Techno-gadgets: inspect a gadget

You might be sick of the sight of spreadsheets, but there's always time for some sexy little gadgets during the season of goodwill . . . and presents.
Pat Sweet

Back in the early days of personal computing, if Santa was planning on bringing anyone a computer for Christmas, he would have needed a forklift truck rather than a team of reindeer. This year, however, there is a wide range of sleek little gadgets just waiting to be slipped into someone's stocking.

Take Sony's latest desktop PC, the Vaio, which is designed for both home and work use. True, it tips the scales at 20lbs, but there is plenty packed in, including a built-in, flat-panel display and all the software necessary to create photo albums and compress large picture files for easy email attachments.

Added to this, the PC has integrated speakers and a built-in CD player, so it also doubles as a stereo system. Fold down the vertically retractable keyboard at the end of the working day, and the songs keep playing while the wide screen display shows both the artist and the name of the song via Sony's SonicStage music jukebox software.

Power in your palm

For those who need to travel light, the past decade has seen an explosion in the hand-held, pocket PC and organiser marketplace, which was originally pioneered by Psion. Early versions did not offer much more than basic word processing and individual diary keeping, but the market has changed dramatically in the last few years.

Palm, which has close to 50% of the UK's handheld market, has just launched its Tungsten product range designed to appeal to what it calls the 'IT manager and road warrior' slice of the population. This includes mobile professionals, such as accountants, who will now have secure, wireless access to corporate email, group-wide calendars, memos and data direct from their handheld.

There is also now a thriving business in suppliers who provide extras to make laptop and palmtop machines easier to manage whilst on the move. For example, Targus has the answer for all those people who dislike the very small keypads normally associated with such products. The Targus stowaway collapsible keyboard has full size keys, just like the ones on the machine in the office. It folds up in sections, rather like a map, to convert into a wallet-sized package which can be tucked into a pocket or handbag and pulled out when needed.

There is also a raft of specialist work applications for handhelds, such as FileMaker Mobile. This database software allows users to upload or download data from a desktop PC to a pocket or handheld machine, and in some cases to do so by scanning barcode labels for extra fast data entry.

The small print

Nor have vendors forgotten that on some people much prefer to read what is written on paper, rather than on a small screen. Brother has just launched what it claims is the world's smallest self-contained mobile printer - so tiny it will fit into a jacket pocket.

Designed as an accessory for laptops and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), the smartly designed silver and black m-PRINT allows workers to print off agendas and minutes for meetings on the hoof. The user just points the printer at the PDA via an infrared connection and the machine prints onto A7 paper, address labels and even re-stickable notes.

The rechargeable battery has sufficient power for up to 100 pages at a time, and the whole unit weighs only 300g. It will print text and images from typical office applications, such as PowerPoint and Excel, plus website information such as maps direct from the Internet via the PDA.

Of course, it is also possible to phone and ask for directions if lost when out of the office, and mobile phones are another area of technology which has seen huge advances. Indeed, phone and PC technology is now converging, and this in one area where accountants like Paul Aplin, a tax practitioner with the Somersetbased practice A C Mole, sees great potential.

'We use technology extensively in our firm and are committed e-filers - we submitted the first ELS return and the first Inland Revenue refund to be handed electronically. What has made the biggest difference in the last few years has been the increased use of email, and now we are looking at email facilities when we are out of the office,' Aplin says.

Mobile capability

To do this, Aplin has the choice of a whole new generation of phones, such as Sony Ericsson's T68i which weighs only three ounces, can access nearly all messaging systems and email and includes a mobile camera with which to take pictures to be viewed on its 256-colour screen.

Or there is the pocket-sized Handspring Treo 270 smart phone which combines email, the ability to phone direct from an address book, and full webbrowsing capability. It has a flip up cover to protect the colour screen and keypad.

'With something like this, we'd be able to access email remotely and also use Internet services like Butterworth's online tax reference information - it's the equivalent of carrying the office and a library of books around with you,' Aplin enthuses.

Compared to the earliest gadgets, such as mobile phones the size of a house brick and the Osbourne portable, which looked like a sewing machine and offered green on black screen word processing, today's offerings are not only smaller, faster and neater but set to change the pattern of working life.

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