It may be hyped, and something of a status symbol, but for anyone with a genuine use for an Apple iPod (from pound;249) it's tremendously handy - your own, personal jukebox and a mini-vault for music and personal information (diary and address book).
Now new products are appearing to give the third-generation iPod even more functions. The Belkin microphone (Voice Recorder, pound;29), one of the first, clips straight into the iPod headset socket to convert it into a voice-memo and note-taker. On connection, the recordsave menu appears on the iPod screen. When you subsequently connect the iPod to your computer the sound files go straight into iTunes for playback.
It works OK but the recording quality could be improved, which was the cue for Griffin to enter the market with its iTalk (around pound;30) which has better sound quality than the Belkin and also allows you to listen to recordings and playback through its headphone socket (like the Belkin it has a mini-speaker for playback).
Both these products are mono so the onus is now on Apple to make the iPod stereo-capable (Belkin has issued a Universal Microphone Adapter, minus mic and speaker, but with headphone socket) to allow use of higher-quality mics.
Finally, the Belkin Media Reader (around pound;80 online) opens up the iPod for use as a mobile storage device for anyone who needs a "digital dump" for pictures or other media files created on the move. This simple white plastic box, powered by four AAA batteries, allows images from CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Digital Secure (SD), MultimediaCard and Memory Sticks to be saved on to the iPod, a great way to travel light with a digital camera.
MP3 players like the iPod have led many computer owners to use their home PCs as music centres - all you need is connection to reasonable amplification. Now Microsoft is taking that concept further with the Media Center PC, bringing in television, cable TV and radio - serious media integration. The Elonex eXentia Advanced (pound;1,275 ex VAT) is an excellent first attempt. It looks like a cool, small flat-screen TV. While its multimedia PC credentials are exemplary, and its sound quality superb, it unfortunately doesn't approach anywhere near the consumer ease of use of TV and cable. The tune-in procedure started off relatively straightforwardly, but ultimately wasn't able to provide a decent TV picture from a perfectly good signal, and was not compatible with commonly used cable equipment from Telewest.
However, in the hands of a good ICT technician, who knows? Some schools and colleges are already tempted. But for the average home user? Not quite yet - but it's looking really promising.
There's not a lot to say about Canon's new MV700 range of digital camcorders except better and cheaper. The MV700i used by Online was almost identical to the previous model except quality was up and price down. The 18x zoom lens is remarkable. Even more surprising is that the MV700i is available online for less than pound;350.
Anyone who has to scan documents needs to know about the Fuji ScanSnap scanner (around pound;350). It looks just like a compact inkjet printer and takes up very little desktop space. No loading one sheet at a time as with most flatbed scanners. Just stack your paper in the 50-page in-tray and it will quickly work its way through, scanning both sides (in colour or black-and-white) and saving them as Adobe PDF files, ready to be used on any network or the internet (also easy for emailing). A feature that might not be so useful in schools but was much appreciated at Online is the facility to scan and archive business cards in CardMinder (compatible with Outlook and other contacts software).