Gadget Freak: The Must-Have Gadgets of 2006

Illustration: Barry Blitt
Santa isn't the only one who's been making a list and checking it twice. Over the last year hundreds of gizmos have passed through Chez Freak, but only a handful inspire sincere gadget lust.

These devices all share certain traits: They serve a real need (read: not yet another iPod accessory). They're innovative. Most important, they're simple to use. Plug them in, turn them on, and they work. The way it should be.

iRobot Dirt Dog: Meet man's new best friend. iRobot's Dirt Dog is a sweeper designed for use in basements and garages. Just push the "Clean" button and stand back. It scuttles about picking up wood shavings, loose screws, and other weekend workshop detritus. The $130 price is worth howling about, too.

MusicGremlin: Don't wait for Microsoft's Zune MP3 player. With the Wi-Fi-enabled MusicGremlin, you can download songs from any hotspot and then legally swap them with your buddies online. Sure, navigating through songs could be easier, and $300 (plus $15 a month for the music service) is pricey for a device with only 8GB of storage. But being able to download virtually any song, anytime, anywhere, is wicked cool.

Pure Digital Point and Shoot Camcorder: This pocket-size digital videocam lets you capture 30 minutes of decent-looking video in its 512MB of flash memory and then transfer the clips to your PC via a clever USB "arm" that swings out from the base of the unit. The camera's built-in software allows you to manage videos, e-mail downsized clips to friends, or share your masterpieces on Google Video with just a few clicks. The features are bare-bones--only 2X zoom, 640-by-480 clips, and minimal playback options on a 1.5-inch LCD--but then again, so is the $130 price.

PowerSquid Surge3000 Calimari: Even I find it odd how excited I am about this $80 power strip. Yes, it really looks like a squid: Six tentaclelike plugs extend to handle power bricks without blocking other sockets, and its surge protection (up to 3240 joules) keeps your pricey gear from getting fried. Two plugs even light up so you can find them in the dark. It's ideal for geeks with too many gadgets and nowhere to plug them.

Sony Reader: This device redefines the electronic book. Sony's glare-free screen and E Ink technology are amazing, the unit is push-button easy to use, and its 7-by-5-inch size strikes the perfect compromise between a PDA and a laptop. The $350 Reader can hold around 80 books in its 64MB of memory, and more when you add a Sony Memory Stick or an SD Card. Sony launched with about 10,000 titles in its proprietary e-book format (the unit also reads text, Acrobat, and Word files). Pricing and availability of titles will vary, but the gizmo itself is terrific. (For details, see our review.)

Zvox 325: One wire--that's all the Zvox 325 ($349) needs to produce booming audio from your TV, MP3 player, or DVD machine. Just plug in this VCR-size speaker unit and connect it to the device's headphone jack. Two knobs let you control volume and switch from stereo to surprisingly good surround sound. It's simplicity itself.

PicoCricket: I got this robotics kit for my 7-year-old daughter, but soon I was fighting her for it. PicoCricket ($250) combines Lego pieces and fuzzy pipe cleaners with sophisticated light, motion, and sound sensors. Kids build their own toys and then program them to respond to stimuli by dragging and dropping "PicoBlocks"--brightly colored shapes that represent different chunks of object-oriented code. So, for example, you can build a flower that plays music when the sun rises, or a birthday cake that lights up when you touch it. You'll need about 30 minutes with Pico's quick-start guide to master the basics, but far longer before you're willing to let your kids have at it.

A Merry Geekmas to all, and to all a good night.

Contributing Editor Dan Tynan is the author of Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005). You can send him e-mail at gadgetfreak@pcworld.com.
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