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Technology Makes Great Gifts For Everyone

Vonage In Print News

November 30, 2003

By Dan Gillmor

Once upon a time, Thanksgiving meant counting our blessings. Now, Thanksgiving weekend means counting our money -- and then spending it. In that modern spirit, I'm going to note some tech-related items that crossed my path in recent months. Some might make good gifts for family and friends, or (shhhh) even yourself.

  • Free software. OK, almost nothing is truly free. But free open-source software comes pretty close. I'm running the Mozilla Firebird Web browser on my everyday personal computer, for example. It's fast, capable and reliable. Isn't that enough these days?

    On the Web, meanwhile, are vast numbers of excellent utilities such as the Google Toolbar, which works only with Windows and recent versions of Internet Explorer.


    I know, this genre of software -- try, then buy -- has gone largely out of fashion. But it's still a great way to find things that work. For my Mac, I've found half a dozen great shareware programs that I'd hate to live without, and my Windows machine has a quite few as well, ranging in price from $5 to $40. One item I consider essential is a ``newsreader,'' a program that aggregates content from Weblogs, news pages and other sites that understand the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) system of delivering information; I especially like NetNewsWire on the Mac and NewsGator on Windows.

    Internet phone

    This has been the year when ``Voice over Internet Protocol'' (VoIP), or making calls over the Internet, came into its own. Companies such as Vonage and Packet8 and a host of new competitors are connecting calls to traditional networks, for a monthly fee of $20 to $35 covering all calls inside the United States and Canada, plus equipment and/or activation charges. Internet-only Voip operations like Skype connect people for little or nothing extra. Incumbent phone companies are responding with lower package rates, so if you're a frequent long-distance caller you can win no matter what you do.

    More Expensive

    Noise-canceling headphones. In the category of stress reduction, these things rate about 9 on a scale of 10. On airplanes, they are miracles, filtering out the noise of engines and letting you listen to music, or nothing at all, in relative peace. I use the Bose QuietComfort set, which is not cheap, at just under $200 (a new model costs about $300). And I have heard good things about the $150 Sennheiser PCX 250 model as well.

    Smart Phone

    Mobile phones are finally getting the brains they need to handle multiple tasks. And they're also small enough to fit in pockets, or at least don't feel like bricks. Two models have impressed me this year with their combination of phone, messaging, Web browsing and personal organizer: Sony-Ericsson's P800, now being superseded by the P900; and the Handspring Treo 600. The P800 doesn't have a keyboard; the Treo does. Both are expensive, typically above $400 even with a yearlong sign-up for service, and higher without. I'm trying to decide now which one will be my next phone and PDA, or whether to wait for the upcoming next-generation Communicator model from Nokia, which I hear will be amazing.


    The data storage companies have continued to put more data into smaller spaces at lower costs, and there are plenty of choices in this arena. On the road, I back up my Mac onto an 80-gigabyte palm-sized SmartDisk FireLite drive that costs about $300 and draws its power from the FireWire data port on the computer (similar to the USB power assistance). Among the distinctly unportable drives for home and small-office use, I ended up paying about $350 for a 250-gigabyte Maxtor OneTouch drive at home.

    The same pace of innovation has given digital cameras a huge boost in capacity using plug-in ``flash memory'' cards using formats such as Compact Flash, Secure Digital and Sony's Memory Stick. Running out of today's version of camera film is getting harder to do.

    Digital video camcorder

    You can now get mini-DV models that are small and convenient and make excellent videos. Newer ones also take halfway decent still pictures. Sony's DCR-TRV22 model, for about $700, strikes me as a good compromise between quality, size and price.


    Tablet PC. This is a great idea that is still being developed for use by average people. The ability to write on the screen is going to be a standard feature someday, and Microsoft and its partners are making good strides even though I think they're at least one generation away from turning these machines into must-have devices. But folding the screen into tablet mode and using the stylus to maneuver on the computer and the Web, and to take quick notes or make drawings, is a new experience that you have to try to understand. Some people need these capabilities now.

    Standard notebook computer

    I use a Macintosh Powerbook on the road and, with an external monitor and keyboard, at home. Mine is the new 15-inch aluminum model, which has developed the same annoying white splotches on the screen that some other customers have encountered (Apple is replacing the defective screens). The 12-inch model is just about perfect for many road warriors, meanwhile. IBM's ThinkPad line remains the class of the Windows team.

    Flat-panel TV

    Prices are dropping quickly on plasma and LCD television. I don't have one of these yet and can't really justify the expense. Nor do I recommend any model in particular, as I haven't studied the market carefully. All I know for sure is that I'm getting very, very tempted.

    Very Expensive

    Hybrid car. As usual, Japanese automakers are way ahead of the U.S. industry in a key technological development. Toyota and Honda, in particular, are selling hybrid gas-electric cars that get superb fuel economy and emit a tiny amount of pollutants. I have my eye on a 2004 Toyota Prius, which strikes me as the nearly ideal combination: a family car that's inexpensive to operate and saves the air.

    Next time: A low-tech, low-cost gift that's more important than all of these put together.

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