Be it an energy-regulating assistant, a music maker, the conduit to the information highway, a keeper of memories or even a youngster's pet, the many manifestations of technology continue to evolve and reach deeper into our lifestyles. In the spirit of the season, here are some of the latest and greatest items sure to boost the pulses of technophiles and even excite the guy who still can't program a VCR.
What is it? A robotic pal requiring eight AA batteries and three AAA batteries
Gift group: Children, 8 years old and older, who love mechanized men
Santa's scoop: Billed as a "fusion of technology and personality," WowWee Group Ltd.'s latest creation delivers the depth of an interactive experience R2-D2 would admire. Standing 15 inches tall in red-and-black armor with LED eyes and mouth and moving eyebrows, the talkative companion will be a welcome member of the family. Four motors, three infrared receivers and a tripedal wheel-motion design bring him to life with help from an easy-to-master, tilt-sensitive remote control. His features include an alarm, guard program (with up to 60 commands) and free-roam mode; the ability to navigate around objects; three driving-based games (minefield is a favorite); and a homing function that has the fellow follow the remote. Elfin testers found him fascinating, but the tone of his voice as well the abundance of his yapping made him a bit annoying.
LAZER TAG: MULTIPLAYER BATTLE SYSTEM
What is it? A complete two-person laser-tag game requiring 12 AA batteries
Gift group: Paintballers tired of stains on their clothes and pea-size welts all over their bodies
Santa's scoop: PlayStation 3 experience, but the action includes single, tournament and target-practice modes along with four virtual weapons to unlock.
What is it? An electronic list-making assistant requiring four AA batteries.
Gift group: Multitasking family members
Santa's scoop:About the size of Dr. McCoy's tricorder, Pepsi) and create a running directory (the system can even flag an item that has a coupon). Once the list is compiled, it can be printed out already organized into categories such as "errands" or "dairy." The Smartshopper comes with more than 2,500 preprogrammed items in its database with menu-driven options to add more easily. One item owners definitely will want to add is Smartshopper paper rolls - only three are included with the unit (three-roll packs are $7.99).
HD MINI STICK
What is it? An ultracompact high-definition tuner for Mac computer (Dual Power PC G5 or Intel with 10.4 system or better) owners
Gift group: Hard-core television addicts
Santa's scoop:TitanTV.com, the electronic programming guide. During a test of the device, the compact antenna picked up 22 stations, half of which were HD, within minutes.
What is it? A power monitor requiring four AA batteries
Gift group: Homeowners who feel helpless when it comes to escalating energy costs
Santa's scoop: Black and Decker Corp. empowers consumers to fight their home's mysterious money-sucking uses of electricity with a two-piece system. It not only monitors consumption, but also offers a detailed, running tab of costs in real time. An installation process of about 30 minutes is first required to align the weatherproof, wireless sensor with a homeowner's electric meter. Next, a hand-held indoor monitor with an LCD screen syncs with the sensor, and the stats start appearing. The unit measures such numbers as cost per hour and kilowatts consumed every 30 seconds, gives monthly estimates and even a way to watch the cost of a single appliance. The most difficult part is calculating the absolute kilowatt price paid from a supplier's bill to enter into the monitor, although the manual does a good job of explaining how to do it. A graphing option would have been nice, but the system is a great way to measure a big part of one's energy footprint.
What is it? A Blu-ray player
Gift group: Media connoisseurs demanding instant viewing gratification and the highest resolution of their favorite archived titles
Santa's scoop: Netflix subscribers (a stable broadband Ethernet connection is required, and resolution varies from VHS to standard DVD quality). Other features include a 24-frames-per-second output CinemaMode, 1080p upscaling of DVD titles, BD Live Network Interactivity, and a USB port to connect an external storage device and play back photos, music and video files. This decently valued (some stores already have dropped the price to $349), stylish package should give consumers a compelling reason to jump on the Blu-ray bandwagon.
What is it? A high-speed digital SLR camera.
Gift group: Amateur sports photographers and videographers in need of speed to capture those unforgettable athletic memories
Santa's scoop: The jewel of Casio Computer Co. Ltd.'s line of Casio Exilims has dual use as a 6-megapixel still-image camera and a 1920-by-1080-pixel, high-definition recorder. Its greatest feature is a high-speed burst mode capable of not only continuously shooting 60 images per second, but also a whopping 1,200 frames per second in the movie mode (slow motion analysis at its finest). Features include a 12x optical zoom, a 2.8-inch wide TFT color screen, self-timer, anti-shake system, "best shot" shooting options (pick a picture that most resembles a listed shooting situation), built-in flash, internal microphone and port for connecting an external mic, and an HDMI port (cable not included). Casio also tosses in a strap, lens cap, remote shutter release and lithium-ion battery with charger.
What is it? An all-in-one network player requiring a wireless or Ethernet cabled broadband connection
Gift group: Music, news and sports connoisseurs looking for the ultimate digital radio conduit.
Santa's scoop: Not shaped like an accordion, but a sturdy black wedge about the size of a loaf of bread, Logitech International S.A.'s latest marvel delivers high-fidelity, 24-bit Burr-Brown DAC manipulated sound loudly pumped through a boom-box speaker design. Owners will be streaming in minutes after setting up an account on the SqueezeNetwork and using the unit's screen and controls. Its applications tap into thousands of free Internet stations; online music warehouses such as Pandora, LastFM, Sirius and Rhapsody (subscription fees may apply); or owners can just as easily stream music files downloaded on their computer (DRM-protected content will not work). Best-served when used with a home's Wi-Fi Internet router, the unit becomes a mobile jukebox only tethered by the strength of the wireless connection. By the way, it also works as a clock and alarm (the owner can wake up to different programming every day).
NASCAR DIGITAL 132
What is it? A digital slot-car racing set
Gift group: Fans of legends such as Richard Petty who want to want a more traditional way to compete as their heroes
Santa's scoop: Chevy Impala. The digital edge comes in the ability to race up to six cars between the two slots at full speed with real-time acceleration, braking, drifting and lane-crossing takeovers using the tethered controllers. Must-buy add-ons to the core set include wireless controllers ($98.99 with a 10-foot range and a receiver tower shaped like an oil container), a pit-stop track piece ($12.99), and electronic lap counter ($59.99).
What is it? An affordable notebook PC optimized for entertainment lovers
Price: about $880
Gift group: Mobile multitaskers who enjoy movies and gaming
Santa's scoop: Vista Home Premium with Media Center operating system.
1GB MP3 PLAYER
What is it? An incredibly affordable, portable jukebox compatible with Windows XP and Vista operating systems
Gift group: Music lovers who want a simple, painless way to listen to their favorite tunes
Santa's scoop: The size of a flattened big toe, eMusic (www.emusic.com/spimusic). The upload process is drag-and-drop painless, requiring no software. Considering the price and the color choices (metallic green and red are available), a gift-giver might just want to preload one of these with a bunch of songs for a personalized present. The unit includes a USB cable and pair of earbuds.