Neat Gadgets to Drool Over
A child tracker, CD-ROM changer and autofocus binoculars are among the 14 choices
Few new products manage to break away from the pack. These 14 do. All meet a critical need, ease a chore or add fun to life, and they do so creatively. Hands-on testing showed that even these winners have blemishes, but their appeal far outweighs their flaws. Note: Prices are suggested retail, with discounts sometimes available.
SONY ORBIT VIP-1000 VIDEO HEADPHONES ($699). When you watch a blockbuster movie at home, you want the sound big. Have to keep the volume down? You can resort to headphones--that is, if you can live with the drawback, well known to headphone users, of the sound often seeming to emanate from the middle of your head. That's not the case, however, with Sony's new video headphones, which rest on the head with the earpieces about an inch away from the ears--a comfortable arrangement that feels natural and open. A digital processing unit, supplied, works with the headphones to simulate the experience of listening to room speakers. The system can also lock in the position from which the video sound comes, so that unlike with ordinary headphones, when you turn your head the sound doesn't turn with you. That adds to the illusion of reality by, for example, cementing the dialogue in a movie to the part of the screen where your ears expect it to be found. The bigger the screen, the more you'll appreciate these headphones. Most buyers will want to audition them before buying, since some people find they just don't like listening through headphones--any headphones.
REEL-TALK TALK SHOW RECORDER ($100). Talk radio devotees who can't bear to miss out on the chatter when they're away from a radio can now easily tape a show of up to four hours long for later listening. Reel-Talk's AM-FM radio with a built-in, ultra-slow-speed cassette recorder has a timer to automatically begin and end recording of radio shows. To squeeze as much as four hours of talk onto one side of a cassette, the machine, standing 12 inches high and 6 inches square, records at 15/32 inch per second--one fourth the usual speed. The low-fi result is passable for listening to talk, but music sounds muffled and distorted. Moreover, the oddball speed means you can play the tape only on a Reel-Talk machine. When setting the timer, you're limited to one selection, since the unit cannot be programmed to switch stations or make multiple recordings. And some of the operating procedures are a bit convoluted. But when there's something on radio you can't miss, this recorder can be a handy tool. The radio is currently sold only direct from Reel-Talk (800-766-8255), with a $15 shipping charge.
BANG & OLUFSEN BEOCOM 1600 PHONE ($199). When guests ask to use your phone, you'll be sure to get a reaction if you direct them to the latest model from Denmark's B&O. But you may get a second and much different reaction if you 'fess up to how much you paid. You can use the keypad to control the volume during a call, or switch to the built-in speaker and microphone for speakerphone conversation. Up to 12 phone numbers can be entered into a memory for instant dialing. The phone remembers the last six phone numbers you dialed, and you can use its LCD readout to scroll through them to get the one you want. The display can also show the elapsed time of a call. For owners of B&O audio systems: A small infrared attachment (about $50) that clips to the side of the phone's base lets you turn down the volume on B&O stereo equipment when you reach for the phone.
BEEPERKID CHILD TRACKER ($150). Keeping tabs on wandering tykes at shopping malls or along grocery aisles is a job for Job, especially when they're intent on playing hide-and-seek underneath the coat rack. Now you can call in the Army. The new BeeperKid from A+H International Products is designed to keep your kids in tow by utilizing a wireless digital technology developed five years ago by defense contractor Harris Corp. for use in hand-held military communications and tracking. BeeperKid comes in two parts--a 2 1/4-inch circular unit that you clip to a child and a slightly larger unit worn by a parent or guardian. When the child moves more than 15 feet away--even around a corner or behind a door--the parent's unit issues a moderately loud "beep-beep." The units are coded so other BeeperKids in the area won't interfere with your unit. A recharger, included, powers both units overnight for six hours of use. Some parents may chafe at the 15-foot range, which cannot be altered for different situations, but A+H says the setting is designed to give advance warning before a child wanders too far.
ECO CHARGER BATTERY RECHARGER ($49). Everybody knows nickel-cadmium batteries, or nicads, can be recharged again and again, but they cost $3 to $8 apiece. How about reviving ordinary batteries? The Eco charger recharges disposable alkaline and carbon zinc batteries and nicads, too. The unit, a product of electronic- games maker Saitek Industries, can revive up to four AAA-, AA-, C- or D-size batteries at a time--it can't handle 9-volt batteries--automatically testing each one to see if it has life left or is beyond redemption. Depending on type and use, Saitek claims that a battery's life can be multiplied by a factor of about three to 10. Alkaline and carbon zinc batteries recharge best when they still have at least 40 percent of their strength left, so Saitek recommends a regimen of regular recharging before you notice any decline in a battery's performance. That may be more precaution than necessity, however. In a test, two D cells were deliberately discharged below the 40 percent level by leaving a flashlight on overnight. Both batteries perked up in the Eco charger after a day and a half of charging and powered the flashlight for more than an additional three hours. Depending on a battery's condition, recharging can take several hours or up to a couple of days. A nice touch is a display screen that shows the condition of each battery and the estimated recharging time needed. The unit displays an "all done" symbol when recharging is complete.
HEWLETT-PACKARD OFFICEJET PRINTER-FAX-COPIER ($960). A printer, a fax machine and a copier use the same basic imaging equipment, which is how Hewlett-Packard could roll the three devices into one all-purpose office machine. The company wasn't the first--Okidata makes that claim--but HP brings an incomparable reputation for reliability, plus the ability to sell the OfficeJet to the masses at an affordable street price of about $800. The machine incorporates a version of HP's inkjet printers, which print at about three pages per minute. Feed a sheet of paper into the "output" tray, and you can make copies by pushing the button marked "Start/Copy." Or you can fax the paper by punching in the fax number on a number pad. Unfortunately, the OfficeJet cannot scan a document into a PC. And faxing a file requires printing it out first and then feeding it into the OfficeJet for faxing, rather than sending it electronically from the PC. The OfficeJet comes with Windows and DOS software; Macintosh owners have to buy a third-party program like GDT Softworks' PowerPrint (about $150).
VISIONEER PAPERMAX SCANNER ($450). The cigarette-carton-size PaperMax scans virtually any piece of paper--a newspaper clipping, an envelope, a business card--into a computer running Windows, drawing a picture of it on your screen in moments. The paper feeds straight through or back toward you if desk space is precious. MaxMate, the software that lets you view the document, creates a display that looks like the top of a desk so you can see stamp-size pictures of the items you scanned in. You can even stack the pages on screen to give the effect of a document and scroll quickly through the stack. Drag the stack to an icon of a printer, let go and the document will print. You can also get a full-screen view of the page, on which you can highlight sections and add virtual Post-it notes. If you have an E-mail package installed, you can drag the document to a corresponding icon and send it to a friend, who can view it with software supplied by PaperMax. (Copy the software for colleagues and friends who don't also have the PaperMax.) Files can also be stored in formats recognized by popular desktop-publishing programs like Aldus PageMaker. To turn them into text, however, you would have to buy an optical-character-recognition package from a third party. A Macintosh version, minus the viewing software or E-mail support, costs about $400.
TIMEX DATA LINK WATCH ($130). It's no trick to keep track of appointments, phone numbers, birthdays and to-do lists on a personal computer. But what do you do when you're not at your computer? An answer from Timex is a watch that pulls the information from your computer before you go and stores it for later perusal. The Data Link watch, which comes with Windows-based software developed in conjunction with Microsoft, has an electronic-eye sensor that reads data sent as light pulses from the screen of a computer's monitor. You load the supplied software into your computer and enter schedules and other information. To transfer up to 70 entries to the watch, you push a button on the watch and instruct the software through a keyboard command to begin transmitting, while holding the watch 6 to 12 inches in front of the screen for 20 seconds or so. The software leads you through the steps. Pushing buttons on the watch retrieves the information you want and displays it on the watch's readout. You may not appreciate having to keep appointment descriptions and other notes to a maximum of 15 characters, and entries longer than eight characters will scroll across the one-line display. What's more, to control all the watch functions, you need nimble fingers. But having a watch that can sound an alarm according to appointments you have entered into your computer is handy--and you'll be able to contemplate unfinished chores wherever you are.
ALPS GLIDEPOINT POINTING PAD ($96). Who needs a mouse when you can point with your finger? The Alps GlidePoint lets you do just that on a screen about the size of a saltine. Based on the same technology as the TrackPad in Apple's latest portable PowerBooks, the GlidePoint senses when your fingertip distorts an electrical field just below its sealed surface. Slide your finger on its surface, and the cursor navigates around the screen just as if you were using a mouse or a track ball. Left and right buttons at the bottom edge work like the buttons on a mouse. You can also click and double-click with your fingertip, although that takes a bit of practice. Dragging and dropping are a bit awkward because one finger needs to be on the GlidePoint screen while your thumb is on a button. Otherwise, the device feels surprisingly natural after only 15 minutes or so of use. As with any new computing navigational tool, it will take a few days to feel completely comfortable, especially if you're accustomed to moving a mouse around a pad. Anyone who has already adapted to a stationary device, like a track ball, should have an easier time adjusting to the GlidePoint.
PIONEER DRM-602X CD-ROM CHANGER ($895). It can be painful to watch multimedia mavens change disks: Take the CD-ROM out of the drive, hunt for the disk's plastic holder, search for the new disk, take it out of its holder, insert the disk, lose the holder on the desktop .... The Pioneer DRM-602X CD-ROM changer holds up to six disks. Priced at $1,250 earlier this year and since dropped to $895, the Pioneer DRM-602X is the first CD-ROM changer to approach affordability for home users. Even modest CD-ROM consumers who use more than one reference title, like an electronic encyclopedia, a multimedia movie guide and a mapping program, will appreciate the convenience. As with most CD-ROM drives, installing Pioneer's changer on an IBM-type PC involves getting under the hood, hooking up a special adapter and messing about with interrupts and dip switches. You would be wise to get a dealer to install it for you. Plugging it into a Macintosh, most of which come with a compatible adapter, is much simpler. But once the changer is installed, it is trouble free and easy to use.
DATASONIX PEREOS MOBILE STORAGE ($650). The Datasonix Pereos is a storage system that can hold 1GB of files on a tape the size of a postage stamp. (A gigabyte is more than 1 billion bytes--about two CD-ROM disks or 900 floppies.) It makes an ideal accessory for owners of portable computers, who can take DOS and Windows files and even software programs with them on the road. And it also makes an attractive, space-saving tape backup system for desktop users. The prerelease unit tested backed up more than 130MB of files in about 36 minutes, and the company claims the final version of the software will run even faster. The software makes it simple to copy new files onto the tape and shows graphically how close a backup or other task is to ending. The unit connects to the PC's parallel port. If you want to use the device in two places--like office and home--an extra base ($100) will come in handy. A five-pack of the 1GB tapes costs about $120.
FUN AND FITNESS
NORDICTRACK STRENGTH-AEROBICS TREADMILL ($770). What's that regimen again? You're supposed to work out aerobically three to five days a week for 20 to 60 minutes, as well as fit in two or three weekly sessions of weight lifting or other resistance training to build muscle and bone? You may start to feel as if you're spending all your leisure time getting into shape. Enter the NordicTrack Strength-Aerobics machines designed to build strength while providing aerobic exercise. There are three versions--a self-powered treadmill ($770), a skier based on NordicTrack's traditional cross-country motion ($670) and a combined Multi-Trainer ($1,470) on which you can run, walk, step or ski. The cross-country machines that made NordicTrack's name have hand cords you pull, which add to the cardiovascular workout and toning but don't build muscle. The new machines have long handlebars that impose resistance on both the push and the pull strokes, with more resistance during part of the stroke. A Nautilus user who tries out the machines will feel right at home. You can't target muscles as precisely as you can with free weights, and finding a balance between aerobic activity and upper-body workout will take days or weeks. But the machines do strengthen the arms, chest, back and shoulders without a trip to the gym--and give you aerobic exercise, too.
MINOLTA COMPACT AUTOFOCUS BINOCULARS ($399). Nature lovers, sports fans, concertgoers--binoculars are often required gear for individuals who fall into those groups. But binoculars can be bulky, and compact models often fall short when it comes to magnification, brightness and image clarity. The new Minolta AF 10--sold by some dealers for as little as $200 to $225--wins praise for its sharp, bright images in a stylish, easy-to-handle design, weighs a modest 14 ounces and is only about 4 1/2 inches in length. Eyeglass wearers should appreciate that they can easily sharpen the focus without wearing their glasses. But what particularly sets these 10-power binoculars apart--and contributes to their relatively high cost--is an automatic focusing system, powered by a small lithium battery. Two round buttons on top of the binoculars--as well as focusing adjustments on both lenses--manually set the initial focus. After that, if the view becomes fuzzy because the distance to the subject changes, a push of a button snaps the image back into focus. To stay focused on a moving object, you hold the button down so that the binoculars will make continual adjustments. Using the binoculars takes some practice, since the autofocus works best when the initial manual focus is meticulously done. And when viewing through obstructions--say, zeroing in on a bird behind a leafy branch--it takes finesse to aim so the autofocus doesn't lock on the wrong object. Sometimes you may have to resort to manual focusing.
TEIFOC BRICK KIT ($34 to $110). Remember The Three Little Pigs? If you were the third little pig--the prudent one--and were very little, you might build a charming, wolfproof house from this kit of tiny clay bricks and assorted trappings. But human beings, too, will have a wonderful time fashioning imaginative structures, messily deploying a miniature trowel to butter the little bricks with mortar mixed from scratch like the real stuff. Doors and windows that open, a garden gate and roofing tiles the size of a child's fingernail add verisimilitude. The kits are made in Spain. The instructions, supplied in seven languages, are so terse as to be almost useless and the English translation strictly for laughs ("The wooden and plastic parts can be sticked also with this cement"). But so what? Use your imagination. If you hate what you make, soak the whole thing in water. The mortar dissolves and you can start over. In the United States, Teifoc kits are sold only through Tenzing & Pema, an upscale Manhattan toy store, (212) 288-8780 (shipping is $6 to $15, depending on distance and the particular kit ordered). Three kits, plus extra bricks, mortar and windows, are available that yield homes from cottage- to near mansion-size. And you don't have to sweat the effect of rising interest rates on your ability to afford one.
This story appears in the November 28, 1994 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.