This year's roundup of gadgets and gizmos
As the gift-giving season approaches, the dizzying variety of electronic gadgets and gizmos is greater than ever, and making a choice, especially if you have a technophile in mind, has never been tougher. But something from among the items collected here might strike your fancy. They include a pen from Logitech that stores handwritten notes in flash memory; several thumb-size removable hard drives that store hefty amounts of data in a device that clips onto a key ring; a cordless headset for a Bluetooth-enabled phone; and some of the smallest cameras yet, to say nothing of a pair of the personal digital system (PDA)/cellphone hybrids that may win your attention as a cellphone but then turn out to be far more than that.
The Power of the Pen
When is a pen more than a pen? When it has an optical sensor to capture your pen strokes, a processor to digitize them, and onboard flash memory to store up to 40 pages of notes.
The digital Logitech io Pen is significatly fatter than a ballpoint, but comfortable in the hand and surprisingly light (53 grams with cap). Scribble your notes, diagrams, or to-do and calendar items on special paper [see "Swedish Start-Up Puts New Spin on Pen and Paper," IEEE Spectrum, July 2001, pp. 34-36] that helps the optics orient itself in following the text. The paper comes in three varieties: in a familiar Mead notebook, as 3M Post-It notes, or in a FranklinCovey day planner.
Put the pen in its cradle for synchronization through the cradle's USB connection with your Windows 98/Me/2000/XP computer. From there your notes may be stored or e-mailed using software included in the starter package, which comes complete with pen, cradle, five ink cartridges, an 80-page notebook, and 50 Post-Its. The day planner dubbed iScribe is available online from its manufacturer. The io Pen will hit retail shelves in January but until then will be available only online.
Price: US $50 (iScribe) http://www.franklincovey.com
Do-It-All Devices at Far Different Prices
The T-Mobile Sidekick is the latest of the sleek PDA/phone hybrids introduced this year. The 175-gram device, about the size of a bar of soap, has a 6.5-cm LCD display, which swivels away from the unit to reveal a Qwerty keyboard somewhat larger than the microscopic type on two-way pagers [photos,]. Best of all, it costs only US $200 (with activation agreement), compared to $599 for a Nokia 9290 Communicator, the class in the field.
The Sidekick, developed by Danger Technologies (Palo Alto, Calif.), doesn't offer everything its competitor does, but it has many important features—and in some ways outshines its pricier rival. Both have always-on Internet connections, but the Sidekick is faster, transferring data at a rate of 53.6 kb/s, versus 14.4 kb/s for the Communicator. The devices cut down on download times, pulling up stripped-down versions of Web pages and images.
Both offer AOL Instant Messenger and wireless e-mail with support for attachments such as Word documents, JPEGs, and Adobe PDF files. The Nokia phone has an edge here because its screen displays pages in 4096 colors, while the Sidekick does its work in monochrome.
The Communicator also has multimedia capability. It comes with software that converts multiple file types, so you can send, receive, and view video clips, digital images, and music.
giftf2b.jpg On the other hand, the Sidekick's headphone jack doubles as a port for an optional camera attachment; it takes snapshots that it could then send via e-mail. Handy as it is, the Communicator does not take pictures.
For e-mail, the Communicator supports many mail protocols; the Sidekick supports comparatively few. The phones are also remarkably similar in the features and functions available for personal information management (PIM), such as an address book, to-do list, and scheduler.
The Sidekick's data-syncing capability is limited. For the initial transfer of data from a PC, the user must upload the information to T-Mobile's Web site, which then forwards it to the device. After that, all additions have to be done manually and syncing with programs such as Outlook is not an option. The Nokia Communicator, on the other hand, syncs readily with PCs using common PIM applications.
When talking, you can either hold the T-Mobile unit up to your face—rather awkwardly—or use it with a hands-free headset. Although a bit clunky compared to the average cellphone you might see on the street, when held to the ear, the Communicator feels like you're talking through a phone instead of a Nintendo GameBoy. And any misgivings about its size are sure to be squelched when it is opened lengthwise to reveal its full Qwerty keyboard and color screen. The Communicator can also send and receive faxes.
Price: US $200 http://tmobile.com/
Price: US $599 http://www.nokiausa.com/communicator
Making the Walls Talk
If you've ever wanted to share what you were listening to on a portable MP3 player with a group of friends but had no way to amplify the music, look into the Soundbug mini-loudspeaker. About the size of a computer mouse, it turns ordinary flat surfaces such as tabletops, doors, or windows into sounding boards that could really blast out your song files. Wave Industries Ltd. has exploited the properties of a material dubbed Terfenol-D. Developed by the U.S. Navy to improve sonar, the so-called smart material is highly responsive to magnetic fields or low-voltage electrical signals generated by, you guessed it, an MP3 player. It responds by expanding and contracting strongly, making it well suited for converting the electrical signals to sound. Placed in contact with a resonating surface, it turns the surface into a loudspeaker with 75-dBm peak volume.
The Soundbug attaches to surfaces via a suction cup on its base and plugs into the standard 3.5-mm headphone socket of products like portable CD, MP3, Minidisc, and cassette players, hand-held game consoles, camcorders, and laptop computers. Two Soundbugs can be parallelled for stereo sound. As for controls, you have three options: off, quiet, and loud. A power-save mode automatically shuts the unit off when no audio source is detected, extending the life of the three AAA batteries that power it to four hours of continuous play.
Price: US $49.95 at the manufacturer's Web site, http://www.soundbug-us.com/, but it sells for $29.95 at http://www.thinkgeek.com.
Home Networking Goes Plug and Play
What if you could share broadband access across several computers in different rooms without ripping up the walls to install Ethernet cable everywhere? That's the strength of IEEE 802.11b or Wi-Fi wireless networking, which just got even less troublesome with home networking kits from Microsoft Broadband Networking Group.
Setting up a wireless LAN and ensuring the network is secure can be tricky. Microsoft simplifies the experience by clearly diagramming how to wirelessly network two or more PCs using a base station and either a USB or notebook PC Wi-Fi adapter—the items in the kit. The diagram also illustrates how to link the network to a broadband modem. Those with one already connected to a PC by an Ethernet are shown on the same diagram how to connect that wired PC to the now-wireless network.
With the physical network in place, a setup wizard detects the PC's Internet service provider and modem settings and automatically configures the attached computer. The wizard copies the Wi-Fi network settings to an (included) setup disk, eliminating the need to jot down settings and lengthy encryption keys for setting up and securing the other PC. The 128-bit wired-equivalent protection (WEP) encryption is turned on by default to prevent wireless eavesdropping. A built-in firewall is also part of the package.
Bluetooth Headset Cuts the Cord
The HBH-30 headset for Bluetooth-enabled cellphones has cut the cord attaching headsets to phones and portable music players. It's one of the first products of a joint venture between consumer electronics giants Sony and Ericsson.
Matching a phone and headset is simple. The headset is "discovered" by a Bluetooth-enabled device, such as Sony Ericsson's T68i mobile phone, once the headset's control button is pushed for about 10 seconds. Thereafter, the devices automatically discover each other and connect when the phone's Bluetooth capability is enabled and the headset is in range. To prevent confusion, neither the phone nor the headset will respond to a device to which they have not been formally introduced.
If your phone supports voice dialing, you can initiate calls from the headset by pressing a button on its earpiece and saying one of the previously programmed names. The 28-gram device has a maximum standby time of up to four days and talk time of up to four hours.
Along with the headset comes a Sony Ericsson phone charger that plugs into it without a cradle. Included are a belt pouch and a small adhesive-backed holder for a car so the headset is within easy reach when driving.
Packing in Extras
The Casio Exilim EX-M1, which is roughly the size of an audiocassette, recently lost the title of the world's thinnest digital camera to the Pocket Digital. But the 12.4-mm-thick unit certainly justifies its extra space, packing in an MP3 player and a media card slot that supplements its 12MB built-in flash memory.
Still, the Exilim is diminutive enough that a couple of breakthroughs in component manufacturing were needed in order to stuff these features inside. The camera's space-saving lens-CCD unit provides 1.3-megapixel (1280 by 960) resolution without interpolation. It also boasts a 4-cm color liquid-crystal display that allows you to review images on the spot.
The guts of the camera, including its CPU, RAM, and flash memory, are squeezed onto a single chip, leaving room for a built-in flash—another camera staple that couldn't be shoehorned into its slimmer competitor. Mode memory retains preconfigured settings (like zoom and flash) when you turn it off, restoring them when you power back up.
Like the Pocket Digital, the Exilim is powered by a lithium-ion battery whose energy is topped up whenever it is connected via its docking station to a computer for downloading image files. It also comes with remote control stereo headphones for listening to the MP3 files.
Price: US $349 http://exilim.casio.com
Spies may line up to trade in their Minoxes when they discover the Pocket Digital camera from Logitech Inc. It could easily be mistaken for a business card holder, but press the tiny button on the back, and the 6-mm-thick device takes a fairly decent snapshot. Its CMOS image sensor draws only 15 mW—a good bit less than typical CMOS sensors and far less than the charge-coupled devices in most high-end digital cameras. This miserly use of energy means it is unlikely that the camera's lithium polymer battery will run out of juice before a secret agent can fill the Pocket Digital's internal, 16MB NAND flash memory.
The CMOS sensor has only 300 000 pixels, but Pocket Digital is marketed as a 1.3-megapixel camera. The extra million or so pixels are added through software interpolation that occurs as images are being uploaded to a computer. To boost resolution, SMaL Camera Technologies, which licensed the components to Logitech, developed a proprietary technology called Autobrite. Autobrite improves the dynamic range of CMOS and CCD sensors, letting them capture images with wide variations in light levels without some elements of a photograph being too dark or too washed out to register.
Naturally, to put the camera in a body this small, some features that are standard on bigger, more expensive models had to be jettisoned. For example, an optical viewfinder replaces a liquid-crystal display, and there's no built-in flash.
The Pocket Digital comes with download software and a driver that allow the choice of which images to transfer.
Price: US $129.95. http://www.logitech.com
Time Flashes By
Imagine being asked the time and giving it after glancing over at what appears to most people to be nothing more than a badly wired traffic light or your kid's winning science fair entry. The BC-10 TimeCube binary clock, which displays the time with a panel of six by four LEDs, is bound to be a conversation starter. The columns represent the numbers one, two, four, or eight (from right to left), and the rows assign two LEDs each to the hour, minute, and second.
Thus, to represent the numeral nine in, for instance, 12:59:51, the first and fourth diodes on the fourth row would be lit up. A few seconds later, at 1:00, none of the diodes would be aglow except the first one on the second row.
The circuit board is encased in a translucent red or green plastic case that opens up to allow access to three time-set buttons. The TimeCube is available as a kit or fully assembled at the online store, Electronics USA. The store also sells a host of other gadgets such as a wireless digital audio transmitter that allows you to broadcast sound from, say, a CD player to a nearby FM radio.
Another (less expensive) version, which works essentially the same way but is reminiscent of a control panel from "Star Trek"'s Enterprise, is available from the folks at thinkgeek.com. Theirs sells for $19.99.
Tons of Storage on a Key Ring
Taking your files with you is much less of a hassle, thanks to a hot new product: portable, solid-state memories no bigger than a pack of chewing gum. The devices, which rely on nonvolatile EEPROMs of varying capacities, plug into a USB port and are recognized by the computer as just another removable drive. The dozens (or even hundreds) of megabytes some of them hold (with 1GB and 2GB models on the way), suits them better than floppy or even Zip disks for storing digital images, music files, and very long documents.
Many have a clip or ring so they may be attached to a set of keys, hence their being called memory keys. Other advantages over Zip disks include a smaller, sturdier form factor, faster access, and no moving parts subject to wear. And they come in different strokes for different folks.
Eutron SpA's PicoDisk
- Price: €82.50 (64MB model), 124 (128MB model) http://www.eutron.com/pico.asp
Nomad MuVo memory key
- Price: US $129.99 (64MB model) $169.99 (128MB model) http://www.nomadworld.com
- Price: US $99 (64MB model) http://www.trekstorusa.com
- Price: €129 (128MB model), €229 (256MB model) http://www.pendriveshop.de