Gift Guide Our annual roundup of the best tech gifts: because it's just not satisfying unless you can plug it in and play with it.
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Gift guide: under $50

This past summer, smoke from my backyard barbecue grill drifted inside every time I opened the door, causing the ceiling-mounted smoke detector to shriek. To shut it up, I finally got up on a chair and yanked the batteries--and then forgot to reinstall them. The First Alert SA 302 Smart smoke detector has a much better idea. First, it has new dual-sensor technology that purportedly discriminates between dangerous "flaming" smoke and feeble cooking smoke, lessening the number of false alarms. Second, the alarm can be silenced simply by grabbing any television remote control, Palm Pilot, B.I.O. Bug, or other infrared device, aiming it at the smoke detector, and pressing any button for five seconds. (The infrared system also makes it easy to make sure batteries aren't dead without having to climb up on a chair.) $30;

Unlike certain robotic dogs that come with fancy technical pedigrees and high-tech prices, Hasbro's new B.I.O. Bugs--short for Biomechanical Integrated Organisms--are already housebroken and won't chew up your time or your budget. These clever little robots have sophisticated nervous net circuitry and transistors that allow them to wander independently around the house, avoiding obstacles, responding to touch or other stimuli, while seeking "food" in the form of infrared light. They communicate with one another via infrared too. There are four bugs: the red Predator (the most aggressive), the blue Stomper (the most agile), the green Destroyer (with a defensive, protective shell), and a yellow Acceleraider (the fastest). Collect all four! $40 each;

Hear ye: Lawmakers across the country have told mobile-phone users to stick it in their ears. The health and safety benefits of using headsets and earpieces are still unproven, but there must be something good about keeping both hands on the steering wheel and not pressing a radio transceiver next to your brain. Plantronics' mobile-phone headsets take care of the problem; the M133 ($50 for Nokia models) clips over the ear and has a boom microphone. The surprisingly usable M206 "earbud" model ($40) plugs into the ear canal and has an answer/hang-up button, a microphone, and a volume control on its cord. Both use noise-canceling technology to reduce background sounds. $30 to $65;

Nothing says "I appreciate the finer things in life" (or "I have too much money") better than this elegant, platinum- or gold-plated Montblanc Palm V touch-pen stylus. (Montblanc, best known for making precision analog writing instruments, says styluses for other PDAs may also be available before the holidays.) True, this $40 touch stick doesn't do anything your fingernail or a basic plastic stylus can't, but it has pleasing heft thanks to its brass core, and of course there's the distinctive Montblanc "snowcap" white star emblem that peeks out from the Palm V's stylus slot. $45;

Don't you hate it when you accidentally drop your cell phone off the stern of the yacht? Now there's a solution: Ortlieb's Boxit 5.0, a watertight, floating mobile-phone case. A Gore-Tex membrane and a clear-plastic covering over the keypad and display allow the phone to be used in rain, sleet, snow, or hot tub. Ortlieb, based in Germany, has been supplying waterproof, durable bags for bicycle riders for years, so it's not surprising that it also makes an optional handlebar mounting system that lets bikers take their newly waterproofed phones on the road. $35;

Gift guide: $50 to $500

Reluctantly surfacing from deep sleep, the typical brain boots up by asking, Where am I? What time is it? Is it too cold to get out of bed? The Oregon Scientific ExactSet Projection Clock with CableFree Weather Forecaster (BAR338PA) can help with questions two and three. It's a handsome radio-controlled weather station that grabs the outside temperature from a remote wireless temperature sensor. Meanwhile, an internal radio receiver locks onto the time signal being broadcast from the atomic clock radio center in Colorado. But wait, there's more: The clock/weather station then projects the exact time and outside temp, in glowing red numbers, onto a wall or ceiling near your bed. $99.95;

Not long ago, flat-panel monitors cost at least $1,000 and thus were beyond the budget of most PC users. Lately, however, prices have eroded to the point where an excellent flat-panel display like the Samsung SynchMaster 570 TFT is available for less than $400. The 15-inch liquid-crystal-display (LCD) screen is the equivalent of a 17-inch cathode-ray-tube computer display, but it takes up only a fraction of the desk space and uses much less electricity. By the way, beware of cheap Brand X flat-panel monitors; they often use inferior components rejected by companies like Samsung. $399;

Progressive scanning is a very cool feature on high-end DVD players; it allows DVD movies to be displayed on digital TV sets at much higher picture quality than you would get with a regular DVD player and regular analog TV. If you have a digital TV or plan to get one, then it's time to get a progressive-scan DVD player. The best one for the least money is Pioneer's new ultraslim DV-444 DVD player; it not only makes movies look better, but the aluminum-skinned player itself looks good on your shelf. It delivers a sparkling, filmlike picture, and it also does a great job with audio CD and CD-R music disks, thanks to separate circuitry for audio and video, a trick that reduces "noisy" interference. Watch for discounts that make the DV-444 even more of a bargain. $449,

When it comes to portable music, smaller is better. The newer portable CD players can play homemade MP3 CDs as well as store-bought audio CDs, but they're too big to fit in most pockets. MP3 music players are dinky, but they can't hold a lot of tunes without expensive memory upgrades. One solution is the pocket-sized Philips eXpanium EXP401 MP3-CD player, which uses three-inch minidisks instead of standard five-inch CDs. About 200 megabytes of music (several hours' worth) can be recorded on a single three-inch disk that costs about $2, and most CD-R/RW computer drives can both play and record them. (Slot-loading Macintosh drives are out of luck.) The EXP401 uses a single AA battery and has a 100-second music buffer to reduce skips. $180;

Gift guide: $500 and up

And now, coming to a TV screen near you, are all the advantages of those flat-panel LCD monitors that have caught the fancy of PC users in recent months. Like their computer counterparts, the new Sharp LC-20B1 Aquos color LCD TV sets take up as little as three inches of desk space, are easy to move around, use relatively little energy, and reduce eye fatigue because they don't flicker. The Aquos has stereo speakers on either side of the screen and comes with a built-in handle that makes it easy to move the set to different rooms in the house (the biggest model, with a 20-inch screen, weighs less than 20 pounds with stand). It can even hang on a wall or serve as a digital picture frame, with a PC card slot for direct viewing of pictures from a digital camera. Thirteen inches to 20 inches, $850 to $2,600;

If you're intent on getting a big-screen TV for your home theater, consider getting a very, very big screen. The PLUS Piano HE-3100 DLP home theater projector may be small--it's less than five pounds--but it can deliver a sharp, 80-inch-diagonal wide-screen image at ten feet. Or, you can cover a wall (up to 200 inches diagonal) if you have a 22-foot room. Front projectors are most often found in very expensive, high-end home theaters, but now prices are coming down to challenge rear-projection, direct-view sets. The Piano HE-3100 uses digital light processing, the same technology in systems costing thousands more. We haven't seen it before in any systems in this price range. The Piano's contrast ratio of 700:1 is good, and it has native 16:9 wide-screen support. $2,999;

Compaq's popular iPaq is tightening its grip as the best handheld computer on the market. The new, even better 3800-series shines, literally, with an exceptionally bright color TFT LCD screen, along with a 206-megahertz processor, better battery life, and the new Pocket PC 2002 software, which improves greatly on the Windows CE platform. Besides serving as a Windows-based organizer (working closely with Microsoft Outlook files), it also works as a digital music player, an e-book reader, and a voice recorder. Using the built-in expansion slot or an optional piggyback expansion pack, the H3800 models can serve up wireless e-mail and Web pages or function as a global positioning system. Sorry, Mac fans, it's Windows only. Compaq iPaq Pocket PC H3850, $599;

Although technically in the $50 to $500 category because of its $499.99 list price, Samsung's SPH i300 phone--a clever combo of mobile phone and Palm-based PDA--will rack up extra charges because it makes using the phone more convenient. Why carry two devices when one six-ouncer will do, especially one as good-looking as this? It's a color-screen Palm organizer that contains your address book; use the one-touch side button to scroll through your contacts, and then tap to dial. Or you can set it up to dial by voice command or by pressing numbers on a virtual keypad. You can find a better PDA, and you can find a better phone, but we haven't found another smart phone that beats the i300 for versatility. $499;