Good things come in small packages, it has been said, and this holiday season should leave no doubt about it. If your nearest and dearest hands you a gift the size of a small paperback book, you might be the lucky owner of a US $900 full-featured digital camcorder or a computer printer.
For high-tech gifts, this holiday season will be remembered as the year when the small became tiny and the tiny became downright minuscule. Not since the early 1960s, when compact transistor radios made it even more fun to be a teenager, sports fan, or pop-music maven, has miniaturization so firmly ruled the consumer electronics kingdom.
Unlike those early transistor radios, which sacrificed sound quality for portability, this latest generation of mini devices is not sacrificing anything. In fact, some of the items, such as the tiny digital camcorders, are outperforming their considerably larger ancestors. Among the Lilliputian offerings are digital still cameras that can hide behind credit cards, matchbox-sized MP3 players, digital movie cameras no bigger than a bar of bath soap, computer printers that can perch on your palm, and powerful mini-notebook computers that weigh only just over a kilogram.
Tiny Camcorder Runs With the Big Dogs
Canon Inc. has managed to pack some of the capabilities of its larger camcorders into a tiny package, so that, in some cases, they outdo the full-sized models. Compare Canon's 390-gram Elura 20MC [photo, right], which boasts a 680 000-pixel, progressive-scan, charge-coupled-device (CCD) imager, with its older 1.25-kg GL1 digital camcorder; though twice the size of the Elura, the GL1 sees the world through just a 270 000-pixel CCD.
The Elura 20MC, in which the MC stands for media card, records digital video and takes high-quality digital still images that can be recorded on removable storage media in its PC card slot. Many camcorders capture the lines making up an image as a pair of interlaced fields that are combined (as in a TV), yielding low-quality still images and video in which fast-moving objects tend to blur. The Elura's CCD, though, captures them in a continuous field like a computer monitor. The difference: still pictures look like real snapshots, instead of the seemingly not very sharp frames captured from a videotape.
Price: US $1200, Canon Inc., Tokyo, http://www.canondv.com/elura10_20mc/a.html
Electronic Jack of All Trades
Last year, when expansion devices added e-mail and Internet capability, as well as wireless telephony, to handheld personal digital assistants, it was quickly realized that carrying around a gaggle of oddly shaped attachments defeats the purpose of a handheld.
Sharp Electronics Corp. has tied everything into what it refers to as a personal mobile tool, or the Zaurus MI-E21. It dispenses with different-sized attachments by relying on PC cards that slip into the device's CompactFlash or SD card slots.
Though "personal mobile tool" sounds more applicable to something like a Swiss Army knife, the term PDA (which brings to mind the Palm) is an inadequate descriptor of the Zaurus. After all, it records and plays back video from TVs, VCRs, and DVD players, doubles as an MP3 player, shoots full-motion video or digital still photos, sends and receives e-mail, has a Web browser, and makes phone calls (but cannot receive incoming calls).
Sharp sells each of the add-on features separately, but each fits on a PC card. And a dozen PC cards can fit in the space taken up by just one of last year's add-ons. The add-ons are also expensive; attachments for all the features could cost upwards of US $575--or more than the cost of the device itself. Even the device for transferring data to a PC is optional.
The basic unit has a 32-bit RISC processor, 32MB of memory, a 3.5-inch reflective color LCD touch screen, a stylus, a keyboard revealed by sliding down the lower portion of the unit, and a battery that lasts as long as 11 hours when the screen's front light is not turned on. The optional digital camera card lets you take pictures, but for movies, additional software must be purchased. For movies with sound, a voice recorder kit is needed.
Price: about US $500, Sharp Electronics Corp., Mahwah, N.J., http://sharpelectronics.com/