EEs' Gifts for The Holidays

Good things come in small packages, it has been said, and this holiday season should leave no doubt about it

8 min read
EEs' Gifts for The Holidays

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

Elura 20MC

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,

Electronic Jack of All Trades

Zaurus MI-E21

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.,

A Phone Worthy of James Bond


Have you been waiting for a device that combines the functions of a mobile phone, a pager, and a handheld organizer? Have you wished wireless phone manufacturers would make a color display large enough to see without squinting? Have you yearned for a phone that has 8MB of memory, enough to hold the names, dates, and places essential to your busy life? If so, Samsung's SPH-I300 PDA phone may be just the gadget for you.

It combines a speakerphone, voice dialing, e-mail capability, and a HTML Web browser, along with all the features of a high-end Palm handheld, including address and date books. The 125-by-58-by-21-mm unit gives you four hours of talk time or 100 hours on standby between charges of its lithium-ion battery.

Price: US $500, Samsung Electronics Co., Seoul, South Korea

Big Battle Over Mini-Notebooks
For now, the featherweight champ of mini-notebook computers with Intel's new Mobile Pentium III or III-M chips inside is Compaq Computer Corp.'s Evo N200 (US $1799) [see FIGURE]. It has entered the ring at 1.13 kg, with a 10.4-inch display, 128MB of RAM, and a 20GB hard drive. Its 700-MHz chip boasts an energy-saving technology Intel calls SpeedStep. The microprocessor has a nominal voltage of just over 1 V, but when it is operating on battery power, built-in software automatically steps down the clock speed and lowers the microprocessor's voltage enough to cut the power in half.

Palm-Top Printer
Aportable printer that's convenient to use with a laptop or PDA is available from SiPix Inc. Portable computing devices may write to SiPix's Mobile Printer A6 through an infrared port or the supplied RS-232 serial cable. It takes only a minute to print two pages with 95-by-148-mm active image areas--about a third the area of regular letter-sized paper.

The machine draws 15 W through the supplied 9-V, 1.5-A ac adapter; it can also be powered by four AA alkaline batteries. Best of all, using thermographic paper, which reacts to heat induced by small electrical charges across the resistors that form the print head, means there are no messy ribbons or toner cartridges to replace. A roll of thermal printing paper 105 mm wide and 2.5 meters long is included with the printer. Packs containing either six rolls or 100 single sheets of paper can be purchased separately for $9.99.

Price: US $149, SiPix Inc., Milpitas, Calif.,

Coverage for Your PDA
Since multitasking is a virtue, more and more commuters can be found poring over memos and to-do lists as they commute to and from the office. To prevent prying eyes from seeing personal or proprietary information on the liquid-crystal display (LCD) screens of PDAs, Ttools LLC, in Providence, R.I., teamed up with DuPont to create the SOLOvision Security Screen. The device is a thin polymer screen overlay that, when viewed from any angle other than directly in front, obscures the screen's contents and shows a holographic image of a lock and chain.

No need to worry that the plastic security sheet will compromise the performance of a stylus. Not only does it protect the LCD from scratches and dust, but it provides a smoother writing surface for soon-to-be-digitized scrawlings. The sheet, which clings to the handhelds with static electricity, is compatible with most PDAs, Hewlett-Packard's Jornada and Casio's Cassiopeia being two notable exceptions.

Price: US $14.99 (for two), Ttools LLC, Providence, R.I.,

Samsung Digital Audio Player
In carry mode, the Samsung YP-30S looks like a cigarette lighter on a necklace. But closer inspection reveals the little silver case is actually an MP3 player that plays back digital audio music files downloaded from Web sites or transferred from CDs through a PC. It can deliver 4.5 hours of CD-quality music from its 64MB flash memory. The tiny music player, which comes with the necklace, plus earphones, a USB cable for downloading music files from a home computer, and a single AAA battery, weighs only 34 grams.

Price: about US $299, Samsung Electronics Co., Seoul, South Korea,

The Smallest Camera
The 3.34-megapixel Finecam S3 from Kyocera Corp. is billed as the smallest digital camera on the market today. In fact, it's too small for all the buttons and switches needed to manage the features it offers. To get around this, control menus--accessible through the built-in LCD that doubles as a viewfinder and a screen for reviewing pictures--allow a single button to be used for several functions. Unfortunately, this solution encourages heavy use of the relatively energy-hungry LCD, greatly reducing battery life. But the use of LCD menus is typical of most mini-digital cameras.

The Finecam's 2048-by-1536-pixel CCD can capture color, black-and-white, and sepia images, and, like most of the other cameras in this category, it can also record short movies. Since these "films" are essentially a series of shots taken at rates of 10 to 20 per second, the included 16MB MultiMedia card brings the action to a halt after 15 seconds.

Price: US $699, Kyocera Corp., Kyoto, Japan,

3-D Glasses
TDV 3D is a bundled collection of 3-D hardware and software for PCs. The hardware is a set of lightweight LCD shutter glasses, plus supporting equipment that works with a normal computer monitor. The right and left eye lenses are alternately made opaque and transparent by a liquid-crystal layer. Simultaneously, the monitor presents alternate views for the left and right eye. The result is that each eye sees a slightly different picture, producing a 3-D illusion.

The software consists mainly of tools that convert 2-D applications into 3-D ones. For example, the VR Caddy Pro, from VR Standard Corp., Ceritos, Calif., allows games set in a 3-D environment to be rendered in 3-D without a special version of the game. But for players of games that use the OpenGL 3D graphics standard--such as the Quake series--frames may be rendered too slowly because VR Caddy Pro must translate OpenGL commands into Microsoft's native DirectX 3D commands. Proper operation requires perhaps too much fiddling with drivers and configuration settings. However, when running, it gives quite a convincing sense of depth.

Price: US $99.95 (with wireless glasses); $79.95 (wired), TrueDepthVisualization Technologies Corp., New York City,

Digital Camera that Also Makes Prints
All the features of high-end digital cameras and hard instant copies are available in the Olympus C 211 Zoom digital instant camera. It has 2.1-megapixel resolution, a 2-inch color LCD, QuickTime movie-making capability, and color pictures that print on standard Polaroid film in 15 seconds. But the camera has its drawbacks. Its only viewfinder is the LCD, so battery life will naturally suffer. Fortunately, it accepts a number of battery types, including alkaline or NiMH, lithium, or NiCd.

Price: US $799, Olympus America Inc., Melville, N.Y.,

Hard Drives for Storing Photos
With the goal of providing a well-nigh bottomless storage device for digital images at just pennies per megabyte, Minds@Work LLC has introduced the MindStor, which at 142 goft11.jpgby 76 by 30.5 mm is a slimmer, updated version of the Digital Wallet line of portable hard drives. The 5-, 10-, and 20GB hard drives store not only snapshots, but digital audio and e-books (20GB is enough for as many as 20 000 high-resolution photos, more than 366 hours worth of MP3 files, or 20 000 novels of 200 pages each).

Minds@Work has improved the product greatly since the 1999 introduction of the first Digital Wallet, whose data transfer rate was a comparatively snail-like 1.5 Mb/s. To let you spend more time pointing and shooting and less time downloading files through its PC card slot, a Motorola ColdFire microprocessor in the 2.5-inch hard-disk drive has sped things up to between 8 and 12 Mb/s.

To conserve energy (enough to allow 70 PC cards to be downloaded between charges of its NiMH battery), its monochrome LCD does not display images--only directory listings, file names, and the battery's state of charge. You can scroll through photos by connecting the unit to a computer using a USB port. The hard drives are compatible with computers running Windows 98/2000/ME, Mac OS 8.6, or higher, and Linux.

Price: US $329, $429, and $529, respectively, , for the 5GB, 10GB, and 20GB models., Minds@Work LLC, Irvine, Calif.,

The Best Resolution
Perhaps the highest resolution of the new subcompact digital cameras introduced this year belongs to Olympus America Inc.'s 4-megapixel D-40 Zoom. And as if its 2272-by-1704-pixel CCD didn't deliver sharp enough pictures, Olympus includes a software interpolation option it says will yield photos that look as if they were captured by a 7.68-megapixel imager.

It might be better, though, to stick with the highest setting available from the imaging array. Interpolation creates something from nothing by dividing a picture's image area into smaller pixels and then using an algorithm that guesses at color values for the newly created picture elements. The result does not usually make for better photos. And with a camera whose imager captures so many pixels when the shutter is pressed, who needs this option?

A good 35mm camera with a high-quality lens and good film offers resolution that is equivalent to 20 million pixels at best, but more probably is only 8-15 million pixels. Still, for images displayed on computer screens or on prints 5 by 7 inches or smaller, 4 million is more than enough.

The 87-by-68.5-by-43.5-mm D-40 Zoom camera also has a few video bells and whistles. With its image resolution set to 320 by 240 pixels, it will record a 32-second QuickTime Motion JPEG film clip (at 15 frames per second). A 130-second "video" is possible at 160 by 120 pixels, and as many as 10 frames may be digitally stitched together to create a panoramic still image.

The D-40 also comes with a 16MB SmartMedia flash memory card, which is wholly inadequate for a camera delivering images that are each likely to require more than a megabyte of storage. For storing more than a dozen or so pictures, a 64- or even a 128MB memory card (starting at about $50) is a must.

Price: US $800, Olympus America Inc., Melville, N.Y.,

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