Holiday Gifts 2005

Gifts and gadgets for technophiles of all ages

Home Theater

Price: US $105 000

http://www.edgonline.com

When most people talk about home theater, they usually mean a flat-screen TV, a few speakers, and a comfy chair. Not so for those who possess the means and the space to create a true domestic cinema experience.

PHOTO: THOMAS LOOF

NERVE CENTER

This rack of high-end equipment includes an HDTV satellite receiver, a DVR, a DVD player, and a digital VHS player.

Companies such as the Electronics Design Group Inc. (EDG), in Piscataway, N.J., can install electronics and furnishings that would put your local multiplex to shame, so Ken Nodes hired EDG to build a home theater in his basement. His cinema [see photo, " A Night In"], which seats 12, boasts a 100-inch-diagonal screen illuminated by a ceiling-mounted digital light processing (DLP) projector. Nodes can choose the audio-video signal from a rack-mounted high-definition satellite TV receiver, a DVR, a DVD player, or a digital VHS tape player. Sound arrives through freestanding and wall-mounted speakers powered by a seven-channel amplifier. Nodes says the picture and sound quality are "flawless."

In addition, the lighting and curtains are computer controlled. The viewer can command the entire theater using a remote control with a touch screen. Tapping "DVD," for example, will automatically dim the lights, close the window curtains, turn on the projector, and switch to the DVD player's feed. Nodes is especially pleased with the seamlessness of the remote-control integration. He had used a different contractor to install home-automation equipment some years previously, only to find it plagued with malfunctions.

Nodes estimates the cost of the electronics at around US $75 000 and the basement conversion and furnishings at $30 000, but he says it's worth the price tag and his cinema is "better than going to a movie theater." If you're interested in a similar setup, the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association, an international trade group headquartered in Indianapolis, can help you find a reputable contractor at http://www.cedia.net.

Fortress Hard Drive

Price: US $499 to $850

http://www.4tress.com

Anyone who has had a laptop computer stolen or suffered a disk-drive meltdown will appreciate that the value of lost or broken hardware pales in comparison with the value of the data stored on that hardware. Enter the Fortress family of external hard drives. Their maker, Fortress Corp., in Mountain View, Calif., reckons the high price of its hardware is really an investment in protecting the data stored onboard. At US $499, its 40-gigabyte model is about two to five times the price of a similarly sized regular, external hard drive.

Here's why: a Fortress drive is virtually indestructible, certainly by anything to be encountered outside a war zone. Its specs claim it can brush off a 1.8-meter fall onto concrete, so suppressing years of data-preserving caution, I loaded one with files, lifted the paperback book­size drive to head height, and dropped it onto a concrete floor. Twice.

This punishment would have reduced most external hard drives to badly dented paperweights, but the nickel-plated aluminum casing of the Fortress drive wasn't even scratched. (The casing is milled, not cast, to shape, increasing its strength.) And once I reconnected the drive, all my data was there. The Fortress comes with both FireWire and USB 2.0 connections and works happily with Microsoft Windows, Linux, and Macintosh systems.

A check against the original files showed that not a single bit had been mangled. Furthering my own tests, members of IEEE Spectrum's art department also repeatedly dropped the unit onto concrete while photographing it [see photo, " Tough Tech"]: although they did scuff the casing, gouging some small pits and dents into the metal, the drive again behaved perfectly when tested later. The Fortress drive can even be operated in tough environments, such as on board a helicopter with its severe vibrations.

Another feature I like is that the drive has an internal heat sink, meaning that it never got hot during operation, as many drives do, including those in most laptops. This adds to the Fortress's dependability. Its stated mean time between failures (MTBF), a standard measure of disk drive reliability, is 500 000 hours, comparable to that of a drive that spends its life in a cushy desktop computer environment. And this is considerably better than that of many external hard drives, where an MTBF of 300 000 hours is common and numbers as low as 100 000 hours are not unknown.

Other options for storing data safely do exist, but they are not generally easily portable. One such example is a redundant array of independent disks (RAID) system, which stores data in such a way that if one drive fails, data can be recovered from other drives in the array. The relatively small capacity of even the largest Fortress drive--the choices top out at 120 gigabytes--makes it impractical for storing complete backups of a desktop computer system, as desktop hard drives routinely ship with up to 250 GB today. But for someone who needs to transport important data or to work in the field, a Fortress drive can't be beaten--literally.

Plusdeck2

Price: US $150

http://www.plusdeck.com

If you're under 25, putting an audiocassette player into a PC must seem like a bizarre throwback, like retrofitting an automobile with wooden shafts so horses can pull it. But for those of Generation X and older, the Plusdeck2 [see photo, " Retro Drive"] has instant appeal. Sure, we wouldn't swap our iPods for anything, but many of us oldies in our late twenties, thirties, and forties still have boxes of tapes lurking in closets and basements. We've hung on to these audio artifacts, dating from a time before MP3 technology swept through the music world like a digital tidal wave, clinging to the faint belief that one day we would do something with them.

Thanks to the Plusdeck2 from BTO Co., in Seoul, South Korea, that day has come. Push a tape into the unit and a mouse click later the Plusdeck2 will begin converting those Depeche Mode and Wham! songs into MP3s, automatically dividing the tracks into separate files and switching from side A to side B. However, you'll have to annotate the files--adding song and artist names--yourself, because there is no audiocassette equivalent of the online CD identification database. The Plusdeck2 will also let you make recordings from your computer to tapes, useful for long journeys in cars without a CD player.

Designed for desktop PCs, the Plusdeck2 fits into a spare drive bay where a CD-ROM drive might normally go. Connecting the Plusdeck2 to your PC is very different from connecting a CD drive, though. The Plusdeck2 comes with a small interface card that is mounted in a regular expansion card slot, but unusually, the card doesn't connect to the computer's expansion bus or disk drive controllers. Rather, the Plusdeck2 software communicates with the Plusdeck2 through a short external cable strung between the interface card and the computer's serial port. Audio signals are fed in and out of the Plusdeck2 by means of another set of short cables that connect externally to your computer's sound card.

The Plusdeck2 relies on whatever sound card you already have installed to record its audio output for conversion to digital files, and this can lead to troubleshooting headaches. When the Plusdeck2 software produced nothing but MP3s full of silence, it took some close reading of the manual--a rough English translation from the original Korean--to discover that I had to adjust a particular recording option in my sound card settings to get it to work. BTO promises a better version of the manual will be available soon.

Because the Plusdeck2 has no equivalent of the high-speed dub option found on the dual tape-deck recorders of old, digital recording must happen in real time--that is, a 120-minute tape will take 120 minutes to convert. You can mute the sound output while this is going on, but I left the sound on and rather enjoyed the trips down memory lane that some of my old mix tapes produced. Occasionally, I'd hit on some forgotten gem that might otherwise have been lost forever, such as my sole remaining track by the Tennessee Surfers, a short-lived and utterly obscure Irish garage band from the early nineties, now digitally immortalized on my iPod.

Perhaps in letting us reconnect with the music of our earlier selves, the Plusdeck2 really delivers value for money, as well as finally justifying hanging on to all those dusty tapes in the closet.

Kids' Kits

Price: US $18 to $30

SmartLab: http://www.smartlabtoys.com

Norman & Globus: http://www.electrowiz.com

Many engineers and scientists report that their choice of vocation was sparked by some childhood experience; Einstein's interest in physics began when his father gave him a magnetic compass. Today, dozens of kits and educational toys for children help to nurture or inspire the Vint Cerfs and Carl Sagans of tomorrow.

We reviewed a number of kits from two manufacturers--Norman & Globus Inc., in El Sobrante, Calif., and SmartLab , a division of Becker & Mayer, in Bellevue, Wash.--by giving them to children and asking them (and their parents) what they thought about the products. We chose these two companies because of the emphasis they place on teaching children the science behind their kits. Although all educational kits come with instructions, these are sometimes just a few sheets of dense black-and-white type. In contrast, SmartLab's and Norman & Globus's kits come with colorful and lavishly illustrated explanatory booklets.

Individual kit reviews follow below. In general, it's clear that the age ranges given by the makers on these kits are only an extremely rough guide. Some children found the instructions too easy, while others found them harder going, even when the kits were targeted for the same age. Nearly all the children, however, enjoyed doing at least some of the projects in their kit, and most of the parents felt the kids learned something as well.

SmartLab

First Electronics is an introductory kit that lets children ages 7 and up connect a lightbulb, a motor, and a switch to a battery to make simple circuits. Eight-year-old Joell Adorno found connecting the wires frustrating, but overall he "loved" doing the various projects. He was able to understand most of the booklet, though a few words were too hard for him.

for ages 8 and older comes with a printed-circuit board, a plastic case and keyboard, and an infrared LED that can be assembled into a working remote control. (A list of codes is included for most makes of televisions, so the finished device can be appropriately programmed.) James Wang, 11, had "fun" putting the control together and thought the explanatory booklet was "just right."

Electronics Lab is based on a simplified breadboard. Aimed at ages 9 and up, the kit has transistors, capacitors, resistors, LEDs, and buzzers that can all be hooked up into a variety of circuits. Thirteen-year-old Mike Stelmaszczyk enjoyed doing most of the circuits, even though they required "some patience." Mike also skipped past any explanatory facts in the booklet because they looked "uninteresting" but said afterward that he'd like to do more projects of a similar nature.

Norman & Globus

Energy Wiz is targeted at ages 7 and above. Several types of a model electric car can be built with the kit, including a solar car and a supercapacitor car. Patti Stelmaszczyk, 11, found building the cars fun, but she wished they had been more challenging to build and skipped over some of the projects as "too boring." Patti also felt the booklet was too simple, but her mother believed Patti did learn something about solar cars.

ElectroWizard Inventions invites children to build an electric motor, a telegraph, and a radio. Billed for ages 8 and up, the kit didn't impress 13-year-old Ross Weisman, who felt the kit was too easy, partly because he'd covered similar topics in school. Ross did only one or two projects before growing bored.

ElectroWiz Electricity is another introductory kit for younger children, aged 5 through 10. Basic circuits can be built that turn on bulbs, ring buzzers, and spin motors. Seven-year-old Brianna Caraballo was "very excited" about the kit, and every time she got something to work, she "showed it off to everyone" around. While Brianna needed help understanding and pronouncing some of the harder words in the booklet, in general she found it easy to understand, with one exception: how to connect alligator clips to a switch. This also stumped her mother, who felt that an instruction was missing from the book. Afterward, Brianna said she wanted to do more of these kinds of projects.

PHOTO: NORMAN & GLOBUS

Home Genetics

Do tabletop genetic engineering with this kit.

DNA Wizard is billed as being for ages 8 and up, but it is by far the most ambitious of all the kits and is probably best suited for a teen with close adult supervision. The kit allows children to build a model DNA double helix, then extract real DNA from fruit, and finally do actual genetic engineering by introducing a jellyfish gene into bacteria to make them glow.

Janine Wang, 13, took on the kit and successfully completed most of the projects but didn't succeed in creating glowing bacteria. She wanted to try again but noted there was only enough material for one attempt. Although Janine enjoyed the kit and loved playing with the model DNA, she felt that molecular biology involves "too much waiting" for results to persuade her to pursue more forays into the subject.

IEEE SPECTRUM EDITOR'S PICK

20Q

Price: US $14

http://20Q.com

PHOTO: RANDI SILBERMAN

The least expensive and smallest item in this year's roundup of holiday gifts, the 20Q from Radica Games Ltd., in Hong Kong, is easy to overlook, but it features some of the cleverest technology around. Built into a handheld translucent, flattened plastic sphere, the 20Q has a glowing red text display, a few control buttons, and a surprisingly knowledgeable artificial intelligence (AI) system. The basis of the 20Q is the traditional word game known as 20 Questions, in which one player thinks of an object and the other players ask a series of "yes" or "no" questions until they guess the object or run out of their allotted number of questions.

Surprisingly, the 20Q adopts the role of the questioner, a task that requires a great amount of common sense in dealing with a wide range of everyday objects. This is something that even high-powered AI systems are notoriously bad at, let alone the kind of AI that can be squeezed into the cheap embedded microcontroller at the heart of the 20Q.

Yet the 20Q is so good at guessing, it's almost scary. Objects like "dragon," "hard disk," and "mushroom" proved to be no challenge, as the 20Q asked me seemingly random questions ranging from the routine--"Is it bigger than a microwave oven?"--to the offbeat--"Do you know any songs about it?"--before coming up with the right answer. But the 20Q is not infallible: "cellphone" stumped it completely, for example, and it took 25 questions instead of 20 to guess "war."

The soul of the 20Q is a cut-down version of a neural network that the inventor, Robin Burgener, has been developing for almost two decades. Starting with one question--"Animal, vegetable, or mineral?"--and one object--"cat"--he trained the neural network by getting friends and family to play with it, slowly adding questions and objects as time went on.

Eventually, he hooked his system up to the Internet and began pitting the system against all comers. (You can play against the complete neural network at http://20Q.com.) To bring his AI down to handheld size, Burgener analyzed his network and extracted hundreds of the most commonly thought-of objects and most perspicacious questions.

The result is surprisingly robust. Even a few incorrectly answered questions won't necessarily throw the 20Q off the scent. It's also quite addictive and fun to play, with the 20Q throwing in taunts as it tries to divine your thoughts. For marrying cunning technology with great entertainment value at a low price, the 20Q is this year's Editor's Pick

Holokit

Price: US $109

http://www.integraf.com

As digital photography relentlessly displaces traditional film photography, it's nice to know that there's one futuristic trick that today's snazzy all-electronic cameras can't do: holography.

Capturing truly three-dimensional images of objects still requires using photographic plates made of glass or plastic that must be developed using darkroom procedures familiar to generations of photographers. What's new is the advent of cheap solid-state lasers, which allow you to make holograms without the expensive gas lasers required in earlier years.

IMAGE: INTEgraf

Do-It Yourself-3-D

The Holokit lets you make your own holograms.

Holokit, from Integraf LLC, Kirkland, Wash., puts it all together in a box. Unlike the other kits reviewed this month, Holokits are not for young children. For one thing, the kit requires you to make up your own developing solutions. Integraf has made this a very straightforward process by giving you exactly the right amount of chemicals to be dissolved in distilled water, but some of the compounds are toxic and require careful handling. Once mixed, though, the solutions are safer than many household cleaning supplies, and older children and teens should be able to use the kit with adult supervision.

For another thing, making and developing holograms requires a modicum of self-discipline. The tiniest vibration while the object and photographic plate are being exposed to laser light can ruin a hologram, so the 10-second or so exposures must be taken in absolute silence and with as little movement as possible. Once the holograms are exposed, they spend between 30 seconds and 2 minutes in each of five developing stages (longer is better), most of which must be done in a low-light environment--Integraf recommends a room dark enough so that you can't read a newspaper's text but bright enough to read the headlines.

I tested Integraf's Student Holokit, which comes with 12 square glass plates, 63 millimeters on a side, and a red diode laser. (A cheaper kit comes with larger plastic film plates, and a more expensive kit comes with additional glass plates.) Setting up the apparatus required some household ingenuity, because the only place in my apartment dark enough to take and develop the exposures is the bathroom, which, like most New York City bathrooms, is pretty cramped. However, with some folding dinner tables deployed in the bathtub to provide an optical bench of sorts and an old pretzel tin pressed into service as a stand for the laser, I was able to start making holograms.

Not everything can be holographed. The vibration problem means that things made out of flexible or soft materials, such as cloth or paper, are likely to deform during the exposure, destroying the hologram. Metal and porcelain objects are best, and so I followed the advice in the instructions and started with coins, producing a detailed and bright hologram. Emboldened, I embarked on a hit-or-miss series of exposures of various objects--my Hot Wheels model of the Sojurner Mars Rover came out well, but what I thought was a much less ambitious image of my tiny metal souvenir of the Seattle Space Needle produced little more than a rainbow blur.

It's a thrill to hold a hologram you've made yourself and see a 3-D image emerge from the glass, and I'm sure that with a little bit more practice, I could start producing them reliably. (Integraf also sells replacement chemicals and plates for its kits.) However, I have to stop for now--my wife wants to use the bathroom.

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