Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town

MonitorIt’s that time again, and at long last the economy’s finally on the mend. Hopefully you have a bigger year-end budget than last year, so Drew Turney finds out what to spend it all on.

What a difference a year makes. In December 2008 we were living under the shadow of merchant bank collapses and plunging consumer confidence, the headlines making us think we’d all be subsistence farmers living in shacks by now, civilisation crumbling and burning around us.

But here’s what the global press agencies didn’t tell you — through it all, Australia was the only industrialised country that didn’t slip into recession (New Zealand emerged from theirs in September). When the sunburned country looked certain to follow the world, the economic indicators rose for the first time in August, and right now it’s a model economy to the rest of the world.

What does that mean to designers, commercial artists, web developers and the rest of our ilk? It means vendors are working harder for smaller profits while their US, Europe and Asia-based parent companies and owners panic about conditions in the rest of the world. So there are as many (if not more) products around that concentrate on performance per dollar instead of flashy add-ons, chasing markets that don’t want to spend a cent more than they have to.

And as the only first world population left with any money, Australians have the pick of them. Here are just a few to whet your appetite or find under the tree from Santa this year if you’ve been a good boy or girl.

Kingston Technology 256GB USB Flash Drive, $1,299

How does the ability to store over 51,000 images or enough data to fill a tower of paper 1.3 kilometres metres tall sound? Flash memory is advancing in leaps and bounds, and many think it’ll overtake magnetic, disk-based data storage some day.

The asking price of the Kingston 256GB drive is high compared to a hard drive, but the portability and durability of flash is a big plus, and you can’t put a price on your data if your office falls over or you lose everything in a robbery.

Flash memory is geared more to small disks in portable devices like mobiles and filling a 256GB drive via USB will take a long time, so the Kingston drive isn’t a quick file transfer tool. Set a regular update to sync your data onto it and it’ll be indispensable.

Angelo 2434Pw, $399

We’re not sure about the wisdom of naming a monitor Angelo — maybe if it gets a negative review the writer end up sleeping with the fishes? Thankfully AOC’s newest addition isn’t likely to garner much bad press. It takes care of the cable clutter with connection bays on the back of the unit that are covered by hinged flaps. It means connected cables trail neatly towards the aluminium base rather than stick out all over the place like an old-style telephone exchange.

It has a 1920 x 1080 resolution and the 23.6-inch display has a good movement range up ad down and from left to right.

Asus M60J $2,599

Asus are more known for netbooks like their spectacularly successful Eee PC, but they’re streaking out in front in the full featured laptop stakes with one of the first machines to come with Intel’s new platform (Core i7).

The M60J combines the new chip with nVidia’s GeForce GT 240M graphics processor to give you some serious multimedia and multitasking power. The base unit is fairly basic, but you can upgrade to components like a 1 TB drive to really expand your horizons.

Under the good-looking chassis, Intel’s new technology automatically overclocks the 1.73GHz CPU to up to 2.9GHz when it’s needed, and with some cool media control features, it can be as at home in the living room as the office.

Canon Powershot D10, $599

Waterproof cameras aren’t new, but it’s a feature that’s very hard to get right with sensitive digital technology. The D10 is Canon’s first waterproof model, safe down to a depth of 10 metres, in temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees centigrade or shockproof up to a metre. It’s perfect for diving, skiing snowboarding or surfing if your balance is good enough.

Unlike the boxy shapes of most digital cameras, the D10 has an attractively shaped body that’s more comfortable to hold and operate, and the 12 megapixel device has all the usual presets for night, portrait, etc.

Cygnett Micro Rechargeable Speakers, $29.95

If earbuds are too antisocial for your workplace, a good set of wireless speakers is the answer. Cygnett promises the Micro speakers are compatible with all models of iPhones, iPods, iPod Touch, Nano and all other mp3 players. The device can recharge via USB when connected to your laptop or desktop system and you can get up to three hours of listening time with every charge.

Edimax Wireless 3G Broadband Modem Router, $149

With notebooks still outselling desktops by a sizeable margin, computers are likely to arrive in and leave your network on a very ad hoc basis. You can either connect countless switches and new ports or share your whole wireless Internet connection over 3G using a device like Edimax’s new wireless modem.

It supports all wireless standards and there are no carrier restrictions as you simply connect your 3G USB stick into the port. Where there’s no 3G network it supports a wired DSL or cable connection, and set-up is easy through the connection drivers wizard.

HP Touchsmart IQ545a PC, $2,299

Touchscreen technology is still taking over the mobile and PC operating system market thanks to tools like the iPhone and HP’s early Touchsmart PC models. Windows 7 contains a whole new way to interact with your system using touchscreen technology, and the latest HP Touchsmart PC takes full advantage of it. Flicking, dragging, scrolling and resizing are as easy as they are trippy.

It’s encased in a beautiful-looking machine and the 22-inch screen will give the technology full flight. The specs and digital media tools (like the included remote control) make it a media centre-style PC you won’t want to take your hands off.

IC-7000PTn IP cam, $599

There’s nothing cooler than a webcam that looks like an alien robot, except for a webcam that looks like an alien robot that you can control remotely over the web.

You might feel a bit like you’re driving the Martian rover as you manipulate this 1.3 megapixel video camera to pan and tilt through 355 degrees horizontally and 120 degrees vertically completely via a web browser.

It compresses video to the Mpeg-4 standard so lag is kept to a minimum, and it includes an audio port so you can listen as well as watch from anyhwere in the world and an SD memory card slot so you can record the action locally as well as streaming it.

Linksys Media Hub, $699.95

At first glance this 500GB device looks just like an external hard disk vendor Linksys is trying to flog as a media device, but under the hood it does indeed make short work of organising and sharing photos, video and music as well as just storing it.

It sources music files from all over your network no matter how many systems they can be found on and organises them into a library according to artist and album. Remote access means you can give the address of photo collections on the Media Hub to family and friends and they can browse them over the web.

It’s able to handle three simultaneous streams to devices around the house or office and is compatible with flash drives, memory cards and more.

Logitech Unifying receiver, $ various

Usually USB wireless dongles aren’t given to the sort of rough and tumble laptops are often subjected to. Peripherals powerhouse Logitech has solved the problem with the Unifying receiver, the same technology you’d find in any wireless dongle packed into a package barely half a centimetre long, so it’s very hard to accidentally rip out against a wall or catch clothing on.

The receiver debuts with the K340 Wireless Keyboard ($99.95), M705 Marathon Mouse ($129.95) and M505 Wireless Mouse ($89.95).

Power Pouch, $49.95

Despite the advance of wireless computing we’ll never be truly free until we can unshackle ourselves from the power point. If your idea of real wireless connectivity means not having to stop and fill up every few hours, the Power Pouch might be your best investment this Christmas.

Coming in two sizes (15×11′ and 6×4.3′), the Power Pouch has a solar panel on the front cover that use the sun to recharge your device. With eleven connectors included there aren’t many phones, smartphones, music players, GPS devices or cameras that aren’t compatible, and it has a separate battery to store power for later use when the sun’s gone.

Ricoh CX2, $599

We wouldn’t normally talk about two different models of the same device, but just like the Canon Powershot makes mincemeat out of shooting underwater, the Ricoh CX2 packs a huge range into a compact camera body. You won’t have as much control as you would with a pro SLR model, but the CX2’s 10.7x zoom lets you shoot everything from close ups to telephoto and wide angle in a slim 29mm body.

Samsung Galaxy ICON, $749

Another iPhone killer wannabe? Maybe, but with the bar set so high by Apple, vendors like Samsung are producing some very good products to try to steal some market share.

One of the many phones now with Google’s Android operating system, the Galaxy ICON takes advantage of its widget-based functionality and the 3.2′ LED screen gives you ample room to move around in and explore it.

Oregon Smartglobe 3, $279.99

Niche? Maybe. But in a world where the biggest media business in history is an online service dedicated to connecting us to the information we want, tools like this that deploy such information in a more topic-specific environment than a PC browser are going to get more popular.

Just touch a location on the globe with the stylus and you’ll get a wealth of information about it from news, history, geography and language, time difference and flying time to world flags, climate change and landmarks, all updated over the Internet via USB.

The built in speakers round out a geeks’ delight whether you have a geography assignment or a pub quiz night.

Targus 4-Port Mobile USB 2.0 Hub, $39.95

You’d think USB hubs are one of things that just work, but Desktop’s used models in the past that did little but give us ‘low power’ errors. So we were pleasantly surprised to connect a desktop inkjet printer, mouse, iPod and keyboard to the new model from Targus without any problems.

Even better, it’s flexible — literally. The wire that connect the hub to your system is encased in rubber tubing, so if it hangs off the end of the desk it isn’t hanging by the delicate cord, and it can squeeze and contort into any position to fit into a chaotic workspace.

My Book Studio Edition II, $999

The epithet ‘who’d possibly need that much data storage?’ continues to make fools out of naysayers, and at the extreme end is Western Digital’s 4TB behemoth, more than enough for any household or small to medium studio for a hard-to-beat price.

In another rarity for external drives, the My Book Studio Edition II is also built for Mac compatibility, preformatted for the Mac OS and ready to work with Time Machine.

Comprising two separate discs, the My Book has four connectivity interfaces (FireWire 400/800, eSATA, USB 2.0) and the discs are removable and replaceable. A very cool feature is a capacity gauge on the body that tells you at a glance how full the My Book is.

Poken, $34.95

Just because the big end of town’s tightened its belts and tried to concentrate on performance, doesn’t mean nobody’s making frivolous toys.

Meeting people in the real world is just soooo 20th century, but if you want to swap Facebook, Myspace or other social networking contact details with someone you meet in the flesh, just whip out your Poken, touch it to theirs, and an RFID signal swaps details. Next time you log on, your profile’s linked to your new friends!

Of course, it’s a little like a fax machine — useless if only one person buys one — but there are few cuter potential wastes of money around.