iPhone spinoffs and a killable roommate

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      New iPod models have some of the cool features of Apple's iPhone, but for real gadget fun, Brian the Brain is the one to pick.

      Even though the serious shopping season is still a while off, some interesting new gadgets are already emerging.

      Of course, the coolest gadget of the year would have to be Apple's iPhone. We won't be seeing that in Canada for a while, because its entry into the marketplace (specifically, Apple's demand that the phone's Internet access be unlimited and simply cost a flat monthly fee) would disrupt the bloated profits for data transfers being collected by our mobile-phone providers. The current fees are so ridiculous that I've gone from being one of the first people to have an Internet-capable phone to one of the first to abandon them in favour of a feature-free (not even a camera) ordinary cellphone on a pay-as-you-go plan. It's simply not worth BlackBerry data fees just so I can catch up on e-mail in bank lineups and browse the New York Times while on the bus. I can afford to pay it. I can even write it off. But I'm insulted–it's not 1998 anymore.

      So, although I was initially not very interested in an iPhone for myself, I was looking forward to its spinoff effects. And because there's no monopoly-smashing on the immediate horizon, that meant looking for some of the innovative technologies inside the iPhone to start showing up in other products. That brings us to the recent updates to the iPod line, six years to the month after the original five-gigabyte version was announced.

      Since that first iPod, there have been many new models released, either tiny fashionable versions or standard-sized ones with larger-capacity hard drives. Other than the marvel of miniaturization, there hasn't been much in the way of innovation in six years. That's still true of most of this month's announcements–prettier colours, more storage–with two exceptions. First, the nano models now have a larger screen, which is mostly notable because it boasts the highest pixel-per-inch count in Apple history and must look great. Second, there's the iPod touch, which is basically the iPhone without the phone part. And its screen also has 163 pixels per inch of detailed resolution.

      Like all iPod models except for the newly dubbed classic, the touch uses flash memory chips instead of a hard drive to store audio and video, and comes in eight-gigabyte ($329) and 16-gigabyte ($449) versions. What it gets from the iPhone is a large, vibrant colour screen that not only is touch-sensitive (as seen on many devices) but can take gestured input, interpreting a greater variety of finger movements and pre-installed commands than a mere tap can convey (unless it's a beer tap, I suppose).

      I haven't seen a touch model yet (they're supposed to ship at the end of the month), but I did spend some time with an iPhone earlier this summer, thanks to a visiting American. The screen is remarkably clean and sharp, and it's very intuitive to use, right up there with Nintendo's controllers for its Wii game console in terms of natural interface design. The other thing that amazed me about the iPhone is how thin the unit is, and the touch is modelled in exactly the same style.

      But I could easily forgo a fancier way to access music if it weren't for the touch's wireless Internet access. True, it will work only in Wi-Fi zones and not anywhere out on the street like the iPhone can, but the inclusion of a full-featured Web browser makes the touch quite a useful thing. There's e-mail, for starters, using the pop-up on-screen keyboard, plus search engines and a direct YouTube link. It's a shirt-pocket-sized Internet device that can play music or video.

      Finally, there's a gadget that, still, I can barely believe exists. About two percent of me still thinks it's a hoax. It's Brian the Brain, sold on-line by Hammacher Schlemmer ( www.hammacher.com/ )–which has been selling nifty stuff for 159 years–and Amazon.com, but I expect it'll show up in stores. (It sells for about US$100 to US$120.) You know that alien-brain-guy look, with the naked eyeballs in front of a bare brain, all underneath a see-through dome? Okay, stick one of those heads on a small pedestal, one equipped with a small keyboard mounted on a flexible connector. Make the whole thing less than 40 centimetres tall and 30 centimetres wide. Then, install the concise encyclopedia from Britannica, a dictionary, a world-history time line, voice recognition, a contacts database (with phone-dialling), trivia games, a clock, a calendar, an input for an MP3 player, and a wisecracking attitude in its speech chip. Oh, and the brain lights up and stuff. Yeah, I guess it's intended for children, but just watch the video commercial–say, on the Gizmodo blog ( www.gizmodo.com/ )–and tell me you don't know at least one grownup who'd want one.

      Ultimately, as the guy who passed me the link about Brian the Brain (and ordered one for himself) pointed out, it'll probably get annoying pretty quickly, but even so, it's irresistible. I like to think of it as a roommate who won't drink your beer or try to sleep with your girlfriend, plus you can kill it anytime you want.