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Great Grown-up Gadgets

An open letter to Santa lists the best in electronic gifts for adults
By Steve Morgenstern | From Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005
Great Grown-up Gadgets

Dear Santa,

Not sure if you remember me. I'm the little boy who crashed right into the reindeer as I fled in panic from your hearty "Ho-Ho-Ho" at Macy's back in 1959. At any rate, I've been following your career closely since then, and considering how busy you've been, what with managing the elves and riding in parades and battling the Martians, I thought I'd help out just a little. Here are my picks for 10 of the hottest tech products on the market today—just the thing for the really, really good grown-up boys and girls on your list. I don't ask for anything in return for this sage advice—consider it my contribution to the holiday spirit. Of course, if I happen to find the Nikon among the gifts at my house this year, I wouldn't complain.
Best, Steve

Nikon D50
Every grown-up, or soon-to-be grown-up, for that matter, should own a serious camera. Yes, I know everybody is grabbing crappy little snapshots with cell phones, but let's buck the trend. Instant gratification is great, but what about lasting mementos? Do you really want an 8 x 10 cell-phone snap with digital grain the size of Rice Krispies hanging on your office wall? No, you want the "keeper" photos—and the instant gratification—you can only get with a quality digital SLR.

Why digital? Because you can shoot as much as you want, experimenting with wild ideas without paying an extra nickel for film and developing, and you see the results right away.

Why an SLR? Because SLR cameras shoot instantly when you press the shutter, focus quickly to catch moving subjects, reset for the next shot in a fraction of a second and let you choose just the right lens for the job at hand.

And finally, why the Nikon D50? Because Nikon delivers all the features a serious amateur wants in a digital SLR, with impeccable performance and image quality, in an easy-to-use camera that's a pleasure to hold in your hand. Compared with its brand cousin the Nikon D70s, the D50 is slightly smaller, lacks a few tweaky pro settings and uses SD memory cards instead of compact flash (a minor disadvantage). The only significant feature I miss is a depth-of-field preview button that shows exactly how much of the image will be in focus. On the other hand, the key issues are not compromised: the razor-sharp image sensor, the smooth, whisper-quiet mechanical operation, fast, precise metering, the ability to shoot in uncompressed RAW mode (useful for advanced image editing) and the option to use a wide array of high-quality Nikon lenses and accessories. And since it sells for $400 less than the D70s, the Nikon D50 is not just a great camera, but a great deal.

$800 including 18-55mm lens, www.nikonusa.com or 800-645-6689

My dog, Gracie, generally isn't fazed by the devices that zip, whir, clunk and buzz through our home. Radio-controlled cars? No problem. Robotic vacuum cleaner? As long as it doesn't have designs on her tail, she takes a live-and-let-live attitude. But she doesn't trust Roboraptor, and I'm not sure I blame her. No, it doesn't smell alive, but it sure does move as if it had sinister intentions. Roboraptor is a substantial mechanical critter, measuring a full 32 inches from stem to stern, with articulated neck, tail and leg joints and five motors that let him move with surprising, lifelike speed. Some of the designers at WowWee Ltd., the creators of Roboraptor, used to work in the movie business, and it shows—think of the kitchen chase scene in Jurassic Park and you'll have a sense of Roboraptor's animation style. Kinda creepy, and very cool.

You can "drive" the dino directly with the wireless remote control, making him walk (at three speeds), turn, swish his tail and bite. Far more fun, though, is watching Roboraptor interact freely with his environment. The digital dino is festooned with sensors that include stereo "ears" on either side of his head, infrared "eyes" up front and touch sensors on his tail, back, chin and mouth (the better to eat you with, my dear). Put him in "roam" mode and he'll explore his world, avoiding objects in his path and reacting to sharp sounds with a quick turn of the head. Depending on the "mood" you set via the remote, Roboraptor may back away from danger, hunt for prey or nuzzle your hand. Kids with a little respect for high-priced playthings can certainly have fun with this digital-age dinosaur—he's solidly built, though you don't want to send him plummeting off the kitchen table. But it was the grown-ups in my household that found Roboraptor thoroughly intriguing, whether they were fiddling with the wireless remote, petting the dino's tail or barking furiously from under my desk.

$120, www.roboraptoronline.com or 800-310-3033

Epson Stylus Photo RX700
My wife and I both take digital photos, but our attitudes toward printing them out are radically different. For me, looking at images on my computer screen is just fine for 99.5 percent of the pictures I shoot. When I do want a paper print, I fiddle with the shot until it's just right, cropping and tweaking and Photoshopping out imperfections. My wife is a holdout from the film photography era, when you brought your roll of film to the local drugstore and got back prints (or double prints!) for every single shot, good, bad and ugly.

Epson ensures domestic tranquility, if only in the digital photo arena, with this extraordinary all-in-one device that handles a wide variety of imaging tasks. Equally important, it does it all either with or without a computer. The Stylus Photo RX700 makes copies (color and black-and-white), prints photos and text documents, and scans documents and even photographic negatives and slides. The only missing capability is faxing, which, in the age of e-mail, is a fairly Paleolithic pastime.

The RX700 is the key to liberating your old photos from their shoebox prison. You can scan and print photos, negatives or slides right on the device (using the crystal-clear built-in 2.5-inch screen), or use the computer to scan and store them on your hard drive. Either way, you get the benefit of Epson's impressive photo restoration software, which does a surprisingly good job automatically removing the fading that afflicts old photos.

My CD-burning daughter's favorite feature is the ability to print in full color directly onto blank CDs and DVDs. This is both decorative and practical, since it lets you neatly list stored music tracks or TV programs right on the disc. No more Sharpie-marker-labeled discs at my house—we've gone pro.

All of this would be nearly worthless without up-to-snuff print quality. Happily, this is a full-fledged photo printer, using six colored inks instead of the standard office printer three or four. It reproduces the full gamut of colors with vibrant depth and fine color accuracy. If anything, the RX700 output looks better than drugstore prints and, what's more, they'll last at least as long. Yes, this is a pricey printer, but when you add in its document scanning and copying functions, CD printing capabilities and the ability to bring smiles to both novices and digital photo enthusiasts, I'd say it's a great buy.

$399, www.epson.com or 800-873-7766

For anyone who needs a second TV set in a bedroom, a dorm room, an office or a den, this handsome LCD model is one sleek solution, bundling everything you need into a compact package—even the DVD player is built in. The 23-inch wide-screen LCD panel displays both standard- and high-definition TV content very well, with deeply saturated colors and impressive sharpness. The only visible flaw I found was slightly uneven edge-to-edge illumination—you might notice it during all-black scenes (such as a movie's title crawl), but during normal viewing it's inconsequential. And LG gets high marks for delivering a screen with an unusually wide viewing angle. When you look at a typical LCD panel from the side or high above, you notice colors shift and distort. With this screen, everything looks fine from any practical viewing angle.

The built-in DVD player (it's in the unit's base) makes perfect sense, eliminating an extra box in cramped quarters, unsightly wires and an extra wireless remote. And it's not limited to playing movies: if you burn MP3 or digital photo files onto a CD, you can enjoy both with remote-controlled convenience. There's no built-in tuner for receiving high-definition TV broadcasts, but if you're like most people, you're probably going to hook the set to a cable or satellite tuner anyway.

$1,799, us.lge.com or 800-243-0000

SunRocket Internet Phone Service
If you have high-speed Internet access at home, you've probably already been pitched on switching your phone service to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). It's a tempting proposition—you get low-cost calling plus fancy calling and messaging features at no extra charge. Granted, telephone service might not be the perfect holiday gift, at least as provided by your local cable or telephone company. But SunRocket is different. It delivers a big box full of VoIP: the network adapter plus a Uniden wireless phone with two handsets and a year of prepaid service. With a big box under the tree, you're a holiday hero—and a very frugal hero at that, since that prepaid year includes unlimited calling throughout the United States and Canada plus a host of useful services for less than $17 a month. SunRocket customers get Internet-based voicemail, call blocking, call forwarding and distinctive rings to identify specific callers (so you'll know instantly that it's Mom and not Mom's Friendly Carpet Cleaning Service on the line). The Find Me option automatically dials a series of numbers you choose if you don't pick up right away. You might, for example, have unanswered calls forwarded to your office line and, if you still don't answer, on to your cell phone. It's a great way to make sure you get mission-critical calls ASAP.

SunRocket also lets you choose a second phone number outside your local area code, a very interesting wrinkle. If, for example, you live in New York but most of your relatives live in Seattle, you could add your own Seattle number. Calls placed to that number still ring through to your home phone in New York, but your callers are only charged for a local connection. Dad will be so proud of your family-friendly frugality.

The most critical questions, of course, are voice quality and reliability. In my testing, using the SunRocket equipment with an Optimum Online cable modem, calls came through loud and clear. In fact, my daughter said the VoIP service sounded better than our regular landline. And speaking of kids, giving a SunRocket system to your college-bound pride and joy, who surely has high-speed Internet access at the dorm, could save you enough on long distance each month for a fat fistful of fine smokes.

$199, www.sunrocket.com or 800-786-0132

Plantronics Pulsar 590
I don't know that anyone's actually ever strangled to death on a headphone cord, but I've certainly had more than a few uncomfortable jerks and jolts as the wire between the MP3 player in my shoulder bag and the phones on my head came up short. How cool would it be if you could leave the player in the bag and listen wirelessly? Turns out it's very cool indeed, as I've learned by experimenting with a series of new wireless headphones powered by Bluetooth. You've probably heard of Bluetooth—it's the technology that lets people wear tiny headsets and talk on their cell phones while appearing to be communing with unseen demons. Until recently, Bluetooth headphones were all right for mono, low-fi cellular calls, but not ready for music devices. The change is a new flavor of Bluetooth, providing stereo and surprisingly clean audio with minimal interference—you won't want to lean on the microwave oven while listening to your favorite tunes, but that's a small restriction compared with the electronic leash of wired headphones and earbuds.

The best Bluetooth headset on the market today is the new Plantronics Pulsar 590, which allows you to connect to an audio device and your cell phone simultaneously. You can be listening to music and, when a call comes in, the Pulsar automatically switches over to take the call. Hang up and it's back to your personal hit parade. The traditional over-the-head design is perfectly comfortable (unlike a rival behind-the-neck model with fine audio and miserable fit), and the microphone, attached to a short stalk on the right-hand side, did a fine job during cell-phone calls. While the primary use is on-the-go MP3 playback, the wireless system works fine with any device equipped with a standard headphone jack, including portable CD and DVD players.

One feature does deliver less than meets the eye. Controls are built into one headphone cup to control audio playback, but since it relies on a system that's not built into any popular portable player yet, it's more teasing than pleasing. Even without the remote-control option the Plantronics is a welcome addition to any music lover's digital arsenal. It comes in two versions, with or without the small Bluetooth transmitter disc that connects to a portable audio device (models 590 and 590a, respectively). Unless you're planning on using these strictly with your cell phone, go for the full kit.

$200, www.plantronics.com or 800-544-4660

Archos AV700
I've been a big fan of portable media players—devices that store not just music but recorded video and digital photos on an internal hard drive and play them back on a built-in LCD screen—since they first appeared. Some of my friends, though, have snickered at the screen size of these portable devices, which come in at about 3.5 inches measured diagonally. Now, for those who value additional screen real estate over pocket-size portability, there's the Archos AV700, with a generous seven-inch wide-screen display that's wonderful for personal viewing (a great in-car substitute for a portable DVD) and big enough to share. If your computer can record TV programs (machines using Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition are ideal), it's point-and-click easy to fill the Archos with shows. If not, you can record directly on the AV700 using the included docking station. Add music and photos from your computer (a simple drag-and-drop operation) and even directly from a digital camera (via a USB cable), and you've achieved portable entertainment nirvana. Two models are available, differing in hard-drive size. The basic 40-gigabyte version holds up to 160 hours of video, 20,000 songs, or 400,000 photos. Go for the whopping 100-gigabyte model and the specs kick up to 400 hours of video, 55,000 songs or a million photos. Using higher-quality files will obviously cut down on these capacity figures, but that's still a lot of entertainment in a 20-ounce package. Both models deliver audio and video quality that's just fine for on-the-go amusement, and the battery life is very good—figure about four hours for video playback or 30 hours for music. And unlike your friendly, neighborhood iPod, you can carry a spare battery if you choose.

40-gigabyte model $600, 100-gigabyte model $800, www.archos.com or 949-609-1483

Philips WACS700 Music System
What if you like the idea of whole-home audio, but don't have the computer savvy or hands-on inclination to set up and manage a wireless network? Let Philips handle the dirty work for you with its Wireless Music System, a complete solution that maximizes listening pleasure while minimizing high-tech hassles.

The heart of the system is a base station with its own 40-gigabyte hard drive (enough to store up to 750 CDs' worth of music). The unit can convert CDs into digital MP3 files automatically (no computer required), identifying the tracks and cataloguing your collection. You can listen on the base station, or set up wireless music stations throughout the house (up to four satellite players are supported) and fill your home with music. Each room can play the same songs (nice when entertaining) or different selections (handy if your child thinks Eminem is a musical genius). The networking uglies are all handled by the system and, since it doesn't have to interface with your existing computers or tap into the Internet, setup is a straightforward plug-and-play affair. A computer connection (Windows or Macintosh) is available if you want to back up your music files or update the Music System software, but you can safely ignore this step for months at a time and still have a perfectly satisfying experience (you will probably want to connect at least occasionally to refresh the database that identifies songs on the CDs you convert to MP3, though Philips promises to provide these updates via CD-ROM four times a year). If you choose, you can also play songs stored on your computer through the Philips system, but the built-in hard drive probably has enough capacity to satisfy most music lovers.

The basic system includes both the base station and a single satellite unit, with additional satellites sold separately. As for sound quality, both the base station and satellites use flat-panel speakers that perform very respectably, with a clear, clean high-end and robust bass performance.

Basic system $999, additional remote units $299, www.consumer.philips.com or 888-744-5477

T-Mobile MDA
The problem with most so-called "smart" phones is their dumb size. Yes, I want all the cool capabilities they can pack in, but I need a phone that fits in my pants pocket, not my backpack. That's why I've always carried a separate cell phone and PDA. After playing with this lovely compact device, though, it may be time for me to take a more unified approach to juggling calls and data.

T-Mobile's new MDA device weighs just 5.29 ounces and measures 4.3 x 2.3 inches—it reminded me of carrying a deck of cards. There's lot of power built into that petite package, though, especially for self-confessed e-mail addicts. The MDA runs the latest Windows Mobile 5.0 software, an artful combination of work- and play-related functions. On the business side you get pocket versions of all the major Microsoft Office applications (Word, Excel, Outlook, even PowerPoint), and unlike previous editions, all your formatting changes move back and forth seamlessly between the handheld and your PC. On the fun side, you can transfer music and even video files to the device (a handy slot accepts additional memory cards), play games (there's a portable version of Scrabble that creams me on all but the easiest setting), and take snapshots with a 1.3-megapixel camera that's no better and no worse than the competition. And it's all shown on a bright 2.8-inch display that reproduces more than 65,000 colors (your digital photos never looked better).

Communication is the key reason for carrying the MDA, of course, and it works very well indeed for both voice and text. Since all your contact info is automatically synchronized between your Windows computer and the MDA, dialing is a simple screen-click operation. For text, the top of the device slides back to reveal a very usable little QWERTY keyboard—the letter spacing and layout is far superior to the Treo and BlackBerry devices. Equally important, the screen display can flip easily from lengthwise to width-wise orientation. When you're typing out an e-mail, working on a spreadsheet or surfing the Web, you can flip the screen display 90 degrees for full-length lines, and when you're perusing to-do lists or browsing your address book, you can flip it back to standard notepad orientation.

Finally, you get three flavors of built-in wireless connectivity: a cell phone (which works for voice and online data, albeit at moderate speed), Wi-Fi networking (it works great at your local Starbucks or other wireless hot spot) and Bluetooth for using wireless headsets or keyboards.

$400, www.tmobile.com or 800-766-2453

Sirius S50
When I wrote about satellite radio here earlier this year, XM had a decided competitive edge when it came to delivering slick, upscale receivers. In the intervening months, however, Sirius has made serious strides in this area, whittling down the size of its radios while improving their features and information display. The flagship product for the new sexy Sirius is its S50 radio, a beautifully crafted piece of equipment boasting a bright color screen and some intriguing capabilities under the hood.

The S50 is a hybrid device. To receive live satellite radio programming it has to sit in a docking cradle—these are available for both in-car and in-home use. As you listen, though, the device records your favorite programs—up to 50 hours worth of audio can be stored in the 1-gigabyte internal memory. That means you can leave the radio on, store a huge selection of audio in the memory buffer, and listen to this recorded content on the small handheld unit on the road. And, at 3.9'' x 1.9" x 0.7", this is a perfectly portable little player to take along. You can also schedule recordings, so if you can't live without your daily dose of Howard Stern (he debuts on Sirius in January), you'll be able to set up automatic daily recording and listen at your leisure.

Another ingenious feature makes built-in recording even better. The S50 automatically creates an on-screen table of contents listing all your stored songs, so you can pick and choose the tunes you want to hear out of that 50-hour trove. But wait, there's more, as they say on TV. If you want to hang onto a particular tune in memory, press a single button and that song will remain on the device until you choose to erase it. With 50 hours of storage available, you can build up a pretty impressive music collection without paying a nickel beyond the standard $12.95 monthly subscription fee.

And just when you think I've run out of kickers, here's one more breakthrough feature from our friends at Sirius—the S50 also plays digital music files (MP3 and WMA formats) you download from your computer.

It slices, it dices, it makes julienne fries—this is one of the most versatile digital devices I've seen this year. I have only two caveats to offer: the estimated battery life is only around six hours, not quite up to industry standards for portable audio players (though the battery is removable, so you can buy and carry a spare). Also, the beautiful shiny finish is practically begging to be scratched, so you'll want to find an appropriate carrying case. Gym socks will work, but that just doesn't seem like the most elegant solution for this beautifully sculpted player.

$360, www.siriusradio.com or 888-539-7474

Steve Morgenstern covers tech issues when he isn't writing to Santa.