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Bedazzled by gadget lust

On a clear day at COMDEX, you can see forever.

There are certain moments in life that are so joyous, so worthy of celebration, that you find yourself stunned for an instant, unable to feel much except a fluttering heart and a deep sense of awe. Such is the first step into the exhibit hall at the fall COMDEX conference.

Although the number of exhibitors and products can prove overwhelming, a closer look at the tables of silver-coated, flashing objects reveals that there really is something for everyone, from the gadget hunter to the futurist. Depending on whether you want the smallest portable hard drive for transporting business documents or see a phone that doubles as a camcorder, COMDEX is here for you. Here’s a sampling of what’s being showcased on the exhibit floor.

For the gadget crazed

Although some unfortunate souls tend to look befuddled when confronted with an array of jingling, multi-featured technological wonders, there are others who aren’t happy unless they fill every pocket of their bags and jackets with gadgets. At COMDEX, no one looks askance at someone who taps at a PDA while jabbering on a cell phone and listening to an MP3 player. For those who consider such a situation to be normal, COMDEX feels like coming home.

Toshiba Pocket PC e740

Price: $599

Now that Starbucks and Amtrak have realized that providing free wireless access will make them into real hot spots, the move toward Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs should prove to be swift. Leading the pack is Toshiba, which decided to take its nice, dependable e310 and juice it up with wireless connectivity.

The result is a Pocket PC loaded with Microsoft Windows, built-in security, expansion slots, and GPS capabilities. Because it uses integrated Wi-Fi wireless LAN connectivity, it allows you to perform the usual tricks like checking e-mail and surfing the Web, but it also boasts additional abilities, like projecting slides from PowerPoint, and giving that presentation a bit more dash by playing MP3 tunes in the background.

If only Toshiba can stuff the next batch of PocketPCs with a camcorder, universal remote ability, and cell phone capability, we’ll have it all. Until that moment, when you risk losing your entire digitized life by leaving it on the bus, we’ll just have to settle for having this much power in one’s palm.

Nokia 3650 imaging phone

Price: Not yet available

Starting in early 2003, the simple cell phone, on which you can make a mere phone call and nothing more, will be replaced by more overachieving telephonic gadgets. No longer will tiny button size and a mini-Hello Kitty dangling doll be the standard by which to judge coolness. Soon, if you can’t surf, dial, and make a short film while chatting with someone, you just won’t be part of the revolution, friend.

Toward this goal comes the Nokia 3650, a standard-sized mobile phone that looks remarkably like a TV remote control, albeit an incredibly hip one. Besides having a high operating frequency for the times you need to use it to actually make a call, the 3650 also features a camcorder with playback, multimedia messaging, and the ability to download Java and Symbian applications. It’s Bluetooth-enabled with infrared connectivity as well, for those moments when you’ve finished making a video on your phone and want to e-mail it to your buddies or your producer.

Because of its download capabilities, you can install certain handy software applications like a calendar, dictionary, or maps. All this, along with the icon-based navigation, 4096-color screen and glitzy metallic covers should have cell phone users finding a new place to clip their Hello Kitties.

For the feature hungry

A multitude of gadgets may be fine for the tech junkie who wants it all, but what about the person who prefers consolidation over abundance? For those who like their products to take on functions that were formerly the domain of four or five separate devices, COMDEX offers a bracing glimpse of technological incorporation.

Bantam BA1000 MP3 player

Price: $299 for 2GB, $329 for 5GB

Music file-swapping sites increasingly are getting annihilated by federal judges, but not every service will become a “ded kitty” like Napster. Although online subscription music sites have been slow to take hold, they are gaining a foothold with a small audience, and the breadth of software available to turn CDs into MP3 collections proves that digital music is here to stay.

That there’s an ever-increasing audience for MP3s is good news for device developers, who are rushing to bring out the spiffiest, lightest, most memory-packed models. This leaves consumers faced with that sweetest of all decisions: Which player to choose?

In the prizefight of MP3 player manufacturers, Bantam has been, well, a bantamweight. Its devices have been reasonably priced and dependable, but not overly surprising. Until now. The BA1000 constitutes a big step up for the little maker, since it’s packed with non-music features like a portable hard drive for transferring data files of any type, and a voice recorder. And the MP3 side of it happens to be pretty nice, too, with direct stereo line-in recording for cassettes or LPs, meaning no computer go-between is required. At 5GB, it doesn’t have the memory of some players, like the 20GB iPod, but its unique features give it extra credit in a crowded class.

Hewlett Packard Media Center PC

Price: $1,500 (estimated: product not yet available)

After a long workday, how often have you just wanted to order a pizza, grab a beer, and put your feet up on the desk to watch your computer? If the answer is something like, “every night!” then this is your lucky year.

HP has embarked on an ambitious mission: to make the PC a replacement, rather than a supplement, to the home entertainment center. They didn’t have far to go, after all, with the kind of hardware and software currently being used to make PCs into home theaters, photo albums, TVs, and stereos. HP just threw everything into one computer to save users the trouble of integrating it all themselves.

The Media Center PC allows you to watch and record TV and well as create and edit videos, photos, music, or data on DVD or CD. It uses the new Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition software, designed to streamline and speed up media manipulation. Using the software also ensures no compatibility problems or interoperability issues with different devices. It even has a remote control, so you won’t get pizza sauce all over the keyboard.

For the practical-minded

Despite its profusion of blinking lights and sleek products, COMDEX is not just for the gadget-crazed technophile, zipping down the aisles with a robotic dog under one arm and a PDA in hand. Many of the offerings are geared toward the average Joe and Jane who’d like a new firewall or a better way to store information.

Trek ThumbDrive

Price: $39

Trek has devised the smallest portable USB-powered drive on the market, which comes in four levels of memory power to suit an individual’s needs. It’s also strikingly adorable.

The diminutive drive is true to its name by being about the size of a thumb, and it comes with a small ring on its cover for clipping onto a key ring. It’s a simple little product, but remarkably handy, since it fits onto the USB plug on most keyboards or other devices, and doesn’t require drivers for installation. It’s a simple matter of plug-and-store, as long as you can find your keys.

Samsung DVD-P721M

Price: $250

Perhaps you aren’t so keen on having one device that stuffs together features, leaving you breathless as you scan the fat instruction manual. Instead, maybe you’d like something that just has one or two features and does them well. Why not put all that fondness for simplicity into a product worthy of your love, like a DVD player?

Samsung’s progressive-scan player allows DVDs to be played more smoothly, but it also boasts a quirky added bonus: a way to view digital photos and play MP3s from the comfort of your remote control. Just record media onto the player’s portable Memory Stick and plug it into the special port, and you’ll be able to see thumbnails of your digital photos on the TV screen, run a slide show, rotate images, and even filter the pictures with different effects. The player navigates MP3s like a standard palm-sized device, by tagging songs and displaying them in an onscreen menu.

There’s a second remote control with fewer buttons and options, for those who crave even more basic functions, and just want to play a DVD without fear of hitting a button that could wipe out the video of Baby’s first steps.

For the futurist

Then there are those who love the buttons and the remotes, who crave change like it’s candy, and who won’t be satisfied until everything is miniaturized, digitized, and synthesized. For some, “The Jetsons” isn’t a cartoon, it’s a blueprint for the future. COMDEX is for these people as well, satisfying their need to look at a completely outlandish product and say, “It looks so cool…what does it do?”

Olympus FMD-250W Eye-Trek

Price: $699

You’ll be able to spot futurists immediately on the exhibit floor, because they’ll be the ones strapping devices onto their heads. One that’s sure to please is the Olumpus Eye-Trek, a gadget that fits like a pair of glasses over the eyes and allows the user to watch movies, TV, games, or home movies. The image simulates a 62-inch screen from 6 1/2 feet away, and has built-in headphones that provide stereo sound to accompany the visuals.

Where virtual reality headsets in the past were clunky and heavy, causing a gamer to use one hand just to hold the device in place, the Eye-Trek is lightweight and small enough to stash in a carry-on. If, like Judy Jetson, the idea of complete sensory overload is something you find exciting rather than terrifying, welcome to your new way of watching movies.

Antelope Technologies Mobile Computer Core

Price: Not yet available

For years, gadget junkies have been awaiting the headset computer screen, taunted by a commercial in which a young businessman shouts buy and sell orders in an Italian square crowded with pigeons. Although the day hasn’t yet come when people do things this annoying in person, it’s definitely in the works.

Xybernaut is the leader in developing this technology, but it appears that Antelope Technologies could be the tortoise that beats the hare by getting a device into production. Currently under license from IBM, and being manufactured for the industrial and military markets, the Mobile Computer Core isn’t far from coming to a public square near you.

Basically, the computer is a small black box that weighs about 9 ounces and can fit in a very roomy pocket. It can be used like any regular PC by being connected to a monitor, keyboard, and power source. Or, you can go techno by attaching a wearable computing device that fits around the head and displays the screen to one eye. Try not to scare the pigeons.

With delectable items like these, the hall at COMDEX is a gadget junkie’s dream. Cords wend their way beneath tables that are piled with so many shiny objects it leaves the exhibit-goer dizzy with overstimulation. During those first moments at the conference, when each aisle is unexplored and the MP3 players sound out a siren’s call, don’t compare to those staggering life events like a child’s birth or your own wedding. But for gadgetphiles, it can come pretty close.

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