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Holiday Gadgets 2008 (12/2008)
by Douglas Dixon
'Tis the season for family and friends and holiday giving, although this year brings even more focus on nesting -- or even cocooning -- close to home. While consumers are retrenching from the current economic turmoil, the same conditions are pressuring prices down this holiday season.
So while this isn't a time for extravagant spending, you will still find that today's tech gadgets are more useful than ever, and can make those winter nights or long trips more pleasant and even enjoyable.
So let's look at some of the interesting new products currently available across the consumer electronics world, focusing on portable devices that also help illustrate developing trends you can look for in the year ahead.
In its market research and consumer surveys, the Consumer Electronics Association (www.ce.org) in October predicted total holiday spending per household declining by 14 percent this year to $1,437, versus $1,671 in 2007 (this is all seasonal spending, including gifts, food, decorations, travel, clothing).
Consumers reported that they expect to start reducing their spending in categories including sporting goods, furniture/home decor, and vacations before they cut into home entertainment (CD, DVD, digital) and consumer electronics products. Consumers expected to spend some 28 percent of their holiday budgets on CE products and services.
As a result, the CEA actually expected spending for CE products to grow 3.5 percent for the fourth quarter versus last year (which grew 7 percent). And 28 percent of consumers reported that they were looking forward to going out on Black Friday shopping for bargains.
UPDATE: In the first week of December, the CEA chopped its holiday
sales forecast to a barely positive 0.1%, based on the severity and the speed of
price declines and weakness in consumer demand.
So what CE products do consumers want? The CEA's Holiday CE Gift Wish List for 2008 is all about entertainment nesting at home, and portability on the go:
Holiday CE Gift Wish List Top 10:
But what gifts do consumers actually expect to be giving? The CEA Holiday CE Gift Giving list for 2008 is similar, but adjusted by budget concerns:
Holiday CE Gift Giving Top 10:
Smartphones For Everyone
Cell phones have become ubiquitous over almost all the planet, but once you have a tiny device in your pocket, why not use it for more than phone calls and texting? Add a larger screen, a keyboard (or touchscreen), more processing power, and a high-speed Internet connection, and you have a smartphone -- a quite reasonable replacement for a laptop computer when you're on the go.
Smartphones are still a communications device at the core -- with phone, texting, picture and video messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, and Twittering and blog posting.
Plus they are PDAs -- with integrated address book, calendar, to-do list, and other productivity applications.
Even more, they are portable wireless computers -- You can check and send e-mail, including attachments, and browse the Web and download files. You can do office work, view and edit documents, including word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation slides. And with GPS navigation, you can view live maps and search and track directions to near-by stores.
And smartphones are also wireless media players -- You can download and play music, audio books, TV shows, and movies, and buy and download directly from the device. You can shoot and browse your own photos and videos, and upload and download photos and clips to share on online sites and even to your desktop. And browse media on the Web, including viewing YouTube videos and even watching live TV.
One clear theme is that connectivity is becoming embedded in our devices -- The Internet is no longer a destination that you explicitly go to, instead we've grown to expect it to be always present and connected. Whether at home or on the go, or with large devices or small, we're more and more able to access and share both commercial and personal content whenever, wherever, and however we want it.
The smartphone market has been staked out by products including the Palm Treo and Centro for consumers (www.palm.com), the RIM BlackBerry more for business use (www.blackberry.com), as well as a variety of Microsoft Windows Mobile devices (www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile). But the smartphone category was not making much headway in the broad market compared to the avalanche of simple and inexpensive cell phones -- until the Apple iPhone.
While U.S. cell phone market growth slowed to 3 percent in the third quarter according to Canalys, the smartphone market grew 28 percent from the previous year to 40 million phones. And in the third quarter, the iPhone sailed past the BlackBerry to become number two in the smartphone market, both still trailing Symbian (used by Nokia and others), and ahead of Windows Mobile.
Even more impressive, the NPD Group reports that the iPhone 3G passed the Motorola RAZR V3 to become the most popular selling individual phone model during the third quarter, followed by the Blackberry and LG smartphones. Apple shipped almost 7 million iPhones in the third quarter.
Ecosystem - Apple iPhone
With the combination of its elegant design and the iPod ecosystem, the Apple iPhone made carrying the slightly larger bulk of a smartphone not just attractive, but also cool (www.apple.com/iphone).
Online - Google Android / T-Mobile G1
The iPhone started as an iPod phone, with a closed architecture that permits Apple's clean and tight integration (and yet misses features like global search and cut and paste), plus desktop synching to Apple's iTunes Store profit center. The new Apple MobileMe Internet service does add online synching, and the App Store opens up the iPhone to third-party software, but only as regulated and approved by Apple.
Instead, the G1 / Google phone starts with a more open hardware design -- touch screen (but not multi-touch like the iPhone) plus a slide-out full QWERTY keyboard (not the iPod's sometimes-tricky touch-screen keyboards). There's a higher-res camera, a removable battery, and expanded storage with microSD memory cards (the sexy iPhone case is not sullied with such slots). And the software is open too, focused around Google's online services including Google Search, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Maps, and YouTube.
But there are also obvious omissions, including no built-in desktop sync, and no built-in video recording. No problem -- the platform is open too, so Google expects a flowering of third-party applications to be made available through the Android Market, with no gatekeeper controlling access (www.android.com/market).
Click - BlackBerry Storm from Verizon Wireless
Meanwhile, the RIM BlackBerry has expanded from its roots in business communication to become a full-fledged Web browsing, media playing multi-purpose smartphone.
For international travelers, the Storm is a global phone, with the addition of GSM support for outside the U.S. The Storm is $199.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate and with a two-year contract.
If you want a music player separate from your phone you'll be looking for an iPod, not an iPhone. Apple continues to dominate the portable media market with more than 70 percent market share, with the SanDisk Sansa line hanging in at under 10 percent, and the Microsoft Zune at under 3 percent.
More Music - Apple iPod and Microsoft Zune
Both the iPod and Zune lines were refreshed in September, essentially doubling capacity at the same price.
Pre-recorded Cards - Sansa slotMusic Player
Even with the excitement about digital music, and as sales of pre-recorded music albums on CD sinking, the industry still has not given up on the idea of selling music in physical format. Since round discs won't fit into today's tiny cell phones and media players, maybe it's time to switch to small delivery formats.
The audio is stored in the ubiquitous MP3 format, as plain old non-copy-protected files, so you can move them to other devices, or add your own material to the slotMusic cards. More than 40 albums will be available for the holidays.
Everything Player - Sony PSP 3000
But if you want a highly flexible media player to keep you (or the kids) busy on a long trip, check out the latest update to the Sony PlayStation Portable line, the PSP-3000 (www.us.playstation.com/PSP). The new model adds an enhanced display and built-in microphone, for around $200.
Plus, the PSP has Wi-Fi wireless networking, to browse the Web (including Flash content), listen to Internet radio, access RSS feeds (with streaming audio and video), make Skype phone calls, and even watch live TV with the separate Sony LocationFree product.
Personal Audio- Headsets- Earphones
Bluetooth Noise-Reducing Headsets - Jawbone and Plantronics
Whether you have a tiny cell phone or a larger smart phone, these devices really are not designed for comfort when holding them up to your face during extended conversations. Instead, Bluetooth wireless headsets let you talk using a small device in your ear while your phone stays safe in your pocket or bag. And this Bluetooth technology pretty much just works -- depending on the device, you can answer and even originate calls, and switch between the phone and listening to music. And today's Bluetooth headsets include impressive noise-reduction technology so your calls are clear even in a noisy environment.
For example, the new model of the amazing Aliph Jawbone Bluetooth Headset is half the size of the previous model, still with impressive noise reduction, and with better intelligibility so voices sound human and not robotic (www.jawbone.com).
Or the Plantronics Discovery 925 is positioned as a designer Bluetooth headset, with a colorful base and a boom that extends towards the mouth, available for around $89 in metallic and jewel tone colors: onyx black, alchemy gold, cerise pink (www.plantronics.com).
Customized Earphones - JVC, V-MODA, Sleek Audio, Ultimate Ears
Bluetooth headsets are great for phone calls, but for listening to music on the go you'll want wired earphones that deliver the sound in full stereo, and also help block the ears to reduce outside noise.
For easy listening, the inexpensive and colorful JVC Gumy Earbuds have been very popular (www.jvc.com).
Or step up to the V-MODA VIBE line for a more fashion-conscious style and audio-enthusiast sound with a minimalist design (www.v-moda.com).
For a more customized sound, the Sleek Audio SA6 earphones are acoustically adjustable (www.sleek-audio.com).
But for really stunning sound (i.e., not just listening on the subway), the Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 Pro Personal Earphones actually incorporate three individual speakers -- low-end for bass, mid-range for vocals, high for treble (www.ultimateears.com).
Sharing Personal Content: Cameras and Camcorders
This is a great year for digital cameras, with more megapixels of resolution than you'll need and amazing technology to shoot good photos by finding faces and even smiles. And digital camcorders are getting lighter by storing on flash memory cards, and even moving up to HD resolution. But cell phones really are today's ubiquitous camera/camcorder devices, although they do shoot in lower resolution than dedicated cameras with higher-quality lenses.
Pocket Camcorders - Flip, RCA Small Wonder, Kodak
However, the biggest news with camcorders is the development of a new product category -- "pocket camcorders" -- Small, light, inexpensive, and dead simple devices that still shoot good video quality. These flash-based cams turn on in second, start recording in one press, and make video that's not only great for YouTube, but also looks good when burned to DVD. They're easy to carry everywhere, and the main problem is that they're so light you need to be careful to brace them to avoid jittery video. They include video connectors to play directly to your TV, a built-in pop-out USB connector to plug right in to your computer with no extra cables, and preloaded software to transfer the clips and upload online.
The Pure Digital Flip is driving this market with especially clean and simple designs -- and has become the top selling camcorder in the U.S. (http://theflip.com).
The RCA Small Wonder line offers a range of models with more features in slightly larger units, including flip-out screens, additional memory card storage, removable batteries, and more rugged cases (www.rcaaudiovideo.com).
The Kodak Zi6 HD Pocket Video Camera is a bit bigger, but also does more: shooting both standard-definition and high-def video (720p), plus 3 megapixel photos (www.kodak.com).
Portable Photo Printer - Polaroid
With all this attention on personal devices for different uses -- cellphones and portable players and cameras/camcorders -- we end up with our photos and videos locked up in the storage on these different devices, so we can't easily share them, especially on the go. What we need are more portable devices to display our stuff on the go.
For immediate gratification in accessing photos from your cell phone or a digital camera, the Polaroid PoGo Instant Mobile Photo Printer prints images in about one minute (http://polaroid.com/pogo/us).
The PoGo uses the new ZINK (Zero-Ink) printing technology with no ink cartridges or ribbons (www.zink.com), to print color 2 x 3 inch (business card) borderless prints that are dry to the touch, smudge-proof, water-resistant, and virtually tear-proof. Plus, the photos have a peel-off sticky back to make instant stickers. The PoGo is around $150, in black and red, and the photos run around 33 to 40 cents per print.
Portable Video Projectors - 3M and Optoma
Similarly, stop trying to share a video by crowding around a tiny iPod screen. Instead, there's a new category of palm-size video projectors that can throw the display against a wall (or the ceiling in a restaurant) to enlarge it to 50 to 60 inches.
The 3M MPro110 Handheld Digital Projector (shown) has just started shipping ($359, www.3mmpro.com), and the Optoma PK-101 Pico Pocket Projector is due out before the end of the year ($399 with DLP mirror technology, www.optomausa.com/pico.asp).
These projectors are around 4 1/2 x 2 x 1 inches, and weigh around 5 to 7 ounces. They use AC power or charge though USB, and can run off batteries for an hour or so. And they use a LED light source, rated for 10,000+ hours, so you don't need to replace bulbs, and they're very quiet without a noisy fan.
While all these portable devices are individual islands of content, they also have become more interconnected. So when you bring these devices into the home, they become part of an even richer media environment, with multiple sources of content and a natural desire to collect and share and transfer and sync media between different devices.
As a result, the home is becoming a nexus of shared media -- from set-top TV and movies on the big widesceen flat-panel display, to desktop music libraries and Internet video sites on the PC monitor, to handheld media on phones and portable players.
Manufacturers are eagerly developing technologies and products to enable all this potential interconnection, which has led to a profusion of options that bridge content between these worlds, especially as Internet video comes to the living room and TV comes to the PC --
How to choose among all these options? It depends on what kind of content you want to watch, when, and where. The bottom line is this all is just going to be messy and confusing for a while, as all of these products and options compete in the market to make sense and be useful for consumers.
TV on PC - Pinnacle PCTV
The big news in television for this holiday season, however, is the impending "analog sunset" -- over-the-air analog television broadcasts will be turned off on February 17, 2009. This is not a big deal for the main household television connected to cable TV, but will be an issue for any older TVs around the house that still are using rabbit ear antennas -- so see anything more than static you'll need a newer digital TV or a separate digital converter box for your old set.
Digital TV Transition, www.dtv.gov
Instead of a second or third TV set, you can watch digital broadcast TV on your computer, using a small USB dongle to tune the stations. Pinnacle (www.pinnaclesys.com) and Diamond / ATI (www.diamondmm.com) offer several such products -- just connect the USB dongle to the included telescopic TV antenna, or plug in to your existing antenna or cable TV wire.
Meanwhile, for a simpler way to transfer videos from the set-top to portable devices, try the Pinnacle Video Transfer (www.pinnaclesys.com/pvt).
Internet Audio - Logitech Squeezebox Boom
Moving video around the home between displays, playback devices, and the Internet is still going to be a messy business. Life is a bit simpler for accessing Internet audio in the home. There are thousands of Internet radio stations, often traditional radio broadcasters that also provide their feeds over the Internet. And there are a variety of subscription music services with channels that can be accessed over the Internet, including Rhapsody and SIRIUS.
Even better, Slacker Personal Radio and Pandora Radio offer free music (with ads) that streams to a PC or portable device just like a traditional radio broadcast -- but highly customizable, so you can design your own channel programmed just for you. At Slacker, for example, you first choose a genre, which starts playing an associated playlist. But you then can add or subtract specific artists, to customize your own virtual channel (all Celine Dion, all the time!).
Or just turn on the Logitech Squeezebox Boom, which brings networked audio to the table top like any other portable radio with built-in speakers (www.logitech.com).
Personal Surveillance - Logitech WiLife
Or for your own live video within the home, you can set up your own home monitoring / security system with the Logitech WiLife Surveillance System (www.wilife.com).
The software then monitors the cameras for motion, generating alerts, sending e-mail, and recording the video to disk. There's also a wide-angle lens option, and infrared lens with IR night illumination. The basic kit with one camera is around $299.
And, of course, you can access your cameras over the Internet to monitor your home or small business remotely while you're away.
Originally published in the U.S.1 Newspaper, December 3, 2008