COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Buy now, don't wait

Conventional wisdom says wait for the next generation of new technology products rather than buying now.

The benefit of waiting is often lower cost, more capability and fewer bugs. That may be true in general, but there are now a number of technology products that can provide real benefits today; their costs have come down, they have great capabilities, are relatively mature, and do what they promise. Most importantly, they can provide real value and benefits to you now.

WiFi

WiFi (wireless fidelity), also known as 802.11b, provides a high-speed (up to 11 megabits per second) wireless connection between your notebook computer and a source (called a hub) up to a few hundred feet away. WiFi has made such an impact that some market analysts see it competing with the 3G cellular networks now being rolled out.

Today the major applications of WiFi are wireless access to the Internet and e-mail in your home, office and at public locations, including Starbucks, hotels and airports, without dialing up or plugging in. When away from home you can connect to the Internet at an increasingly large number of "hot spots" to pick up your mail, check news, etc. In many cities you can connect to WiFi private networks for no cost, although some of the owners may be unaware their network is used by others. Recently while in New York and San Francisco these networks were as easy to find as bus stops.

Although there are newer versions of 802.11 that will be even faster, today's version is perfectly adequate for downloading programs, still images and e-mail with large attachments. The cost of the hardware has plummeted, and there are dozens of suppliers, such as 3Com (Nasdaq: COMS), Belkin, D-Link, Linksys and Netgear (Nasdaq: NTGR proposed). A PC card for a notebook can cost as little as $50.

In your home you will need a high-speed connection (DSL or cable modem) and two other boxes that sit near your computer, a router (like a splitter) and a WiFi transmitter, costing another $100. You can now connect your notebook to the Internet wirelessly from most anywhere in your home. Outside the home you only need a WiFi PC card.

GPS

GPS is the technology that helped guide our missiles to targets in Iraq.

Many cars now offer built-in GPS navigation systems for $2,000 or more. Using map information stored on a DVD in the trunk, and a radio to pick up several of the 24 satellites circling the earth, it pinpoints your location to within a few feet and provides directions to a specified location. You need not wait, however, for your next car purchase. There are a few after-market products available now that work equally well and can be moved between cars.

I have been using the Garmin Street Pilot III for about six months and it is a remarkable device. Although it has a smaller display and uses only internal memory, it's easy to read, speaks the directions and warns you of upcoming turns. You download the area of the country from the included CD. There is enough memory to cover the major roads from San Diego to San Francisco. Cost: $750.

A new product from Garmin (Nasdaq: GRMN), due in July, combines similar functionality with a Palm (Nasdaq: PALM) organizer for about $600.

Digital cameras

Performance is improving while prices are dropping. Today you can buy a 3MP camera, good for 8x10 images, for $250-$400. At the upper end are compact cameras about the size of a pack of cigarettes with 3x zooms and at the lower end are slightly larger cameras with fewer manual controls. All take superb images, better than many film cameras.

There is no cost for film or developing and you can send the images with your e-mail to friends and family. Highly rated models include the Canon Digital Elph and the Nikon Coolpix lines.

The best sources of information, including product reviews and owner discussions, are at www.dpreview.com, www.dpreview.com and www.imaging-resource.com.

PDAs

Sales growth of PDAs have slowed down over the past year, and as a result, the newer products have dropped in price and have improved capabilities, including vivid color screens, built-in MP3 players, cameras and keyboards.

They range in price from $99 for a basic Palm with a black and white screen to $800 for a Sony (NYSE: SNE) with a built-in high-resolution camera. The hottest product is the just introduced Palm Zire 71 with a spectacular color screen, MP3 player and low-resolution camera for $299. The HP iPAQ 1910 and the Dell Axim are the most popular PDAs running Microsoft's Pocket PC software, more powerful, but not as easy to use. Some models are available with WiFi or mobile phones built in.

The major benefit of these devices are providing easy access to data normally on your computer, such as your calendar, contacts, to-do list, and even word files, spreadsheets and photos. Adding data to the PDA automatically puts it into the computer when you synchronize them.

So in spite of the economic slowdown, progress continues to move forward with products that really do allow you to do things faster and easier. Now is the time to take advantage of these technologies while simultaneously helping the economy.


Baker is San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000 for successfully bringing to market Think Outside's folding keyboard for the Palm and other PDAs. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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