Despite tough times, electronics makers appear to be determined to deliver a touch of luxury this holiday season. They're bucking a history of dreary beige-and-black boxes with devices that look stylish—even beautiful. Smooth lines from nature, colors with a bit of whimsy, and bold designs that enhance functionality are breathing life into a moribund industry.
Maybe gadget makers are emboldened by hints that consumers will spend more freely on tech gifts. While holiday spending is expected to drop overall, electronics should see a bump of 8 percent in sales over last year, according to a survey by the Consumer Electronics Association.
That may be an optimistic forecast. But we're encouraged by the growing trend toward striking design. Here are 10 of the best-looking devices for holiday gift-giving:
Samsung BD-P4600 Blu-ray Player ($280). Home theaters are full of boring black boxes, with DVD players are a big part of the problem. This Samsung Blu-ray model reshapes the mold with rounded corners and sculpted lines that come together in a case that's only 1.5 inches thick. The player doesn't neglect the innards, though. The device can stream Netflix, Blockbuster, and YouTube videos and Pandora music—and pump out 1080p Blu-ray movies. An included WiFi dongle wirelessly connects the player for streaming and Blu-ray's interactive features, though the latter are still too scarce. And the dongle disrupts the player's smooth lines.
[It appears the Blu-ray format is gaining traction against standard DVDs.]
The Loop Pointer ($100). More living rooms are home to computers that viewers hook to their big-screen TVs so they can tap the growing list of Internet services that stream commercial movies and shows. The striking, O-shaped Loop replaces the keyboard and mouse that would clutter a coffee table and makes it easier to navigate a PC's menus. Held in the hand, the Loop responds to natural motions for moving up, down, and sidewise, and its four buttons click their way across menus and virtual keyboards. It takes getting used to, and a real keyboard should be kept handy for quick typing. But the Loop goes a long way toward making a home theater PC more graceful and less geeky.
Pogoplug ($130). The first generation of this device, a boring-looking box that did an exciting job of networking USB drives, has morphed into a more powerful version propped on a fanciful, bright-pink stand. The device can now handle four USB drives that connect easily to a home network. More impressively, the Pogoplug taps into a Web service that makes drive contents available across the Internet. That means easy access from the road to files and photos at home, or sharing them with friends and family scattered across the world. It works with PCs, Macs, and even Linux PCs.
[Consumers have a number of options for sharing photos and videos.]
LaCie Golden Disk ($130). Add glamour to the tedium of backing up files with this flashy external drive. LaCie is known for eye-catching design in computer peripherals and good hardware, and the Golden Disk has taken the fashion expression to a new level with a solid-performing drive. The fanless case adds no audio clutter and is speedy enough with its USB connector. The wavy gold look, on the other hand, can slow the work flow in an office as coworkers stop to stare, but there is no denying the fun. There's also no denying that the shiny surface seems to attract dust. LaCie includes decent backup software that works with Windows and Macs.
[Other web services and software make it easy to back up crucial data.]
Panasonic SC-ZT1 Wireless Home Theater ($1,500). Movie enthusiasts who aren't enthusiastic about surround sound's web of wires get a break with this wireless system. Plus, the speakers themselves are slender, spindle-like stands that are as attractive as they are unobtrusive. Each of the spindles packs four speakers and a subwoofer, with a receiver that balances the signals to create a roomful of sound mimicking a 7.1 system. On the downside, the price is no break for anyone, wireless is never as reliable as wired, and four speakers can't fully match eight.
Jabra Stone ($120). This Bluetooth headset does away with the booms that extend microphones off the ear, leaving the Stone with a clean, swooping design. Jabra says a boom isn't needed for sound quality. The Stone also does a good job of canceling out ambient noise. But it may not fit all ears comfortably. A charger that encases the headset in a smooth-looking package gives rise to the Stone name. The headset's internal battery is rated at two hours of talk time. The charger itself has a battery that can supply another six hours of run time. But there is no way to juice up the headset alone with its proprietary connector to the charger, so the case has to come with you.
[Another stylish Bluetooth headset responds to voice commands.]
Samsung Pebble ($40). Continuing the rock theme, the Samsung Pebble relies on a smooth case that looks like it was sculpted in a flowing stream. The Pebble is only 1.5-inches wide and a half-inch thick, making it look like a pendant when it hangs from lanyardlike earbuds. No screen means limited control over playback, but buttons allow switching between shuffle mode and a 30-song playlist. The functions of the five buttons are clear, but more sophisticated capabilities—such as managing the playlist from within the player—require a trip to the manual.
Neat Desk Scanner ($400). There's nothing sexy about a document scanner. So it's laudable that the Neat Co. has made its scanner attractive with muted colors, rounded corners, and smooth lines. The scanner sits at an angle, easing document handling and reducing its footprint on a crowded desk. The NeatDesk quickly captures both sides of documents with one pass, a convenience reserved for high-end scanners. And a unique insert makes it easier to scan thin receipts and business cards. The included software offers a sophisticated, though not always intuitive, system for organizing documents. The software also makes a reasonable if incomplete effort at turning scans into a text-filled database.
Dell Adamo XPS ($1,800). As the recession deepened this year, Dell bravely announced the latest in its increasingly bold PC designs. The Adamo's jaw-dropping thinness bests the MacBook Air, though the Dell is longer and wider. The Adamo's slimness is made possible by a keyboard and main case that appear to fold into the 13.4-inch screen. Even opening the laptop case is slick, with the clamshell remaining tightly closed until a finger swipe starts the screen swinging on an unusual hinge that also lifts the main case for extra cooling. Specs are respectable for an ultra-thin model. The price is steeper than comparable Windows models, but bragging rights never come cheap.
[The Adamo seemed ill-timed when announced last spring.]
Sonoro Elements W ($500). European styling from German maker Sonoro includes a glossy lacquer and acrylic finish to set the Elements W apart from other Internet radios. The compact case packs an FM radio and WiFi antenna that enable the device to pull in more than 13,000 stations, over the air and over the Internet. A brushed-metal wheel navigates the stations by categories that are displayed on a bright OLED display, while a radio-frequency remote works through walls. But attaching an iPod requires an optional dock that adds $100 to the already steep price tag. At least the base model includes an alarm clock with snooze function.