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Electronic devices: Don’t leave home without them

High-tech gadgets now affordable to take on vacations

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Jim Barry's carry-on luggage, a green canvas satchel, looks as ratty as can be. In an airport, he'd be hard-pressed to give it away.

But the contents are a veritable treasure trove: a portable DVD player, walkie-talkies, a digital video camera, a digital camera, an MP3 player and more.

Traveling light doesn't mean traveling without.

The size and capability of these tiny electronic items are perfect demonstrations of the "liberating effect of technology," according to Barry, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association. It's a concept that has caught on in a big way. Last year, Americans spent $85 billion on consumer electronic products.

Here's a quick guide to some vacation take-alongs:

Digital camera. A digital camera with 1.5 million pixels, creating very clear shots, costs about $400. Slightly lesser models start for under $200, and Barry predicts the price has just begun to go down.

The beauty of digital cameras lies in the lack of need for film or processing. Just put the images on a disk, e-mail it to friends or transfer it directly to computer or digital tape.

Change is fast and recent, too. We used cameras and film processing for about 150 years, he said. Digital cameras have been around about four. And in that time, price has dropped significantly, while quality has gone up. If you're willing to pay $1,000 or more, you can get more than 3 million pixels.

Some digital cameras have crazy functions, like the ability to change hair color, drop pounds and add mustaches, Barry said.

The JVC Cybercam he carries can "drop people in and out of photos" and create a variety of special effects. But be warned, there are ethical issues to altering photos, depending on how they're to be used.

Digital camcorder. Barry's carrying a JVC unit, which sells for about $1,400. Digital camcorders start at about $800. And many of them act as both a camcorder and a digital camera. Among the most popular units are those that use a digital video cassette, which providers better picture quality than the old VHS. They're also 25 percent better than the newer Hi-8 format, he said, and you can plug item into the computer to edit videos and snapshots.

DVD player. The digital video disk is one the "hottest, fastest-growing new electronics products ever," Barry said. It's also the fastest growing consumer personal entertainment product since television sales went wild from 1947 to 1950.

In 1997, the year it was introduced, more than 424,000 DVD players sold; in 1998 sales jumped to 1.1 million. Predictions for '99 said 2 million, far below the 4 million that were actually purchased. And this year, "we're on a pace to do 8 million."

They'll be more popular still when movies are more widely available. Right now, about 9,000 titles can be had on DVD.

Home decks start at about $200, while portables are $800 or better. As for the portables, some airports even rent them for flights. Pick one up in Cincinnati and drop it off when you land in Los Angeles.

They're not likely to replace VCRs for a good long time, though, because most of them cannot record, although Pioneer has one on the market in Japan for $2,400.

Speaking of VCRs, their sales were up almost 25 percent — to 22 million.

"We're beginning to see a generation of people who wouldn't consider traveling without their MP3 players. They take along, on disk, their digital music downloads and "it's fundamentally changing the music business," Barry said, both in terms of how music is recorded and how it's distributed.

It can be downloaded at a rate of about 1 mb a minute, and for FM quality, the average disk holds an hour's worth of tunes or 32 minutes of CD-quality.

Barry's bag contains an RCA Lyra personal digital player, which will also play a Windows media file.

Regardless of brand, you download the music to your computer, then load it onto different cards if you want.

While the MP3 player average price is about $125-$300, the prices are coming down fast.

Barry also packs along a personal digital assistant, in this instance a Palm VII. It's a popular version because it's "an extension of the computer, not a replacement. It takes out the extras, fits in the pocket and goes online." It lets him get on the Internet when he wants, listen to music and organize his day with schedules and more.

Such handheld devices come in all varieties, and consumers can pick the ones with the functions they want. His, for instance, typically sells for under $500.

Web-enabled telephone, some nearly unbelievably tiny, allow Internet access, e-mail functions and a lot more. Besides making and taking phone calls, he can look for a restaurant when he travels, check airline schedules and more.

It's also easy to pop a pair of tiny family radios, like walkie-talkies, into the bag. They sell for up to $50 each, have as many as 14 channels, and are perfect for distances up to about two miles. When the kids go camping, hunting over even wander off in the mall, it's an easy way to stage a reunion. And they use regular batteries.

E-mail: lois@desnews.com