New sound of silence

Don't lose track of human contact in the pursuit of ever-cooler stuff

Gadget Check


Before the wireless revolution, pundits worried that our growing dependence on and love for personal technology were making us too isolated. We were staying home surfing the Web, sending e-mail and instant messages and playing video games. Sure, we might be communicating with folks on the other side of the world, but we weren't getting out in our own neighborhoods.

Then Wi-Fi, advanced cell phone services, superlight laptops, satellite radio and the iPod set us free. But for the most part, it just made the isolation portable. Walk into a popular coffee shop these days and you might see at least half of the customers peering at laptops, talking on the phone or text messaging. There are no chance encounters or even flirting among these folks. It's as if everyone has become a personal gated community, even in a crowd.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I love this tech stuff -- it's just so gee-whiz amazing. It has transformed much of my working, recreational and even cultural life. So let's appreciate this cool stuff, but don't let it stand in the way of old-fashioned analog encounters:

Wi-Fi router: To make your home a Wi-Fi hotspot just like your favorite tech-savvy coffee shop or airport lounge, you'll need one of these devices to broadcast your incoming Internet signal throughout the house. Get the spiffy Apple AirPort Extreme ($200) if you use a Mac, or a PC-oriented model such as the Netgear WGR614 ($50) if Windows rules at home. Just make sure you get a model that uses 802.11g, the current Wi-Fi standard.

GPS trainer: The wrist-worn Garmin Forerunner 201 (about $160) determines the precise distance a runner covers in a workout by using GPS signals from space. It's way better than an old-fashioned pedometer, as long as you're outside and within signal distance of the GPS satellites. A pacing feature shows an on-screen animated "virtual partner" running at your desired gait, while below him another little animated man shows your actual speed. The idea is to stay even with Mr. Virtual.

Laptop: They're getting lighter and sleeker, and many now come with built-in Wi-Fi capability. On the PC side, the superthin Toshiba Portege R200-S234 ($2,100) is stylish and an ergonomic pleasure to use. The more utilitarian-looking but still quite light Dell Inspiron 600m (about $1,000) also is a terrific choice. For Apple fans, you can't beat the 14-inch iBook G4 ($1,300) or the lighter, feature-packed 15-inch PowerBook G4 ($2,000).

Hand-held game machine: The arrival of the Sony PlayStation Portable (about $250) this year posed a serious threat to Nintendo's dominance of hand-held game players. And for good reason: The PSP sports a relatively big widescreen color monitor that's good enough to show movies (as long as they're in Sony's proprietary UMD disk format).

Smartphone: Cell phones now are routinely combined with electronic address books, date books, e-mail systems and primitive Web browsers. The Palm Treo 650 (about $300, if bought with a cell network plan) with its mini-keyboard is as good as they come.

Bluetooth headset: If you have a cell phone equipped with Bluetooth technology, you can use a headset sans wires. The sound fidelity is not quite as good as on a wired unit, but it's nice to get rid of those cords. One of the best functioning -- and least dorky looking --is the Plantronics Voyager 510 ($100).

Car speakerphone: For hands-free cell-phone chatting, the Jabra SP500 speakerphone ($100) can attach to the visor or inside of the windshield with suction cups. It eliminates the need for a headset, although the sound isn't as good. Requires a cell phone equipped with Bluetooth.

Portable music player: The Apple iPod defines this category, and it has proved to be resilient against competitors. The reason, for once, is simple -- it just works better than anyone else's player. It may also be the most stylish piece of digital technology in existence. The Nano ($200-$250) replaces the Mini line.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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