Tech Toys

Marketers love their acronyms: Before the watered-down 'yuppie' was the more precise YUMPIE, or Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals.  Their gay bretheren became GUPPIES.  And so on.  My favorite, though, was TAFFIES -- Technologically Advanced Families.  While the label never caught on, it still conjures up images of Elroy and Astro for me!  Of course, in comparison to the Japanese, even the TAFFIE-est American household still looks like a group of Luddites.

Short detour:

If you don't know who Elroy and Astro are, click here.

If you're curious about the consumer electronics that's being sold in Japan but not in Circuit City, click here or here

If you don't know who the Luddites are, click here.

Following are thumbnail reviews of some good -- and bad -- tech products that I've come across.  Caveat emptor: Your mileage may vary!  And, given the nature of these products, many of them become obsolete fairly quickly.  Click on item for review:

Apple iPod for Windows

Aiwa automotive mp3 player

Compaq iPAQ

iPAQ accessories

Lexmark C720 color laser printer

Looking for more on tech product reviews, trends, etc? My favorite sites are:

ZDNet CNet




Apple iPod for Windows

My first Apple!  Well, sort-of.  Back when Walkmans were new, I went everywhere with my music.  Eventually, I lost the ability, and patience, to convert albums to tapes.  Portable CD players are both fragile and clunky.  I've been using my iPAQ as an .mp3 player, but it has limited capacity, and the file transfer rate is painfully slow -- if you want to load a new album onto the storage card, better start before breakfast if you're interested in taking it with you in the morning.

Enter the iPOD.  Initially, it was targeted at the Mac user segment -- which would be like Starbucks serving only decaf hazelnut cappuccino.  Available in 5, 10, and 20 Gigabyte models, it makes other .mp3 and minidisc players largely irrelevant.  I chose the 20 Gig version, which claims to hold about 4,000 songs.  I loaded a mere 900 songs initially; the iPod gobbled them down quickly and seemed to look at me with disdain.

Setup was more painless than I expected.  The biggest problem was installing the FireWire card, as I couldn't find a small size card for my slimline Compaq Evo desktop.  Using a pair of vise grips, 20 minutes later I had sufficiently mutilated the card so that I could stuff it in the Evo.  I chose not to install the copy of MusicMatch Jukebox that came with the iPOD, as I had a more recent version already installed.  Wrong!  The version that you buy directly won't talk to the iPOD, and there is no downloadable driver available at  Once I got the correct version loaded, all of the music on my desktop was automatically copied down to the device.

My father-in-law asked 'If you have 4,000 songs, how can you find anything?' It's a good question, and the answer is that it's actually pretty easy.  All of the playlists that you create on the desktop -- gym tracks, female vocalists, etc -- are available.  You can also browse using a range of criteria -- artists, albums, songs, genres. Natalie Merchant shows up in at least a couple of categories, and I was surprised to find out that I owned some goth rock.  User interface is great, with a simple set of controls and a nice display.  As an added feature, there is a tiny remote on the headphone cord, allowing you to play/pause, adjust volume, and jump forward/back.  Smaller than a Palm or iPAQ, it fits easily in a pocket.  Also, it will charge off the FireWire connection, so you won't have to fight for plug space on your surge suppressor.

My complains with the iPod are all very minor: They added a dust cap to the FireWire port, and mine is harder to open than a childproof aspirin bottle.  Also, because the headphone cables are really long, they can get tangled badly if you just stuff them in a pocket -- for $500 (US dollars) and such great design, you'ld hope that Apple could include a headphone case as functional as the last pair of $20 Sony headphones that I bought.  Still, the iPod is one of the best pieces of consumer electronics that I've ever bought.



Aiwa CDC-MP3

Remember the first time you noticed an http address in a print or media ad? While they looked pretty odd, they were signals that the web was about to go mainstream.  This .mp3 player for your car makes a similar statement about the future of digital media. 

First, who would want an .mp3 player in their car?  The answer is, anyone who owns more than a dozen albums.  The first asset of the .mp3 format is the ability to get lots of music into your car: A single CD allows you to store about 175 tracks. My essential traveling collection -- 1,000 of my favorite songs -- fits on a mere seven CDs.  The second advantage is that the automotive environment is a lot harder on your CDs.  Every bad thing that has happened to one of my records has been in the car -- scratches, heat, dust, and the disk I dropped with the door open that rolled 20' to stop directly under a Chevy Suburban. 

Many of the earlier auto .mp3 players had a cumbersome system for storing your files, and Aiwa was one of the first to allow you to use self-burned CDs.  A bonus is that the player reads both CD-R and CD-RW.  The player also reads from conventional CDs as well.

I have had a couple of Pioneer automotive CD players, and each has performed dismally for me. After a year in the harsh Arizona climate, the Aiwa unit has held up well. The product does have one really odd feature: A wireless remote.  In principle, you are supposed to strap it to your steering wheel, so that it's easier to keep sight of the road. 



Compaq iPAQ

Imagine what it would be like to be present when dinosaurs encountered the first mammal.  Was there a spark in the brain, or a faint glimmer in the eye as the reptile realized it was obsolete?  While you can't step back in time, you can see the same reaction when a Palm devotee first encounters a Windows CE device.  In fairness, Palm deserves much of the credit for bringing an embryonic technology to widespread acceptance -- in marked contrast to Apple's failure in this arena. 

For years, I had been ridiculed by my students for carrying around a Franklin Planner -- many of them suggesting that I should be running a Low Technology MBA!  While the Palm Pilot was a huge advance over the Newton, I chose to sit out the PDA rollout until the iPAQs came along.  The initial model (3670, left side of photo) had 64Mb of RAM, a 204 Mhz Intel chip, multimedia capabilities, and a nearly complete suite of Microsoft Office tools.  In other words, more power than my first three desktop computers!  Successive iterations of the iPAQ have included a number of changes, including a doubling of CPU speed, Bluetooth, and many software improvements. 



 iPAQ Accessories

Aside from the personal productivity features, or the ability to edit an Excel worksheet, there are a number of other useful features.  You can copy .mp3 and .wma files -- although an extra memory card is needed to do this effectively -- plug in a set of headphones, and ditch your Walkman.  While traveling recently, I picked up a cheap pair of computer speakers, and bang! instant mini-stereo.  You can also download audio books, or a narrated version of the Wall Street Journal.

  And, if you want to become a power user, plan on a total outlay comparable to that of a basic notebook PC.  Of course, notebook are, in techno-fashion, so 'late twentieth century'.  Buy an expansion sleeve, and you can start adding PCMCIA cards.  Voyager VGA plus is one of several products that allows you to connect directly to a digital projector and run high resolution, multimedia .ppt files.  Other cards allow you to roam in an 80211b environment, or use a wireless modem for real freedom.

If you are considering wireless, please note that 'freedom' is marketing code for 'lots of pain and aggravation, plus idiosyncratic downtime and system failure.'  The modem shown in the photo is a Sierra Wireless card.  Users accustomed to T1 speed on their desktops will find the 19k transfer rate painfully slow -- especially if you surf to a graphics-laden website or have to download large attachments.  If you spend a lot of time outside the office, especially out-of-town travel, the lack of speed is more than offset by the value of staying in touch, though.

Wireless service for handhelds is a very young industry, and you should expect all the growing pains associated with a new product: Airtime providers go under (e.g., Omnisky and Richochet), access can be idiosyncratic (I couldn't get a signal while visiting Compaq HQ in Houston, but got a great signal on the West Virginia Turnpike), and you may become close personal friends with tech support.  A number of new products are coming out that will hopefully improve performance of this feature.

  This is the standard configuration that I use for attending meetings.  The Targus keyboard allows me to take notes and minutes and store them in a .doc file.  I don't lose my meeting notes any more, and it's just a couple of clicks to pull up the notes from six months ago.  Throw in Internet access, e-mail with full support for .doc and .xls attachments, and the Blackberry user across the table is hopelessly outgunned.

If you want to learn more, Dave's iPAQ page is the best place on the web for reviews and discussion on product features, accessories, and problems.



Lexmark C720 Color Laser

For years, I have been using a multi-printer setup in my office: A b/w laser (HP Laserjet II that refuses to die after more than a decade of use) and the inkjet de jour.  Like most others, my office has fierce competition for footprint space, and I routinely send the wrong files to the wrong printers.  My deskjet always seemed to choke exactly at the time when I needed it the most, so I decided to go for the color laser.

The C720 comes with a 266 Mhz CPU and 37Mb of RAM -- plenty of power for most applications. 2400 DPI resolution offers good resolution for photos and other graphics applications.  The net cost on a per-page basis is reasonable, and this model has received higher quality reviews than more expensive HP counterparts.