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Holiday Gifts 2008

This year's roundup of gadgets and gizmos

10 min read

World's Cleanest Dirt Bike

The Electric Zero X has zero emissions

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on IEEE SPECTRUM’S HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE 2008

Dirt bikes aren't the cleanest vehicles. There's the noise, oil, and grease, and the noxious fumes from the combustion engine. And then there's all that, um, dirt. The Zero X electric motorcycle, from Zero Motorcycles, in Scotts Valley, Calif., can't do much about that last item, but it's got to be the quietest and least polluting off-road bike around—and the lightest. With an aircraft-quality aluminum chassis, the 64â¿¿kilogram Zero X is less than half the weight of a gas-powered motorcycle. That helps its 20â¿¿horsepower electric motor go from 0 to 48 kilometers per hour (30 miles per hour) in less than 2 seconds. Its lithium-ion battery pack runs for about 60 km on a 2-hour charge.

The Zero X is the brainchild of Neal Saiki, a former aerospace engineer who holds a master's in aeronautical engineering from California Polytechnic State University. While working at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, in Edwards, Calif., he participated in a state-funded panel looking at transportation alternatives. In terms of environmental impact and cost, the panel concluded, electric vehicles overwhelmingly made the most sense.

Saiki left NASA in 1991 and started designing mountain bikes. He never forgot the lesson about electric vehicles, though, and he kept tabs on developments in battery technologies. Finally, in 2005 he saw that lithium-ion packs had achieved sufficient power density to make a good electric motorcycle. He figured motorcycles offered a much easier entry into the electric-vehicle market than cars. Then, too, he'd always had a passion for riding.

Since coming on the market in April, the Zero X has won over quite a few veteran bikers. ”Off-roaders value a lighter-weight bike because it's maneuverable and can handle higher jumps,” Saiki says. When former motocross champion Jeff Emig first rode a Zero X, the bike's speed and acceleration surprised him, and he wiped out almost immediately, Saiki recalls. ”He jumped up, all bloodied, and he said, ’I can't believe I just got thrown by an electric motorcycle! I love this thing!' ”

But the Zero X is also good for complete novices. Just flip a switch and you can reduce its top speed by half; a second switch decreases the acceleration.

At US $7450, the Zero X runs about $1000 more than a conventional 250â¿¿cubic-centimeter bike—but you'll never spend a dime on gas or on filters for the oil and air. The battery pack should last five to six years with normal use, and it takes about 30 seconds to swap it out. ”The battery industry is advancing all the time, with new chemistries and new technologies,” Saiki says. ”We wanted to make it really easy to upgrade the battery pack.”

Currently, the Zero X can be ordered only from the company's Web site, and there's a three-month waiting list, which the company hopes to eliminate by tripling production. For those who must ride before they buy, Zero has models available for test drives at the company's headquarters and 15 other U.S. locations. Bikes for test drives will be available in Europe in 2009.

Kits are also available to convert the Zero X into a ”streetable” bike, Saiki says. A more powerful street-legal model, the Zero Supermoto, will be introduced this January, and the company is already taking orders. --Jean Kumagai


A Laptop on Steroids

The Toshiba Qosmio is more powerful than some desktops—and heavier

Toshiba's new Qosmio G55â¿¿802 notebook computer packs so much power, it can peel the paint off many of today's desktops. Of course, at a hefty 4.9 kilograms, it ought to.

The specs for the Qosmio (pronounced ”KOS-mi-o”) look like a desktop's—and then some. It uses a new chip developed by Toshiba, the Quad Core HD, which acts like a video supercharger for an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU with 4 gigabytes of RAM. And with its 18.4-inch screen and an Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics card, it makes a darn good gaming computer—but, stresses Toshiba product manager Mark Lackey, ”the G55-802 is designed for multimedia enthusiasts.”

The Qosmio is indeed a media maven's dream, with its high-end graphics card, enormous screen, gigabit Ethernet, high-definition multimedia-interface port, 802.11b/g/n, and Wi-Fi. And did we mention its Harmon/Kardon stereo speakers (plus subwoofer) and Dolby Home Theater compatibility?

The Quad Core HD is based on the Cell Broadband Engine, jointly developed by IBM, Sony, and Toshiba. The Cell is famous as the backbone of Sony's PlayStation 3, but so far it hasn't been used much for general-purpose computing. The high end of Cell-based systems is the IBMâ¿¿built US $120 million Roadrunner supercomputer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Cell technology can also be found in products like IBM's BladeCenter QS22. But the Qosmio is the first PC—desktop or notebook—to use the Cell, says Lackey. The company also plans to incorporate the technology in LCD televisions.

Lackey says the Quad Core HD gives the Qosmio a welcome 10â¿¿fold speed boost for video-encoding tasks like downloading from an HD camcorder, converting from videotape, and upscaling your DVDs from standard to high definition. In addition, Toshiba has written or tweaked some video software for the new processor. One program helps users find and select video frames that include a specified face. Another reads hand gestures made in front of the Qosmio's builtâ¿¿in webcam to let you play, pause, or fast-forward a DVD or CD without touching a keyboard or a remote controller.

The Quad Core HD processor doesn't work automatically with existing applications like Adobe Photoshop, although they will run just fine on the computer's Intel processor. So far only a few programs use it, including Toshiba's webcam gesture-control software and its Ulead video-editing software, which come with the computer, and Microsoft PowerPoint.

The Qosmio G55-802 lists for $1549.99, as if adding that extra penny might push potential buyers past their price limit. The Qosmio G55â¿¿801, omitting the Cell processor and some other features, is $250 cheaper. If you need to do serious video work, the G55-802 currently stands alone in its field. And if you don't mind lugging it around, either machine can act as a mobile media center for family trips. ”It plays games great,” Lackey confesses. ”I've used it for Gears of War , Call of Duty , and Dino Crisis. ” —Daniel P. Dern

Photo: Toshiba

Little Flying Wonder


A $50 flying toy avoids obstacles on its own

What's this thing?” my editor asked me the other day, pointing to the FlyTech Bladestar sitting on my desk. It took me a minute to explain.

The Bladestar, by Hong Kong–based WowWee, is a remote controlled rotary-wing flying toy—nope, not a helicopter. It doesn't use a motor to turn its blades. Instead, two little propellers, facing opposite directions, cause the whole craft to spin; the angled blades generate lift.

The manual emphasizes that the Bladestar is for ”indoor use only,” recommending a gymnasium, shopping mall, or garage. I settled for our executive office. Good thing the CEO wasn't in.

The basics of flight are easy: slide the infrared controller's throttle to climb or descend, and press the direction buttons to maneuver forward or backward, left or right. Yes, the craft performs all these maneuvers by varying the speed of the two propellers. (Can anyone work out the control equations for that?)

One cool feature is the autopilot mode. The Bladestar uses two infrared sensors to hover away from ceilings and walls. Nonetheless, the Bladestar has the usual flying-toy fondness for obstacles, and controllability is a bit haphazard. Look out for the vaaaase! But that's part of the fun.

I set as a challenge taking off from the CEO's desk and landing on the conference table across the room. It took me a few tries to succeed. One thing I couldn't test was the midair battle, for which you need two units. The idea is to fire infrared shots at your opponent; the first to get hit three times goes down.

The toy is made of cheap Styrofoam and plastic, but it proved quite crash resistant and, despite warnings about the fast-moving propellers, it did no damage to walls, furniture, or my hands. You get only 5 minutes of flight time; recharging takes 20 minutes.

At US $50, it makes a good holiday gift. Is the Bladestar a ”revolutionary indoor flying machine,” as WowWee claims? It certainly revolves. —Erico Guizzo


Candid Camera

A video camera that fits into a purse is always there when you want it

The Flip Mino series camcorder, by Pure Digital Technologies, is a little gem, and I do mean little. The Mino is even smaller, lighter, and sleeker than last year's Flip Ultra.

In one short month, this 90-gram gadget, measuring 10 by 5 by 1.5 centimeters, has transformed me into a candid-camera mama. I now have images of a 3â¿¿year-old's first gasp at the towering bones of a T. rex and a 6-year-old's madcap rainy-day ”I like mud!” dash through same.

The Mino's resolution is a grainy 640 by 480 pixels, but when played in a YouTube-size box, its movies look fine, even on a high-resolution monitor. More important, the camera self-adjusts to light. Also, the 2x digital zoom works well, and the sound is terrific, with great filtering of nearby noise. Sure, I could have gotten better images from a bulkier camcorder, but so what? I wouldn't have had it with me in the first place.

The Mino is always in my purse or pocket; I've even worn it on a lanyard. What makes such convenience possible is the confluence of inexpensive and virtually weightless 2-gigabyte Secure Digital flash memory cards—a single one can hold an hour of video at the Mino's modest resolution—and better battery technologies. I was still on the initial battery charge after taking 58 short videos, about 45 minutes' worth. Good software helps as well. Moving videos to a Mac or PC is effortless, and the Mino walks you through the installation of some additional video-editing software.

The Mino lists for about US $180, but it shows up regularly on Amazon for under $150. —Sherry Sontag

A Soulful Dinosaur and a Somewhat Obedient Dog

Sensor technologies come of age in a pair of pricey holiday toys for tots

How about taking home a baby triceratops that growls, munches leaves, moves its horns, and plays such classic songs as ”I'm Gonna Catch a Baby Dinosaur”?

True, it doesn't walk, and at first my kids—Sam, 3, and Coby, 6—were disappointed. Still, the 1â¿¿meterâ¿¿long triceratops was long enough and strong enough for even the older boy to ride Kota's spring-loaded seat in place, making her (the kids quickly determined that Kota was a girl) hipper than any hobbyhorse. After some pretty soulful looks, far more than anyone would expect from a mechanical beast, my kids would say goodbye only after lots of dinosaur hugs.

Sam has not yet decided if Kota should be his holiday gift this season, and Coby is trying to talk me into an iPhone instead. They grow up so fast! Parents, too, have a decision to make. Hasbro, Kota's manufacturer, refused to discuss the dinosaur's projected life span, of some concern when getting ready to fork over US $300 for a prehistoric pet—especially in light of reports of durability problems with a Hasbro 2006 pet, the FurReal Friends Butterscotch Pony. Perhaps by Christmas one of Kota's many blogger-admirers will have hacked into her and documented her 11 embedded sensors.

Nearly as cool for the kids—and electronically much more interesting to Mom—was Biscuit($180), a sort of golden retriever puppy who answers to six voice commands. While he only reacted correctly to ”speak,” ”lie down,” and ”shake” about half the time, he responded to anything he didn't recognize with an endearing blink of his eyes, a quizzical tilt of the head, and a bark. What real dog obeys every command anyway? I was impressed that Biscuit did as well as he did without being trained to understand individual voices. Still, both boys would rather have Kota ”cause dinosaurs are just cool.”—Sherry Sontag

Free the AAAA Six!


Inside every 9V battery there are six AAAA batteries

You may not have seen many AAAA batteries yet, but you will. MP3 players, glucose meters, penlights, remote controllers, Bluetooth headsets, and even toothbrushes are increasingly using the smaller size, according to Jon Eager, an aptly named marketing director at Energizer Holdings, in St. Louis.

Weighing only 6.5 grams, AAAAs are as much as 43 percent lighter than AAAs. That makes a big difference when wearing a headset. AAAAs are the same voltage and almost the same length as AAAs but 20 percent thinner.

Naturally, AAAAs don't last nearly as long. Eager says that in a 25â¿¿megawatt test at a continuous drain with a noise-canceling headset, ”the run time for a AAAA is approximately 24 hours, versus a AAA at approximately 55 hours.” At about the same cost, that makes AAAAs relatively expensive to use.

So here's a little trick we picked up from the Web sites Xkcd and Makezine (Metacafe has a nice video report as well). Cut open a 9-volt battery and you'll find six AAAAs wired in series. Xkcd reports that you need to keep track of the polarity because the individual batteries aren't labeled, and you might want to use some silver or aluminum foil to ensure good contact, especially if you use them in place of AAAs. Naturally, Energizer advises against the practice, noting the difference in length and the risk of personal injury.

A twin pack of AAAAs costs US $4 or more. A single 9V battery costs about the same, so freeing the AAAAs within yields four free batteries. Because of the difference in run times, when AAAAs are used in place of AAAs, your ”profit” is roughly two free batteries. —Steven Cherry

iPhone Earbuds Suck

Pardon our bluntness, but they do. They're ill-fitting sound sieves, and people you phone ask if you're calling from inside a NASA wind tunnel. You can't use an ordinary music headset for phone calls because it lacks a microphone, or even for regular music listening, because the iPhone's audio port is too deeply recessed to provide a proper connection for most 2.5-millimeter audio jacks.

Griffin Technology solves these problems in two different ways. Its US $39.99 TuneBuds Mobile earbuds offer a better microphone for speaking and three sets of rubber ear tips for better listening. Its $19.99 SmartTalk audio-jack adapter has its own microphone, so you can use it with any earphones at all. —S.C.

Two FM Transmitters For Your Car


An iPhone or iPod would sure sound sweet through your car's stereo speakers, but how best to do it? Cassette adapters wear out, a tuner that broadcasts to an unused radio station has to be reset to new frequencies as you drive around, and tapping into the stereo's wiring is expensive or messy.

This summer, we tested two new auto-tuning transmitters, the Griffin iTrip Auto with SmartScan, and the Belkin TuneBase FM. The Griffin was considerably better than its predecessors. The Belkin was darn near perfect.

Both devices draw power from the cigarette lighter outlet, not from the iPod, so you can end your road trip with a fully charged iPod. Both come on thick, easily adjusted, flexible stalks.

Both units do their own searching for unused radio frequencies. The iTrip's SmartScan technology finds the quietest frequency and tells you exactly where to tune. It sets up two alternate locations in case you want to switch, and you can also store favorite locations. Unfortunately, the small OLED display is extremely reflective and nearly impossible to read in bright sunlight. And the three-button interface and menus are not intuitive.

The TuneBase doesn't choose a station for you. It has two buttons for seeking up and down the dial, just like your car's stereo, except that your stereo seeks frequencies with strong signals, while the Belkin seeks the reverse. When it finds one it likes, the frequency is displayed in large, easy-to-read digits. You can then manually change to that station on the car's radio, or—and this is the best part—you can use the radio's seek function, because the Belkin unit is now broadcasting a strong signal on that frequency.

—Steven Cherry & Tekla S. Perry

Recharging On the Go

Your iPhone battery is so low on power that a telephony coma is imminent, and you need to run some errands. It's no problem, though, if you have the Mophie Juice Pack.

The pricey ”pack” is an 84-gram lithium polymer battery, measuring 10 by 11 by 2 centimeters, that looks like half a carrying case. My wife so enjoys the added heft and the hard-rubber texture that she wants to keep her phone in it all the time, a practical enough idea if she remembers to recharge the Juice Pack every few days. According to Mophie, the Juice Pack extends a first-generation iPhone's battery up to 250 standby hours, 8 hours of talk time, or 24 hours of audio playback. For the iPhone 3G, the stats are said to be even better. —S.C

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to IEEE SPECTRUM’S HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE 2008

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