From a consumer-electronics standpoint, 2004 marked the reemergence of the video-game industry as a major economic force, the beginnings of the commoditization of the PC market, and the further spread of pervasive wireless technologies into every facet of our lives. As consumers, we can now choose from a bewildering array of digital devices, services, and technologies, all of which seek to bring us to the exalted state of nerdvana. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: There's never been a better time to be a consumer, and this year, companies such as Apple Computer, Dell, and Sony are providing the most exciting consumer-electronics gadgets from which to pick. Here are some of the most exciting tech toys of 2004.
In 2004, Microsoft's Pocket PC platform finally caught up to the Palm OS if you measure just PDA sales (Palm still leads if you count smart phones), marking an important milestone in the battle for the hearts and minds of PDA buyers. This year was also a year of consolidation. Both Sony and Toshiba exited the PDA market in 2004, leaving both the Palm OS and Pocket PC markets with one less competitor. However, this exodus from what is becoming a mature market shouldn't deter you from considering a PDA. The remaining players are offering wares that are stronger than ever and, in some cases, devices that can rival the power of full-fledged PCs.
Today's PDAs typically offer 64MB of RAM or more, Bluetooth and/or 802.11b wireless networking in all but the cheapest models, expandability via Secure Digital (SD) or CompactFlash (CF), and vibrant color screens. Some even offer stunning 640 x 480 VGA resolution and the ability to work with the device in landscape mode, in addition to the more standard portrait mode. These types of capabilities, when combined with a wireless keyboard, transform some PDAs into potential laptop replacements, especially for those who like to travel light.
In the Pocket PC market, the recent release of Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition marks a new era in multimedia, graphics, and performance, with Windows Mobile 2003 SE-based PDAs offering a much more polished experience than models based on previous versions. A role reversal has also occurred this year. In 2004, the beta Pocket PCs were made by PC giant Dell, which also provides amazingly affordable prices that are constantly buttressed by instant deals, sales, and other money-saving offers. Dell offers two lines of Pocket PC devices, and both are the market leaders in their respective classes. At the entry level, the company offers its Axim X30 with 312MHz & Integrated Wireless ($388), which provides a 312MHz XScale processor, 32MB of RAM, 32MB of ROM, and a removable battery. Two other Axim X30 models up the ante: For $280, you can get a version of the Axim X30 312 MHz that adds 802.11b wireless and Bluetooth, and provides 64MB of RAM and 64MB of ROM. For just $314, Dell offers the Axim X30 with 312MHz & Integrated Wireless, which adds a powerful 624MHz XScale processor to the mix. All these models are new in 2004 and replace the similar Axim X3 that Dell sold previously.
Also new in 2004 is the high-end Axim X50, also available in three models, which feature 416MHz ($270), 520MHz ($360), and 624MHz ($450) processors, respectively. All Axim X50 devices feature 64MB of RAM, a removable battery, integrated Bluetooth and 802.11b wireless networking, and both SD and CF expansion slots. The top two models feature 128MB of ROM, whereas the lower-end model includes 64MB of ROM. Unique to the highest-end model is a stunning—and I mean absolutely best-of-class stunning—480 x 640 VGA screen and a multimedia accelerator (basically a graphics card, a first for a PDA) that includes 16MB of discrete video memory. These devices are simply the best that are available and, contrary to the prices quoted above, are almost always available for much less—sometimes hundreds of dollars less.
On the Palm OS side of the fence, PalmONE has emerged as the dominant player now that Sony has abandoned the market. Fortunately, most of Palm's products are excellent. Its consumer-oriented Zire models are in some ways emblematic of the soul of Palm: They're elegant looking, simple to use, and—thanks to newer processors and screens—generally faster and more colorful than previous models. The PalmONE Zire 31 ($150) features a bright 160 x 160 color screen, a 200MHz processor, and SD expansion, making it the perfect solution for budget-conscious shoppers. Step up a model, and the Zire 72 ($300) adds a larger 320 x 240 color screen, a faster 312MHz XScale processor, Bluetooth, and a 1.2-megapixel camera. The Zire 72 also includes software that's compatible with Microsoft Office applications such as Word and Excel.
For corporate customers or consumers looking for more professional equipment, PalmONE also offers its line of Tungsten handhelds. The Tungsten T5 ($400) is new this year, but I recommend skipping it for the previous model, the Tungsten T3 ($350), which is still available. Unlike the T5, the T3 includes an amazing stretch display that lets the unit maintain a compact shape and size when you're not using it, for easier portability. But when you stretch the display out, you can take full advantage of its panoramic 320 x 480 resolution, which works in both landscape and portrait modes. The T3 also features a powerful 400MHz XScale processor and 64MB of RAM, which is high for a Palm-type device.
If you're looking for a more traditional Palm device, the budget-priced Tungsten E3 ($200) might interest you. This classically designed model recalls the popular Palm V/500 models from yesteryear but provides modern amenities such as a 126MHz OMAP processor, a 320 x 320 color screen, 32MB of RAM, and SD expansion. Like the Zire models, the E3 doesn't include a docking station, but its clean design will likely win many fans. (Palm's most popular models these days, the Treo devices, are technically smart phones, so we'll look at them in the next section.)
PDA Add-Ons and Accessories
Out of the box, a PDA is only as useful as its bundled features and software, but today's PDAs are wonderfully expandable and almost any PDA owner would benefit from one or more accessories and add-ons. Most PDAs now sport SD expansion, which is typically used for removable memory. Today, you can find SD memory cards in sizes ranging from 32MB to 1GB, and the prices have come down dramatically: If you shop around, it's possible to find 1GB SD cards from companies such as Lexar for less than $100 online. When shopping for memory, however, you might consider performance to be a more important factor than price. If that's the case, look for High Speed 32X SD memory cards, which offer twice the speed of normal SD. You can find these in sizes ranging from 256MB to 1GB.
CF memory cards are also available in a bewildering array of sizes and choices. These flash-based memory cards typically come in sizes ranging from 32MB to a whopping 8GB, but some of the basic units are fairly poor performers. So be sure to look for CF that offers at least 12X speeds, though 40X and even 80X CF are now available. Also of interest are CF-based microdrives, which provide miniature hard drives in a CF form factor for surprisingly affordable prices. For example, a 4GB Hitachi MicroDrive typically costs about $220, whereas the price tag of a 2GB version is less than $125.
PDA-using travelers can benefit from a number of other PDA accessories. Chief among them is a wireless keyboard. A number of Pocket PC- and Palm-specific solutions are out there, but the best I've seen is the cross-platform PalmONE Universal Wireless Keyboard ($50), which works with virtually all Pocket PC and Palm OS units. This keyboard has two other huge advantages, as well: It works with your PDA in either landscape or portrait mode, thanks to a unique swiveling infrared (IR) sensor and PDA cradle, and it features a lay-flat keyboard design, unlike early PDA keyboards, which means you can actually use it on your lap if you have to.
PDA users can also always use USB-based charger and sync cables, which provide a single-cable solution to the two most-needed PDA tasks for users on the go. Belkin makes a wide range of such cables, at about $20 each, that fit virtually any PDA model. And you can also find a wide range of other add-ons, such as Bluetooth adapters and wireless adapters, from Belkin and a host of other companies.
Another interesting and emerging solution that PDA users might be interested in is a Global Positioning System (GPS) solution, which provides the hardware and software you need to turn your PDA into a fully functioning GPS system. I'm a huge fan of Dell's GPS Navigation System ($210), which requires a Bluetooth-enabled Pocket PC device. The system ships with a hardware GPS device and cables, and uses NAVTEQ-based maps that cover the entire continental United States, so you'll never get lost—or have trouble finding the type of restaurant you want—again.
Cell Phones and Smart Phones
It's time to face facts. Most of us would rather give up our firstborn child than our cell phones. OK, maybe that statement is a little extreme. But cell phones are so popular that finding payphones in major US cities is next to impossible, and people seem to switch carriers and cell phone models on an ongoing basis, thanks to federal deregulation and an increasingly powerful generation of new devices. Although the line between cell phones and smart phones blurred further this year, think of the situation this way: A cell phone is a phone first, but often with added features such as personal information manager (PIM), downloadable ring tones, games, and integrated cameras. Smart phones are designed from the outset as computer-like devices that combine phone capabilities with an embedded PC-like OS from BlackBerry, Microsoft, or PalmONE. They create an integrated experience that links to your PC and that you can use, in many cases, as a replacement for multiple devices, including PDAs, MP3 players, and digital cameras.
Although vendors now offer many popular cell phones—the availability of which, inexplicably, is still wrongly tied to your choice of wireless carrier—one of the most popular cell phones is LG Electronics' VX7000 ($200), which features 4MB of RAM storage for games, ring tones, and other downloads—far more RAM than most cell phones offer. The VX7000 also sports a 262,000-color main screen and a 4096-color exterior screen, both of which are mounted inside the unit's clamshell design. Like many modern cell phones, the VX7000 also includes an integrated digital camera.
Moving over to the smart phone side of the equation, two major players emerge. First, PalmOne's Treo 650 ($600) continues the Treo line's success with some snappy improvements such as a faster 312MHz microprocessor, 23MB of RAM, a brighter touch screen, a removable battery, and MP3 playback functionality. The Treo 650 also includes Bluetooth, a low-resolution digital camera, and numerous ways to dial the phone, including the typical keyboard, a virtual keypad, speed dial, and voice dial.
Once an eccentric sideshow in the PDA market, BlackBerry is suddenly the industry's darling and widely acknowledged for kicking off the whole smart phone craze. This year's best device is the BlackBerry 7100t ($200 with an applicable T-Mobile plan, typically $60 per month), which abandons the wedge-like shapes BlackBerry once provided in favor of a more standard cell phone-like body. (The BlackBerry 7520 continues the wider body style that the classic BlackBerry devices use.) The 7100t provides the same email, Instant Messaging (IM), Short Message Service (SMS), and PIM functionality for which these devices are famous, but includes new SureType keyboard technology that makes typing long messages on a tiny keypad easier by anticipating what you're trying to write and providing hints. The device offers 32MB of RAM, a gorgeous color UI, and various hands-free features.
Cell Phone and Smart Phone Add-Ons and Accessories
Cell phones and smart phones, even more so than PDAs, lend themselves to various add-ons and accessories, including home and car chargers, leather cases, and headsets. Because so many of these add-ons and accessories are device-specific, I'll concentrate on an excellent new solution that works equally well with many popular phones.
You've seen cell phone headsets. And I'm sure you've even seen wireless cell phone headsets. What you might not have seen yet is Aliph's Jawbone ($150), an incredible adaptive unit that does for headsets what noise-canceling technology does for headphones. You really need to see (or, more accurately, hear) this device to appreciate it. This little miracle of modern engineering cancels out background noise so that your voice—either live or to voice mail—comes through loud and clear and all background noise doesn't. I tested the Jawbone at the DigitalLife trade show in October by leaving a message on my cell phone's voicemail during a busy and loud event, and Aliph's representative turned on and off the noise-suppression feature so that I could hear the difference: astonishing and highly recommended. Jawbone works with phones from Motorola, Nokia, and Sony Ericsson.
If 2003 was the year when legal digital music downloads went mainstream with the popular Apple iTunes Music Store, 2004 was the year when the rest of the industry threw down the gauntlet and let Apple know that it wasn't going to have this crucial market to itself. Today, you can purchase music online from a variety of services, subscribe to music and online radio from multiple stores, and choose from a growing market of flash- and hard disk-based MP3 players that let you take your purchased tunes with you. And let's not forget the car. Satellite radio came on strong in 2004, with subscriptions reaching into the millions.
Online Music Services
Although the iTunes Music Store has sold hundreds of millions of songs, Apple's service is no longer the best or most desirable one, unless you have an Apple iPod (see below), in which case all bets are off. Instead, I recommend services that offer better compatibility with portable devices and higher-quality downloads, such as MSN Music, RealNetworks' RealPlayer Music Store, and the Musicmatch Music Store. The services offer individual song downloads for about 99 cents and full albums for about $10.
One of the more innovative services available, Napster To Go ($14.95 a month) offers subscription-based access to Napster's massive music collection. And if you have a compatible portable device such as a Portable Media Center, you can even copy those subscription-based songs to the device and listen to them away from the computer.
Apple's stunning iPod is the world's most elegant hard disk-based MP3 player. But this year, the iPod has some surprisingly viable competition. Flash-based players are still popular because of their portability, although the so-called mini-type players, which use smaller hard disks, will likely prove to be the most popular models over the long run.
For traditional MP3 players, the fourth-generation iPod is the machine to beat, although all of Apple's machines are quite expensive. If you can swing it and don't mind the incompatibility with non-iTunes stores, I recommend the 20GB ($300) and 40GB ($400) models over the awful-looking 20GB iPod U2 Special Edition ($350) and the ultra-expensive color iPod Photo ($500 to $600). Today's iPods offer better battery life than last year's models, as well as a new design that includes an elegant click wheel that replaces the dodgy buttons that the third-generation iPods used.
Can't handle the iPod premium? Or maybe you just like the idea of buying music online at any number of online music services? Either way, the MP3 to beat is the Dell Digital Jukebox $250), a 20GB unit that features a brand-new design and mechanical buttons that are almost impossible to trigger by mistake. And because we're talking about Dell, the DJ is often available for much less than $250, assuming you don't mind riding the wave of Dell's ever-shifting pricing strategies.
On the mini-player front, the picture gets a bit muddier, but you have several cool options from which to choose. Skip the over-priced, over-hyped, and underpowered iPod Mini and go for Creative Labs' ZEN MICRO ($250), a gorgeous device that bests the iPod Mini with its choice of 10 colors, 5GB of storage, an FM radio and recorder, a voice recorder, and up to 12 hours of battery life. It's the coolest player out there. But not by much. Another great mini player is the svelte little Rio Carbon ($210), which also features 5GB of storage in a beautiful little package. The Dell Pocket Digital Jukebox MP3 Player ($200), which offers an iPod Mini-like case, 5GB of storage, and 10 hours of battery life (with the caveat, again, that Dell's prices can become lower at any time), is also interesting.
If you must get a flash-based player, consider SanDisk's Digital Audio Player, which comes in 256MB ($65) and 1GB ($140) versions. Both units are powered by one AAA battery and feature an innovative controller pad and an FM radio. Also worth considering is Creative Labs' MuVo Micro line, which ships in several versions, including a 512MB model ($120). These products feature a variety of color options and can plug directly into your PC's USB 2.0 port.
Like BlackBerry devices and TiVos, satellite radio used to be a niche product used only by a small crowd of enthusiasts. That all changed in 2004, when services such as SIRIUS Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio really took off with both car manufacturers and consumers. Today, you'll find several satellite-radio solutions for home, automobile, and even portable players. I personally prefer the XM service to SIRIUS, although shock jock Howard Stern's recent defection to SIRIUS will likely change the competitive picture next year.
On the portable front, XM's Delphi XM MyFi ($350 plus XM's $10 monthly fee) bears some mention. This iPod-like device looks like any other MP3 player, with one huge exception: Inside its tiny body is an XM Satellite Radio receiver that lets you access the service from anywhere. It also includes a home kit and an car kit so that you can play back that content through other stereo systems. Best of all, you can record and store up to 5 hours of XM programming on the device for later playback, giving the Delphi XM MyFi a "TiVo-to-go" effect.
Digital Music Add-Ons and Accessories
If you're shopping for a digital music lover, you have a lot of options, including headphones, devices that can connect portable audio players to home and car stereos, and even gift certificates for online music services. Depending on your PC's age, a USB 2.0, FireWire, or combination USB 2.0/FireWire adapter card ($20 to $50, depending on the maker) should fit the bill and will give you the ports you need to connect portable devices and other accessories to your PC.
My headphone advice hasn't changed much from last year. The best of the lot is Bose's QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones ($300), which offer a full over-the-ear design but fold nicely into a small traveling package; I wouldn't fly or commute without them. If the Bose headphones are two unwieldy or expensive, consider a pair of Sony headphones, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The Sony MDR-NC11 Noise Canceling Headphones ($150) are tiny, ear-bud-style headphones that can reduce outside noise by as much as 70 percent. They aren't powerful enough to throttle the sound from a jet engine, but they're more manageable on city streets.
If you spent a lot of money on an iPod and think you should be able to use it more often, several companies offer jukebox systems into which you can plug the portable player. Then you can use it like a boombox. The best of the lot is Bose's SoundDock Digital Music System ($300), which is basically a giant pair of Bose speakers with a dock for your iPod and a credit-card-sized remote control. Like most Bose equipment, it's great looking and sounds fantastic.
The awkwardly named Sony MiniDisc and Discman Cassette Adapter CPA-9C ($20) is basically a glorified tape adapter, but it does the job well and sounds better than FM-based solutions. To play music from the device through your car's stereo, you plug the adapter into your car's cassette player, then insert the other end into the line-out port on your portable audio player. Don't leave home without one—unless, of course, you don't have a cassette player in your car.
If you're looking for a music-oriented gift, consider a gift certificate. You probably have no idea what kind of music your friends or family like, anyway. Apple, Napster, and other companies offer virtual gift certificates, and you've probably seen Napster's gift cards and Track Packs, which let you buy music in bulk for less cost per song—in stores such as Best Buy. For example, a 50-song Track Pack costs $40. Uncomfortable with digital music? Get a gift certificate from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, or any other place where you'd buy music in CD form.
When it comes to memories, no format is more popular than digital photography. Today, everything from notebook computers to cell phones to PDAs seem to have some kind of embedded camera built into them, and with prices for dedicated digital cameras falling almost daily, you almost don't have an excuse not to go digital.
If you're shopping for a digital camera this year, you should be thinking about a model with at least 4 megapixels of resolution, enough for a poster-sized print. Also be sure to check certain features carefully. Camera makers like to push a feature called digital zoom, but this is a software-based option and not indicative of a camera's true quality. Be sure to judge cameras based on optical zoom, which will likely be in the 2x to 4x range. And don't skimp on memory cards. Digital photos take up a lot of space, so be sure to get several 512MB or larger SD, Memory Stick, or CF memory cards, depending on which camera you use (different types of cameras take different memory cards).
For all but professional photographers, I recommend a point-and-click camera, which won't require that you tweak features or switch lenses. Also, such a camera will likely fit in your pocket and be highly portable. My favorite cameras include the Canon PowerShot A95 ($350), a 5-megapixel unit, and the Canon PowerShot SD20 ($325), an ultraportable 5-megapixel camera that comes in a variety of colors. Also of note is Sony's CyberShot DSC-P93 ($300), another 5-megapixel model.
If you must get a Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, consider Nikon's D70 Outfit ($1000 for body only), a 6-megapixel wonder with almost no shutter lag and a burst mode that lets you take three shots per second. It's not cheap, but it's one of the best. Another contender is the Canon EOS 20D ($1400 for body only), which features an astonishing 8 megapixels and speeds similar to that of the Nikon. If these cameras are too expensive for your pocketbook, fret not. The Canon EOS Digital Rebel ($800 for body only) offers 6.3 megapixels at a startlingly low price for that kind of resolution.
But just because you take digital photos doesn't mean you don't occasionally need some old-fashioned paper-based photo love. Online services such as Kodak's Ofoto let you order prints online and access a wide range of photo-related products, including photo cards, calendars, mugs, photo books, frames, and even mouse pads. You can also access similar services through software such as Adobe PhotoShop Elements 3.0 ($100) and Adobe PhotoShop Album 2.0 ($50), both of which are excellent and highly recommended.
You might also consider a photo printer or photo-printer supplies, such as paper, ink, or even USB cables (various prices). But a photo printer also makes a great gift, and for a surprisingly low price you can get exceptional quality that rivals the best photo prints you can purchase anywhere. This year's crop of photo printers, not coincidentally, is the best yet.
Epson's Stylus Photo R800 ($400) is one of the best photo printers available today in its price range. It features stunning print quality, fast printing (well, compared with other photo printers), and can even print directly to compatible CDs and DVDs, which is a nice touch.HP's Photosmart 7960 ($200) is another great choice and at a bargain price. This model features a small LCD for previewing images, which is handy because the device can print directly from HP digital cameras or many types of digital media memory cards. For a bargain basement deal, consider Epson's Stylus C84 ($75), which offers high-quality printing for a surprisingly low cost.
Digital Video and Digital Movies
Although digital movie making has yet to find the same widespread audience that digital photography enjoys, it's only a matter of time, thanks to a new generation of easy-to-use software and hardware.
On the hardware end, a DV camcorder is a must-have for any growing family, especially if you've planned a trip to Disney World or Europe in the near future. I've always tended toward Canon's line of ZR-series camcorders, which this year are exemplified by the ZR85 ($300) and ZR90 ($400) models. The ZR85 includes a 20X optical zoom and an SD card slot for taking still images. The ZR90 bumps things up a notch with a 22X optical zoom. Both models are also smaller than last year's entries.
The Canon units are what I call traditional camcorders, but an upcoming generation of trendsetting, nontraditional camcorders will likely dominate the market in the years ahead. We can see the beginnings of this trend now with models such as the Panasonic D-snap SV-AV100 SD Video Camera ($400), which comes in a tiny form factor and uses SD memory cards, rather than tape, for storage. Weighing just a third of a pound and fitting in the palm of your hand, the D-snap can shoot MPEG-4 video at 30 frames per second. It also includes a 2-megapixel digital camera.
The Philips Key019 ($215) is another amazingly small, nonstandard camcorder. This unit literally fits on a keychain and includes a tiny 128MB of storage. But it can still record up to 25 minutes of MPEG-4 video, and because of its small size, it's always available. Indeed, it looks like a USB-based flash drive, not a camcorder.
Macs come with FireWire ports as standard equipment, but most PCs still don't for some reason, so you'll need FireWire expansion card to connect that DV camcorder. One option is the IOGEAR Hi-Speed USB 2.0/Firewire Combo PCI Card ($40), which provides three USB 2.0 ports and two FireWire ports.
To digitally record TV shows, your best bet is Windows XP Media Center Edition ($135), which you will generally receive with a new Media Center PC. The best models are from HP, which offers a standard tower PC design, the HP m1000 series ($1000 to $1200), and the amazing HP Digital Entertainment Center ($1500 to $2000), which looks like home stereo equipment. For a small-form-factor Media Center PC, consider the Dell Dimension 4700C ($1100), which uses many parts from the company's successful laptop lines. You can also augment Media Center PCs with Media Center Extenders, which let you remotely access your recorded TV shows and other content from any PC in the house. The best buy is the Linksys Media Center Extender WMCE54AG ($250), which supports Ethernet, 802.11a, and 802.11g connections.
If a Media Center PC seems too expensive, think about TiVo, a set-top box-based digital video recorder (DVR). This year, TiVo added a DVD Recorder with TiVo to its product lineup, and that's my choice: For $400, you get up to 80 hours of recorded TV, and a DVD burner for archiving shows and watching DVD movies. You can even connect a DV camcorder to the front of the unit and record home movies directly to DVD. However, you must subscribe to the TiVo service for $12.95 a month, or $299 for the product's lifetime.
But Wait, There's More...
In the next installment of Connected Home Express, I'll conclude this guide with a look at wireless technologies, mobile technologies, TVs, video games and controllers, and a host of other cool tech gifts.