Face the Music
Until now I have resisted buying a CD changer capable of holding 200 music discs for one simple reason: Unless you keep meticulous track of the discs' positions in these changers, they're no different from throwing CDs into a box and fishing around for one with your eyes closed.
Well, here's an eye-opener: Escient Inc.'s new, Java-run TuneBase 100, your changer's very own music librarian. A slimmed-down version of Escient's more complicated TuneBase 2000i home-theater model, the TuneBase 100 recognizes CDs as they're loaded into the changer (and when they're removed); alphabetizes and categorizes them by genre (rock, jazz, classical, etc.); and allows you to select them by cover art, title, song, or artist, which information is displayed on your TV screen. It even lets you customize song lists—great for parties.
"TuneBase 100 reintroduces you to your music collection," says Tom Doherty, Escient's executive vice president of product strategy. "It makes the CD changer useful. You can load your CDs and walk away."
With one minor inconvenience. Here's what I found.
The look It's the same size and shape as a stereo tuner—yet another black box in the living room.
How it works After you load new CDs, TuneBase automatically dials up Escient's on-line server, which connects to CDDB Database, the Internet's largest music library.(Es- cient acquired CDDB last year.) TuneBase feeds the TOC, or Table of Contents, data contained on each CD to CDDB, which searches among its files of more than 500,000 music titles (500 new discs are added daily to its roster). When CDDB finds information on your recently loaded CDs—the same information you find on the CD jacket cover—it downloads it to TuneBase, which in turn displays the information on your TV screen. (As with a VCR, you can toggle back and forth between television shows and the TuneBase display.)
Set-up Easier than a VCR. You attach one cord to the CD changer, one to the TV, and one to the phone line.
Inputting options TuneBase 100 comes with an infrared remote (which you can also use to operate the CD changer but not to change TV channels or to operate stereo receiver volume) and a wireless keyboard. For an extra $1,800 you can also purchase a touch-screen monitor. Scott Jones, president and CEO of Escient (he helped invent voice-mail technology), reportedly has a monitor recessed into the walls of every room of his house. Of all three options I prefer the remote for its convenient size and portability.
On-screen graphics Crisp and colorful, like a video game rather than a Windows program.
Efficiency High, considering TuneBase's task—but it still needs 15 to 20 minutes to download information on 10 CDs, two to three hours for 200. (The maximum number of CDs it can manage is 600.)
Flexibility Excellent. You can create innumerable play lists, limited only by your CD collection. TuneBase indicates the total playing time for each list, which you can print if you attach a printer. Or you can select "random," and TuneBase will pick the music for you, not repeating a single song until it has played every one on every CD in the changer. (You can also narrow down its selection by indicating specific artists or music styles.) If you don't agree with TuneBase's categorization of CDs—for instance, if you think an artist plays funk, not rock—you can recategorize them using the keyboard or custom-create your own categories (e.g., "Chicago jazz").
Performance If your music collection is mainstream, TuneBase will most likely recognize all of the CDs you load. "But it has a hard time with some classical music," Doherty admits, "and small, alternative rock groups." If it doesn't recognize a CD, TuneBase will prompt you to type in the jacket information yourself using the wireless keyboard.
Compatibility Works with any television, but only with Sony or Denon CD changers.
The inconvenience Unless you have a dedicated phone line for TuneBase, consider yourself unreachable while it's at work.
My advice When you load new CDs, take note of the slot numbers and instruct TuneBase to check only those slots. It will shorten the download time significantly.
Cost Here's where the note goes flat: $3,000, which is especially steep considering that an average Sony 200-CD changer costs only $250. Escient Inc., 800-372-4368; www.escient.com.
Capturing printed text and graphics is easy with the Hewlett-Packard CapShare 920 Portable E-Copier ($499), a lightweight (12.5 oz.), hand-held (5.5 x 4.1 x 1.5 in.) digital copier with resolution that rivals that of low-end, flatbed scanners. You scan documents by running CapShare over them, transfer them to your PC in seconds using the device's infrared port, then convert them into edit-ready text using the bundled Pagis Pro 2.0 software. Easy as one-two-three. Hewlett-Packard Business Store, 800-613-2222; www.hp.com.
The Sony MZ-R55 Mini-Disc portable recorder ($350) is smaller than a portable CD player (3.19 x 0.75 x 3.25 in.; 5.25 oz.), less susceptible to skipping, and records up to 74 minutes of music in stereo from a home audio system. The caveat: There are only approximately 500 prerecorded Mini-Disc titles available. The solution: Buy five blank Mini-Discs for $17 per pack and get to work. Sony Electronics, 800-222-7669; www.sony.com.
The Dictaphone Walkabout Quest digital recorder ($299; 2.4 x 4.5 x 0.8 in.; 5.3 oz. with battery) performs all the tasks of a microcassette player—record, rewind, cue, and play—but with much higher sound quality. It also allows you to organize your ramblings (up to 40 minutes' worth with a 2MB card) in files, or upload them to your PC for e-mailing or printing. The drawback: The dimly lit screen is hard to read, even with the backlight on. Dictaphone Corporation, 800-447-7749; www.dictaphone.com.
Harman Kardon's Take Control ($349) universal remote is designed to work with nearly every brand of stereo, television, VCR, or other piece of home-theater equipment. It's larger and heavier than most (7.5 x 2.1 x 3.4 in; 13.4 oz. with batteries), but for good reason: The display is so large it includes a series of extremely useful, on-screen buttons which you can program, with the help of your personal computer, for specific activities, such as "watch TV" or "listen to a CD." Harman Kardon, 800-422-8027; www.harmankardon.com.
The Nikon 5x15 High Grade Monocular ($300) is both a magnifying glass and telescope. At 2.6 ounces and palm-size (2.8 x 0.15 in.), it's the perfect theater companion. Nikon USA, 800-247-3464; www.nikonusa.com.
Until now transferring videos from camcorders to personal computers has required complicated video-transfer software. With the Sharp VN-EZ1U Internet ViewCam ($700), which uses Internet-friendly MPEG-4 standard video compression, all you need do is to hook up the floppy disk adapter (included) and give the command. It's small (3.2 x 3.5 x 1.7 in.), lightweight (8.5 oz. without batteries), and takes still photographs to boot. Sharp Electronics Cooperation, 800-237-4277; www.sharp-usa.com.
These two digital cameras caught our eye. The Kodak DC265 ($899; 4.6 x 2.2 x 4.2 in.; 14.4 oz.) is a 1.6-megapixel model designed with serious photographers in mind. (Pixels are the dots used to create a digital photo.) It offers on-board editing and can send images directly to a PC or Macintosh. It includes a built-in, 3X-zoom lens; a flash with red-eye reduction; and special effects such as bursts and time lapses. The lighter, smaller (3.1 x 3.8 x 1.3 in.; 8.5 oz.), but still top-quality Fujifilm MX-2700 ($699), has an output of 2.3 million pixels, making it one of the highest-quality digital cameras available. It comes with a manual mode that allows you to fine-tune settings—white balance, brightness, forced flash—and a serial cable to connect it to a PC or Mac. Eastman Kodak Company, 800-235-6325; www.kodak.com. Fujifilm, 800-800-3854; www.fujifilm.com.
Slight of Hand
The Visor Deluxe ($249; 8MB) personal digital assistant from Handspring Inc., founded last year by the creators of PalmPilot, comes with the usual features, from address book to calendar; has a built-in microphone and infrared port; and is compatible with PCs. But what makes it stand out most is its chameleonlike potential: With third-party modules currently under development, it will be able to function as a cell phone, digital camera, or even a universal remote control. It also comes in five colors (green, orange, blue, black, and "ice") and is compatible with Palm software. For more basic versions (less memory, only in graphite), try Visor ($179; 2MB) or Visor Solo ($149; doesn't sync with a PC). Handspring Inc., 650-566-8100; www.handspring.com.
— Keith Kirkpatrick