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New wearable gadgets are becoming more fashionable and functional. Gadgets hed: Cool stuff dek: new wearable gadgets are becoming more fashionable and functional. by Joe Rudich

Call them gadgets if you will, but to technology lovers these are not trivial toys–but they’re essential equipment. Perhaps not essential to sustaining life (though serious techies sometimes find food and shelter a bit overrated), but necessary for maintaining the bleeding edge.

Practical gadget users (possibly an oxymoron) try to justify their love of new technology as a sneak peek at the devices that will become common appliances in the future. But many gadgeteers admit that gadget success stories like the cell phone or PDA are rare exceptions; gadgetry is no better than a crystal ball.

In fact, the latest high-tech accessories are more personal than ever before. In keeping with the trend of diminishing size, most of the coolest technology now fits on your person, giving new meaning to the term “accessorizing” (think of Batman’s utility belt). So when you’re shopping–for yourself or a significant gadget-lover–remember that these are part of your uniform, not mere luxuries.

Some of these devices are already on store shelves, some are about to be, and some require a little more patience. But these are all things every techie will want to strap on their growing utility belts.

For your head

Wearable Internet Appliance

Hitachi

Price: not determined

Good news: If Hitachi’s Wearable Internet Appliance (WIA) works as well as its prototype, it will fulfill most of the dreams of the highly connected, and WIA could enter the vernacular just as PDA has.

The WIA is truly wearable because it consists of a processing unit (clipped to a belt or pocket), a handheld controller, and a “virtual screen” worn on the head, and viewable over one eye. Alone, it provides ultraportable, hands-free access to offline Web content. For true remote operation, the WIA will have a cellular modem port. With a compatible cell phone, the device could provide anywhere-access browsing at speeds up to 64Kbps. Even if WIA is a little late and no one can buy one before 2002, it will be one of the hottest gadgets around. Bad news: You can’t buy one yet. But WIA is not just a prototype of a far-off product concept; Hitachi maintains that the ultraportable device will be for sale in the United States by Christmas.

For your mind

Franklin eBookman EBM-911

Franklin Electronic Publishers

Price: $229

E-books are not really new. There are plenty of publishers, and Stephen King even wrote an electronic-only book. But they have gained market popularity so slowly that they are still (pardon the expression) novel. While there is widespread interest, and a sense of inevitability to the concept, a serious obstacle for e-books has been a fundamental uncertainty over the devices used to read text.

One camp feels that standard portable or handheld computers should be used, while others prefer a dedicated reader. Although many of the loudest advocates of dedicated e-book readers are actually trying to sell hardware, it is dangerous to dismiss them as misguided profit-seekers.

Most critics of e-books cite the unnatural interface of reading from a standard computer screen, so a dedicated system has a better chance of pleasing them. E-book readers have ranged widely in size and price, often growing bulky and expensive. Franklin’s offering, the eBookman, has both moderate size (only 7 ounces in the form of a Palm-type PDA) and cost (as little as $129 for the entry-level version). Also, Franklin has built some versatility into the eBookman with basic Personal Information Manager functions like contacts, task lists, a calculator, an MP3 player, and a voice memo recorder.

The eBookman’s outstanding design feature, however, is the way it embraces both electronic and audio books. Most audio-book listeners have wished that, while listening to a good book on the drive to work, they could then continue to read the same book on their lunch hour. But even with both a recorded and printed copy of the same text, it would be quite difficult to switch back and forth and find where they left off in each media format. The eBookman not only displays book text, it also can play books recorded in Audible format. In fact, it can switch from text to audio at any time, making it a truly versatile device-and the first e-book reader to add desirable functionality to its product. The top of the eBookman line, the EBM-911, includes a backlit display and 16MB of RAM, and can accept 64MB Multimedia cards for added memory.

For your hands

Super Mini Optical Mouse

Atek Electronics Inc.

Price: $49

Maybe size really does matter to gadget lovers–the smaller the better. Atek Electronics’ Super Mini Optical Mouse (they have to call it “Mini Mouse”) is a rather simple device no different in basic design than any optical mouse. It is small, though, and therefore visually appealing and maybe quite valuable. The Mini Mouse is designed to be used with a laptop computer, especially in tight quarters like an airplane. Because it plugs into a USB port, has a small area of movement, and a sensitive optical tracking mechanism, it can be deployed easily and used on the small area of a laptop’s palm rest.

Many people despise the touchpads, trakpoint sticks, or rollerballs built into their laptops, especially if they typically dock their laptop and use a standard mouse on a desktop. For those, the Mini Mouse can be a relief and possibly an ergonomic comfort.

For your pocket

Cyber Tool 34

Victorinox Knives

Price: $75

Everyone should carry a pocketknife, and if you work with computers, there is now a Swiss Army Knife to fit the bill. In addition to many of the classic Swiss Army gadgets, the Cyber Tool has a driver adapter, a set of bits (including Torx) that folds away, and a small pliers. There are three Cyber Tool models, but the middle of the line, the Cyber Tool 34, seems the best: The lesser model 29 subtracts the vitally-useful-in-an-emergency pliers, while the high-end model 41 gets pretty costly and overcrowded. The Cyber Tool 34 is a knife that can field-strip a laptop or file server in a pinch.

For your keychain

Q USB Hard Drive

Agaté Technologies, Inc.

Price: $69

What gadget review would be complete without the latest replacement-for-the-floppy-disk product? The problem remains-1.44MB floppy disks are ludicrously insufficient for transporting anything between computers. Yet a lowest common denominator is needed to be certain that data can move between any systems. No solution has yet won out, so the technologically aggressive have acquired collections of Superdisks, Zip drives, Clik disks, and the like.

Yet another option, Agaté Tech’s Q Drives are not disks–at least, not removable disks. If nothing else, the Q Drive is a very cool storage device: small, colorful, and about the size of a rabbit’s foot, but a removable hard drive. Q Drives are plug-and-play, so they should be recognized by most Windows and Mac systems when plugged into a USB port, where they can act as an added hard drive. The smallest holds 16MB (10 floppy disks, if you’re counting) and costs $69. But Agaté makes 32MB ($129) and 64MB ($199) models as well.

For your back

6651 Pen Tablet Computer

Intermec

Price: $1,599

Anyone who travels with a laptop computer dreams about losing weight–from their briefcase. A palmtop PDA can only do so much before it makes you wish for a full keyboard, and even the lightest laptops weigh in at four to five pounds when accessorized. A computer offering nearly the same functionality as a full laptop, but weighing only two pounds, should be a welcome replacement.

Intermec’s 6651 is not quite a full laptop, but it’s more than a big PDA. Running Windows for Handheld PC 2000 (the new Windows CE), it is a great way to boldly lighten one’s load. The 6651 has the Pocket Office suite of applications built in for basic productivity, but it becomes a powerful desktop computer replacement with its built-in V.90 modem and terminal services client. Attached to a terminal server, any desktop or network application can run on this device. It also has several innovative features, including a flip-around display and built-in digital camera.

The 6651’s screen and keyboard are its comfort points: It is light enough to carry to meetings as frequently as a PDA, but powerful enough to be the only computer you need on a longer trip.

For the rest of your body

Polar S-610

Polar USA

Price: $279

This device doesn’t quite fit in this lineup. It’s not that the Polar S-610 fitness computer isn’t technically impressive, or stylish, or genuinely useful. No, the problem with adding one of the best fitness computers to this lineup is that the target consumer–the übergeek–isn’t supposed to need any kind of exercise monitoring tool because he supposedly isn’t prone to exercise. However, the pure form of the pale-skinned technology guru is increasingly endangered; his territory is being taken over by a far more physically fit form of the breed, noted for an appetite for outdoor sports and even exercise.

The desire for physical optimization does not supercede the basic need for technological supremacy, thankfully. It’s all right to climb mountains, bicycle, or even jog–so long as you measure and analyze all possible data associated with the process. While there are any number of pedometers, heart rate monitors, and other fitness monitors, few actually deserve the title fitness computer. All may measure heart rate and distance walked, but few calculate calories burned, and fewer still estimate oxygen volume used. Still, these features–and even the fact that the S-610 is a surprisingly svelte and stylish watch (yes, it keeps time, too)–are not what put it on the short list for the fit and techno-savvy. What set Polar’s fitness monitor apart are its memory (enough to store five training log files) and its interface. Built into the S-610 is an infrared link that can be used to transfer exercise records to a PC for further analysis, or to upload data to the S-610. If you wonder what you would upload to a wearable fitness monitor, Polar’s PC software should give you some ideas: It can build custom exercise programs with target zones and goals, and even reminders to exercise, just in case those old übergeek habits come back.

For your dreams

Personal Satellite Assistant

NASA

Price: don’t ask

Surprise: It turns out that astronauts are gadget lovers, too. Coming soon to the International Space Station is a PSA–Personal Satellite Assistant–that will float through Alpha, eerily reminiscent of the spherical training droid Luke Skywalker battled in “Star Wars,” or Weebo from “Flubber.” Under development by NASA’s Ames Research Center, the PSA will assist with maintenance by acting as a communications link to ground controllers, other astronauts, and station systems. We hope the PSA will avoid R2-D2’s irritating beepspeak.

The technology wallet

Electronic wallet is a term that has been kicking around this industry for years, with varying meanings: Sometimes it is used for proposals to provide online cash-like transaction systems; in other cases it is applied to virtually any type of smart card. There is a special niche of the gadget-lusting set, however, that sees a wallet as a place to pack as much functionality as possible. Personally, nothing makes a gadget more appealing than the words credit card-sized. Here’s my outline for the Technology Wallet:

PDA: There actually is a super-compact information manager, the REX 6000, which can do at least 90 percent of the (productive) things people do with larger PDAs. It offers an address book, calendar, calculator, notepad, offline Web browser, and 2MB of RAM. REX can’t run a Gameboy simulator, but it can synchronize by plugging right into a PC Card slot. The REX was recently acquired by Xircom.

Camera: Now you can carry a digital camera all the time, thanks to Massachusetts-based SmaL Camera Technologies. Its resolution is only 640-by-480, but the camera costs $129 and includes a MultiMedia slot and 8MB card.

Toolkit: It isn’t always convenient to wear a multitool holster on your belt; in fact, it may give the wrong impression in certain job interviews. To fill this demand, there are a number of tool cards that can meet a lot of basic requirements. Victorinox, a Swiss Army knife company, makes one that is disappointing due to its flimsy tools. A better choice is ToolLogic’s Tool Lite Deluxe, which packs a decent knife, an LED flashlight (bright enough to read serial numbers on the back of a PC), and small flat-blade and Philips screwdrivers.

Wallet: It might seem like a bulging behemoth would be required to hold the above gadgets, let alone the additional credit cards, library cards, and money. Not necessarily. A money-clip style cardholder is a slimmer option for carrying your tools: The ideal package may be Storus Corp.’s Hip Clip, with expandable sides and a clip for cash.

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