Cigar Aficionado

Kicking Into High Gear

Maybe you've just received your tax refund and it's burning a hole in your pocket. Or maybe you're about to fork over a bundle and need a new toy to console yourself. Either way, we have just what you need -- our springtime selection of best-of-breed digital products: a game console built for adults; a featherweight cell phone; a digital camera that breaks through the five-megapixel barrier; a universal remote that really is universal; a two-inch-thin slice of television; a wristwatch that reads out in both analog and digital; a pocket-size camcorder with all the key features; a fire-breathing desktop computer; a DVD recorder, and the ultimate personal assistant. Enjoy!

SCP-6000 Cell Phone

At this point, it's technologically feasible to create really tiny cell phones -- the trick is making them small and comfortable to use at the same time. That's where Sanyo has succeeded while others have failed, by creating a featherweight phone (just 2.29 ounces) that's incredibly slim (.39 inches) but still feels substantial in your hand. What's more, it's a sexy-looking device, clad in sleek magnesium alloy, with a modern, sculptured shape. Slip it into your jacket pocket and you'll forget it's there. Pull it out and you have a handset with buttons big enough for fast thumb-dialing, and a large LCD screen (seven lines deep, 15 characters a line) that's easy to read whether you're checking phone numbers or accessing wireless information services. If you'd rather not push the buttons at all, you can program 30 numbers for voice-activated dialing. You also get a 300-entry address book for phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc., plus access to AOL Instant Messenger service and voice memo recording capability. And despite its diminutive dimensions, the SCP-6000 delivers excellent battery life (160 hours standby, 2.25 hours talk time with the standard battery). The SCP-6000 is available exclusively on the Sprint PCS network.

Sanyo, $300, www.sprintpcs.com, 888-253-1315

 

Xbox

Two game consoles -- Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's Gamecube -- threaten to hand Sony's PlayStation 2, unchallenged in the category for a year, some competition. While Gamecube offers an impressive family-friendly game lineup, including appearances by the ever-popular Mario and Pokémon characters, it's Microsoft's Xbox that stands to give Sony a run for its money among grown-up gamers. (Incidentally, the money in question comes to roughly $6 billion a year, which explains Microsoft's sudden interest in playing games).

Xbox starts out with state-of-the-art video and sound capabilities, tapping the expertise of PC component makers Intel (for the processor) and nVidia (for the graphics chip). Then it adds built-in capabilities that the other consoles lack: an Ethernet port for high-speed Internet connections and an 8-gigabyte hard-disk drive. The hard drive lets developers customize your gaming experience, add new features and load new game sections nearly instantaneously. The Internet connectivity opens the door for multiplayer gaming, if and when you have a high-speed cable or DSL connection to the Net (and if you don't already, you probably will soon enough). The Sony and Nintendo systems could be expanded at some point to include both of these features, but as we've seen before, if a capability isn't built into the original system, game developers won't support it. Xbox comes out of the box ready to deliver great gaming experiences today and decked out for exciting future developments, yet costs the same as the older PlayStation 2.

Microsoft, $299, www.xbox.com, 800-4MY-XBOX

 

Cyber-shot DSC-F707 Digital Camera

The new cutting edge of high-resolution digital photography is 5 megapixels. That means using 5 million tiny colored dots to make up each image, more than the average user needs for sure, but nice to have if you want to crop a section of your picture, make a huge enlargement or just show off. Sony's first entrant at this new resolution standard does more than kick up the dot count -- the company has integrated new systems and features that should significantly enhance your photo results, especially in low-light situations.

When you want to take a shot in the dark (literally), this new Cyber-shot incorporates the NightShot technology pioneered on Sony camcorders -- even in pitch dark, you can take a green-tinged picture without flash. Of course, taking green-tinged pictures is only slightly useful, but you can now use the NightShot technology to frame a picture in darkness, then fire the flash to take the shot -- very clever. Another slick low-light feature is a built-in holographic laser focusing system -- no, really! -- that delivers pinpoint focus precision, even in difficult lighting situations.

While low light is a particular bright spot for the DSC-F707, Sony hasn't skimped on innovation elsewhere. For example, a special mode saves a low-resolution version of your picture for e-mailing along with a full-res file. You can automatically have three shots taken in rapid succession, with bracketed exposure settings. Shoot short movie files if that kind of thing floats your boat. Take over as much manual control as you like, or use situation-specific program settings, or go full-out manual. What's more, the camera body and controls are exceptionally well designed -- it feels great in your hand, all the key buttons fall under your fingers naturally, and even the tweakier settings aren't too tough to figure out. While I ordinarily worry about digital cameras that rely on rechargeable batteries, Sony's quick-charging, long-life lithium battery technology makes this much less of an issue.

Sony, $1,000, www.imagestation.com, 800-222-7669

 

ProntoPro TSU6000 Remote Control

You start out with one remote control, or maybe two. Well, OK, that's just the TV and VCR, so I guess the stereo system makes it three…or four, with the new DVD player, and then there's the TiVo box… . Pretty soon, it becomes easier to just get up and twiddle the dials manually than to rummage through an elbow-deep box of accumulated remotes.

A universal remote, one that combines controls for several devices in one handy unit, seems like the answer, but most of them just aren't quite good enough. Many remotes don't have all the preprogrammed codes you need to control all your gear. Still others add a 'learning' feature to overcome that problem (the universal remote can read and replicate the signals from your original remote), but finding the buttons you need for your particular configuration on a one-size-fits-all remote is more trouble than it's worth.

All of which leads us to the Philips ProntoPro TSU6000, the most readable, customizable remote you'll find for under a grand. Five standard functions (channel up and down, volume up and down, plus mute) have their own dedicated buttons, and there are four additional buttons whose functions depend on the device you're controlling. All the other commands you need are entered using a bright, full-color touch-screen LCD display. Since you can customize these screens to precisely fit the equipment you own, there's no fumbling around to find the command you want -- it's right there where you put it, with the layout you prefer and labels that make sense to you. You can customize the ProntoPro right on the device, but what makes me smile is the option to connect it to my computer and program it using the included software. Now I can add bright colorful graphics for backgrounds and buttons (the quick-tuning button for CNN has a red CNN logo, for example). Admittedly, this level of tweaking can become obsessive, but at least when you get everything just right, you have a backup copy on your computer, ready to be downloaded if the remote loses your settings through a power loss or digital glitch.

The ProntoPro can handle every device I've thrown at it, including some fairly esoteric gear (anyone else have a video CD burner hooked up to his TV?). While it certainly comes at a premium price, the satisfying oooh-ahhh factor is undeniable.

Philips, $999, www.philips.com, 888-486-6272

 

Aquos LCD TV

There's something almost magical about a TV that hangs on the wall or sits on a desktop like a picture frame. That's the promise of LCD TVs, those thin slices of video you can put just about anywhere -- free from the bulk of traditional TV cabinetry. Sharp makes the best LCD sets around, and its new Aquos models raise the standards for style and performance significantly. These sets (available in 13-, 15- and 20-inch sizes) offer a brilliant picture that looks good from any angle (unusual with LCD technology). And it's not just that the picture looks good -- the TV itself is attractive, too, with a brushed metal casing that's certainly modern, but in a sophisticated, restrained way, without a lot of futuristic razzle-dazzle. Since even the largest set is only about 2 inches thick, this is a great way to have your TV without letting the set take over the room. A built-in handle lets you tote your TV from room to room. The 20-inch model weighs only 18 pounds, so if you can hoist a bowling ball, you can transport the TV without much grunting and groaning.

Picture quality on the Aquos is consistently top-notch: the colors are intense, the blacks truly black, producing a high-contrast image with a great sense of clarity. You can pipe in just about any video signal imaginable, with a built-in tuner plus composite video, component video and s-video inputs. Considering the slender shape, it should come as no surprise that the speakers don't kick out a lot of volume. Since you're likely to be sitting pretty close to the TV with a set this size, that's not a major problem.

Sharp, ranges in price from $1,200 (13-inch model) to $2,800 (20-inch), www.sharpusa.com, 800-237-4277

 

Kirium Formula 1 Chronograph

As the official timekeeper of Formula 1 racing, TAG Heuer knows a little something about digital readouts. It's surprising, then, that the company has only recently introduced the first digital watch in its 151-year history -- but at least it was worth the wait. This striking analog/digital combination provides standard analog hands over a black panel with a digital readout for chronograph, stopwatch, second time zone and alarm setting. The digital display is unobtrusive -- if you prefer, you can turn it off entirely for a more formal look, or leave just the date figure showing. Press in on the crown, though, and the digital readout lights up clearly. The Formula 1 shares the Kirium line's rugged, masculine styling, with a bracelet that flows smoothly into the watch itself, and water resistance to 200 meters. All in all, an elegant combination of classic styling and digital functionality.

TAG Heuer, $1,995, www.tagheuer.com, 800-321-4832

 

Elura 20MC Digital Camcorder

How can technology make your home video collection less yawn-worthy? By helping you break free of the gurgling baby/holiday gathering/our vacation rut with a pocket-size camcorder you can carry anywhere. The Elura is a tiny titan -- it weighs less than a pound, measures just 1 7/8 x 4 1/8 x 3 3/8 inches, but still offers all the key features you need in a digital camcorder, including a 10x zoom lens, 2.5-inch color LCD and digital connection for uploading video to your computer for editing. The image stabilization system (to automatically make your video footage less shaky) works exceptionally well, and the seven auto-exposure settings compensate nicely for less-than-ideal shooting conditions. One take-it-or-leave-it feature is digital image capability -- the 20MC will shoot digital stills and record them on a removable memory card, but the resolution is low and quality only so-so. It is useful if you want to send shots via e-mail, but not high-quality enough to make prints. If you already own a digital camera, you can save $200 by going with the Elura 10, basically the same camcorder without the digital photo feature.

Armed with an ultraportable Canon Elura, you'll be the scourge of friends and family, camcorder at the ready to capture their candid moments (while you're safely positioned behind the lens). Say, is that 'America's Funniest Home Videos' show still on?

Canon, $1,499, www.canondv.com, 800-652-2666

 

Dimension 8200 Computer

For most practical purposes, you can order a sub-$1,000 computer from any major manufacturer today and get more processing power, memory, storage, graphics capability and audio performance than you need. For some of us, though, good enough isn't anything like good enough -- we want a computer that kicks butt, a screamer that rips through challenging digital audio and video projects and lets us crank up the settings in our favorite computer games for maximum 3D visual impact. So when the folks at Dell showed me their new Dimension 8200 line, with prices starting at $1,100 for your basic mom-and-pop version, I asked them to build me a fire-breathing configuration that would inspire envy among my tech-savvy friends. And man, did they deliver.

First off, the basic Dimension 8200 series design is a classic, clad in unobtrusive cool black like a good stereo component, complete with peripheral connectors, both in back (as usual) and up front, for easy swapping of game controllers and other goodies. My new best friend has a superfast 2-gigahertz Intel processor as its digital brain, and for graphics, the superb new top-of-the-line GeForce3 Ti 500 from nVidia. Sound is provided by an impressive Turtle Beach Santa Cruz sound card paired with the five-speaker-plus-subwoofer ADA995 surround sound rig from Altec Lansing -- together they bring out subtle nuances in musical performance and do justice to high-fidelity DVD movie soundtracks while delivering plenty of power for bombastic game sound effects. The piéce de résistance, though, is Dell's new 20-inch flat panel LCD monitor. I moved from standard monitors to flat panels a while ago -- they don't have any of the screen flicker associated with regular CRT monitors, which makes them much easier on the eyes. The new Dell screen is a beaut, big enough to display both a word processing document and a full Web page side by side, in a sleek black case that matches the 8200-series understated styling. At $1,699, the flat panel is undeniably a luxury, but the price is actually very reasonable for an LCD of this size and quality.

Dell, $4,349 as described, www.dell.com, 800-723-2548

 

DVR-7000 DVD Video Recorder

Videotapes are starting to look like buggy whips and iceboxes when compared with DVDs. Tapes are big, bulky boxes with limited video and audio quality, and you have to tediously fast forward or rewind when you want to move from section to section. DVDs, on the other hand, are slim, easy to store, deliver superb picture and sound, and let you jump from scene to scene with the press of a button. But, you say, I need my VCR, as I can't record on a DVD. Good news, says I -- if you've got deep pockets, you can start recording on DVD right now.

Pioneer's DVR-7000 is as convenient to use as your old VCR -- just pop in a blank disc and hit the 'record' button. Each disc holds from one to six hours of high-quality programming. You can record regular television broadcasts, or connect your digital camcorder to the DVR-7000 and preserve baby's first birthday party on a digital disc with a long shelf life. The DVDs you create with this recorder can also be played back on most DVD players on the market today, making this a practical way to share home movies with friends and family. If you record on a DVD-RW disc (which allows you to record over and over again), the recorder even creates a menu screen automatically, so you can select the scene you want to watch using your remote control, just like you would on a store-bought DVD disc.

I'm not expecting to walk down the street and see piles of VCRs waiting for the trash man just yet -- a few wrinkles still need to be ironed out in the migration to DVD recording. Disc prices are a lot higher than blank tape -- about $7 for a disc you can record to once, and $12 for one you can record over repeatedly. And with decent VCRs selling for under $100, there's a bit of a price gap here. Still, the technology's here, it works, and it looks and sounds great -- now it's only a matter of time before the immutable slide in electronic product prices takes over and pushes DVD recording into the mainstream.

Pioneer, $2,000, www.pioneerelectronics.com, 800-421-1404

 

Jornada 560 Series

If all you want from your personal digital assistant is a handy place to keep contact and calendar info, stick with the simplicity of a device running the Palm operating system. On the other hand, if you want a digital power tool in your pocket, Microsoft's Pocket PC system is the way to go, especially with the newly released Pocket PC 2002 software upgrade.

Pocket PC devices are now offered by several companies, which include Casio, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba. With the Pocket PC 2002 release, the most important PDA features are now standard, no matter which manufacturer you choose. They all offer the same admirable screen technology pioneered by Compaq's iPaq -- a side-lit high-resolution LCD that's readable indoors or out. The basic software suite is also standard, including versions of key Microsoft Office products (Word, Excel, Internet Explorer and Outlook) that let you easily transfer documents and information back and forth between your computer and your handheld. Built-in audio support is also standard, with a microphone for recording voice memos and a stereo headphone jack for listening to music or (my personal favorite) downloadable audio books.

Even pricing is similar from manufacturer to manufacturer, so choosing one Pocket PC model over another becomes a matter of styling, expandability and additional software. With that in mind, the model in my briefcase is the Jornada 565 from HP. The solid built-in cover is a big plus -- it effectively protects the delicate screen, but swings completely out of the way when not needed. The case is slim, lightweight (just 6.1 ounces) and elegantly curved -- it feels good in your hand and slips easily into your pocket. The Jornada accepts standard CompactFlash memory expansion cards via a top slot, and additional expansion is possible through battery-pack adapters. Speaking of which, unlike other manufacturers, HP is using a removable battery, which means you can carry a charged-up spare when traveling -- a huge plus for any portable device.

The new Jornada comes in two models, differing only in memory (32MB for the Jornada 565, 64MB for the 568) and price (a $50 difference).

Hewlett-Packard, $599ñ$649, www.hp.com/jornada, 888-999-4747

 

Steve Morgenstern, a freelance writer living in New York, writes often on technology issues for Cigar Aficionado.