Gadgets that make travel easier get smaller, cheaper

Gadgets that make travel easier get smaller, cheaper
Creative's Portable Media Center holds 150 hours of video. (Brian Vander Brug / LAT)
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.

Now challenging the Treo 600 is the newly released IPaq h6300 series. It does everything the Treo 600 does, albeit in a less elegant form. But it incorporates a larger screen, WiFi and the connectivity function known as Bluetooth, which allows the device to communicate wirelessly with Bluetooth-enabled printers, keyboards or headphones at short distances. The h6300 series is partnered with T-Mobile, which offers monthly plans from $80 to $110 that allow unlimited WiFi access at T-Mobile hotspots at Starbucks, Borders Books and Music stores, numerous airports and elsewhere. Unlike the Treo 600, the h6300 series is based on Windows and its larger screen handles text such as Word documents more easily. If you lose a WiFi signal, this IPaq also can switch automatically to GPRS, which is the data-transfer part of the GSM cellphone standard used by T-Mobile.

Globe-circling travelers used to have to carry at least two mobile phones to stay in touch — one for countries using the GSM cellular network, another for countries on the emerging CDMA standard (such as Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless phones in the U.S.). Now, Samsung Electronics has come out with a "world phone" that combines the latest GSM and CDMA technologies, which Samsung says will keep you in touch in virtually any corner of the globe that has a mobile-phone network. The Samsung SCH-A790 also incorporates that latest phone accouterment — a digital camera — as well as calculator, calendar and alarm.

Treo 600, $350-$550 with cellular-phone plan, available from Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS and Cingular, and at . IPaq h6300 series, $500, available at and at electronics and T-Mobile retailers. Samsung SCH-A790, $500, available at Verizon Wireless stores.

Wider. Better?

Laptops. Virtually every computer maker is coming out with new back-to-school and holiday-season laptops that are faster, more powerful and have longer battery life. A new one from Dell is interesting for business travelers because of its size: The Inspiron 700m has a 12-inch screen, but its wide-aspect ratio means you can view two documents side by side or watch a widescreen movie while sitting in a cramped coach seat. The 4.1-pound Inspiron 700m also breaks away from Dell's all-black color scheme, coming in silver with white trim.

A bit bigger is Hewlett-Packard's new dv1000 Entertainment Notebook, which has a 14-inch high-definition, wide-aspect ratio screen and would be well suited to salespeople and other travelers who give presentations using their laptops. The dv1000 has what HP calls "QuickPlay," meaning you can power up the CD-DVD function of the machine in eight seconds instead of two minutes. That's great for quick audio-video demos that are on disks — or for quickly playing your favorite tunes at the end of a long day.

The dv1000 comes with an optional credit-card-sized remote control to manage the computer's functions from a distance, while on a stage at a company meeting, for instance. It slips into a slot on the side of the laptop when not in use.

Dell Inspiron 700m laptop, $1,450-$2,200, available at www, (800) 999-3555 or at Dell retail kiosks. HP dv1000 Entertainment Notebook starts at $1,100 with wireless capability; extended battery and faster processors extra. Available in October at retail stores and at .

From the Apple tree

IPod accessories. As Apple's IPod digital music player becomes ever more indispensable for the with-it, plugged-in set, the number of IPod accessories continues to grow. Two good ones are a transmitter for broadcasting your music onto a car radio or other stereo receiver, and a microphone attachment for recording live events and easily burning CDs of them. Griffin Technology's ITrip plugs into the top of an IPod and transmits to an unused FM frequency, turning a rental car into a personal music vault.

The microphones include the Griffin Technology ITalk IPod Voice Recorder and the Belkin Voice Recorder for IPod. Both turn on automatically when plugged in and initiate an on-screen timer, with controls to start and pause recording or to stop it and begin a new file. This is terrific for recording meetings or interviews — or your kids singing Christmas carols — and the free ITunes software easily burns the files onto audio CDs. In tests with the Belkin model, the IPod automatically replayed the previous five seconds or so before each pause, making transcribing a breeze.

Another compact take-along for the IPod set is Altec Lansing's InMotion portable speakers, built into a small platform that cleverly unfolds into an IPod dock. It produces pretty good sound, whether music or a business presentation. The IPod's recent makeover is also good news to those trapped in 11-hour transatlantic flights — the improved batteries last up to 12 hours. That should last a good L.A.-to-Tokyo trip, uninterrupted. Knocking $100 off the prices is welcome too: The 20-gigabyte Pod is now $300; the 40-gigabyte model, $400. HP is expected to come out with its version of the IPod on Wednesday. Identical to the IPod, which is making them for HP, they come in 20-gigabyte and 40-gigabyte sizes for the same prices as their Apple brethren.

ITrip, $35. ITalk, $40. Belkin Voice Recorder, $35. InMotion speakers, $150-$180. All products available at Apple retail stores and