Our guide to digital gift giving

HIGH-TECH HOLIDAY

November 30, 1998

There are few sure things in life. But among the exceptions is this: You will be overwhelmed when you walk into a computer or electronics store this season and try to pick out the perfect gift.

Is it any wonder? Hundreds of new high-tech toys, computer games and gadgets cram the shelves each holiday season, vying for attention. Pick the wrong one and you can kiss your hard-earned cash goodbye.

Fear not. The Plugged In staff has dedicated itself to the onerous task of playing with - er, evaluating - new games and gadgets. Yeah, it's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Obviously, there's more good stuff than the 20 or so items so we've spotlighted here (the numbers refer to the photos on this page). But these are sure bets, the high-tech gifts that will keep you and your wired ones happy long after your New Year's resolutions have turned to well-intentioned memories.

1. Legos for grown-ups: With help from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, Lego has revolutionized one of the best-selling toys of all time. MindStorms gives you Lego building blocks for real robots that move, act and think on their own.

The $200 kit includes more than 700 pieces, including a microprocessor (the same used in early PCs), motors and sensors. Once you've built your robot, program it on your PC and then beam the instructions with an infrared transmitter. Remember, your kids get a chance to use it too.

Information: 800-453-4652 or www.legomindstorms.com.

2. Lightweight protection: Your laptop weighs enough already - you don't need to double its weight with a heavy bag. The Kensington Sky Runner packs plenty of room and protection for your computer but weighs half as much as other three-compartment bags. A single zipper provides access to all your stuff. Available in nylon (about $55) and leather ($75).

Information: 800-535-4242 or www.kensington.com.

3. Chess ego buster: If you think you're another Garry Kasparov, match wits with Ivan the Terrible, a stand-alone chess computer with a 500-word vocabulary that can taunt you or coach you - it's your choice.

With levels from beginner to expert, Ivan can play seriously or entertain you with sound effects such as galloping horses, blowing bugles and clanging swords. From Excalibur Electronics, $150.

Information: 305-477-8080 or www.excaliburelectronics.com.

4. Wired Winnie: He may look like your standard stuffed Pooh, but this $99 interactive toy is definitely not as empty-headed as his namesake.

Hook Winnie up to your PC (Windows 95/98 required) and program him to remember your child's name and engage in dozens of games and activities - in front of or away from the computer. Winnie's head and mouth move as he talks and sings.

Information: Mattel Media at 888-628-8359 or www.mattelmedia.com/pooh.

5. Music to go: About the size of a pager, the Diamond Multimedia Rio may change the face of the music industry. This gadget is a portable music player that stores up to 60 minutes of digital sound in the new MP3 format.

Just hook it to your PC, download songs from your personal CDs or the Internet and carry them with you. It's a snap to set up and use, and it runs on a single AA battery.

The $199 Rio is so revolutionary that it sparked a legal challenge from the the recording industry. The Rio won, but you'd better snap one up before the judge changes her mind.

Information: 408-325-7000 or www.diamondmm.com.

6. Hand-held champ: Despite stiff competition from hand-held PCs running Windows CE, the Palm III ($369) is still the best of this breed.

It organizes your contacts and phone numbers (6,000 of them), keeps your calendar, tracks expenses and synchronizes everything with your PC. You'll find lots of add-ons, including the $129 snap-on modem, pictured here, which gives you access to e-mail wherever there's a phone.

Information: 800-881-7256 or www.palm.com.

7. Stop phone fumbling: If you're tired of punching tiny buttons to make your portable phone work, the Sprint PCS TouchPoint makes it easy to negotiate menus and functions with a large "mouse button" in the center of the control panel.

The $180 TouchPoint stores up to 300 numbers, displays short-message pages and has a built-in calendar that tracks appointments and synchronizes with your PC.

One caveat: The Sprint PCS network doesn't cover as large an area as standard cellular networks, so check conditions in your locale.

Information: 800-480-4727 or www.sprintpcsnews.com/phones.

8. Mousing around: Want to keep your mouse clean? Cover it with another mouse - or at least a cover that looks like the real thing. In fact, Bennie the mouse cover looks real enough to scare more than a few adults, which is why kids will love it. You won't find many computer accessories as cheap as this one - $5 at Radio Shack.

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