Summer Gadget Guide

Wherein we offer sage counsel on nine of the most pressing consumer technology questions of our time...

Q: Treo or BlackBerry?

A: That depends. But really, the BlackBerry.

In truth, it's getting hard to tell these two apart. The latest models, the Treo 650 and the BlackBerry 7290, sport similar blue-gray-on-silver color schemes. And both offer, at their core, wireless email, phone, and Internet access. Deciding on one comes down to what you're planning to use it for.

That said, the BlackBerry ($349.99 with T-Mobile service, www.blackberry.com) does email better, hands down. Its keypad feels softer to the touch than those of earlier models, and at a half-inch wider than the Treo, it's much easier on the fingers. The Treo's ($449.99 with Sprint PCS, www.palmone.com) raised buttons are easier to push than they look — but when your thumb can cover nearly a third of the keys, it feels like you're typing on faith.

What's more, the BlackBerry's scroll wheel is terrific — easily the most useful feature on either device. It makes navigating through applications intuitive and effortless. While the Treo's stylus isn't always necessary, using it gets bothersome when you're trying to hold it between your fingers while typing on that tiny keypad.

The newest BlackBerry adds a two-level backlight that makes the screen sharper and the keys a lot easier to see than in previous versions. But it's still no match for Treo's bright, crisp display, a clear winner for viewing Web pages and documents. (The Treo tries to take advantage of its great display with a camera that records both video and still images. The resolution, though, is nothing to write home about.)

Both devices offer decent phone reception, but the ergonomics aren't ideal. The BlackBerry, with its larger footprint, feels awkward to hold against your face, and the Treo, at 6.3 ounces, gets pretty heavy when you're trapped on a long call. Better to use the Bluetooth connections and a pair of headphones.

— Michael A. Prospero

Q: How do I connect my iPod wirelessly to my home stereo or car radio?

A: Go FM.

Apple's iPod goes anywhere — but sometimes you want to play music files for all to hear using your existing tuner and speakers. You can do that with auxiliary jacks and cassette adapters, but that adds wires and bulk. If you're willing to compromise a bit on sound quality, there's a better way: Connect via FM transmitter.

I liked the $39.95 XtremeMac AirPlay (www.xtrememac.com), which sounded better than either Belkin's TuneCast II or Griffin's iTrip. It also was a snap to set up: Just plug the tiny unit into your iPod's headphone jack, then press a button to set the radio frequency.

Although clunkier and more expensive, Sonnet Technologies' $99.95 PodFreq (www.podfreq.com) produced the best sound of the transmitters we tested. (The difference: Sonnet uses the iPod's dock connector. It also relies on the volume control of your tuner instead of the iPod's.) Plus, the PodFreq's FireWire port lets you charge your iPod while in use.

None of these devices are perfect. They don't match the sound quality of the iPod on its own or with a cable. Even on the PodFreq, soft music comes out with a bit of static and a whistling sound. But lively tunes with lots of bass, like "Caught Up" by Usher and "Karma" by Alicia Keys, sounded great. (Note to self: Play more loud music.)

— Brian T. Horowitz

Q: Why doesn't Apple sell the iPod with a case?

A: Because it's Apple. But that's not all bad.

Your iPod's glossy white surface scratches easily, and the thing cost $300. You need a case. The good news is, dozens of third-party offerings let you turn your generic, one-color-fits-all player into a personal fashion statement. Some of our favorites: the SportSuit Convertible from Marware ($39.95, www.marware.com), made of rugged neoprene with a hard (and detachable) cover, clip, armband, and a pocket for your earbuds; Timbuk2's sporty soft case of ballistic nylon, with plush lining, Velcro closures, and belt loop ($20, www.timbuk2.com); and Acme Made's new Wallet line, with glossy box leather on the outside and "cashmere finish" microsuede lining inside ($49.99, www.acmemade.com).

— Keith H. Hammonds

Q: How do I (legally) add 10 yards to my drive?

A: Nanotubes!

Designed for the not-so-skilled player (like me), the Wilson Staff Dd5 driver (www.wilson.com) lived up to its billing as the "most forgiving club in the history of Wilson Staff." Its carbon-composite crown is reinforced with nanotubes, making it strong but very light, and distributing the weight to where it's most effective. Result: The 460cc head, about the size of a small gopher, handled effortlessly. Combine that with a graphite shaft (infused with more nanostuff), and I easily walloped drives a good 200 yards, though not necessarily in the right direction. The club also rewarded me with a pleasing ping! even when I sliced the ball — which for $499, it had better. Even my 84-year-old grandfather, a notorious curmudgeon who plays 18 holes nearly daily, was impressed. "I'd pay 50 bucks for it," he said. That means he liked it a lot.

— MP

Q: Will all that technology take the hitch out of my tennis stroke?

A: Sorry, no. But it may add power and control.

The promotional literature for today's high-end tennis rackets reads like a research study from materials science or the aerospace industry. So we asked three pros at New York's Midtown Tennis Club to try out the latest technology-enhanced rackets: Does this stuff really make a difference?

Max, Hayden, and Byron liked the $199 Babolat VS NCT Tour best. NCT — that would stand, of course, for nano-carbon technology. This makes the racket more rigid, adding power without weight. "It feels like you were playing with it all along," says Max.

Head's Flexpoint 6 Mid Plus ($250) — lighter and longer than the others — took some getting used to, but it generated the most power with the least effort. Its conceit — the racket flexes horizontally — creates a trampoline effect, ideal for serving and volleying. And Prince's O3 ($250), with big, computer-designed "O-ports" on the side of the frame, offered a huge sweet spot, and lots of power too.

— MP

Q: How do I bike and charge at once?

A: A solar-power messenger bag

The new Voltaic Systems Messenger Bag ($230, www.voltaicsystems.com) comes with three built-in solar panels. Charge your phone, PDA, or MP3 player directly from the panels, which work even in indirect sunlight (an LED sewn into the logo lights up when the unit is in use); the bag comes with a multitude of adapters. On rainy days, you can resort to the detachable battery pack. And the bag itself? It's constructed of heavy, UV-resistant nylon, with beefy zippers and capacity of about 900 cubic centimeters — enough for all those juice-eating gadgets.

— MP

Q: Is there one device that truly does it all?

A: No. But PalmOne's LifeDrive comes close.

Already burdened with cell phone, MP3 player, personal digital assistant, and laptop computer, I'm guided by a single principle: No more new gadgets unless they replace at least one I already have. For me and all my fellow travelers, our pockets and portfolios bulging with gear, PalmOne (www.palm one.com) has created its new LifeDrive Mobile Manager. And it definitely is good.

The $499 LifeDrive's 4-gigabyte hard drive — the first ever on a personal digital assistant — is like a really small, dense filing cabinet. It holds (by PalmOne's calculation) a year's worth of documents, emails, voice memos, and photos — plus 10,000 contacts, five years of appointments, 300 songs, and an hour of video. Bluetooth and WiFi are both built in. So, good-bye, PDA. Farewell, music player.

And adios, laptop? Well, not quite. While the LifeDrive is loaded with versions of Excel and Word, it's still basically a PDA, at 4.8 by 2.9 by 0.7 inches. I strained to read long documents — and without an external keyboard, typing more than a short memo is a surefire path to a class in anger management.

That said, I happily watched The Lion King on the LifeDrive's great 320-by-480-pixel color display. My tunes sounded great. And if I can leave the laptop in the office just once in a while, I'll be a much happier traveler.

— Niklas Johanson

A: So does Archos's portable DVR.

On a ski trip to Vermont last winter, my friends and I confronted an all-too-familiar electronics dilemma. There we were, surrounded by two laptops, three iPods, and a slew of DVDs. File this under "poor planning" (which also explains why we ended up with three jars each of peanut butter and jelly) — but still: We're on-the-go entertainment junkies. Why isn't there a portable entertainment system to save us from overkill?

Archos's sleek AV 700 Mobile Digital Video Recorder may be the answer. It lets you record directly off a VCR, a DVD recorder, cable box, or TiVo. And you can watch what you record on an eye-popping 7-inch-wide screen. With the AV 700, you also can record and listen to MP3s, directly store and view photos, even play games. The rechargeable battery is removable, so you can swap in an extra when the old one runs low. (Each can endure 5 hours of video playback or 10 of audio, Archos says.) Plug in the included AV cables to a TV, and voila: a mini entertainment center.

The AV 700 is OS-agnostic, so Mac addicts and the PC faithful can both enjoy in harmony. The 40 GB version costs $599.95; the 100 GB, $799.95 (www.archos.com)

— Jennifer Vilaga

A: And check out this do-everything charger.

The hidden bane of the gadget freak is obvious to anyone who has ever traveled for more than a couple of days: charger hell. A laptop and three other devices? That's four chargers to pack, bucko. So, welcome the new iGo 7500 series from Mobility Electronics (www.igo.com), which juices pretty much anything. At 13 ounces, this brick nearly defies the word "mobility." But it works well: One cord powers your notebook computer, while a second simultaneously charges a phone, camera, PDA, MP3 player, or Game Boy. The $139.99 unit comes with car and air outlet cord, plus adapters for most major laptops — except, incredibly, Apple's. Apple tips and those for other portable devices cost a hefty $9.99 apiece.

— KH

Q: How much notebook will $1,000 buy me?

A: Plenty

A grand doesn't buy what it used to — except, of course, in the realm of computing, where Moore's Law keeps upping the performance ante. Notebooks get smaller, faster — and cheaper. So today, $1,000 buys a very versatile, powerful machine.

I spent some quality time with two new models priced (barely) below the $1,000 benchmark: Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion dv4000 ($999 after $50 rebate, www.hp.com) and Toshiba's Satellite M35X ($999, www.toshiba.com). They share very similar technical features, inside and out: 15.4-inch-wide screen displays, DVD/CD-RW combo drives, powerful graphics cards, and 512 MB of memory.

At this price point, both make small trade-offs. The Satellite is slightly thinner, but at 6.8 pounds, also a bit heavier. Toshiba's processor is an Intel Celeron, running at 1.4 GHz, slightly slower than HP's 1.5 GHz. And HP's comes with a hard drive of just 40 GB, compared with Toshiba's 60 GB. Neither made much difference to me: I happily watched a DVD movie and played the graphics-intensive Morrowind game on both machines.

Really, I found only two profound differences. The Satellite comes with built-in wireless LAN capacity, where the Pavilion settles for a modem and ethernet. But HP compensates for that shortcoming with a more stylish design. In either case, Moore's Law still applies: For $1,000, these are terrific computers.

— NJ

Q: How do I recharge my cell phone without my charger?

A: Disposable chargers

There's nothing more annoying than having your phone shut down midcall without a charger on hand. Compact Power Systems fixes that with its Cellboost disposable batteries/chargers (www.cellboost.com). Plug them in, and watch as your battery indicator goes from nearly empty to full. The $6.99 batteries for cell phones, the company says, give about 60 minutes of talk time and 60 hours of standby time; a new $9.99 model will power your iPod for eight hours. (It also functions as a charger: I accidentally left one connected overnight — and found my iPod completely recharged the next morning.) The package is thick and sort of bulky, and it's not exactly environmentally friendly. But in a pinch, it's really handy to have around.

— MP

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