Inspect a gadget
Plug in, turn on, press play - for less than 300 bucks
BY RYAN STEWART
Each year, the mainstream media proclaims the holiday season "The Year of the Gadget." They do the same thing in music, proclaiming "The Year of the Woman" whenever more than three female artists are in the top 20. And in sports, they trumpet "The Year of the Punter!" when three or more drop-kickers are selected on the first day of the draft.
But as the mainstream media's b.s. detector, we are here to tell you that this is the first bona fide Year of the Gadget. The high-end devices that have been around for a few years are dropping in price. Hand-held gaming systems have caught up to the consoles. Defibrillators are being sold for less than two grand. People are even paying money to listen to the radio.
So here's a list of the best gadgets for less than $150, followed by the best between $150 and $300. 'Cause, after all, in Year of the Gadget you might just want to give someone a gadget gift.
Less than $150
Revolutionary Cooling Systems Cooper Cooler Rapid Beverage Cooling System
($99.99; available online only at BestBuy.com)
We've all been there: about to settle in for an evening in front of the tube only to find that the beverage supply - while ample - is at room temperature. What's a baseball game, Bill Murray movie, or episode of Lost without something cold to drink? It's a waste, that's what.
Enter the Cooper Cooler. Place your bottle or can in the hatch, set your desired temperature, and in one minute, it's cold. It's like a microwave for beer lovers! Have an infant in the house? You can set it to warm a beverage (like a baby's bottle) just as effectively.
Game Boy Micro ($99)
To a nostalgic, casual gamer with a long bus ride every morning, the Micro is a four-inch slice of heaven. The screen might look small, but you can see it clearly in any light, there's no action blur or slowdown, and you can read text without straining your eyes. The controls are sleek and responsive. The built-in battery lasts more than long enough for you to kick M. Bison's ass on the advanced level. And most important, it plays all Game Boy Advance titles. They're also selling full-length movies (but all you can get now are Shrek 2 and Shark Tale).
• Delphi Roady XT XM Satellite Radio Receiver ($79.99 at Best Buy, $12.95/month subscription)
• Sirius Starmate Replay Receiver ($79.99 after mail-in rebate through Radio Shack, $12.95/month subscription)
It would stand to reason that between their exclusive NFL deal and their position as the new home of Howard Stern, Sirius is clearly the dog to pick in the satellite-radio fight. But XM does give you MLB (the best sport to listen to on the radio) and more music channels. Choose wisely - for help, you can find complete channel listings at xmradio.com and sirius.com. These packages include everything you need to catapult your vehicle into the world of satellite radio - it works with any FM car radio and it has its own control module and antenna. A home docking kit would only set you back another $50 or so.
Polaroid iZone 500 ($149.99)
Tiny: it will fit into your front pants pocket. Powerful: it packs five mega-pixels of picture-taking fun. Cheap: a buck fifty and you're golden for the year. The iZone 500 has a user-friendly interface and motion-video capabilities, and like so many other gizmos these days, it also plays mp3s. Other cameras may take higher-resolution photos, but the ones you get from this lens will look just fine. Plus, you won't need to spend hours figuring out how to work it. Just point and shoot, like the Polaroids of old.
Mobiblu DAH-1500i 1 GB cube mp3 player ($129.99)
There are plenty of players out there that may not be as user-friendly as the iPod, but still play music just as effectively (it all depends on the quality of your files, really). While the Nano is thin, the Cube is compact (about the size of a walnut). Though it may suffer from some size-related design flaws (it's only about an inch long on each side,) it still holds about 200 songs. And, unlike with the mighty iPod, you can actually take songs from the Cube and upload them to your computer. It's small enough to wear around your neck (and you won't look a librarian, like all those people wearing iPod's Shuffle).
$150 to $300
Sling Media SlingBox ($249.99)
Sure, you could get a TiVo DVR to record your favorite shows every week and then watch them at your convenience on your home television. But why wait? The SlingBox connects to your cable (or satellite) box, digitizes the programming, and sends out a real-time stream to any computer connected to the Internet. You'll never miss a game or an episode of Oprah again. The video quality is a little blotchy on larger screens, but the simple fact that it works outweighs looks. The only drawback is if someone else wants to watch TV at home, you may be subject to their whims. If you can deal with that, this is a nifty gadget.
The battle of the docking stations:
• Altec Lansing InMotion iM7 ($249.99)
• Bose SoundDock ($299.99)
• JBL On Stage iPod Speakers ($159.99)
• Klipsch iGroove Stereo Speaker System for Apple iPod ($279.99)
The docking station is probably the one thing on everyone's list, so we'll cut to the chase. Bose's model is the most well-known, and offers terrific sound quality. Plus, it has the best design. But that $299 price tag can be a little daunting, and it won't work with every type of iPod. Klipsch's model is comparable in price and sound quality, and includes adaptors that work with the Shuffle and Nano. But it's larger than the Bose model and its remote doesn't work as well from long distances. At close distances, there can be some hissing. Altec Lansing's model sounds great and costs less, but it's bulky, and the remote doesn't control the iPod's menus. The JBL model has a neat design and a low price tag, but it doesn't have a remote at all, and its sound capabilities are better suited to a small space.
Sony PSP ($249.99)
This is not just a gaming system. The Sony PSP can also access the Web, and play mp3s and movies (it's quite possibly the best hand-held movie player out there), all on a wide-screen display that doesn't suffer from contrast issues, a jerky frame rate, or excessive glare - with digital-quality audio to match. The only downside? Cost. We were sure it would drop to $199 for the holidays - it didn't. The games (mostly shrunken versions of what you already have for PS2) run about $49.99, and UMD movies (same movie, smaller disc) average $29.99 for new releases. Plus, you have to buy your own memory stick to store songs or images. That said, the PSP is the best hand-held in history.
30GB iPod with video ($299)
We can't figure out Apple's iPod pricing. You can get a four-gig Nano for $250, or a 30-gig iPod Video for $300. Ridiculous. The company's head has gotten a bit too big for its earbuds. That being said, this is the best iPod yet. It's thinner, it stores your pictures, it plays video (TiVo is figuring out how you can interface with iPod as we speak) and the battery lasts 14 hours. The only people who hate it are those who bought the iPod Photo six months ago. There will probably be a better iPod on the way in six months - but do you really want to wait?
Blackberry 7100i ($200)
Why buy a Blackberry now? If you see this one in action, you'll know. Phone, Nextel walkie-talkie, GPS (visual and audio driving directions), Bluetooth, e-mail, and calculator (woo-hoo!).
Microsoft Xbox 360 ($300)
We are cheating here, as no one in their right mind is going to buy the new Xbox 360 without the $100 hard drive. And some have complained (the Phoenix included) that the launch titles aren't enough for this system to gain steam before the PS3 comes out in March. But consider an alternate perspective: since you know the games will come (like Halo 3 and Resident Evil 5), why not get the system now as an investment? Microsoft envisions the 360 as one of the main components of a home network. Pick up Perfect Dark Zero to tide you over and then wait for the killer games to roll in.