Remember when having 32MB of RAM was something to brag about? Ten years ago, tech-savvy types crow-ed about their computers. The fastest, most robust computers cost a pretty penny, and the best monitors were as big as televisions--and as heavy, too.
These days, desktops and notebooks with computing power that puts those old workhorses to shame are ridiculously cheap, and showing off your latest PC is embarrassingly passe. So, in keeping with the American tradition of boasting about our stuff, we've got a fashionable new class of products to vaunt to our friends, neighbors, clients, and business associates: handheld computing and communications devices.
Handheld gadgets are commonplace these days. Most people own cell phones, and many have PDAs. To make a real statement with the digital devices you carry, you have to know which ones offer the most prestige. Devices with wireless capabilities can plug into mobile phone and Wi-Fi networks, as well as connect directly to other devices. If a device is equipped with infrared beaming, for instance, it could be a programmable remote control, a PDA with peer-to-peer data beaming, or a game console that can interact with other consoles nearby. Wireless can also mean that one part of the gadget can connect to another sans cable: Music connoisseurs can listen to their MP3 players via Bluetooth-enabled ear buds, and telephone users don't have to fuss with headset cables.
Using handheld devices to trade in the currency of status offers several advantages. First, even two and a half years after the official end of a recession, the economy is still fostering the "Lipstick Sales Factor." That is, small business owners and consumers tend to buy a variety of little things, spread out over time, instead of concentrating on big-ticket purchases. This means that if a new car--or even a new suit--isn't in your bud-get, you can still make a strong statement using a cool new device during meetings and lunches.
This leads to the second advantage, which is the casual presence of these devices. Relying on a larger item such as a car or an entertainment system to convey a sense of personal power means that you have to engineer situations in which clients or associates actually see and experience your possessions. You can use small digital devices, however, during casual conversation.
Another advantage is the visual appeal of these small gadgets. Manufacturers take care to design these products to be not just small and lightweight, but also sleek and eye-catching, often more unique than the ubiquitous silver-and-black box the size of a cigarette case.
If you prefer a distinctly American take on wearable computers, Richard-son, Tex.,-based watchmaker Fossil has two new watches to keep an eye on, so to speak. The Fossil Palm Wrist PDA is a Palm Computing device in the form of a watch: It has everything found in a handheld Palm device (contacts, date book, memo pad, drop-down menus, alarm reminder window for recurring appointments, and a stylus integrated with the wrist strap), plus a selection of time and date displays to create personalized watch faces. The Fossil Microsoft Wrist Net (the higher-end model is aptly named the Dick Tracy) connects to Microsoft's MSN Direct service, which delivers weather information, appointments, and other data based on your interests and current location.For More Information:
Wrist PDA Casual FX2004 $295 Fossil (800) 449-3056 (972) 234-2525 www.fossil.com Wrist Net Dick Tracy FX3002 $199 Fossil (800) 449-3056 (972) 234-2525 www.fossil.com
Until recently, most handheld devices served a single purpose, say, as a phone, game console, or music player. The last several years have brought many refinements of each type of device, as well as diversification (as witnessed by the competitive PDA market), but none of the device categories is new. What's new is that single devices are now combining features that previously had been found in separate gadgets.
Philip Page, a computer systems consultant based in San Francisco, explains the appeal of such all-in-one devices. "It's the integration of gadgets that's pushing the market right now," he said. "Instead of carrying a pager on your hip, a phone, a PDA, and maybe an MP3 player, now you have one device that's about the size a cell phone was three years ago, and it does everything."
Which multiuse gadget you choose to invest in should depend on your focus. A creative type, for example, who lives and breathes music might want the quintessential portable music player that's also a PDA, game console, and travel alarm clock. The Apple iPod is so popular that it has developed a cult following on par with the PalmPilot of seven years ago. The latest iPod can store an inordinate 40GB of data, or approximately 10,000 songs. For half the price of this massive jukebox, novice iPod users can start with the 1,000-song iPod Mini, which comes in five pearly pastels.For More Information:
iPod $499 (40GB model); $249 (iPod mini) Apple www.apple.com/ipod; www.apple.com/ipodmini (800) 692-7753 (408) 996-1010
But it's the latest Treo that Page can't stop talking about, which he feels eliminates gadget clutter in one useful high-end toy. The Treo 600 from palmOne is a combination phone and touchscreen PDA with wireless access to the Web and email. It also comes with a built-in keyboard, camera, and memory expansion slot. With the Treo 600, you'll be showing off about having 32MB RAM again--for a handheld, that's a lot of memory. The Treo 600 supports a number of mobile phone and wireless services.For More Information:
Treo 600 $449 palmOne www.palmone.com (888) 565-9393 (408) 503-7000
Another top contender among all-in-one devices is the BlackBerry 7510. Like the Treo, it has a phone, a PDA, wireless email and Web capabilities, and a built-in keyboard, but it's also the perfect communication device with its long-range digital walkie-talkie and speakerphone. Tech-savvy users might appreciate its Java development platform based on open standards, whereas esthetes will love the high-resolution 240 x 160 pixel display that shows more than 65,000 colors.For More Information:
BlackBerry 7510 $349 BlackBerry (519) 888-7465 www.blackberry.com
For all the hype about these products, the one downside that manufacturers often fail to mention is the increased toll on batteries. The batteries in no-nonsense single-purpose mobile phones can last for a long time, and users have come to rely on this. But when manufacturers add cameras, PDAs, and other functionalities to their phones, the handhelds not only become noticeably heavier, their batteries just don't last as long.
The Sydney, Australia,-based Multi-Powered Products manufactures BatterySaver FLEX, a lightweight, flexible solar-panel pad that you can use to recharge batteries for handheld devices and notebook computers. Outdoor enthusiasts can tie the open FLEX to their backpacks while hiking--collecting solar energy during the hike--and then recharge their batteries in the evening and roll up the Flex for convenient storage.For More Information:
BatterySaver FLEX5W-ICP4200 $289 (plus S&H from Australia) www.multipoweredproducts.com Multi-Powered Products +61 02-9948-4037
It's amazing that the amount of computing power that formerly occupied an entire room (or even an entire building) is now compact enough to fit in common handheld gadgets. Computing technologies have not only become smaller, but more adaptive to human use, as in lightweight gadgets and wearable devices. Science fiction authors imagine where digital developments will take us next. (Moveable holographic projections a la Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report"? Borg-like bio-digital implants? Upgrade-able nanotechnology?) In the meantime, for a few hundred bucks, you can impress your friends and colleagues with the latest all-in-one techno-bauble.
Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.