The iPod is the new necktie. A PlayStation Portable is the new cashmere scarf. A high-definition television is the new ... television.
Since this century began, unisex gifts that plug in or run on batteries have been the hits of the holiday season. Colors and sizes matter little when it comes to MP3 players and digital cameras, and even the complexities have been eliminated so that Gramps has less trouble shooting an image than he has programming that VCR. (Remember VCRs?)
For 2005, the choices are many. Some suggestions:
Tivoli Audio Model Satellite AM/FM/Sirius table radio ($299). Got Howard Stern next year? You'll need a Sirius receiver to tune him in, or access more than 120 other stations - news, music, entertainment and sports. It's not free, though: To subscribe to Sirius or its competitor XM, the fee is $12.95 a month.
There aren't much better ways to listen to radio than through the Tivoli. Great-looking, with a big round dial and a large LCD readout, the Model Satellite has the same rich, detailed sound as other Tivoli home radios. The piece, in handsome cherry wood, comes with a remote control and an antenna.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N1 point-and-shoot digital camera ($499). A culmination of all that's good about the latest generation of compact digi-cameras. The sensor in the N1 captures an incredible (for this size) 8-plus megapixels through a Carl Zeiss 3x-zoom lens. Most of the camera back is a 3-inch color monitor that offers touch-screen controls. This is good and bad: The menus are easy to see and the "buttons" easy to select, but the results are lots and lots of fingerprints.
The N1 isn't as thin as other models - notably, the Casios and some other Sonys - but the form factor keeps it pocketable.
Texas Hold 'Em TV Poker from Radio Shack ($29.97). Deal 'em - on the tube. The game cables into a TV set, and up to six players can draw cards, each using his own handset. Cards appear on the screen in large, easy-to-read images. And no more cheating, ostensibly. Batteries or an AC adaptor extra.
Panasonic plasma 42-inch TH-42PX50U ($2,999.95 list, discounts available). The arguments continue about which flat-screen television format - plasma, LCD, microdisplay - will emerge victorious. Until that's settled, the "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" maxim applies. Panasonic has long embraced the plasma technology, and its entry-level model, while it may skimp on fashion, is a terrific value. With a table stand, HDTV tuner and CableCARD slot built in, the set is simple to set up. Images display good skin tones and shadow detail, and color is accurate and balanced.
Panasonic SDR-S100 camcorder (about $1,199). Tapeless and tiny, the SDR-S100 weighs only about 8 ounces and records exclusively to SD flash memory cards. The included 2-gig card stores up to a half-hour of footage in high-quality mode. What's truly novel about this gear is that it uses a dedicated sensor for each primary color, rather than the three-in-one chip in most cameras. Lacking in manual controls, the Panasonic is mostly for the casual shooter who wants to impress friends.
iBeam optical timepiece, classic model (about $80). No relation to the i-you-know-what. Built into the watch's face is a quality 5x-magnifying lens that pops up at the touch of a button. Good for people who can't make out the small print on the dessert menu. Also hidden in the quartz watch is a bright button-operated LED light. More information at ibeamtime.com.