SAN FRANCISCO (11/20/2003) - Maybe you've noticed the trend: New PCs come loaded with extras better suited for the living room than for the office, and consumer electronics have new features that previously were exclusive to the computer. We found a dozen genre-bending products worthy of your attention. They're perfect for use at home or on the road.
The Couch Potato's Portable PC
Toshiba Corp.'s 17-inch-wide Satellite P25-S609 notebook with Microsoft Corp. Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 is a 9-pound, 9-ounce home entertainment behemoth: It's a television, a radio, a DVD player/recorder, and a monster gaming system. Armed with a powerful 3-GHz Intel Pentium 4 desktop processor, 1GB of RAM, an NVidia 3D graphics chip, and an 80GB hard drive, the Satellite also packs a modular-bay TV tuner, surprisingly full-sounding Harman/Kardon speakers, Wi-Fi networking, a FireWire port (handy for digital camcorder mavens), and a DVD Multi drive for DVD-R recording and playback. It's nice to know you can compute on this notebook, but with all the media goodies, who has time to crunch numbers in a spreadsheet?
Good Sound at a Great Price
With a street price under US$200 and a variety of high-end features, Onkyo's Digital Theater Station GXW-5.1 speakers are almost a sure bet. The hub of the six-speaker set is the subwoofer, which contains its own amplifier, Dolby Digital DTS processing (to provide digital surround sound), and analog and digital inputs that can hook either to a PC or directly to a home theater component, such as a DVD player or a game box. When you use the speakers in conjunction with digital audio output from a game console, the surround-sound effects can be dramatic. And while this set might seem slightly underpowered at 75 watts in comparison to 5.1-speaker packages from Creative, Klipsch, and Logitech, those higher-powered sets don't include a built-in amplifier, and they cost a lot more. We love the rich, true bass and crisp surround sound--not to mention the price. A simple remote control rounds out the package.
Giving TiVo a Run for Its Money
Three new broadband-savvy ReplayTV models (one offers 40 hours of recording at high quality; the others, 80 and 160) deliver some interesting new features to digital video recording. We looked at the 40-hour ReplayTV 5504, which, if it detects a schedule conflict, will ask you which show is more important, and can assign one or more conflicting recording tasks to idle ReplayTVs (if any) on your home network. Setup out of the box is a snap, with just a few cables to connect between the unit, a television, and your sound system. Because we conveniently had a network port located directly behind the TV cabinet, the ReplayTV 5504 downloaded the on-screen program guide--a service very similar to those delivered to digital cable and satellite subscribers--in a fraction of the time it would have taken using the other option, a phone line. Soon after that, we were searching for and recording shows, pausing live TV, and skipping merrily past ads. The price of the device includes three years of the on-screen program guide. Our one unfulfilled wish: a wireless keyboard, so we wouldn't have to scroll through on-screen menus to pick out each letter in the name of a show we're searching for.
Toshiba Satellite P25-S609
Price when reviewed: $2799
Onkyo's Digital Theater Station GXW-5.1
Price when reviewed: $150 to $199
Price when reviewed: $500
Movies and a Whole Lot More
With DVD players called upon to do so much more than play movies these days--most play MP3 and WMA audio and display slide shows of images saved to CDs--it was only a matter of time before the family DVD player became a networked device. The Go-Video Networked DVD Player D2730 offers many of the connectors you'd find on the rear of a typical high-end DVD player, including component video and digital audio output jacks. But the unit includes a port for networking, too. Once on our home LAN, the D2730 quickly found a PC running Go-Video's multimedia server software. Though we enjoyed the convenience of being able to play every song on our hard drive through stereo speakers in the living room, as well as to browse family photos from the PC on a 27-inch TV, we sometimes forgot about having to boot the PC first. You can even set up a slide show to run automatically, while you stream your own soundtrack music for simultaneous accompaniment. A computer that's less than two years old won't be slowed down noticeably by streaming files to the TV, so one person can listen to tunes on the family room TV while another gets work done on the office PC.
Wireless Laptop Alternative
When you don't need the power, weight, and expense of a notebook but you do want something more than what a pocket-size PDA can provide, AlphaSmart's Dana Wireless may be the answer. The 2-pound Palm OS device, about the size of a subnotebook, sports a backlit 560-by-160-pixel gray-scale LCD touch screen, a full-size keyboard, and Wi-Fi networking. While the Dana can handle all Palm apps in a cropped window, many have been tweaked to exploit the extra-wide display--great for the bundled Office-compatible apps that handle Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. With Palm Remote software and its built-in infrared port, the Dana becomes a home-theater universal remote control as well. If you don't need the power of a full notebook, the instant start-up, easy Internet access, and full-size keyboard for Office docs make this Dana a wise choice.
PC Tool Simplifies TV Viewing
Sure, digital video recorders like TiVo and ReplayTV are a great convenience: You'll never miss a favorite show, and you'll never find yourself surfing 125 channels without finding anything on. But a DVR device is nothing more than a hard drive and a user interface. Sound like something you might already have? SnapStream Personal Video Station 3 turns any PC under two years old into a DVR. The package includes a TV tuner (either an internal PCI card or an external USB box), a remote, and SnapStream's sleek software. We love how the SnapStream software lets you create or change scheduled recordings from anywhere, through SnapStream's Web site, if your SnapStream-enabled PC has a broadband connection. The software even lets you stream live TV to any computer over the Internet. Try doing that with a fancy-pants DVR box.
Go-Video Networked DVD Player D2730
Price when reviewed: $300
AlphaSmart's Dana Wireless
Price when reviewed: $429
SnapStream Personal Video Station 3
Price when reviewed: $80
Internet for Your Bacon and Eggs
It had to happen: LG Appliances merged a refrigerator with a PC, gave it an LCD touch screen and camera, slapped an $8000 price tag on it, and labeled it the Internet Refrigerator--a swanky, roomy, moderately energy-efficient refrigerator with a date book, photo album, electronic whiteboard, Web browser, music jukebox, and TV. To make the TV or Internet functions work, you'll need a cable TV and ethernet port convenient to the back of the fridge. The computer, which inexplicably runs Windows 98, isn't tied in with the refrigerator's temperature controls (a separate panel above the ice and water dispenser handles that), so your ice won't melt if Windows freezes. The included food-tracking program could have been engineered a little better--as it is, entering each grocery item into the database is a tedious data entry chore involving the touch screen's keyboard. Another missed opportunity: You can't set the built-in, door-front camera to snap a photo of the late-night Haagen-Dazs thief who invades your kitchen.
Bigger Than Some Big Screens
Power on the NEC Showcase HT1000 projector, fire up a DVD movie, and the home theater experience is so complete you might catch a whiff of popcorn in the air. The first in NEC's series of home-oriented projectors, the 7.1-pound HT1000 delivers superior image quality compared with other projectors. While pricier than most models, this unit offers a home user several features that are more important in the living room than in the boardroom: the entire spectrum of high-end video input options, from composite to HDTV; support for console video games as well as for PCs; an automatic setup mode that compensates for the projection angle to display a rectangle even if you can't aim dead-center at a screen or wall; and a mode in which the fan runs whisper-quiet--an important consideration when you'd rather hear the alien sneaking up on the hero than the fan droning inside the projector. If you have the cash to spend on a 60-inch plasma-display television, you should seriously consider this projector and a good-quality screen as a lighter, sturdier alternative. For more on the benefits and drawbacks of large display technologies, see Really Big Shows.
A PDA That Knows Where You're Going
A sleek and powerful, high-resolution color Palm OS PDA, Garmin Ltd.'s IQue 3600 also delivers a built-in Global Positioning System receiver. With the included mapping software, it can show you (within 120 feet) where you are and tell you how to get where you want to go. Ah, the promise of never having to ask a gas station attendant for directions again! It's also loaded with a voice recorder, an SD memory card expansion slot, office software, an MP3 player, and a headphone jack. An optional $80 Auto Navigation Kit is, in reality, necessary: The kit provides juice from the car's cigarette lighter to supplement the IQue's painfully short battery life. We like that you can set an array of preferences--from showing wayside stops to suggesting alternate roads that avoid tolls--but best of all is the versatility of the IQue, which happens to be a handy PDA when it's not guiding you to your next destination.
LG Appliances Internet Refrigerator
Price when reviewed: $8000
NEC Showcase HT1000
Price when reviewed: $5500
Garmin IQue 3600
Price when reviewed: $589
Big Video Bliss at a Bargain Price
Gateway Inc.'s 46-inch P46M103 Plasma TV wooed us with a sharp, bright picture and a smorgasbord of connectivity options. You can hook almost any video source to the set and virtually be assured of a pretty darn good picture. Whether you mount the TV on the wall (the bracket costs another $280) or use the tabletop stand (an additional $150), the power cord and A/V connectors are readily accessible, positioned so the cables hang unobtrusively. But be warned: Even though the TV looks stylishly thin (less than 4 inches from front to back), it weighs in at around 100 pounds (including the stand), so setup is definitely a two-person job. You can also use it as a PC monitor, with screen resolutions up to 1280 by 1024 pixels. There are certainly plasma TVs with much better picture quality to be had, but you'd be hard pressed to find one of this size at such a reasonable price.
A Do-It-All Music Machine
TDK Corp.'s DA-9000 CD-RW Jukebox combines a 20GB hard drive with a CD-RW drive to produce a hybrid stereo component that plays, rips, and burns music CDs and organizes digital music files. The Jukebox rips music tracks to its hard drive, from which you can burn the tunes to music (not data) CD-R or CD-RW media, or just play them back. The built-in GraceNote database of more than 14,000 commercial CDs adds a nice touch: As you rip your music, GraceNote associates each song with the album, artist, and track name--without an Internet connection. A six-line front-panel LCD displays song names and album titles. Using the included software and USB cable, we transferred MP3s from our PC, and could update the album database from the Web. Rear audio connectors let you make digital copies of an LP- or cassette-based music collection. As much as we like the Jukebox, the less-than-invigorating speed (about 8X) at which it burns CDs and saves files puts us off somewhat. Nevertheless, its ultimate convenience in the living room overcomes that peeve.
Movies on Demand
Is it just us, or are movies on airplanes getting worse and worse? The best solution is to bring your own, but DVD viewing on a laptop depends on two factors: Will you have room to open your notebook, and how long will the battery last? Most portable DVD players we've seen have batteries that could get you through all 171 minutes of The Godfather, but they're also saddled with ridiculously small, playing card-size screens. That's why we particularly like the bright and crisp, 10-inch wide-screen display of Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.'s diminutive DVD-L200 Portable DVD Player. Its 3-hour battery let us view the entire movie without a snag, and at just 3 pounds, the player is light enough for easy carrying. A pair of headphone jacks enables two people to watch a movie at the same time, and an S-Video port lets you hook the player to some televisions. A remote the size of a credit card matches the controls on the top panel of the unit. Want to mount the player in your van instead? At the touch of a button, you can turn the picture upside-down.
Gateway 46-inch P46M103 Plasma TV
Price when reviewed: $3800
TDK DA-9000 CD-RW Jukebox
Price when reviewed: $400
Samsung DVD-L200 Portable DVD Player
Price when reviewed: $600