Gearing Up The PC players hope to make everyone's wish list, but gadget hounds this Christmas may prefer gear from the usual suspects. The top picks from PETER LEWIS.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Late fall is always a deliciously happy time for technology fans, the season just before the holidays when consumer electronics companies come out with their latest gizmos and gadgets. You may think yourself too old and mature to write a letter to Santa, but my guess is that you're still sly enough to leave this issue of FORTUNE's annual Fall Technology Guide open on the kitchen counter, with one or two (or ten) of our handpicked products discreetly circled. A fat, red Sharpie will do the job nicely.
This fall's crop of new personal-technology products is highly anticipated not because of the arrival of breakthrough technologies--in years past we've seen the release of the DVD player, the digital video recorder, and MP3 music players--but rather because of the sudden entry of PC companies into the consumer electronics business. As our cover story elaborates, computer makers like Dell, Gateway, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard--all envying the phenomenal success of Apple's iPod--are charging hard into the consumer electronics business now dominated by Sony, Philips, Panasonic, and others. Already Gateway has become the No. 1 vendor of plasma TVs in the U.S. But don't buy expecting greatness. Gateway doesn't make the best plasmas--at least not yet. It earned its title by making some of the cheapest.
Which explains why you won't see more of the PC makers' new gizmos recommended in the following pages. Either the products aren't the best performers in their categories--take HP's mediocre digital media center or Gateway's digital cameras--or they are the best but have been on the market for a while, like the iPod and Microsoft Xbox. Many of the new devices, such as Dell's MP3 players and TV sets, weren't ready for review at presstime.
And for every iPod elegantly designed to be the best of breed, there are several mutts that are simply generic devices with a PC brand name slapped on the box. That will change as the PC makers begin figuring out what the market wants and what it doesn't. Plus, as the products start attaching to computer networks, the PC makers can use their expertise to build new, cooler products that enable them to differentiate themselves.
Happily, there are plenty of alluring new tech toys to admire even without the forthcoming deluge of PC-made products. Following are some of my favorites. And yes, I'm leaving a few issues of FORTUNE scattered around my house, just in case.
ROBOTIC PETS SONY AIBO ERS-7 $1,600
Who says you can't teach an old robot new tricks? The third generation of Sony's robopet is faster, smarter, and much more doglike than its earlier littermates, bearing a remarkable resemblance to a certain daydreaming beagle. The AIBO's new brain is 60% faster than its predecessor's, allowing it to understand some 180 voice commands; it's better at avoiding walls, stairs, and other obstacles; and when its batteries run low, it walks back to its charging station. Can your dog do Wi-Fi? AIBO can, sending digital pictures from its built-in snout-cam to your computer, phone, or PDA. AIBO has a more expressive face, using dozens of tiny light-emitting diodes to indicate happiness, sadness, love, and annoyance. And it doesn't shed bits, drool radio waves, or leave batteries on the floor. Fetch one at us.aibo.com.
CANON POWERSHOT G5 $700 Canon's PowerShot G3 clicked with a lot of people who admired its balance of easy point-and-shoot features with advanced manual controls for experienced photographers. The new PowerShot G5 is basically the same, only much better and black. (Black cameras look more serious, don't you think?) The G5 has a five-megapixel imager, an especially good 4X optical zoom lens, 12 preset shooting modes for beginners, a swiveling color LCD preview panel, and just enough heft to make it steady in the hand without being too heavy around the neck. Picture quality is much better than average, which you should expect for $700, but the real surprise is the quality of the short digital video clips the G5 can capture. Overall, it's a snappy and versatile performer. canonusa.com
FUJIFILM FINEPIX S5000 $500 Talk about a zoom with a view: Fujifilm's newest midrange model, the FinePix S5000, has an impressive 10X optical zoom lens that's the equivalent of a whopping 37mm to 370mm zoom on a film camera. With an optional adapter--and a tripod to reduce the shakes--the camera can reach over 500 mm for shooting wildlife or sports action at long distances. (Tip: On cameras or camcorders ignore the gaudy "digital zoom" numbers; the technology lessens picture quality.) This is a three-megapixel camera, even though Fuji will try to convince you it's twice that. Still, picture quality and print sizes are better than those of its peers because of Fuji's clever image processing. As the name suggests, the pix are fine for every occasion. And the S5000 works with off-the-shelf AA batteries. fujifilm.com
GARMIN IQUE 3600 GPS PDA
$550 We all know the rap on men: They forget their wedding anniversaries, they love gadgets, and they refuse to ask directions. Good news, guys: Garmin and Palm have buddied up to create a Palm-based PDA with an integrated global-positioning-system locator. The iQue has a flip-up antenna that locks on to GPS satellites to map the user's location. Then, enter an address or tap on one from the Palm address book, and the PDA shows the best route on a color map of local streets. It takes a few minutes to lock on to satellites, and using the GPS drains battery life, but on the plus side it can plot the shortest course to a bar or pizza joint. The steep price may require spousal approval; perhaps the iQue 3600 can even help you find your way to the bank. garmin.com
LG VX6000 CAMERA PHONE, VERIZON WIRELESS $150 There will soon come a time when all cellphones have built-in digital cameras, allowing people to capture and share their special moments. (Let's hope their special moments don't occur in your locker room.) LG's VX6000 doesn't have the highest-resolution camera, but it does have the most camera features, like shooting modes and zoom. For those whose special moments typically involve themselves, the VX6000 even has a small vanity mirror next to its lens. Really. Anyway, LG's VX6000 is too much fun, with games and ring tones and data services. It's a small, lightweight, dual-band CDMA piece of pocket jewelry that lights up nicely, thanks to main and external energy-efficient color displays. Talk time is three hours unless you take a lot of pictures; in standby mode it will go as long as four days without recharging. Prices vary, but picture about $150 with a service contract from verizonwireless.com.
PERIPHERAL ENHANCEMENT EDGE DISKGO! USB WATCH $90 FOR 128 MB; $140 FOR 256 MB Like other quartz watches, the lamely named DiskGo! USB Watch tells time with better accuracy than your Rolex, for thousands of dollars less. Admittedly it's uglier, and the four-inch USB cable that's hidden in the wristband will not win admiring glances from anyone except a fellow geek. But thanks to the USB cable and the flash-memory storage chip inside the watch, the DiskGo can store and transport important Mac or Windows computer files with unprecedented ease and panache. I dropped the watch and the hands stopped, but the storage still worked flawlessly. (I dropped it again and the clock restarted.) peripheral.com
PHILIPS 55PL977S 55-INCH CINEOS (LCOS) TV $4,000 The only thing harder than deciding which one of 500 channels to watch is deciding what to watch it on. Plasma? LCD? DLP? CRT? Philips's 55PL977S uses a technology called single-panel liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS), which delivers sharp, brilliantly colored, high-resolution images, assuming you have a high-definition video source, of course. If you don't get HD yet, a bit of voodoo called Pixel Plus will enhance the image quality of less-than-HD material like DVD discs or old VHS videotapes. And while the TV is not as skinny as a plasma panel, it is immune to some of the high-tech TV maladies: plasma, for instance, suffers from "burn-in" (ghost images) and "screen door" (visible grids between pixels), and DLP sets are sometimes subject to "rainbow" artifacts, linked to the viewer's eye movements. Plus the Cineos is a lot cheaper than a comparably sized direct-view LCD and looks good even when it's not turned on. philips.com
YAMAHA RX-Z9 DIGITAL HOME THEATER RECEIVER, $4,499 We're in the middle of the biggest transition in audio since mono gave way to stereo. Now stereo is moving to multichannel surround sound, with the sound system often married to a home theater. Yamaha's flagship receiver is designed for this new world, driving 170 watts to each of seven main speakers (center, plus left and right speakers at front, side, and rear) and 50 watts to a pair of front sound-effects speakers. (You'll want a subwoofer too.) Whether you're grooving or videogaming, the RX-Z9 will make everything sound better--and louder. Don't be intimidated by the rear, which looks like the cockpit of a Chinese spaceship; everything is well organized and designed with future components in mind. It's rock solid and rock heavy: 65 pounds. yamaha.com
IRIVER IMP-550 SLIMX PORTABLE MP3 CD PLAYER $179.99 If you burn your own MP3 CDs or simply want to listen to your store-bought audio CDs on the go, iRiver's stylish iMP-550 is a great travel companion (it even comes with a car adapter). Not much larger than a short stack of CDs, the 550 SlimX weighs less than six ounces and provides admirable sound quality whether played through the included earbuds, your favorite headphones, or a stereo. Detailed song info is displayed on the remote control. If the ten hours of built-in battery time aren't enough, an external tube holding two AAs will add a day or two of playback. iriveramerica.com
RIO NITRUS MP3 PLAYER $270 Contrary to conventional wisdom, Apple's iPod actually does have competition in the portable digital music category. Rio's new Nitrus is smaller and lighter than the iPod and has longer battery life, making it better suited than the iPod to many on-the-go activities. Unlike the iPod, the Nitrus was designed for Windows PCs and uses a USB 2.0 connection. Like the iPod, the Nitrus's sound quality is great, and its music-management software is well designed. On the downside, the unit costs about the same as the 10GB iPod, but the miniature hard drive holds only 1.5 gigabytes' worth of tunes (about 300 songs). Yes, every MP3 player is doomed to be compared with the iPod, but the Nitrus is a worthy competitor, especially in Windows settings. rioaudio.com
ALTEC LANSING INMOTION PORTABLE IPOD SPEAKERS $149 Do you love your iPod but hate wearing earbuds all the time? Altec Lansing's battery-powered stereo system is small enough to stick in a briefcase or backpack. Just connect the iPod (even the new skinny ones) to the docking station, and the music is piped through a pair of surprisingly good mini speakers. The inMotion system (iPod sold separately) weighs less than a pound and is about the size of a big paperback book. apple.com/store