Gifts for the Holidays 2003

The Big Shrink in electronics continues, this year pushing mechanical recording and playback out and putting mini semiconductor memory cards in. Shoppers looking for the perfect gift will find everything from camcorders that perch on their palm to video players that fit in their pocket.

9 min read

In Your Dreams

The camcorder of your dreams is small enough to slide into your pocket and big enough, memory-wise, to record every bit of your kid's school play. The newest camcorder from Panasonic Consumer Electronics (Secaucus, N.J.), the SV-AV100 D-Snap SD, meets that first criterion, but not the second. At 32 by 54 by 89 mm, it is just thick enough to accommodate the housing for its 10x optical zoom lens, but is still smaller than most digital point-and-shoot still cameras.

Panasonic's engineers shoehorned the camcorder into a package this small by relying on semiconductor SD memory cards instead of cassette tapes or mini-DVDs and the mechanical components that move them and imprint them with data. But getting rid of mechanical recording media was not as simple as swapping a tape deck for a memory card reader. Panasonic claims to be the first to find a way to transfer data to removable storage cards at data rates approaching 10MB/s—the rates necessary to achieve DVD quality.

As for memory capacity, the D-Snap could do better. The included 512MB SD memory card holds only an hour of video encoded in the MPEG-4 format; MPEG-2 recordings, whose data compression is not as efficient, fill it up after 20 minutes. Look to spend around US $200 for a second 512MB SD card, presently the most storage you can get on an SD card. The storage capacity of the memory card evenly matches the battery's performance. Even without energy-sucking mechanical components in the camera, the included lithium-ion battery delivers only one hour of recording time, so you'll probably want a backup.

Swiss Army Camera?

Though not quite as small as Sony's Qualia [next page], the SV-AS10 from Panasonic Consumer Electronics (Secaucus, N.J.) elicits plenty of oohs and ahhs because it is a decent camera, and more. A built-in microphone enables it to double as a digital voice recorder and it can play MP3 music files over a pair of speakers. It can also shoot video, creating QuickTime and JPEG video files.

At two megapixels, the SV-AS10 doesn't sacrifice the features that make for quality images, like a high-resolution imager or built-in flash. It has a 1.5-inch color LCD screen that displays images either one by one or six thumbnail-sized versions at a time. A self-timer allows the photographer also to be in a photo.

The unit, a very slim 10 mm thick, 103 mm high, and 51 mm wide, comes with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and recharging cradle, as well as an ac adapter, a USB cable for transferring images to a computer or storage device, and remote control headphones with which the user can control the MP3 player functions without touching the camera.

"I Read You, Over."

Push-to-Talk (PTT) cellphones have been big for years with construction and trucking firms, but they're only now catching on with consumers. Nextel Communications (Reston, Va.) has long had the PTT feature, essentially a two-way radio that the user operates like a standard walkie-talkie, in its wireless phones. Now Verizon Wireless (Bedminster, N.J.) has added this service, too, and targeted it for consumers—though its rate plans are higher. For unlimited walkie-talkie use and 500 minutes of cellular talk at peak hours, Nextel charges US $55.99 a month. The equivalent Verizon plan will set you back $69.99.

Nextel has made the most of its early entry in PTT. It bought many of the choicest frequencies for PTT service in most of the largest U.S. and international cellular service markets. So Nextel may have better geographic coverage and better transmission quality in most areas.

With PTT, it's possible to talk to relatively large groups of people at the same time. But as with walkie-talkies, only one person may speak at a time. The phones send half-duplex signals over the 800-MHz, 900-MHz, and 1.5-GHz bands of the broadcast spectrum reserved for specialized mobile radio services. The audio is digitized, then compressed. Voice packets are relayed to a cellular base station, routed through the carrier's network, and rebroadcast from the tower closest to each recipient. The system duplicates the packets for each one.

For now, the only handset maker in the walkie-talkie phone arena is Motorola Inc. (Schaumburg, Ill.), which invented the technology for two-way-radio cellphones. So far, Verizon offers only one phone with this capability: the $349 Motorola V60p. Nextel has seven, plus a Blackberry phone with a built-in keyboard for sending wireless e-mail.

Keychain Camera

The Limit in Miniaturization may have been reached with the Sony Qualia 016, a two-megapixel digital camera the size of a big man's thumb. Rather than jettisoning features found in more normal-size cameras, engineers at Sony Corp. (Tokyo) crammed lots of them into the camera's 69-by-24-by-17-mm aluminum body. It has an autofocus lens that Sony claims is the smallest available, a 0.55-inch color LCD screen, and an electronic touchpad for adjusting the camera's settings instead of the buttons typical of other cameras. The camera also takes advantage of a newly developed lithium-ion battery that, despite being the size of a pat of butter, provides enough energy for 350 shots or just under an hour on standby.

Cameras this small are hard to hold still, leading to blurry images. The Qualia 016 has what Sony calls a digital vibration offset feature that takes four consecutive shots for each image. Internal image-control software uses the shots to create a single, clear composite. The composite images are saved on Sony's Memory Stick Duo removable storage media.

The camera comes in a case that holds a host of accessories such as a wide-angle and a telephoto lens, a flash unit, a flash mount just in case the user wants to attach a more powerful flash, three of the tiny lithium-ion batteries, and a battery charger.

Hot-Wired Housekeeper

Let's see... there's the dry cleaning to pick up, the laundry to do, and the grass to mow. But at least you don't have to vacuum the floor yourself—or so promises iRobot Corp. (Burlington, Mass.), maker of the Roomba Pro Elite Robotic FloorVac.  Imagine a large hockey puck, 34 cm in diameter, that can clean a floor on its own. Set down in the middle of a room, it will travel in a spiral until the entire floor has been covered—and vacuumed.

Unfortunately, the Roomba's gyrations are so fascinating that people tend to sit around and watch it, which doesn't give them any more free time. One improvement over the first version released more than a year ago is a remote control for directing the machine's movements. The user can, for instance, hit the spot-cleaning mode that restricts the vacuum to just a small area where, say, a plant has been knocked over and dirt spilled.

The Roomba handles obstacles well, its manufacturer says. When it encounters, for example, a couch, it will bump it gently, then begin cleaning along its edge. Side brushes are supposed to reach out into corners that are nearly impossible to reach with an ordinary vacuum.

Two new gimmicks help keep the Roomba out of harm's way. An edge detector, an array of infrared sensors, picks up changes in surface level greater than 1.25 cm and turns the vacuum away, keeping it from, say, tumbling down stairs. It's also possible to keep the Roomba out of areas containing fragile things it might damage. This is done with an included "virtual wall," which looks like a fancy bookend. Placed at the point where the machine should stop, it emits a signal to which the vacuum responds as though a real wall were blocking its path. Additional wall units are US $34.95; an extra battery, $59.95.

A Sharper Image, a Lower Price

A major combatant in the desktop computer wars, Gateway Inc. (Poway, Calif.) is taking on digital camera makers. The company has introduced 2- and 5-megapixel cameras small enough to fit in your pocket and cheaper than comparable models on the market. In fact, the 2-megapixel DC-T20 camera, at US $130, costs about as much as cameras in the 1-megapixel-and-under category. While images produced by these low-resolution devices are no good for making prints, the DC-T20's are more than adequate.

The DC-T20 has a 1600-by-1200-pixel CMOS sensor, making it one of the first relatively low-priced cameras to use this cheaper alternative to the usual charge-coupled device (CCD) imager. Unlike CCDs, CMOS imagers are true "cameras-on-a-chip." Nearly everything needed to run a CMOS device is already on the chip, whereas CCDs require as many as eight supporting chips plus multiple voltage sources to control them.

The camera's 8MB internal memory can store about eight or nine JPEG image files before any storage card is inserted in the built-in SD memory card slot. The camera runs on two AA batteries, which makes it unique among digital cameras. Most use custom rechargeable batteries, as does Gateway's 5-megapixel camera, so a replacement, if it runs down, may be hard to find.

Incidentally, Gateway boasts about the T20's 2X digital zoom. This tries to approximate optical zoom, where the lens actually moves in order to make an object seem closer to the camera.

The 5-megapixel T50 has a 2650-by-1920-pixel CCD imager and a 3X optical zoom. It produces image files in JPEG, DCF (a form of JPEG that includes headers required by some file-reading programs), and DPOF formats that can be stored on the included 32MB SD memory card (though the files are so large that the card will hold only about 20 images). A rechargeable lithium-ion battery is included.

As with many digital cameras, both come with the usual software for helping photographers improve their shots by, say, cropping or lightening them, and correcting common problems such as red eye.

See and Say

Videophones have got to be one of the sorriest misfires in technology history. Still, tinkerers just won't give up. The latest attempt is the Beamer TV Videophone from Vialta Inc. (Fremont, Calif.). It connects to both a standard phone line and a TV set. You pick up the phone and see whoever's calling, provided they also have the videophone. The experience does not add to the cost of the call.

The set-top box, which is about the size of a VHS cassette tape, has a CMOS camera in front that captures between four and 15 frames per second, depending on the quality of the user's phone connection. The unit compresses the image data and transmits it to the other end, using the standard ITU H.324 videoconferencing protocol, at speeds up to 33.6 kB/s. The relatively low data transfer rate means that yawning or turning one's head to the side might cause images to blur. But it's enough to let grandma see a newborn and hear it coo, too.

At any time, either party can prevent the other from seeing what they are doing by engaging the Snapshot/Privacy option. It directs the device to send a single, high-resolution image and stop transmitting video, without interrupting the audio transmission. The video feed can be restarted at any time.

Boredom? What's that?

What if you could carry most of your CD collection, half a dozen of your favorite movies, your digital photo library, and hundreds of important documents with you wherever you go? Well, now you can with either of two versions of the Archos Video AV300-series Cinema-To-Go from Archos (Igny, France). The devices store all this data on built-in 20-GB and 40-GB hard drives.

The Nintendo Game Boy-sized Cinema-To-Go records programs from TVs, VCRs, and DVD players and stores them as MPEG-4 video files. It also accepts MPEG-4 video files transferred from a PC. The same linkup, via an included USB 2.0 cable (or optional FireWire cable), will transfer MP3 music files, digital photos, and even PowerPoint presentations onto the device.

But as its name suggests, the Cinema-To-Go is not just for storage. Any of the video or still photo files on the hard drive can be played back on the device's 3.8-inch color LCD screen or on a TV set or PC monitor. A jack for earphones lets the user play back a movie or his favorite songs without disturbing anyone nearby.

Accessories include memory card readers for transferring files from, say, a digital camera or camcorder. The card readers—one each for Compact Flash cards and SmartMedia cards and a third one that takes both Memory Sticks and MultiMedia Cards—are US $29.95. If you don't already have a digital camera, you can pick up the inexpensive AVCam 300 ($200), a 3.3-megapixel digital still camera that also transfers MPEG-4 video directly onto the Cinema-To-Go's hard disk.

Stocking Stuffers

E-commerce may have taken a downturn since the tech bubble burst in 2000, but one product category that has continued to flourish on the Internet is the growing number of quirky little electronic gadgets that extend the capabilities of other consumer electronics items or are simply for fun. Dozens of e-retailers have sprung up, some hawking a wide range of products made by contract manufacturers. Others—mainly start-ups—sell their own inventions. Some of the offerings include:

Iomega Mini USB drive

Price: US $60 (128 MB)/$100 (256 MB)

USB flash drives that make a fashion statement. The 128- or 256-MB drives, at 40 by 18 by 8 mm, are the smallest seen yet. They can be worn on their included neck chains (and look like dog tags) or on keychain rings; a selection of removable caps lets the user change color on a whim, and the included cable glows blue when in use.

USB phone charger

Price: £13 (US $21)

A charger the size of a Saltine cracker that has a USB connector on one end and an adapter compatible with a range of cellphone models on the other. The USB connection lets a phone draw power from the USB port on a laptop or PC.

FX100 Keyboard

Price: US $59.95-$99.95

A portable keyboard for PDAs made of silicone rubber rolls up into the size of an egg roll, making it easy to stow. Tapping its dome-shaped keys puts tiny carbon pucks mounted underneath in contact with conductive ink that has been silk-screened onto a sheet of polyester film. The keyboard comes in four models, one for each of the palmtop operating systems, plus a USB model for connecting directly to a PC.

Game Boy + Movies

Price: US $35 (¥3800)

No longer is the handheld Game Boy Advance from Nintendo good only for video games. A new adapter from am3 Inc. (Tokyo) allows it to play movies and more. The am3 Game Boy Advance Smart Media Player plugs in like an ordinary game cartridge. A 256MB Smart Media card holds about three hours of video.

For now, the media player is available only in Japan, where prerecorded content, such as movies, animated TV shows, music videos, and e-books, is available. Users will be able to fill their memory cards at special kiosks in shopping malls. (for sales)

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