Gadget Freak: Cool Your Gadget Fever

After a while the symptoms are impossible to ignore. You open the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog and start to hyperventilate. The remote controls on your coffee table have multiplied like guppies, and you can't remember what any of them do.

You've got gadget fever, and all you can think about is buying another digital doohickey.

As a recovering gizmoholic, I've spent thousands on devices I used briefly and then tossed aside. Along the way, I've learned how to break the grip of gadget fever and find stuff I really like. Here are some mistakes to avoid:

Early Adopteritis: No matter what it is, you want to be the first person on your block to own one. But manufacturers frequently (well, okay, always) release new technologies before they're ready. And even familiar widgets like Wi-Fi need some time to adjust to new surroundings (such as your living room). Later, a version that works better will arrive. Wait for it.

Manual Labor: If the manual for the product is thicker than the Manhattan phone book, beware. This usually means the dingus has tons of complicated features you'll never use. (A caveat: If you're buying something truly complex, like a digital video editing system or an ICBM launcher, a thick manual is probably good.) Most vendors now post manuals on the Web; check them out before you buy.

500 Easy Pieces: The more parts it has, the more hassle you'll endure. For example, Sony's $280 Net MD music player comes with two software discs, three manuals, and a half-dozen other bits. It's so complicated I knew I'd never use it. In contrast, Apple's $300 IPod is packed with one set of earphones, one power supply, one manual, and one disc. And Apple's austere packaging was so Zen-like I hated taking it apart. Simple is better.

Media Monopolies: Betamax, 8-track, super floppies, Jaz--the path to gadgetopia is littered with the corpses of obsolete storage media. We're seeing this happen again with competing standards for high-definition DVD. Think twice before committing your data to a proprietary device.

The Lifetime Channel: Vendors that charge monthly fees may offer lifetime subscriptions at a big discount. Try it for a month first. After a few weeks of using TiVo, I was ready to pony up $300 for a lifetime sub. But with satellite radio (see December's Gadget Freak), one month was plenty.

Fashion Faux Pas: Maybe I've been watching a bit too much Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but I think you should avoid any device that makes you look like the village dork. Like those radio headphones people wear while jogging--they're fine if you're parking airplanes on the tarmac, but embarrassing anywhere else. If you look stupid using it, you probably won't.

Finally, remember that a 30-day money-back guarantee is your best friend. If a gadget isn't everything you hoped it would be, ship it back. Even if you have to pay a restocking fee (though you should avoid stores that charge them, if possible), it's better than having another widget cluttering the garage. Besides, you'll need the room for all the nifty gear you'll use and cherish with each passing moment.

Next Up: Talk to the Tube

Some Sprint mobile phone owners can now watch live television on their handhelds. The new service, provided by MobiTV, costs $10 per month and will offer viewers about 14 cable channels, including Discovery Channel and MSNBC. MobiTV says subscribers will hear a high-quality, continuous stream of audio; the video tops out at two frames per second (so calling it "live" TV seems a stretch), but the company insists you'll always at least hear your program. Only five Java-enabled Sprint handsets support it now, but more are coming.

Next Up: Dell Does Bigger LCD TVs

Watch out, Sony and Circuit City: Dell has a new LCD television, complimenting the $699 W1700 LCD TV we reviewed in December. The 30-inch W3000 costs $3299, is HDTV-compatible, and uses Faroudja image-enhancement technology.

Contributing editor Daniel Tynan resides at the Betty Ford Clinic for Gizmo Dependency.
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