What to Buy Your Favorite Nerd

This holiday season, the latest technology gifts are faster, lighter, and more connected than ever.
John XenakisDecember 1, 1999

Another gift-giving season is upon us, and you know what that means: more agonizing over what to buy your favorite nerd. What are the latest “must-have” devices? The choices are endless. But here are a few of our favorite cameras, PDAs, computer games, and mobile phones for the most discriminating technology lover.

“Instant” Photography

The novelty of Sony Mavica cameras is that the pictures they take are stored as ordinary files on ordinary floppy disks that fit into the camera. Once shot, the pictures–via the floppy disk– can be instantly loaded into your favorite word processor or graphics program, or put onto your Web page. Copies are equally easy. The camera can actually copy files from one floppy disk to another, so everyone goes home with a picture.

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The top of the line is the MVC-FD88, which records still photos at 1,280 x 960 pixels, and can store 40 images at normal resolution and 10 images at the maximum resolution on a single floppy. It has a number of special features, including five autoexposure modes and four special effects, including sepia, black and white, negative, and solarization. A special “movie” mode lets you record up to 60 seconds’ worth of audio and video on a single floppy that you can view on the camera’s 2.5-inch LCD screen or on your computer.

If its $999 list price tag is too high, then consider the MVC-FD73, for $599. It gives you smaller, 640 x 480 resolution, which means smaller pictures, but it also means you can fit 40 of them on a single floppy.

Incidentally–Camera aficionados tend to scoff at the Mavicas because you can get smaller cameras with more features and better image quality for the same price. But while the Mavicas are bigger, because they have to hold a floppy, their new version of “instant” photography is worth checking out.

Safe, Not Sorry

You’re probably familiar with X10 home-security technology. You press a button in a control box in one room of your house, and it turns lamps and appliances on or off in another part of the house. The old X10 controls, however, sent signals through existing house wiring. What’s new are devices that combine computer control with house wiring and wireless transmission. In fact, The PC-Managed Home Security with Total Home Control System ($599; from Honey well Inc.) is a complete X10- based home security system, working through a home computer.

Other devices are taking home security to new levels. Take the XCam Anywhere ($149; from ). It comes with a small, weatherproof minicam that captures and transmits full-motion video and audio for viewing on a PC or regular TV. You can set up a NannyCam or even make your own Blair Witch Project documentary.

Incidentally, is sponsoring a promotional giveaway on its Web site. For $5.90, to cover shipping and handling, you get a kit worth $70 that lets you control lights and appliances remotely from your computer or from a wireless remote.

Worldly Connections

The Ericsson I 888 World dual band mobile phone ( is not the lightest or smallest phone (get the 4.2 ounce Motorola Star TAC ST7760 if that’s what you want). What this 8-ounce phone gives you is connectivity almost anywhere in the world. You can use this phone in 120 countries, using the same phone number. So you can reach anyone, or be reached by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Prices start at $299.

Screen Saver

There’s little doubt that the next major device for home TVs will be the HDR–the hard-disk recorder– which records programs on a hard disk, just as the VCR (video cassette recorder) records programs on tape. And HDRs promise to profoundly change the way you watch television.

If the phone rings during your favorite program, for example, you simply press a button on the remote, and it starts recording. When you come back five minutes later, you can continue watching the program from where you left off, while the HDR keeps recording. It’s like a time-delay mechanism: you keep watching what the HDR recorded five minutes earlier.

There will be a lot of HDRs within a couple of years, but for now there are only two major choices–the TiVo and ReplayTV. The $499 TiVo (from TiVo Inc.; www.tivo .com) is about the same size as a VCR, but holds a 13.6 gigabyte hard disk capable of recording 14 hours of television. A $999 model has a 27.2 GB hard disk, and records 30 hours. Each model requires you to sign up for an integrated “TV Guide”-type service (either $9.95 per month or a one- time fee of $199 for lifetime service) that feeds programming data into the TiVo, making it easy to get it to record your favorite television shows by name or even by subject. At $700 to $1,500, ReplayTV (from Replay Networks Inc.) is more expensive, but the TV-programming data service is free.

TV as Art

Granted, $15,000 is a lot to pay for a TV. But the Philips 42PW9962 Plasma Display TV is more than your standard television–it’s a work of art. Only 4.5 inches thick, the Plasma Display hangs on the wall like a huge (42-inch x 24-inch) painting. And you can see the bright display anywhere in a 160-degree viewing angle. It comes with a complete audio package, with Dolby Pro Logic processing and 15 speakers.

Music Gets Small

If you haven’t heard of MP3 yet, just ask your kids. It’s a way of compressing music onto small computer disk files so you can download thousands of sites on the Internet–everything from Tom Petty to The Beastie Boys–and play them on your computer either for free or for a nominal fee. Or you can take the music with you by copying the files into a por-table electronic MP3 player, like the Diamond Rio 500 MP3 Player ($269; from Diamond Multimedia).

If you can wait until January, and can stomach a $400 price tag, the extra features of the Nomad II (from Cr eative Labs) are worth it. It plays MP3s and other music formats, like the Rio, but it also contains an FM radio and allows you to record your voice.

If you get the Nomad II, though, get the optional docking station as well. When you put the Nomad into the docking station, which attaches to your computer, it automatically recharges the batteries, copies your voice files onto your computer, and copies any MP3 files you want back onto the Nomad.

Anytime, Anywhere

For the person who has to be connected no matter what, the eagerly awaited Palm VII has finally arrived from Palm Computing Inc.

The new palmtop device offers the usual assortment of organizer features–contact names, appointment schedules, and so forth. What’s special about it is its wireless Internet connectivity. You can actually access the Internet and exchange E-mail wirelessly while you’re walking around.

Accessing the Internet normally requires too much data transmission (bandwidth) to be accomplished wirelessly. For that reason, Palm is using a technology it calls Web Clipping, which extracts only the most important characters of data from each Web page, and displays them on the Palm. The technology works with about 100 content providers that have signed up as partners. These include news sites (the Wall Street Journal, ABC News), financial sites (ETrade, Fidelity, Bloomberg), travel sites (United Airlines, Travelocity), shopping sites, and numerous others.

The price for the Palm VII is $499, but you should expect to pay a monthly fee for the Internet access– $10 per month for basic service, $40 per month for a volume plan.

Fly Away Home

Finally, if you are in the mood to get away from it all without leaving the comfort of your computer screen, check out Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 Professional Edition. It has been called the most realistic flight simulator ever developed, with 12 different kinds of aircraft and more than 20,000 airports worldwide.