Peter Lewis Wednesday, February 5, 2003
Every once in a while a consumer technology emerges that goes beyond mere clever gadgetry and has the potential to fundamentally alter our habits and lifestyles. Examples: the VCR, the microwave oven, the cellphone. This year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas another such transformative gizmo emerged, one that literally reaches out to the stars and penetrates deep into the primordial genetic code of nearly every male gadget freak on the planet: the Garmin iQue 3600 PDA. Men, as we know, are biologically programmed to get lost and refuse to stop to ask directions. (No wonder it takes millions of sperm to find a single egg.) With the Garmin iQue 3600 clipped to his belt, no man will ever be lost again nor be nagged to stop at the next gas station to find out where he's going. This wondrous product will also remind him that Valentine's Day is approaching and lead him, using turn-by-turn voice guidance, to the florist to buy roses.
But wait, there's more! The iQue 3600 integrates its global-positioning satellite-mapping and -tracking technology with a full-fledged Palm-based PDA. It can also be programmed to act as a universal remote control. And with a golf-course mapping program called StarCaddy, it can tell its owner to within a few yards how far he is from the green and even suggest the proper club to use!
Not for men alone, the iQue 3600 is practical for storing appointments, to-do lists, and contact information; tracking finances and investments; and showing off pictures of the kids on its high-res color screen. It's a voice recorder, an MP3 player, and an e-book reader. (It does not slice or dice, however.)
Here's the bummer: The Garmin iQue 3600 won't be available until May or June and will cost about $550. It's one of a dozen or so products unveiled at CES that I think are the most interesting new consumer technologies of the coming year. I haven't tested them, mind you, but all products are perfect until the moment they actually go on sale.
Consider, for example, the SplashPad, from a British startup, SplashPower Ltd. Technically it's an inductive power transfer system. In plain English it's a universal wireless recharging station for Splash-enabled cellphones, PDAs, MP3 players, and other mobile devices. Just toss them anywhere on the SplashPad--a portable, thin mat with a cord that plugs into a regular AC power outlet--and your devices recharge just as quickly and fully as if you had plugged them into the clunky power adapters that are always somewhere else when you need them. The chaps at SplashPower insist that the mat's magnetic field won't erase your credit cards or polarize any cat that chooses to snooze on the mat. The catch: SplashPower has to persuade gadget makers to build a SplashModule into each device (it costs mere farthings and is less than a millimeter thick). The pads, slated to arrive later this year, are expected to cost $25 to $50.
Along a similar wavelength, there's Samsung's multi-talented Yepp YP-900GT, which can teach Apple's popular iPod a thing or three. Like the iPod, the YP-900GT ($430, on sale this month) stores its music on a hard disk--in this case a ten-gigabyte platter that can hold the equivalent of hundreds of CDs compressed in the MP3 or WMA formats. (A 20-gig version is expected in the second half of 2003.) And here are some twists: One, it can also rip MP3 files directly from a CD player, bypassing a PC; two, it can beam those songs wirelessly to the FM radio in your car; three, it's a voice recorder.
The best DVD player I saw at the show was Samsung's DVD-HD931. Okay, Samsung's product names are drab, but the picture quality is stunning. This $349 player, available in June, converts regular DVD discs to high-quality definition (720p, or 1,080 interlaced). It's also a DVD-audio player. Of course, you'll need a stunning digital TV to go with it; Samsung has one of those too, the wide-screen, 56-inch, rear-projection HLN-567W (coming in April for $4,999). It uses Texas Instruments' second-generation Digital Light Processing chip and some fancy image-processing voodoo from high-end home-theater maker Faroudja, all in a set that weighs just 105 pounds and is 20 inches deep.
That's almost obese compared with the newest flat-panel plasma and liquid-crystal display (LCD) televisions. Plasma sets are getting bigger and cheaper, but there are still troubling concerns about plasma's reliability, long-term picture quality, and repairability. LCD seems a much better solution, but LCD sets are smaller and much more expensive. For those who can afford $9,000, Sharp's 37-inch widescreen, high-definition Aquos LC-37HV4U was flat-out my favorite on the show floor.
Sony's new DCR-DVD100 Handycam camcorder records directly to a blank DVD disc. The DVD100 and higher-end DVD Handycam models will be available this summer and will start at under $1,000.
For those who like their cameras small and their subjects even smaller, Olympus is the company to see. Its three-megapixel Stylus Digital 300 (about $400, on sale this month) and four-megapixel Stylus Digital 400 ($500, in April) are digital versions of the world's bestselling point-and-shoot 35mm film camera. For extreme close-ups, the Olympus MIC-D digital microscope camera ($995) plugs into newer Windows computers and allows amateur scientists to see a bee's knees on the PC screen and to digitally photograph an amoeba.
But could I tell anyone about all this, given the din on the show floor? Sure, if UmeVoice's amazing theBoom earphone with microphone ($150) were attached to my cellphone. It's the same technology that enables Wall Street traders and Black Hawk pilots to whisper and still be heard when everyone else is shouting. It even silences background noise.
The upshot? A guy could call home from the rowdy bar where he's watching the big game with his buddies, and his wife would really believe he was at the hardware store. Is this a great year for guy gadgets, or what?
From the Feb. 17, 2003 Issue