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Pogue: Doling Out the Pogies

Good evening, and welcome to the third annual Pogie awards! Let’s hear it for Rico and the band!

A customer at an Apple store at Southpark Mall in Charlotte, N.C., examines the new Apple iPhone during the first day of sales for the device, Friday, June 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Jason E. Miczek).
Jason E. Miczek
A customer at an Apple store at Southpark Mall in Charlotte, N.C., examines the new Apple iPhone during the first day of sales for the device, Friday, June 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Jason E. Miczek).

As you know, this award was created to celebrate the tiny glints of cleverness and innovation that sometimes appear in consumer electronics. We award 10 Pogie trophies — not to products, but to individual features within them. These are the small breakthroughs that made it through committee and past the marketers and lawyers, the tiny improvements that should become standard in their product categories.

The FedEx envelope, please!

VISUAL VOICE MAIL All right, there was absolutely zero suspense on this one. Everybody knows that the iPhone’s voice mail software is not just one of the machine’s best features, but the way voice mail should be from now on.

On a normal cellphone, you dial in and listen to some half-awake lady drone, "You . . . have . . . thirty . . . one . . . messages," followed by 15 seconds of pointless instructions that are meant to eat up your minutes.

On an iPhone, your messages are listed as in your e-mail program. You tap one to play it. No dialing, no instructions, and you can listen to the messages in any order you like.

TV-REMOTE THUMB WHEEL The Vudu is a $400 box that connects to your TV and offers instant access to 5,000 movies. (You can watch a movie for $2 to $4, or buy it for $15 or $20.) But the real genius is the clickable scroll wheel on the Vudu’s remote, exactly like the one on a computer mouse. It’s ideal for navigating the Vudu’s lists; during playback, the wheel is a variable-speed rewind/fast-forward shuttle control.

A scroll wheel would work equally wonderfully on TiVo-type recorders and even audio systems and TV sets. You could adjust the volume, or zip from channel 4 to channel 723 with a couple of quick spins on the wheel.

CAMERA-TO-CAMERA BEAMING It’s absurd how much effort you have to expend just to give a freshly snapped photo to somebody standing next to you. Whether you copy down e-mail addresses or provide an online Web-gallery address, it’s delayed gratification and a lot of hassle.

Some of Fujifilm’s latest cameras offer a perfect on-the-spot solution: instant camera-to-camera infrared photo beaming. A full-resolution photo arrives in someone else’s camera in only three seconds.

Now, this trick works only with Fuji cameras; the “can I have that shot?” problem won’t truly go away until every camera has this technology. But when it comes to the Pogie awards, it’s the idea that counts.

T-MOBILE HOTSPOT@HOME Everybody knows that you can make phone calls over the Internet; just ask the 250 million people who use Skype. Imagine how cool that would be on a cellphone, though. Any time you’re in a wireless hot spot, you could make free calls, without using up your monthly minutes.

Yet for some unfathomable reason, cellphone companies have resisted offering such a feature.

All but T-Mobile, that is. On its HotSpot@Home phones (there are now four models, including a BlackBerry), all calls are free when you’re in a hot spot. You even get a free (after rebate) Wi-Fi base station for your home, so all calls at home are free, too.

But here’s the amazing breakthrough: if you leave the house, your call is handed off to T-Mobile’s cellular network seamlessly; you go right on chatting. Better yet, calls that began in a hot spot remain free even after you’re on the cell network.

The service costs $20 a month on top of a regular voice plan. But you can still come out way ahead, because the Wi-Fi feature might permit you to choose a plan that includes fewer cellular minutes.

AUDIO-LIMITING EARBUDS Christine Ingemi worried about the effects of iPod listening on her children’s hearing. One day, she could hear those back-seat earbuds all the way from the driver’s seat of the van — and she decided to do something about it.

She tried setting the iPod’s volume limiter, which requires a password to bypass. But her young iPod fans wiped out the password by resetting the iPod.

So she invented the iHearSafe earbuds ($20, ihearsafe.com), which replace the earbuds on any music player. They limit the volume to 80 decibels, or 85 if bass or treble boost is turned on. (A standard iPod goes up to 120 decibels; the European version is limited, by law, to 100.)

SHARED MEDIA FOLDERS Programs like VMWare Fusion and Parallels permit you to run Windows on a Macintosh — without having to restart the computer. You get Windows in a window, on top of Mac OS X.

This year, those programs have added a lovely little idea: you can tell Windows to use the Mac’s Music, Pictures and Movies folders as its own Music, Pictures and Movies folders. Both operating systems now hook up to the same photo, music and video collections, which makes overwhelming sense.

HIGH-DEFINITION PHOTOS No matter how many megapixels your digital camera captures, when you connect the camera to your TV — even an HDTV — you’re getting a 640-by-480-pixel image. That’s right: a third of a megapixel.

Unless, that is, you have a camera like a Nikon D300, Sony Cybershot DSC-H3 or Samsung Digimax L85. They’re among the first cameras that can send high-def signals to HDTV sets, thanks to built-in HDMI or component-cable jacks. TV slide shows from these babies look absolutely stunning.

LAMP SPEAKERS In the great annals of husband-wife arguments, the surround-sound debate is around No. 27. You want to put two rear-channel speakers just behind the couch. Your beloved objects to the ugliness and clutter of two speakers on stands, with cables, right in the middle of the TV room.

Installing ceiling speakers is expensive and messy, and it doesn’t put the speakers at the right height.

The Soundolier Duo Wireless Speaker Lamp is also expensive ( $510 for a pair from Amazon.com), but it neatly solves the cosmetic issues. A 5.25-inch speaker is hidden inside what looks like a stylish black torchiere-style floor lamp. A wireless transmitter for your TV or receiver eliminates the speaker cables. Clever stuff.

MAPPING BREAKTHROUGHSGoogle Maps (maps.google.com) has been blowing MapQuest off the map for some time now. But three new features make it head-spinningly great.

First, Street View: 360-degree panorama photos of any spot on a street (at least in the cities that Google has photographed so far). It’s an amazing way to see where you’re going, find out what sort of neighborhood to expect, and so on.

Second, Google Maps displays live traffic data with color coding on major roads.

Finally, when Google shows you its suggested driving route on the map, you can drag that line onto another road with your mouse. You might want to avoid that traffic, take a more scenic route or just use a shortcut you know, for example. Unbelievably useful. And it’s great to see that Yahoo Maps (maps.yahoo.com) have caught up to Google on the last two features.

CELLULAR FLASH DRIVE For $60 a month, you can enjoy the ultimate geek luxury: high-speed wireless Internet. Not just in hot spots, where your laptop is tethered to a 150-foot wireless bubble — but anywhere you can make a phone call.

You just need a cellular modem. You can get one either as a card for your laptop’s card slot, or a U.S.B. stick that resembles a flash drive.

Novatel’s idea: make a cellular U.S.B. antenna that actually is a U.S.B. flash drive. The new Ovation U727 ($80 from Sprint , $150 from Verizon , with two-year contract) lets you install a MicroSD memory card (up to 4 gigabytes) — yet it’s even smaller than its predecessors.

So for all its problems, 2007 was actually a great year for fresh technology ideas. If the recent rate of innovation is any indication, 2008 should be a happy new year indeed.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.

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