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Gadget gift ideas for last minute shoppers

December 21, 1998
Web posted at: 2:10 PM EST

By CNN Interactive Editor Steve Baxter

(CNN) -- Just a few shopping days left before Christmas and many are still looking for that RIGHT gift. Here are a few gadget gift ideas for the technophiles on your gift list.

MP3 to go

There is a hot, new segment of the consumer audio business. Portable music players that use the MP3 audio compression format are all the rage. Some devices use CD-ROMs, others use computer hard disks or removable storage media like Iomega's Zip and Clik disks. We had a chance to try out the Diamond Rio, Diamond Multimedia's new portable MP3 player.

What makes the Rio so unusual is that there are no moving parts because audio files are stored in 32MB of internal flash memory. That's enough for about an hour of tunes, more if you use the removable flash card slot. Rio is perfect for people who want music on the run. It's small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and won't skip a note. It runs for up to 12 hours on one "AA" battery.

The Rio also includes headphones, a cable and software to download music from compact disks or the Internet.

Diamond Rio from Diamond Multimedia; $199.95

No more monochrome Mario

Nintendo's Game Boy got a facelift this Christmas. The popular game system has been redesigned with a new color screen.

Game Boy Color is about the same size as the Game Boy Pocket but with a LCD color screen that displays 56 different colors simultaneously from a palette of 32,000.

There are five new game cartridges designed for the new 56-color technology. Existing games from Nintendo's library of 1,000 titles will display from four to 10 colors.

Game Boy Color also includes an infrared port so players can transfer data from one unit to another and a new Game Link cable that allows higher-speed head-to-head gaming.

The new unit gives players about 20 hours of game time on just two "AA" batteries.

Nintendo's Game Boy Color; $79.95

Microsoft wants to control your games

One very interesting game controller arrived from Microsoft this fall. The SideWinder Freestyle Pro lets you control movement within a game by merely tilting the controller left, right, up and down.

It looks similar to a game pad but it contains motion-sensing technology that responds to players' body movement. The device has a variety of controls; an eight-way direction pad, six programmable buttons, two programmable triggers, a thumb controlled throttle wheel and start and shift buttons. Playing games with the device is a unique experience. The Freestyle Pro combines the flexibility of a joystick with the precision of a game pad making game control more intuitive and immersive.

The Freestyle Pro is especially good with flying and driving games. It comes bundled with a copy of the excellent motorcycle simulation "Motocross Madness," making it one of the best computer entertainment values of the season.

SideWinder Freestyle Pro, Microsoft Corp.; $74.95

Microsoft calling...

Microsoft has been in the hardware business for a long time with computer mice, game controllers, telephones...

Phones you say? That's right. Microsoft engineers figured out a way to plug a wireless phone into a computer to create new ways for consumers to manage calls and messages.

The Microsoft Cordless Phone System is a 900MHz wireless phone and charging cradle with a base-station that plugs into the phone line and the serial port of a PC. The call management software uses Caller ID and voice recognition technology in some very clever ways.

You can record personalized greetings that will play for different callers and block unwanted callers while letting high-priority callers ring through at any time. You can also program the unit to announce through the handset's speaker who is calling.

Voice command functions let users place calls and checks voice-mail messages by simply speaking commands through the cordless handset. The software recognizes multiple users so it is unnecessary to "train" the system.

What next, Microsoft providing dial tone?

Microsoft Cordless Telephone System; $199.95

This notebook is no pest

When I saw the announcement of Gateway's new "FireAnt" notebook computer a couple of months ago, I had to try one out.

Having been stung by the tiny pests, I couldn't believe some marketing genius could get away with naming any product after an insect with such a bad reputation.

The FireAnt is actually the Gateway Solo 3100 notebook. Press materials say the company called it the FireAnt because its small size and powerful "sting."

This FireAnt's technological sting felt very good! Gateway calls it the lightest portable computer equipped with DVD. It features a durable magnesium alloy case and with a 300MHz Pentium II brain and 64MB RAM, it is as powerful and compatible as most desktop computers.

I took the FireAnt with me to Comdex and it performed under difficult circumstances without a hitch. But the ultimate "road warrior" test was in the family car driving to Florida for a quick 4-day vacation. I brought along a couple of DVD movies to entertain the family during the eight-hour trip and was it ever a hit! They marveled at the quality of the screen image, and when I plugged the audio output of the FireAnt into the car stereo I didn't hear another word from them until the movie was over.

Oh, the benefits of technology.

Gateway Solo 3100; prices start at $2,099

Plasticware peripheral

My pick for 1998's best technology toy is "LEGO MINDSTORMS" from LEGO Media. The latest extension to the popular plastic building blocks, it combines the creative LEGO building play values with computer and robotics technology.

"MINDSTORMS" is designed for children 11 and up and lets them construct a wide range of real robots that move, act and think independently.

The brain of the "MINDSTORM" robots is the RCX, a small microcomputer that can be programmed by a personal computer. Using sensors, it can input data from the environment, process that data and then signal motors to turn on and off. Users can program their robot inventions using a simple programming language supplied with the kit. The data is downloaded to the robot using an infrared transmitter so it can perform tasks assigned to it.

The Robotics Invention System includes 700 LEGO pieces, the RCX, programming software, infrared transmitter, light and touch sensors, motors, gears and a building guide. The price tag is a bit steep, but consider the endless hours of creative fun as an investment in your child's education.

LEGO MINDSTORMS Robotics Invention System; $219.99

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