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Mid-Tech Stocking Stuffers

These offerings are aimed squarely at the sweet spot between low- and high-tech.

By Michael Antonoff

When a holiday present involves technology, the casual shopper can easily mismatch product and recipient. Either the gift is too complex to be appreciated or so basic that the beneficiary will be bored to death before the wrapping paper is discarded. Between the two extremes rests a category of digital gift that is at once engrossing yet simple enough to be quickly mastered.

Take the universal gift of music. On the low-tech end is the plastic-encased CD: 10 or so songs in which you'll be lucky if the person you're giving it to rips two tracks to their computer before misplacing the disc. On the high-tech end is an all-purpose handheld player dependent on users spending many hours at their computers downloading content and transferring files into the vast emptiness of a player's gigabyte-rich innards.

The mid-tech solution is a new category of pint-size digital music player with limited though practical functionality. Sandisk, a company known for flash memory cards, convinced the major music labels to sell thousands of their top Billboard songs wholesale to individuals on microSD cards called slotRadio Cards compatible with certain Sandisk models. The wafer-thin card is smaller than your fingernail, yet each one is preloaded with 1,000 tunes in such genres as rock, country, and hip hop/R&B. By pricing them at $30 to $40 each, the average cost per tune is only 3- or 4-cents. (Compare this to iTunes where you typically fork over 99-cents per tune while doing the extra work of downloading songs to your computer and transferring them to your iPod. Also, unlike a subscription-based music service, slotRadio songs are yours to keep.) The tradeoffs for instant plug-in and play slotRadio music are that you can't copy the songs, they're only playable in a slotRadio device, and though you can skip to the next song, you can't immediately replay a song or go directly to a particular song. So, in some ways, slotRadio is like conventional radio, albeit with perfect reception.

SanDisk’s  Sansa slotRadio Player Bundle

The model I've been testing is SanDisk's Sansa slotRadio Player Bundle, which includes the 2-inch-square Sansa slotRadio Player (above) and slotRadio Mix Card. The latter contains 1,000 chart-topping songs in a variety of genres. The music sounds about as good as an MP3 at 128 kilobits per second. You can listen for 50 hours before a song is repeated (based on an average song length of 3 minutes), though the built-in lithium-ion battery will require recharging by the time you reach hour 13. If the 1,000 tunes on the included card or one of the optional slotRadio Cards (such as the Billboard 1,000 Songs of the 80s and 90s or Oldies below) isn't enough, you can switch to FM radio. I found the tuner to be surprisingly strong at pulling in stations. You can save up to 40 frequencies. The device is compatible with the Radio Broadcast Data System, so it will display the station's call letters along with the song title and artist name.

SanDisk 80s & 90s slotRadio Card SanDisk Oldies slotRadio Card

The OLED display crawls in tiny type the song title and artist, the track coming up, and remaining battery power. You never need to attach the player to a computer, though you could if you want to recharge the player's internal lithium ion battery in the absence of the included wall outlet adapter. The Sansa player is compatible with your own MP3 and WMA files copied to a blank microSD card using an external reader/writer. (There's room on the preloaded music cards for you to copy a few MP3 or unprotected WMA tracks of your own.) The player's built-in clip easily attaches to a belt or pocket edge.

SanDisk slotRadio To Go: Health & Fitness Bundle

Sandisk offers several other players compatible with slotRadio Cards including a series of slotRadio To Go models, each of which is bundled with a particular card. The To Go players are different from the Sansa slotRadio discussed above because they each use one AAA battery and don't contain a display, FM radio, or clip. The slotRadio To Go bundles are: Health & Fitness (pictured above), Country, Oldies, 80s & 90s, R&B/Hip Hop, and Rock. In addition to the Sansa SlotRadio and slotRadio To Go models, slotRadio Cards are compatible with the Sansa Fuze series and Sansa Clip+ MP3 Players.

Beyond music, there's the gift of video. For the video lover, a low-tech gift might consist of a bare-bones DVD player; while a high-tech gift might be a notebook computer with oversize screen and built-in Blu-ray disc player. A mid-tech gift is a portable LCD TV with DTV tuner the type that became essential for receiving over-the-air TV as of mid-2009. But it should be more than an analog TV replacement. The model you choose should be capable of accepting USB flash drives and SD cards, too. You win points of gratitude on two levels. First, gifting a portable DTV lets you bond with the recipient in a mutual appreciation of the continuing value of free local TV broadcasting for sports, news, and entertainment. Second, by choosing a model that accepts digital media used for conveying personal content copied from a computer or created on a digital camera, the gift shows your recognition of the recipient's digital prowess.

Sharper Image 7” Portable LCD TV

The Sharper Image 7" Portable LCD TV features a smooth black bezel with classic curved corners that frame a thin widescreen conforming to the 16:9 aspect ratios of HDTV broadcasts. So, when a wide shot of the gridiron, soccer field, or basketball court is displayed, the TV can show the picture without the maddening letterboxing seen on a 4:3 set. Stereo speakers are built in, and noise isolation earphones are included for private listening. You can also enjoy movies, home videos, slide shows, and music using the USB input or MMC/SD card slot. (Note: Since TVs are dedicated devices, the variety of formats supported is limited. A computer user intending to play files on a TV should choose format types or convert files accordingly.) A remote control, AC wall charger, DC car charger, and protective travel case are included. The TV has a built-in rechargeable battery for powering your entertainment without wires.

Sharper Image 15” LCD with Built-in DVD Player

The Sharper Image 15" LCD with Built-in DVD Player is a space-saving entertainment center for a tight space like a dorm room or kitchen. The high-def capable 15.6-inch screen (1366 x 768 pixels) offers a 500:1 contrast ratio and 8ms response time. Stereo speakers (2x3W) are built in, but you could alternatively use the headphone jack. The side-loading progressive-scan disc player is compatible with DVDs, CDs, VCDs, and JPEG photo discs. There's a built-in reader for an SD card as well as a USB storage device. The TV accepts a variety of external source components including a computer or games console through its auxiliary VGA, HDMI, component, composite, S-Video, RF, and stereo audio inputs. A remote control with batteries is in the box.

Sharper Image 19” LCD TV with DVD Player and iPod Dock

The Sharper Image 19" LCD TV with DVD Player and iPod Dock does everything the 15-inch TV model does plus it has a front and center iPod dock for playing your music and video through the TV's stereo speakers and larger display. The screen offers a high-def capable resolution of 1366- x 768-pixels with a 1000:1 contrast ratio and 5ms response time. Besides the SD card and USB device inputs, the 19-inch model includes all the auxiliary inputs of the 15-inch version.

Sharper Image 22” LCD TV with DVD Player and iPod Dock

The Sharper Image 22" LCD TV with DVD Player and iPod Dock offers the same feature set as the 19-inch model but with a larger screen. It's complete with DVD player, iPod Dock, SD card slot, USB port, and a variety of inputs for other sources including the video and audio from a computer. The screen resolution (1366- x 768-pixels) is crisp enough and the size (21.6 inches) large enough to be an all-purpose PC display and HDTV set. Besides using the model for personal use, you could even gather one or two friends around the display for sharing the show.

So, there you have a variety of mid-tech solutions if you're in the throes of deciding what to buy for your digitally-active friends or relatives. Once they unpack one of these cool music players or DTV sets, you'll be well positioned to declare, "Let the show begin!"

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