News Article

Potent Portables

It's a small world, after all -- four pocket-size gadgets for those who want to keep their entertainment light.

Call it a product of good genes: The Apple iPod mini ($249) -- the new sibling of Apple's market-dominating MP3 player -- inherited the same elegant user interface and ability to work with Apple's iTunes software, but in a slightly smaller package that's friendlier for gym workouts and active play. Apple has improved the jog-wheel controls, and the sound quality is still superb. For the fashion-conscious, the anodized aluminum (read: sleekly modern) mini comes in five colors: green, pink, blue, gold, and our favorite, silver. The mini has a four-gigabyte hard disk that stores about 1,000 songs, compared with 3,700 songs for the entry-level iPod. And that's the problem: The iPod mini is a mere $50 cheaper than the much more capable 15GB iPod. The iPod mini would have been a big hit at $199, but until Apple cuts the price, the slightly bigger iPod is a much better value.

One of the first of a new category of so-called personal media players, the 20-gigabyte RCA Lyra RD2780 Audio/Video Jukebox ($449) promises to let users enjoy movies, recorded television shows, digital photos, and MP3 music files, all while maintaining their on-the-go lifestyles. A great promise, but unfortunately the Lyra falls short on delivery. While sharp and colorful, the 3.5-inch color-LCD display drains batteries faster than Paris Hilton sheds boyfriends. Our unit ran out in a little less than two hours -- barely enough to get through a feature-length movie. In fact, actually getting movies onto the Lyra may be problematic because of digital copyright management; unlike the rival Archos AV320, the Lyra doesn't allow you to ''rip'' a DVD. Worse, many of the features RCA advertises require software updates. I'd wait for RCA to get its act together -- the design holds plenty of promise. For the time being, however, you may want to consider one of the next-generation models from Creative or Samsung.

Sure, for $30 you can buy a perfectly good Timex or, if you happen to be in Hong Kong, a dandy fake Rolex. But all they do is tell time. The Fossil Wrist Net watch with MSN Direct ($179) -- coupled with a $59-a-year subscription to Microsoft's new MSN Direct service -- delivers news, weather, sports scores, stock prices, MSN text messages, and other info. Oh, and how about a feature that constantly synchronizes your watch with an atomic clock? Think of the Wrist Net as geek jewelry. Some caveats: The info service is available only in the 100 largest U.S. and Canadian cities, so when you visit Possum Hollow you're stuck with a clunky watch. And because it utilizes complex software, the watch may ''crash'' from time to time and have to be rebooted. But hey, that's the price of being techno-forward.

With its five-megapixel resolution and 3X Zeiss zoom lens, the new Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T1 ($550) holds its own with the best of today's digital cameras -- but the key is that it's much easier to hold. Not much larger than a stack of credit cards, and weighing six ounces, the T1 is hands down the most capable camera of its size. It's a perfect travel companion for those who want excellent picture quality in a housing that slips easily into a pocket. There's even a movie mode. The 2.5-inch color LCD that doubles as a viewfinder is a masterpiece even in bright daylight. Downsides: Like all compact cameras, the flash is weak. It uses Sony's proprietary Memory Stick PRO Duo memory cards, which are more costly than competing formats. And at $550 for the camera, you may need a stack of credit cards to pay for it.

Originally posted Feb 13, 2004 Published in issue #751 Feb 13, 2004 Order article reprints