Hot Topics - Summertime Cool

Cool began with jazz - be-bop in particular, which still is cool. In the '60s, it meant stuff like bell-bottoms - which aren't cool anymore, unless a girl's wearing them. A guy wearing them as a joke could be cool, I guess, but the lines are kind of fuzzy there. Afros definitely aren't cool anymore, at least not on white guys - or at least not at the moment. (But hey, you never know.) Pat Sajak never was cool - never will be.

Here are ten high-tech portables, all making serious claims to cool. They run the gamut from a wristwatch camera to a music-playing cell phone to a digital camcorder to a backpack boombox. All of them run on batteries, in one form or another - although some make heavier demands on the Energizer bunny than others - and all but the smallest ones come with AC adapters.

Six of the ten do MP3 playback, six have USB ports or facilities for some kind of computer connection, and four use tiny memory cards. One major bummer: of the seven devices that can use or require software, only one - the Nomad Jukebox - bothers to include a Mac version. Somebody should tell the software nerds at these companies that Apple is by far the biggest trendsetter in the computer world, and showing such a strong PC bias is way, way uncool.

There's no denying that all of these portables do neat things - some of them do a lot of neat things - but which ones have that elusive it-ness going for them? I gave all of them a thorough workout to determine which are merely functional and which are truly inspired, but my judgments are just general guidelines for cool. The only way to really know is to check the best ones out for yourself.

RCA Kazoo MP3 Player Cool Factor 7

I've saved the smallest for first. At 2 inches wide, a little under 2 inches high, and just over 1 inch deep, the Kazoo RD1000 ($150) is one of the smallest MP3 players yet. You can let it nestle in the palm of your hand like a newborn chick, strap it to your wrist (the player, not the chick), or attach it to your belt in a clear plastic pouch.

Also included is a CD-ROM, with software for ripping, downloading, and managing files, and backphones. (Backphones, for the uninitiated, are the same as headphones except you wear them across the back of your neck.) With a tiny player, you'd expect to get tiny earbuds, but the backphones are generously sized and produced decent sound - not the best in this bunch, but not the worst, either. There was some midrange, and even a hint of bass, while the treble wasn't as harsh as it can be on low-quality phones.

For such a small player, the Kazoo's LCD is big and easy to read. But there's a tradeoff: ensuring readability means there's room for the track number and bit rate but not the album and artist information you get on the readouts of other MP3 players.

To show it's not just a novelty, the Kazoo does provide some serious storage options, augmenting its 32 megabytes (MB) of resident flash memory with a slot that can hold MultiMediaCards up to 96 MB in capacity. The embedded memory can give you about 45 minutes of music at a low-fi 96 kilobits per second (kbps) or about 30 minutes at the higher-quality 160-kpbs rate. Add a 96-MB card, and you get up to 2 hours of playback at the common 128-kbps rate.

Four tracks are preloaded on the player. Given the Kazoo's limited memory, though, you'll probably want to delete those, fire up your PC (Mac users need not apply), load the software, and transfer some new MP3 files to the player. The Kazoo gives you limited control over the sound via four preset EQ curves - Bass, Pop, Rock, and Jazz - but chances are you'll just pick the one you like and leave it there.

- RCA, Thomson Consumer Electronics | | 800-336-1900