Connected Home Tech Toys Guide, Holiday 2003

The year 2003 will go down in history as the year in which the PC merged incontrovertibly with consumer electronics, causing PC makers to scramble to enter these exciting new markets. Today, computing giants such as Apple Computer, Dell, Gateway, and HP offer a wide variety of portable electronics, online music services, and other consumer-oriented goods alongside the PCs, servers, printers, and other business products they've offered all along. And thanks largely to the success of Apple's iPod and iTunes Music Store, these huge corporations are reaching out to the ranks of people eager to snap up cheap, legal digital music.

There's never been a better time to be a consumer, and there's never been a more exciting lineup of consumer electronics from which to choose. Let's take a look at some of 2003's most exciting tech toys.

Since Palm's trendsetting Pilot debuted in 1995, we've seen a two-horse PDA race between the Palm OS market—now consisting of companies such as PalmOne and Sony—and the Pocket PC market, which includes companies such as Compaq, Dell, HP, and Toshiba. Both systems have left behind their traditional strengths (Palm was a simple product, especially for consumers, whereas the Pocket PC has historically better served business users) to become extremely powerful in a variety of situations. Today, you can use Palm OS or Pocket PC devices for much more than simple personal information manager (PIM) functionality.

Today, all but the most budget-conscious PDAs offer some form of built-in communications, be it Wi-Fi 802.11b wireless networking, Bluetooth, cell-phone capabilities, or—in some cases—all three. Most of today's PDAs are also capable multimedia performers, with integrated music and video playback features, as well as simple photo-viewing and editing capabilities. You even have high-resolution alternatives, such as Sony's vibrant 320 x 320 Palm OS-based CLIE devices and the Toshiba Pocket PC line, one model of which offers a staggering 640 x 480 VGA display.

Today's Pocket PCs run Windows Mobile 2003, the latest version of Microsoft's PDA OS. The HP iPAQ family of products has long been the Pocket PC market's bestseller, and HP's 2003 lineup is its strongest yet. Like many Pocket PC makers, HP offers a wide range of solutions targeting virtually every budget point, including the excellent iPAQ h1935 ($200), which features a super-slim design and a gorgeous, transflexive screen that's easily viewable both indoors and outdoors. But the most impressive addition to the iPAQ lineup this year is the h4000 family, which includes two capable members, the h4155 ($450) and the h4355 ($500), which feature essentially identical innards: a powerful XScale 400MHz processor, 64MB of SDRAM, SD expansion, and integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; the h4355 also adds a thumb keyboard. In 2002, a machine this powerful would have been twice as thick and cost over $600.

Dell's 2002 entry into the Pocket PC market was an instant success, and the company is now one of the world's largest makers of portable devices. This year, however, Dell has upped the ante with an amazing new device line, the Axim x3. The basic Axim x3 ($230) features a 400MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, and a nice USB cradle. The high-end Axim x3i ($380) adds 64MB of StrataFlash memory and integrated Wi-Fi, making it one of the smallest, thinnest, and lightest PDAs to offer this kind of capability.

For Palm OS, 2003 was a time of transition. Market leader Palm merged with Handspring to form a new company called PalmOne. Predictably, PalmOne's offerings are a combination of Palm and Handspring offerings, with the Palm Zire 21 ($100) bringing a capable low-end PDA to budget-conscious consumers. The Zire family is designed to replace Palm's best-selling m Series, and although the Zire 21 still offers only a black-and-white screen, the device now boasts a more attractive white plastic case. The Zire 71 ($300) adds a gorgeous color screen and an integrated camera. Moving more upscale, Palm's innovative Tungsten line was filled out this year with Tungsten T2 ($329) and T3 ($400) models; both offer colorful screens, plenty of memory, and integrated Bluetooth, but the T3 adds an amazing stretchable screen that offers 50 percent more viewing area than other Palm handhelds. Palm also offers the Treo 600 smart phone ($450), a combination phone, organizer, and email reader with an integrated thumb keyboard.

After working for years to advance the state of the art in Palm-based products, Sony took an interesting detour in 2003 and began to further distance itself from the pack. Though Sony still offers a few traditional slate-style PDA devices, the company's most innovative and interesting products look nothing like the competition. Consider the CLIE NX80V ($550), which features an integrated camera, optional Wi-Fi capabilities and a terrific swiveling chassis that doubles the length of the device when it's open and offers a QWERTY keyboard for simpler text entry. Or perhaps you're more interested in the CLIE UX50 ($650), which hearkens back to the clamshell designs of early handheld computers but carries forward Sony's vaunted design style and multimedia capabilities. With both 802.11.b Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in, the UX50 is also a communications champion.

No roundup of portable devices would be complete without a mention of Research in Motion's (RIM's) BlackBerry wireless email products, which run on neither the Palm OS nor Pocket PC platforms. Now available in color models, BlackBerry devices offer always-on, always-connected wireless email access from virtually anywhere in the United States—an increasingly important feature for mobile workers. BlackBerry devices were the first to ship with integrated thumb keyboards and are available at a variety of price points. They also require a monthly service charge.

Although many PDAs now ship with a full suite of capabilities—including integrated keyboards, wireless, and Bluetooth—you'll probably need some sort of expansion. The most popular and necessary expansion is memory, which can take the form of Secure Digital (SD), MemoryStick, or CompactFlash, depending on the device ($50-200). If you want to get some typing done and you don't have an integrated keyboard, or you find the keyboard to be too small to be useful, consider an add-on keyboard, which will typically ship in a foldable box that's no larger than the PDA itself. I recommend the Belkin G700 PDA Keyboard ($80), which comes in versions for a variety of devices, and the Belkin Wireless PDA Keyboard ($60), which might be a better solution for today's wireless-equipped devices.

Belkin also offers a wide range of useful PDA add-ons, including the USB Charger and the USB Sync Cable ($20 each) for various Palm, iPAQ, CLIE, and Toshiba e-series PDAs that let you charge and synchronize without a bulky cradle—a boon for frequent travelers who like to keep weight to a minimum. The company also offers an interesting range of Bluetooth wireless-connectivity products, including a Bluetooth Dongle, PC Card, and CompactFlash Card, which lets you add Bluetooth compatibility to PDAs and PCs for wireless synchronization.

Cell Phones/Smart Phones
In the mid-1980s, cell phones were barely out of testing and so expensive that only emergency-room surgeons and the rich and famous could afford to use them. Today, cell phones are so pervasive that virtually everyone has one, and they're so inexpensive that many people change phones annually. Predictably, 2003 was the best year yet for cell phones, with the market merging into the smart phone category. Essentially, a smart phone is exactly what its name suggests: a smarter cell phone that includes PC-like functionality such as email, Web browsing, game playing, photo taking and management, and PIM functionality. Interestingly, today's most popular cell phones are actually camera phones, meaning they include an integrated camera for anytime, anywhere picture taking. Camera-equipped cell phones are so popular, in fact, that they outsold digital cameras in 2003.

The Nokia N-Gage ($200 with three games) is probably the most innovative phone released in 2003. Designed primarily as a gaming device, the N-Gage features fast-moving, high-resolution color graphics, wireless capabilities for playing against other N-Gage gamers, and the sort of slick design that both teenagers and adults love. You can also listen to MP3s and FM radio, read email, surf the Web, and download new games and features to the device. The N-Gage is all that, and a phone, too.

Another innovative Nokia phone, the Nokia 3650 ($150), brings style to the forefront with a uniquely curved form factor that fits well in the hand, video capture and playback and still-image capabilities, integrated Bluetooth communications, and an unusually large and vibrant color display. Like any good cell phone, it's also available in a variety of colors.

Microsoft fanatics will be interested to see the Motorola MPx200 Smartphone (about $150), the first widely available smart phone in the United States that's based on Microsoft's Smartphone 2002 software. Essentially a stripped-down version of the software that ships on Pocket PC devices, Smartphone 2002 has been engineered specifically for cell phones' form factor and input types. In the Motorola design, it's a stunning success. Only one caveat: The Motorola MPx200 Smartphone is currently available only to AT&T Wireless customers, though that should change in early 2004.

No overview of cell phones would be complete without a product from Sony Ericsson. The Sony Ericsson T616 Camera Phone ($200) is a prime example of why this company remains a dominant player in this market. Wrapped in black and gray plastics and offering a stunning wedge-shaped design, the T616 makes a statement while you make a phone call. It also features the requisite color screen, integrated camera, Bluetooth and infrared (IR) connectivity, and unprecedented customization capabilities. Highly recommended.

Another worthy contender is the LG VX6000 Camera Phone ($200), which features a traditional clamshell design, an integrated digital camera, voice-activated dialing, and all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a modern smart phone. (It comes with 31 rings!)

If you're shopping for mobile-phone gadgets, your first purchase should be a headset, or hands-free kit, which is available from a variety of manufacturers. Belkin makes various hands-free kits ($20-50) for Audiovox, Mitsubishi, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Sanyo, Sprint, and other phones, as do several other companies. For Bluetooth-compatible phones, consider the excellent Sony Ericsson HBH-35 Bluetooth Headset (about $100), which provides excellent battery life and range. Another must-have add-on is a car power adapter, which will help keep your phone charged on the road; various versions are available for all phone types.

Digital Audio and Music
This year was the year of legal online music services, with Apple's trend-setting iTunes Music Store leading the way, particularly considering the belated release of a Windows-compatible version in October. Of course, iTunes isn't the only game in town; Dell, MusicMatch, Napster 2.0, Rhapsody, and other services are currently available, and many more are on the way. But iTunes' ease of use and friendly Digital Rights Management (DRM) terms make it more palatable than most. You can even purchase iTunes gift certificates ($20 to $200) for your friends—possibly the ultimate gift for any music lover.

The Apple iPod is still the world's most elegant portable digital audio player, and it now ships in 10GB ($300), 20GB ($400), and 40GB ($500) versions for both Macs and PCs. (The same models work on both systems, a major change from last year.) Skip the 10GB model, however: The two higher-end models include valuable add-ons you don't get with the 10GB model, including a handy dock with true line-out, a wired remote control, and a surprisingly nice carrying case with a belt clip. Otherwise, all iPod models are virtually identical, with an elegant no-moving-parts scroll wheel, the simplest UI in the business, and compatibility with MP3 and Protected AAC (which songs purchased from the iTunes service use).

Most iPod users will need some accessories, which make excellent gifts. Windows-based iPod users might not have the FireWire connector necessary to connect the iPod to the PC, so you can get a FireWire Adapter Card ($20-50, various manufacturers), or Apple's iPod Dock Connector to FireWire and USB 2.0 Cable ($20), which works with the USB 2.0 ports on most PCs. For car use, consider the Sony CPA-9C Car Cassette Adapter ($20) or Griffin's iTrip ($35), which plays music through your car stereo's FM radio. Belkin also offers two intriguing iPod add-ons, the iPod Voice Recorder ($50), which lets you record memos, lectures, interviews, or conversations on your iPod, and the iPod Media Reader ($100), which lets you back up images from a digital camera to your iPod.

After 2 years on the market, however, the Apple iPod isn't the only game in town. We're finally starting to see some viable competition from the PC market, which includes support for the popular Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 format. Chief among the PC alternatives is the excellent Dell Digital Jukebox (DJ), which ships in 15GB ($200) and 20GB ($300) versions. Weighing just 7 ounces and featuring a unique scroll wheel that many people find less finicky than Apple's, the DJ utilizes USB 2.0 out of the box and features 16 hours of battery life—more than double that of the iPod.

Another interesting hard disk-based portable audio player is the Digital Networks Rio Karma ($400), a diminutive but expensive unit that offers 20GB of storage space in a tiny 5.5-ounce package. The Rio is a good bet for those who consider size a primary concern, but the price and the tiny pointing stick for navigation are questionable. Still, the device is worth your attention.

If you find hard disk units too expensive, check out the many solid-state portable audio players, which have come down in price as their capacities have risen. The most interesting of these players are the Rio Nitrus ($200), a 1.5GB unit with USB 2.0 compatibility, and the Creative MuVo MX, an ultra-light MP3/WMA player, removable USB storage drive, and voice recorder that's not much bigger than a standard USB memory fob. Available in 128MB ($125) and 256MB ($165) sizes, the MuVo MX is perhaps the smallest portable audio player available.

Gift-giving audio lovers should consider blank audio CDs (from a variety of manufacturers) or headphones, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The hottest headphone category is the noise-canceling variety, a wonderful gift idea for frequent travelers. The best of these is Bose's QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Canceling Headphones ($300), which offer a full over-the-ear design and fold up into a small travel-size package. If full-size headphones aren't your thing, take a look at the tiny Sony MDR-NC11 Noise Canceling Fontopia Ear-Bud Headphones ($99), which give you 60 hours of use out of one AAA battery.

Finally, no digital music fan should be without a digital audio receiver, which can take your PC-based music collection and move it into your living room. The best digital audio receiver is still the Turtle Beach AudioTron 100 ($265), which is compatible with WMA and MP3 audio and connects to your Windows network via Ethernet.

Digital Photography
Digital photography is perhaps the one universal consumer activity, thanks to the burgeoning success of camera-based cell phones, digital cameras, scanners, photo printers, and PC-based software that makes working with these images easier than ever. Unlike the old days, when sharing photos meant lining up the family in front of a slide projector or passing an envelope of 4" x 6" prints around the kitchen table, you can now experience photos digitally in a variety of friendly ways that add drama and excitement to the moment. For example, you haven't fully experienced digital photography until you've watched a random slideshow of photos, set to your favorite music, on your large-screen TV.

In terms of technology, digital camera basics haven't changed much from last year. You should still look for at least 3 megapixels (MPX) of resolution, which will let you create prints as large as 11" x 17" in size and offer a sufficiently high resolution. But you have a new limitation to consider this year: Although you can buy cameras that support 5 or 6 MPX of resolution, such resolutions are probably a bit much for snapshots and family events. Pictures that big will take up enormous amounts of space on your PC and be slow to load, thereby ruining the experience you're trying to create. So, unless you're a professional photographer or need to make numerous poster-sized prints, purchasing a 5 or 6 MPX camera doesn't make much sense.

Another feature you should closely examine on digital cameras is the optical zoom capability, which will likely be in the 2x to 3x range for consumer-oriented models. This number represents the camera's physical zoom capabilities; don't confuse it with digital zoom, which is software-based and often of low quality. Finally, consider memory types: Big photos take up a lot of space, and the amount of RAM that ships with today's digital cameras is woefully inadequate. CompactFlash currently offers the largest expansion possibilities, but MemoryStick and SD are getting close and are certainly nothing to sneeze at: Any of these technologies is adequate for digital photography.

Sony makes high-quality digital cameras, and its Cyber-shot line of point-and-shoot cameras offers several products at virtually any price point. At the low end, consider the Sony DSC-P32 ($200), a 3.2 MPX model, or the Sony DSC-52 ($250), which adds 2x optical zoom. For $300, you can move up to the Sony DSC-72, which adds 3x optical zoom. But if you're looking for the ultimate in portability and style, you must check out the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-U50 ($250), an ultra-small, ultra-fast camera that would look at home on your keychain. It's only 2 MPX, but the small size of the unit is remarkable. Of course, all these cameras support MemoryStick expansion.

On the Canon front, this year's entry, the Canon PowerShot G3 ($600), boasts 4 MPX resolution, a whopping 4x optical zoom, CompactFlash memory expansion, and an amazing continuous shooting mode. Like last year's PowerShot G2, the G3 is a bit expensive for consumers, but the Canon is durable and well made, an interesting halfway point between consumer and professional. It's definitely a choice for you prosumers out there.

More casual snapshot takers should look at Kodak's EasyShare line, which the company has dramatically enhanced over the past year. The EasyShare products include sometimes-optional camera bases that make acquiring photos easier on non-Windows XP or Mac OS X-based systems. At the low end, the EasyShare CX4300 ($200) offers 3.2 MPX of resolution and SD expansion. Moving up the product line, the EasyShare CX6330 ($200) includes 3.1 MPX, 3x optical zoom, and a simple LCD display menu. Both cameras offer good picture quality and Kodak's legendary ease-of-use. As with last year's models, users that opt for the optional (and optional-cost) dock can easily recharge the camera when it isn't in use—a feature that arguably should be included with each camera.

Today's photo printers offer picture-perfect printing that's indistinguishable from prints you might purchase at professional photo-printing houses. And the quality comes at astonishingly low prices, although the cost of perishables such as paper and ink can bite you. Be sure to look for printers that offer 4 to 8 inkwells, with dedicated (not mixed) blacks. Regardless of your needs, a printer is in your price range and, perhaps more important, printer ink and paper make excellent gifts for those who already have printers.

One excellent printer choice is the HP PhotoSmart 7960 ($350), which offers stunning color reproduction thanks to its eight ink wells, one dedicated to black. Like many new HP offerings, the 7960 features an integrated LCD preview screen and multiformat media reader, letting you use the printer without a PC.

For about $100 less, the Canon i900D ($225) offers resolution and quality that's similar to that of the HP, but with six ink wells. Like the HP, the Canon supports prints from 4" x 6" to 8.5" x 11", and supports the faster USB 2.0 standard.

Last year, portable photo printers were a new category, but now they're quite common, and they're an excellent solution for people who enjoy instant results on vacations and other trips. The Canon CP-200 ($170) is an affordable solution, although it's more adept at printing stickers and other small printouts than photos. For higher-quality photo prints, consider the Canon CP-350 ($265), which can print 4" x 6" prints at as much as 300 x 300 dpiÑmore than adequate for snapshots.

If you're looking for digital photo-related gifts, you have some obvious choices. First, for some reason, most printers don't ship with USB cables, so you'll need to pick up a USB printer cable ($15 to $30). And again, printer perishables such as high-quality photo paper (HP and Canon sell excellent paper) and ink cartridges (manufacturer-specific) are always appreciated. Digital-camera owners never have enough storage, and SD, MemoryStick, and CompactFlash storage (typically from 64MB to 512MB, with varying prices) are wonderful gifts. Digital-camera buffs should also check out online photo services, such as Kodak's excellent Ofoto, which offers print ordering; frames, albums, and other gifts; personalized photo cards; and a cool photo-sharing system.

Finally, consider the gift of software. Though Windows XP ships with excellent digital-photo acquisition and management software, that software can leave beginning users in the cold, and it offers little in the way of image-editing capabilities. The best software solution is a handy little bundle, imaginatively titled Adobe PhotoShop Elements 2.0 Plus PhotoShop Album 2.0 ($115), which bundles two of Adobe's best consumer applications into one affordable package. Other worthwhile contenders include Microsoft Digital Image Suite 9 ($125) and Jasc Paint Shop Power Suite - Photo Edition ($120).

Digital Video and Movie Making
Collectively, digital movie making, editing, and sharing are still the most difficult digital media task to accomplish on a PC. However, thanks to a new generation of software and hardware, it's getting easier all the time.

For pure digital recording, you need a good Digital Video (DV) camcorder. Canon's line of digital camcorders is exceptional, offering a variety of models in different price ranges. Consumers are best served by the Canon ZR series, which features the ZR60 ($375), ZR65MC ($650), and ZR70MC ($750) models. All feature 18x to 22x optical zoom, automatic image stabilization, and a 2.5" LCD screen; the upper two models offer SD media card compatibility with photo snapshotting, in addition to DV tape recording and FireWire output. The ZR70MC also includes a Super Night Mode for low-light situations.

The Sony DCR-TV19 ($600) is another good digital camcorder choice for prosumers. Although it features only 10x optical zoom, the camcorder's claim to fame is its small size and light weight. Plus, Sony's SteadyShot picture stabilization does an outstanding job of removing hand shake from video on the fly, using electronic motion sensors to compensate for your movement. Note that Sony uses the MiniDV format.

Most Macs come with FireWire ports as standard equipment, but many PCs still don't, so you'll want to invest in a FireWire expansion card for DV work. The Adaptec DuoConnect USB 2.0/1394 Combo Card ($65) offers four USB 2.0 ports and three FireWire ports, all on one card.

If you're still using an analog camcorder, or if you have many VHS movies you'd like to digitize into a computer-usable format, you need an analog-to-digital converter. In the past, you had to invest in a complicated internal card/breakout box combination, but thanks to the speed of USB 2.0 and FireWire, you can now buy simple external peripherals that do the same job for much less money. One good solution is the Belkin Hi-Speed USB 2.0 DVD Creator ($100), which supports full 720 x 480 resolution on modern PCs.

For digitally recording TV shows, the growing market for digital video recorders (DVRs) has never been stronger. In addition to the market leaders, TiVo Series 2 ($200 and higher, including monthly fees) and ReplayTV 5500 Series ($500-$850, including monthly fees), a selection of PC-based solutions are now available, including new Media Center PCs running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004. Various PC makers, including Gateway, HP, Sony, Toshiba, and ViewSonic, make both desktop and notebook-based Media Center PCs ($1000 to $3200). For users with existing PCs, Snapstream Media's excellent Personal Video Station ($50) features a Media Center-like UI with optional remote control and no monthly fees. (Media Center doesn't include monthly fees, either.)

Home-video enthusiasts will also want to look at the latest generation of DVD recorders, most of which now support most popular DVD-recording formats, including DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM, and Mt. Ranier. (They also write CD-R and CD-RW format, of course.) The best of these DVD recorders are probably the Iomega Super DVD Writer ($180 internal, $250 external) and the Memorex Dual Format DVD Recorder ($140). Frankly, differentiating between DVD recorders can be difficult these days, so just look for the best features (8x DVD-R recording, for example) at the best price.

Finally, we're starting to see a new generation of iPod-like portable devices that play videos. The pickings are still slim, but the best units include the Archos AV340 ($700) and Archos AV320 ($500), which feature 40GB and 20GB drives, respectively. Both units offer near-DVD quality MP4 video playback and can record video directly from analog and video sources such as TVs and camcorders.

Wireless Technologies
Although not always an acceptable replacement for wired networking technologies such as Ethernet, wireless networking is a force of nature, a multibillion-dollar market that has captured the imaginations of consumers and businesses alike. In 2003, Wireless-G (802.11g Wi-Fi) wireless networking overtook 802.11b Wi-Fi as the wireless networking solution of choice, thanks to its much higher speeds, backwards compatibility, and surprisingly low cost. If you're looking for new PC- and device-based wireless networking products, you should definitely choose Wireless-G over 802.11b, if possible.

Surprisingly, the best of the Wireless-G products comes from Microsoft, whose Microsoft Broadband Networking product line became significantly more powerful in 2003. The company now offers a variety of excellent Wireless-G products, in addition to its previous 802.11b-based line, including the Wireless Base Station MN-700 ($75), which also includes four wired ports; the Wireless Notebook Adapter MN-720 ($60); and the Wireless PCI Adapter MN-730 ($60). You can also purchase the 802.11g Wireless Base Station and Wireless Notebook Adapter together in a kit, logically called the Microsoft Wireless-G Notebook Kit ($125). Microsoft's ease of setup and management is peerless, particularly the simplicity of setting up a secure wireless network—virtually impossible with 802.11b gear.

One company you might not have heard of is Buffalo Technologies, which makes a compelling set of Wireless-G products. The company's AirStation Wireless Router Base Station ($100) is fantastic and can be augmented by the AirStation Wireless Repeater Bridge-G ($100) to move fast wireless signals further into large homes. The company also offers a 54Mbps Wireless USB Adapter-G ($80) and a host of other Wireless-G products.

Belkin's line of Wireless-G products is also worth consideration. The company offers a full suite of wireless products, including the 802.11g Wireless DSL/Cable Gateway Router ($150), a dedicated 802.11g Wireless Network Access Point ($140) for those who have a preexisting router, and various Wireless-G adapters for notebooks and desktop PCs ($50-$100). Belkin's two-antenna Access Point (AP) designs guarantee the best possible reception, although the units don't yet support the latest Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) wireless security standards.

Finally, no wireless networking maven should be without the Kensington WiFi Finder ($30), a small device you can attach to your keychain and use to find wireless hotspots. Like a mobile stud finder, the WiFi Finder lights up when it finds wireless networks and glows brighter as the signal grows stronger. This device is a must-have for your favorite geek.

Cool Mobile Technologies
This year, mobile technologies got smaller and faster, and a new market for smart watches took off where the original Timex Datalink watch left off 5 years ago. You can now use a variety of cool electronic devices to get work done, stay informed, and find entertainment virtually anywhere on Earth.

The watch front saw two major developments this year, both involving PDA-like functionality. First up is the Fossil Wrist PDA ($275 to $300), which combines the functionality of a Palm OS-based PDA with an attractive—if somewhat large—Fossil watch. All three Wrist PDA models feature black-and-white screens; compatibility with Palm OS contacts, calendar, memo pad, and to-do list; and a wide variety of wristband types. If you're looking for something a little more intelligent and connected, consider the Fossil Wrist Net ($180 to $200) line, which features Microsoft MSN Direct's Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) technologies. These intelligent watches connect to online services to provide up-to-date information of your choosing, including sports scores, news, weather, calendar, personal messages, and so on. Of course, the watches come with a range of configurable "At A Glance" watch faces. Three styles are available, including round, Dick Tracey, and square.

Portable DVD movie players took off last year, and this year the small portable devices are hotter than ever, thanks to a variety of models at various sizes and price points. These devices let you watch the latest Hollywood movies in virtually any location, such as in bed, on an airplane, or even in the bathroom. For a budget experience, look at the Initial IDM-9520 Portable DVD Player ($170), which features a small 4" LCD display and a car kit for the ultimate in affordable and portable family entertainment. Moving up in price, the Panasonic DVD-LS5 Portable DVD Player ($350) features a larger 5" screen and compatibility with DVD-R, DVD-RAM, CD, and recordable MP3/WMA CDs. At the top of the heap is the Toshiba SD-P2500 Portable DVD Player ($700), which sports a relatively massive 9" screen, HD-compatible output, and 3.5 hours of battery life—about an hour longer than most players.

As I did last year, I must recommend a couple of terrific traveling companions: the Kensington FlyLight ($15), a slender wand-like light that plugs into your laptop's USB port to provide keyboard illumination, 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: This fan can be a lifesaver in poorly ventilated areas, or on grounded airplanes trying to preserve power. These toys are must-haves for geeks on the go.

TV/PC Integration
The notion of PCs in the living room might still sound a bit ludicrous (after all, who wants to reboot the TV?), but two interesting trends emerged in 2003 that will eventually make living room-based computing as obvious and necessary as the refrigerator is to your kitchen. Consider the many PCs based on Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, the excellent Windows version with bundled DVR, photo viewing, music playing, and online services capabilities. Numerous Media Center PCs are available from a variety of PC makers, but I recommend HP's line of Pavillion Media Center PCs ($1300 to $2000), which offer speedy Pentium 4 processors, 6-in-1 media readers, and front-mounted ports for attaching digital and analog video and audio sources. For notebook computers, look at the innovative Toshiba Satellite Media Center PCs, which ship in 15" ($2100) and 17" ($2800) versions. The 17" monster is perhaps the ultimate college dorm-room system and can replace a bevy of other devices.

Another big trend in TV/PC integration is a new market for LCD TVs that you can also use as PC monitors. The best of the lot are the widescreen models, such as the excellent Dell W1700 LCD TV ($700), which features a stunning 17" display, DVI-D and VGA ports, integrated speakers, and even includes a DVI-D cable—an extra cost for most LCD TVs. Market leader Viewsonic also makes a wide range of LCD TVs, including the nicely designed Viewsonic N1700w ($700), with a similar widescreen display, integrated speakers but, alas, no DVI-D cable.

Finally, although the emerging market of set-top boxes that connect to your PC is just starting to get interesting, I can recommend one device now. (Expect this list to grow dramatically by next year.) The PRISMIQ MediaPlayer ($250) is basically a set-top box with Ethernet and wireless connections that let you pull multimedia content such as photos, music, and digital video from your PC and consume it on TV sets in a more comfortable setting elsewhere in the home. You can also use the device to stream Internet radio, browse the Web, and perform Instant Messaging (IM) with friends. Optionally, you can purchase a wireless keyboard ($50) and remote control ($20) for the device.

Input Devices, Game Controllers, and PC Games
Serious game players know that the right controllers make all the difference in the world. Whether you're a PC-based gamer or a video game console enthusiast, you'll have little trouble finding excellent controllers that meet a variety of needs.

For your desktop PC, consider an ergonomic, split-layout keyboard and a large mouse or trackball, both of which will help stave off carpal tunnel syndrome. The best of these come from Microsoft, which has been making excellent keyboard and mouse products for almost 20 years. The company's best keyboard is the Microsoft Natural Multimedia Keyboard ($50), which continued unchanged in 2003, with a blue and white fascia and several programmable multimedia keys.

You have many excellent mouse-device options, including the new Microsoft Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer ($50), which might be the first wireless mouse that's fast enough for online gaming. Featuring a new tilt-wheel scrolling mechanism that permits both horizontal and vertical scrolling, and an interesting selection of colors and surface textures (including an impressive black leather), the Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer is the most powerful mouse available. (Expect wired versions in early 2004.) Also worth your consideration are the Microsoft Optical Mouse Blue ($35), a basic model with two buttons and a scroll wheel; the IntelliMouse Explorer ($55), which includes five buttons and a scroll wheel; and the Trackball Explorer ($55), an optical trackball design with four buttons and a scroll wheel.

If you must use a gamepad, you have numerous excellent choices. The coolest option is probably the Smartjoy-X USB Adapter ($13), which lets you use any Xbox game pad on your PC. For dedicated PC gaming, however, consider the Logitech Cordless Rumblepad ($40), which features multiple buttons, dual analog mini-sticks, and an 8-way D-pad. And serious gamers will want the Belkin Nostromo SpeedPad n52 ($50), an intriguing secondary controller that offers the functionality of a keyboard and mouse in one unit.

Finally, the holidays wouldn't be the same without some PC games. Although some of 2003's most widely anticipated titles (e.g., DOOM 3 and Half-Life 2) have been pushed into next year, we still have plenty to cheer about. First up is the irrepressible Max Payne in Rock Star Games' Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne ($42), a violent film noir love story with some of the best action sequences I've ever seen on the PC. The original programmers of the excellent Medal of Honor regrouped for Activision's Call of Duty ($45), another first-person World War II shooter with even more realistic graphics and a stunning series of scenarios that let you drive tanks through Berlin, snipe Nazis in Stalingard, and perform other period tasks. Another first-person shooter, Microsoft Halo: Combat Evolved ($40), started on the Xbox and made its way this year to the PC. Excellent as this game is, however, Halo requires the fastest possible PC for adequate play.

Video and Computer Games
PC gaming is a huge business, but hardcore gamers know that video game consoles are the place to be. Although this year's selection of hardware consoles—the Sony PlayStation 2 ($180), Microsoft Xbox ($180 with two free games: Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Tetris Worlds Online), and Nintendo GameCube ($100)—hasn't changed over the past year, the size and quality of their respective software libraries has improved. Best of all, many video games now come with online-play capabilities—the best is Microsoft's Xbox Live ($70 for starter kit, $50 to renew)—and prices are lower than ever before. Xbox owners should also look into Microsoft's excellent Microsoft Wireless-G Xbox Adapter ($100), which lets you play games online without wires!

Xbox gamers have several standout games this holiday season. Microsoft's Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge ($45) is a stunningly realistic-looking and swashbuckling air-combat adventure set in an alternate 1930s world. You have to see this game to believe it. Electronic Arts's (EA's) awesome SSX 3 ($45, also available on PS2 and GameBoy Advance) eclipses previous SSX snowboarding games by adding near-photo-realistic graphics and a huge collection of secrets, shortcuts, and blistering music. Finally, two more sequels, Acclaim's Burnout 2: Point of Impact ($20) and Microsoft's Project Gotham Racing 2 ($50) are terrific racing games, with more cars, bigger crashes, and much more realistic courses.

The obvious place to start with the Sony PlayStation 2 is EA's incredible Madden NFL 2004 ($50), which features online play, the most realistic football environment imaginable, and, naturally, the omnipresent John Madden. In another vein is EA's epic Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ($50), in which gamers can take the role of eight characters from the books and movie series and battle evil to the Gates of Mordor. Finally, in EA's World War II-themed first-person shooter Medal of Honor: Rising Sun ($50), you assume the role of a Pearl Harbor survivor fighting your way across the Pacific Rim as the Big One unrolls around you. It's heady stuff, and graphically outstanding.

Nintendo might have entered 2003 a lame duck, but a well-timed price cut late in the year put the console back on top, and the company will finish the year in fine form with an impressive collection of software titles. One excellent choice is Nintendo's fast-paced 1080 Avalanche ($50), a high-flying snowboarding title that lets you compete against the machine or as many as three human opponents. In Nintendo's Mario Kart: Double Dash!! ($50), kids can race their favorite characters around colorful and wild courses. And in Nintendo's exclusive Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike ($45), gamers can take control of Rebel and Empire vehicles and blasters, and duel with lightsabers.

In some ways, Nintendo's GameBoy is the most exciting video game platform around, and the introduction of the clamshell-design GameBoy Advance SP ($100) in early 2003 sealed the deal. Now available in several colors and featuring a crucial backlight and excellent battery life, the GameBoy Advance SP is a must-have addition to any gamer's arsenal. Some cool titles for the holidays include Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow ($30), the latest version of the vampire scroller phenomenon; Super Mario Advance 4: Super Marios Bros. 3 ($35), a neat portable version of the NES console classic; and SSX 3 ($30), a stripped-down version of the snowboarding title with simpler graphics but the same frenetic game play as the Xbox version

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