The Gearhead's 2007 Holiday Gadget-Buying Guide

MDNG Endocrinology, November 2007, Volume 9, Issue 9

On a hot June afternoon in Palo Alto, more than 100 people stood in line outside the Apple store for a much-anticipated new release. The mood was festive. While children got their faces painted...

On a hot June afternoon in Palo Alto, more than 100 people stood in line outside the Apple store for a much-anticipated new release. The mood was festive. While children got their faces painted and watched balloons twist into animal shapes, the adults were getting antsy. They were impatient to get their hands on the Next Greatest Thing.

A 20-something guy in cargo shorts and a Green Day t-shirt who works in the IT department of an airline told me he flew “jumpseat” from Arizona to stand in this line. Further up, a middle-aged Silicon Valley marketing exec named Susan explained she’d been waiting since noon. Behind her, a pencil-thin 19-year-old fashonista, carrying an expensive looking bag with “Duchess” spelled in rhinestones, yapped on her Motorola Sidekick, telling her boyfriend that the crowd was “ridiculous.” I was there sweltering in my blue hospital scrubs, and when a store employee offered a bottle of water, I gratefully accepted. A young Asian woman, identifying herself as a CNN reporter, asked me who I was, and why I was there. “I’m a physician, and I work at a hospital nearby. I took the afternoon off to buy an iPhone,” I replied.

“Why do you need an iPhone?” she asked. Caught off -guard by the notion that anyone would ask such an outlandish question, I tried to explain. “Well…um…I don’t actually need one, but I want one.”

“He’s a gearhead, he can’t help himself,” said the IT guy, blithely.

“Actually, we all are,” Susan added, making a point to include “Duchess” in the “we” (ostensibly to mitigate the geek factor). “We are gadget freaks, and this is the next greatest thing!” I was saved by Susan’s words. Yes, we were shameless gearheads, and we spanned the spectrum in age, income, and “coolness.” Beauties and geeks alike stood side by side in line. That is the genius of Apple’s iPhone: a gadget that unites us all.

The Apple iPhone

You, too, will be seduced by the iPhone this holiday season. If the bleeding-edge technology and sleek design don’t grab you, then the recent, dramatic price reduction should. The iPhone, a combination iPod, telephone, and Internet device, manages the first two functions very well, and the last with reasonable aplomb. As an early adopter, my expectations were sensibly low. I expected some problems, but hoped they would not be deal breakers. As a physician, I needed the phone to work flawlessly. I worried that software problems might interfere with my ability to return pages and make important calls, but not for long. In my area, AT&T cellular coverage is head-and-shoulders above my previous carrier. Now I can receive calls and cellular data via the EDGE network in our operating rooms at Stanford, and residents can reach me directly when they have urgent questions. In this respect, the timing of my new iPhone purchase, shortly after the new residents arrived at Stanford, could not have been better.

There is of course, a plethora of other functions that make this my choice gadget for the season. Google maps; gorgeous video playback on the 320 x 480-pixel screen; instant, “anywhere” e-mail access; device convergence (I love being able to bike to work in my scrubs without carrying a separate cellphone and iPod); and, of course, the famous Apple user interface and innovative multi-touch screen. Steve Jobs should not rest too long on his laurels, however. The iPhone does have a serious Achilles’ heal: AT&T. As an Internet device, the iPhone relies predominantly on AT&T’s EDGE network to provide data access. This network is s-l-o-w. Envision AOL-circa-1997-dial-upmodem slow and you will have a sense of what it’s like browsing the Web on the iPhone with EDGE. Jobs acknowledges this drawback, citing conservation of battery power as the reason Apple avoided using much faster 3G network chips. He claims that wi-fi access should make this a non-issue for many users. However, if other hospitals are similar to Stanford, wi-fi access is locked down tighter than Fort Knox, and restricted to hospital equipment. Fortunately, IM texting, e-mail, Google maps, and many lower-bandwidth functions work very well on EDGE.

There are other issues for Apple to address. Durability and build quality are generally excellent, yet I managed to push the phone to its limits. My touch screen stopped working after I dropped my iPhone for the 20th time (more on this in a minute). Fortunately, the Apple store offered a hassle-free exchange. The Safari browser on the iPhone doesn’t support common media files like Flash, degrading the browsing experience when visiting certain sites (and causing crashes with others). As iPhone-haters like to point out, the iPhone lacks memory-card expansion, a video camera, and an unlocked SIM card. But, at the end of the day, none of these are deal-breakers for me. The iPhone is a revolutionary communications device. Gearheads unite!

iPhone Accessories

You will drop your iPhone at some point, so prepare for the inevitable and buy yourself a case. Just make sure you don’t use the belt clip that comes with many Griffin cases. This holder just doesn’t work on scrubs, and your iPhone will come lose at the slightest touch. After dozens of drops, I finally found the perfect solution: keep your iPhone in your inner scrub or shirt pocket to keep it safe. Many iPhone users will hack the phone using installer.app to install lots of fun third-party software.

Because I depend upon my iPhone for hospital communications, I refrain from hacking the OS to prevent problems. However, one very cool software accessory doesn’t require hacking. With Signal, you can control your Mac or PC’s iTunes playback using your iPhone, iPod Touch, or PocketPC as a remote.

COMMUNICATION GADGETS

The Rest of the List

Now that we’ve gotten my number-one, must-have gadget out of the way, let’s move on to other intriguing devices. I hope this brief gadget guide will help you fi nd the “next greatest thing” for your loved ones (or yourself!) this holiday season.

The Nokia N800 Internet Tablet

If the Apple iPhone is the beauty, then the Nokia N800 is the beast. Released this January, more than six months before the iPhone, it’s received comparatively little press. Despite its provenance, the N800 is not a cellular telephone—it’s a portable Web browser and Internet device built on a Linux OS that’s dependent solely on wi-fi connectivity. It’s not necessarily beautiful, nor does the screen respond to my caresses the way my iPhone’s multi-touch display does. But it does several things very well: it browses the Web and supports Flash, checks e-mail, provides good media-player functionality on a large 640x480-pixel screen, and supports third-party application development. My favorite use for the N800 is during travel, especially on international trips. The four-hour battery life is great for watching movies on the plane. The real killer application is its built-in Skype functionality, the leading Internet-based telephony service. On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, I pulled the N800 out of my pocket and called friends and family over the Internet for pennies a minute using wi-fi at a beautiful outdoor café. I also easily received calls in my hotel room, which provided free wi-fi access.

Palm Treo 755p

The Palm 755p is one option to consider for those of us who absolutely have to have a physical QWERTY keyboard on a smartphone, or need to run Palm OS medical software. Currently available only from Sprint, the 755p runs on the

company’s fast EVDO data network. There’s not much difference between the 755p and the old Treo 750, however. The 755p sports a smaller frame, sans external antenna, and has an upgraded 1.3 megapixel camera. Despite these improvements, it still runs a five-year-old version of Palm OS 5. Let’s face it; the Palm OS is in need of a serious overhaul. However, due to financial troubles, Palm has delayed its hotly anticipated successor, Palm OS II, until 2008 or later. Despite these shortcomings, a majority of physicians still depend upon Palm OS for medical software, and this latest Treo allows us to keep running them a little bit longer.

TRAVEL GADGETS

Bose QuietComfort 3 Noise-Cancelling Headphones QC3

The monotonous, constant, low rumbling of airplane engines is mercifully silenced by these wonders of modern engineering. The world owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Amar Bose and his company for bringing such silent relief to our ears. The QC3 works by inverting sound waves 180 degrees to “cancel out” ambient noise. Unlike its over-the-ear cousin, the QC2, these are much smaller, and sit on top of your ears. They also require a separate charger because of the special rechargeable battery in the earpiece. If you are not sure which you prefer, take advantage of Bose’s 30-day return policy and buy both. Then test them out inflight, and return one pair. Those of us with smaller budgets (and tinier carry-ons) may wish to consider the Sony MDR NC-22 ear bud noise-canceling headphones. They aren’t nearly as effective, but they are much smaller, and easier on your wallet.

Brightroam SIM cards

I travel extensively to South America, Europe, and Asia, where cell phone usage is ubiquitous. Yet, I shudder to open my bill and see roaming charges of $1.29 a minute for a call from Paris or $2.99 a minute from Buenos Aires. This is where a cheap, unlocked, quad-band cell phone like the Motorola V220, and a SIM card from companies like Brightroam, come in handy. Pop in the Brightroam SIM card, and you can get a local telephone number in Paris (or whatever city you are in) and receive calls for free. When you place calls to the US, you only pay a fraction of what your US provider would charge. Brightroam also offers a connect service that provides you with a toll-free US telephone number for your friends and family to call, then forwards calls to your cell phone.

INFORMATION GADGETS

Sony Reader

I love this gadget, despite the fact that nobody else seems to know about it. Roughly 5x7 inches in size, and weighing barely nine ounces, the Sony is a fantastic way to read on the go. Using a special display technology called E Ink, the reader lets you carry 160 average ebooks in its internal memory and hundreds more using optional memory cards. A layer of encapsulated pigment spheres modulates white and black pixels using an electronic charge (and yes, the E Ink company has developed a full-color display that may be released as early as next year). Best of all, the device only uses power when it changes the display—Sony claims you can get 7,500 page turns before needing to recharge the device. In addition to ebooks, you can catch up on your latest blog updates or download new content in a variety of supported formats.

Optimus Maximus Digital Keyboard

I have been quietly lusting after this $1,500 keyboard from Art Lebedev’s studio in Russia for more than a year. Each of the 113 keys is made from a 48x48-pixel organic light-emitting diode (OLED) that can display a full-color lighted image. Lebedev calls it a “million keyboards in one” because each key can be assigned a unique character or function dynamically. For instance, if you press the “Shift” key, all the characters and symbols on the keyboard change in response. Function keys can also be uniquely assigned to display dynamic information and even moving images. Ultimately, the beauty of the keyboard has blinded me to any true practical benefit such as improved productivity. If you can figure out how to justify this as a business expense, Lebedev is taking preorders now for a delivery of only 200 keyboards arriving on December 20, just in time for Christmas. For the rest of us, a smaller Optimus mini three-key keyboard is available for a much more reasonable $150.

ENTERTAINMENT GADGETS

Slingbox

The ubiquitous TiVo and other digital video recorders have established time shifting as a popular way to watch TV. No longer tied to the broadcast schedule, we can watch our shows whenever we like. Now Slingbox is taking TV to a whole new level with place shifting. Slingbox lets you watch programs from wherever you happen to be. I use my Slingbox in my call-room at the hospital to access HBO, on-demand movies, and pre-recorded programs through my home TiVo and cable box. I’ve also logged in from a hotel room in Tokyo. The newest version of the device even allows you to view your shows from a Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Symbian cell phone, or PDA.

Nintendo WII

Active video games for the Wii require users to get off the couch and swing a virtual tennis racket or golf club or dance real steps to win virtual competitions. There is a reason the quintessential technology blog Engadget picked the Wii as its gadget of the year: it’s addictive for all ages. Unfortunately, Nintendo hasn’t been able to keep up with demand. These gadgets are in short supply, so if you see one, snap it up. Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo America, recently said manufacturers won’t catch up to demand until early 2008.

The iPod Touch and Nano

Apple has rolled out a great new selection of iPods for the holiday season that incorporate the enhanced user-interface featured on the iPhone. Priced at $100 less than the iPhone, the 8GB iPod Touch is a great choice for people who long for the user-interface and Internet functionality of the iPhone, but aren’t yet ready to switch their cell carrier. Enjoy coverfl ow (that cool effect seen in Apple ads where the album artwork dramatically glides by with a swipe of your fi nger); multitouch, Safari Web browsing; and many other iPhone features. For about $100 less than the iPod Touch, the 8GB iPod nanos are also enhanced with a larger 320x240- pixel screen, coverflow, and a new user interface.

PERSONALIZED GADGETS

Zazzle

Sometimes, a personal touch is needed for folks put off by the cold utilitarian feel of electronic gadgets. Zazzle is a great place to put your creative juices to work. Upload a photo, logo, or piece of artwork and begin placing your mark on items ranging from t-shirts to mugs to mouse pads. My personal favorite is their customized postage stamps, perfect for mailing holiday greeting cards.

Blurb

It may take some time to put one together, but you’ll wow friends and family with a personalized photobook from Blurb. Using free desktop-publishing software from their website, you can create gorgeous coffee-table books that allow you to showcase your family vacation to Africa or share mom’s recipe book and family photos. Blub uses Indigo liquid toner electronic printing presses from HP to create a unique “expensive” look, yet prices start at a very affordable $12.95 for a 40-page book.

Ceiva Digital Photo Frames

Nothing says “I’m loved” quite as well as a family photo on your spouse’s desk at work. Digital photo frames are the gift that keeps on giving. Digital Spectrum’s MF8104 Wireless Photo Frame is a 10.4-inch, 800x600-pixel, Vista-compatible photo frame that runs Windows CE and updates content live from the Internet over wi-fi . Point it to a Flikr RSS feed, and your spouse can watch this morning’s photos of your kids at the park stream in and update automatically from his or her desk at work. For the less technically inclined who don’t have Internet access, Ceiva digital photo frames offer a telephone dial-up service that automatically updates photos each evening for a monthly service charge of $9.95.

GADGETS FOR THE KIDS

Wow Wee Bots

Wow Wee is a Hong Kong-based company that specializes in robotic toys, ranging from the famous Robosapien humanoid, to roboboa, robopanda, roboraptor, robopet, and others. It’s mesmerizing to watch their Flytech Dragonfly’s wings beat rhythmically and rise in self-powered flight. These are toys that cry out for some adult “testing” before passing them on to the kids.

GADGETS FOR YOUR PATIENTS

Glucophone

Finally, we’ll round off the list with a gadget useful for patients. The Glucophone is a glucometer and cell phone in one device that electronically transmits blood glucose values for monitoring on a disease management website. The device was awarded FDA 510K approval in June 2006, but roll-out details have been kept under wraps. Keep your eyes peeled for possible release in 2008.

Conclusion

2007 has been a great year for gearheads and our gadgets. For many of us, this year’s highlight has been Apple’s ascension from computer manufacturer to gadget style-maker, capable of bringing together an IT geek, a marketing executive, a style-conscious teenager, and an academic physician on a sweaty June afternoon. As I left the Apple store in Palo Alto, Steve Jobs himself stood in the doorway talking to a man in a striped polo shirt. I could clearly see that he was passionately engaged in conversation, much the way a proud parent would be on his kid’s fi rst day of school. Jobs’ passion is lost on some people (like the reporter from CNN) who view gadgets the same way a spendthrift might look at a pair of new shoes: superfluous and unnecessary. Yet, Apple’s gadgets evoke passion in their devotees: they inspire us to see the potential greatness of new technologies and new ways of thinking. As I opened the door, cameras flashed and I held my two black iPhone bags up high. Sometimes it’s okay to be just a little bit superfluous.

Buyer’s Guide References (Prices sourced as of 10/12/2007)

Apple iPhone

$399.00

Nokia N800 Internet Tablet

From $239.00 online retailers

Signal, by Matthew J Stevens

$24.95

Palm Treo 755p

From $199.00, depending upon carrier service plan

Bose QuietComfort 3 Noise-Cancelling Headphones QC3

$349.00

Sony MDR NC-22 Noise-Cancelling Ear Bud Headphones

$99.99

Brightroam SIM Cards

$25.00 + airtime

Sony Reader

$299.00

Optimus Maximus and Mini Digital Keyboards optimus

Maximus from $1500 and mini from $150 (varies based on current USD exchange rate)

Nintendo WII

From $290.00 on pricegrabber.com

Digital Spectrum’s MF8104 Wireless Digital Frame

From $299.00 on pricegrabber.com

Ceiva 8-Inch Photo Frame

From $170.58 on pricegrabber.com

Wow Wee Bots

From $9.99 (Mini Roboraptor) to $299.99 (RS Media Robot Entertainment Unit)