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Gadgets as Gifts 2004:
Gizmos for Your Gadgets (12/2004)
by Douglas Dixon
Consumer Electronics Gifts
Direct to DVD With DVD Recorders
Snapshot Printers for Digital Cameras
Web Sharing for Picture Phones
Lipstick-Size Portable Media Players
See also: DualDisc: Music on CD
plus DVD / Portable Storage Products
Got gadgets? Looking for a cool electronic gizmo for this holiday season?
You're not the only one -- did you see the lines at the electronics store on the
Friday after Thanksgiving? In fact, the Consumer Electronics Association reports
that 76 percent of U.S. consumers plan to buy at least one consumer electronics
product as a gift during the upcoming holiday shopping season. Even in these
uncertain times, the CEA reports that 73 percent of consumers expect to spend as
much or more money on holiday gifts this year than last, with an average gift
budget of $602 per household. And of course self-styled tech enthusiasts expect
to spend up to twice as much.
Hot this year: DVD recorders, snapshot printers, cell phone
cameras, portable media players
The hot products this year? To some extent it's the usual suspects -- digital
cameras, DVD players, portable music players, cell phones. And as usual, the
latest crop of gadgets are better, cheaper, and smaller -- but there are limits:
there's only so far you can shrink devices before they are too tiny to be
usable, and anyway manufacturers would rather hold the price point higher and
add more features to the new products.
What's new this year is the interconnection of these devices -- and their
independence from the personal computer. Much to the horror of Steve Jobs and
Bill Gates, the vision of a computer-centric digital media future is being
busted by wired and wireless connections, including cameras that dock directly
with printers, cell phones that post directly to the Internet, and portable
devices that can bring your music, photos, and video wherever you go.
Here's some examples of products that can warm up your holidays.
It's official: digital cameras are the number one gadget gift for the
holidays. In its annual survey of U.S. consumers, the Consumer Electronics
Association (www.cea.org) reports that 29
percent of consumers are interested in buying one as a gift. This even stronger
popularity of digital cameras is driven by the continued drop in prices, as well
as the fact that there's plenty of room for growth -- the CEA estimates digital
cameras have penetrated only 39 percent of U.S. households.
This rise of digital cameras has dethroned DVD players, which have
been the hottest gift over the past several years, but dropped this year to
around 25 percent of consumers expecting to give one as a gift. Even though DVD
players are ridiculously inexpensive, this change is the result of the
tremendous popularity of DVD, which has pushed the penetration to around 70
percent of U.S. households. The other change for DVD has been the advent of
affordable DVD recorders that combine the functions of DVD players, VHS
recorders, and TiVo time-shift recording. As a result, DVD recorders are on 24
percent of gift shopping lists, joined by portable DVD players at 18 percent.
Beyond the living room television, today's busy lifestyle also requires
portable entertainment devices to go. As a result, portable music products
remain very popular gift items, with portable headset CD/cassette players
on 27 percent of lists and portable MP3 players at 20 percent. The mini
MP3 player category is exploding, with triple-digit growth this year, moving up
from around 13 percent household penetration.
The other hot on the move product, of course, is mobile phones, with cell
phones on 28 percent of gift lists and cordless phones on 27 percent.
These are particularly important for teens, as the CEA estimates that 80 percent
of teens use wireless phones. Satellite radio is also growing in
interest, especially among tech enthusiasts.
Among this cornucopia of consumer electronics devices, we have almost lost
sight of personal computers and video game systems. Here consumer interest is
not so much in new replacement systems, but in upgrades and add-ons to enhance
existing systems, especially this season, while waiting for the next generation video
game systems to launch next year. The number two expected gift purchase this
year, just under digital cameras, is actually "any video game
peripheral" at 28 percent, with new video game systems at 23 percent.
Similarly, computer printers and upgrades are at 22 and 21 percent,
followed by notebook and desktop computers at 20 and 18 percent. Demand
for printers is also driven by the use of digital cameras and even cell phone
cameras, as you now can print directly from cameras and memory cards, and even
wirelessly from cell phones, with no PC involved.
While surveying all this altruistic gift giving, the CEA also asked about
consumer wish lists. The number one consumer lust item this year is flat-panel
TV, just ahead of digital cameras and notebook computers. Unfortunately,
while widescreen plasma and especially LCD TVs are moving down the
cost-reduction curve, they still have a long way to go before they can fit into
a comfortable price range in the hundreds, and not thousands, of dollars. But
there is hope for future gratification, with stronger competition from computer
monitor LCD manufacturers, and the movement of low-cost companies like Dell into
DVDs have peaked -- While DVD players were the blow-out success of the
beginning of this decade for watching movies, these playback-only devices are
being supplanted by DVD recorders that also let you burn your own discs,
especially as they drop under $200. After all, the same advantages that DVD has
over tape -- better quality, more convenient size, faster access to the content,
plus compatibility with computers -- apply not only to playback of prepackaged
movies, but also to making your own recordings.
Some tech lingo: The irritating confusion with DVD recorders is the profusion
of different DVD disc formats. Like we are used to with CD, DVD recorders
support both recordable (R) discs for write-one recording of permanent copies,
and rewritable (RW) discs that can be erased and reused (but which are somewhat
less compatible than R for playing back on the universe of current players).
So far so good -- But sadly the DVD world also is split by two competing base
formats, dash (i.e., DVD-R and DVD-RW) and plus (i.e., DVD+R and DVD+RW). --
These wonderful marketing geniuses decided to help consumers not only by
introducing a just-to-be-different format, but then differentiating its name
only by changing the punctuation mark!
Actually, there's no big technical difference between these two formats, and
both should play back equally well on any DVD player. While many of today's
PC-based DVD burners have avoided this problem by supporting both formats, DVD
recorders typically support only one format for burning discs, so make sure you
stock up on the appropriate format -- dash or plus -- for your particular
Today's DVD recorders do more than just burn video -- They can act like VCRs,
with integrated TV tuners for saving your favorite television shows, and also
can include built-in hard discs for TiVo-like automatic recording of favorite
shows for time-shifted viewing. For example, Panasonic has beefed up its
high-end DMR-E85H recorder with a 120 GB hard disk (www.panasonic.com/electronics),
enough to store over 200 hours of material at a reasonable quality setting
(around $599 street). You can time-shift TV shows to hard disk, dump the
overflow to rewritable RW discs for short-term copies, and also burn your
favorites to permanent R discs to keep.
Panasonic DMR-E85H DVD recorder
Panasonic also supports yet another DVD format called DVD-RAM which
has the advantage of working much like a hard disk drive (though it is not
compatible with general DVD players). While DVD (as with CD), is designed to be
played and recorded continuously like tape, DVD-RAM can be quickly and randomly
accessed to play and edit its contents (www.ramprg.com).
DVD-RAM recorders can simultaneously record to disc while also playing back
time-shifted material recorded earlier. And "mini" DVD-RAM discs are
used in some Panasonic camcorders to provide instant recording and on-disc
editing without waiting for tape to rewind. You then can create a playlist of
your favorite scenes in the camera, and pop the disc into your (Panasonic
DVD-RAM) DVD player to view them. No computer required, until you want to move
the disc to your PC to edit the clips further.
Panasonic VDR-M70 DVD camcorder
Similarly, you can use DVD recorders to burn other video material direct to
DVD without requiring any computer. Many recorders have both analog inputs and
FireWire jacks for DV (digital video) camcorders to copy to disc. They even can
insert chapter points (i.e., every five minutes) and create scene index menus.
You also can get "triple play" recorders like the JVC DR-MX1
(around $799 street, www.jvc.com), that include
a DVD recorder, hard disk, and built-in VCR, for even more convenient dubbing of
your old tapes to DVD.
JVC DR-MX1 DVD recorder
Besides simplifying the conversion process, these products provide another
benefit: built-in video enhancement circuitry to stabilize and reduce noise in
the video signal, which can help make your old analog tapes look better.
In addition, Sony recently released the DVDirect DVD Recorder,
which can be connected to a PC as an external DVD burner, or used stand-alone to
record discs directly from camcorders and VCRs or other analog (but not digital)
inputs (www.sonystyle.com, $299).
If you get more ambitious about editing your videos, new software
applications also will allow you to import your DVDs into a computer to extract
and re-edit the video and menus. You can do quick recordings to DVD on the
set-top, and then come back later to edit and enhance them.
For still images, today's digital cameras deliver great quality at
prices around $300. Some shopping considerations: While you can get 2 megapixel
(MP, million pixels of resolution) cameras at around $200 which will be fine for
Web photos and small prints, for another couple hundred dollars you can
significantly expand the resolution to 4 or 5 megapixels, good enough for large
prints. You'll want to consider the quality of the lens (at least 3X true
optical zoom, not the simulated "digital zoom"); the size of the LCD
display (2+ inches to be readable in different lighting); the type of memory
card; and the range of controls (automatic to manual).
You can read reviews of camera features and image quality, but the most
important issue for non-professionals is how convenient these devices are to
use, in terms of both the physical controls and the electronic menus. When you
grab a camera out of the closet to take an occasional shot, you'll need to be
able to remember (or figure out) how to use all those icons and menus. For
example, Kodak has stressed ease of use in its EasyShare camera
line, with liberal use of plain old English words (and other languages) in the
Kodak also has worked on simplifying interfacing from cameras to a computer
using camera dock units that provide one-button image transfer to the computer.
But even more interesting for this holiday season are snapshot photo printers
that can print directly from the camera, with no computer required (around $150
- $300). With these devices, you can select photos from the camera memory and
print borderless 4 x 6 inch prints in around a minute. These are thermal
printers (not like desk-top inkjets), that create prints that look like
regular glossy photographs (around $25 for 40 prints). You also can select
different print sizes, to print multiples at 2-, 4-, and 9-up.
Some snapshot printers provide docks for specific camera lines. Even better,
many provide slots to print from different kinds of memory cards, and support
the PictBridge standard to interface to a variety of cameras lines. And,
of course, you can connect these devices to a computer like any other printer.
But snapshot printers, especially with docks, may well make more sense in the
living room than the den, especially when they have a video output to also
connect up to the television to select photos and display slide shows using a
Kodak's top of the line EasyShare Printer Dock Plus ($199 list) also
can print photos from your cell phone camera (and other devices) through a
wireless interface using infrared or Bluetooth technology. You don't even need a
computer to clean up underexposed photos, as it includes a built-in auto-enhance
Kodak EasyShare Printer Dock Plus
While these snapshot printers are small enough to think about bringing along
on a trip, Kodak also has stocked stand-alone Picture Maker digital print
kiosks at over 12,000 retail locations (www.kodak.com/go/picturemaker).
The kiosks sport an array of memory card slots to handle almost any camera card
format, and also can accept prints wirelessly from mobile phones. Or you can
scan prints to make copies or enlargements, or copy digital photos from CD or
With a full-size touch-screen display, the kiosks even provide photo editing
and enhancement functions including zoom and crop, brightness and color
adjustments, red-eye removal, and added text and borders. You then can print
selected photos on borderless 4 x 6 inch prints in about a minute for around 29
to 39 cents. While on vacation, you not only can make prints of your digital
images, but you also can save them to a Kodak Picture CD, solving the problem of
what to do when you fill up your memory cards.
Digital cameras are great, but the ultimate in always-accessible and
wirelessly-connected cameras are being built into cell phones. As cell phones
add more processing power and memory they can become more multi-functional,
serving as always-connected portals for E-mail and instant messaging, handheld
organizers for addresses and appointments, and portable players (and recording
devices) for music and photos.
But phones are still about communication, albeit not just voice: text message
use has exploded in the U.S., and now picture messaging is expanding as well. Verizon
Wireless reports its traffic for the third quarter of 2004 included 2.6
billion text messages and 25.5 million picture messages. That's in addition to
26.8 million downloads of Get It Now applications, including instant messaging,
E-mail, Web access, travel information, and of course ring tones and games.
Verizon's data services contributed more than 4.7 percent of third-quarter
service revenue, up from 2.3 percent in 2003 (www.verizonwireless.com).
These new camera phones are built for multimedia, with colorful
displays and much better sound quality, plus the ability to take photos, record
audio, and even shoot video clips:
The Motorola V710 shoots at up to 1.2 megapixel resolution (1280 x
960). To store your shots, plus downloadable content, it provides a whopping 10
MB of built-in storage, plus includes a SD memory slot for expansion cards.
Other cool features include Bluetooth wireless support for headphones and speech
recognition dialing (available from Verizon for $249 after $50 online rebate).
Verizon LG VX7000 picture phone
In comparison, the LG VX7000 is a VGA-resolution camera (640 x 480),
and has 4 MB of storage. But it includes a rotating lens and LED flash so you
can satisfy your need to take self-portraits at night (available from Verizon
for $149 after $50 online rebate).
At VGA resolution, the resulting photo files can range from around 40 to 90
KB in compressed JPEG format, and can be transmitted in around ten 10 seconds.
These phones also can capture 15-second video clips with audio (though at lower
176 x 144 resolution, and 10 to 15 frames per second, creating files of around
125 to 180 KB).
Just don't expect great pictures with these mini lenses and camera imagers.
Camera phones do offer basic exposure and contrast controls, but really require
good lighting and still produce relatively noisy images. However, these devices
are not about taking beautifully-composed pictures, they are about spontaneous
shooting and sharing. With Verizon's Picture/Video Messaging services you
can send messages with photos and audio (but not video) directly from phone to
phone. This is an add-on service beyond text messaging (40 PIX messages for
$4.99 a month, or 40 PIX plus 250 TXT for $7.99).
Your photos and the video clips also can be viewed on a computer, either by
sending them to any E-mail address, or uploading them to Verizon's free but
limited Pix Place website (www.vzwpix.com).
You can also compose picture messages from a computer using the Pix Place site
to send to a phone (also saving your half of the messaging charges).
Verizon Pix Place - Send message
Besides sending photo messages, you also can share your cell phone photos
more broadly over the Web. For example, Ewing-based dotPhoto offers the Pictavision
service (www.pictavision.com) to share
photos in both directions: upload your photos to the Web, and access Web-based
photo albums on your phone ($3.99 a month for unlimited access).
dotPhoto Pictavision service
You can set up a free account on the dotPhoto site (www.dotphoto.com),
and then send photos from your phone to a designated Web album, where they will
be instantly available online to viewers (with password protection, if desired).
Or you can access the online dotPhoto albums from your phone to browse and
download any set of photos when you need them, instead of needing to choose a
small group to store in your phone's memory.
Once stored on the Web, you can annotate your photo albums with voice and
music and create online animated slide shows with music and effects. DotPhoto
also offers photo prints, posters, photo cards, and frames, and you can order
photo-decorated gifts including clothing, caps, mugs, and puzzles.
However, now that we have come to rely on them so much, these 4-ounce cell
phones seem awfully big and clumsy when they're just being used for the
old-fashioned purpose of talking on the phone to other humans. Some people now
use earphones with a wire running to the phone on their belt holder, leading to
sightings of more and more people who seem to be talking to themselves on the
The answer, of course, is to cut the cord and go wireless. But not just with
a crummy old analog voice radio connection, but with a digital data connection
like the short-range Bluetooth interface. For example, the Jabra BT800
headset weighs only 25 grams, and is a complete phone answering system ($119
Jabra BT800 headset
Your phone can remain nestled comfortably in a pocket or bag, and when you
receive a call the headset vibrates or rings (with selectable ring tones) and
displays the caller ID information on the backlit LED display. You then use the
jog wheel to answer the call, as well as mute and adjust the volume. By doing
digital, the built-in processor even can automatically adjust the headset volume
in response to background noise, and improve audio quality in windy or noisy
In this digital media age, we are all content creators with our digital
cameras and video camcorders, and also content aggregators and broadcasters with
our digital music collections, photo websites, and DVD recorders. And we don't
even need a television or computer to play and share our media; we can take it
with us in our handheld devices. While you can use your digital camera or mobile
phone to stash a collection of some favorite photos or music (and even short
video clips), serious use requires a dedicated playback device, with more
storage and higher-quality audio (for music) or displays (for images). The trick
is to find the right balance of supporting different types of media while still
remaining portable (and cool).
Apple's iPod has been the clear success and trend leader for portable
music, leveraging tiny "MicroDrive" hard disk drives to store a
huge library in a portable and stylish player (www.apple.com/ipod).
The original iPod weighs 5.6 ounces, provides up to 12 hours of battery life,
and stores up to 10,000 songs in 20 GB and 40 GB models for $299 and $399
respectively. The newer Apple iPod Mini slims down 3.6 ounces, storing
1,000 songs in 4 GB, and lists for $249.
Apple iPod and iPod Mini
The success of the iPod was driven by Steve Jobs' ability to convince the
music industry to license songs on reasonable terms so that customers will buy
them. As of October 2004, Apple reports that more than 150 million songs have
been purchased and downloaded from the iTunes Music Store, from an
inventory of over 1 million songs (www.itunes.com).
And the iPod has been a tremendous boost for Apple as it morphs into more of a
consumer electronics company -- Apple shipped over 2 million iPods during the
third quarter of 2004, a 500 percent increase over the previous year quarter,
compared to 836,000 old-fashioned Macintosh computers, only a 6 percent
After originally declaring a single-minded focus on music, in October 2004
Apple decided to bless imagery with the introduction of the iPod Photo.
This weighs a little more than the iPod at just over 6 ounces, and includes a
220 x 176 backlit LCD display with 65,536 colors. It also upped the disk
capacity with 40 GB or 60 GB models for $499 and $599, which can store up to
25,000 digital photos or 15,000 songs. The battery provides up to 15 hours of
music playback or up to 5 hours of slideshows.
Apple iPod Photo
The success of the iPod has lead to a host of imitators, offering cheaper
prices, more storage, higher resolution displays, FM radio, removable batteries,
and augmented capabilities, including video playback. But all these units are
based on hard disk drives, which limits the ability to further shrink the size
or price, especially for the original purpose of portable music playback. After
all, do you really maintain a digital library of 15,000 songs? Do you intend to
buy that many songs from the iTunes store, even at 99 cents each? How many songs
do you really need to have with you, even for a week of travel?
The alternate approach is to use flash memory cards instead of hard disks --
the same cards used in digital cameras for storing photos. While flash memory
cards cannot compete with disk drives for multi-gigabyte capacities, they are
getting significantly less expensive for smaller sizes: you can buy 256 MB flash
memory cards for under $40 and 1 GB under $90.
So, let's build some products: Start with a tiny flash memory card and just
add a USB connector. Now you have USB "thumb" drive: convenient
portable storage for all your computer files, including music and photos. USB
flash drives like the Verbatim
Store 'n' Go Pro (www.verbatim.com)
have become fashion accessories, available in bright colors and with lanyards to
wear around your neck. But you still need a computer to access the files that
Verbatim Store 'n' Go Pro USB Flash Drive
The next step is clear: To make a stand-alone portable music player,
just add a few controls and a headphone jack. This is exactly the approach taken
by Creative Technology, makers of the Sound Blaster and other lines of
digital entertainment products for the computer (www.creative.com).
The higher-end Creative Zen line of disk-based portable media players includes
the Zen Portable Media Center, a 12 ounce handheld with a 3.8 inch, 320 x
240 display, using a 20 GB hard drive to store up to 9,000 songs, tens of
thousands of photos, and even 85 hours of videos at 320 x 240 resolution.
Creative Zen Portable Media Center
But for portable music players, the Creative MuVo TX FM comes the
closest to an all-in-one player in a "lipstick" form factor. The core
unit is a thumb drive with the USB connector and audio player controls: roughly
5 by 2 by 1 cm, and under 32 grams. It includes a small LCD display to list
music folders and song track information (reversible for left or right handed
operation), playback and volume controls, plus a built-in microphone for voice
recordings, FM radio, and even a five-band equalizer. The main unit then mates
to a separate sleeve that contains a standard AAA battery, actually doubling the
size and weight to make it a little less likely to be lost accidentally.
Creative MuVo TX FM
To load the unit, simply plug it into a USB port on your computer (preferably
the newer and faster USB 2.0). No additional software is required: It mounts as
a removable storage device, so you can drag and drop files to transfer them to
the flash memory as if it was an external disk drive. The unit will find and
play any folders and files that you copy containing MP3 or WMA (Microsoft
Windows Media Audio) music.
Or you can use a media jukebox application like the latest update for Microsoft
Windows Media Player 10 on Windows XP, which provides built-in support for
syncing and managing music to portable devices. Music you purchase or subscribe
to online may also be copy protected, so Media Player provides Digital Rights
Management (DRM) support to permit protected content to be securely transferred
and played on more than 75 portable devices.
Microsoft Windows Media Player 10 -- PlaysForSure logo
Unfortunately, these media formats are another great battleground in the
digital entertainment world, as the format owners and promoters seek to partner
with the media providers (especially online stores) and device manufacturers.
Microsoft is promoting a new PlaysForSure logo program to identify
devices that support its preferred Windows Media formats and rights management
(although it is grudgingly providing better support for the older MP3 format as
well). Meanwhile, Apple is using the standards-based AAC audio format for iTunes
music and the iPod, and provides a converter from the WMA format.
Gadgets galore! They're multiplying and interconnecting as never before,
breeding not only new and smaller variants, but even add-on gizmos to augment
The good news for this holiday season is that you finally have an answer for
the person who has everything: get them a gadget to go with their existing
gizmos -- A DVD recorder for their entertainment center, a snapshot printer for
the digital camera, a wireless headset for the cell phone, or a smaller combo
portable media player to detach from the computer. You've got even more choices
for saving and sharing your media in electronic form, and taking it all with you
on your holiday travels.
Electronics Association (CEA)
Panasonic - Consumer Electronics
DVD-RAM Promotion Group (RAMPRG)
Kodak - EasyShare Cameras
Kodak - PictureMaker DIgital Print Kiosks
Verizon - Pix Place
dotPhoto - Pictavision
Jabra - Mobile Phone Headsets
Apple - iPod
Verbatim - Store 'n' Go Pro USB
Creative Technology - MuVo
Microsoft - Windows Media - Media Guide
Microsoft - Windows Media - Technology