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Gadgets that make travel easier get smaller, cheaper

September 14, 2004|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

The widely understood rule in Silicon Valley -- that computing gets twice as fast and less expensive every 18 to 24 months -- is good news to business and frequent travelers. Take the motto of last month's Olympic Games -- "faster, higher, stronger" -- and add "cheaper," and you get the picture. In virtually all gadget categories -- laptops, cellphones, digital cameras, media players -- smaller devices do more for less money than a year ago. We chose a few that improve commutes and make business travel more pleasurable.

The little screen

Portable Media Centers. Here's a scene that might soon be commonplace on planes, trains and buses: passengers peering into flat-screen devices about the size of a DVD case, which will be playing movies, home videos or several weeks' worth of favorite TV shows.

Three companies have recently introduced Portable Media Centers, as the gadgets are known. The next best friend of the commuter and frequent traveler, PMCs are, in essence, hard drives with screens, able to hold up to 150 hours -- that's right, hours -- of video, thousands of songs or digital photos, and reams of text.

Those who have been beta-testing the hand-held devices say curious passengers crowd bus and aircraft aisles to get a closer look. James Bernard, Microsoft's product manager for PMCs, gets stares and queries when he whips out his prototype at the gym or while traveling to watch "Seinfeld," "The West Wing" or "Band of Brothers." He reports his 2-year-old is fully occupied -- and quiet -- on car trips, watching favorite "Rolie Polie Olie" episodes.

Creative Technology and Samsung Electronics have just come out with PMCs, which sport screens a little less than 4 inches across and run on a version of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. IRiver has its own version, set to arrive in stores in October.

Creative's Zen Portable Media Center and Samsung's Yepp YH-999 and IRiver's PMC-120 have 20 gigabytes of memory; the PMC-140 comes with 40 gigabytes.

The latter is large enough to hold more than six days' worth of continuous video in a specially compressed format and more than 12,000 hours of digitized music.

TV shows can be recorded to the hard drive of any computer running Windows Media Center Edition operating system, and then transferred to the PMC. Copying movies from DVDs is illegal, but about 300 films, including "Mystic River" and "Cold Mountain," can be downloaded from, rented for about $4 (the files are usable only for 48 to 72 hours) or purchased for about $14. There's also a handful of old TV shows, including "I Spy" and "Dragnet," a collection that's expected to grow quickly as the format catches on.

Zen Portable Media Center, Samsung Yepp YH-999 and IRiver PMC-120, each $500 for 20-gigabyte versions; the 40-gigabyte IRiver PMC-140 is $600, available at and at Best Buy, CompUSA and other electronics retailers.

Internet unplugged

Airport Express. Wireless Internet access -- known as WiFi -- continues to be hugely popular, making it possible to surf the Web by laptop or hand-held computer in airport concourses, hotel lobbies and coffee shops. Apple's Airport Express device takes that convenience into any hotel room with a broadband Ethernet connection.

It looks like a square, white power adapter, but plug it into an outlet and an Ethernet port, and you have an instant WiFi hotspot. Road warriors with wireless-enabled Apple or Windows laptops or hand-helds can log onto the Internet wirelessly from the balcony, easy chair or bed. Designed primarily for home use, Airport Express also lets users create a wireless local network as well as stream music wirelessly from one room to another.

Airport Express, $130, available at or at Apple stores.

The new calling

Cellphones. The Treo 600 combination PDA and mobile phone from PalmOne has become the latest must-have gadget that can make phone calls, send and receive e-mail and text messages, browse the Web, play music, take photos and handle contacts and calendars on the Palm operating system. Its small size and sleek design made it an instant status symbol among executives and techies. Caution: Prices vary widely -- it's $550 with a Verizon calling plan but $350 after a rebate with AT&T Wireless.

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