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Connected Home Tech Toys Guide, Holiday 2004, Part 2

In the December 8 edition of Connected Home EXPRESS, I gave you the first part of my Holiday 2004 Tech Toys Guide, which looks at cell phones and smart phones, digital music, digital photography, digital video and movies, and PDAs. This time, I wrap up the Tech Toys Guide with a look at cool devices in the realm of wireless technologies, mobile technologies, TVs, and video games. Happy New Year!

Wireless Technologies
If 2003 was the year of Wireless-G (aka 802.11g), the 54Mbps wireless standard, 2004 will go down in history as the year we needed more speed. Although 802.11g is perfectly acceptable for most home networking tasks, several compatible technologies offer dramatically better performance. The best I've seen is the D-Link DGL-4300 ($180), which offers speeds up to 108Mbps and, with a cool black design that puts D-Link's other products to shame, is ostensibly designed for gamers. Don't be put off by that fact, however. The DGL-4300 offers high-end features such as 4Gb (1000Mbps) Ethernet ports and a high-performance CPU that helps the device better handle multiple client connections. Highly recommended.

If the DGL-4300 seems a bit expensive, consider a multiband wireless router, which offers compatibility with 802.11b and 802.11g, at a minimum. The best wireless routers, however, also offer a discrete 802.11a wireless network. 802.11a isn't as common as 802.11g, but it suffers from far less interference than 802.11b/g and features much better quality of service. And if you have a device that can take advantage of 802.11a—such as any Media Center Extender or a PC with an 802.11a card—you can be sure that that device will operate wirelessly at rock-steady rates. My favorite multiband router is the D-Link AirPremier AG ($130), which offers 108Mbps transfer rates and compatibility with 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. It's highly reliable and supports Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security with both 802.11a and 802.11g.

If you're a cable modem user, Linksys offers a unique solution that combines a cable modem with a wired router and an 802.11b/g wireless Access Point (AP) in a single device. The Linksys WCG200 Wireless-G Gateway ($130) includes an integrated Wireless-G/Wireless-B (802.11g/b) AP, a firewall, and four Ethernet ports. Linksys also makes a decent line of low-cost wireless routers that are less connection-specific. The Linksys WAP54G ($100) features the classic Linksys styling and Wireless-G/Wireless-B networking with WPA security. It's also inexpensive.

Do you want to add wireless capabilities to a desktop or notebook computer? D-Link makes excellent desktop PC adapters in both 108Mbps and 54Mbps varieties, but the 108Mbps version, the D-Link AirPlus Xtreme G High-Speed PCI Adapter, DWL-G520 ($60), is so inexpensive that you might as well skip the low-end version. Best of all, it's backward-compatible with any Wireless-G network, so you can look forward to a future upgrade if you already have a home network. For laptops, consider the D-Link AirPlus Xtreme G CardBus Adapter DWL-G650 ($60), another smoking deal with serious bandwidth.

For the ultimate wireless tchotchke, grab a Kensington WiFi Finder ($30), a keychain-like device that helps you find wireless hotspots. The WiFi Finder lights up when it finds wireless networks and glows brighter when the signal is stronger, helping you find a decent connection without having to actually turn on your notebook computer.

Cool Mobile Gear
In early 2004, several Microsoft hardware partners released Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) watches that use the MSN Direct service. Most SPOT watches are still pretty large, so they aren't the type of gift you'd want to give to a woman. SPOT watches are smart watches that connect wirelessly through FM radio frequencies to MSN Direct ($40 a year or $10 a month; other plans are available) to provide users with personalized information such as schedules, contact lists, movie listings, weather alerts, and sports scores. Or you can just use the watch as a watch and choose from among a range of personalized watch faces, thanks to its programmable LCD screen.

Fossil-FX3005 Fossil's new Wrist NET FX3005 ($150) is a huge improvement over the company's original version, with a smaller, more industrial design and a nice leather strap. It includes an AC adapter and charging cable, too, so you can keep your watch connected at all times. Another cool design, the Swatch Paparazzi ($150), comes in multiple colors and might appeal to a younger audience. It also includes custom alerts that are specific to Swatch.

On the high end, the ultimate SPOT watch is the Suunto n3i ($300), which features a slimmer size than the original n3 and a cool, unique clip-on charger.

Portable Video
Looking for a portable DVD player? There's never been a better time to buy one. Their cost has come down dramatically, and now you can find units with larger screens and better battery life at bargain prices. Whereas last year's models more typically went out the door with 4" and 5" screens, this year you should be able to find decent deals on 6" and 7" models. And if you don't mind spending $500 or more, you can even find portable DVD players with 9" and 10" displays.

For an entry-level player, consider the Mintek MDP-1770 ($200), which features a 7" 16:9 widescreen display and weighs less than 2 pounds. The MDP-1770 also works well as a home DVD player; it comes with optical digital-audio capabilities, plus analog audio and video (but not S-Video). Another excellent mid-level choice is the Panasonic DVD-LS50 ($320), which also features a 7" widescreen display and weighs just 1.8 pounds. The DVD-LS50 also has up to 3 hours of battery life, which can be crucial on long flights.

For the ultimate portable video experience, check out the Sony DVP-FX701 Portable DVD Player ($500), which also offers a 7" widescreen display but with exceptional clarity and color range. The DVP-FX701 features Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1-channel surround-sound capabilities (simulated surround with headphones) and Toslink optical audio. Like the other players, the Sony player has about 3 hours of battery life. Looking for something a bit bigger? Toshiba's SD-P2600 Portable DVD Player ($420) features a 8.9" widescreen display, 3.5 hours of battery life, and a unique contoured design. More important, perhaps, the display doesn't trade quality for size. It also features a fine 1024x600 pixel resolution, higher than the resolution of DVD movies.

Because we're living in the 21st century, you can now leave the removable media at home and go all-digital. The most versatile portable digital video players are those based on Microsoft's Portable Media Center standard, although they all feature somewhat small screens and aren't expandable. The best of the lot is the Creative Zen Portable Media Center ($500), which integrates with your home PC's digital music, photos, and videos. And, if you have a Media Center PC, you can copy recorded TV shows to the device and watch them on the go, which is cool. The Zen features a 3.8" LCD display, a 20GB hard disk, up to 7 hours of continuous video playback (or 22 hours for just audio), and interconnection with Microsoft's Windows Media Player (WMP) on your PC.

Mobile Gear Add-Ons and Accessories
Gift-seekers could do worse than purchasing extra batteries for their portable DVD player- or Portable Media Center-toting friends and family members (various prices). There's nothing worse than running out of battery life during the crucial space battle above the Star Wars Death Star. And as always, I recommend a couple of other cool traveling companions, the Kensington FlyLight ($15), a slender wand-like light that plugs into your notebook computer's USB port and provides illumination for your keyboard, and the little USB-based fan called the Kensington FlyFan ($20), which works on the same principle except that a fan sits on the end of the USB wand. It can be a lifesaver in poorly ventilated areas or on grounded airplanes when you're trying to preserve power.

As HDTV becomes more and more prevalent at home, consumers are turning to digital widescreen and HDTV sets in record numbers. And no wonder: With most of today's modern sets, picture quality is fantastic. And as with all consumer electronics, the prices just keep coming down.

I don't have enough space here for a full breakdown of what to look for in a TV, but you have a choice between four competing device types: the standard, tube-based units; bulky but inexpensive rear-projection TVs (RPTVs), computer display-like LCD screens; and large flat-screen plasma displays. Believe it or not, the old-fashioned tube-based TVs still deliver the best picture, but they're somewhat limited by how large they can get, and larger units are extremely heavy. RPTVs deliver the largest pictures, at the expense of cabinet size, and they also come with unique cleaning and maintenance concerns because of their delicate mirror-based optics. Plasma screens are widely hailed because of their large sizes and desirable flat screens, but picture quality is generally average. If you absolutely must get a flat-screen display, an LCD is almost always going to deliver a better picture, but LCD prices can get exorbitant as you move up in size. For any of these TV types, you should consider only widescreen displays: The 4x3 sets your parents viewed are as antiquated now as an 8-track tape.

For traditional sets, consider Samsung's DynaFlat HD Premier TX-P2764 ($700), a 26" 1080i HD-ready unit with a digital tuner and ample inputs. Need something a little bigger? Check out Sony's awesome FD Trinitron Wega Hi-Scan KV-30HS420 ($1000), a 30" 1080i set with an almost surreally flat display that features jet-black blacks. It's to die for.

On the RPTV front, today's units are typically in the 50"-and-larger area, due to increased competition from large plasma displays. And although you can quickly find yourself spending a lot of money if you're not careful, in my mind you should be looking to pay less for such a large set. One such bargain is the Toshiba 57H94 ($2000), a 57" behemoth with HD capabilities and a superb picture.

Plasma TVs are expensive, but when you want the biggest impact, nothing says tech heaven better than a whopping flat-screen display, preferably mounted directly to the wall. However, sets typically start at $3000 and move quickly past $5000, so make sure your credit card has plenty of headroom. To save some money, try unexpected sources, such as Dell, which sells an incredible 42" HDTV plasma TV for just $3000. The Dell W4200HD Plasma TV features 1080i resolution, a built-in HDTV tuner, gorgeous picture quality, and detachable speakers. It's also just 3.3" thick. Too proletariat? Consider the top-of-the-line Phillips 50PF9986/37 Flat TV ($5000).

On the LCD front, you'll find smaller sets but better picture quality. Again, Dell makes a low-cost alternative that many people might not consider. The Dell W3000 30-inch LCD TV ($2000) is HDTV-ready, features multiple inputs, and offers a native resolution of 1280x768. Moving higher up the scale, Sony's WEGA line impresses once again. The Sony WEGA KLV-32M1 ($3200) features a 32" 1080i HDTV-ready LCD display, along with Sony's typically excellent picture quality.

TV Add-Ons and Accessories
If you need to find a good gift for a TV or AV geek, you can't go wrong with a universal remote—unless, of course, you get the wrong one. This year, the best universal remote comes from an unexpected place. The Logitech Harmony Remote ($200 to $300, depending on the model) features a countered design, a variety of handy button layouts, and compatibility with a wide range of personal video recorders (PVRs), cable systems, Media Center PCs, and other devices. You can even connect the device to the Internet through a bundled USB cable and download preprogrammed logic for numerous components.

Another interesting TV add-on is the Roku HD1000 Digital Media Player ($300), which lets you enjoy your digital photo collection in high definition on your HDTV set. You can also use the HD1000 to play music files over your home network from your PC. As you might expect from an HD-compatible player, the HD1000's picture quality is stunning. And you can purchase a variety of high-definition Art Packs ($70 each) or an animated aquarium ($30) if you don't own any suitable pictures. The Art Packs include paintings by famous artists such as Picasso, Monet, da Vinci, Gauguin, Renoir, as well as nature scenes, holiday images, and other eye candy.

Input Devices and Game Controllers
PC users and gamers no longer need to settle for basic keyboards and mice that PC makers provide with their systems in order to save a buck. Instead, of walking blindly down the road to carpel tunnel syndrome, consider investing in betterx—and healthier—alternatives.

Microsoft has recently downplayed the benefits of an ergonomic keyboard, but the keyboard in its new Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop Comfort Edition ($65) features a more gently sloped keyboard than previous ergonomic models and an excellent padded wrist rest. Key to this package, however, are its unique slider control (which sits on the left side of the keyboard, letting you zoom in documents and picture slideshows) and its ambidextrous tilt-wheel mouse (which should please both righties and lefties).

Also excellent is the Microsoft Optical Desktop with Fingerprint Reader ($85), which features a more traditional straight keyboard but with a fingerprint reader that you can use to log on to your PC and to password-protected Web sites. It's a cool preview of a feature that will likely be standard on keyboards of the future.

Finally, you might consider a Bluetooth-based keyboard, which uses the reliable Bluetooth technology in lieu of the infrared (IR)-based wireless used by most keyboards and mice today. Again, Microsoft's entry is the strongest, both because of its excellent keyboard feel and because the unit bundles a standard Bluetooth fob that you can also use with other Bluetooth devices, including cell phones, PDAs, and other computers. The Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop for Bluetooth ($125) also includes a tilt-wheel mouse and a 30' range—particularly excellent for Media Center PC users who need to enter text or mouse around from the couch.

Just looking for just a mouse? My favorite is the classic Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer 4.0 ($30), which is wired (USB-based) and features the excellent Microsoft tilt-wheel and five buttons. It's for righties only, however. Lefties might consider the Microsoft S+ARCK Optical Mouse ($25), which features only two buttons but is ambidextrous and boasts cool, Mac-like styling.

The market for PC-based video game controllers has dwindled remarkably over the past year, but two standouts remain, and Belkin makes them both. The first is the Belkin Nostromo SpeedPad n52 ($50), which combines the functionality of a keyboard and gamepad into a single controller, giving you quick access to needed functionality during game play. The n52, like its predecessor, is fully programmable, and this version supports as many as 104 discrete functions. Also worth considering is the Belkin Nostromo n45 Dual Analog USB GamePad ($25), a Sony PlayStation-like game pad that features the requisite directional controller, action buttons, and triggers, along with two analog stick controllers.

Video and Computer Games
This year was a banner year for gamers, both on PCs and dedicated video game consoles. It was a year of first-person shooters, portable gaming, sequels, and more. You should have little trouble finding something for any gamer on your holiday shopping list.

On the PC side, the game of the year is Valve's Half-Life 2 ($50), which features the best graphics, game play, and plot of any game title to ship this year—hands-down. But maybe you already have Half-Life 2. Two other excellent and similar titles to consider are id Software's dark and scary DOOM 3 ($50), which is now being made into a major holiday movie, and the surprising CryTek Far Cry ($50), which features stunningly realistic graphics and is set in a lush, tropical killing zone. This game is notable for the excellent quality of its artificial intelligence (AI), and its replay value is enhanced by the large, open environments, which you can beat in various unique ways, unlike some first-person shooters, which direct you down a strict path.

Moving to the Xbox, Microsoft's video game console is now available in a nice bundle with two games, Electronic Arts' (EA's) NCAA Football 2005 and Microsoft's Top Spin ($150). You'll need a second controller, however: I recommend Microsoft's nicely designed Xbox Controller S ($30), which comes in three colors. The Xbox game of the year, clearly, is best-seller Halo 2 ($50), which, despite a disappointing ending, builds on the Halo mythos and supplies a nice helping of improved graphics and some cool Earth-based play locales. Xbox gamers should also consider Sega ESPN NFL Football 2K5 ($20), a bargain price for a game that looks better than Madden and plays almost as well; Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords ($50), which pits you in a heated battle between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force; and Call of Duty: Finest Hour ($50), a nice conversion of a PC first-person favorite that charts the progress of various allied forces across the entire Second World War.

This year, Sony released a new, slimmer version of the PlayStation 2 video game console ($150), which features an integrated Ethernet port (previously available separately) but no hard disk. Like the Xbox, the PlayStation comes with only one controller, and most players prefer Sony's standard Dual Shock 2 analog controller ($25), if you're looking for extras. As for games, 2004 was all about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas ($50), a mature and violent title that might churn a few stomachs. If you're not into such virulent action, try a cool platformer, such as Jak 3 ($40) or Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal ($40), both of which are kid-friendly and fun for adults, too.

The Nintendo GameCube ($99 bundled with Metroid Prime) might be a distant third in the video console race, but it still offers a number of unique titles that set it apart from the competition. The big new title this year was Metroid Prime Echoes ($40), a surprisingly moody sequel to the GameCube's only big hit. You'll also want accessories, and the GameCube has some cool ones. In addition to a standard GameCube Controller ($25), you might consider the GameBoy Player ($50), an attachment that lets you play GameBoy, GameBoy Color, and GameBoy Advance games on your TV. Excellent!

Curiously, the biggest video game news this year had nothing to do with the Xbox, PlayStation 2, or GameCube. Instead, the new Nintendo Nintendo Dual Screen (DS) ($150) is all the rage, featuring a clam-shell design with two processors and two color LCD screens, one of which is a touch-screen. Games for the DS are scarce right now—more are due in early 2005—but it plays all GameBoy Advance titles and two DS-specific titles, EA's Madden NFL 2005 ($40) and Nintendo Super Mario 64 DS ($40).

If you're looking for a fun blast from the past, check out Jakks Pacific's wonderful line of inexpensive TV Games, joystick-like devices that plug directly into your TV and provide a wide variety of classic arcade and video games. There are so many to choose from, I don't know where to start, but some of my favorites are NAMCO ($20), which includes the arcade versions of Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Galaxian, and other awesome 80s games; Atari Games ($20), which looks like an Atari 2600 joystick and features a number of excellent Atari classics such as Centipede and Yars Revenge; Activision Games ($20), with Pitfall, Boxing, River Raid, Ice Hockey, and more; and Ms. Pac-Man ($20), which includes the arcade versions of Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Pole-Position, Xevious, and more.

Can't get enough of the classic gaming? I don't blame you, but there's more. Although you can purchase it at only QVC, fans of the Commodore 64 are sure to feel a sudden rush of nostalgia for the brilliant Commodore 64 30-in-1 Classic Plug & Play Video Game ($30), an astonishing device that includes all the circuitry from a C-64 inside a joystick that you connect directly to your TV. It features 30 classic C-64 titles, including Loderunner and many of those Epyx sports titled I wasted my youth on. Merry Christmas, indeed.

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