Cover Story: Jonesing for a Gadget Fix

No shortage of stuff for your high-tech loved ones

 
Ryan Greis



Both traditional and Internet-based stores are jammed full of an unprecedented array of the cutting edge, completely unnecessary and totally indulgent products that are a gadget lover's fix.

Competing for attention this holiday season will be, among hundreds of other items, digital cameras, MP3 players, CD recorders, DVD players, personal digital assistants, minicomputers and a new crop of Web-capable cell phones. Technology is hijacking the world and, in the process, spewing out an endless stream of gadgets.

Even if you don't crave the latest electronic goods, this gadget-rich environment makes it easy to shop for your friends and family members who do. So don't disappoint them with clothes or books or anything else that doesn't need batteries or have a power cord.

Following are a few ideas certain to satisfy cravings for high-tech gadgetry.

Streaming audio is hot and getting hotter. Each day, millions of Web-connected listeners tune to live radio broadcasts (see Digital Wire column in this issue) and, as more homes plug in through high-speed connections, this audience is growing rapidly. But, unable to pump this rich harvest of music from their computers to their home stereos, most listeners enjoy it only when they're seated at PCs.

Several new products will liberate Internet music from its captivity within the computer.

The SonicBox iM Remote Tuner ($99.95) uses the 900 MHz frequency to transmit MP3 music or Web radio programming from computers to stereo systems. The transmission, which travels through walls and floors, has a range of up to 65 feet. On the receiving end, a radio-like dial allows users to select from 800 broadcast and Internet-only stations affiliated with SonicBox. A portion of this dial is reserved for listener-selected station presets and for transmitting MP3 music stored on the computer's hard drive.

Acer NeWeb Corporation, a division of computer manufacturing behemoth The Acer Group, also markets this same product under the name iRythm ($119.95).

Akoo.com offers a similar wireless transmitter, the Kima ($149.95). With the higher price comes a 1,000-foot range and the ability to transmit not only Internet radio broadcasts and MP3 music but also any video and audio signal, such as satellite and cable television broadcasts and VCR, DVD and CD output, to televisions and stereos throughout the house.

When the Kerbango 100E Internet Radio ($299.95) is introduced in January, it will bypass the computer entirely, plucking Internet music from the Web through DSL, ISDN or cable broadband connections plugged directly into it. If the price eventually drops on this product, its stand-alone capabilities and updated, stylized antique radio appearance could garner a big following.

Technology might also change the way we watch television. The Sony Glasstron video display unit ($399.99) is a pair of glasses that, when plugged into a camcorder, TV, VCR, DVD player or even Playstation video game, reproduces the feeling of viewing a 52-inch screen TV from six feet away. The unit works by projecting an LCD image onto two small mirrors, which then reflect the image onto each of the Glasstron's lenses. When viewed together just a few centimeters from the eyes, the two images blend into one and create an effect that many product reviewers have compared to watching a movie in a theater. Although the glasses weigh only 3.5 ounces, they produce a 180,000-pixel picture and include stereo headphones with surround sound and bass enhancement effects.

Camera-maker Olympus manufactures a similar product, Eye-Trek ($849), that produces a virtual 62-inch image. California-based i-O Display Systems has entered i-glasses ($399) into the personal video display market.

And it seems that even the simple picture frame isn't immune to the relentless advancement of technology. At least three companies have introduced a new generation of frames that display digital images instead of pictures printed on paper.

The Ceiva Digital Picture Frame ($249.95) not only stores images but also receives those that are uploaded to it via the Ceiva Web site. Snap a picture of your child with a digital camera or scan a paper picture into your computer, and you can upload the digital image to Grandma's Ceiva frame that same day. The receiving frame need not be connected to a computer, but it must be plugged into a telephone line or broadband connection, and users must subscribe to the Ceiva network for $49.95 per year.

The Sony Cyberframe ($699.95), displays either still images or short movies in the MPEG format on a full color, 5 1/2-inch LCD screen. The images, which can be accompanied by short sound clips, are stored on Sony's Memory Stick media. The frame is capable of converting a series of still photos into a slide show that flips past as quickly as one image every three seconds or as slowly as one picture per day. Cyberframe accommodates resolutions ranging from 160-by-112 to 1600-by-1200.

Video Chip Technologies' Photo Wallet ($349) is a pocket-sized, battery-operated digital picture frame that allows viewers to scroll through pictures and provides presentation-style effects, such as fade-outs, between the images. Photo Wallet uses the popular CompactFlash cards to store pictures, although SmartMedia cards can be used with a special adapter. The unit displays photos in 24-bit color at 320-by-240 resolution.

If none of these items seem like the perfect gift, check out www.gadgetuniverse.com. Offering everything from $14.95 lighted screwdrivers to a $13,900 electric vehicle, this site neatly organizes an exhaustive collection of gadgets into an intriguing and easily navigated online store. Meanwhile, www.gizmomall.com adds an $18,500 ultralight airplane and a helicopterlike personal flying machine (not yet priced, available soon) to the usual array of gadgets. And www.cooltekstuff.com sells nothing directly but provides links to dozens of online electronic and gadget stores.

So, whether you like gadgets or know someone who does, the technological explosion has left you with more choices than ever before.

All prices listed above are representative retail prices. Product Web sites contain detailed information on the items; the sites don't all sell the product directly, but most guide potential buyers to retail dealers. ©

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