Ode to Toy
The top gadgets and gear (to give or receive) this holiday season.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – HERE'S CAUSE FOR HOLIDAY CHEER: PRICES FOR FLAT-PANEL TVs and computers have been falling like snowflakes. (If it seems to you as if prices are drifting up, perhaps it's because the elves have been sprinkling all sorts of new features into their toys, like higher-resolution screens and bigger hard disks.) For our annual holiday tech gift guide, we've rounded up a quartet of the best big digital videoscreens, any one of which could be the star of your next home media center. At the other end of the scale, we've got nano-sized MP3 players, compact digital cameras, and other digital goodies small enough to fit in a stocking. Whether you're shopping for a loved one or gathering ideas for loved ones who are shopping for you, the toys on these pages will make anyone's holidays merry and bright. GIFT-O-MATIC The shortcut to who deserves what from out guide
PLAYTHINGS AND ACCESSORIES
It walks, it bites, it terrorizes household pets. The battery-powered WowWee Roboraptor ($100) dinosaur robot walks and runs around the house on two legs, whipping its tail and snapping its jaws as it hunts for prey and affection. The 32-inch-long raptor uses infrared vision to detect objects in its path and has touch and sound sensors in its chin, mouth, and tail.
Admit it, traveling executive, you can play only so much Solitaire on those long flights. Pack a Sony PSP ($270 in a bundle including the player and accessories) and your mobile entertainment options expand to movies, games, and music.
•MICROSOFT XBOX 360
Good luck finding one: Demand for the world's first high-definition game console ($300 for the basic console, $400 for the premium package) is going to be high this holiday season. Microsoft's Xbox 360 is more powerful than the original Xbox, delivering widescreen graphics and surround-sound audio when it's connected to an HDTV set. But the real knockout is the Xbox Live online service (requires broadband), which allows players to meet, compete, and trash-talk over the Internet. www.microsoft.com
•FLY PENTOP COMPUTER
Designed for school kids, the Fly Pentop Computer ($100) is a handheld optical scanner with brains and a sense of fun. The Fly sees everything the child writes or draws on special "Fly" paper ($6 for a pack of 75 sheets), and then acts on it. Write down a math problem, and the Fly will speak the answer. Draw a keyboard, and the Fly plays the notes. And like all computers, the Fly has a seemingly endless array of accessories and software (sold separately).
•FLEXITY CALAMARI POWERSQUID
The problem: All your gadgets come with ungainly power adapters that hog more than their fair share of plugs on the power strip. The solution: The Flexity Calamari PowerSquid Surge Protector ($50). Each device plugs into one of the Squid's tentacles. A bigger problem: You may have to wait until the new year to find one.
Perhaps you've seen the iRobot Roomba robotic floor vacuum scuttle around picking up fuzz and crumbs. The new Scooba Floor-Washing Robot ($400) sweeps up dirt, but it also mops, scrubs, and dries as it toodles around the kitchen or bathroom. A tankful of Clorox cleaning solution mops a standard room (200 square feet). And like its dry-cleaning sibling, it's smart enough to avoid stairs. It will still scare the heck out of the dog, though. www.irobot.com
•WOWWEE ALIVE CHIMPANZEE
Hollywood special effects and robotics have raised the bar for toys, and there's no finer (or weirder) example than the Alive Chimpanzee ($150, only from Sharper Image). Mount the foot-tall chimp head in your office, unless it reminds you too much of the boss. The chimp's amazingly lifelike eyes follow visitors around the room, and depending on his mood he makes faces and little chimp sounds. Whoop! www.sharperimage.com
PHONES AND MP3 PLAYERS
•SONY ERICSSON W600 WALKMAN PHONE
Sony Ericsson's W600 Walkman phone ($199 with a Cingular contract) combines a web-browsing phone, a megapixel-plus digital camera, and an MP3 player that stores the equivalent of ten CDs' worth of MP3 and AAC music. It even has an optional speaker stand (price not set at presstime).
•APPLE IPOD NANO
The iPod nano is the season's grooviest portable music player. It comes in one size (impossibly small and thin, almost able to hide under a business card), two capacities (2GB, or about 750 songs, for $199; 4GB, around 1,500 songs, for $249), and two colors (black or white). The 1.5-inch color LCD shows off song information, album art, and your own digital photos.
•PIONEER AIRWAVE XM2GO
Satellite radio is normally not available in your dank, windowless cubicle. Pioneer's AirWave XM2Go ($330, plus $13 a month for XM Satellite Radio service) can store five hours' worth of XM programs when you've got a view of the sky, and then play them back when you don't.
•MOBIBLU DAH-1500I MP3
Don't let the cuteness and dinkiness of this sugar-cube-sized MP3 marvel fool you: It's a serious music player and the perfect choice for those who don't want to join the iPod crowd. It comes in two capacities, 512MB ($100) and 1GB ($130); a dozen different colors; and includes an FM radio receiver and recorder, a voice recorder with microphone, and a clock. Coolest feature: an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display. And yes, it is cute. www.mobiblueamerica.com
•DELL DJ DITTY
About the size of a pack of chewing gum, the Dell DJ Ditty ($89) portable digital music player includes an FM radio and a little-bitty display screen. The 512MB flash-memory chip holds more than 170 Windows Media Audio or MP3 songs.
•MOTOROLA PEBL V6 PHONE
After scoring a hit with its stylish but angular and anorexic RAZR fashion phone, Motorola is back with a cool, dark, rounded alternative called the PEBL V6 (due in stores any day now; price not set at presstime). Like the Zen-garden river stone it resembles, the PEBL is calming and uncomplicated (in other words, not fancy). It has a VGA camera, Bluetooth, video capture, WAP access to news and other premium content, e-mail, and voice dialing.
•FIREFLY MOBILE PHONE
At last, a mobile phone just for kids. The Firefly ($100, including 30 minutes of prepaid talk time) is a real cellphone simplified and jazzed up for children. Parents can set up the PIN-protected phone book to allow only certain incoming and outgoing numbers, and the five-button keypad includes MOM, DAD, and 911. Kids can customize the colors, ringtones, and animations. It's a pay-as-you-go phone, with nationwide minutes costing a flat 25 cents each. www.fireflymobile.com
•SLING MEDIA SLINGBOX
First came time-shifting, and now there's place-shifting. Picture this: Your video recorder has just captured the big game on your home TV, but you're in a hotel room in Asia or at your desk at the office. No sweat. The Slingbox ($250) attaches to your home TV setup and feeds live or recorded video to your Windows laptop or (coming soon) your Wi-Fi-connected Windows mobile phone or PDA screen, wherever you are in the world. www.slingbox.com
•DELL W4200 HD PLASMA TV
At $2,499, the Dell W4200 HD is still the price-performance leader and our top pick in the plasma-TV category. The 42-inch widescreen (measured diagonally) is flanked by a pair of detachable, virtual surround-sound speakers, and there are plenty of input connections (including two sets of component jacks and an HDMI port) for attaching your favorite components--including, if you're so inclined, a personal computer. Just 3.3 inches deep, it can stand on a credenza or hang on the wall.
•SONY GRAND WEGA SXRD KDS-R60XBR1
This 60-inch widescreen rear-projection set ($5,000) uses the same SXRD liquid-crystal-on- silicon (LCoS) technology as Sony's awesome $30,000, top-of-the-line Qualia projection TV. Sports fans will admire the quick response time and movie buffs the deeper blacks and higher contrast ratios. At 21 inches deep and over 112 pounds, the set is not as svelte as a plasma or LCD TV, but when you turn it on, everything else in the room seems to disappear. www.sonystyle.com
•SHARP AQUOS LC-45GD5U
LCD TVs are better suited than plasmas for kitchens and other brightly lit areas, but this 45-inch widescreen LCD beauty ($3,500) will even brighten up your sunroom. The picture stays perfect even when viewed from off to the side. With full 1080p resolution, an excellent contrast ratio, a fully integrated HD tuner, detachable speakers, and a CableCARD slot (no need to use a set-top box), the Aquos is the perfect window into the high-definition world. www.sharpusa.com
If your house is cluttered with remote controls, you need the Philips touch-screen RC9800i ($399). Sure, it's pricey, but how can you put a pricetag on sanity? Once it's trained, just press "Watch a DVD" or "View digital photos" and the RC9800i does all the rest. www.philips.com
•TOSHIBA D-R4 DVD RECORDER
Your VCR's days are numbered. Toshiba's D-R4 ($180) uses DVD-R, DVD-RW, or DVD-RAM discs to record and edit video. It doubles as a progressive-scan DVD and CD player, including playback of MP3 and WMA music files. A "chase play" feature lets you start watching a program while recording is in progress. www.toshiba.com
If ever a TV set deserved to be put on a pedestal, this 56-inch stunner is it. Based on a Texas Instruments DLP (Digital Light Processing) chip, the 56-inch widescreen HL-R5688W ($5,000) offers full 1080p resolution, meaning it will show off any HD content at the highest possible level. The pedestal is not removable, so you'll want some shelves nearby to stack audio and video equipment. Even so, the Samsung stands tall above rival DLP projection sets.
DIGITAL CAMERAS AND CAMCORDERS
•KODAK EASYSHARE V530
Despite decades as a film star, Kodak has never been known for its good looks. The sleek, stylish EasyShare V530 ($350) changes that. But the beauty goes deeper than the pink, silver, red, or black skin. There's a five-megapixel imager, excellent controls that a novice point-and-shooter will love, and snappy performance that will impress even snooty digital SLR owners. It comes with a cool docking station that makes it easy to transfer images to a PC. www.kodak.com
Not much larger than a deck of cards, Sony's new eight-megapixel DSC-N1 ($500) has an ace up its sleeve, er, back: an amazing three-inch touch-screen LCD display that eliminates the need for lots of control buttons. The 3X Carl Zeiss zoom lens delivers impressive images, and it also takes VGA-quality movies. www.sonystyle.com
Nikon's D50 camera ($749 body only, $899 with an 18--55 mm lens) is the ideal upgrade for amateur photographers wanting to move up from a point-and-shoot. It's a digital single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, offering through-the-lens viewfinding and interchangeable lenses. www.nikonusa.com
•SONY HDR-HC1 HANDYCAM
The era of high-definition video is definitely upon us, but until now, making HD home movies has meant spending Hollywood-type bucks for a fancy HD camcorder that looks like a shoulder-fired rocket launcher. Sony's HDR-HC1 delivers HD video of the kids and vacation shots that won't look outdated years from now. Yes, it's still relatively pricey at $2,000, but if you want a consumer camcorder that won't be outdated soon, the HDR-HC1 is a breakthrough.
Panasonic's SDR-S100 ($1,200) is small enough to carry everywhere; don't worry, it's rugged. But unlike other dinky camcorders, the SDR-S100 has three image-capturing CCD chips, not one, yielding superior DVD-quality video. It records up to 100 minutes of MPEG2 video to the two-gigabyte, postage-stamp-sized SD card that comes with it. www.panasonic.com
•EPSON PICTUREMATE DELUXE VIEWER EDITION
Epson's lunchbox-sized printer makes it easy to bypass the computer by including a 2.4-inch LCD display. Just plug in the camera's memory card or attach the camera directly to the PictureMate Deluxe Viewer ($250), and you can preview shots before making film-lab-quality 4- by 6-inch prints.
COMPUTERS AND LAPTOPS
•SONY VAIO XL1 DIGITAL LIVING SYSTEM
Sony's VAIO XL1 system ($2,300) combines a gorgeous Windows Media Center Edition PC with a 200-disc DVD and audio CD changer. Attach it to your TV and use the XL1 to record TV shows, copy audio CDs, show digital photos, choose a DVD from the video jukebox, surf the web, and more. And unlike most PCs, it looks right at home in your home theater.
•APPLE IMAC G5
How do you improve on what was already the best personal computer? Add built-in videoconferencing to help broadband-connected users stay in touch with friends and loved ones. Apple has added an iSight videocamera to the iMac's forehead, and with just a click or two, using built-in iChat AV software, Grandma can read bedtime stories to the kids. The 17-inch all-in-one iMac starts at $1,299; a faster 20-inch model starts at $1,699. www.apple.com
•SEAGATE EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE (400 GB)
Perhaps your digital photo and music collections are clogging your PC. Maybe you want a one-button backup system for your computer's hard drive. Or maybe you need a place to store digital home movies. There are many good reasons to get the Seagate 400GB external USB 2.0 and Firewire hard drive. It's good-looking (for a hard drive), fast, easy to set up, and at $330, storage costs less than a buck per gigabyte. www.seagate.com
•DELL INSPIRON 6000 (MCE)
Already one of the best bang-per-buck laptops anywhere, the Inspiron 6000 still costs less than $1,000 (to get the best price, $969, enter the special E-Value Code 1111-i6004PC on Dell's website) and now comes loaded with Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) software for managing music, video, and photo collections. Pay $134 extra for an external TV tuner, and use the laptop to record and save your favorite TV shows. Other specs: Intel Pentium M, 15.4-inch widescreen, 512MB RAM, 80GB hard disk, Wi-Fi, CD burner, and DVD player. www.dell.com
•TOSHIBA PORTÉGÉ R200
Still the envy of stoop-shouldered business travelers, the R200 ultraportable Windows PC ($2,099 and up) weighs less than three pounds, isn't much thicker than a legal pad, and yet offers a comfortable, full-sized keyboard. The 12.1-inch screen and four-hour battery are great for those times when you're stuck in coach. Wi-Fi wireless networking is built in, as is a 60GB hard drive. Don't leave home without it.