Graduation is just around the corner for the nation's campuses, where a generation of students has grown up in a life of high-tech study and entertainment. The electronics store is a natural place to ponder gifts for work and play, and we save you some of the browsing with these 10 suggestions of useful and unusual devices from the tech world:
1. Widescreen Handcam ($280): Flip is famous for a big red button that makes it simple to start—and stop—the camcorder rolling. The latest Flip SlideHD moves the button onto a 3-inch touch screen that now fills much of the camera's back, which also slides up to make it easier to show the video to a group.
The Flip shoots up to 4 hours of 720p resolution video, which isn't as good as the 1080p that some of its competitors can capture. But nobody tops the Flip's ease of use, which starts with the button, includes a built-in USB connector, and ends with software that loads onto a computer for simple editing and sharing across the Internet.
2. Ad Hoc Speaker ($40): The palmsize OrigAudio Rock-It turns just about anything into a speaker. Plug it into the headphone jack of a music player, and attach the Rock-It's pod to whatever's handy. The pod's vibrations produce surprisingly good sound, working best with hollow objects like boxes, cups, and lampshades. But even doors and picture frames generate decent music.
Audiophiles won't swoon at the sound quality, but it's convenient and fun with groups or parties. The Rock-It powers off of a pair of AA batteries, or an included cord can plug it into a computer's USB port.
3. In-Drive Movies ($100): Backup is boring, so a special Seagate FreeAgent Go drive adds fun with preinstalled movies from Paramount Pictures. The movies can be watched on a desktop or laptop computer, or on a television attached to a media player that's also available from Seagate.
A copy of last year's Star Trek can be unlocked for free, and 20 other movies areavailable at $10 to $15 each. Titles include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Nacho Libre and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. The movies, which can be erased, take up only about 10 percent of the drive's 500 GB of storage. The drive also includes backup software for its more mundane use.
4. Do-It-All Tablet ($500): The Apple iPad's bright, 9.7-inch touch screen covers a versatile, thin computer that connects via Wi-Fi to the Web. Apple software makes the tablet as easy to use as an iPhone, but it's more responsive with its heftier hardware and will be able to multi-task with a software update due this summer.
While also targeting fun like video streaming, the iPad comes with work-oriented software including a word processor and spreadsheet. It will run the 150,000 apps available for the iPhone, and more than 1,000 are customized for the iPad's bigger display. More expensive versions, due out today, can connect to AT&T's 3G network, but it's unclear how many people will travel with a computer that comes without a hardware keyboard.
5. Flexible Tracker ($240): With its waterproof touch screen, the Garmin Dakota is good for the trail and bike as well as the car. The small handheld (roughly 2 inches by 4 inches) is light in the hand or on the hip and can run 20 hours on a pair of AA batteries.
The 2.6-inch display fills most of the front of the Dakota, which comes with basic maps that cover the world. Detailed street and topo maps can be bought from Garmin. In a nifty innovation, new Garmin software lets users load maps they already have—including digital or scanned paper maps—and synchronize them with the Dakota's location data.
6. Sharp Shooter ($230): The compact Canon SD1400 IS offers a stylish camera of good value with its anti-shake technology and HD video recording. The 14-megapixel sensor captures detailed stills, a 4x zoom brings them closer, and the optical image stabilization helps keep them sharp.
For extra fun, the camera's lens can swing to a fisheye effect for goofy pet or friend pictures. Young photographers who want to try manual controls can adjust white balance and exposure settings, among others. And besides the standard black and silver, the camera comes in eye-catching orange and pink.
7. Just Right Laptop ($630): Grabbing the sweet spot between notebook and netbook, the Gateway EC14 includes an 11.6-inch screen that's big enough for serious Web browsing and to accommodate a comfortable keyboard. But it's also small enough to keep the weight under 4 pounds.
At this price, the configuration includes a Pentium chip, 4 GB of RAM and an eight-hour battery. For graduates who are used to streaming their entertainment across the Web, the included HDMI port makes it easy to connect it to a flat panel TV. All that, and it's a rare ultraportable with a DVD burner.
8. Geekless Protection ($35): Unusual, natural-fiber ColcaSac sleeves have fleece inside that protects portable electronics. They are a welcome break from the common neoprene sleeves that typically carry expensive gadgets either alone or inside bags and briefcases. The ColcaSacs are also ripe with ecofriendly appearance in their earthy, heavyweight hemp fabrics.
The fabrics come in a variety of colors and patterns and are so non-techie that they might just fool a hurried thief. The company, which took its name from a canyon in Peru, started with sleeves for Apple Macbooks but recently expended to models for the iPhone, iPad, and Kindle.
9. Dead-Simple Wi-Fi ($100): Leaving college means no more free tech support, so grads could benefit from a super-simple wireless hub. The Cisco Valet almost configures itself with easy software that just asks a few questions. Then the included USB drive transfers the setup to wirelessly connect PCs and Macs.
Besides making it easy to secure a Wi-Fi network, the Valet also sets up a second network that guests can access with or without a password, depending on the host's choice. The router is no speed slouch, though it doesn't come with USB ports for sharing printers or, at this price, even wired Ethernet ports.
10. Countertop Browser ($200): A stationary, plug-in portal to the Internet, the Sony Dash is so much more than a digital photo frame. Its sleek-looking, 7-inch touch screen brings Web info and entertainment to the bedside table or kitchen counter through a Wi-Fi connection and more than 1,000 free apps.
Newbies to the work world will appreciate the traffic and jobs listings, and cooking for themselves is easier with a recipe app. Others can check social networking sites and monitor E-mail. Viewers can stream Netflix and YouTube videos, and it multitasks so Internet music can play while someone checks his or her daily health tip. No battery means it isn't portable, but it does also make a nice photo display.