We test the best portable gadgets for the streetwise
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005
It's gotten to the point where I carry two bags when I travel: one for slacks, shirts and shoes, and another for power adapters and battery chargers. Can you blame me? After all, seeing the sights isn't half as much fun if you can't capture them in digital images to show off back home. Even the best trip has long in-transit stretches that would be insufferable without a laptop, a game machine and some MP3s to while away the time. And without a cell phone and trusty GPS unit in hand, I could easily eat up half the trip searching aimlessly for my hotel.
Here, then, are my favorite new digital traveling companions. If lugging all this useful tech threatens to overfill your luggage, remember, you can always buy socks and underwear when you get there.
Olympus Stylus 500
Most digital cameras get kind of cranky if you play rough with them, especially if there's water involved. Olympus, however, wants you to carry your camera whether you're singing in the rain, lounging by the pool or snowboarding down the slopes. That's why it's built the Stylus 500 with weatherproof seals and a watertight lens cover to guard against spills and splashes. That doesn't mean you can start snorkeling with the camera in tow, or drop it in the pool unscathed, for that matter. For that, you need the optional PT-026 underwater housing ($249), which will protect the Stylus 500 to a depth of 131 feet. Use the special built-in underwater exposure settings, and your heirs will inherit a perfectly exposed snapshot of that approaching great white shark.
Back on dry land, the Stylus 500 is a fine all-purpose digital model, with a 3x zoom lens and a handsome 2.5-inch display that doesn't wash out in bright sunlight, a common LCD shortcoming. The menu system is simple yet powerful, with on-screen prompts that let you leave the manual in the drawer where it belongs. A convenient file organizer lets you assign different photos to separate folders while shooting, useful for displaying or printing only selected shots later on.
$400; 5-megapixel resolution, 3.9'' x 2.2'' x 1.2'', 5.8 oz.; olympusamerica.com or 888-553-4448
Fujifilm FinePix Z1
Shooting with the Fujifilm FinePix Z1 may be slower than you'd expect, but it's not the camera's fault. It's just that every time you point the Z1 at someone, your subject will want to get his mitts on this technological fetish object, with its sleek sculptured body, sliding front lens cover and beautiful LCD display.
The Z1 is just 0.7 inches thick and weighs a scant 4.6 ounces, but the designers have managed to squeeze in a 3x zoom lens (equivalent to a 36-109mm lens in 35mm photography) along with a generous 2.5-inch screen that fills nearly the entire back of the camera. The Z1 is available in matte black or silver, but the black finish is definitely the way to go.
That the Z1 boasts such great design doesn't mean it skimps on performance. The camera boasts 5.1-megapixel resolution (more than enough for handsome display-size prints), a zippy 0.6 seconds from power-on to picture-taking, and minimal shutter lag.
Fujifilm engineers have sweetened the deal with an innovative system that they call, for no apparent reason, Real Photo Technology. Basically, they've boosted the sensitivity of the image sensor and added advanced signal processing to let you shoot in low light without the ugly graininess you'd expect. With take-it-anywhere dimensions, sexy styling, sizable screen and unobtrusive flash-free photography, the Z1 makes an excellent traveling companion.
$450; 5.1-megapixel resolution, 3.5" x 2.2" x 0.7", 4.6 oz.; fujifilm.com or 1-800-800-3854
HP Photosmart 375
Why wait until you get home to print out your travel snapshots? This compact printer cranks out beautiful 4 x 6-inch prints and you don't even need a computer—just slip a memory card into one of the provided slots (all the major formats are supported) or connect it to your camera with a USB cable, and you're good to go. And speaking of "going," you can run the printer off an optional rechargeable battery ($80) or car adapter ($40) for maximum portability.
To make computer-free printing that much easier, the Photosmart 375 includes a flip-up 2.5-inch LCD screen that simplifies picking your pictures for printing. You can also perform basic photo-editing functions right on the printer, including cropping, red-eye elimination, image sharpening and brightness/contrast adjustment.
As for print quality, I have yet to meet anyone who could detect whether the photos I shared were printed at a professional lab or on my portable printer. And according to HP testing, your Photosmart prints should outlast commercial photo lab output—not a big deal for most of us, maybe, but your biographer will thank you.
$200; 8.7" x 4.6" x 4.5", 2.59 lb.; hp.com or 888-999-4747
Sony PlayStation Portable
Video-game advertising may target scruffy teenage boys with barely suppressed acne and raging attitude, but that doesn't mean grown-ups shouldn't enjoy a nice round of virtual golf or some recreational ogre bashing in their spare time. Just look at Sony's latest portable pleasure machine. The polished black design radiates sex appeal: sleek, slender and subtly curved, with a brilliant 4.3-inch wide-screen LCD. Who dares say video games are for geeks when you can play them on Darth Vader's PDA?
This is a device that plays games with nearly the same quality as the industry-leading PlayStation 2 home console, and does it in a 10-ounce package that fits neatly into a backpack or briefcase. That impressive screen is backed by enough processing power to provide consistently smooth animation even in fast-action sports and racing titles. Controls on a portable gaming device are notoriously tough to get right (ever try playing an action game on a cell phone?), but PlayStation Portable nails it. Under the hood there's built-in 802.11b wireless networking to let multiple players compete head-to-head in the same room or, with a Wi-Fi wireless hotspot, over the Internet.
The first round of games for the new system is impressive if not terribly original: solid sports titles like Tiger Woods PGA Tour and NBA Street Showdown basketball, lots of driving games, and a few standouts (the puzzle game Lumines, a distant cousin to Tetris, has already consumed far too many hours of my life). Most important, all the major game publishers are behind the new device, so the future looks bright indeed.
But you'll have to take Sony's claim that this is the great all-in-one multimedia device for the new millennium with a grain—no, make that a good five-pound sack—of salt. There's no hard drive, so you're limited in storing your own music, photos and video clips. The software provided for playing back songs and photos is unacceptably basic. And while the first million PlayStation Portables shipped with a free copy of the movie Spiderman in the system's proprietary UMD disk format, only about two dozen other movies are available, few of which hold any interest (anybody want to buy a copy of Hellboy?). What's more, a UMD movie costs as much as a DVD, with none of the DVD's fun extra features, and neither Blockbuster nor Netflix has plans to make rentals available. Makers of iPods and portable DVD players have nothing to fear.
That said, when it comes to killing time on a train or plane, filling time between meetings or keeping busy while your wife watches "Extreme Makeover," the PlayStation Portable is a very entertaining digital playmate.
$250; 6.7" x 2.9" x 0.9", 9.2 oz.; us.playstation.com or 800-345-7669
Portable DVD players may not be exactly breakthrough technology anymore, but Toshiba put an interesting new twist on the category—literally—with the SD-P2700. This Toshiba boasts an 8.9-inch wide-screen display that can swivel and pivot through a full 180 degrees. That means you can sit the unit on a table, like an open book, and watch the vertically tilted screen (like any other portable DVD player), or rotate the screen all the way around and fold it back, holding the player in your hands as a flat video panel. The video panel option is perfect when you're sitting on a train or in a car (preferably when you're not the driver, thank you very much) and don't have a convenient spot to perch a conventional DVD player.
In addition to offering a unique screen configuration, Toshiba bends over backwards to make the SD-P2700 a first-rate substitute for a standard home DVD unit, with component video and digital audio output for high-quality home theater performance, a wireless remote control and even slots for inserting Memory Stick and SD cards from a digital camera to display photos on your TV.
$500; 10.3" x 7.8" x 1.3", 2.7 lbs.; tacp.toshiba.com or 800-631-3811
Fossil Wrist PDA
When this PDA watch arrived in my mailbox, it felt as if I were getting reacquainted with an old friend. We'd met nearly three years ago, at the Comdex computer show in 2002, and planned to get together within the next few months. But you know how it is—plans change, people move, somebody in manufacturing realizes just how difficult it is to cram an entire electronic organizer into a two-inch case.
But now here I am, wearing a full-fledged Palm personal digital assistant (PDA) on my wrist. Fortunately, I have a pretty big wrist, since this is not a device for the delicately constructed. It's hard to visualize just by reading the specs, but suffice it to say that the Wrist PDA won't squeeze under your dress-shirt cuffs. Of course, the same could be said for a Panerai watch, and all it does is tell time in a big, honking way. The Fossil Wrist PDA displays your address book, calendar, to-do list and memo pad entries, pulling them all directly from your computer (no retyping required), has a built-in calculator, runs additional software designed for Palm PDAs, and tells the time besides.
There are a few caveats here. First, you'll need good eyesight to be a happy Wrist PDA owner. Screen resolution is fine (the same 160 x 160 found on classic full-size Palm PDAs), but that makes for small type on a wrist-sized device. Second, while there's a teensy-weensy stylus built into the watch strap, I'd count on using a separate one to poke at the screen instead (I use a Cross stylus that looks like a standard ballpoint pen; many options are out there). And third, if the idea of charging your wristwatch is just too much bother, look elsewhere—the Fossil runs on a rechargeable battery that lasts about three days.
For you digital devotees, however, this is a wonderful way to let your geek flags fly for all to see.
$249; 2.1" x 1.4" x 0.5", 5.7 oz.; fossil.com or 800-449-3056
Dell Latitude X1 Laptop
The older I get, the less enthusiasm I have for lugging a hernia- inducing laptop when I travel. At the same time, though, I do live la vida digital, and wandering the earth without a screen and keyboard handy makes me very uncomfortable. The answer: this featherweight 2.5-pounder, the lightest laptop Dell has ever offered. The keyboard's nearly full-size (about 95 percent as big as a standard desktop computer), which works fine even with my big hands and fast-flying fingers. The wide-screen LCD display provides plenty of screen real estate—I can keep a word processor and a Web browser side by side simultaneously, making hotel-room research a whole lot faster. There's wireless networking built in (the nice, fast 802.11g flavor, not its pokier 802.11b cousin), hard drives up to 60 gigabytes are available, and a 1.1 GHz Pentium M processor that's fast on the draw without draining too much battery power. In fact, with the optional long-life battery, the power lasts comfortably for a full New York to Los Angeles flight. And it's all charmingly anorexic in size and weight—even the power adapter is roughly half the size of the typical laptop "power brick," a very welcome development.
What's missing? A built-in CD or DVD drive. Frankly, when I'm on the road, that's ordinarily not a big deal (how often do you install new software while traveling?). On the other hand, external CD and DVD drives are readily available and, unlike older models, these are powered directly from the laptop, so you don't have to carry an extra power adapter.
$1,598 and up, depending on configuration; 11. 3" x 7.7" x 1.0", 2.5 lbs.; dell.com or 800-545-3813
The knee-jerk reaction today when you think of an MP3 player is iPod, but it's worth pausing for a moment before reaching for your credit card to consider other options. This seriously stylish 5-gigabyte player from iRiver, for example, offers several features not found on Apple's similarly sized iPod Mini.
The brilliant color screen is the most obvious example. Why a color screen for listening to music? Because it's so much easier to read than an ordinary monochrome LCD display, especially in dark environments. Choosing your tunes isn't the only screen function—you can also display digital photo files on the H10 screen. True, it's not the perfect tool for perusing panoramic vistas, but the 1.5-inch LCD is a fun way to browse family photos while in transit.
The built-in FM radio is another noteworthy feature included in the H10 and missing on the iPod. While sweating to the beat is not my idea of a good time, my athletically inclined friends are pumped to listen to the FM broadcast of TV sound at their neighborhood gym with the H10.
For me, though, the key feature is compatibility with Napster To Go, the online music subscription service. Instead of buying individual songs for 99 cents each, you pay a flat fee of $15 a month and get all-you-can-eat access to roughly a million songs. This is a useful service when you're sitting at your computer listening to music, but it's the "To Go" part that really makes it sing. With an MP3 player that's compatible with the service (the H10 is one, others are listed at napster.com), you can download your subscription songs onto the player and take them with you. Now when I read a review of an artist who sounds interesting, or I get a new-music tip from my college-age daughter, I can log onto Napster To Go, download some tracks and explore without actually having to buy an album sight unseen (or is that sound unheard?). Unlimited monthly music for the price of a single CD? As the ageless side of my brain would say: "That rocks!" $280; 3.8" x 2.2" x 0.6", 3.4 oz.; iriver.com or 800-399-1799
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
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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