What I've Learned Writing 'Gadget Freak'

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Illustration: John Ueland
Five years ago this column began with a simple mission. To explore brave new technologies, to seek out new gizmos and gear, and to boldly go where no gadget column had gone before.

Now that mission has run its course: This will be the last Gadget Freak. So now is a very good time to tell you what I've learned about what makes a gadget truly great.

The best gadgets have certain qualities in common. They solve difficult problems simply and elegantly. They're constantly ahead of the curve, adding new features before you realize you need them. And most important, they put you in control of your own digital destiny--so that you can make the decisions about what you want to do and how you want to do it.

Over the past five years, I've seen five gadgets that thoroughly exemplify these qualities.

Apple iPod and iPhone: Steve Jobs's true genius is that he understands the total user experience, from package design to what's supposed to happen the first time you press the power button. Few devices have been as innovative as the iPod and the iPhone. The iPod almost single-handedly created today's digital media marketplace; the iPhone was the first pocket-size device to make untethered Web surfing not just bearable but fun. Sure, Apple has stumbled at times (battery problems, easily scratched screens, 3G connection glitches), but overall, nobody else comes close.

TiVo: Lots of decent DVRs are out there, but none can keep up with TiVo. The beauty of TiVo is that it gives you back all the time you used to waste watching commercials while waiting for shows to come on. I use a TiVo Se­ries 2 ($150 plus $13 a month) to manage content on my Wi-Fi network. For example, to play a slide show of my recent trip to Reykjavik, Iceland (whale sashimi, yum), I use TiVo to access the photos on my computer, then display them on the TV. I can also access music or video, view weather and traffic, and play games. I'd have a hard time living without my TiVo.

iRobot Roomba: This squat, puck-shaped vacuum cleaner is so cute that millions of Roomba owners have given them pet names. The latest model is the Roomba 570 ($430); it even talks to you when it needs help. Roombas also do a fine job cleaning floors. Years from now, historians will see the introduction of the Roomba as the day that robots came into our lives to stay.

Sonos Sound System:This wireless system makes moving digital music around your home a snap, and it continues to improve with smaller, cheaper models like the Sonos Bundle 150. At $1000 for a two-room starter kit, the Sonos 150 is still pricey, but its sound quality easily bests cheaper alternatives.

Nintendo Wii: Forget that it's the first game system you don't have to be an arrested adolescent to enjoy. The Wii ($249) brought gesture-based interfaces into the mainstream, managing to emulate real-life experience in a convincing way without virtual-reality goggles or gloves. Have I also mentioned it's a heckuva lot of fun?

As you roam the aisles this holiday season, you'll do well to look for gear that's as simple, innovative, and compelling as these five.

It's been a great five years. Thanks for reading. Now, beam me up, Scotty.

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