Forget those old-fashioned gift ideas -- we want presents from the present, electronic wonders that light up the holidays with the cheery glow of an LCD display. Here are 10 of our top picks from the happy kingdom of gear, gadgets and gizmos.
Vialta Beamer BM-80 Video Station
Those who follow consumer gadgets with more than a passing interest know the video phone as the Little Product That Couldn't. Born of '60s Worlds Fair optimism, several video phone incarnations from various manufacturers came to market, only to meet with apathy or outright ridicule (remember Debbie Reynolds' slapstick device abuse in Albert Brooks's film Mother?). But maybe, just maybe, this time it will be different. One thing's for certain -- Vialta has learned well from the mistakes of its predecessors.
Instead of connecting to your TV display as in previous attempts, the Beamer has its own 3.5-inch color LCD display -- not huge, but big enough -- mounted on a sleek, clear pedestal that Jane Jetson would be happy to have in her home. Equally important, the Beamer doesn't try to replace your existing phone. You plug the Beamer into your regular phone jack and your phone into the Beamer -- so much for installation. Controls are nice and easy. Turn video on and off, adjust quality (trading off between picture resolution and smooth movement), and decide whether you want to see yourself during the call, the person you're calling, or both, in a picture-in-picture window. Basically, that's it.
How's the picture? Not TV quality, that's for sure, but it's good enough to be a fun addition to your regular phone conversation and, at $500 for a pair (or $299 apiece), getting a glimpse of your college kid's face or your grandmother's smile during a call isn't going to break the bank. Vialta, www.vialta.com, 877-963-8383
Kenwood Excelon Music Keg
It's tough to wedge a Wurlitzer into the average family sedan, but a slick alternative puts 5,000 songs at your fingertips as you cruise the highways and byways. You can install the Music Keg in the trunk, under the front seat, or anywhere you can find room for it. It connects to a standard Kenwood dashboard stereo head unit. As far as the dashboard stereo is concerned, it's playing from a CD changer. But the songs are actually stored as digital MP3 files on removable cartridges that you slap into the Music Keg -- no CDs, just thousands of songs on one convenient disc.
A quick primer for the post-college-aged: MP3 files let you store music that can be played back on a computer or a portable audio device. You can create your own MP3 files using the software provided or, if you're Internet savvy, download MP3 music from the Net. Either way, it's no problem loading the songs onto the Music Keg cartridge -- the system comes with a cradle that connects to your PC's USB port.
Trying to manage 5,000 songs while driving a motor vehicle is potentially more hazardous than a cell phone conversation with your broker at 70 mph. Fortunately, you can organize your music ahead of time into playlists -- groups of songs sequenced the way you like them -- before you pull out of the driveway. And as a song is playing, its title and artist information scrolls by in the stereo display window. Add colored tubes with bubbling fluids, and all our jukebox dreams would be answered. Kenwood, $749.95, www.kenwoodusa.com, 800-536-9663
Canon 8x25 IS Binoculars
Nothing is friendly about shaking hands when you're trying to hold a pair of binoculars steady. The answer: an optical image stabilization system. This is sophisticated stuff: sensors read the tiny horizontal and vertical movements from your hands, then a microprocessor takes over and quickly tilts an internal mechanism to adjust the light path and counteract the shake. But you don't need to know any of that -- what matters is, you press a button and the bird, ballplayer or babe you're ogling stops bobbling in your field of view.
Canon isn't the only company making image-stabilized binoculars, but it does make the smallest, most convenient model, the 8x25 IS. The eight times magnification is just right for sporting events and wildlife watching. The image is edge-to-edge crisp and respectably bright. The size (just over a pound and 4.7 x 5.4 x 2.4 inches) makes the binoculars a comfortable companion slung around your neck or tossed into your backpack. Canon, $460, www.usa.canon.com, 800-652-2666
Tissot T-Touch Wristwatch
On this watch not only are the tricks cool, but so is the unique way you put the timepiece through its paces. Tissot has outfitted this rugged model with a touch-sensitive crystal: by simply tapping the appropriate label on the watch face, you can choose between thermometer, barometer, altimeter, chronometer, compass and alarm functions. Granted, some of these capabilities are, shall we say, a trifle obscure. The thermometer, for example, measures air temperature, not your body temperature, and to get an accurate reading you have to take the watch off and wait about half an hour. On the other hand, the barometer measures the trend in barometric pressure over an eight-hour period, so you can predict the weather, and the altimeter is probably insanely useful for someone more outdoors-oriented than myself. As for me, I've found the most important features are the digital compass and the gee-whiz reaction I get from bystanders intrigued by the strange guy happily tapping away on his wristwatch. Tissot, $550 to $595, www.t-touch.com, 800-456-5354
Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart 7550 Printer
This printer may save my marriage. My move from traditional film photography to shooting nearly everything with a digital camera elicited one complaint from my computerphobic wife: "Where are the prints?" Every time I developed a roll of 35mm film, I came home with a fistful of photos -- most not worth the paper they were printed on, but always a few keepers destined for passing around, mailing to grandma and prominent placement in my wife's burgeoning album collection. With digital, I get complete online albums to peruse on my computer. She gets the occasional printout and a grumpy look on her face.
That's why I'm so pleased with HP's PhotoSmart 7550 -- it not only produces beautiful prints, it keeps the divorce lawyers at bay. The 7550 prints exceptionally when connected to my computer, but it also features slots to accept all four types of removable memory cards used to store pictures in digital cameras. What's more, the printer has its own LCD screen so you can see what you've shot, choose your favorites and print them out, without ever touching the computer -- honey, are you listening?
You can make borderless prints, just like your neighborhood photo lab -- without a magnifying glass; nobody will know they weren't professionally printed. The advanced printing mechanism uses seven ink colors (most printers squeak by with three or four) to create truly realistic flesh tones and lifelike colors across the board. And if you spring for HP's Premium Plus Photo paper, there's a surprising bonus: your prints will resist fading for more than 70 years, roughly double the life of a conventional photo-processed print. Hewlett-Packard, $399.99, www.hp.com, 888-999-4747
Samsung HLM507W TV
The brilliant, razor-sharp pictures on this 50-inch wide-screen projection set and its 43-inch cousin were enough to stop me in my tracks in a convention hall full of competing sets. The key enhancement in these high-definition sets is the latest generation of DLP technology from Texas Instruments. Remember the buzz about movie theaters using digital projectors for optimal quality when the latest Star Wars movie was released? Those projectors are based on DLP chips, and while they're not identical, the DLP system in Samsung's set delivers a picture that makes conventional projection sets look washed out by comparison. These sets rival the quality of flat-screen plasma displays, at roughly half the price. While they're not as space-saving as an inches-thin plasma set, the 50-inch HLM507W weighs 80.5 pounds and measures only 17 5/8 inches front to back -- quite a svelte figure for a TV with this large screen size. Samsung, $4,499, www.samsungusa.com, 800-726-7864
Maybe you're a baseball fan or Little League coach who wants to clock pitching speed. Or you might want to know how fast a tennis ball is moving, or a downhill skier, or a horse, or a race car. Or maybe you've always dreamed of opening your own little neighborhood speed trap and making a few extra bucks on the side. Whatever mesmerizes you about mph, the Speedster puts the power of radar in the palm of your hand. You can read the speed of a baseball from 6 to 110 mph from more than 75 feet away, and a car from 6 to 200 mph from more than 1,300 feet away, all with an accuracy of plus or minus one mile an hour. The LCD readout is crisp and clear, the unit is water-resistant, and the controls are point-and-shoot simple. Your biggest problem will be getting it back after your buddies see what you're carrying. Bushnell, $278, www.bushnell.com, 800-423-3537
Toshiba Satellite 5105-S701
Why buy a full-size desktop computer when you can enjoy plenty of computing power plus satisfying multimedia sizzle in this superb portable? The Satellite puts its best face forward with an extraordinary 15-inch LCD panel. The size is impressive, but much more important is the quality of the panel. In a side-by-side comparison with even a first-rate competitor, the Toshiba difference in brightness and contrast is striking.
Another pleasant surprise: built-in laptop speakers that won't make you grit your teeth when listening to music or DVD movies. The Harman/Kardon stereo speakers mounted beneath the screen keep distortion down while pumping out respectable volumes, even in the depths of the bass spectrum. Forget Spectravision -- just toss some DVDs into your bag, pop 'em into the Satellite's combination DVD-reading, CD-writing drive, and you have all the hotel room entertainment a traveler could ask for.
Under the hood, the Satellite is equally impressive. Powered by the mobile version of Intel's Pentium 4 processor and boasting the latest graphics solution from industry-leading nVidia, this is one laptop that won't leave computer gamers wanting. The built-in 802.11b wireless networking lets you Web-surf while wandering through your home or office. My absolute favorite use for this portable powerhouse, though, is digital video editing on the road. With an IEEE 1394 port for connecting a digital video camera and an enormous 60-gigabyte hard disk drive, I can basically carry an entire video-editing studio in my briefcase. Toshiba, $2,599, www.toshiba.com, 800-316-0920
Sony DAV-C990 DVD Dream System
Hi-fi enthusiasts may crave the anal-retentive complexities of setting up a home theater system almost as much as they look forward to actually watching DVD movies on the completed system. The rest of us just want the sound and the fury of a movie played back with crystal-clear dialogue, surround-sound special effects and a soaring musical soundtrack. The easier it is to get to that point, the better.
Sony dramatically lops the time from crate to soul-satisfying home-theater experience with the preconfigured 600-watt DVD Dream System. For a cool grand you get all the components you need, with the exception of a TV monitor. The five-disc changer lets you enjoy an entire evening at the movies (with CD musical interludes if you like) without ever leaving the couch, and the progressive-scan DVD playback delivers all the color and clarity that the format can provide. With four dramatic-looking floor-standing speakers, a center channel speaker that sits on your set, and a hefty subwoofer to deliver gut-rumbling bass, the sound is nicely balanced and powerful enough to fill even a substantial room. As expected, the receiver/amp supports Dolby Digital, dts and Dolby Pro-Logic II -- basically all the prominent surround-sound formats -- but in a welcome addition, also handles multichannel Super Audio CD (SACD) playback. The availability of SACD discs is still limited, but nothing else matches the sense of real-world space they provide when well mastered. Sony, $999.95, www.sonystyle.com, 877-865-7669
Saeco Italia Home Espresso Machine
If the presence of boutique coffee shops on seemingly every street corner isn't convenient enough, java junkies, fear not. The Saeco Italia brings a gourmet cup of coffee into your home in a machine that fits on all but the smallest counter and delivers espresso and cappuccino fast.
Starbucks, the people who made the morning latte a part of everyday life, recently decided to let Mr. and Mrs. At-Home America in on its franchise by offering a coffeemaker from Saeco, a worldwide leader in espresso machines. The first challenge was to create a machine that fits into a footprint small enough for the confines of the countertops of America's already appliance-choked kitchens. The Saeco Italia
measures 10.4 inches wide by 17.3 inches deep and is 14.2 inches high.
The next step was to make it almost as effortless as walking up to a coffee-shop counter and barking out an order. The Saeco Italia may be easier. You pour the whole beans of your choice into a hopper, add water to a tank, and press the button of your choice (espresso or coffee). Place the nozzle on the side into your cup and turn a switch, and the ventilator turns your beverage of choice into cappuccino.
Cleanup is almost as easy. The grounds are ejected into a container after the satisfying tamping takes place in the machine. A light on the front tells you when the container is full and you dump the remains. Not much other maintenance is involved. Lights also tell you when to reload water and beans. If there's a drawback, it's in payload. It delivers in demitasse portions. If that's not enough, press the button again. 800-STARBUC or www.starbucks.com. Holiday price, $695. Regular price, $895.
Steve Morgenstern, a freelance writer living in New York, writes often on technology issues for Cigar Aficionado.