The world is getting smaller -- and so, too, is consumer technology. The best tech toys this year are all about size, weight, and sleek design. Here's our wish list for the holidays.
Your HDTV moment. You watched the Olympics on your buddy's huge, color-rich plasma television, and it was good, very good. You visited again for the World Series. Lately, you've been dropping by for Simpsons reruns. (Mmmmm. Big screen.) The time has come. Picture quality for plasma screens has improved dramatically -- so before your friend changes his locks, get one of your own. You can do so without cashing in the kids' college fund, because Gateway and now Dell have entered the mix. Dell's new 42-inch screen, the W4200HD, lists at $3,499. The Super Bowl? Your friend can come to your place this time. (www.dell.com)
Cooler than iPod? It's a cigarette lighter! It's a padlock! No, it's the tony, ultratiny Network Walkman NW-MS90D from Sony. This Lilliputian device measures just 1 1/2-by-2-by-3/4 inches and weighs 1.9 ounces -- about one-third the weight of Apple's iPod. With just 512 MB of Flash memory, enough for 340 songs, it has nowhere near the iPod's capacity, of course. But you can add storage with Sony's "memory sticks." The sound is great. But it's the Walkman's looks that will draw stares from passersby. ($399.95, www.sonystyle.com)
Lights! Sound! Action! The Panasonic D-snap SV-AV50 is the Renaissance Man of consumer electronics -- an impressive updating of last year's SV-AS10. This version is a full-fledged video camera, recording MPEG4 at 30 frames per second. It also takes 2-megapixel still pictures, plays two hours of MP3 files (with a 64MB SD card), and records voice. (It will not vacuum your car or watch your children for the evening. Sorry.) Plus, the 2-inch, flip-and-twist screen is genius. Take this and stick it in your pocket. ($399.99, www.panasonic.com)
Let it snow! This is not your father's snowmobile. Well, right, your father never owned a snowmobile. But you want one, right? Yamaha has refitted its RX-1 vehicle with new titanium and magnesium components. The result: a sled that's 30 pounds lighter and built to fly. The RX-1 packs a 145-horsepower, four-stroke, four-cylinder engine -- probably more power than you'll need -- with superior handling. It's an impressive, easy-to-use technological package that also meets environmental standards for 2006. ($9,099, www.yamahamotor.com)
Cursory Starck. Apple was the first to figure out that computer stuff didn't have to be boring. Now the rest of the industry is coming around. The latest from Microsoft: an optical mouse designed by Philippe Starck, famed for the oh-so-cool Paramount Hotels. Starck is into simplicity, durability, and effectiveness. We've been testing the Starck mouse here at FC Labs. Simple? Yep. Durable? We've dropped it more than once, and it keeps on ticking. Effective? It's no better or worse than others of its ilk. (Why not wireless, we wonder?) But with its silver body and illuminated racing stripe down the center, it looks fantastic. Your computer simply must have one. ($34.95, www.microsoft.com)
OR, you could stop feeding the technology beast. Put that $399 toward, say, making the world a better place. Here are three worthy, innovative alternatives for your money and time.
Fund a field trip
Five years ago, while teaching high school in the South Bronx, Charles Best griped with colleagues about the lack of supplies and funding. It didn't take long for Best to come up with a solution: a Web site where teachers could post requests for donations for specific projects.
Since then, Best's DonorsChoose.org has matched donors with 4,000 projects worth $2.1 million for classrooms in New York, North Carolina, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Patrons can fund anything from SAT textbooks to a field trip to Yankee Stadium, where otherwise reluctant math students confront baseball calculus. "DonorsChoose enables teachers not just to go public with learning needs in classrooms but also to unleash their imaginations about the best ideas to help students learn," Best says. Donors get notes from the teacher (not about your grades, for once), and for gifts of over $100, from students too.
Imagine taking six months off work to volunteer with poor kids in a developing country. Building-Blocks (www.bblocks.org) can make it happen. A sort of Peace Corps for corporations, BuildingBlocks places professionals with community organizations in 48 countries for between six weeks and a year.
The volunteer assignments bring valued expertise to participating community groups and their clients. But BuildingBlocks founder Jennifer Anastasoff says they also "prepare 21st century leaders who can work across different sectors." Companies build their talent base, and volunteers learn new leadership skills.
BuildingBlocks is mostly looking for volunteers for the program; you can apply online. But Anastasoff won't turn down cash donations. A gift of $200, she says, is enough to assist the equivalent of 100 children for a year and to help ensure a community group's survival.
Send baseballs to Iraq
It all began with baseball. Sergeant Jay Smith, a Special Forces officer in Afghanistan, started a Little League team with money raised by his wife and community. He taught Afghan kids to play ball; in return, the locals helped protect the American base from Al Qaeda attacks.
When technology entrepreneur Jim Hake heard Smith's story, he knew it was what he had been searching for since September 11: a way to help. He started Spirit of America (www.spiritofamerica.net) to support projects sponsored by American military and civilians for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. As with DonorsChoose, givers select a project on the Web site, then click to donate cash or goods. Spirit of America has funded almost 25 projects, from soccer gear to TV equipment. "It's person-to-person interaction," Hake says, "a way to improve relations, change perceptions, and nudge countries and communities in the right direction."