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Gadget presents for Xmas 2000
Reviewed by Roger Frost (for Times Educational Supplement 2000)

Having a splurge for Xmas is now so easy. Think of something you already have – video, sounds, diary, camera - make it digital and there’s a wide open channel for fun, creativity, and of course money. Nevertheless, gizmos galore offer to add digital magic to the way that things used to be. More than looking for great presents, or even gratifying the self, it’s worth a trip to the shops  to see how much of that magic could be part of tomorrow’s school.

If you enjoy making video, the gizmo of the year is the Logitech Quickcam from a range of clever ‘web’ video cameras. Kept handy in class, they abound with uses - like taking pictures of children’s work or filming them giving a presentation. But that’s the start, because this one also let’s you feed a live, updating picture to the Internet. Known as a web cam, it’s the slickest of computer tricks that let’s the world see what’s happening in assembly or the classroom. And you don’t have to be crazy to do this at all -  just get one to spy on a class while you’re away taking a deserving break in the staffroom.

The Quickcam software can kick in to broadcast a picture whenever you’re online and whenever you choose. For a taster - and to see the weird and wonderful - go to Spotlife (www.spotlife) and if you already have a Quickcam simply download the new software from the web (www.logitech.com) to gain this neat feature.

The software offers time-lapse photography that can catch a flower opening in the sun or make a lump of modelling clay do a dance using stop-start animation. At around £75 its good value for a quality product and a must for those who are so busy it matters no more.

Electronic organisers too became a more interesting this year with the arrival of the Handspring Visor, a neat diary and address book with capabilities way beyond that (£100-200). You can add modules that turn it into a camera, music player and amusingly, a TV remote control. That aside, over time it becomes quick and efficient to use, while it’s funky looks set it aside from much else. Late next year, its vestigial microphone will be put to use by a mobile phone module. Unbelievably this pocket diary seems set to become a phone with which you might talk, surf pick up mail and really start to fly. It’s worth weighing up beside the youthful Palm m100 in 3Com’s Palm range, if only for comparison (around £100). It’s all very functional, practical stuff and for more money, Palm offer a range of sleek executive looking equivalents.

For something that allows you to type see the ‘Series 7’, Psion’s best ever organiser now turned into a mini-notebook. Designed for people who do life on the move, its colour screen, instant save and instant-on feature make it a real beauty. Like other diaries with an infra-red beamer, it teams up with no longer too-pricey WAP phones for Internet access, email and yet more flying. At £550, it should guarantee that the person you give it to will love you to pieces. Or buy it for yourself for the same effect.  

Digital cameras continue to offer similar irrepressible want and fascination and what’s more are coming into reach. About £200 now buys a good one while £500 gets close enough to the top end. Advice in a nutshell is to stick to brand names like Canon, Sony, Epson and Kodak in the search for ease of use and better compatibility. Insist on a flash unit, a portable size and high power Metal Hydride rechargeable batteries that offer more juice than regular cells.   

If there’s any change from the budget, it’s worth noting that this year’s printers really do generate great photo quality prints. If you’ll not save money on developing, there’s fun to be had with photo collages, personalised cards and of course, the instant result. For starters see Epson’s excellent Photo Stylus 870 DC and Hewlett Packard Photosmart P1100 which print pictures directly from most cameras (about £275). Used with photo quality papers, the results should not disappoint.

For less money still, there’s a new breed of mice to savour. Logitech’s Mini Wheel Mouse is a cute one: it’s size and USB connection to the computer make it a convenient partner for a laptop computer or for a small child. For regular use the Wheel Mouse dispenses with the mouse ball and cloggy mouse mechanisms by using a more reliable optical system with no moving parts. This too could be standard school issue some day. A new IFeel Mouse introduces the uncanny idea of a feedback mouse where you can ‘feel’ the menus, buttons, and links on a web page. Move the pointer across the screen and motors inside the mouse buzz to make desktop features almost solid. It will do this for your word processor as well as for games where it adds a neat measure of interest through feedback. Serious game players will find joysticks, steering wheels and devices to add to their precision - but see also the Wingman Rumblepad - a gamepad that features feedback (also Logitech) while a 'Gamepad Extreme' uses an internal gyro system to detect which way you lean during the twists and turns of a sports game say. Serious workers might take a serious look at the proliferation of cordless mice and keyboards. The Logitech Cordless Desktop, for example is superb for meetings and presentations while an untethered keyboard is another idea for tomorrows classroom machines.

And so finally to music gone digital. Gizmos that let you carry music on the smallest of devices continue to proliferate: for the last year there have been MP3 players that stored their music on a chip, but new for Xmas is Iomega’s ‘HipZip’ Digital Audio Player.

No longer limited by memory, it stores 40 minutes of music on miniature discs, which is rather more the way to do it. The hand-size device is easy to take around school, and should put some hop in the step as you negotiate the school corridor.







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