What I've Learned Writing 'Gadget Freak'

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.

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Small Gestures: Talking to Tomorrow's Tech

It was a typical Saturday morning, and my children were swinging nunchuks at each other again. Though my son and daughter go medieval on each other several times a day, I wasn't worried. They were just using the Wii.

The Wii's success is truly phenomenal. All but dead in the console race three years ago, Nintendo is now leaving Sony and Microsoft in the dust. (In July, Nintendo sold more Wii consoles than Sony did PlayStation 3s or Microsoft did Xbox 360s combined, The NPD Group reports.) The biggest reason, aside from its low price: its easily mastered, gesture-based interface.

"Gesture interfaces are the most natural, intuitive, transparent ways to interact with the digital world," says Michel Tombroff, CEO of Softkinetic, which makes gesture-recognition software used in games and other applications. In fact, gestures are easier for computers to handle than speech recognition, since they don't have to account for differences in pronunciation.

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It's On: The Battle for the Digital Living Room

Illustration: Edwin Fotheringham
A quiet revolution has begun in our living rooms. Microsoft and Sony plan to overthrow your A/V receiver, DVD player, and set-top box, and replace them with one of their game consoles. This past spring, both companies unveiled movie download and streaming services that give them new-found credibility in the living room.

Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 both provide great game play with stunning graphics and the opportunity to mosh online with other gaming dweebs. But do these devices offer enough to nongamers to serve as the command center of our digital homes? I'm not convinced.

Cost, Content

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How TVs Will Get Much, Much Flatter

Illustration: Marc Rosenthal
Illustration: Marc Rosenthal
Plasma is dead. Front and rear projection? Fuggeddaboutit. LCD has a few good years left, and then it's sayonara, baby. TV technology's future lies in tiny phosphorescent molecules.

Organic light-emitting diodes--OLEDs--employ a thin layer of organic material that emits light when electricity passes through it. OLED displays need no backlight, so they're ultrathin and flexible. They are also brighter, cheaper to manufacture, and more environmentally friendly than plasma displays or LCDs. Over the next few years, OLED will be coming to a boob tube near you, and later maybe to the walls of your house, or even the windshield of your car.

Thin and Rich

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Living the Well-Connected Life

Illustration: Mark Matcho
I didn't attend prep school with the Kennedys or schmooze my way into high society. But these days I'm feeling extremely well connected, thanks to mobile devices like Amazon's Kindle e-book reader and the Dash Express GPS.

What's unique about these gizmos is that they maintain a constant Internet connection, so I don't have to load a browser, wait for a connection, and then hunt down information on a tiny screen. They simply pull down data and present it to me when I ask for it.

In a few years, I believe, all mobile devices will be constantly connected. But I hope that the manufacturers of those devices will take appropriate steps to avoid some of the kinks found in the Dash Express and the Kindle.

Dashing Hope

Like the iPhone, the Dash Express GPS device automatically logs on when you're near a Wi-Fi hotspot, but it uses a cell connection when you're not. Among other things, this two-way connection transforms your car into a real-time traffic gauge. If you run into a snarl, the unit transmits that data to the Dash servers, which swiftly recalculate how long it will take you and everyone else crawling along that stretch of road to reach your destinations.

In theory, this arrangement provides more-accurate real-time traffic data than the content from MSN Direct or ClearChannel, which depend on road sensors and historical traffic data. But the info is only as good as the number of Dash drivers on the road at one time.

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