Twenty years ago the coolest technology I owned sat in a particularly hideous glass-and-chrome stereo system wall unit. Ten years ago my show-off system was impressively perched on a faux wood-grain pressboard computer desk (there wasn’t much budget left after ponying up for that first blazing-fast Pentium processor). Now, finally, I can show off my favorite new tech toys without worrying about choosing appropriate furniture to enshrine them—the big winners for 2004 tuck neatly in my pants pocket. Americans may be getting larger by the minute, but the most exciting gear just keeps getting smaller. My entire music collection, several groaning shelves-worth of CDs, now goes everywhere with me wherever I go in a hard-drive MP3 player that weighs just a few ounces and fits in my pocket. My smart phone can do many of the jobs my desktop computer ordinarily handles, yet it nestles neatly in my suit jacket pocket. And while I still love the SLR camera I sling over my shoulder, it’s the brand new wafer-thin 5-megapixel digital, nonchalantly plucked from my top shirt pocket, that’s getting the major “ooohs” and “aaahs” from my technophile friends. Here, then, a dozen of today’s biggest hits in small-tech.
Going toe-to-toe with Apple in the digital music player business is a daunting proposition, but iRiver has come up with a viable contender, delivering several valuable features that are missing from the current-generation iPod. The tale of the tape shows iRiver matches iPod on height, width and weight (4.1", 2.4" and 5.6 oz., respectively), if not depth (0.75" versus iPod’s 0.62"). In practical terms, it’s a toss-up. The iHP-120 boasts a 20-gigabyte hard drive—not the largest on the market, but competitive with the iPod offering in the same price range—and, with a 600-hour music capacity, plenty big enough for all but the most obsessive music fans.
Where does the iRiver have a leg up? Start with a built-in FM radio, with up to 20 station presets for quick tuning and support for international broadcasting standards. Another key difference is battery life. The iRiver keeps pumping out the tunes for a solid 16 hours on a battery charge, whereas the iPod poops out at around eight hours.
Where the iHP-120 really shines, though, is recording capability. I’ve started using the device to record interviews and meetings through the built-in microphone or the included plug-in external mic, and the results are crystal clear. What’s more, it’s easy to transfer the files to my computer for playback, transcription and storage. And the iHP-120 can hold hundreds of hours of voice recordings at a time.
Recording isn’t limited to voice. Plug in a standard audio input, or even a digital optical cable, and you can record first-rate music files directly to the iHP-120. Save the results to compressed MP3 format or, if you expect to tweak them later on a computer, opt for the uncompressed WAV file format.
There are still a few rough edges in the iRiver package. The control scheme is adequate, but nowhere near as polished as Apple’s elegant user interface. Transferring music to the device is drag-and-drop simple, but accessing track information (artist, album, genre, etc.) is buggy. And while you can play back lists of songs you’ve created on the computer (called playlists), you can’t create a list directly on the device, the way you can with iPod. Still, the one-two-three combination of FM radio, lengthy battery life and extensive recording capability makes iRiver’s iHP-120 the right choice for many users.
$400, www.iriver.com or 800-399-1799
It seems ungrateful somehow to complain about the bulk of a hard-drive-equipped iPod-style portable music device that shoehorns thousands of songs into a box roughly the size of a deck of cards. But truth be told, there are times when an even smaller player would be a much better fit—particularly something that slides unobtrusively into a top shirt pocket, for example. And if you’re the sporty type who thinks sweating to the music will help you live forever, the bump and bounce of a boxy MP3 player during a workout can be black-and-blue inducing. Until recently, though, truly tiny MP3 players had one major drawback: they merely held an hour or two of your favorite tunes.
Enter a Colorado-based start-up company called Cornice, which developed a 1-inch hard drive with a remarkable 1.5-gigabyte storage capacity. Several companies, including Creative Labs, iRiver, RCA and Rio, have incorporated this technological breakthrough into portable music players, but it’s the Rio Nitrus that most artfully combines sports-car-sleek design with ear-pleasing music reproduction. The Nitrus stores nearly 400 high-quality MP3 digital audio files (about 25 hours) in a 2-ounce, 3" x 2.4" x 0.6" device that fits neatly in the palm of your hand. The combination of a bright red joystick and a scroll-and-click thumb wheel controller makes finding the tunes you’re after fast and easy, and the audio quality is excellent. What’s more, despite its petite dimensions, the Nitrus is a heavyweight when it comes to battery life, clocking in at a robust 16 hours of playback before recharging (double the iPod’s running time). And for the aforementioned music-loving gym rats, there’s a nice little bonus: a built-in stopwatch.
$199, www.rioaudio.com or 800-468-5846
Fisher FVD-C1 CameraCorder
What makes this a gadget lover’s dream? It takes digital photos. It also shoots digital video, without using videotape. It’s shiny and sleek, small enough to fit in a jacket pocket and expensive enough to ensure you won’t see it everywhere. Best of all, when you cradle it in your hand and prepare to shoot, it feels for all the world like a ray gun.
As a dual-personality device, the FVD-C1 is more successful in its role as a digital still camera than as a movie camera. With 3.2-megapixel resolution (fine for 8" x 10" prints), a surprisingly powerful 5.8x optical zoom lens and a small but potent built-in flash, snapshot photographers should be perfectly satisfied with their images. The automatic settings handle diverse shooting conditions nicely, delivering well-balanced exposures with good overall sharpness.
The video mode is certainly a kick to use, but even a casual viewer will be able to tell that the results weren’t shot with a standard camcorder. The FVD-C1 shoots highly compressed MPEG4-format video. This is great for transferring to your computer and e-mailing to friends and family, or posting to your Web site. I wouldn’t want to shoot once-in-a-lifetime events in this format, though, because the level of detail can’t compete with digital videotape.
That said, you won’t find a digital device more fun to use than the FVD-C1. You can master all the basics with a bare glance at the manual (the camera even has a female voice to guide you). The included software offers lots of photo-tweaking and video-editing options, and the generous 512-megabyte memory card, included at no additional charge, provides plenty of recording capacity right out of the box (491 high-res stills or 30 minutes of highest-quality video). Given the carry-it-anywhere convenience of the pocket-friendly recorder (4.25" x 2.5" x 1.25" and 6 oz.), you’re likely to capture stills and video in situations where you just wouldn’t carry a more conventional camera or camcorder.
$900, www.fisherav.com or 818-998-7322, ext. 433
Canon PowerShot SD10
It’s easy to understand why Canon introduced the SD10 at a New York fashion show. This is one seriously stylish camera. Unlike other digitals, the SD10 comes in four colors to coordinate with your mood and wardrobe: glossy piano black, iridescent white, shiny silver and (my favorite) a warm polished bronze. At a svelte 3.6" x 1.9" x 0.7" and weighing a mere 3.5 ounces, it’s the right size to toss in your pocket and go. While photo enthusiasts can take advantage of some advanced features if they search for them, most users will simply be grateful for the point-and-shoot ease of use Canon provides. The company’s advanced DiGiC image processing chip makes it difficult to take a bad picture, even in challenging lighting situations.
The big missing feature is a zoom lens. Yes, there’s an electronic “digital zoom,” feature, but as always it’s a poor substitute for a lens that physically zooms in and out to frame your shot. This shortcoming is partially overcome by a 4-megapixel resolution that provides enough detail to let you enlarge an image and crop out extraneous bits on the computer before printing. And when it comes to close-ups, the SD10 focuses as near as 1.18 inches from the lens and fills the screen with fine detail.
Bottom line: given the price, I think buyers deserve a real zoom lens, but the combination of eye-catching camera, easy operation and handsome photographs will make fashion sense for many buyers.
$449, www.canonusa.com or 800-652-2666
Sony Cyber-shot T1
A tiny titan of digital photography, this groundbreaking Sony delivers 5-megapixel resolution, enough to blow up images to 11" x 14" prints and beyond, in a camera body that’s only 0.8" inches deep, making it the smallest 5-megapixel model on the market. To look at the camera, with no telltale lens snout sticking out, you’d assume it lacked a zoom. But a 3x optical zoom—a superb Carl Zeiss lens at that—is mounted vertically inside the camera body, with a prism bending the light downward to the image sensor below. As a final bit of camera design bravado, the back of the camera is filled with a generous 2.5-inch LCD panel for shooting and reviewing your pictures. It’s large enough to instantly show off your latest snaps to a crowd. When you consider that that most digitals, even the big honking ones, offer only 1.5-inch LCD screens, it’s even more remarkable. To round out the package, there’s a desktop docking cradle that conveniently holds the camera when you upload photos to your computer, charge the battery, view pictures on your TV or even when you run a slide show on that big LCD screen.
As for camera operation, you’ll get fine results with a simple point-and-click, while advanced amateurs can choose between metering modes, focusing systems and flash output levels. One welcome feature not usually found in this class of camera is the autofocus illuminator, a light that comes on just before shooting in very dark situations to allow fast, accurate focusing. Additional software features show a good understanding of how people actually use their digital cameras. For instance, in e-mail mode, the camera automatically creates a small, file-size version of the photo you take for sharing via the Internet in addition to the full-resolution image you’ll want for printing. No question, this is a consumer-oriented camera, but I’m betting the T1 will appear in the pockets of many pro photographers as their carry-everywhere gear this year.
$550, www.sonystyle.com or 877-865-7669, x7430
Now that taking photos with your cell phone has become a been there, done that feature, Sprint is kicking the multimedia experience up a notch with a new service that lets you capture short video clips (up to 15 seconds) with your phone and send them to an e-mail address, another cell phone and/or a Web-based online gallery.
Now I have to be honest with you. I’ve been carrying a camera-equipped cell phone for the past year and, other than shots taken in the line of duty as a reviewer, I’ve used the phone to take two photos, and immediately discarded them both. Maybe I’m a visual snob. Certainly I’m curious about the higher-resolution phones set to arrive early this year. In the meantime, though, I’m much more excited about the downloadable “Muppet Show” theme song ring tone than my phone’s snapshot capability. But it seems America doesn’t agree with me. Camera phones have become very popular here; they’re absolutely everywhere in Japan and also in parts of Europe. So, if I assume you care about cell phone photography, I can assume you’re really going to enjoy the VM4500. It takes snaps as good as I’ve seen from a phone, aided by a built-in light, and the video clips (complete with sound) are middling-quality but offer high giggle factor. You’ll pay just $5 extra each month for the video-sending service, so what the heck.
Potentially more interesting is the new PCS Ready Link service supported by the VM4500. This push-to-talk capability lets your phone communicate walkie-talkie style with another user who subscribes to the service. Once the exclusive province of Nextel, both Sprint and Verizon recently added push-to-talk, which is handy for conducting business across town or across the country, or simply to keep tabs on roaming family members. A $15 monthly fee for unlimited use of the Ready Link service lets you talk with up to six people simultaneously without using up calling-plan minutes. Combined with the VM4500’s loud-and-clear speakerphone, PCS Ready Link falls somewhere between casual chat and playing soldier, but I think it’s genuinely useful. Over and out.
$380, www.sprintpcs.com or 888-253-1315
Led by a team of Palm Inc. refugees, Silicon Valley start-up Tapwave has created a radically different personal digital assistant, combining the businesslike capabilities of the Palm operating system with customized hardware and software that deliver game-playing and multimedia experiences surpassing any other handheld on the market.
You can see at a glance that this is not your IT guy’s PDA. In addition to the touch-sensitive screen there’s a responsive joystick control on the left and four directional buttons on the right, providing the smooth response that’s lacking when trying to play games on a standard PDA. The high-resolution 3.8-inch LCD display is brilliantly colorful and startlingly crisp. Even if you never play a game, this extraordinary screen is perfect for showing off digital photos and video clips. What’s more, the display easily rotates from horizontal to vertical orientation to suit the kind of document you’re viewing, something all PDAs should offer but few do.
Even the sound system is better than you’d expect, loud enough to hear without earphones and of high enough quality to leave your CD player behind while traveling. With two memory expansion slots, storing multimedia content is virtually unlimited.
Under the hood is the first PDA system designed to handle both fast 2-D and console-style 3-D graphics. Combined with 480x320-pixel screen resolution and 65,000-plus color display, games such as SpyHunter and Doom II make Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance handheld seem like kids’ stuff.
The hanging question from a gaming perspective is how many titles will be developed for the fledgling Zodiac system. All I can say for sure is that the games I’ve sampled so far have been well worth playing repeatedly, and if the library doesn’t grow much, buyers can still brag about the outstanding, rotation-enabled display, excellent music playback, exemplary expandability and snappy performance of their Tapwave Zodiac.
$300–$400, www.tapwave.com or 888-433-3232
Garmin iQue 3600
Any PDA can tell you where you’re supposed to be for your next appointment, but the iQue can also tell you how to get there, pinpoint where you are right now, and help you find a nice Italian restaurant along the way.
The Garmin is barely larger than any run-of-the-mill PDA (a bit thicker at the top than most but just as easy to carry) and handles all of the functions of a standard Palm organizer. Hidden on the back, though, is a flip-up antenna, part of an integrated GPS (global positioning system) satellite tracking system that can pinpoint your location wherever you wander. Hold the unit upright and it will scan the heavens, figure out your precise position and display it on a colorful map that’s easy to read on the high-res 320 x 480 display. While some GPS systems are designed for rugged outdoorsmen trudging through the wilderness, Garmin has the highway and byway crowd in mind, providing a two-disc set of maps detailing every street in the United States and parts of Canada (European maps are also available). Since all of that information won’t fit into the handheld device simultaneously, you must load desired sections from your computer into your handheld beforehand; pop a high-capacity memory card into the expansion slot and you can carry about a third of the total map data at once.
The beauty of combining PDA and GPS functions lies in the software. The database includes more than five million points of interest, such as parks, recreational facilities, schools, theaters and airports. Pick one of these points, highlight any address in your PDA contact list or enter a street address, and the system can plot out turn-by-turn directions, prompting you verbally and with on-screen instructions as you approach each corner. No need to panic if you miss a turn, by the way; the system can quickly recalculate a new route. Use the side-mounted scroll wheel to zoom the maps in and out with one hand, or tap the touch-sensitive display for more information. Since the system is contained in a portable PDA, you can plan your travel before getting into the car or bring the system along when you fly off on a business trip, both distinct advantages over factory-installed GPS systems.
While everything you need comes in the box, I’d
strongly recommend dropping another $80 for the Auto Navigation Kit, which
cigarette-lighter power adapter (the built-in batteries drain in a few hours without one) and a removable dashboard adapter to hold the iQue securely in place while driving.
$589, www.garmin.com or 800-800-1020
The question to ask when considering a “smart phone” that combines cell phone and PDA capabilities is, how much information will I need to enter while I’m on the road? If you plan to take notes, enter new contact information, write e-mail or compose the great American novel on your hybrid phone, then you’ll want either a thumb-typable keyboard or a touch-sensitive screen for scrawling with a stylus. On the other hand, many of us use our PDAs on the road almost exclusively for reading information that’s been transferred from computers: contact information, calendar entries, to-do lists and so forth. For that kind of usage, the Motorola MPx200 is a compact, handsome device, so thoughtfully designed that all you’ll need is a flexible thumb to access information.
The MPx200 is one of the first devices to use Microsoft’s Windows Mobile Smartphone operating system. This offshoot of the Pocket PC PDA software has been tailored to the small screen and has the limited button configuration of a cell phone. If you run Outlook software on your PC, synching up your address book, calendar, to-do list and e-mail is a breeze. Simply plug in the USB cable and sit back. You can also retrieve your mail directly from the phone while traveling. While the 12-line color screen is no substitute for a laptop, it’s very readable and handles Web information access surprisingly well. When you do want to enter information (in reply to an e-mail, for example), you resort to the standard multiple-button-press cell phone system (tap the “4” key once for the number 4, twice for g, three times for h, etc.)—good enough for “Be right there,” not great for inputting lengthy excuses for running late.
My favorite feature: dialing a number. Enter any letter sequence from a person’s or company’s name and the phone displays all the entries that match, weeding out the losers with each additional key press till you find what you want. Since all my contacts have been ported effortlessly into the phone via the synchronization feature, I never come up blank.
Above and beyond its “smart” features, the MPx200 is a terrific phone in its own right, with top-notch voice quality, a built-in speakerphone, an external display for checking incoming caller ID, but adds digital music playback (with a memory card expansion slot for loading up the tunes). Unlike most full-fledged phone/PDA hybrids, it all comes in a pocket-friendly size and shape (3.5" x 1.9" x 1.1" and 4.1 oz.).
$300, www.motorola.com or 866-289-6686
Handspring Treo 600
It took Handspring several iterations to reach the optimal balance between phone-style comfort and PDA-style information management. By the time it succeeded, however, with the Treo 600, the company was gobbled up by rival Palm, which is now offering the final product under the Handspring name as one of its own.
There’s no single feature that makes the Treo 600 unique. Instead, it’s the seamless integration of Palm applications with phone, e-mail and Web communications in a device that’s exactly large enough to work as a full-function PDA, yet still small enough to raise up to your ear for conversation without fear of clubbing yourself in the head (the 6.2-ounce device measures 4.4" x 2.4" x 0.9", with pocket-friendly rounded corners). The Treo is equipped with a tiny keyboard (not my favorite, but adequate) and a convenient four-way controller with an action button in the center that makes maneuvering between screens and software applications simple. A built-in digital camera lets you take pictures of your friends and have their faces pop up on-screen when they call. I also like the convenience of a single switch to shut off all the ring sounds and set the phone to vibrate-only mode.
Versions of the Treo 600 are available for several cellular carriers’ systems, including AT&T Wireless, Cingular and Sprint. I tested the Sprint version and was impressed by the speedy Internet access, made all the more practical by the clever way the Blazer Web browser handles a nagging problem when surfing the Internet on a handheld device. Web pages are designed for computer screens, not narrow PDA displays. Ordinarily this means scrolling left and right ad nauseam. However, the Blazer software reconfigures the page so elements that ordinarily sit side-by-side on a computer screen are stacked vertically on the PDA. It works surprisingly well on many Web sites (and on the off chance it makes matters worse, you can always turn the reformatting off). The Treo 600 is also a glutton for e-mail, with the ability to set up access to five separate e-mail accounts at once.
$450 and up, www.handspring.com or 888-565-9393
Cingular FastForward Service
The fact that it’s possible to give up your traditional land line phone and live entirely off a cell phone doesn’t make it a good idea. As a digital dilettante, I enjoy the cool features they’ve added to cell phones—music playback, Internet access, photos and videos, symphonic ring tones and the rest. But they’re all basically a sideshow to distract you from the central failing of cell phones today—the voice quality. I can live with the scratchiness, distortion and flaky volume of cellular voice communications when I’m traveling—it certainly beats the old pay phone shuffle. But living with “What? What did you say? Could you repeat that?” when calling from my living room or kitchen is more auditory insult than I’m willing to suffer.
That’s why I really like Cingular’s new twist on call forwarding, an ingenious system that lets your cell phone and land line phone live together in a productive partnership. When you bring your cell phone inside, pop it into the FastFoward cradle. From that point, incoming cellular calls will automatically ring through on the home phone (and all the extensions, so you won’t have to race for the cell phone on the front table when you’re upstairs in the bedroom). The system couldn’t be easier to set up: simply program the number you want to use for your forwarded calls into the cell phone address book under a special coded listing. Want to stop the forwarding? Just take the phone from the cradle. FastForward service costs $2.99 a month for most users (for some Cingular, SBC and Bell South customers it’s free), and the forwarded calls don’t eat into your monthly cellular minute allotment. The system works with an assortment of phones (I tested it with the sleek little Motorola T720), but not every model is compatible: check the Web site or call Cingular for more details.
$40 (FastForward cradle), www.cingular.com or 866-246-4852
Sony Ericsson P900
If I’m going to spend hundreds of dollars on a smart phone that can handle a multitude of digital tasks with alacrity, why should I have to jump through hoops to simply enter a number? Some PDA/phone hybrids want you to peck away at a number pad tucked away amid the dozens of keys on a thumb-typable keypad. Give me a break! Others draw an on-screen keypad on the PDA touch screen—no physical feedback when you punch a number, and good luck dialing without looking at the screen. Sony Ericsson solves the problem elegantly, and without compromising the size of its brilliant high-res color display, by incorporating a traditional phone keypad that flips down to reveal the full-size screen. Simple. Stylish. I like it.
And I like the overall fit and finish of the hardware and software, too. Granted, I’m hesitant to embrace a PDA that uses the Symbian operating system instead of the more familiar Palm or Pocket PC standards, but give credit where credit is due: all of the PDA and multimedia applications are nicely organized, easy to use and synchronize just fine with a Windows computer via the provided link software. The built-in speaker is surprisingly loud and clear (though, I beg you, use a headphone if you’re sitting on a train near me), and the camera on the rear of the unit captures both still images and short video clips with the push of a button. A jog dial control on the left side of the phone lets you handle many operations one-handed (thanks in part to the innovative ability to push the dial backward or pull it forward to move back and forth through a software program). When it’s time to grab some Internet-based data, there’s a handsome Web browser and easy to configure e-mail software. Add worldwide phone service (through triband GSM coverage) plus Bluetooth for communicating with laptops and other Bluetooth-equipped devices, and you have a strong set of features in a compact shape and size.
$500–$700, www.sonyericsson.com or 800-374-2776.
Steve Morgenstern is a freelance writer living in New York. He often writes on technology topics for Cigar Aficionado.