Backpacks appeal to the tech-savvy set

Forget wheels and handles - the newest varieties have built-in Bluetooth and iPod controls, and even solar panels.

Now that my kids are back in school, one of my daily tasks is checking their backpacks to ensure all proper schoolbooks and lunches have been loaded.

The backpacks my kids use are almost identical to the ones I used in college 20 years ago, but with two important improvements: wheels on the bottom and a pull-up handle. One would think that these technological advances would be enough to keep most kids happy.

Of course, that's not the case. Our world is an increasingly high-tech one, where a student's most important tools are not protractor and pencil, but iPod and cellphone. It's only a natural progression, I suppose, when the most common item in a college student's backpack is a laptop computer. Realizing this, backpackmakers are turning out new models that might be quite comfortable on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.

I became intrigued by the packs last month after reading a Washington Post article that described a variety of new packs, including one that was solar- powered. Yikes!

Michael Gartenberg, research director and vice president of Jupiter Research in New York, says we're going to see more of this mix of "form and function."

"As technology becomes more a part of the mainstream, you're going to be dealing with a lot of people who care about things like appearance," he says. "Tech enthusiasts don't care a bit. But the average person cares as much, if not more, about aesthetics than about functionality. It's just going to become more and more integrated into our lives."

After some research, I tried out a new-fangled pack: the JanSport "Dreamer." JanSport makes a lot of backpacks, and while I've never owned one (I've always been an L.L.Bean guy), its bags are everywhere. I counted 11 of them in my oldest daughter's fourth-grade class. Many come with hip names. My personal favorite is the "Elefunk."

The Dreamer is part of a new product line called LiveWire. Others in the line include the Maffia, the Mullet, the Kingpin, and the Trinity.

You'll need a few AAA batteries to make the Dreamer fully functional (too bad it doesn't have that solar-power option). On the right side are controls for an iPod, which can be slipped into a convenient pouch and connected.

On the left side are Bluetooth-enabled cellphone features. If you're bopping along (do kids still bop?) listening to your iPod, and your cellphone rings (it also can be stashed in the backpack), the music automatically pauses while you push another button on the left side to answer. To talk, you have to turn your head so the microphone built into the left strap picks up your voice – which could look a bit odd. Once you hang up, the music starts again.

My kids thought the pack was cool, but they don't own iPods or cellphones. So I got a second opinion from our neighbor's high school\-age daughter, who does. She also liked it, but when I told her that the price ranged from $179-$249, she replied that she would pass on buying one. Price may be the biggest drawback. But maybe not for long. Mr. Gartenberg sees prices for items like the Dreamer falling sooner rather than later, as new tech tools are integrated faster. He points to the Motorola Razr, the stylish mobile phone: "When it first appeared, it cost $800," he notes. "Now, a short time later, you can get it for $80, and under some plans you can even get it for free."

For now, JanSport LiveWire backpacks are a lifestyle purchase. Only those who truly value the coolness factor would cobble up the money – or persuade their parents – to buy one.

If the Dreamer sold for about $50, I would snap it up. Until then, my kids will stick with their backpacks on wheels.

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