Gadget Freak: Holiday Tech Grab Bag--Gadgets to Love or to Lose

Illustration: Barry Blitt
A lot of gizmos cross my desk here at Gadget Central. Some I can't imagine living without; others I can't wait to return. In time for the holiday season, here are some of my favorite things, along with a few "what were they thinking?" items to avoid.

Easy listening: When satellite radio debuted, I hated it. But the content has improved so much since then that now I won't go anywhere without it. I just stick Tao's portable XM2Go ($299) in my pocket and then drop it in my home or car docking station when I return. The Tao also stores 5 hours of XM programs for times when the signal fades.

In a sling: Sling Media's Slingbox ($250) records TV shows that you can watch on any broadband-connected computer. I linked it to my TV and Wi-Fi router, and spent the next 90 minutes troubleshooting my router settings and system software. All that for the chance to watch a jittery rerun on a laptop at some Wi-Fi hotspot in Timbuktu. I'll take plain old TV, thanks.

Pretty fly: The kid-friendly Firefly cell phone ($99) has no keypad, just brightly colored buttons for "mom," "dad," and 911, plus a 20-number phone book. You program the numbers they can call and those that can call them, and buy service in 30-minute chunks (at about 25 cents a minute), so your preteens can't send your bills through the roof.

The no Wi-Fi zone: I was impressed when UTStarcom's F1000 Vonage VoIP phone ($100) automatically logged on to the nearest Wi-Fi network, regardless of who owned it. But if you wander too far from the access point, the line gets crackly and then dies. So until a seamless Wi-Fi cloud blankets the world, I'll stick with my cell phone.

Pocket pix: The iAudio X5 from Cowon (20GB model, $299; 30GB model, $349) is a slick MP3 player that also displays videos and text on a 1.8-inch screen. You can record songs directly from a CD player and transfer videos using its software. You wouldn't want to view a whole film on one, but it's a nice way to share home movies, and I'd pick it over a Microsoft-based portable media player.

Ojo? Oh no: Motorola's Ojo Personal Video Phone does an okay job of delivering full-motion video conversations over a broadband connection. But most people (including me) sound better than they look. The price is kind of ugly, too: $800 per phone--you'll need at least two--plus $15 a month for the video service. Some things are better left to the imagination.

Sound works: The impressive Cambridge SurroundWorks 200 ($1000) combines a DVD player/tuner, a subwoofer, and a three-speaker system in one box. Using acoustic virtualization, the system convincingly mimics a 5:1 home theater system. Installation is a snap; you can adjust the speaker to emphasize surround-sound, dialogue, or music; and when I cranked up the subwoofer, it rattled all the windows and scared the pets. It isn't cheap, but setting up a home theater doesn't get much easier.

Pass the buck: Buck the Animated Trophy ($149), a life-size replica of a mounted deer head, bursts into song when you walk by. The mouth moves, the ears wigA-gle, the head rocks from side to side...it's all very disturbing. When you tire of "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Friends in Low Places," use the wireless microphone to supply your own Bambiesque karaoke. If you loved Hee Haw, you'll probably like Buck, too. Everyone else should pass.

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