If you want to have a cool Yule, check out our annual report on some of the cleverest and most fascinating digital Christmas gear now available at an E-toy store near you. We’re betting you’ll find something for everyone on your list. Or better still, leave CIO Canada open to this page at home and conspicuously circle the items you like. Hey, it’s worth a shot.
Creative Nomad Jukebox
This is a portable player for music lovers who would like to take their entire CD collections with them wherever they go – every single CD. The Nomad Jukebox lets you download and store 150 albums or 100 hours of “CD-quality” compressed digital music in MP3 format.
About the size, shape and weight (14 oz.) of a portable CD player, the Jukebox stores music, or any audio recording, on its miniature six-gigabyte hard disk. The unit comes with a USB connector so you can attach it to your computer, and software that lets you “rip” music from an audio CD in your PC’s CD-ROM drive directly to the Jukebox’s hard drive.
How does the Jukebox sound? In the ultimate test – attaching it to a home stereo system via a line-out jack and flipping back and forth between the 128K Jukebox MP3 version of a CD track and the original playing in the stereo’s CD player – the Jukebox comes off astonishingly well. It takes a finely tuned ear to detect the difference.
The Nomad Jukebox includes Creative’s EAX digital signal processing technology, which lets you select the ambient environment for your music – nightclub, concert hall and so on. You can also slow down or speed up playback without losing audibility, at least with voice recordings.
We’re tempted to say this is the ultimate MP3 player, the last one you’ll ever need, but we just know something better or smaller or with more bells and whistles will come along next year – or next month. $725.
Casio PC Unite Wrist Watch
Dick Tracy rides again when you wear one of these astonishing digital wrist watch/computers. The PC Unite – which stores contacts, appointments and other data and lets you synchronize information with a PC – is one of a series of sci-fi inspired time pieces from Casio (http://www.casio.com), including one that plays MP3 music and another with a built-in global ppositioning system (GPS) for calculating your exact latitude and longitude.
The PC Unite may be the most practical, especially if you’re active and can’t or don’t always carry a full-scale personal digital assistant (PDA). The watch comes with simple PC PIM (personal information manager) software for storing schedule items and contacts, plus an infrared connector you plug into a serial port on the back of your PC or laptop. Point the watch at the PC infrared sensor, press the IR button on the watch, and the PC Unite downloads all the latest contact information, “to dos” and appointments over an infrared link.
The watch itself, which is only slightly larger than a standard digital watch and no heavier, has a few buttons that let you access functions and scroll through data. The watch face is large enough to show the day, date and time – or a name and telephone number or time, date and name – in easily legible type. The PC Unite’s one flaw – forgivable – is that you can’t input data when you’re away from the PC. Its best feature: the appointment alarms. Set the watch to alert you when you’re getting close to an appointment and it will jog your memory – even if you’re out, well, jogging. About $160.
Lucent ORiNOCO Residential Gateway
You finally caved in to your whining kids and ordered high-speed Internet service from the cable or phone company. Now wouldn’t it be nice if you could get access to that big pipe when you bring your laptop home from work. The wireless Lucent ORiNOCO Residential Gateway lets you do just that.
The Gateway, only available for now from U.S.-based on-line retailers (http://www.wavelan.com), plugs into an Ethernet connection and uses Network Address Translation (NAT) software to share the Internet connection. A kit version includes the gateway and one PC card wireless network adapter. ORiNOCO’s 2.4 GHz wireless networking technology delivers up to 11 megabits per second (Mbps) over a distance of 100 metres.
Set-up is remarkably simple. Performance is simply remarkable. We connected the Gateway to an existing wired Ethernet network already sharing a cable modem connection. Using a Web-based modem speed test, we compared throughput to the ORiNOCO-connected laptop and to a PC wired to the same Ethernet hub. The laptop was actually faster.
The neat thing about this product is that the same network adapter card also works with ORiNOCO’s wireless small business network systems and high-speed Internet services now being set up in public places such as airports and convention centres. High-speed access wherever you go. US$405.
Canon Elura 2MC Digital Video Camcorder
A camcorder that’s cute as a button, and not much bigger than one. Well, we exaggerate. But at 47.6×104.8×85.7 mm and weighing about one pound, the Elura 2 may be the tiniest camcorder ever made, tinier even than the original Elura, itself a mini marvel. This one is easily small enough to fit in a jacket pocket or purse, and to be all but invisible if you hold it close to your body – the perfect camcorder for shy videographers. And yet its miniDV (digital video) recording system produces crisp, bright video that shows well on a large screen TV, even when shot in low light.
The Elura 2 has so many neat features it’s hard to know where to start. The basics include a 10x optical zoom lens, digital stereo sound recording, a bright 63mm LCD that swivels 360 degrees so you can shoot from odd angles or video yourself, and a wireless remote control. The Elura 2 also doubles as a still camera – you can shoot hundreds of VGA-resolution (640×480 pixels) pictures on one DV tape. The otherwise identical Elura 2MC also includes a tiny memory card for storing up to 60 fine-mode stills.
If you have a PC equipped with an IEEE 1394 (Firewire) circuit board or the iMac DV we told you to buy for someone last year, you can capture video from the Elura 2 with no loss in quality. On the computer, use editing software to trim and reorder shots and add effects and titles. Then copy it back to the camcorder or to a VHS tape for viewing on your TV.
Small camcorder, big price: $2,000.
Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart 1218 Printer
This premium-priced inkjet printer from HP may be the ultimate home printer. For every-day printing in black, the 1218 prints at up to 600×600 dots per inch (dpi) and churns out an amazing 17 pages per minute, rivalling laser printers in both print quality and speed. It’s also one of the quietest inkjet printers we’ve ever tried.
The 1218 comes into its own when you print the family snaps. Using special photo paper, it can print at up to 2400 dpi with HP’s PhotoRet III colour layering technology. And it does it faster than most – less than five minutes to print an 8×10 enlargement, for example. And the quality of the photo output is superb, rivalling any consumer inkjet printer on the market, as good as conventional photo prints.
What sets the PhotoSmart 1218 apart are the convenience features. It comes with slots that take either CompactFlash or SmartMedia digital camera memory cards – so you can pop a card out of the camera and into the printer and have a print in minutes. Or use the infrared port to print a photo stored on a laptop or PDA. The 1218 lets you do automatic double-sided printing. And there are two paper trays, one main tray, adjustable to 8.5×11, and a second tray that takes 4×6-inch photo paper. Moving a lever switches between the two trays. It means you don’t have to unload paper you use for everyday printing when you want to print a snap. $685
Plantronics CT10 Cordless Headset Phone
The perfect gift for compulsive multitaskers. It solves two problems at once. Because it’s a headset phone, it frees your hands to do whatever else you need to do – open a can of wieners and beans, type on your laptop. And because it’s wireless, it frees you from the desk. This is the ideal phone for your home office – although with this phone, you won’t really need an office. You can work anywhere in the house, even out on the deck.
The CT10 includes a headset, attached by wire to a portable battery-operated keypad with an antenna. The keypad unit clips on your belt or slips into a pocket. The base station plugs into the phone line and the house current. When you’re not using the phone, you can slide it in the base station’s cradle, which recharges the 9V NiMH battery. The battery when fully charged is good for six hours of talk time or 80 hours of standby. The CT10 uses 900MHz radio technology, so you can move up to 150 feet away from the base station. And it works through walls and floors.
The remote unit weighs just 134 grams and measures 4.4×4.4×9.5cm. Yet unlike some wireless headset phones, it lets you make calls as well as take them. It has a full 12-button telephone keypad, plus mute, redial and flash buttons. A memory button gives you access to 11 stored numbers. The headset is adjustable, but if you don’t like it, the phone will also work with other compatible Plantronic headsets. $155.
Nikon CoolPix 880 Digital Camera
If you thought digital cameras weren’t quite ready for serious snapshootists like your friend or loved one, think again. With sensors that can capture three megapixels (millions of pixels) or more of image data and excellent lenses, the current crop of digicams can rival good film cameras. The new CoolPix 880 from top-drawer Japanese camera maker Nikon is a prime case in point.
The 880 has a 3.34-megapixel CCD (charged coupled device) sensor. That means it can record sufficient picture detail to allow printing at sizes up to 14×11 inches. The 880’s 2.5x Nikkor zoom lens has a focal range equivalent to 38-95mm in a 35mm camera – meaning you can zoom from moderate wide angle to moderate telephoto, suitable for portraits. (Nikon also has adapters that let you mount other lenses.) In macro (close-up) mode, you can focus to within 4 cm. All this translates into superb pictures that approach the quality you’d expect from a 35mm SLR camera.
The 880 is also dead simple to use in its fully automatic modes – just choose one of the 11 scene settings and it will make all the adjustments. Or you can switch to one of the manual modes to get more creative control over exposure and focus systems. The 880 doesn’t just capture still photos, it can also shoot up to 40 seconds at a time of digital video that you can display on a computer screen. And to top it off, all of this comes in a beautifully compact (99.5x75x53.2mm) and lightweight (275g) package. A real gem. $1,100.
Compaq iPaq Pocket PC
If your loved one hasn’t yet sold his or her soul to a 3Com Palm Pilot, there is an alternative, and one with a little more razzle-dazzle. Pocket PCs running the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows CE operating system can do more than most Palms and generally do it better. They connect to the Web wirelessly, let you play music and Web-style movies, read books and play games. Plus, they do all the usual PIM stuff. And the handwriting recognition used for inputting data is better than in Palm OS-based handhelds – Pocket PCs let you print more naturally.
Compaq’s iPaq H3600 Pocket PC may be the best of the bunch. (Hewlett-Packard and Casio also have models.) It has one of the best screens (a 240×320-resolution, 4,096-colour TFT LCD) and the most powerful processor (a 206MHz Intel StrongARM 32-bit RISC Processor). It also has a unique modular design that lets you carry an ultralight stripped-down version or one that will take PC card or CompactFlash expansion products – including Megahertz cellular modems and 340MB and 1GB IBM MicroDrives.
The iPaq’s superior screen and the compatibility with the IBM MicroDrives are keys to making this Pocket PC a viable multimedia platform. It will keep you entertained long after you’ve taken care of business. A 1GB MicroDrive ($675) can hold 15 hours of MP3 music, hundreds of digital photographs or full-length books, even a handful of short videos. There’s free software available to display both photos and videos. All Pocket PCs come with Windows Media Player for playing MP3 music – the iPaq sounds very good. And they all come with Microsoft Reader software with iits font-smoothing technology. It makes Pocket PC a superior e-book platform. $710 without modular expansion pack.
Tony Martell is an unrepentant e-toy addict and freelance writer specializing in information technology and IT management. He is based in London, Ont.