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December 15, 2005 6:35 pm

Paul Taylor: The year’s best digital buys

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Last week in this column, I suggested some factors to consider if you are thinking about buying a digital flat-panel display, portable digital music player or digital camera.

Now as we head into the final days of the holiday shopping season and 2005 draws to a close, I take a look at some other popular personal technology categories and list my top 10 products of the year.

Mobile phones and
communicators

By the end of this year roughly 600m mobile phones and other mobile communication devices will have been sold worldwide. The vast majority of these devices will be used primarily for voice communications so, before you rush out and buy the latest do-it-all handset, consider how you will use it.

A mobile that has a long battery life, good sound quality and easily accessible features may be a better bet than an all-singing, all-dancing handset that does everything but nothing very well.

One of my favourite mobile phones is Motorola’s Razr – sleek, super slim and also very easy and comfortable to use. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the so-called smartphones that typically come with built-in digital cameras, music players and enhanced audio and video capabilities.

All the main mobile phone makers including Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson have launched specialist “multimedia” phones over the past year. Those focusing on mobile music include Motorola’s much ballyhooed “iTunes” phone, Nokia’s N91 and Sony Ericsson’s W600
Walkman.

While none match the simplicity of operation of, say, an Apple iPod, they do produce reasonable sound quality, though it may make sense to wait for the next generation of devices designed to download music over the network, removing the need to connect to a PC.

Other multimedia phones, including several models from Samsung and Nokia’s stylish N91, now double as respectable digital cameras with 2Mp (Megapixel) sensors and top quality optical zoom lenses.

Another small but growing subset of the market are the “communicators”, which include data-centric devices such as Research in Motion’s family of BlackBerry devices, Palm’s Treo 600 and 650 family and the powerful Nokia 9300 Communicator

All of these devices are designed to operate as full-feature mobile phones but come with “push” e-mail capabilities, which automate the process of receiving corporate and desktop e-mails while on the move. Their mini keyboards, too, make it much easier to reply.

While it is not widely available yet, the new BlackBerry 8700 is my personal favourite because of its processing power, higher speed, wireless data capabilities and superb screen. RIM, however, will face some formidable competition next year with new data-centric BlackBerry-style push e-mail devices due out from Motorola, Nokia and others.

Portable PCs

As prices have tumbled and the capabilities of portable PCs have grown, laptops have taken an increasingly large part of the retail PC market.

A handful of market leaders have emerged, among them Toshiba, IBM Lenovo, Dell, HP and, of course, Apple Computer. But there is still plenty of choice in the market, including specialists such as Alienware , the Florida-based company that has carved out a niche with powerful portables aimed at the games market, Panasonic with its “ruggedised” Toughbook machines and a handful of companies making tablet-style portables.

Now that Intel and AMD have largely abandoned the “Megahertz” race in favour of other differentiators, it has become relatively easy to set out the basic specifications for a general purpose portable – 1.4Ghz (Gigahertz) processor, 256 or preferably 512Mb (Megabytes) of RAM, 40Gb (Gigabytes) or larger hard drive and super-bright colour screens are now all fairly standard, along with WiFi and Bluetooth wireless network capabilities.

Beyond these basic requirements, the options become largely a matter of personal choice. Among these features are widescreen LCD panels, ideal if the machine is likely to be used for watching DVDs or other multimedia content. In this case also look for the “instant on” feature found on most Toshiba laptops, such as the Qosmio G25-AV513 , and a growing number of other machines.

If the machine will mostly be used in one place – or transported occasionally – consider a desktop replacement machine with a full set of optical drives and flash memory card readers that make it easy to transfer images from digital cameras. Now that most of the premium associated with Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center Edition has gone, it may also make sense to look for a portable running MCE.

At the other end of the size spectrum, a sub notebook machine such as Toshiba’s Libretto, Sony’s Vaio VGN-TX610P/B or the new Fujitsu LifeBook 1500d could be ideal, but check out the battery life before buying – it often makes sense to buy a second or extended battery that will deliver at least five hours of computing time.

For the ultimate in portability, OQO’s Model 1 is a full function PC running Windows XP in a pocket- sized package, or consider using a Palm or Windows- based PDA (personal digital assistant) with a portable keyboard.

Tablet PCs – portable machines that run Windows XP and have touch-sensitive screens – remain a small part of the market. I particularly like some of the lightweight “convertible” tablets that have appeared this year, including Lenovo’s ThinkPad X41 and Fujitsu’s 1510d , both of which
can operate in standard notebook mode, or like a writing slate with an electronic pen.

At an ever more basic level, most of the applications and private data that mobile professionals need can now be carried around on a Flash memory USB drive that can be plugged into virtually any PC.

Portable PCs and communications go hand in hand so it may also be worth considering one of the new PCs such as the Sony Vaio VGN-T350P or the Lenovo ThinkPad Z60t , which both come with built-in WAN (wide area networking) capabilities designed to work with 2.5 and 3G wireless networks. Over the next few months these and other machines with 3G wireless networking will become much more widely available but if you cannot wait, make sure you buy a PC with a PC card slot that uses a 3G data card.

Home storage and media distribution

As the volume (and value) of digital content stored on portable, home and office PCs has grown, so has the need for easy-to-use external storage and systems that can help distribute that content around the home or office.

Maxtor ’s family of OneTouch external drives set the benchmark for external storage and data backup, but all the main hard drive and networking equipment vendors – including Seagate, Netgear, Linksys, Buffalo, SimpleTech and Seagate’s recently acquired Mirra unit – now offer external storage devices designed to manage and in some cases distribute up to 1Tb (Terabyte, or 1,000Gb) of data.

Some of these vendors also sell “media gateways” that are designed specifically to make easier the sharing of digital content over a wired or wireless home network. Others sell devices designed to integrate with traditional hi-fi and home theatre component systems, enabling users to listen to digital music through a stereo system or view digital images on a TV screen.

One of my favourite digital home audio systems is the Sonos Digital Audio System – a wireless digital audio distribution system that lets users access and control digital audio content stored on a PC or external hard drive from any room in a house using a stylish wireless remote control.

There is also an expanding range of iPod add-ons from companies such as Griffin, Kensington, Bose, Belkin and Xitel that are designed to enable iPod owners to listen to their music at home or in a vehicle.

For last week’s article, with my pick of digital flat-panel displays, portable digital music players and digital cameras, click here

PAUL TAYLOR’S TOP TEN10 TECH SELECTION

■Lenovo ThinkPad X41 convertible tablet

■Apple nano/Apple iPod (30Gb) portable digital

music player

■BlackBerry 8700 wireless

data device

■Nikon D50 digital SLR camera

■Palm TX personal digital assistant

■TomTom Go GPS navigation

■Microsoft Xbox 360 video games machine

■ZoneAlarm Security Suite 6.0

■Firefox web browser

■Google Earth mapping service

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