One spin on 'simple': do-it-all devices

High-tech gadgets may be less important to you than your family or your finances. But many are designed with streamlining in mind. And that can mean more time for what matters most.

As it does every year, Las Vegas set out a smorgasbord of the hottest current and future technology at the Consumer Electronic Show this month.

Here are some showcased products that will be real in the next year - and that promise to make Americans' lives less hectic.

Wireless Web access devices - These gadgets promise to change the way we access information as much as the Internet already has. The Net has allowed anyone to publish information and anyone else to read it from a computer. The wireless revolution means people will be able to do both from anywhere. So far, there's been a lot of talk about surfing the Web from the beach or in the car using everything from cellular phones to pagers. But interest in doing so has been underwhelming. That's because there's not much to see. This year, more Web sites will cater to these devices by offering Web pages that aren't graphics intensive. This way you can access more data despite the relatively slow connections and small screens that come with these devices. More Web sites will also offer downloadable files, such as songs over MP3 and software for Palm electronic organizers.

Satellite TV -After years as a tool for remote farmers and a toy for TV junkies, satellite TV is going mainstream as a competitor to cable. That's because Congress passed the Satellite Home Viewer Act last year. The law requires TV broadcasters to provide local network TV signals to satellite broadcasters, so you don't have to have cable as well as satellite to receive clear local-station signals. Prices should be competitive with cable.

"Flash" memory cards - They promise to make electronics more versatile, useful, and simple. The cards also make data more portable and interchangeable between devices. For instance, you could record all your CDs onto one memory stick, carry it to your car and plug it into a car-stereo slot (when such stereos reach the market), and listen to them. Or you can hand your mother a card no larger than a stick of gum that contains all the photos of your family's latest vacation. She can then view them on a computer, or print them out - no film developing necessary. Panasonic's Secure Digital disk holds 64 megabytes of memory or 80 minutes of audio recording. A 256 MB version in the works will store video. Sony's memory stick holds 4 MB to 64 MB. Like a floppy disk, the tiny cards can save you the trouble of downloading files. With prices ranging from $30 to $180 per card, they're better suited to transferring data between PDAs, cell phones, and cameras, than as a replacement for floppy-disk storage.

Computer audio -Manufacturers such as Cambridge Soundworks and Bose have developed high-quality speaker systems to connect to your PC. It's the beginning of the fusion of the PC with other home electronics, starting with the living room stereo. Rather than own a CD player, you can just play your CDs on the computer. You can download songs off the Internet in this year's new hot computer audio format, MP3, and avoid buying compact discs altogether. And you no longer face the Hobson's choice of wearing headphones or putting up with tinny sound from the small computer speakers. Special software can also let you manipulate the music in ways home stereos never have. You can expect more dedicated audio equipment designed to work with PCs, such as CD changers and graphic equalizers.

Digital TV -The other front in PC fusion. Once televisions and computers speak the same digital language, TVs may become as interactive as computers. Viewers will be able to receive a variety of information such as stock tickers or news headlines at the same time they're watching a show. They can purchase goods online directly from TV ads. And they can choose how they want to view a show -what camera angle gives the best view of a football play, for instance. With a remote keyboard, viewers can call up more information related to what's on TV. Digital TV allows broadcasters to carry so much more data that the TV can become a virtual computer network. Homeowners could connect their TVs to home-security systems, lights, thermostats, and other home controls. For now, the picture quality alone is luring consumers. As with all electronics, prices are coming down dramatically. A fully functional set now costs less than $3,000.

Personal video recorders -The next wave in controlling what you watch. Personal video recorders, which go by the brand names TiVo and Replay, use giant hard drives to record TV shows. They work like a VCR, but come with some big advantages: no tapes, no rewinding, and they can play while they record. Say you're watching your favorite show and the phone rings. These players will pause the programming while you answer the phone, record what you missed, then begin playing again where you left off when you return. They will also prerecord any shows you select. TiVo offers a subscription service that keeps track of what you watch and suggests similar programs it thinks you'll enjoy. TiVo also plans a player that will include satellite TV decoders, so you don't have too many boxes collecting on top of your TV. Expect these players to integrate with more cable TV and Internet boxes soon.

Networked homes -The day when home appliances can communicate with each other is here. With a home network, homeowners can dial into their homes remotely to turn on the TV, and appliances like the microwave or toaster. Microsoft demonstrated a home here which had several digital devices in every room that all interconnected. The refrigerator, for instance, kept track of depleted groceries and added them to an electronic list in an portable computer. Panasonic displayed a microwave that could download and display recipes off the Internet. Both of those appliances are still under development. For now, AT&T, IBM, and 3Com, all sell cabling that will connect your appliances. But it's too expensive to install anywhere but in new homes. Apple and several smaller companies are selling wireless connectors that plug into phone jacks that could enable some networking in older homes. But the technology isn't reliable yet, and such wireless networks are not secure from computer hackers.

Smart and Internet-enabled cars -General Motors, Ford, and Mercedes all have systems that can connect your car to a computer network. They can, for example, automatically summon help in an accident, pinpoint the car's location, or even connect travelers with an operator with access to the Internet. Ford's partsmaking subsidiary, Visteon, also showed a system that combines global-positioning-satellite navigation with Internet access, e-mail, and a hands-free cellular phone that can be installed in most cars. These features all speak and respond to voice commands to keep the drivers' eyes on the road.

Digital-audio radio -Think cable TV for radio, but with no wires, and you're pretty close. Two competing services, XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Radio plan to launch their subscription services early next year. Subscribers can get better reception, but more important, many new channels that cater to all kinds of listeners, from all-NASCAR radio to 10 kinds of Latin music. Each service carries 100 channels and comes bundled into a regular AM/FM receiver. Both companies are signing up competing automakers to carry their radio tuners, or drivers can install aftermarket receivers. Subscriptions will cost $10 a month.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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