Hot Holiday Hardware

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Technology tipsThe holiday season of 2009 may be a frugal one for many of us, given the slow economy, but that doesn’t mean you need to let your cravings for the latest high-tech gadgets go unsatisfied. Fortunately, there are many new but affordable gadgets that can help you improve your business or relax a little better when you finally reach that well-deserved weekend.

Bluetooth wireless headsets are excellent cell-phone accessories, especially for  drivers, but some users have trouble keeping them nestled in their ears or complain about audio quality. If you fall into one of these categories, the Halo stereo Bluetooth headset from Jabra ($130) may fit your bill. Unlike earbuds or an in-ear Bluetooth wireless earpiece, the Halo is a full, over-the-head wireless stereo headset. The foldable black unit offers very simple controls. For example, to turn it on you simply unfold it until it clicks into shape — there’s no on/off switch. Collapsing the unit shuts it down. The volume control is actually a touch-sensitive strip: Slide your finger up the strip to increase the volume and down to quiet things down. Aside from that, there’s a single button that’s used for picking up and ending calls and other functions. The Jabra Halo weighs just 2.8 ounces and comes with a wire, which lets you use it as a conventional stereo headset. The unit’s two microphones use Jabra’s Noise Blackout technology to enhance the sound of your voice while filtering out other ambient noises. Since it’s a stereo headset, it works well with digital music players and cell phones that support stereo Bluetooth connectivity.

The switch to digital over-the-air television broadcasting in June was bad news for portable TV users who saw their mobile companions turn into high-tech paperweights. While you can connect a digital-to-analog converter box to an old analog home TV so that it can receive the new digital signals, these boxes are of no use to portable TVs, since they need to be plugged in to an AC outlet. The only option here is to upgrade to one of the new class of portable digital televisions.

Eviant’s T7 7-inch portable digital television ($170) receives both digital and analog over-the-air signals and runs for up to 2.5 hours on its lithium ion battery. The 1.4-pound unit offers stereo speakers, a built-in “kick stand,” a six-button remote control and a fabric carrying pouch. Also included with the Eviant T7 are two antennas: a telescoping one and one with a magnetic base. The 480-by-234 pixel wide-screen display is clear, bright and sharp, and offers a superior image to analog portable TVs; but it’s not a high-definition display, which would have to be at least 720 pixels wide. Also available is the pocket-sized Eviant T4 portable digital TV ($180), which has a slightly higher resolution but smaller 4.3-inch, 480-by-272 pixel display. Its battery lasts up to an hour and a half according to the company.

If you’re going to accumulate a lot of gadgets, you’ll need a place to put them while you’re out and about, preferably without looking too much like a geek. While 5.11 Tactical specializes in apparel for law-enforcement personnel and hikers, many of its shirts and pants are popular with photographers and other gadget mavens because of the many pockets they provide. The durable fabrics used are designed for rough use, but many of the clothes are fashionable enough to wear in an office setting. For example, the 5.11 Tactical Pants ($50) are made of durable cotton canvas, have double-thick knee and seat areas and have extra pockets down each leg. The expandable cargo pockets have an inverted pleat that keeps them flat when they’re empty. The Covert Dress Shirt ($50) looks unremarkable until you’re close enough to detect the hidden pockets and false buttons. The cotton and polyester shirt has two concealed chest pockets, as well as the standard shirt pocket, and is cut slightly longer than most shirts.

While Apple’s iPhone brand continues to lead the smartphone market by a wide margin, a new class of user-friendly touch-screen phones that run Google’s new Android operating system is quickly gaining in popularity. Like the iPhone, Android-compatible phones can run thousands of applications ranging from games to serious business tools. Unlike iPhone applications, which must be approved by Apple before they appear in the App section of the iTunes Store, Android is an open software platform and anyone with a good idea can post an application in the Android Market. T-Mobile’s myTouch 3G was recently upgraded with Android version 1.6, which enhanced many of its software features. The myTouch 3G ($150 with a two-year plan) has a 3.2-inch touch-screen, a 3.2-megapixel autofocus digital camera, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, but lacks the slide-open physical keyboard include in T-Mobile’s first Android phone, the G1.

Taking your business on the road has become easier on the back and shoulders thanks to a new wave of lightweight, medium-powered notebook PCs often referred to as netbooks. Nokia, a company best known for its cell phones, recently announced its first-ever notebook, the Nokia Booklet 3G. The slim, 2.76-pound netbook comes with a key connectivity feature: a built-in wireless data modem that links to the high-speed data network of AT&T Wireless network. This means that you can connect the Booklet 3G to the Internet as long as you’re within the AT&T Wireless service area. The netbook, which will be sold exclusively by Best Buy through the holiday season, also comes with Bluetooth 2.1 and Wi-Fi support, which means that it can also connect with a cell phone or a wireless headset and can connect to the Internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot. Just above the netbook’s 10.1-inch, 1,280-by-720 pixel display is a tiny 1.3-megapixel webcam, thus making it possible to videoconference from a park bench or airport waiting lounge.

The unit comes with a 1.6-gigahertz Intel Atom processor, a 120-gigabyte hard disk, a gigabyte of RAM, and a small suite of productivity software, and, most notably, Microsoft Corp.’s new Windows 7 operating system. While the unit will be available for $299, you’ll need to sign a two-year data-plan contract. However, the unit’s most important specification might be its battery life: up to 12 hours per charge, according to Nokia. The battery life is attained through use of the low-power Atom processor and other design tweaks, including a power-efficient internal motherboard that doesn’t need a fan.

If your computer doesn’t have a built-in webcam like the Nokia Booklet 3G, you can easily add one as long as your PC or laptop has a free USB port. Microsoft recently introduced the LifeCam Cinema, which it bills as the first consumer webcam to support true high-definition video. The $80 webcam includes a 720-pixel sensor, as well as a microphone and a shutter button for quick image grabs. A small blue light below the lens assures you that you’re on the air.  In a brief test during the Oct. 22 Windows 7 launch event in New York, the LifeCam Cinema performed admirably in high-definition mode, providing a sharp and clear image while adjusting for the less-than-perfect lighting conditions in the event space. The noisy surrounds didn’t help the audio recording, but the built-in microphone can be turned off in favor of a headset or another external microphone.