This holiday season, electronics manufacturers--each attempting to create devices that are "all things to all people"--have blessed gadget lovers with a glut of new products that combine the functions of several types of high-tech toys already on the market
The Casio GPS Pathfinder Wristwatch
Casio seems to have the misplaced-car-in-the-airport-parking-lot problem licked. The GPS Pathfinder wristwatch, using a built-in receiver, accepts location data from as many as eight Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, but its tiny receiver needs to receive information from only three to triangulate the watch's position (to within 30 meters). This information is continuously updated, giving readings on the direction in which the watch is moving as well as on how fast it's moving. The watch's EEPROM stores a 200-landmark list chosen by the user that includes longitude and latitude information for each point.
The Pathfinder graphically displays the relationship between two points (for, say, one of the airport's countless exits, and "space number 13, aisle 5, section Q, lot F," where your car is) while flashing the wearer's current position. Keep walking until the flashing point and the point you're aiming for coincide, and your car should be nearby.
(Accuracy to within 30 meters means that it may be off by a parking row, but that is close enough to make sure you'll never again wait for the parking attendant to haul you back and forth on the little cart searching for your car.) As many as eight points on the landmark list can be used to define a trip--including the start and end points and waypoints in between.
The Pathfinder's lithium battery provides as many as 720 one-shot measurements--or about some 12 hours' worth when updates are provided once a minute--on a single charge. The battery's continuous mode updates the location readings every second for as long as 4 hours.
The 138-gram, 65.5-by-66.6-by-29.6-mm watch is something of a tank. Still, rugged, outdoor types may not be bothered by its look if it gets them back to the cabin before the snowstorm hits (or out of the airport before rush-hour traffic). But don't throw away your compass and map just yet. In the fine print there is a warning that GPS satellite reception may be blocked "in densely wooded areas." By the way, it tells time, too.
Price: US $499.95.
The onHand PC Watch
For those who, like this editor, benefit from the capabilities of a hand-held organizer, but have been known to leave it at home or, worse, on the back seat of a taxicab, the onHand PC Watch from Matsucom Inc., Denver, Colo., removes the "Oh, no!" factor because it straps to the wrist.
The successor to the Ruputer, a personal organizer watch once for sale only in Korea, the onHand PC is listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world's smallest computer because of its 16-bit, 3.64-MHz processor and 2MB of flash RAM. These components (and Guiness's recognition) notwithstanding, it is still a PDA watch. Like other PDAs on the market, it stores as many as 10 000 entries in its scheduler, and includes an address book, a to-do list, an expense tracker, and a memo pad.
A tiny joystick below its screen allows the user to scroll through application files to, say, the address book, in the same way that a laptop user would maneuver the cursor on the touchpad. Buttons on its sides perform the clicking function associated with a mouse, opening the file selected.
Entering data directly into the onHand, however, is tedious compared to full-sized PDAs. To enter a name in the address book, you must select letters one by one by scrolling across a virtual keyboard. Fortunately, data can alternatively be entered on a desktop PC and transferred to the onHand through its docking station.
Getting accustomed to which of the watch's buttons performs a particular task does not take long--despite the fact that users will likely toss aside the device's 175-page user's manual and discover its capabilities by trial and error.
The watch also comes with a built-in infrared port that allows for the transfer of data either between two onHand watches or between a watch and a laptop. As of this writing, software was available only for machines running Windows, but Matsucomsaid that a Macintosh version would be available by the end of the year.
The watch runs versions of Lotus Organizer, Microsoft Outlook, Palm Desktop, and Symantec Act.
Price: US $299
Casio Wrist Camera Casio's Wrist Camera
Another watch with a high "Wow!" factor is Casio's Wrist Camera. Its 20-by-20-mm liquid-crystal display shows the images its 28 000-pixel monochrome CMOS image sensor picks up through a fixed-focus lens. The on-screen image is updated in real time--rather like a video monitor--and captured when the shutter button is pressed.
The 40-by-52-by-16-mm device's 1MB memory is big enough to store 100 images, and it's possible to annotate each picture with 24 characters of text. The Wrist Camera's main drawback is no flash, so that image clarity depends heavily on ambient light.
With an optional PC link (for Windows 95/98/NT), images can be transferred from the watch's infrared interface to a PC or another wrist camera at 115 kb/s.
In terms of picture quality, it is no match for even the cheapest digital cameras on the market, which, for around $100, capture images with a resolution on the order of 300 000 pixels. But for capturing things you want to remember on the fly, it cannot be beat.
Price: US $199.95
The Samsung Watch Phone
Dick Tracy, the comic strip detective who made the wrist radio famous, probably never dreamed of the technology to be found in Samsung's SPH-WP10. The code-division, multiple-access phone's voice command feature allows numbers to be dialed verbally. Text-to-speech software allows the user to listen to voice mail, e-mail, or other messages instead of reading them. Also included are a phone directory, an earphone, and a vibrator to alert the user to incoming calls without disturbing others nearby.
Currently, the watch phone is available only in Korea. An image and a brief description appear at: http://www.samsungelectronics.com/corporateinfo/pr/exhibit/99.5/9905watch.html.
SMART PHONES AND PAGERS
The race to put as many modes of communication as possible in the palm of a user's hand has yielded feature-packed mobile phones
Nokia 7110 mobile phone Nokia 7110 mobile phone
If dropped calls are annoying, consider the Nokia 7110 handset. It will switch automatically between the 900- and 1800-MHz bands while a call is in progress if the signal gets too weak. These are the dual bands of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) system, which may or may not overlap geographically in the area traversed by a mobile caller.
Usually, a dual-band phone will select the band with the strongest signal before a call is made, then drop it later should the signal peter out. The phones are available where the two bands are available--in Europe, Africa, and East Asia.
The 125-by-53-by-24-mm handset has a six-line (6240-pixel) display for reading the modified Web pages that can be called up by the phone's built-in wireless application protocol (WAP) microbrowser. It also sends and receives faxes, e-mail, and text files (at 14 kb/s) and has an infrared link for transferring data between the handset and a PC, printer, or compatible Nokia phone.
To speed text entry via the keypad, the 7110 includes predictive text input. As the user begins entering a word, the phone compares the first few letters to the words in its built-in dictionary and suggests the most likely ending. Just below the display is a thumbwheel that scrolls through selections such as addresses or events in memory.
It has a 660-event calendar, a 1000-name address book, and room to store up to 50 e-mail or short message service (SMS) messages. (SMS allows the quick transfer of 160-character messages between GSM users.)
The standard 900-mAh nickel-metal-hydride battery provides up to 4.5 hours of talk time or nearly 11 days on standby on a single charge. An optional 1500-mAh lithium-ion battery extends that to 7 hours of conversation or 18 days on standby. Prices vary.
Timeport 270 mobile phone
Like the Nokia, Motorola Inc.'s Timeport 270 mobile phone also has a WAP microbrowser for Internet access. It's one of the first products available with the Bluetooth wireless communications protocol. Bluetooth allows data to be transferred via RF between devices within 10 meters of each other. The advantages: the phone can transfer data to, say, a PDA, without plugging the two together.
The tri-mode CDMA handset also has a speakerphone for hands-free talking, a 1000-number address book, a calendar that displays events by the day, week, or month, predictive text entry, and a voice recorder for short personal reminders. Prices vary.
PageWriter 2000X two-way pager
Motorola also has a new smarter pager. Not just the recipient of alphanumeric messages, the 4.5-MB PageWriter 2000X two-way pager talks back, communicating with compatible pagers, telephones, and fax machines. It also sends and receives e-mail messages.
The PageWriter has a full Qwerty keyboard, a nine-line display with 29 characters per line, and an address book.
Remember when all you could do with a two-way radio was talk to another person? Not so with Motorola's three new top-of-the-line Talkabout handhelds.
The new two-way model T6300 lets you tell time, set an alarm, operate a stopwatch, or tune to one of eight weather channels from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration radio broadcasts.
Next in line, the model T6310 adds an FM radio with eight station presets and earbud earphones. Or, by opting for the outdoor gear package in the T6320 instead of the radio, you can find your way with a digital compass and check the temperature, barometric pressure, and altitude, too.
The menu-selectable functions are made possible through the use of Motorola's Mcore line of 32-bit custom IC microprocessors in the radios. The processor controls the transceiver's pair of analog RF and intermediate frequency (I-F) chips, as well as the FM radio chip, and performs the calculations for the outdoor package, which includes a pressure sensor.
All three models have the same 14 two-way radio channels as the older Talkabout line, which relies on a less capable 8-bit HC11 microprocessor. The half-watt output power allows a communication range of more than 3 km, the same as for the earlier models.
The radios also have the same 38 privacy codes--actually a tone frequency chosen by the two people wishing to communicate--that turns on the receiver's speaker when a message is being sent. Messages with a different tone are locked out, reducing interference. A new so-called eavesdrop reducer scrambles two-way conversations, making them sound garbled to unwelcome listeners.
The units, with hands-free capability built in and a vibrating signaling mode, operate from three AA alkaline batteries for about 35 hours. List price begins at US $129.99 for the T6300; moves up to $149.99 for the T6310, and tops off at $159.99 for the T6320 for mountain climbers. For an extra $20, both the T6310 and the T6320 models come with a charging dock and rechargeable nickel metal-hydride batteries that last about 12 hours between charges.
INTRODUCING THE PDA PLUS
The Visor personal digital assistant from Handspring Inc., Mountain View, Calif., does not do Windows; but with a host of plug-ins introduced in the past year by third-party providers--for playing music, taking photos, sending and receiving faxes and e-mail, and making phone calls--it does much more
Like the Palm PDA, the Visor can also be turned into a camera, though one with about a quarter of the Palm's resolution. It's done with a plug-in from Blocks Products, Palo Alto, Calif., that relies on a 320-by-240-pixel CMOS imager.
Unlike its Palm counterpart, this one does not benefit from a proprietary file compression technique that fits more images into memory. Thus, the Eyemodule can store only 25 color (125 black-and-white) images (as JPEG files) on the 8MB Visor Deluxe.
Price: US $149.95
Turn the Visor into a GSM cell phone with a module from Option International, Leuven, Belgium. The device can also send and receive SMS text messages and provide wireless access to the Internet and e-mail. It even doubles as a wireless modem for remote data transfer between the Visor and a PC.
The touch of a button accesses any phone number in the Visor's address book. (Actually, it is a virtual button that appears below a virtual keypad on the Visor's screen when the phone module is attached.) After using the Visor's stylus to select the person to be called and the number (home, work, or mobile) to be dialed, you tap on the button to put the call through.
The Visor has 50-number speed dial and checks incoming calls against the address book. If there is a match, its display will show both the name and number.
The 83-gram, 6-by-5-by-1.3-mm module allows the Visor's other functions to be used during a phone call. A 680-mAh lithium-ion battery provides 3 hours of talk time or three days on standby. The phone comes with a removable subscriber information module card that stores a subscriber's personal information and authorizes them to the wireless service to which he or she has subscribed.
Price: US $299
Targus Stowaway keyboard
To add a keyboard to the Visor for simple data entry, consider the Targus Stowaway keyboard, manufactured by Think Outside Inc., Carlsbad, Calif. It measures 351 by 130 by 0.4 mm when open, but folds down to 91 by 130 by 0.8 mm. The 220-gram, full Qwerty keyboard, which works with Visors running Palm OS 3.1 or greater, includes shortcut keys that speed movement through the Visor's address book, to-do list, and memo functions. The device draws power directly from the Visor.
Price: US $99
Internet and e-mail functions can be added to the Visor through Activelink, manufactured by Glenayre Inc., Charlotte, N.C. It is always on, receiving and storing e-mail--even when removed from the Visor.
The 6MB of RAM in the 96.5-by-58.5-by-38-mm device stores as many as 500 e-mail messages of up to 10kB each. Outgoing messages up to 2kB can be tapped out using the Visor's stylus. Data can be transferred at one of four bit rates--800, 1600, 3200, or 6400 b/s.
Preprogrammed text messages like "call me" or "be there soon" can be called up with the touch of a button. Two AAA batteries power the Activelink for up to four weeks.
Price: US $428
SoundsGood audio player
Don't want to carry an MP3 player around, but miss having music at your fingertips? Try the SoundsGood audio player from Good Technology Inc., Redwood City, Calif. It turns the Visor into an MP3 player that will hold over an hour of digital audio. Its 250-kB/s data transfer rate will allow its 64MB memory to be filled with music files in as little as 5 minutes. It draws power from the Visor, whose two AAA batteries will allow 10 hours of listening.
Price: US $269
EXTRAS FOR THE PALM OF YOUR HAND
The Palm PDA from Palm Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., the bestseller in its category, also has a few optional items that either extend its capabilities or make it simpler to use
The PalmPix from Kodak is a 640-by-480-pixel CMOS camera module that snaps onto the various Palm IIIs and the Palm VII (a special docking module is required for the Palm V). Engineers at Kodak developed the PalmPix while trying to demonstrate the picture quality of a CMOS chip they had created. They thought it would be convenient and fun to view the images through their Palms, so they rigged up a camera based on the chip--and the PalmPix was born.
It stores pictures on the Palm as BMP or JPEG files, which are transferable to a PC through the Palm's hotsync cradle. The 56-by-28-by84-mm device, with a fixed-focus lens, auto exposure, and a 10-second self-timer, is powered by two AAA batteries (included).
Price: US $149.95
The Palm also has a keyboard. The 93-by-130-by-20-mm device (imperceptibly larger than the Visor's Stowaway keyboard) opens to reveal a full-sized (352-by-130-by-9-mm) Qwerty keyboard that includes shortcut keys for easy access to the Palm's various functions. The 224-gram (again, about the same as the Stowaway) module draws power from the Palm. Different models for the m100, III, V, and VII series mean that users cannot swap this accessory.
Price: US $99
Sorry, Palm VII users. The Minstrel modem accessory is only available in models compatible with the various Palm IIIs and the V Series. It allows e-mail mesages to be sent and received at 19.2 kb/s. It downloads and reads messages wherever the user has access to an analog phone line or a GSM connection (a special GSM upgrade kit is required).
Price: US $369
BUILD YOUR OWN GAME GIFT
Atari 2600 VCSp
With a gift, they say, it's the thought that counts. What better way to show your favorite gadget lover you're thinking of him or her than with a gift made by your own hands? And if you or that person has an old Atari 2600 videogame system lying around, you can be the first on your block to build a portable version.
The 2600 was the first system with plug-in game cartridges instead of two or three hard-wired games. If you don't happen to have one in your attic, they are still for sale at Web sites such as e-Bay, or discussion forums like the one at the official Atari site run by Hasbro Interactive Inc.
Atari devotee Benjamin Heckendorn--a graphics designer and avid game system collector born two years before the 2600 made its 1977 debut--discusses how he made what he calls the Atari 2600 VCSp at his Web site. (The initials stand for video computer system, portable.) The machine [photo] is the Atari 2600 lover's answer to the hand-held GameBoy from Nintendo.
The machine can be built from a combination of cannibalized parts and newly purchased components. For Heckendorn, the lengthiest part of the design effort was figuring out, often by trial and error, the role each circuit-board component played in the original 2600's operation.
Eliminating what he found to be unnecessary parts and rerouting circuitry eventually left him with a board small enough to fit in a 191-by-114-by-48-mm case. This is not exactly pocket-sized, but remember that the original Atari came without a video screen and had to be plugged into a television set. With a 9-V battery to power the Atari circuitry and three AA cells to run a video display culled from a Casio portable TV, the unit weighs about 1.4 kg.
Essential elements ripped from an old 2600 include the 1.19-MHz 6507 processor (a close relative of the 6502 , the processor that ran the Nintendo 8-bit game system and Apple II and Commodore 64 computers).
Heckendorn designed a com-posite video output and attached it to a 2.5-inch thin-film-transistor active-matrix video monitor from a TV set that is readily available. The TV also provided the system's speaker. For the controls, including the "select" and "reset" buttons, Heckendorn recycled an old Nintendo controller, but a new one could be used, too.
Heckendorn is not resting on his laurels, however. He is currently working on a smaller and lighter model (made from a verion of the 2600 released in the mid-'80s). You can track his progress at his Web site (http://www.geocities.com/funmazer/).
To Probe Further
Science and Technology News Network's report, "Wild Watches," shown in the U.S. on many ABC-affiliate television stations the week of November 27th, was based on this article. Their accompanying web site is at http://www.stn2.com/wildwatches.