Catching the miles tick away as you cruise the highways and byways in your luxury automobileÖpeering at the towns and villages huddled beside the train tracks as the great iron wheels click and clack toward your destinationÖ gazing down as your plane soars majestically above the great checkerboard of America's heartland…boring!
Sure, scenery's fine, but I want my digital diversions during those never-ending hours spent traveling from here to there and back again. Happily, as more and more forms of entertainment are delivered in compact digital bundles and significant improvements are made in battery and video technology, taking your electronic fun on the road is easier than ever. Here are a dozen portable ways to amuse yourself and/or keep the kids occupied, whether you're hitting the road or just roaming around your home.
TravelSound MP3 Titanium
The TravelSound is an intriguing, multipurpose, palm-sized audio device, a combination MP3 player/powered stereo speakers/voice recorder. While the built-in 32-megabyte memory stores only about half an hour of music, it's easily expanded with inexpensive SmartMedia cards to hold up to two and a half hours of CD-quality music. I've found the TravelSound especially useful for headphone-free listening to my other portable audio devices -- CD player, MP3 jukebox, portable tape recorder. The stereo speakers are small, but with their titanium drivers, they pump out plenty of volume for personal listening, with minimal distortion. Given the low to middling quality of most built-in portable computer speakers, I'll often connect the TravelSound to my notebook computer when playing games or listening to digital audio off the hard drive. And if I were the type who makes PowerPoint presentations on the road with a laptop, I'd definitely toss a TravelSound in my bag (it weighs just over 11 ounces with batteries) and write it off as a business expense.
Creative, 800-998-1000, www.americas.creative.com, $129
Portable Audio Laboratory radio
This unique carry-along AM/FM radio packs a lot of audio punch into a compact musical brick (roughly 6 x 3.7 x 3.9 inches and weighing in at 2 pounds). Designed by revered audio engineer Henry Kloss, the Portable Audio Laboratory (PAL) delivers surprisingly rich sound from its 2.5-inch speaker. Also striking is the pinpoint-precise manual tuner -- the PAL brings in distant stations better than any other portable on the market, effectively fending off noise and interference across the AM and FM bands. Above and beyond its audio attributes, the PAL boasts a host of convenience features that make it near indispensable in my household. With its weather-resistant rubberized case and built-in rechargeable battery (more than 10 hours of play time from a three-hour charge), the PAL travels easily from office to backyard to porch to poolside. There's an auxiliary input jack for connecting a portable CD or MP3 player, and a headphone jack for private listening. What's more, you can pick a color to suit your personality, from rich red and neon yellow to subdued gray or black.
Tivoli Audio, 877-297-9479, www.tivoliaudio.com, $130
BA800 audio player/image viewer
Remember albums? You know, record albums, photo albums, big bulky collections of entertainment and memories that were meant to be enjoyed in the comfort of your home sweet home. Today, hours of music and hundreds of photos will fit onto a featherweight digital memory card and, thanks to Bantam's BA800, you can carry a bookshelf's worth of record and photo "albums" in a single handheld device. What sets the BA800 apart from other MP3 players is a 1.8-inch color LCD screen -- kind of small, but big and bright enough to enjoy a satisfying photo slide show. The compact unit (3 ounces, 3.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 inches) has enough built-in memory to store up to eight hours of CD-quality music, and there's an SD (secure digital) card slot for optional memory expansion. The rechargeable battery provides 12 hours of playback. And if some of those record albums you owned were disco hits, you've come to the right place -- the funky CoolLights feature lets you illuminate the BA800 case in any of 256 colors.
Bantam Interactive, 314- 802-0132, www.bantamusa.com, $300
Apple iPod MP3 player
It may not be the trendy new gee-whiz device anymore, but nobody has surpassed the jukebox-in-your-top-pocket convenience of iPod, now available for both Macintosh and PC computer users. Apple's iPod is the best-known device in the growing hard-drive-based MP3 player category. By combining a large-capacity hard-disk drive (up to 20 gigabytes, enough to hold about 4,000 songs) with a rechargeable battery and audio playback software, these players make your entire music collection portable; whether you're in the mood for Bach, Beck or Bananarama, you can follow your musical whims. The biggest advantage iPod enjoys over its competitors, which offer similar capacity and capability, is size -- even the most capacious iPod measures a svelte 4 x 2.4 x 0.84 inches and weighs just 7.2 ounces, nearly 25 percent lighter than Creative's Nomad Zen (see below). The controls are slickly designed, with a cool front-mounted control wheel and highly legible display, and the built-in rechargeable battery lasts an impressive 10 hours. Be aware, though, that you'll need a computer with a FireWire connector (sometimes called iLink or 1394) to pump music into your iPod -- older Macs and many PCs lack this feature, though it can sometimes be added. And the lightweight iPod comes at a heavyweight price -- the entry-level 5-gigabyte model sells for $299, a 10-gigabyte version costs $399, and the top-of-the-line 20-
gigabyte version goes for $499.
Apple, 800-MYAPPLE, www.apple.com
Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen
The iPod may have cornered the market on geek chic, but the Zen has the edge in value and features, albeit in a slightly larger package. You get the same 20-gigabyte capacity as the top-of-the-line iPod, similar battery life and a sleek brushed-aluminum design for $200 less, which in my world is real money. While the Zen sound quality is only marginally superior to the iPod, the former offers a number of advantages. Add an optional FM wired remote ($70) and you can not only listen to FM radio, but record the broadcast on the Zen hard drive. The most important reason to carry a Zen rather than an iPod, though, is a software difference involving a feature called playlists. A playlist is pretty much what it sounds like -- a list of songs you'd like to play in order. The iPod can follow a play list, but only if you create it in advance on your computer and download it to the player. With the Zen, on the other hand, I can sit down on the commuter train, hop around my music collection and create a playlist right on the device, picking out songs by different artists that fit my mood -- that capability alone is worth carrying a few extra ounces. Also worth noting: the Zen comes in two models, one with FireWire and USB 1.1 connections, the other with a high-speed USB 2.0 connection, so the Zen will work with virtually any PC (Apple owners can't jump ship, though, since there's still no Macintosh support).
Creative, 800-998-1000, www.americas.creative.com, $299
LYRA Audio/Video Jukebox
The Next Big Thing in portable entertainment is pocket-size video players, and RCA is leading the way with its irresistible multifunction jukebox device, due out this summer. Basically, the company is taking a hard-drive MP3 player and adding a high-resolution 3.5-inch LCD screen, plus video and digital photo playback software. Getting video programming into the box is pretty darn easy. If you're computer savvy, you can create video files on your PC or download them from the Internet and feed them into the Lyra. On the other hand, you can use the Lyra itself to record video, just like recording to a VCR. Amazingly enough, you can fit up to 80 hours of video programming into this 5.2 x 3.14 x 0.98-inch portable, enough to effectively battle boredom on even the most interminable business trip. And if you want to carry family photos along, you've come to the right place: the Lyra can hold and display thousands of images in addition to music and video. I've seen other products with similar capabilities in the works, but RCA has the edge when it comes to sleek design, ease of use, pure practicality and aggressive pricing.
RCA, 877-326-6601, www.rca.com, $399
For many of us old enough to legally buy a drink, commercial radio has become an insufferable, repetitive mix of music aimed at 14-year-olds (and not the best and brightest of that age group, truth be told). Yes, I love my local all-news channel, and National Public Radio is a beacon in the darkness, but what about jazz, reggae, comedy, children's programming, and talk radio that goes beyond right-wing screeds? For that there's satellite radio, offered by two competing companies, Sirius and XM, each offering a wide-ranging 100 digital radio channels beamed from overhead satellites for a monthly fee. While both companies have focused primarily on delivering in-car satellite radio receivers, Delphi now offers a multipurpose modular unit, called the SKYFi you can plug into a car or home adapter, or carry around with this new satellite radio boom box. Powered by batteries or the included AC adapter, you'll enjoy crystal-clear digital radio reception as long as the system's antenna can "see" the sky above. The unit displays song title, artist, music genre and channel information on a bright, readable display, and comes with a wireless remote control.
Delphi, 877-463-3574, www.delphi.com/electronics/skyfi/, receiver $130, boom box adapter $99, vehicle or home adapter kit $70, XM satellite
S2 Sports Boombox
A curvaceous, even bosomy design makes this one eye-catching boom box, but it's not good looks alone that makes this my carry-along pick for backyard parties and beachfront music sharing. That nice solid handle between the two, um, speakers makes the S2 Sports Boombox easy to grab and carry, and the water-resistant design, with rubber gaskets and waterproof seals throughout, should calm the nerves of eager music schleppers when confronted with watery environments. Unless you absolutely fall on your face while walking and listening, the advanced shock protection system will provide skip-free CD playback despite bumps and bounces. In addition to playing AM/FM radio and standard audio CDs, the box also plays back MP3 files burned onto a CD-R (permanent) or CD-RW (erasable) disk on your computer -- figure 10 to 12 hours of high-quality audio will fit on a single disk. The sound pumped out from the substantial four-inch speakers is excellent, helped along on the low end by Sony's Mega Bass enhancement system. Add a headphone jack for private listening, an illuminated four-line display for easy readability, and a well-designed set of controls, and you have a boom box with grown-up-friendly style and sophistication.
Sony, 877-865-7669, www.sonystyle.com, $150
Game Boy Advance SP
The best-selling game system of all time isn't an Atari or even the seemingly ubiquitous PlayStation -- it's the handheld Game Boy from Nintendo. With more than 11.5 million units of the most recent Game Boy Advance model sold in North America in just over a year, Nintendo's portable isn't just kid stuff -- just look at all the button-mashing grown-ups next time you're waiting impatiently at the airport. Now Nintendo has finally delivered what fans have been demanding since the first Game Boy was introduced in 1989: a unit with a brightly lit screen, so you're freed from the twisting and turning required to catch enough illumination with previous models. Game Boy Advance SP is one sleek, sexy device, with a flip-up screen on the top and control buttons on the lower half. Powered by rechargeable batteries that last a good 10 hours, the new system is compatible with all but a handful of the thousand or so Game Boy titles on the market. At this price, you can pick up one for your Yu-Gi-Oh!-crazed kid and another for your own thumb-tangling attempts at Final Fantasy Tactics or Metroid Fusion.
Nintendo, 800-255-3700, www.nintendo.com, $100
RioVolt SP350 CD-MP3 player/radio
If, like me, your music collection is split between stacks of regular audio CDs and many megabytes of digital audio computer files, this handsome circular player comes with everything you need to travel with your tunes. The RioVolt SP350 plays audio CDs, MP3 and WMA files from recordable CDs, and also boasts a built-in FM radio. The kit comprises a practical leather carrying case, a wired remote control, rechargeable batteries and charger, a cigarette-lighter power adapter and cassette adapter for use with your car stereo, digital audio software for PCs and Macs, and a set of headphones (as so often happens with portable gear, they don't do the sound quality justice -- I'd chuck the included headphones and spring for an upgraded pair). SONICblue didn't skimp on built-in memory, which helps in two ways. First, the memory-based skip protection system takes even major bumps in stride. Second, the SP350 will read music into memory, allowing it to stop spinning the disk temporarily and increase battery life (which ranges from six to eight hours for audio CDs to up to 17 hours for audio file playback). By incorporating lots of musical flexibility into a player that's only about 7/8-inch thick and bundling it with a raft of worthwhile accessories, SONICblue serves up a tasty portable package.
SONICblue, 408-588-8000, www.sonicblue.com, $180
DVD-L100 video player
Unlike most portable DVD players, this 10-inch wide-screen model from Samsung makes it easy to sociably share your favorite DVD with your favorite traveling companion. The LCD panel is not only extra large, but also boasts an exceptionally wide viewing angle. You know the way, when looking at many LCD screens from the side, the image darkens and fades? With the DVD-L100, you can view the screen from any angle and still enjoy picture-perfect display, so it's just right for gather-round viewing. You'll also find a pair of headphone jacks, so two people can watch without disturbing the neighbors. The DVD-L100 also does double duty as a home DVD player, with composite and S-Video outputs for the visuals, digital optical output for enjoying Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound through your home stereo, and a wireless remote control. Battery life is so-so (two and a half hours tops), but the battery's removable, and higher-capacity spares are available. If you're a devotee of Sony products, you'll benefit from the DVD-L100's ability to play back digital photos and music stored on Sony's Memory Sticks. If not, opt for the forthcoming Memory Stickñfree DVD-L200 model, which is otherwise identical to the DVD-L100, and save yourself $200.
Samsung, 800-726-7864, www.samsungusa.com, $1,000
SL-J900 CD-MP3 player
Slipping a round disk into a square player may not seem instinctively right, but I really like the looks of this wafer-thin iridescent CD player, whether I'm carrying it as a portable or listening through the flat-panel stereo speakers attached to the desktop charging base. In addition to standard audio CDs, the SL-J900 plays back MP3s from recordable CDs, with artist and title information displayed on the wired remote control. The included earphones slip right into the ear canal, effectively blocking out external noise -- either you're comfortable with this style of earphone or you hate them like poison, but the sound quality is certainly top-notch -- and the flat speakers kick out more than respectable volume for their modest size.
Panasonic, 800-211-7262, www.panasonic.com, $200
Steve Morgenstern, a freelance writer living in New York, writes often on technology issues for Cigar Aficionado.