To enter the world of electronic gadgetry is to turn oneself over to the flashingest of flashy lights and the fastest microprocessors. It is to be entranced by power, and to confine power in diminutive packages, like a genie stuffed into a lamp.
So behold! The most dazzling of gadgets this shopping season is Apple's iPod, which boasts "1,000 songs in your pocket."
This Scheherazade of portable MP3-players is the size of deck of cards. It downloads an entire CD in about the time it takes to read these first five sentences. And the iPod can store, says Apple, perhaps 80 discs' worth of music. Another of the other impressive iPod features is that it automatically recharges the 10-hour lithium battery when the unit is connected to a Mac for music downloads.
The genie in the iPod is its ultra-slim 5-gigabyte hard drive that, connected by a FireWire cable, doubles as a potent files and applications disk. So while the iPod commercials show a happy guy jamming down the street with a pocketful of tunes, the real sell for many people plunking down 400 bucks is its use as a portable hard drive, according to one Spokane computer store salesman.
If one of the joys of the holidays (OK, joys and tribulations) is reconnecting with family, perhaps one of this year's best gadget gifts is the digital photo frame, the selling point for which is sharing photos with family and friends across the country. The Polaroid PhotoMAX Digital Photo Frame allows you to see and share photos with other photo framers, to display the digital photos in a slide show, even to add personal messages. You could also set your frame to display information like sports scores and weather reports, or select famous paintings.
The $100 digital photo frame is a five-by-seven-inch flat screen that looks quite a bit like a standard framed photo (there's even matting between the frame and the screen). You don't need an Internet connection or even a computer to plug one of these things in. Here's how it works: The frame plugs into a standard telephone jack. Each night, the computer inside this device connects to the Internet through Polaroid's Ceiva Network sometime between midnight and 5 a.m., downloading any fresh photos, artwork or headlines.
There are no long distance charges incurred, but the Ceiva Network does charge a $5 monthly fee for subscribers, and subscriptions are mandatory. It's a niggling detail - one that perhaps Polaroid should eliminate for this Internet appliance to catch fire.
If your digital photo frame is flashing headlines that mention heavy weather's on the way, a person might want specific and updated information. That's where a NOAA Weather Radio might come in handy. NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - is the agency under which the National Weather Services broadcasts weather advisories like winter storm warnings. The service provides a continuous stream of weather forecasts and climate data (in Spokane, the frequency is broadcast from Mount Spokane).
There's an increasing number of those oft-irritating walkie-talkies that moppets squawk into at the mall and airport. When NOAA-equipped to catch weather broadcasts, though, the radios become serviceable for good and not just for evil. Among the two-way radios thus equipped are the Motorola Talkabout, selling for about $60.
Sometimes what a person needs is not more information, but less -- a respite from our digitized, hyper-commercialized world. An increasing number of gadgets are dedicated to staking out an electronic refuge, including Privacy Technologies' TeleZapper, a kind of $50 "No Soliciting" sign for the telephone.
The TeleZapper is a small box that connects to a standard telephone line, where it stands guard and listens for the auto-dialers that telemarketers use. When a telemarketer calls, the company says, the TeleZapper sends back a disconnected signal, fooling the telemarketer's computer into taking that phone number off the call list.
Manually dialed phone numbers - from friends actually trying to reach you, for instance - don't trigger the mechanism.
In effect, the TeleZapper wields telephonic judo, using the telemarketers' auto-dialing technology against them. The selling point, according to Privacy Technologies, is that over time, the TeleZapper's disconnect signals will reduce the amount of telemarketing calls a person receives. The TeleZapper does not interfere with regular telephone, answering machine, fax or computer communications, the company says, except for "zapping" fax machines that use similar auto-dialer technology before sending messages to the user's number.
OK, so the telemarketers are zapped. How 'bout a quiet evening of television - The Sopranos, maybe, or for us standard-cable wretches, perhaps NYPD Blue. The argument against television is that there's too much junk, and even the good shows (for us wretches again) are sunk with commercials.
Enter TiVo, a high-performance computerized recorder with power, options and simplicity that leaves your VCR in the dust, like a Ferrari zipping past a horse-drawn cart. TiVo players start at about $200, with enough memory for 20 hours of recorded programming, and top out at three times the price for 60 hours.
But what recording! TiVo technology lets a user pause, rewind or replay live programs and automatically record favorite shows without setting any timers, even if a show changes times. The result is personalized television, with users able to create their own TV schedules and deleting reception of programs or channels they don't watch. TiVo's three speeds of fast-forward make short work of commercials, too; the fastest will tear through three minutes' of commercials in about 3 seconds.
Reviewers have gone ape over TiVo (one called it the best thing that happened to television since the remote), and it is impressive. Read the fine print, though: Besides the units themselves, TiVo requires a service charge, priced at $9.95 a month, or $249 for a lifetime.