1 March 2007 Mark Stuart
From labour-saving must-haves to wish-list status symbols, Mark Stuart takes a look at the latest executive gadgets.
A generation ago, a 'gadget' was a remote control for the TV – attached to a wire. Today, the technophile is assailed on all sides by technology. iPods can store more songs than you could listen to in a year. You can watch TV on your laptop or mobile phone. And for the gadget-loving executive, there's no reason why the office can't be as high-tech as the bridge of the Enterprise.
To start with, the desk no longer needs to be dominated by a large, boxy computer. Mini PCs are the must-have gadget of the future. Sony's VAIO VGN-TX2XP is an elegant and lightweight device – despite its unwieldy name. Measuring just 27cm by 20cm, it weighs little more than a kilogram.
A high-contrast coating increases the vibrancy of colours, and it has a longer battery life than the more loudly trumpeted Microsoft UMPC. You can even play DVDs on it without having to boot the machine up.
Too many picture frames cluttering the desk? Can't decide which loved one to give priority to, perhaps? The Parrot Picture Viewer (which looks like a smart, black picture frame) offers a revolving slideshow of photos. It can store up to 500 images and, regardless of size or shape, the viewer reshapes the picture to fit the 7in screen.
You can change the backlighting to suit the level of light in the room. You don't even need to connect it to anything to upload new pictures – photos can be transmitted via Bluetooth from your mobile phone or PC, so the picture can be on display within seconds of taking it.
The must-have gadget of the moment is the PVP, or portable video player. The Archos 504 has a 4in colour screen and can store over 450 movies. Its built-in MP3 player can store 80,000 songs and a staggering 1.6 million photos – all this in a unit that is less than an inch thick and which retails at around £400.
CONVERGENCE WITHOUT COMPROMISE
Gaining all the attention at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the Apple iPhone. Combining internet, mobile phone and widescreen iPod, the device's real innovation is its touch screen, which allows users to listen to music and make phone calls just by pressing different parts of the surface.
Doing away with buttons allows the iPhone to look elegant and futuristic at the same time – as you would expect from Apple.
Like a digital camera, it can detect the angle the device is being held at and it changes the display from portrait to landscape if you rotate it, so it is always the right way up.
Of special interest to executives is the iPhone's conference facility. If you get a second call while already engaged, simply touch a screen icon and it sets up a three-way conversation.
Equally convergence-enabled is the Nokia N95, a mobile phone that comes with a 5MP camera, MP3 player, Wi-Fi and GPS navigation. It even makes phone calls as well.
For those who place more value on looks and design than endless applications, look no further than Ego, a Dutch company that produces dazzlingly stylish laptops. With swappable skins for the fashion-conscious, the Ego has an integrated webcam, built-in microphones for VoIP communications and speakers embedded in the screen itself.
Convergence is the buzzword of the moment – but Christopher Dadd, director of Interactive Services at WIN plc, sounds a note of caution: "If you download your life to one device, then you need guaranteed hardware. With some manufacturers, up to 10% of normal hard disks fail every three years."
Dadd's tip for the best time-saving gadget also happens to be one of the simplest: memory sticks, because you can now get them up to 8GB. "It saves lugging equipment home, or to customer sites. You can just take your stick with everything on it – you can password protect it, too. For the most secure use, carry a 1GB stick with a fingerprint reader on it."
DRIVING MISS DAISYWHEEL
Executive travel wouldn't be complete without some in-car gadgetry. The Garmin Nuvi 660, a GPS system bursting at the seams with gizmos, offers traffic alerts, virtual vehicles to show your position, safety camera alerts and street names in full. It is also Bluetooth-enabled and has MP3 playback built-in.
Home from the office, the true technophile is spoilt for choice. Plasma TVs are now appearing with 42in screens as standard and Pioneer and LG even offer sleek-looking, 50in HD-ready screens at under £2,000. For the busy manager, a personal video recorder (PVR) is an essential add-on. A PVR enables you to enjoy films and programmes without having to sit through the adverts – and no more time wasted looking for a blank tape.
Meanwhile, early adopters who have been watching the Toshiba HD-DVD versus Sony Blu-Ray debate, but are still unsure which to choose, will be keen to discover the first hybrid machine capable of playing both systems: the LG BH100. If you prefer to make home movies, but are dissatisfied with the sub-Spielberg standard of camcorders on the market, go in search of new HD camcorders that record straight onto DVD. The Sony HC7 is a good next-generation example.
YOUR OWN PERSONAL DJ
A justifiable criticism of the proliferation of gadgetry is that more offerings don't necessarily mean more choice. If this rings true with you, try Pandora, a kind of intelligent radio that learns from your preferences, and soon starts playing only the music it thinks you will like.
You can tell it that you like a particular band but not a particular track, or you like a certain genre but not certain artists, and it builds up its own profile of you. It's like having your own personal DJ in the corner of the room (but without having to listen to 'Lady in Red' at the end of the evening).
Pandora is best accessed through devices such as Transporter, which can stream digital music in arguably better quality than top-of-the-range CD players.
Keep an eye out for the following innovations, which should be hitting the shops soon.
The ultimate gadget is the Moller Skycar (bottom right): a cross between a motorcar and an aeroplane. Looking something like a 1930s sports car with four huge turbines and a tailfin attached, the M400 has a top speed of 380mph, cruises at 29,000ft and requires much less maintenance than a helicopter, as it has fewer moving parts.
You don't need a runway or a hangar to store it in; it has vertical take-off and landing, and measures less than 20ft from nose to tail. The Skycar could – if it gets its licence from the FAA – be available to private buyers within five years. If that doesn't make your eyes water, the price will: a cool $995,000.
BMW have devised a self-parking car that uses existing sensor information to calculate trajectory, inject fuel and turn the wheel to the correct angle. You simply press a button on a remote control, and watch the car park itself. The system could be on the market within the next three years.
Also likely to appear in cars in the near future is built-in satellite radio, complete with timeshifting so you can rewind broadcasts when you've stopped for petrol. The European Space Agency has built a prototype – on display at the Noordwijk Space Expo in the Netherlands.