Cool Stuff 2006

So many nifty gadgets, so little time to shop! As the gift-buying season kicks off in earnest this week, the Computerworld staff offers our suggestions for some of the year's coolest gizmos. From a $60 biometric mouse to a $3,500 plasma TV, read on to find the perfect present for the gadgeteer in your life, whether friend, relative or ... yourself.

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Gadgets Under $100

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APC Biometric Mouse

What it is: Lets you store and retrieve usernames and passwords with a swipe of your finger.

Why we like it: With most online users juggling dozens of accounts today, it's natural to choose easy-to-remember passwords and reuse them for multiple accounts. But any security expert will tell you those are big no-nos.

Better known for its uninterruptible power supplies, APC Corp.'s device lets you type in complex, hard-to-guess passwords just once. Afterward, whenever you're prompted for a username and password, just move your hand down the mouse and press your finger onto the built-in reader. Voila, you're authenticated. Works with most Web sites under Internet Explorer, and with some Windows applications.

Drawbacks: Downright homely. Children and some women may find it too big to grip easily. Doesn't support Macs, or the Firefox Web browser. Also, the passwords, although encrypted, are ultimately still stored on your PC hard drive, meaning they could still be vulnerable to spyware or hackers. And of course, you'll still have to remember all those passwords somehow if you're away from your own system.

Best for: Anyone concerned about their account security.

Price: $59.95 (There's also a $49 desktop fingerprint scanner sans mouse, and a $149 PC Card version for laptops.)

Recommended by: Eric Lai, reporter

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Harmony 659 Programmable Remote

What it is: A Web-programmable remote that controls up to 15 devices.

Why we like it: It ends remote-control clutter. The Harmony switches on your TV, satellite box, HD receiver and/or stereo receiver with the touch of a single button and sets each to its proper channel, input and so on. It's easy to set up -- chances are good that your components are already in the Harmony database, so no need to "train" it using your existing remotes.

You can set up separate, one-button "activities" for tasks like watching TV, viewing a movie or listening to music. You can even download TV channels and daily television program listings. It's got an LCD, allowing you to program six buttons with additional most-used commands that might not be hard buttons on the device ("page down" for an on-screen satellite TV guide, for example).

The device's built-in help is pretty sophisticated in ironing out glitches, and toll-free tech support gets good reviews. And it's a lot more fun to use than fumbling for four different remotes and hitting multiple buttons on each.

Drawbacks: A Web connection is needed for any modification of the remote, which can be slow at times. Macro capability once you're already in an activity is somewhat limited. And it can get out of sync if someone else in the house continues using old remotes.

Best for: A/V geeks with elaborate home theater setups -- especially if they live with someone who's exasperated at having to use four remotes simply to turn on the TV.

Price: $149.95 list; $89 street

Recommended by: Sharon Machlis, online managing editor

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Linksys PAP2 Phone Adapter for Vonage Internet Phone Service

What it is: Internet phone adapter.

Why we like it: I recently moved and had decided not to get a land line ... that is, until I saw how horrible my wireless coverage was in my new apartment. On a whim, I picked up this Linksys package. I set aside a full evening to set it up, because, y'know, technology.

First step was going to the Vonage site and setting up an account. That took about five minutes. Step 2: Plug in the hardware -- power cord, Ethernet cable to connect it to my existing router, phone cord to a phone I had lying around. I picked up the phone ... and got a dial tone. Called a friend. It worked.

Total setup time: 20 minutes, tops. I've been living with Vonage as my phone service for about a month and so far have no complaints. It's cheap ($24.99 a month for unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada) and has some cool features that your traditional phone probably doesn't have. For instance, I can check my voice mail via a Web browser. Alternatively, Vonage can send me an MP3 file containing the voice mail itself. And you can set up the system to automatically forward to another phone (in my case, my cell phone) if for some reason your Internet connection is down. Last perk: I was able to transfer my old phone number to Vonage, even though I'm living in an area where I would normally have had a different area code. And if this gets too confusing for the local pizza delivery guy, I can add a 'virtual' phone number with a local area code for another $5 a month.

Drawback: As a gift item, it's not a one-time cost but requires monthly service fee.

Price: $50 street for the hardware; $24.99 a month for the service

Recommended by: Peter Smith, lead web developer

Gadgets $101 to $500

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iRobot Roomba Robotic Vacuum

What it is: A robotic vacuum.

Why we like it: I have three cats who apparently live to shed, long hair of my own and no time to vacuum. The Roomba vacuums everywhere -- under furniture and cabinet overhangs -- and has kept the fur and other debris in check. I also purchased the scheduler for the Roomba and have it set to go off daily, while I'm at work. Customer support has been very responsive.

Be sure to visit www.irobot.com/sp.cfm?pageid=129 for a product comparison of the different models. I purchased the Roomba Red 4100 Bagless because it was the cheapest model and I wasn't convinced I'd like it, but I've spent additional money on accessories that come with the other models (you can get extra virtual walls, home-base charging units, a remote, a scheduler, etc.). Other models also have room-size buttons or an extra cleaning mode.

Drawbacks: You absolutely must clean the brushes regularly. If you or your gift recipient are unlikely to do this, don't buy it. The manual that comes with it is skimpy -- you need to go online for more detailed info. It should come with extra brushes and filters (some models do). If you don't like noise, you might think it's a little loud, but I don't think it's any worse than a regular vacuum. Caution to our male readers: Unless your significant other has expressed a desire to have such a device, this may not be the best gift item for the romantic interest in your life.

Price: Starts around $149.99

Best for: People with pets that shed; busy people.

Recommend by: Mari Keefe, research manager

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Slingbox

What it is: Lets you view your home TV on any PC with broadband access -- not just in your home, but anywhere.

Why we like it: Sometimes you want to watch television but you're away from a set. Or, in our case, you might be near broadcast television but the newroom satellite TVs are in another room. Slingbox lets you "watch and control your living room television programming from anywhere by turning any Internet-connected laptop or PC into a personal television." In fact, the device's software lets you control your home TV on your computer, including changing channels or watching recorded shows.

Drawbacks: What you watch on your Slingbox and laptop is also what will display on your home TV, if someone else is back home wanting to watch something else. And of course, picture quality isn't anywhere near that of a real TV.

Price: $249.99 list; $228.72 at Walmart.com

Best for: News junkies who travel; sports fans who are on the road a lot but want to see their local teams; road warriors who travel internationally who want access to TV from home.

Recommended by: John Brillon, associate online art director

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iPod/Car Connection Interface

What it is: An elegant way of playing an iPod through your car stereo.

Why we like it: I've tried cassette adapters and FM transmitters to connect my iPod to my Volkswagen Golf, but they involved clunky cables, and the sound quality was always mediocre. The iPod interface from Precision Interface Electronics plugs into the CD changer adapter in the trunk. Once I connect the iPod, the interface makes my car stereo think that there's a CD changer attached, and I can use the stereo's buttons to control the iPod.

I can create up to six special playlists in iTunes that map to the six CD buttons on the Golf's stereo, so I can have one playlist that contains all of my songs, one playlist for podcasts, etc. I hit the "Mix" button on the stereo to trigger the iPod's shuffle mode. It totally eliminates the need to fiddle with the iPod while driving. And to top it off, the sound quality is excellent.

Price: About $115

Best for: Anyone with a long commute.

Recommended by: Kevin Gerich, Web developer

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Logitech Wireless Headphones for iPod

What it is: Bluetooth headphones that connect to any full-size iPod or iPod mini

Why we like it: Frees me from wires when I work out. Controls are on the headphones. Excellent sound quality.

Drawbacks: Time delay in processing the Bluetooth signal (not noticeable unless you're running some other real-time signal through it, like drums).

Price: $149

Best for: Anyone who wants to use an iPod wirelessly.

Recommended by: Yuval Kossovsky, columnist

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JBL OnStage

What it is: A dock and stereo speaker system for an iPod

Why we like it: It's been around for a while, but it's still a great product. Pop your iPod in the OnStage and switch it on, and you've got iPod-powered stereo sound to fill a room -- in a very compact form factor. When it's not playing, the OnStage charges up the iPod. For those of us who don't change our music playlists much, this can be more convenient than leaving it hooked up to the computer to charge.

Drawbacks: There were some problems early on with static electricity blowing out internal electronics, but that seems to have been straightened out.

Price: $159.99 list, $109 street (recently $99.48 at Buy.com)

Best for: iPod owners who would like to listen to their iPods without headphones and who value convenience, clutter reduction and space efficiency.

Recommended by: Sharon Machlis, online managing editor

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Apple iPod

What it is: Apple's latest iPod, now offering video playback.

Why we like it: What's not to love? Incredibly thin, plays videos and music. Can hold your digital photo library, too.

Drawbacks: Short battery life when playing video. But how long do you want to look at a 2.5-in. screen anyway? (Figure on about two hours.)

Price: $299 for the 30GB model; $399 for the 60GB model

Best for: Music lovers, music video fans and digital photographers.

Recommended by: Ken Mingis, online news editor

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iRiver Ultra Portable Player

What it is: Digital recorder/MP3 player

Why we like it: iPods may be getting all the buzz right now, but this player has amazing recording sound and great features, like the best digital radio I've ever heard.

Drawbacks: Newer models are a bit more complicated to learn.

Price: 512MB model is $149; 1GB is $199

Best for: Anyone who needs a recording device; active people who want a small MP3 player.

Recommend by: Lucas Mearian, reporter

High-End Gadgets: $500+

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Sony Vaio AGN-790 (recently replaced by the Sony Vaio VGN-A60091)

What it is: A wide-screen, high-resolution Sony Vaio laptop.

Why we like it: The 17-in. screen uses Sony's XBrite technology and offers a resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels.

Drawbacks: It uses Windows XP (I'm a Mac guy). And it's heavy, at 8.8 lb.

Price: $2,799. Recently discontinued but still available from third-party resellers. (The new model goes for $2,299.)

Best for: Laptop users interested in multimedia/video recording. (It comes with docking station and speakers.)

Recommend by: Ken Mingis, online news editor

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Panasonic TH-42PX500U

What it is: A best-of-breed high-def flat-panel TV.

Why we like it: We don't have one at home yet, but it's on order. Back order, more specifically -- latest estimated arrival time is now February, since this hugely popular model has emerged as a consensus choice among many serious videophiles. Simply put, the picture is stunning. After researching for weeks, one (long) look at the 50U and I was sold. The higher-end 500U includes a card reader and picture-in-picture.

Drawbacks: Even though it has improved considerably in the past few years, plasma still has longevity issues. Also, as incredible as the picture is, $3,499 is a lot to pay to watch TV.

Price: $3,499 list; less online

Best for: People who enjoy watching a lot of sports or movies.

Recommend by: Sharon Machlis, online managing editor

Subscriptions

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Make magazine

What it is: "A magazine devoted to digital projects, hardware hacks, and DIY inspiration," from O'Reilly Media.

Why we like it: It's an electronics do-it-yourselfer's dream, sort of like Popular Electronics was in its heyday -- except the projects are often goofier ("Build a Light-Seeking Robot From an Old Mouse") or less hardware-oriented ("Podcasting 101"). And you don't have to build any of this stuff to enjoy it -- or to have your imagination stimulated by it. And at 192 pages per issue on heavy paper, each edition feels more like an O'Reilly book than like a magazine.

Drawbacks: Addictive. And frustrating -- who in blazes has time to actually build these projects?!?

Price: $34.95 per year (published quarterly)

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