Our favorite things. Stumped for gift ideas? Look no further.
It's the time of year when people are in the giving mood, searching for just the right item for spouse, child, colleague, or CFO. Before you settle for yet another gold-plated divot replacer, CO2 bottle stopper, or cabbie's seat cover (the one with the little wooden balls), consider the gadgets and games below.
Outer Space Phone
Cellular phones are getting cheaper to use, but what if you're in the middle of the Sahara desert or Pacific ocean and you need to call your broker, pronto? Chances are, your phone will be useless.
Unless, that is, you have the Satellite Series Mobile Telephone from Motorola Inc. (www.motorola.com), which makes a connection from just about anywhere on the planet. The phone communicates with a constellation of 66 low-orbit satellites circling the earth, making it the perfect gift for people in jobs like oil and gas extraction, disaster relief, or anything else that requires working in remote locations. It's not cheap, though: it sells for $3,395, plus an additional $3 to $6 per minute average air time when you're actually using it.
My Data Guard
Losing the hard disk is bad enough if your laptop computer is stolen, but you don't have to lose the data on it--not if you have a LapJack, that is.
LapJack, from LapJack Systems Inc. ($89; www.lapjack.com), looks like an ordinary key case, but it's for locking and unlocking your data. To boot up a LapJack-protected computer, you have to insert the gizmo into a parallel port, then remove it. (Tip: Keep the LapJack in your pocket, not the laptop bag.)
The 70-mph Desk
For the ultimate road warrior, Mobile Of-fice Outfitter (800-426-3453 or 925-485-5630; www.mobilegear.com) has portable desks that fit in the car within easy reach of the driver. These cleverly designed contraptions provide nonskid surfaces for laptops and places to dock cell phones and notepads. Safety is definitely a concern here, but Mobile Office president George Phirippidis points out that "anyone who is going to work while driving will do so whether he has our products or not." He adds that the desks enhance safety, because everything is an- chored and the driver isn't distracted "by things rolling around the car."
Prices range from $29 to about $250. At the low end is a tray that hooks on the steering wheel and folds down like an airline seat tray. (Use this one only when parked.) At the high end are desks that mount on the passenger side of the floorboard and provide a complete work space.
In the Palm of Your Hand
The Cassiopeia E-10, a new hand-held computer from Casio Inc. ($399; www.casio.com), may be a better value for some users than the Palm III ($399 from 3Com; www.palmpilot.com), successor to the classic PalmPilot. Both are designed to do the same sorts of things--keep track of contact names and meeting schedules, and synchronize data with your desktop computer.
The slick Cassiopeia E-10 has three thumb- controlled customizable buttons be-neath the screen, making it easier than the Palm III to operate with a single hand. The E-10 screen itself is larger--240 x 320 pixels versus 160 x 160 for the Palm III--making the E-10 easier to read. However, the E-10 runs on Windows CE, the Microsoft operating system for hand-held computers, which some users find more complex than the easy-to-use Palm operating system.
Is There an MD in the House?
Now that you've gotten used to the fact that CDs have replaced your LPs, it's time to start switching to something new: MDs. Blank MiniDiscs are popular in Europe and Asia, and are now being rolled out in the United States. An MD is tiny--just 21/2 inches in diameter, compared with 41/2 inches for a CD--but it can record 74 minutes of stereo audio, the same as a CD, or 148 minutes of monaural sound. There are plenty of prerecorded titles already available, and you can record your own MDs using recorders from Sony (www.sel.sony.com) or Sharp (www.sharp-usa.com). The recorders sell for between $200 and $600; blank MDs cost from $3 to $5.
The real jewel of the new technology is Sony's MZ-E35 MD player ($399.95). Its dimensions are a diminutive 31/4 x 1/4 x 33/16 inches, and you can listen to it while walking, running, or playing. The controls are located in a stick-style remote control with LCD on the headphone cord, so you don't have to reach into your pocket to adjust volume or select a track.
A really neat feature of the MZ-E35 is that it contains 40 seconds of shock-resistant memory. This means that if you make an especially jarring move and the MZ-E35 loses its place, it can still play 40 seconds of uninterrupted music, giving it time to find its place again.
Frogs and Ferraris
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and if your favorite nerd used to hang out in video arcades in the '80s, he should enjoy the blast from the past offered by Microsoft's Revenge of Arcade ($34.95; www.microsoft.com), a suite of games from the original coin- operated machines. Games include Ms. Pac-Man, Xevious, Rally-X, Mappy, and Motos. He'll also have fun with the classic Frogger, from Hasbro ($39.95; www.hasbro.com).
But let's say the person on your gift list grew up during the '60s, not the '80s, and daydreamed about tooling around Watkins Glen in a green Lotus like Jim Clark. In that case, he'll want to drive Grand Prix Legends ($49.95 from Sierra Sports Inc.; www.sierrasports.com). Players in this simulation pilot their choice of any of the cars of the 1967 Grand Prix season, a time when, according to Sierra, auto racing "was at its most risky and fantastic." Accordingly, the makers have faithfully reproduced the physics and feel of 1967's fast, unstable race cars, as well as the tour's greatest tracks. The best part: all wipeouts are virtual.
John J. Xenakis
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Remote Control For HRA
Administering employee benefits is an increasingly complicated challenge, and at smaller companies, it's a challenge that may end up on a finance manager's desk. To ease the human-resources workload, some companies outsource part or all of their administrative chores.
A new form of outsourcing relief is an Internet-based benefits-management service, offered by Atlanta-based Employease Inc. (www.employease.com). Called Employease Network, the service is targeted primarily at third-party administrators, but also at small- to-midsized companies that lack the IT resources to ramp up their HR efforts.
"All you need is a browser and a password," says John Nail, chairman and co-founder of the three-year-old company. "There's no hardware and no software costs." Customers pay a setup fee and a monthly fee of $2 to $4 per employee record kept in the service's central database.
To start, a customer loads its employee management files into the database--often by transmitting basic Excel spreadsheets. Anytime an HR staffer needs to upgrade an employee's 401(k) plan or modify health plan information, he simply calls up Employease's Web site and enters the company's password to access the employee's files.
Features of the service include monthly invoices for all lines of coverage, benefits statements, and employee self-service if so desired. What about maintaining security for this sensitive type of information? "The biggest surprise we found is that security is a nonevent for our customers," says Nail. Given the choice, many companies would prefer to keep such information in a secure, off-site location, adds Nail, rather than in office file cabinets or computer systems.
One customer, Abaton.com Inc., swears by the service. "We'd been using basic tools like spreadsheets--sometimes 15 different ones at a time--to gather and reconcile billing, invoicing, and recordkeeping," notes Andrea Crespo, director of HR at the Bloomington, Minn.-based firm, which automates clinical transactions for physicians. "But we recently purchased Employease, and the difference has been tremendous. Before it would take me twice as long to handle those functions. The whole process is easy--everything is in one location." --Brian O'Connell