Cigar Aficionado

You've taken care of everyone else -- now treat yourself to a high-tech toy

OK, you've stowed the Santa suit in the back of the closet for another year, your family has all the goodies and gewgaws they "subtly" hinted for, and you have more new ties, socks and old-movie DVDs than any three men should own. What about the cool digital delights you were lusting after? Sorry, my friend, if you want cutting-edge gear, there's no use relying on the relative generosity of family and friends -- it's time to take the tech plunge and make nice to yourself, with one of these guaranteed-to-please groundbreaking products. We've searched out the market for the best and coolest of the tech world. Along with the most recent developments on some of the usual suspects -- the PDA that's packing the most features into the least space, the latest greatest TV remote, a camcorder that redefines crystal clear recording -- we've uncovered some gadgets that perform entirely new functions: an the electronic jukebox that stores not only audio but video, a watch that brings Dick Tracy to life, TVs and stereos that aren't tethered to the wires in your wall, and much more.

Bose: QuietComfort 2 Headphones

When Bose introduced the original QuietComfort model three years ago, it set new standards for noise reduction technology in consumer headphones. Slip them on aboard an airplane and the background drone that so effectively sandpapers your nerves virtually disappears, leaving the movie soundtrack or music you're listening to clear, rich and satisfying. I've been known to use the Bose phones on a plane with no audio playing at all, just to enjoy the silence they provide. The effect is welcome in other situations: noise reduction makes a big difference on my local commuter rail trip, and even walking down a city street.

On the other hand, the original QuietComforts were big, honking headphones -- much too large to fit easily in a standard briefcase. Another matter was the separate little box dangling from the cord that held the electronics and battery, a less than elegant solution. Ultimately I had a love-em-and-leave-em relationship with the product -- love the sound, but leave 'em home rather than haul them around.

Now, Bose reclaims its place of honor in my traveling gear with the QuietComfort 2, which delivers the same noise-canceling technology in a far more portable package. The earcups have been slimmed down substantially and, equally important, they now swivel to fold flat for easy packing. The battery and electronics are incorporated right into one of the earcups, eliminating the dangling device dilemma. Comfort and fit are excellent, with nice plush cushioning on the earcups and headphone band. And the sound? It's excellent -- perfect for everyday listening, even if you're not eating honey-roasted nuts at 30,000 feet.

$299, www.bose.com or 800-999-2673

Kameleon 8: Home Theater Universal Remote Control

Looking as if it belongs on the Jetsons' coffee table, the face of the Kameleon 8 appears entirely blank when it rests unused. As soon as you lift it, however, it illuminates with a spacey blue glow, revealing "virtual" buttons -- labeled areas to press on the touch-sensitive screen to make your audio and video gear obey your commands. This light-up technology is great in a darkened room (assuming you can find the remote in the first place), but where it earns its name is in its ability to completely customize the display to handle the task at hand.

For instance, when you push the DVD button, the entire display changes to show only appropriate DVD-related controls. Same goes for TV, CD, cable receiver, VCR, personal video recorder and auxiliary devices (up to eight devices in all). By limiting the current display to only the relevant choices at any given time, the Kameleon fits lots of clearly labeled controls on a compact remote without trying to crowd dozens and dozens of buttons into a small area, as seen on many universal remotes. A plethora of preinstalled codes correspond to different manufacturers' products, plus a learning mode lets you train the universal remote by pointing your current remote at the Kameleon and mashing the buttons a few times. And if that fails for a product because it was created after you bought your Kameleon, the devise can be subsequently programmed into the remote via the telephonic Call Center. And if you want one-touch control of several home theater components -- say a button that will turn on your audio system, flick on the TV and start DVD playback -- you're in luck. The macro function can handle a string of commands easily, and programming it doesn't require an advanced degree in gadgetology.

$99, www.mykameleon.com or 800-276-3841

MSN: Direct Watch

As an early adopter of all things digital, I've strapped more than a few electronically enhanced watches on my wrist over the years. The one from Timex that sucked information into built-in memory by reading a series of flashing bar codes when the watch was pointed at a computer screen was pretty cool. I also tried a watch with a full-fledged computer -- kind of ingenious, but so big it was completely incompatible with long-sleeve shirts. This time, though, I've found a watch that combines high-tech sizzle with practical benefits. Want to know the latest sports scores? Stock quotes? Weather reports? Traffic info? Just gaze into the face of your MSN Direct Watch and all will be revealed.

Yes, the good people at Microsoft are now in the digital watch business -- they're not making the watches (licensees Fossil, Suunto and a few others handle design and manufacture), but they've created a radio technology for sending information wirelessly and receiving it on your wrist. What's more, the watches don't have to be big bruisers to pull off this impressive feat.

To make this happen, Microsoft has created its own wireless data network, beaming information via bandwidth leased from FM radio stations. You buy the watch, then subscribe to the MSN Direct service ($9.95/month or $59/year). On its Web site, you can customize the information you want to receive. You can even upload your own calendar information, so when a meeting's about to begin, a reminder pops up on your watch. And, just for fun, you can even download new face designs to spiff up the looks of the digital LCD.

Various models, with prices starting at $129, www.msndirect.com; Fossil at 800-449-3056 or www.fossil.com.

Sony: Clie UX50

In a world of look-alike Palms and Pocket PCs, this innovative Sony handheld is a whole new ball game, packed with high-end features yet barely larger than a deck of playing cards. The flip-up lid houses a beautiful wide-screen color LCD display -- kind of small but, with a high 480 x 320 resolution, very readable. On the base is a keyboard, reminiscent of the thumb-typeable Blackberry arrangement, just large enough to be practical, with a noticeable "click" when you press, which helps maintain accuracy. The sleek silver and black body boasts precisely the kind of gee-whiz Sony design that makes strangers peer over your shoulder in airports and coffee shops.

OK, it looks cool, but what can it do? For starters, the UX50 offers all your basic Palm organizer functions: address book, calendar, to-do list -- you know the drill. Then it adds a built-in digital camera with adequate resolution (640 x 480) for on-screen display on the Clie or a computer screen But here's the powerhouse feature: two different forms of built-in wireless communication.

First there's Bluetooth, a technology that's been more hype than hurrah for several years but finally seems to be coming into its own, primarily as a way to connect wirelessly with Bluetooth-equipped cell phones. That combination means you can type a message on the Clie and send it out via your phone -- pretty slick.

Or, better yet, find yourself a wireless hot spot and jump right onto the Internet with the included Web browser and e-mail software, using the Clie's built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking capability. More and more homes and offices are using wireless networking to link multiple PCs, and the UX50 is climbing aboard as well. But there's also a real boom in hot spots, public places where you can access the Net using a Wi-Fi device. Some charge for the privilege, some are free for the taking (Bryant Park in New York City, for example). Either way, with a keyboard-equipped Clie and a wireless network connection, you've got a communications powerhouse in the palm of your hand.

$700, www.sonystyle.com, 877-865-7669

Sharp: AQUOS LC-15L1 wireless LCD TV

This is one of those products that I just didn't believe would work right, and yet somehow, Sharp proved me wrong. The idea is certainly appealing -- a flat-screen LCD you can use anywhere in your home and not just view broadcast TV, but DVDs, cable and satellite, too. Here's how it works: the Aquos has a built-in wireless receiver and comes with a separate transmitter box that you attach to your video sources (it can handle four at once, so you can hook up cable TV, a DVD player, a VCR and a baby monitor camera, for example). Charge up the TV battery and you're off, roaming freely while The Matrix Reloadedfollows you everywhere.

I walked into the demo certain that picture quality was going to be mediocre or worse -- the system uses 802.11b wireless networking, which doesn't handle all that much data and is subject to various forms of interference. I walked out a believer -- sound and picture were crystal clear over a range of about 100 feet. The set itself is handsome enough, with a brilliant 15-inch high-contrast screen and Mickey Mouse–ear speakers that pump out plenty of volume for a portable. You can even use the remote control to change the channel or the video source back at the base station transmitter, a very nice touch. Sharp claims a battery life of about two hours, and you can always plug the set into a wall outlet when you're planning to sit and watch for a while.

$1,799.95, www.sharpusa.com, 800-237-4277

Samsung: SPH-i500

The marriage of a cell phone and a PDA has always seemed like a match made in heaven, but it's produced some ugly children over the years. The first attempts were basically digital bricks that you were supposed to lug around and press against your head to take a call. More recently, these combo devices have slimmed down little by little, but it took the miniaturization mavens at Samsung to deliver the holy grail of phone/PDA hybrids -- a device that's the size and shape of an ordinary cell phone, and a small one at that.

The SPH-i500 is a full-featured Sprint cell phone combined with a Palm PDA, all in a package that measures just 3.4 x 2.1 x 1 inch and weighs a scant 5.2 ounces. That means it fits comfortably in your jeans pocket, while other phone/PDA hybrids are consigned to the inside pocket of your suit jacket, at best.

The device's split personalities work nicely together when it's time to get down to business. To call someone on your contact list, just tap the name on the screen and the number is dialed automatically. Web browsing works surprisingly well, too, thanks to Sprint's high-speed wireless network, though you shouldn't expect computer-style Internet access on a small-screen device. The official standby time is 250 hours and talk time is 4.2 hours; in practice that seems about right. The
battery is removable, so you can always carry a charged-up spare.

Truth be told, a few rough edges remain. For one, the PDA runs version 4.1 of the Palm operating system instead of the latest 5.0 version. A more significant quibble is the lack of memory expansion slots -- with only 16 megabytes of built-in RAM, it would be nice to slip in an SD memory card to hold photos or large documents. Still, for routine PDA and cell phone needs, the SPH-i500 is a small wonder.

$549, www.sprintpcs.com, 888-253-1315 or Sprint stores nationwide

Yamaha: MusicCAST

The idea of piping music throughout your home from one central source is nothing new, but doing it without paying a guy to punch holes in your walls and pull cables from room to room -- that's a significant breakthrough.

The Yamaha MusicCAST system includes a Music Server, where music is stored, and up to seven clients, which feed the music into other rooms. The server has an 80-gigabyte hard drive built in, which can hold a whole lot of music. If you pop a CD into the server, the system looks up the artist, title and track information on its built-in database (very convenient), then copies the music to the hard drive. Straight out of the box, it actually makes two copies. One is an exact duplicate of the CD audio file for playback on the server through your home audio system. The other is a compressed MP3 file (which is about one-tenth the size) and more suitable for sending over the network to those clients scattered hither and yon. With two copies, you can store about 100 CDs, which isn't half bad. If you're satisfied with MP3-quality playback, though (and 90 percent of the time it's fine with me), you can just save the single compressed copy and store about 1,000 CDs -- now that's a lot of music!

So, how do we get the music from the server to the clients? If you live in a home that's already wired for Ethernet networking, fine -- use it to connect server to clients and be happy. If not, though, you're still OK, since the system offers outstanding built-in wireless networking that lets you freely place up to five clients as far as 100 feet from the server unit. Connect those clients to a stereo system in another room or, if you prefer, buy the optional speakers and use the client as a free-standing music player. One more important point: each server can be playing different songs simultaneously, and each has a wireless remote for choosing songs from your digital music library.

The MusicCAST is not an inexpensive system -- if you're a computer geek, you could save a few bucks by rigging up full-fledged computers to manage basically the same tasks. But the Yamaha system works elegantly, sets up with relative ease, and lets me listen to Springsteen in my office while my kid plays 50 Cent in the basement, out of earshot. This, my friends, is the very definition of good technology.

MusicCAST MCX-1000 server, $2,200; MCX-A10 client, $600; MCX-SP10 client speakers, $119; www.yamaha.com/musiccast or 888-435-7932

RCA: LYRA Audio/Video Jukebox

None of the other hard-drive MP3 music players on the market has come close to eclipsing the aura of technological cool surrounding Apple's iPod, but this new product from RCA has a good shot at wresting away the "most buzzworthy" title. The reason: while the iPod does a fine job pumping music into your ears, the Lyra AV Jukebox delivers both music and video, in a perfectly portable size and shape and at a price that's only slightly higher than the audio-only competition.

What we have here is a rectangular box, 5.31 x 3.15 x 1.06 inches, with a 20-gigabyte hard drive inside and a 3.5-inch LCD screen outside. The screen's not huge, but it's perfectly adequate for handheld viewing, and the color and resolution are pretty impressive. The drive can hold up to 80 hours of video programming, and getting the programs into the box is nice and easy -- you hook it up the same way you'd connect a VCR and just hit record. Movies, TV programs, ball games, naughty video content -- why, the money you'll save on hotel room pay-per-view on business trips alone will pay for the Lyra in a few months' time. And if you're the type who downloads content from the Internet, RCA hasn't forgotten you, either -- you can transfer video, music or digital photo files from your computer directly into the Lyra via USB 2.0 cable, or save them to a CompactFlash card that fits into the device's memory expansion slot.

Take my word for it: by Christmas 2004 a dozen "personal video players" will be on the market, as the product category takes off with couch potatoes who will finally have a way to fight back against the cruel forces that periodically tear them away from their video fix. For now, RCA is leading the way, and it's doing it with a very classy effort.

$450, www.rca.com, 800-336-1900

Pioneer: DVR-810H

As a TiVo owner since the product's introduction in 1999, I have to wonder how our family would have survived without it. "Honey, did you remember to tape my program?" No need to argue -- TiVo took care of it. My dad calls just as President Bartlet is deciding to assassinate a terrorist leader? I don't have to give the old man the bum's rush -- just hit the pause button and have a pleasant chat. Can't stand the chick flick my wife and daughter want to watch? I just head for the other room, where TiVo has faithfully taped 1 a.m. reruns of "Taxi" for just these occasions.

And yet, even the wonder that is TiVo has limitations. Specifically, the hard drive it uses to record programs will eventually fill up, inevitably before I've watched everything I want to watch. And what about recorded movies I'd like to keep long-term? Sure, I could tape them to a VCR, but how much better to transfer them to DVD? Do-it yourself DVDs are high quality, easy to store and easy to watch (much easier to jump forward or back than tediously winding VCR tapes) -- my homemade DVD collection is growing in leaps and bounds.

And now, thanks to Pioneer, I have my two favorite video technologies in one convenient box.

What's the benefit of combining a TiVo unit and a DVD player/recorder in a single device, instead of connecting two separate boxes? Space saving, fewer cables and one dual-purpose remote control leap to mind, but there's more. Recording a program from your TiVo hard drive onto a DVD moves along much faster than the actual program length -- an hour-long program made the leap to disc in about 25 minutes, and we could watch TV while the recording process continued in the background.

This first-generation hybrid does lack a few features. On any DVD recorder, I like to see an IEEE 1394 connector (also known as FireWire or iLink) so digital camcorder owners can preserve their footage directly to DVD. And speaking of "directly to DVD," you're not allowed to record a program off the air straight to a DVD disc -- for some odd reason, you have to record to the hard drive first, then make the transfer. Also, since a movie won't fit on a single DVD (burn-them-yourself DVDs hold only 60 minutes at top quality, much less than commercially produced discs), the option to compress a program to fit the available disc space, even with some quality sacrifice, would have been welcome.

That said, this is still a terrific piece of gear, complete with excellent DVD playback quality, up to 80 hours of TiVo recording capacity, and basic TiVo service included for free (you're going to want to upgrade to TiVo Plus service, which costs $12.95 a month, but the free basic service is a good starting point). If Pioneer's efforts can bring domestic tranquility to hundreds, perhaps thousands of American households, the device can surely be forgiven any minor shortcomings.

$1,199, www.pioneerelectronics.com, 800-228-7221

JVC: GR-HD1 High-Definition Camcorder

After making the leap to high-definition television (HDTV), noticing the individual blades of grass when the camera zooms in on another Jets fumble, (hey, it's better than watching the players) and savoring the lusciously reproduced perfection of Kate Beckinsale in yet another crappy movie, it's a letdown watching anything less -- and yes, that includes your own home video footage. If you're willing to give your credit card a beating, though, you no longer have to settle. JVC's GR-HD1 is the first and, so far, only consumer camcorder capable of recording at high-def resolution, and it delivers handsome results.

JVC deserves kudos for maintaining solid compatibility with the non-HDTV majority. Any video you shoot can be viewed in wide-screen high-def (it's shot in 720p mode, for you HD aficionados), but the GR-HD1 will also downscale the image to fit standard TV sets and VCRs. Equally important, the camera uses standard MiniDV tapes, even for high-definition shooting, instead of some esoteric custom tape format that may disappear in a few months. And if you choose, you can shoot in regular MiniDV format for maximum compatibility.

The camera's undeniably larger than most standard-def camcorders, but with a nicely balanced design, its 2.9 pounds are still easy to handle. Helping to deliver nice steady video is an effective, built-in image stabilization system which electronically banishes lots of the jiggle and hiccups that afflict handheld video. The built-in mic is so-so, but it's easy enough to connect an external microphone. And the video quality? The resolution is beautiful, with razor-sharp edges and crisp, lifelike details. Color is a bit less impressive -- a camera with three image sensors (typical for standard-resolution camcorders in this price range) does a better job capturing deep, rich colors than the single-sensor solution used here. Bottom line, though, the video you shoot will look amazing today and continue to impress as we march inevitably into the high-def future.

$3,500, www.jvc.com, 800-252-5722

 

Steve Morgenstern is a freelance writer who reports regularly on the subject of high technology for Cigar Aficionado.