- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Not that you’d care, necessarily, but I struggled with what to write about this week. Next Wednesday, I’ll have some last-minute gift ideas, but today I wanted to present the top gift of 2008. What should it be?

There are many good gifts: HDTV sets, notebook computers, nice cameras, nifty movie or music players. But what about something that encompasses all of these things and then some?

It finally hit me: Quite possibly the perfect gift of the season, for many of us at least, is Apple Inc.’s 3G iPhone, which comes in an 8 gigabyte model for $199 or a 16 GB model for $299. (If you want to be wise, fork over the extra Benjy. Trust me on this.)

Not only is the iPhone about half the cost it was a year ago, with much more capacity, but the 3G model, released during the summer, is a bit smaller, lighter and just nicer than its ancestor. Who knows what they’ll come up with next year - and no one’s telling me anything - but for now, the iPhone remains the ne plus ultra of hand-held devices.

I’m living a fair portion of my day on this device. In the morning, I can scan my e-mail on waking. (The iPhone is plugged into a Sony clock-radio-iPod-player at my bedside.) When traveling, I can listen to a podcast while shaving. I’ve read and replied to e-mails while flights are parked on the runway, as well as from all over the United States and even the Philippines. Simply put, the iPhone functions as a good telecommunications device should, and it does so just about anywhere on Earth.

The value is not just function, it’s also style: Instead of making me fumble with little keys, the iPhone keyboard is “virtual” and on-screen when you need it, hidden when you don’t. While the native e-mail application doesn’t “rotate” into a wide view, the Safari Web browser does do this, as does the picture viewer and the native iPod application when I’m viewing albums or videos.

It’s this kind of flexibility, I think, that elevates the iPhone from a mere mobile device into a different realm. It really has become a micro portable that can handle many daily tasks with ease. This isn’t the platform you want to crunch spreadsheets on, nor is it the ideal way to compose the great American novel, but for quick messaging or even for word processing in a pinch, it’ll do quite nicely.

There’s still more depth to the iPhone, however, and this, too, is responsible for my overall admiration. There’s frankly no peer for the iPhone/iPod platform as a music and media player, even if the Microsoft Zune is making a very good effort in the space. There are just more kinds of media available on iTunes, including those ever-lovin’ podcasts, and it’s just a wonderful system. Sit on a long flight, switch to “airplane mode” and enjoy - you’ll see what I mean.

(To power the device during that flight, check out the Mophie Juice Pack, a $99.95 add-on from www.mophie.com. It not only adds up to six hours of 3G talk or Internet time, up to eight hours of video playback and as much as 28 hours of music play, but it also helps protect the device.)

There’s still more - the independent applications available for the iPhone, from a virtual Zippo lighter to the text of the Bible to just about anything your heart might desire. There are ways to track your finances, learn anatomy, find restaurants and so on. Some apps are good, some could stand improvement, but there’s no doubt that the amount of creativity unleashed by the iPhone’s arrival has been stunning.

It’s not that there haven’t been applications on hand-held devices before; it’s just that, again, these apps look a bit more elegant and function in a more fun manner than some others I’ve seen. That’s perhaps the element of the iPhone I appreciate most: Using it isn’t burdensome.

If “the incredible lightness of using” isn’t a top quality in a great gift, I’m not sure what is. Apple wins the gift of the year category, at least in this writer’s view.

• E-mail Mark Kellner.

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