The evolution of electronics is putting increasing power into shrinking spaces. But sophistication doesn't have to mean complexity. Some of the most appealing new mobile devices banish the regret that buyers often feel with a do-everything device that is packed with functions they feel guilty for not tapping. One benefit of frugal shopping is that the purchase can also offer the gift of simplicity.
"A true gift is something you can hand to a spouse or child that you know they'll be able to use," says Amol Sarva, cofounder of the company that developed the Peek ($100, plus $20 a month). This new, palm-size device is aimed at the 90 percent of U.S. consumers who aren't getting E-mail while on the move.
The Peek does one thing—get and send E-mail—and does it well. Though sleek and thin, it has a hardware keyboard that's comfortable for thumb typing, with a wheel for navigating its straightforward menus. The monthly fee buys unlimited E-mail, including support for all major providers, such as MSN, Google, and Yahoo. The Peek automatically downloads the mail, though it can take several minutes for a message to come through.
The Peek connects over T-Mobile's cellular network, which means no hunting for a Wi-Fi hotspot. Software updates install themselves. One coming soon will allow text messaging to cellphones. Another update should add larger typefaces—the Peek's current small type can be challenging to read. And the device isn't for avowed techies willing to tackle the complexity of a smartphone to reduce the number of gadgets in their pockets.
The Peek also comes with no long-term contract, which is especially good in uncertain times. The same appeal holds for prepaid cellphones, whose users—or their parents—buy minutes up front with no contract. The newest perk is that prepaid phones no longer mean yesterday's technology. The Virgin Mobile Shuttle ($100) is a full-featured cellphone and the company's first that can tap high-speed, 3G data networks. A keypad that slides behind its 2-inch color screen keeps the phone compact. The phone's Web browser isn't as powerful as some others, but it can connect to the many sites designed for mobile devices. And while its camera captures decent, 1.3-megapixel pictures, the images aren't as good as those from other phones with similar specs. The phone includes Bluetooth, a media player, and a GPS chip for navigation.
While it's encouraging that cellphones like the Shuttle can help travelers find their way, the reality is that even a basic standalone GPS receiver like the Garmin Nuvi 205 ($150) does a better job. Its screen is larger at 3.5 inches, and its software is easier to navigate than a cellphone's GPS. The Nuvi doesn't include the extras like a media player, spoken street names, or Bluetooth found on higher-end models. But its maps of the continental 48 states and Garmin's easy-to-use-software will get travelers to their destinations.
Simplicity and convenience are also strengths of the new sANSASlotMusic Player ($20) from SanDisk. SanDisk is known best for making memory chips, and the company thinks it can sell more by adding prerecorded music. The four major record labels are releasing slotMusic memory cards ($15) with MP3 albums; the microSD cards slip into many cellphones and some music players.
The slotMusic player produces good sound with simple controls that only adjust volume and skip forward or back to other tracks. It has no internal memory; its slot for a microSD card instead gives it potentially unlimited storage. But the limited controls would make it impractical to navigate gigabytes of music. Players branded for particular artists include a slotMusic card, with the combination selling for $35. The new cards and players are unlikely to stall the iPod-driven march to digital downloads. But they offer new convenience, especially for impulse buys when away from a PC.
Internet radio offers even cheaper music; it's free. But the thousands of stations on the Net can be overwhelming. The Aluratek USB Internet Radio Jukebox ($40) makes it easy to find and organize favorite stations. Looking like any stand-ard thumb drive, the Jukebox loads software onto a Windows PC that offers an iTunes-like organizer of more than 13,000 Internet stations. The software helps users explore stations, either geographically by clicking around on a world map or by genre through lists of what it considers the top 10 stations in groups like "talk" or "jazz." Users can also tag and vote for their favorites.