Under The Digital Christmas Tree

A PDA With Panache

If you like the idea of the Pocket PC with its built-in multimedia and entertainment capabilities, but you just have too much invested in the Palm PDA platform, consider this new Palm OS-based Sony Clie PEG-N760C. It’s clearly meant to be a Pocket PC Killer.

The N760C boasts a high-resolution, 320×320-pixel screen capable of displaying millions of colours – great for viewing pictures and movies. This compares with the Compaq iPaq H3635 Pocket PC, for example, with a 320×240-pixel 4,086-colour display. On the audio side, the Clie comes not only with a built-in MP3 player, but also superior Sony clip-on ear phones and a little wired remote that you can keep in your pocket or your hand to change tunes as you jog.

The audio quality is remarkably good as any portable MP3 playback device I’ve tried, certainly as good as first-generation Pocket PCs. On small glitch: The Clie won’t let you multi-task. You can’t listen to music and do other things on the Clie at the same time – something the Pocket PC does allow.

Photo and movie viewing are equally impressive. The sample photos were surprisingly clear and bright. You may not often go to the trouble of downloading a movie from the Web, then uploading it to you Clie-but it can be done. There are Web sites that offer compatible sample films. You can also buy software to make your own Clie-compatible movies – so you could carry clips of the kids, or even product demos.

Based on the Palm OS v.4.1, the Clie does all the usual Palm tricks – calendar, contacts, todos, memos – right out of the box. And it also lets you use any of the hundreds of third-party Palm OS applications. About $800.

The Monitor Of Your Dreams

The Samsung 171MP is the monitor you always dreamed about. It’s a miraculously slender 17-inch TFT LCD screen – 2.3 inches thick and only 10 lbs. It comes with an optional TV tuner, built in stereo speakers and virtual surround-sound circuitry. Inputs include standard RCA and S-Video (for a VCR) and digital TV. It’s HDTV-ready.

Plug it into your home office PC and into the cable antenna and you can switch back and forth between the hockey game and that pesky budget document, using either the nicely designed TV-style remote control or the futuristic touch-sensitive front-panel controls. The SyncMaster 171MP even has a picture-in-picture (PIP) feature so you can have the TV on in a window on the screen while you work on the PC.

The TV picture over my standard Rogers cable service was rock steady with no noticeable digital artifacts, as good as a good conventional TV, better than many. LCDs only work well in VGA mode at their optimum display resolution, which is 1280 X 1024 for the 171MP. Refresh rates don’t equate with refresh rates on CRTs – the optimum rate here is 60Hz – but the image is steadier than my CRT and crystal clear.

Samsung doesn’t state the viewing angle, a key specification. From side to side it’s phenomenal – better than a flat-screen CRT. Top to bottom is always worse with LCDs and it’s much worse with this one. If the screen is angled correctly for your sitting position – it tilts – somebody standing over your shoulder couldn’t read the screen easily. Still, it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise ideal monitor.

Er TV…monitor. About $1800.

Be The Lord Of Your TV

If you’re an audio-video enthusiast, Bell’s ExpressVu satellite TV service arguably already offers a clear advantage over cable, even new digital cable: the picture and sound are significantly better. But if the superior picture quality isn’t enough to get you to switch, consider ExpressVu’s new 5100 satellite receiver with personal video recorder (PVR). It will change the way you watch – and record – TV.

The PVR is a hard disk-based (40GB) digital video recording system built into the receiver. You can record TV programs – up to 30 hours of them – much the way you do with a VCR. Setting up recordings is a lot simpler with the PVR, though. Find a future program in ExpressVu’s onscreen Guide, press Select on the remote controller, press Select again in the next dialogue. That’s it. And you’ll notice less difference in quality between recording and live signal than you do with a VCR.

The PVR does some unique things VCRs cannot do. Should nature or the beer fridge call while you’re watching TV, you can use the VCR-like controls on the 5100’s remote to “pause” the program. The PVR will begin recording. When you come back, press Play and the recording starts playing from where you left off. Brilliant. Finally, if you watch the first 45 minutes of a movie and then decide you want to share it with your best girl or guy, simply press the Reverse button to “rewind” the program to the beginning, press Record and the 5100 will record the entire show. The catch? About $600 for the hardware, $100 for installation. Programming is extra.

The Ultimate Disc Drive

The Panasonic DVD-RAM/R Drive LF-D321 from Matsushita may be the ultimate disc drive. It records on 4.7 GHz DVD-R (non-rewriteable) and various format DVD-RAM (rewriteable) discs from 1.4-GB single-sided to 9.4-GB double-sided. And it reads just about any silver disc ever made, including elderly PhotoCD and VideoCD formats.

If you’re into editing home videos on a PC, this product gives you everything you need to take it one step further and create your own DVD movies. The included DVDit! software lets you transfer your masterpieces to a DVD-R disc in MPEG-2 (DVD movie format) so that it will play in many, though not all, DVD movie players. And DVD-MovieAlbum lets you record from, edit and play existing DVD movie discs.

Making DVD movies is fun, but this drive really shines when it comes to backing up and archiving data files – you can store a lot of big files in 9.4 GB. And a 9.4 GB DVD-RAM disc will set you back less than $50. The product comes with FileSafe, a backup program with basic functions such as scheduled execution, various copy modes and restore.

Installation was relatively easy, although the unit ships with the jumpers set so that it will function as the Master drive in an IDE chain. If another drive is already set as the Master, both will be disabled until you change one so that it functions as the Slave. A tiny glitch. Otherwise a great drive; maybe the only one you’ll ever need. About $750

Phones, Phones, Phones

We couldn’t pick just one cool new cell phone to show you this year. So we’re recommending three, the coolest of the cool – all, as it happens, CDMA digital or dual-mode (analog-digital) phones that can only be used on the Telus and/or Bell Mobility networks. The two prettiest are from Sanyo.

The Sanyo SCP 6000, aka Mr. Skinny, is a single-mode 1900 MHz CDMA digital phone that works on Telus. It’s impossibly tiny: 129 x 39 x 9.9 mm, 65 grams – about the length, width and thickness of three pens and about the same weight. Put it in your shirt pocket and you won’t even know it’s there. Yet it has all the bells and whistles, including micro Web browser and an address book that holds 300 name entries, 500 phone numbers, 300 e-mail addresses, 300 Web site URLS. About $200.

The Sanyo Dual Mode SCP-5000, another Telus phone, is also beautiful to look at and hold. This one is a flip phone with a colour LCD screen on the inside of the flip top. It’s not much bigger than Mr. Skinny at 9.4 cm x 4.9 cm x 2.5 cm and 103 grams. You can download up to 20 digital photos of the people you talk to most and the phone will automatically display their pictures when you place a call to them or receive one. Also has a Web browser, address book, calendar etc. About $400.

Finally, at the other end of the form-function spectrum, we offer the Kyocera Smartphone QCP 6035 (Bell and Telus). It’s about four times the size of

Mr. Skinny, but it’s a fully functioning Palm OS-based PDA as well as a phone. In phone mode, the flap is up with the phone keys facing out. Flipping the flap down turns the PDA on and reveals the rest of the full-size Palm screen, its writing pad and smart buttons. Maybe it is a bit clunky, but now you only have one wireless device to lug around. About $650.

Super-slick Slide Scanner

Digital photography offers undeniable benefits – tremendous control over the final image, and excellent and inexpensive inkjet printing from a PC are just two examples. And digital cameras are a marvellous way to get images into your PC to take advantage of these benefits (see the Minolta Dimage 7, page 28). But if you crave the best of both worlds – the lens quality and creative flexibility of your 35mm SLR and digital control, the Nikon Coolscan IV ED slide and transparency scanner is a great solution.

The Coolscan IV scans 35mm slides and negatives at resolutions up to 2,900 dots per inch. That’s enough pixels to be able to print at sizes above 8×10. A compact 3.7 x 6.6 x 12.4 in. (93 x 169 x 315mm), the unit connects to your PC by a USB cable. We would have preferred a much faster Firewire connection, but even with USB, scan speed was acceptable – about 42 seconds from image transfer to display at 2,900 dpi according to Nikon. In my testing, colours were remarkably true to the original slides I copied.

But the real beauty of the Coolscan IV is the included Digital ICE3 (cubed) automatic defect-correction software. I scanned a couple of moldy (literally) 30-year-old slides. Scanned without Digital ICE3, the resulting images were covered with a tracery of black specks that could never have been removed manually, no matter how patient and expert you are with photo editing software. Scanned with Digital ICE3, they were as clean as a whistle. Worth the price. About $1,250.

Digicams For SLR Enthusiasts

Photo buffs accustomed to using 35mm SLR cameras have long complained that affordable digital cameras were too much of a compromise. They didn’t provide enough manual controls. You could never see exactly what you were shooting in the rangefinder-style viewfinders. The fixed zoom lenses didn’t give you enough telephoto. The electronic sensors didn’t capture as much detail as film. And so on. Enter the Minolta Dimage 5 and 7 – digicams for the photo enthusiast.

The two cameras share the same body and feature set. The only difference is the CCD (charged coupled device), the electronic sensor that takes the place of film. In the Dimage 5, it’s a 1/1.8-inch, 3.34-megapixel CCD – more or less standard in high-end consumer digicams these days. But in the Dimage 7, you get a 2/3-inch, 5.24-megapixel sensor, which provides significantly more detail, making sharper, clearer pics.

One crucial shared feature is the camcorder-style LCD viewfinder. You can put your eye to the viewfinder and, just as with an SLR, see exactly what the lens sees. It’s still not as good as the angled-mirror-and-ground-glass system that provides through-the-lens viewing in an SLR, but it’s a big advance over most digicams. The other critical feature: a 7X (7.2 – 50.8 mm) zoom lens, the equivalent on a 35mm camera of 28 – 200mm in the Dimage 5, 35 – 250mm in the Dimage 7. This is another significant improvement over the typical 3X (35-105mm) digicam lens.

But what about the pictures, you ask? Brilliant, sharp, clear. Dimage 5, about $1,500. Dimage 7, about $2,000.

Magic Noise-Killing Headphones

This Sennheiser NoiseGard HDC451 is not the truest highest-fidelity stereo headphone the legendary German manufacturer sells, but if you travel constantly and like to listen to music on the plane and in other noisy environments, you need the HDC451. In fact, it was made for you. This product’s brilliant gimmick is that it kills noise. No more cranking the volume to lethal levels to cover the jet roar. All you hear is sweet, sweet music.

The HDC451 is a light, “open-air” style headphone – the ear pieces rest on the outside of your ears rather than enclosing them. So you won’t miss announcements over the airport or aircraft PA system. The unit incorporates tiny microphones that monitor the acoustic environment, detecting frequencies between 400 and 1000 Hz – usually unwanted noise. Then a built-in processor generates reverse-phase signals in the same frequency range. These signals collide with, and cancel, the incoming sound.

Never mind the science, though. The HDC451 works. While my editor callously refused to fly me to Acapulco to properly test the HDC451 in an aircraft, I was able to test it on my dishwasher. When I flipped the switch on the headphone’s battery-powered processing unit, the dishwasher disappeared. Poof! Some of the lows in the music also went away, it’s true, but the sound was still very good. About $200. Available direct from Sennheiser Canada, 800-463-1006.