Getting to grips with gadgets

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It used to be that an explanation on new technology products could conveniently divide itself into three separate sections of use: personal, home and office. Each section would have its own array of products and its own technical jargon. Prices and functionality would invariably increase along a fairly even trajectory the closer you moved to the bulky world of corporate computing and communication. Mixing was not only discouraged (by most manufacturers and advertisers alike, who relied on profits from segmented markets), it was, well, downright impossible.

Alas, the world has changed. The techno-reviewer of old no longer has the benefit of clear boundary lines, much less a limited number of product lines from a limited number of well-known companies. Prosumer (professional/consumer). Convergence. Mobility. These are the current buzzwords used by the growing number of gadget magazines and websites, a phenomenon matched by the equally growing field of technology products.

In the midst of such confusion there is, of course, an abundance of pitfalls and opportunities – for both the daring reviewer and consumer. Price. Compatibility. Functionality. Durability. Though all these factors must be taken into account – and all present there own problems even now – rare is the techno-purchase that successfully navigates between all four. Rarer still is the consumer who can avoid the fifth axis, the ‘golden rule’ of techno-gadgetry: Thou shall not purchase or attempt to put to use a useless invention. Although a new gadget may indeed have its “uses,” if it is quickly shelved – as many PDAs have been – or is not updated with the latest virus protection or software updates, then it essentially becomes “useless.” (Try reviving that first generation PDA that you never got to work and you will quickly discover that it is basically “useless”). “People don’t realize that much of this technology needs to be maintained, it needs to be constantly updated. If is not, then it quickly becomes useless,” said Karim Harb, a Lebanese technologist, telecommunications expert and gadget aficionado. In Lebanon, of course, consumers face their own unique challenges since not all of the more basic functions of certain innovations can be used here. Wi-Fi, for example, the popular wireless internet and home/office networking technology, is only legal in a small number of areas, while Voice Over Internet Protocol technology, or internet telephony, is barred outside of intra-building use. As such, mobile PDAs and laptops, or office phones, lose key elements of their overall convergence capability.

And one should not forget that the Lebanese consumer also faces a final problem in the world of techno-gadgetry. “You don’t have any stores that are dedicated to gadgets,” explained Harb with a simple shrug of his shoulders to accentuate his annoyance. “You had the 460 store that was open on Hamra street – it closed down because the market was too small. Now all gadget stores are small sections of bigger stores – like at BHV and Virgin, for example. They don’t have a permanent supply of new stuff that comes out and you are never sure if you will find what you are looking for.” Supply problems aside, and with a wary eye towards overdoing it, there are indeed a number of recently introduced or improved technology products that can offer both the frugal and free-spending Lebanese consumer a wealth of innovative, productive and downright entertaining improvements to everyday life – at home, alone or at work.

Digital music players

One of the clear leaders in the general category of ‘improving life as we know it’ is, of course, the digital music player. In this arena, an epic fight is shaping up between Apple’s iPod and Sony’s new Walkman. Unfortunately, when Sony Corp. president, Kunitake Ando, showed off his company’s latest challenge to Apple’s increasing dominance in the area of sleek MP3 players, he held the so-called Network Walkman upside down.

It was not a good start.

Since that time, the 20 Gigabyte player, priced at around $400, has met with mixed reviews. Even on Sony’s home turf in Japan, press reports have been ebullient over the Japanese consumers’ apparent fascination with the iPod. The Walkman is “impossibly slim,” as some reviewers have put it, at 14mm (it is roughly the length of a credit card). It can store around 13,000 songs encoded on Sony’s ATRAC3 format and has a battery life of 30 hours (the iPod now lasts 12). Of course, the 13,000 song claim is a bit overstated – to get that much onto the Walkman, a lot of compression is necessary which degrades the sound. The iPod, for its part, can offer up to 40 gigabytes for around $600 – its 20 Gig version that ships soon is $100 less than the new Sony entrant. iPod is also comparable in thinness, though a bit heavier than the Walkman. Significantly though, it syncs up through either a PC or a Mac (the Walkman works only with PCs) to Apple’s iTunes online music service that has been wildly popular – songs are 99 cents for download. Although iPod has apparently not yet caught on with the Lebanese consumer, its ease of use and flexibility will make it stand out even as it benefits from Sony’s own push to increase the worldwide desirability of the digital music player.

When PDA, cell phone and camera meet

On the higher end of the market, two all-in-one phones immediately stand out: Sony Ericsson’s new P910, which ships this fall, and the new iMate II. Although the Ericsson model is priced around $900 (the latest iMate sells for around $1,300), both offer comparable, that is, suburb features. Both can support huge memory sticks, up to one gigabyte, for loads of pictures (although the quality ceiling here is lower than most of the mid-range digital cameras). When used with a DVD burner and encoder software, you can view your favorite movies on each device’s color screen in stereophonic sound with a smooth playback. Both offer mobile internet, chat, email and a wide range of Windows XP supported applications – including all standard PDA functions. Both also sync up wirelessly to laptops and are GSM Tri-Band phones. Although the processor is more powerful on the iMate II, the P910 is still a very imposing device with more than enough processing power to get most jobs done. [START OPTIONAL TRIM]On the lower end of the almost converged market, both the new Sprint PM-8920 camera phone and the Palmone Zire PDA immediately come to mind for. The Sprint phone is priced at $300 and offers some modest PDA features. Significantly, it is the Sprint’s first megapixel camera, which means the quality of its images can finally compete with the mid-range digital cameras. Palmone’s new PDA entry, for its part, priced at a mere $150 dollars, comes highly recommended by the tech press. It includes wireless synching, handwriting recognition technology, 8MB of memory, a full range of PDA features and what is described by some as “an iPod look and feel.” It is a solid purchase for the first time PDA buyer that just needs basic applications and ease of use. [END OPTIONAL TRIM]

For those of you who still like the good old fashioned cellphone, Seimens’ new M65 won’t let you down. It’s rugged design with rubber seals and protective metal frame mean it’s water resistant, dust and shockproof as well as offering integrated VGA photos and a video camera, all for $399

Phone accessories

No matter what device you purchase, a few accessories now on the market can fairly be described as “must haves.” One is Plantronics’ M3000 Wireless headset for cell phones. At $100 and with eight hours of battery life, it makes driving and talking safe and easy. So too does the new Q2 XDA from iMate, which is around $150. The wireless device hooks up to a car stereo and essentially operates the phone (kept in your briefcase if you wish) via a small touchpad on the dashboard. And finally, there is the Smart solar charger, which for $60, uses the sun to recharge or operate a cell phone. Ideal if you’re in a jam, but beware of uselessness: it could take up to eight hours or more for a full charge… and it has to be sunny out.

Digital cameras

Two recent cameras, one from Canon and one from Sony, seem to be sweeping the technology award world (an admittedly strange world). The Canon EOS 300D, priced at around $600, truly puts the “pro into prosumer.” The camera offers 6.3 megapixels for great pictures at any size. It is not meant to fit into a shirt pocket, however; it is meant to take great pictures with the ease and immediacy of a digital, and it does that better than its rivals. The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W1, Sony’s latest Cyber-Shot product, is now in stores for around the same price as the Canon. It weighs in at five megapixels, has a large 2.5 inch solar LCD screen and is far smaller than the Canon. Excellent, in other words if resolution and size are what you’re after. Mini hard drives

Although one gig mini hard drives that fit on a key chain are now available for around $400, Jetflash’s 256 MB mini drive provides the best value at $85. Mini hard drives are simple in their construction, so no need to buy for the name.

The ‘World’s Smallest’ Notebook PC, portable DVD player

From the manufacturer Lilliput comes the impressively small Life Book P7010. At 1.4 kilos, the 10.6 inch screen can indeed seem like just a screen – or one of those not-quite-accepted tablet PCs that are supposed to merge laptops and tower PCs. At around $2,000, you get a powerful enough processor, based on the new Intel Centrino mobile technology, all standard Windows-based functionality and a CD-RW/DVD drive.

Even though it’s small, you could also probably use a Wi-Fi finder with the notebook so you don’t have to take it out every time you want to see if an Internet hotspot is available. At $35, Kensington’s keychain Wi-Fi finder is ideal.

If you don’t want everything bundled together, however, or you want a larger screen for mere viewing, then the new Designer Vision DVD player, out this fall, may be perfect. The battery can last up to six hours, and the flip-screen set up is 7 inches. Though in the middle in terms of size –is well worth the $600 cost for its design, picture quality and sturdiness.

LCD and Plasma Screens The high end and increasingly the medium level marketplace for TVs has decidedly turned toward two options: LCD and plasma. Traditionally used for laptop monitors and small screen devices, LCD TVs generally offer a longer viewing life and sharper picture. Plasmas generally have a brighter picture and greater viewing angles. LCDs, however, are generally restricted to a smaller screen size – Samsung, in fact, recently rolled out the largest LCD at 42 inches. Plasmas can get significantly bigger. Price is, of course, a huge factor here, since LCDs are generally 20% more expensive than plasmas, although LCD prices are dropping faster than plasmas. That said, one new offering from NEC, their 40 inch LCD screen which acts seamlessly as both a computer monitor and TV, is priced at only $4,000. At a resolution of 1280X1024, the NEC model clearly beats the new Blautech 42 inch plasma screen, also priced at $4,000 (the Blautech plasma only gets 800X640 resolution). On the higher end, there is, naturally, Sony. Here, especially, one can see the price difference between LCD and plasma – the new Sony 42 inch plasma screen, the KE-42TSE, is priced at 6,000. The best Sony LCD, the KDL-L42MRX1, is a whopping $14,000. The resolution on both Sony screens is superior to the lesser priced competitors; what’s more both have built in tuners, so the total package is remarkably compact and slender.

Accompanying any plasma or LCD purchase is, necessarily, the home theatre. MSI offers what is essentially a PC to operate the NEC screen. At $1,000, when combined with a Logitech 5.1 surround sound system (500 watts) for $400, what you get is a fast computer, a terrific flat screen and a home theater to go along with it. All run on Windows XP and have all of the capabilities of any new desktop computer setup: DVD player, CD writer etc. It is, in short, one of the best convergence offerings out there, in terms of both value and functionality, for the home.

If, however, you want an even more powerful, crisp and compact sound system for the home theater, then Bose is the clear leader. The new Lifestyle 35, which just hit stores, offers a five inch speaker array for full 5.1 surround sound, accompanied by a DVD/CD player. The package is steeply priced at $3,485. But, as with Sony, what you are paying for is the name, the quality and the service which goes along with the label.

Video recorders

As hard drive prices have come down dramatically, and as the number of channels has increased exponentially, the home video recorder has become an indispensable part of the home theatre experience. Two options jump out. First is the newly launched Samsung DVD-HR700. The global leader in digital convergence technology, Samsung’s new recorder, priced at around $700, allows users to record in three different formats, including DVD-RAM, which allows for remarkable flexibility in the types of devices that can play any recordings. The recorder is capable of 160 hours of taping, without comprising the high quality of the video that is captured and can also play and record simultaneously (an especially convenient function). At 69mm, it’s also a sleek complement to any equally slender flat screen. For work…at home or at the office

While laptops and computers have been getting more powerful and cheaper on a fairly predictable curve, several new market entrants offer some dramatic improvements over current offerings. One of these is Samsung’s all-in-one printer that actually seems to make good on the promise of convergence. The SCX-4100 is a black and white laser printer, digital copier and color scanner. Priced at less than $200, the machine puts laser printing within reach of the average desktop setup. At 600 dots per inch, color scans up to 4,800 dots per inch and 14 pages per minute, the printer is especially efficient. At 16 inches by 15 inches, it is also perfect for cramped dorm rooms. [BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM] At $369, HP’s new Photo smart 7760 offers what many families, individuals and companies want –a color printer that can print borderless pictures in brilliant resolution while tackling the everyday demands of document printing. The printer links easily to digital cameras, can print up to 21 pages per minute black and white (16 color), and carries an easy to use 4.6 inch LCD screen for fairly simple navigation. [END TRIM] Meanwhile the $1,200 WorkCentre M15 from Xerox offers 15 A4 prints per minute, crisp 1200 dpi print resolution, two-sided network printing, digital copying, electronic collation, color scanning and faxing. It really is a small and remarkably powerful machine. While the printers may be the workhorses of the desktop set-up, video projectors are fast becoming a necessary compliment in their own right. At under $2,000, it is now possible to have one of the clearest projection images available on the market. The Hitachi PJ-TX100, recently debuted, offers simple menu control, multiple connection ports for every imaginable device and a lightweight design that makes it easy to carry around for any kind of presentation – entertainment business or otherwise. Finally, for the truly converged home or office, there are Cisco’s IP phones. Although IP telephony is illegal in Lebanon, it is legal to use the technology within a company’s walls. This doesn’t really help the home user much, but for companies, the technology has been a boon. Cisco recently built a converged voice, video and data network for Kuwait’s Arraya Center that, at its core, is based on the IP telephones. It also did so recently for one large Lebanese company that is now saving almost $300,000 per year in maintenance and equipment fees. While Cisco’s offerings are more expensive than regular office phones, the value and savings come through the added functionality. Phones like the 79xx can reach up to $300, but by collapsing separate voice and data networks, thus eliminating separate maintenance charges, and by allowing for email, voicemail synching, plug-and-play capability, the IP phones are indeed the way we will all speak and share information in the coming years.


*Note: The internet prices that appear in the article may vary, sometimes substantially from local in-store prices.