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Gadgets & Gizmos

This year’s tech toys help you organize your life, enjoy your hobbies—and get in touch with that inner 12-year-old

Gadgets that are fun to use, look snazzy and actually enhance whatever it is you’re doing are tough to find in one package. Some of my coolest-seeming acquisitions end up proving too annoying (like the fax machine that’s supposed to share my voice phone line) or wind up too quickly outmoded (but I still have a DAT machine).

So it’s nice to lead off this list with a gadget that meets the above requirements. Microsoft’s Fingerprint Reader is smaller than your computer mouse, plugs into a USB port, and replaces all that username-password data entry with the touch of a finger—a finger with a print you’ve previously registered with the unit’s DigitalPersona software. Visit the Web sites on which you’re registered and enter your info once more to teach the reader your passwords, and after that you merely press your fingertip against the sticky, red-lighted recognition window. A beep sounds and you’re in. It works seamlessly with Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer and AOL (which uses IE technology); not surprisingly, given a long-standing animosity, it works only occasionally with Netscape. Be sure to keep a written list of those username-password combos tucked away, too. No sense trusting computers more than we have to.

The hottest item on everybody’s list would seem to be an MP3 player, such as the Apple iPod, but this category is now so popular that it’s been cluttered with a dizzying array of specs and stylings. The smallest and cheapest players, like the Creative Nomad MuVo NX, use flash memory for data storage. They don’t store much and have the most expensive byte-for-byte cost, but they won’t skip when you are. Next up in size are the mini hard-drive units, like the iPod Mini and the Rio Carbon, which sacrifice disk space for size—but they’re not really all that much smaller than players with large hard drives (10 gigabytes or greater), like the Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra, which boasts a capacity of about 17,000 songs. Be sure you’re happy with whatever system your player uses to obtain its music, and hold out for a reasonable display. It takes a lot of downloading and configuration to put your tunes at hand. Me? I’m still using a little minidisc player.

For the well-heeled photography buff, single-lens-reflex (SLR) digital cameras replicate the look and handling of the classic 35mm cameras. The Canon EOS 20D, with an 8 megapixel resolution, costs about $1,400, but wins a high rating on the many reviews I checked. But when I decided recently to upgrade, I stayed with the LCD screen format and chose the Casio Exilim EX-P600, which is available for less than $400. It features a 6 megapixel resolution, 4X optical zoom, very long life on its proprietary battery, and a surprising number of options that can take you anywhere from a range of preconfigured shots to fully manual operation. And, unlike many cameras in its class, it sports an external flash connector, which I often need to use.

Moving from pictures to sound, consider your computer’s crappy speakers, then consider a worthy replacement. Like Logitech’s Z-2300 set of two small speakers and a subwoofer. It’s one of the first sets of computer speakers I’ve heard that begins to approach the sound of a good stereo system, and you need the best you can get if this is where you choose to listen to music. They’re also THX certified for movie-watching use and shouldn’t cost you more than $100, although you may find yourself investing in a better sound card as well.

Another approach is a pair of headphones. For over-the-ear listening, the Grado SR60 is a low-cost standard-setter. They’ve been around for years, but they haven’t been bested. For in-ear use, add the luxury of noise cancellation (especially helpful on an airplane) with the Etymotic ER-6 Isolator. These little guys have the same technology Bose boasts about, to sense constant noise in your environment and filter it out. It feels a bit weird at first, like you’re in a small room with a heavy door that just swung shut, but they’re great when you get used to them.

Given the choice between sharing a train ride with someone canoodling on a cell phone and someone simply noodling on a PDA, give me the latter. So I recommend that you give your loved ones an HP iPaq Pocket PC H1940, which is a classic, deck-of-cards-sized unit that includes a beautiful display, Bluetooth, a secure digital card slot and the usual software suite. If you find data entry with that tiny stylus annoying, try the Think Outside Stowaway Universal Bluetooth keyboard, which, as its name suggests, is a full-sized keyboard that folds to 5½ by 4 by ½ inches.

I’m not going to deal here with cell phones, which are more of a personal choice, but if you’re attached to your camera phone and want to share with the world your artistry, consider the Nokia Medallion II. Wear it around your neck or on your wrist; it displays a clock or any of the eight images you beam from your Nokia phone’s infrared port.

These are still the halcyon days for TV recording, and the TiVo Series 2 DVR gives you a choice of 40, 80 or 140 minutes of recording time, although that time decreases with higher quality settings. For now, you’ll still be able to skip over commercials, although something is in the wind to make sure you’re hit with some kind of ads. But having seen TiVo in action, I’m assured that it’s the only way to take control of your TV set.

Finally, a gift for the true gearhead, especially one with more than one computer, look for an IDE to USB enclosure and converter. Mine was a no-brand-name package I found on eBay, and it works like a charm, letting me mount a 3.5-inch hard drive in the enclosure and attach it as a peripheral to my notebook or desktop computer. I use it as a backup storage device, and it’s come in handy more than once.

—B.A. Nilsson

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