An era of high-tech toys

Looking back on a century of nifty items, ZDNet brings you 10 of the gadgets that have shaped our lives

It's been a good year and a good century for gadgets. In honour of Christmas and the new millennium, ZDNet gathers together some of the coolest gear of 1999, and of the 20th century.

Best of 1999

Diamond Rio 500

The year started with one MP3 player, Diamond's Rio. It finished with around a dozen. However Diamond sprung back and ended the year in fine style with its Rio update -- the Rio 500, definitely still the coolest kid on the block.

The Rio 500 is the first MP3 player we've seen that actually looks like a proper piece of audio equipment rather than a gimmicky gadget for tech-heads.

It's encased in a sexy silver casing, as opposed to the rather tacky black plastic casing of its predecessor, and that horrible control wheel has thankfully been disposed of. You clock the quality from the moment you switch it on -- using a real on/off switch -- with the sound clearer, deeper and, some would say more importantly, louder. The volume is controlled via a rubber ratchet wheel, which also gives you access to the menu controls. You still have those pretty ineffectual equaliser options, jazz, pop, rock etc., but now you also have the choice to customise the bass and treble settings. The LCD display is back-lit and displays the song title and artist name.

If you're a Mac user you may be starting to feel a bit jealous by now. Well don't worry, because the Rio 500 is now fully compatible with Macs, and ships with Casady and Greene's SoundJam MP digital audio system software.

The Audio Manager software has also had a makeover, with a much friendlier user interface, and speedier downloads, which are also aided by the USB connection.

The internal memory has been bumped up to 64MB, it is compatible with Windows Media Player in addition to MP3, and is designed specially for spoken audio playback. The 500 can hold up to 16,000 hours of spoken word content and there's a bookmark control to let you stop playback and pick up where you left off.

If you're thinking about investing in a MP3 player, do yourself a favour and take a look at one of these first. A bargain at £229.

Technics digital radio tuner

Digital radio, while maybe not quite as glamorous as digital TV, has been really getting up to speed this year. With the start of a new digital century it's definitely time that you chucked your old tranny away and discovered the joys of crystal clear CD quality FM.

Up till now you may well have been quite rightly put off by the fact that a receiver cost over £2000. Those nice chaps at Technics came to the rescue at the end of the year with a comparatively bargain basement model, the ST-GT1000.

Technics claims this is the world's first combination Digital/Analogue radio tuner, so you can get every station going, no matter how it's broadcast.

It has an illuminated dot-matrix display to show things like frequencies and signal strength, and there's a memory preset facility that lets you store up to 49 DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting), 29 FM channels and 19 AM channels. It also lets you perform a search of all available multiplexes for specific programme types, such as news or sports.

In addition to the stereo line audio outputs for connecting to your hi-fi, there's a digital optical output so you can record all your favourite shows, now in glorious digital quality, onto a permanent digital format such as MiniDisc.

In the shops now for around £500 (OK, so it ain't cheap but it is £1,500 saved) and you will be able to make CD quality copies of all your favourite radio mix shows.

Panasonic portable DVD player

Another format that received far more than its fair share of attention this year was Digital Versatile Disc or DVD. Players are widely available and cheap, and Blockbuster has shelves full of DVDs to rent. But you don't just want a cheap Toshiba from Woolworth's, do you? If it's the cutting edge of DVD cool you're after then it just has to be Panasonic's portable DVD-L50 Palm Cinema.

At 140x51.5x37.7mm and weighing 680g without battery, this is the world's smallest portable player with built-in screen.

It's got an LCD screen with a 5-inch display giving 280,000 pixel resolution, and comes with built-in stereo speakers. Keeping things neat and tidy, the battery recharger is built into the body of the Palm. The lithium ion battery gives you three hours' playing time, enough for most films. The supplied multi-voltage adapter, compatible with voltages from 110V to 240V, makes it ideal for all you jetsetters.

Panasonic says the Palm has most of the features of a standard DVD player including digital output for DTS and Dolby Digital decoding. There's Advanced VSS for surround sound and a Dialogue Enhancer for improved clarity of speech.

And if all that's not enough, you can even plug it into your TV at home to use it as a standard DVD player.

A very cool little number for £999.95.

Sony Aibo robotic dog

The first limited edition run of 3000 of Sony's robotic dog sold out in just 20 minutes. In September it did another run and the same thing happened. Conclusion? These dogs are hot. Stupid maybe, but extremely desirable.

It doesn't eat your food, crap on your carpet, chase your cat or bite your neighbour. A more sophisticated relative of Doctor Who's trusty companion K9 and distantly related to Battle Star Galactica's Muffet, Aibo walks on all fours, has a moving head, tail and mouth and is capable of both reacting to external stimuli and learning from its own behaviour.

Not very cuddly though. Touch sensors recognise tactile stimulation, a CCD camera allows it to "see", a miniature speaker lets it bark and growl and an acceleration sensor helps keep its (or should I say his?) balance and get up after a fall.

And, wait for it, an optional software package lets you programme new tricks and movements, which are transferred to a memory stick and entered into Aibo. Barbara Woodhouse would have field day. It's based on a 64-bit RISC microprocessor, has 16 MB of memory and runs on Sony's Aperios operating system.

But think twice before you give Fido marching orders. Sony is restricting it to Japanese and US canine lovers.

Still, if you've got $2083 (£1300) to spare and a friend overseas then you too could be the proud owner of Aibo.

Sharp Internet MiniDisc

Sorry to slip in yet another MP3 player, especially one that's not even out yet, but this is the troublesome little format's year after all. And this sounds to us like the sort of thing that will really help kick things into the mainstream.

The Internet MiniDisc package from Sharp not only offers a fully functional MiniDisc recorder but also gives you a portable MP3 player into the bargain.

To do this Sharp has teamed up with Voquette to bundle its NetLink software. This will let you download, record and manage Internet audio files and create personalised playlists. The software will also let you convert text into voice. These playlists can then be recorded onto MiniDiscs for playback on the MD player.

The formats supported by NetLink include RealAudio, Microsoft Windows Media, MP3, HTML, email and text files. To record audio content you just drag and drop it from a Web site into the Voquette Media Manager. It's then automatically recorded.

The main advantages to this little beauty is that the player gives you the easy editing facilities associated with MiniDisc and, more importantly, it lets you carry around your MP3 collection at an affordable price. Blank MDs sell for a few quid, compared to anything up £100 for the SmartMedia cards used in portable MP3 players.

The package includes the Voquette NetLink adapter for connecting the MD player to your PC.

The bad news is that although Sharp is "in discussions over a UK launch date", according to a spokesman, no such date has yet been set. Still, you can always nip over to America with $249 (about £154) and get one.

Orange WAP phone

Joining MP3 and DVD as the most talked about technologies this year was the Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP. We were starting to doubt whether it would ever get here, but in November Orange launched the UK's first WAP-enabled mobile phone. So finally the real mobile Internet revolution is here. Well, until GPRS arrives, which is before EDGE arrives and so on and so on.

However WAP is here now, it works and it's very, very exciting.

The Orange-badged Nokia 7110e includes a microbrowser to give access to he Orange WAP portal, which displays content providers passed by Orange. It will also list those who have not yet passed. Each subscriber to the Orange services will have his or her own homepage where content providers will be selected. These will then be displayed on the phone's main menu.

This allows to browse a wide range of online content. A "navi-roller" button make scrolling through the menu options a cinch and the whole service works surprisingly quickly and smoothly. After a day with one of these little fellows you find yourself addicted the convenience or being able to call up news, weather, cinema listings and more, no matter where you are.

The real beauty of WAP phones will be revealed when transactional abilities are introduced early next year, letting you not only check train times over your mobile but buy the tickets as well.

Next page: Top gadgets of the 20th century

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