Santa Claus could deliver a digital difference

10th November 2000 at 00:00
It doesn't have to be socks, bath salts and after shave this Christmas. Roger Frost looks at those Christmas gadgets that will raise a real smile.

Having a splurge for Chrtistmas is now so easy. Think of something you already have - video, sounds, diary and camera - make it digital and there's a wide open channel for fun, creativity, and money. More than looking for great presents, or even gratifying the self, it's worth a trip to the shops to see how much of that magic could be part of tomorrow's school.

If you enjoy making video, the gizmo of the year is the Logitech Quickcam Web video camera. Kept handy in class, they abound with uses - like taking pictures of children's work or filming them giving a presentation. But that's just the start, as it also lets you feed a live, updating picture to the Internet. Known as a webcam, it's the slickest computer trick and lets the world see what's happening in assembly or the classroom.

The Quickcam software can kick in to broadcast a picture whenever you're online and whenever you choose. For a taster go to Spotlife (www.spotlife) and if you already have a Quickcam simply download the new software from the Web ( The software offers time-lapse photography that can catch a flower opening in the sun or make a lump of modelling clay do a dance using stop-start animation. At around pound;75 it's good value for a quality product.

Electronic organisers too became more intriguing this year with the arrival of a new rival to the market leader, Palm Pilot. The Handspring Visor is a neat diary and address book with capabilities way beyond that (pound;99 to pound;200). You can add modules that turn it into a camera, music player, and amusingly, a TV remote control. That aside, over time it becomes quick and efficient to use, while its funky looks set it aside from much else. Late next year, its vestigial microphone will be put to use by a mobile phone module. This pocket diary seems set to become a phone with which you might talk, surf, pick up mail and really start to fly. It's worth weighing up beside the youthful Palm m100 in 3Com's Palm range, if only for comparison (around pound;100). It's all very functional, practical stuff and, for more money, Palm offers a range of sleek executive looking equivalents.

For something that allows you to type, see the Series 7, Psion's best ever organiser now turned into a mini-notebook. Designed for people who live life on the move, its colour screen, instant save and instan-on feature make it a real beauty. Like other diaries with an infra-red beamer, it teams up with WAP phones for Internet access, email and yet more flying. At pound;550, it's a tasty bit of gear.

With digital cameras, about pound;200 now buys a good one, while pound;500 gets close enough to the top end. Advice in a nutshell is to stick to brand names like Canon, Sony, Epson and Kodak for ease of use and compatibility. Insist on a flash unit, a portable size and high-power Metal Hydride rechargeable batteries.

If there's any change from the budget, it's worth noting that this year's printers really do generate great photo quality prints. If you don't necessarily save money on developing, there's fun to be had with photo collages, personalised cards and the instant result. For starters see Epson's Photo Stylus 870 DC and Hewlett Packard's Photosmart P1100 which print pictures directly from most cameras (about pound;275).

For less money still, there's a new breed of mouse to savour. Logitech's MiniWheel Mouse (pound;19.99) is a cute one - its size and USB connection to the computer make it a convenient partner for a laptop computer or for a small child. For regular use the Wheel Mouse Optical (pound;29.99) dispenses with the mouse ball and cloggy mouse mechanisms by using a more reliable optical system with no moving parts. This too could be standard school issue some day (Microsoft and Apple make them too). A new Ifeel Mouse introduces the uncanny idea of a feedback mouse where you can "feel" the menus, buttons, and links on a Web page. Move the pointer across the screen and motors inside the mouse buzz to make desktop features almost solid. It will do this for your word processor as well as for games where it adds a neat measure of interest through feedback.

The Logitech Cordless Desktop is also superb for meetings and presentations while an untethered keyboard is another idea for tomorrows classroom machines.

And so to digital music. Gizmos that let you carry music on the smallest of devices continue to proliferate: for the last year there have been MP3 players that stored their music on a chip, but new for Xmas is Iomega's HipZip Digital Audio Player (pound;289.99). No longer limited by memory, it stores 40 minutes of music on miniature discs, (pound;8 per disc for a pack of 10) - that is the way to do it.

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