Less than four shopping days to Christmas! Yet, if you're like me (and I hope to God that you're not) you still have not found anything to give the friends and relatives you've tortured throughout the year. Last week, in our annual review of gifts, I cheerily expounded on my theory for the holidays: the best present is the one you get yourself. With that spirit of self-gifting in mind, here are several more high-tech suggestions guaranteed to please: Microsoft's Xbox 360, the Fly Pen Top computer, Sony's LocationFree TV system, Slingbox, and more.
Sony's LocationFree TV
Every once in a great while, a new technology radically transforms our daily routine. Sony's LocationFree Tv (and the Slingbox, described below) bring an exhilarating and revolutionary approach to taking home entertainment anywhere. Basically, you need the LocationFree base station device to stream video, TV, DVDs, over a broadband internet connection. Then, you can watch and control your content from anywhere using the Sony LocationFree display or, more astoundingly, an upgraded Sony PSP handheld device. That's right: I was sitting in a hotel in Tel Aviv last week, watching local New York television transmitted wireless from my home Tivo half the world away… and all I needed in Tel Aviv was wireless connection and my Sony PSP! But the LocationFree system also allows you to control and view your home entertainment system wirelessly around your house as well. The system comes with a 12-inch LocationFree flat screen TV (which you can use to web-surf as well) about 100 feet away from the base station. Are you following this? Sony's system lets you hook your various video sources to the web… allowing you to watch everything anywhere. I will confess that the initial setup was a little scary, but the Sony folks did an excellent job keeping things simple. Of course, we still needed to call for help at one point, but that was mostly our own dopiness.
To get the get LocationFree functionality on the PSP, we had to download some new software, too. The complete system with portable flatscreen (but minus the PSP) is approx $1,300.
Like the more high-end LocationFree Tv, Slingbox allows you to watch your home TV (your cable, your digital or satellite TV, your TiVo or other DVR, etc.) from anywhere you can get a broadband connection on your mobile device. Most users turn their laptops on the road into the "screen" to watch and control their DVRs at home. Again, Slingbox set up is by no means without some effort and you do need high-speed internet connections (both at home and on the road), plus your laptop or desktop computer must be compatible with Windows XP. (Slingbox says that a Mac version and a Windows Mobile client will be available early 2006.) The video quality is ok, but watching TV on your laptop screen does leave me somewhat cold… especially after I've become spoiled watching much of my TV content in HD on the same DVR the Slingbox controls remotely.
There's another obvious problem you should remember about controlling the Tivo or DVR remotely using Slingbox or LocationFree Tv: somebody at home still using that Tivo to watch TV will kill you if you start changing channels while you're away on the road! The Slingbox is just $200, after $50 rebate. Don't forget that you will also need to connect your Ethernet cable to your Slingbox. Since most of us probably don't have the Ethernet hub next to their TV, for an additional $99 you can use a pair of SlingLink Ethernet adapters to wirelessly get the TV connected to the Net.
FLY Pen Top Computer
LeapFrog has become successful making marvelous and innovative learning toys for children. Their latest leap is to create the first "Pen Top" computer: the Fly Pen. This is not some cheap gadget… but a brilliantly conceived learning tool that is genuinely fun. The system is based around a unique pen-based scanner that works with specially designed paper. Using several different memory cartridge "tops", the Fly provides an astounding interactive learning experience. My son uses the spelling tool to practice his vocabulary words and handwriting. After writing out 20 words on special paper, he uses the Fly pen to play a range of ingenious learning games that highlight these new vocabulary words. There are modes that allow Fly pen users to play games, draw and "play" musical instruments, study math, even practice tests from their actual school textbooks. (LeapFrog has worked closely with most textbook publishers to make this extraordinary capability possible.) The system requires proprietary "Fly Paper", printed with microscopically small patterns barely discernable with the naked eye.
Even adults can use the Fly Pen Top Computer for learning languages or translating foreign words. These are great gifts for kids and for their schools who will surely be adopting these excellent learning tools. Retails at $99.
Microsoft's Xbox 360
Since millions of people have placed orders and are angrily waiting for the newest high-end game console, the Xbox 360, it is somewhat perverse of me to include it in the "must have" gifts for 2005. Yet, having had the pleasure of playing with the Xbox 360, this still is clearly the ultimate immersive game platform. Finally, a console worthy of the HD screens (or high-end projector systems) and 5.1 surround sound many are installing in their game rooms. Xbox 360 games now are optimized for use on widescreen 16:9 aspect ratios and that, alone, makes this worth the wait. HD output bestows and amazing video richness never before enjoyed in any videogame display: racing cars look as close to "real", with astonishing reflections, shadows, color, and detail. When we used the Xbox in a state of the art entertainment room, the game system lived up to the components: the sound was full, engrossing, and, complete. In addition to the very tough time you will have trying to find an Xbox 360, I think you may find some of the early games released for this platform to be very derivative and similar to the appearance of the older Xbox versions. But, I'm convinced, after hours of play using the new Project Gotham Racing 3 game and Call of Duty 2, that this mindblowing technology will radically transform game play. The Xbox 360 comes in two "flavors": the $400 premium bundle and a $300 core system. Pay for the premium system and buy an extra wireless controller… I'm sure you'll get this Christmas present sometime near Spring Break!
Since we're talking about games and presents, here's CBSNews.com GameCore's Top 5 Picks for the Holidays! (One pick for each system)
Resident Evil 4
Rated M for Mature
We're not sure what's more important to gamers this Holiday season: Resident Evil or oxygen? Whatever your pick, great graphics and tens of hours of game time make this a necessary purchase for the holiday season. This installment brings all the horror of the Resident Evil trademark to the GameCube. Not for kids.
For the PC:
Rated M for Mature
Alright, so the name of the game isn't so hot. What is? Everything else about it. Amazing firefights, amazing graphics and atmosphere. Intense doesn't do the game justice. It's spooky, it's relentless and it's fun. It does have that weird, creepy ghost girl from 'The Ring,' but that's ok. Not for kids.
Shadow Of The Colossus
Rated T for Teen
In Shadow of the Colossus, you take the role of a young man seeking the truth of an ancient tale of power hidden in a mystical world. The game is a majestic journey through ancient lands to seek out and destroy monstrously huge mythical beasts. The uneasy task of defeating a Colossus relies on intelligent puzzle solving and action oriented gameplay. This is a brilliantly executed adventure game.
Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without A Pulse [ ]
Rated M for Mature
What is better than being a zombie in a small town and chewing on the closest civilian while listening to one of the greatest videogame soundtracks to come out this year? Nothing. This is why Stubbs the Zombie should be on your list. It won't disappoint. Go forth and wreak havoc.
Project Gotham Racing 3
Rated E10+ for Everyone Age 10 and Up
We've had the chance to play every launch title at least once, and if you don't have Project Gotham Racing 3 in your library already, you're missing the whole point of having a next-generation system. Of all the 360 launch titles, only a handful of them truly earn the moniker "next-generation game." Project Gotham Racing is one of them.
Note: CBSNews.com's GameCore reviews are written by William Vitka, Chad Chamberlain, Lyndsey Hahn, Alejandro K. Brown.
By Daniel Dubno