In Search of the HOT TOYE

PATRICIA CHISHOLM December 14 1998

In Search of the HOT TOYE

PATRICIA CHISHOLM December 14 1998

Gadgets for grown-ups



It costs to be on the cutting edge. The latest electronic playthings for adults perform a variety of familiar tasks better-for those willing and able to pay the price. At $1,999, Panasonic's portable digital video disc player is for folks who simply can't wait to get home to watch the new video release. Cool businesspeople, fed up with cumbersome electronic organizers-or handwritten diariesmay aspire to the electronic notepad. And the family gadget freak can ditch that simple film camera and move smartly into the digital world. In fact, these newer technologies are gaining a solid foothold in the North American consumer market, despite the prices. Industry experts insist the latest gadgets are now at the stage that the VCR and the CD player were in their in fancy. Even the cell phone, once a status symbol for suits, is now as likely to be wielded by a soccer mom-or her busy teen. A sampler of this season's toys for grown-ups:

Most people who see Panasonic’s portable digital video disc player in action for the first time are dumbfounded. And with good reason. At the heart of this palm-sized home theatre is a liquid crystal display screen that reproduces images of jawdropping clarity. The display itself measures 12.5 by 7.1 cm and accommodates wide-screen movie formats. The external battery pack provides about 135 minutes of video-disc viewing, after which the batteries require two hours of recharging. It is easy to use, though the built-in stereo speakers are tinny. (Optional headphones solve the problem). The unit, which also plays music CDs, can be connected to a conventional television for home viewing. A word of warning to anyone planning on watching a movie on the commute to work: it will draw a crowd.

Panasonic DVD-LIO Suggested retail price: $1,999

Cassette tapes and players still dominate the consumer market for recording music even though electronics manufacturers a few years ago tried to convince the buying public that digital audiotape was better. But consumers greeted the DAT format with a collective shrug and it died a quick death. Sony hopes the recordable mini disc-featuring sound quality that rivals CDswill fare better. Mini discs, which hold 74 minutes of music in stereo mode, are only about seven centimetres across, compared with 12 cm for CDs. And Sony's digital mini-disc Walkman isn’t much bigger than what it plays, fitting comfortably in a shirt pocket; a portable CD player needs a belt or purse. Unlike CDs, blank mini discs are recordable, allowing the user to mix favorite tunes. This year’s portable recorder features a remote control that allows users to select songs and set volume and perform other functions without taking the unit out of the pocket. Sony’s “shock resistant memory” makes skips in the music rare, though the recorder is not meant for joggers.

Sony MZ-R50 Suggested retail price: $599.99

Tired of film? This may be the year to consider a digital camera. Though top of the line models are still expensive, prices have been falling steadily and quality has been getting better. The Kodak DC220, for example, has dropped $150 since it was introduced last June, but still costs $999. For that money, though, consumers get exceptionally good quality photos from a camera that is easy to use. Images are immediately visible on a two-inch color liquid crystal display on the back of the camera. Pictures taken with the DC220 have one million pixels per image. Translation: good enough to make a 5 by 7 print on a laserjet printer. (The more advanced DC260’s resolution is even better: 1.6-million pixels, good enough for printing 8 by 10s and tops in resolution in the pointand-shoot market.) Images can be downloaded onto a computer using supplied software. Once downloaded, they can be altered to suit the tastes of the photographer, e-mailed to friends or published on an Internet Web page.

Last June, Kodak became the first to introduce digital zoom cameras that come with a high-speed serial connection for personal computers.

Kodak DC220

Suggested retail price: $999

Olympus and IBM have combined to make the first digital voice recorder capable of transcribing text onto a personal computer. The portable Olympus D1000 comes with a two-megabyte card capable of recording 15 minutes of speech. With the help of IBM’s ViaVoice speech-to-text software, users can transfer the recording to their PCs and watch the words appear on the monitor. The transcription system is not word perfect, but some speech-recognition consultants say that with practice, accuracy can be as high as 95 per cent.

Olympus DIOOO

Suggested retail price: $499

For those who like to be in the thick of things, the Sony Glasstron is a good start. The futuristic headset with built-in earphones has two small LCD screens worn like eyeglasses and is designed to be plugged into either a VCR or DVD player (sold separately). Sony likens the Glasstron to watching a 52-inch television.

Sony warns users that the device can cause eye strain or injury if used improperly, and possibly even motion sickness. People with high blood pressure are warned to consult their doctors first.

According to the manual, “use of this product allows the viewer to feel they are in the action, which may result in increased anxiety or heart injury.” Not, as they say, for the faint of heart.

Sony Glasstron PLM-100 Suggested retail price: $1,099

Handheld electronic organizers have come and gone, but 3Com’s Palm III, and its predecessor the PalmPilot, have become the industry’s standards. Part of the reason is size-about as big as a deck of cards, they fit comfortably in a suit pocket or purse. But that’s just the beginning. The flagship Palm III can store 6,000 addresses, five years of appointments, 1,500 to-do items and another 1,500 memos.

It comes with a cable and pedestal that connects the Palm III to a personal computer for backing up files or transferring e-mail messages. Data can be entered in one of three ways: on the computer and then loaded onto the Palm III; tapped in using a stylus and an on-screen keyboard; or scribbling notes directly on the screen using a modified but easy to learn form of handwriting.

And since 3Com leads the industry, there is no short age of peripheral software and hardware.

(The Internet has several sites to retrieve Palm III freeware An infrared transmitter also allows owners to beam notes, schedules, their business card-or any other information-to fellow Palm III owners.

3Com Palm III

Suggested retail price: $499