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10 Greatest Gadget Ideas of the Year
10 Greatest Gadget Ideas of the Year
December 29, 2005
David Pogue New York Times
10 Greatest Gadget Ideas of the Year
ON New Year's Eve, don't be surprised to witness more heartfelt celebrating than usual; 2005 was not a year noted for its tidings of good cheer, and plenty of people will be happy to see it go.
Still, there were inspiring and gratifying success stories if you knew where to look - and the high-tech industry was one of them. Google Earth redefined how we think of our planet, the Razr phone proved that people do care about beauty, and the iPod - well, you know all about the iPod.
But some of the year's greatest joys weren't new products, but aspects of new products. Here and there, you could find tiny touches of brilliance: clever steps forward and new spins on old features that somehow made it through committee, past the bean counters and under the radar of marketing departments.
Here they are, the 10 best gadget ideas of 2005:
THE FOLDING MEMORY CARD After taking a few digital photos, the next step, for most people, is getting them onto the computer. That usually involves a U.S.B. cable, which is one more thing to carry and avoid misplacing.
SanDisk's better idea is to take the memory card out of the camera and stick it directly into your computer's U.S.B. port.
That's possible with the SanDisk Ultra II SD Plus card. It looks just like any other SD memory card, except that it folds on tiny hinges. When you fold it back on itself, you reveal a set of metal contacts that slide directly into the U.S.B. jack of your Mac or PC. The computer sees the card as an external drive, and you can download the photos as you always do - except that you've eliminated the need to carry around a cable.
THE VOICE MAIL VCR Voice mail is a delightful invention. But trying to remember which keys to press - for replay, skip, delete and so on - is not so delightful, especially if you have more than one voice mail system to learn. Thanks to Palm, then, for adding VCR-style buttons on the touch screen of its coming Treo 700W cellphone. You just tap Skip, Play, Delete, or whatever. The phone remembers which touch tones to play so you don't have to.
THE FRONT-SIDE TV CONNECTOR The home-theater explosion is all well and good, but one less exciting aspect never appears in the photos: the rat's nest of cables. Depending on how permanently your TV has been built into your cabinetry, getting behind it to plug or unplug something is either a royal pain or a full-blown construction project.
Hewlett-Packard's latest microdisplay (rear projection) TV sets solve the problem sweetly and simply: everything plugs into the front. A broad tunnel lets you hand each cable to yourself from the back, an illuminated connection panel makes it easy to see what you're doing at the front, and an attractive door hides the whole ingenious system.
THE BIGGER-THAN-TV MOVIE Most digital still cameras today can also capture video big enough to fill a standard TV screen (640 by 480 pixels) and smooth enough to simulate standard TV motion (30 frames a second). But Canon's PowerShot S80 model goes one step further: it can capture videos at even higher resolution (1024 x 768 pixels).
Why on earth would you need a video picture of higher resolution than the TV itself? Three reasons. First, your videos will look better on high-definition sets. Second, the videos fill much more of your computer screen when played there. And finally, that's so much resolution, you can isolate a single frame and grab it as a still photograph.
TV à LA CARTE It's always seemed crazy that TV companies would spend $1 million an episode writing and producing a program that is shown only once. Yet the obvious solution - making past shows available for purchase on the Internet - gave TV executives nightmares of teenage download pirates run amok.
It took Apple to persuade them to dip a little toe into the Internet waters. ABC took the first plunge, offering iPod owners five shows' worth of archives for a perfectly pitched price of $2 each - and no commercials. NBC came next with a broader menu of shows. The concept was a hit, the floodgates have opened, and the era of downloadable, reasonably priced, lightly copy-protected TV episodes is finally upon us.
THE OUTER-BUTTON FLIP PHONE First came the cellphone with a hinge (the flip phone). Then came the flip phone with an external screen, so you could see who was calling. Problem was, this arrangement deprived you of the option to dismiss the call or send it to voice mail. If you opened the flip phone to get to the Ignore button, you'd answer the call - unless you'd turned off the "opening phone answers the call" feature, in which case you lost one great convenience of having a flip phone to begin with.
The solution? Add buttons on the outside of the phone. When a call comes in to the LG VX8100, for example, its external screen identifies the caller - and the small buttons just below it are labeled Ignore (let it ring until voice mail picks up) or Dismiss (send it directly and immediately to voice mail). You get the best of all cellular worlds, without ever having to open the phone.
THE FREE DOMAIN NAME A domain name is what comes before the ".com" in a Web address/
It took Microsoft, of all companies, to make getting your own .com&name free. Its new Office Live online software suite for small businesses, now in testing, will offer a domain name, Web site and e-mail accounts free. Yes, you'll see ads on the screen (unless you pay for the adless version) - but plenty of people won't mind viewing them in exchange for a free, professional-looking Web presence.
THE MODULAR DVD SCREEN If you tallied up the amount of money you've spent on L.C.D. screens, you'd probably go white-haired in horror. One on your laptop, one on your digital camera, plus screens on your Game Boy, camcorder, portable DVD player, car dashboard and so on.
Audiovox has taken a small step toward reducing that redundancy with its Shuttle DVD player. It's a portable, battery-powered DVD player (available in three screen sizes) that hangs from the driver's-side headrest, for the benefit of the young audience in the back seat of the car. But the beauty of the Shuttle is that you can also buy docking stations for it: a car-ceiling mount, for a more permanent and central position; an under-cabinet mount, complete with AM-FM radio, for the kitchen; a cable-ready tabletop stand, with stereo speakers, for the home; and so on. The player and screen move with you from place to place, so your investment isn't sitting wasted every time you leave the minivan.
THE FAMILY-PORTRAIT BURST MODE If you've ever tried to take a family portrait, you know about Ansel's Law: the odds of somebody's eyes being closed increases geometrically with the number of people in the group.
That's why Casio digital cameras, in self-timer mode, automatically shoot three consecutive snaps, a fraction of a second apart. You've just tripled your odds of getting one decent shot.
THE HYBRID HIGH-DEFINITION TAPE JVC and Sony developed the first camcorders capable of recording in spectacular wide-screen high definition. This would have been a perfect opportunity for them to introduce yet another type of videocassette - some expensive, proprietary new format that wouldn't fit any other camcorder (and would generate millions in sales).
But they didn't. Instead, these HDTV camcorders record on everyday inexpensive drugstore MiniDV tapes, the same kind used in regular camcorders. In fact, you can mix and match high-def and standard video on the same tape. It took a lot of engineering to cram so much more video data onto the same amount of tape, but for home-movie buffs, it was a surprising, generous, kind-hearted move.
And there you have it: 10 of the year's best small, sweet improvements in our electronic lives. Come New Year's Eve, raise one tiny toast to the anonymous engineers whose eccentricities or idealism brought these sparkling developments to life.
..........as I have mentioned in previous postings, I am a techno-Goddess and lady-propeller-head......