The economy may be lagging, but portable electronic gadgets keep surging ahead, with technological breakthroughs that make last year's models look practically archaic.
Compact digital cameras can shoot faster, sharper, and with cooler-than-ever tricks - such as making facial blemishes and wrinkles vanish, or zipping between a huge range of focal lengths, from wide angle to super zoom.
Wireless headsets provide stronger, more static-free reception, with fewer disconnects and easier pairing with cell phones and other devices. Little speakers in newfangled shapes (a pig, for instance) produce beautiful sound and versatile connectivity.
And tiny audio recorders, equipped with digital chips, USB ports, and sometimes memory card slots, can capture and play - independently or via computer - virtually unlimited amounts of conversation, stereo music, even podcasts, without the tinny sound that plagued their predecessors.
And, surprise - whether you're on a budget or willing to splurge, you are likely to get more bang for the buck than ever before, especially with stores competing madly for your discretionary dollars.
I've tested all of the following products, which I divided into budget, midrange and cutting-edge categories. Prices are the manufacturer's list price, but you usually can find the item for less with some comparison shopping. Check PriceGrabber.com, Shopping.com and amazon.com (which often has the best prices and informative reviews by buyers). When shopping online, be sure to factor in tax and shipping charges to get the true cost.
This year, good news really can come in small packages - a nice stimulus even without an act of Congress.
Compact digital cameras
These cameras have built-in zoom lenses and include slots for digital memory cards, rechargeable batteries and chargers, and USB and AV cables. All provide both an eyepiece viewfinder and a large LCD screen for framing shots, and have movie modes.
Casio Exilim Ex-Z85 ($180):
Blotchy skin? Crow's feet? Zap, they're gone with the tiny (4 inches by 2 inches by 1 inch thick) Ex-Z85's "make-up" mode, which discreetly blurs unflattering facial features. The camera's face-recognition function can detect up to 10 faces and bring into sharpest focus the ones who have been preprogrammed into the system as "priority" (sacrificing the folks you presumably don't like). A cute feature provides a heart or butterfly shape in place of the usual rectangular frame for focusing shots. Focal range: 38-114mm.
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW ($300):
Drop it, soak it, freeze it. The tough little 1050 SW will keep on shooting thanks to waterproof seals guaranteed to 10 feet underwater, a shock-absorbing metal body that can withstand a 5-foot drop onto solid rock, and insulation that keeps the battery from going dead in cold weather down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Tapping the top, back and sides cycles it through key shooting and playback options, so you can even make adjustments while wearing gloves. Measures 3.7 inches by 2.5 inches by three-quarters of an inch thick. Focal range: 38-114mm.
Nikon CoolPix P80 ($400).
Nikon's high-quality optics now come in a point-and-shoot camera with a vast focal range, from 27mm wide angle to 486mm super telephoto, in a single fixed lens. At 3.5 inches thick, the P80 is fatter than the typical svelte pocket model, but it's worth the extra bulge for the freedom of choice. In-camera editing includes red-eye fix, cropping, small copies of a picture suitable for e-mailing, and D-lighting, which selectively enhances underexposed areas of a shot after the fact.
We passed on the cheapest Bluetooth headsets, because they had undependable sound quality, which is no bargain for something you rely on. These headsets consistently performed well. They pair easily with Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, work with phones' voice dialing functions, and include AC and USB charging cords and a selection of in-ear tips for a comfortable fit.
Jabra BT530 ($100):
This is, hands-down, the best Bluetooth headset for the price. The sleek, black-and-silver featherweight device provides excellent reception and range, good background-noise blackout, and, in addition to a selection of gel tips for in-ear use, includes flexible ear hooks. The battery light changes color when low. The Lucite charging stand is a helpful touch.
Jawbone 2 ($130):
With no visible buttons and a curved, diamond-patterned design in black, silver, rose or gold, this snazzy number deserves its label of "ear-wear." The functions are controlled by pressing different parts of the textured front shield, which can get tricky, but fashion has its tradeoffs. The Jawbone 2's "noise assassin" technology does a good job of blocking external sounds. The optional over-ear loops detract from style, but improve comfort.
Plantronics Discovery 925 ($150):
The 925 gets extra points for the included carrying case, which has a built-in rechargeable battery, so the headset stays protected while charging or stashed. The long V-frame design, in shiny black, cerise or gold, looks like something a Vulcan would wear while beaming aboard.
When you want to ditch your headphones and share your music, or use external speakers for mobile computing, just plug in these neat portable models. Batteries are not included, unless noted.
Altec Lansing orbit MP3 ($40):
This lightweight, palm-size pod produces surprisingly big, 360-degree sound. The integrated cord has a 3.5mm plug for connecting to MP3 and other electronic devices and a 2.5mm adapter for cell phone universal jacks. Runs on three AAA batteries. A downside: There's no AC adapter jack.
iHome iP27 ($119.99)
. This speaker has a digital alarm clock and a built-in dock and adapter inserts for charging and playing iPhones and most docking iPod models (fourth generation or later). Wake to a buzzer or your own music. An auxiliary line-in jack works with MP3 players and other audio devices. Runs on the universal AC wall adapter (included) or 4 AA batteries. Includes a remote control, a padded pouch, and a backup lithium battery for clock/alarm.
Not just a piggy face, Speakal's cutesy iPig has five speakers, including two for eyes, double tweeters under the ears, and a 4-inch subwoofer integrated into its chubby, 5-inch-thick, cartoonish body. There's an iPod docking slot on top, and a jack for other devices. Touch-sensitive ears control volume. The smiley mouth lights up when powered on and blinks when it registers commands from the remote control. Pick pink, white or yellow, and get oinking.
Digital audio recorders
The newest digital recorders can capture and store many hours - some more than 1,000 hours - of sound. No more tape cartridges that can quickly run out of space, deteriorate, or tear. The battery-operated models below can transfer audio files to or from a computer via USB connectivity (PC and MAC compatible), have built-in microphones and jacks for external mikes, and can record from electronic devices using the auxiliary inline jack. All have jacks for connecting external speakers and headphones, and include stereo earbuds.
Sony ICD-UX 80 ($150):
A built-in 2GB memory chip lets this tiny recorder (4 inches by 1.5 inches by a half-inch thick) capture and play up to 590 hours of voice or 24 hours of high-quality MP3 stereo audio. A built-in USB plug eliminates the need for cables. Playback using the built-in speaker sounds weak and tinny, but listen with the stereo earbuds, or any decent speakers - and wow. Push-button navigation through quality modes, playback speed, volume and file folders is easy. Runs on one AAA battery (included).
Samson ZOOM H2 Handy Recorder ($335):
Four built-in microphones, a USB port, an SD digital card slot that can accommodate up to a 16GB SD card (512MB SD card included), and the ability to record MP3 audio and WAV files and create 360-degree surround sound - this is one versatile powerhouse. There's even an onboard chromatic guitar/bass tuner for musicians. The 4.25-inch by 2.5-inch by 1.25-inch-thick H2 takes itself very seriously, so it doesn't bother with a dinky, built-in speaker. Do your listening with the stereo earbuds or external speakers. Includes a desktop stand, USB and stereo Y cables, and an AC adapter (or runs on 2 AA batteries, not included).
Olympus DS-71 ($450):
This baby made me love it right off the bat, because it literally talked me through the setup navigation and told me the battery level. (Voice guidance can be turned off.) A 4GB memory chip records up to 1,062 hours of talk or 135 hours of high-quality music files. The detachable stereo microphone at the top of the unit can be plugged into the remote jack (included), which can be clipped onto a shirt collar. (The remote jack remains connected to the main unit via a 3-foot cable, so you can rest the recorder on a lectern or stash it in a shirt pocket.) The built-in speaker isn't bad for reviewing, but the earbuds and external speakers are better music to the ears. The 4.25-inch by 1.5-inch by half-inch-thick DS 71 has designated folders for direct downloading of podcasts and for recording audio books, with bookmark and chapter-marking functions. Includes USB cable. Runs on 2 AAA batteries (included).
ihome (SDI Technologies)