or 978-287-9555

Nokia 7280
Frankly I still haven't decided whether this is a phone I could call my own for any length of time, but it certainly is a great way to strike up a conversation with passersby when I use it around town. The radical design comes either from Scandinavia or one of Jupiter's moons—your guess is as good as mine. It's about the same height and depth as a conventional cell phone but only as wide as a stick of gum, with no protruding antenna and... hey, wait a minute, where's the keyboard? There is no keyboard, in the conventional sense. Instead, a scroll wheel lets you select each digit on-screen individually and confirm with a press of the button—a fairly cumbersome process. On the other hand, calling from a preloaded address book is a breeze, whether you scroll to the appropriate listing using the on-screen display or use the surprisingly accurate built-in voice recognition system (the phone comes with software to move your existing contacts from a computer into the phone's memory). There's also a fairly low-res 640 x 480 digital camera, revealed James Bond style by pulling the ends of the phone apart.

Once you get past the funky form factor, the 7280 offers the performance you'd expect from a high-end cell phone. Voice quality is very good, and there's a built-in speakerphone and Bluetooth support for a wireless headset. There's also a built-in FM radio, so you'll have something amusing to while away the time waiting outside your favorite trendy hotspot. And if the 7280 appeals to your weekend self but makes your workday brain uncomfortable, there is a solution: it uses a removable SIM card from the T-Mobile or Cingular network, so you can change phones to suit your mood.

$600; 4.5" x 1.3" x 0.8", 3.0 oz.; nokiausa.com or 888-256-2098

Palm LifeDrive Mobile Manager
Ordinary PDAs that serve as digital Filofaxes seem to be dying out, replaced by new devices that do all the contacts/schedule/organizer stuff and more. Many of these PDA replacements are so-called "smartphones," which all too often means an uneasy compromise between providing a decent-sized screen for reading PDA information and a phone that actually fits into human-sized pockets. The LifeDrive Mobile Manager takes a different approach. It's a full-featured Palm PDA and a multimedia device in one, complete with a 4-gigabyte hard drive that can carry hundreds of songs, hours of video and thousands of photos, and also let you work on business documents on the road.

While it may look a bit large in the photo, the LifeDrive is actually a fairly svelte device, weighing in at just 6.8 ounces. The screen is big, bright and beautiful—photos and video clips look great. The LifeDrive is also equipped with two flavors of wireless connectivity, Bluetooth, useful for connecting to a compatible cellphone, and Wi-Fi, making it ideal for jumping onto the Internet at a Starbucks or other wireless-access hotspot. The screen rotates easily from standard top-to-bottom portrait mode to lengthwise landscape mode, making Web browsing and e-mailing far more practical. There's even software included for reading and editing Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. And if your digital camera stores images on those little SD memory cards, it's easy to insert the card into the LifeDrive and download your images to the hard drive, making photo viewing more fun and freeing up the card for further photographic adventures.

Right out of the box, the LifeDrive is a jack-of-all-trades and master of most. Considering that this is a Palm PDA, compatible with thousands of free and commercially available software programs to add further capabilities, there's a lot to like in this well-crafted device.

$500; 4.7" x 2.8" x 0.8" 6.8 oz.; palmone.com/us/ or 800-881-7256

Steve Morgenstern is a freelance writer living in New York.


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