Having been a dad for the last 13 years, I can tell you that there are few moments more humbling than trying to get a gadget to work under the increasingly skeptical gaze of your kids on Christmas morning. So I made a pact with myself: When I picked my favorite gadgets for the holidays, they’d not only be powerful, fun and shiny, but they’d also be to easy to start up in front of the kids.
When it comes to high-tech toys and tools that are simple to set up and fun to use, here are the best — and the easiest — of the best. Be sure to tune in to TODAY on Christmas morning, when we’ll give you a quick “out-of-the-box” tutorial to get you started with each of the following:
AT&T Video Share
A Dick Tracy-like advance in technology: AT&T’s Video Share technology lets you have a real-time (one-way) video telephone conversation with somebody else, no matter where they are in the country, on your mobile phone. Works almost anywhere in the U.S. A built-in camera in the phone points at you or your surroundings while you talk, so your relatives on the other end can see what you’re seeing, live. Any kid who is a fan of the “Mike TV” character in “Willy Wonka” will love this one. Plan starts at $4.99 per month. Some video phones are free with 2-year plan, www.att.com
Eye-Fi Wireless SD card
Eye-Fi is the world’s first wireless SD memory card for digital cameras. Translation: Eye-Fi has turned that little removable SD card in your digital camera (which stores your pictures) into a transmitter; the second you walk near a wireless signal in your home, the Eye-Fi SD card sends your pictures — wirelessly — to any one of 17 online photo sites (like Kodak Gallery) or social networking sites (like Facebook).
Again, you don’t have to do anything to upload your pictures — with the Eye-Fi, just get near a hot spot; the Eye-Fi will automatically send your pictures to your computer, and to many photo services on the Web. No cables. No getting online. $99, www.eye.fi
Nintendo has lapped the field. Everybody wants a Wii. Why? When you look at it on paper, it’s hard to understand. The company created a slower, lower-resolution video game, and next to Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation 3, it looks a little dated, a little old-fashioned. But then pick up the intuitive game controller, and in seconds, you’ve figured out the attraction — for one thing, there are no instructions needed. For another, all ages in one family seem drawn to the game’s simplicity. And for sure, the fact that the game connects you to the image through natural human motion is a big attraction. The Wii is more fun, takes no time to learn and now has the odds-on favorite for Video Game of the Year: Super Mario Galaxy. No wonder they sold 350,000 Wii home systems just in the first week of this year’s holiday shopping season. $249, www.nintendo.com
New Apple iMAC desktop computer
A huge percentage of home movies are made on Christmas Day, and the new Apple iMac offers by far the simplest, fastest way to make those movies. Using software called iMovie, which is included on all iMacs, all you have to do is shoot what you want, connect your camcorder to the computer with a cable and iMovie takes care of the rest. When it asks you if you want to “import” the clips, click on “yes.” Then, drag the video clips of your family that you just made into any order you want (just clicking and dragging does it). Last but not least, add a music track by doing the same thing — clicking on a piece of music you have on your computer, and dragging it under the video clips. Then press “play.” Suddenly, Spielberg. The iMac is among the easiest, most intuitively designed home computers ever made. $1,199 to $2,299,
Olympus SP 560 UZ
By far the fastest-growing segment of the digital camera business (digital cameras are the No. 1 tech present for Christmas) is called the UltraZoom category. It lies between the traditional Point-and-Shoot category and the pricier, more-complicated Digital SLR. The new Ultra-Zoom has most of the power of a Digital SLR but with the weight and compact dimensions of the Point-and-Shoot. The best in show — the Canon SP 560 UZ — has an amazing zoom lens and a truly intuitive way of controlling your picture-taking. $449, www.olympusamerica.com
The Sirius Stiletto 2
The Stiletto 2 is the lightest, easiest-to-use portable satellite music player in the world. If there was one drawback to satellite radio (which picks up signals from orbiting satellites that hover over the United States), it was the way the players worked. They either had to be connected to cars or, if they were portable (a recent development), they were about as easy to use as Rubik’s Cubes. The new, sleek, shiny Stiletto 2 has a simple-to-navigate system and a very large, high-resolution, color LCD screen. The best part — other than the intuitive buttons — is that you can take it outside on a walk, bike ride or hike and pick up more than 100 channels of digital radio, plus the Stiletto picks up Wi-Fi Internet signals. So you can stream Sirius.com from your computer and listen to satellite radio ... inside. $279,
While the model name on this Samsung flat-screen TV is a little too tech-y for my taste, the image is simply stunning ... which is more than I used to be able to say for any LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) screen. In fact, in the past, no matter how loudly manufacturers touted the beauty of their respective LCD TV sets, I always preferred plasma sets. Here’s why: To me, the true test of a great picture is the difference between the picture’s blacks and whites. The bigger the difference between the two, the more crisp and “alive” the images look. It’s called a “contrast ratio.” Plasma TVs have traditionally had fantastic contrast ratios, while LCDs lagged behind, but Samsung’s new 40” LCD flat-screen TV has a contrast ratio that rivals that of plasma’s. Plus, the thing simply looks gorgeous and (when you’re ready to delve into the new ultra-high-definition movie format), it is a 1080p television set, so it makes those new Blu-Ray or HD DVD discs look great. $2,399,
Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a “Men’s Journal” magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate.