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Gadgets for Folks With Low Tech Tolerance

November 30, 2000|DAVID COLKER |

Everyone knows at least one technophobe--someone who gets nervous around computers, wouldn't think of owning a mobile phone and thinks PDA stands for a sports league.

For those misguided (or enlightened) souls, you could go the tie, scarf or Harry & David fruit-of-the-month route for the holidays, but you might be missing a great chance to draw your non-techie friend into the 21st century.

There are lots of gadgets on the market now that are quite high tech but still simple, accessible and friendly.

Some of the suggested gifts listed below require a bit of a learning curve, but most can be used practically right out of the box (which is to be saved, of course, for possible return).

(a) Noise canceling headphones

Price: $60 to $300

If you have a frequent flier on your Christmas list or a commuter who takes a subway or bus, these headphones could provide the gift of a little serenity. Made by several companies, they neutralize low-frequency noise--such as the rumbling of a subway or the muffled engine of a jet. Just on their own, these headphones provide a measure of peace, but they are best when hooked into a portable CD player or Walkman. Without the rumbling noises, you don't have to turn the music up nearly as loud, cutting back on aural fatigue.

These are not miracle devices. You will still hear bothersome noises around you; and for music purists, the headphones do alter some lower timbres. But even the relatively inexpensive Aiwa model (about $60) made subway rides more pleasant. More sophisticated models are available from Bose and other companies for as much as about $300.

(b) Oregon Scientific Personal Atomic Clock

Price: $30 to $60

Well, it's not a real atomic clock, which would cost about a million bucks and require unusual zoning permits.

But these amazing clocks--which range in size from wristwatches to wall models--automatically reset themselves several times a day through radio waves sent out by one of the government's atomic clocks at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Ft. Collins, Colo.

We tested a travel alarm clock from Oregon Scientific ( that automatically resets itself four times a day (mostly in the middle of the night) to keep time to within about one-thirtieth of a second, according to institute officials. The travel alarm model, which comes in a cool black-and-silver design and features handy backlighting, sells for $60. The company makes a similar if less spiffy table model for $30.

(c) Kodak Advantix Preview Camera

Price: $299

This ingenious camera from Kodak uses real film but instantly shows you the shot you just took on a small digital screen. If you don't like it, you can press a button to mark it as a frame you don't want printed and try again. If you think it's a work of art, you can even choose to have the developer make multiple prints.

This camera--one of many in the point-and-shoot Advantix line--takes fine pictures, but the digital aspect is a bit disappointing. The screen is not very clear, especially in bright outdoor situations, so it's difficult to tell just how good a shot you got. (Indeed, several pictures we took on a test roll turned out much better than the digital screen had led us to believe.)

Also, at $299, the preview camera is a bit on the expensive side, considering it's basically a good point-and-shoot camera with a less-than-perfect gimmick.

(d) Radio Shack Home Message Center

Price: $30

You've been trying in vain to get the kids or your significant other to leave messages about where they're off to or phone calls you might have received.

Maybe what you need is a digital gadget to make leaving a message more of a novelty.

Radio Shack sells a digital message recording device, in the shape of a house, that is essentially a big refrigerator magnet. The device has four individual "mailboxes" that can be assigned to members of the household.

For example, if Mom has mailbox No. 1, you can push its button and tell her you are off to a friend's house to study (translation: check out the friend's new PlayStation 2). When Mom gets home, the light by her mailbox will be flashing to let her know she has a message. Up to a minute's worth of messages can be stored in a mailbox at a time.

(e) Radio Shack Weather Radios

Price: $20 to $70

This gift is straight out of nerdland--a radio that broadcasts the local weather forecast 24 hours a day, courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The radio picks up transmissions from government weather stations (the local ones are in Oxnard and Santa Ana), many of which use computerized voice announcers, making it sound like you are getting your forecast personally from Stephen Hawking.

I like listening to mine as I make coffee in the morning, just to get the official word on the predicted conditions of the day. And they make terrific, ironic gifts for people who are moving to areas with much less desirable weather.


Times staff writer David Colker covers personal technology.

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