Plug In and Turn On

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1996

Plug In and Turn On

Electronics that will add some serious voltage to your summer vacation
By Lisa Twyman Bessone

You've packed the sportsgear. Sunscreen and bug goo? Check. So what's missing? Well, cameras that capture those vacation moments, a few diversions to promote d‰tente between siblings who are pounding on each other, a gadget or two to keep everyone safe, and some hot wheels to haul the lot of you around. Here's some of the latest...

The challenge of video is trying to capture spontaneity on tape--especially with kids as the "talent." I have footage of my son and daughter flashing that anything-but-genuine Brady Bunch smile, doing the trained-seal wave, and undertaking a human-to-camera conversation with the easy charm of a customs official. The lose-lose situation is that we're asking our kids to behave naturally in an unnatural situation. Kids are at their best interacting with people, not blinking and whirring contraptions.

Sharp's VL-E47U Viewcam ($1,299) offers a solution. While the newest cameras represent some intriguing breakthroughs--Sony's latest video camera is completely immersible and can tape underwater--the Sharp camera has the distinct advantage of not being grafted to your face. Because the viewing screen is a good 50 times larger than a traditional viewfinder, you can hold the camera at arm's length and still see what you're shooting. The lens also swivels independently of the viewer, which means that all you closet Tarantinos can really get creative, shooting over heads in a crowd, going low angle, or flipping the lens completely around to tape yourself (the lens has to be
upside down, but the recorded image automatically flops to right- side up). I talked face-to-face with my daughter, recording on the sly toward the end (camera on my lap, undetected lens aimed at her, screen facing me for an occasional glance)--and the happy result was one of sheer naturalness.

Videophobes will appreciate the camera's simple point-and-shoot and autofocus mechanisms. Editing features include on-the-spot playback as well as zoom and wide-screen options. The screen image washes out under bright light--a problem easily outweighed by the camera's double life as an in-car TV-VCR. Before a major road trip, record an evening's worth of Nick at Nite, plug in the car-battery adapter, park the camera on backseat laps, and let the kids laugh their way through 100 miles with the Munsters. Some claim the liquid crystal images are less than crystal-clear--especially for this purpose--but I'd argue that the quality is more than adequate.

For the shape of things to come, check out the JVC GR-DV1 ($2,999). The camera's microscopic size (smaller than a Discman, it weighs just over a pound) and digital-format advances make this a system to be reckoned with. Comparing the digital mode to the traditional analog format is like comparing calligraphy to cave drawings. Both methods translate the sound and visuals into codes and store them on tape to be read later in playback. A digital code is simply a series of zeros and ones, which sounds simplistic but is in fact much more precise (and the resulting image quality is notably higher) than what analog can offer. Since digital is also the language of computers, the JVC camcorder comes with a terminal port--you can plug in and edit at your keyboard or download data and print snapshots. And, unlike analog, the quality of digital recordings doesn't deteriorate with each generation of tape you edit. For info call Sharp (800-237-4277) or JVC (800-252-5722).


If you're no video-game enthusiast and in the market for a family computer, consider the IBM ThinkPad 755CDV ($4,599). Hook it up to a large monitor and printer to function as a typical home computer, then unplug it and take it on the road as an educational diversion for the kids. This is one of the few laptops with an internal CD-ROM drive, fast becoming a hardware requisite. But more than just a toy, this computer is also powerful enough to handle any parental computer needs (8 megs of ram can be boosted as high as 32 with a memory module). The processor is an Intel DX4-100 and moves along at a nice clip, plus there are 810 MB of hard-drive space, which can also be easily upgraded since the drive is removable.

Microsoft's Windows 95 comes factory-installed in the Thinkpad. Most of the software kids want--and the programs adults need--now requires this operating system. The Thinkpad's color screen, stereo sound, and mouse device all help get full value from educational CDs. For travel, the headphone jack's noise-relief is invaluable, and the cigarette-lighter adapter keeps all systems going for more miles than batteries can. For the IBM dealer nearest you, call 800-426-2968.

For roadworthy software, you can't go wrong with Microsoft's Automap Road Atlas ($39.95) and Automap Streets ($54.95). The Road Atlas is the no-brainer way to plan a trip and include the whole family in the process. Tell it where you're starting from, where you want to go (including up to 25 stops), how long you want to drive each day--and the system churns out a detailed itinerary, complete with gas stops, driving time, and mileage. Punch a key for a printout of your route. In addition to updated road maps, the system includes information on more than 300 ski resorts, every national and state park, most monuments and historical sites, and 1,100 notable attractions nationwide.

Automap Streets is a nice complement to its mate. On the road, punch in an address, such as the hotel where you plan to bunk: You'll get back a detailed street map--right down to individual city blocks--with your destination pointed out. Two CDs contain five million miles of roads and addresses in the contiguous 48 states and Hawaii. Call 800-426-9400.

These are a far cry from the pedestrian walkie-talkie. Motorola's Handi-Com 10 ($274 each) two-way radio transmits clearly over a two-mile (that's right--two-mile) range.
The radios, which run off rechargeable batteries for up to 20 hours, operate at 460 megahertz--or an FM range--on ultrahigh frequency (UHF) bands. Compare that to a CB, which operates at 27 MHz (AM range). The Handi-Com signals are strong and efficient, with no AM-like static or interference due to bad weather or variable terrain. Unlike remote-control toys, cordless phones, baby monitors, CBs, and virtually any other manner of radio communication (which all have to duke it out on low-frequency bands), UHF bands are less congested since traffic is limited and policed by the FCC. Motorola had to petition the FCC before manufacturing the radios, and an FCC license is required to operate one--an application process that sounds more onerous than it is.

Two-way radios are one way for cars road-tripping in convoy to talk. They also have real value on backpacking trips or on day hikes. Give one to your child and keep one yourself; if you get separated, you can find each other again. And grab one before you wander away from the campsite when nature calls--this is when a surprising number of people get disoriented and lose their way. For information, call 800-353-2729.

MAGELLAN'S microCOM-M Satellite Telephone
The Magellan microCOM-M, introduced in January, is the world's smallest, lightest, and lowest-price satellite telephone. As a cutting-edge communication system, it ranks right up there with Maxwell Smart's shoe.

Unlike cellular phones--which are about as effective as talking into, well, your own shoe when they're out of cell-site range--satellite phones work anywhere in the world. They turn up most frequently in far-flung outposts: the summit of Mount Everest or deepest Madagascar. But they come in handy on these shores, too. The positioning of cell stations across the U.S. still leaves pockets of dead air, particularly in the wide expanses of the West or Alaska. Orbiting satellites, on the other hand, provide blanket coverage of the entire globe. With this phone you're never out of touch, which is why pilots, sailors, international business travelers, and search and rescue teams use them.

The manufacturer readily admits that, for most families, this unit is technological overkill. The unit sells for $7,995--a steal compared with other satellite phones, which range in price from $10,000 to $25,000. Despite the jumbo price tag, we couldn't resist telling you about the phone; high-tech gadgets are inherently cool--and, of course, if you have income to dispose of and believe in safety at any cost, the microCOM-M will let you contact help from anywhere, even in the most isolated backcountry. The phone weighs 5.5 pounds, is the size of a hardbound book, and runs on batteries. The microCOM-M can also receive and send faxes and can download electronic files--a frightening prospect in the hands of vacationing type As. Call 909-394-5000.

For the record, I'm not a fan of video games. And I have yet to beat my kids at them, which does nothing to mitigate my prejudices. I maintain some semblance of order by monitoring their playing time. In my hard-earned opinion, one acceptable time for a play-binge is on a road trip, around mile 100 (well into "when will we get there" territory). Sega Genesis ( introduced its Nomad at the end of 1995. Simply put, this system liberates the 500-title Sega Genesis game library from the television set and takes it on the road. (If you want, you can also plug it into the TV and use the Nomad's controls on the big screen.) The three-and-a-quarter-inch viewing area is larger than most portable screens, and the graphics are in full color--no monochromatics or single dimensions of most mobile units. The graphics run with virtually the same energy as on a TV, thanks to a 16-bit drive. There's also a port for an additional control pad (so two can play). The Nomad ($179.99) can run on AA batteries, though it sucks them dry at an alarming rate. A cigarette-lighter adapter is recommended for powering up in the car.

Nintendo's Game Boy pioneered portable video games back in 1989. The latest generation is the 3-D Virtual Boy ($159.95). It looks like a cross between the leggy tanks used by the Empire Force in Return of the Jedi and night-vision glasses--and, like night sights, what you see through the viewer is otherworldly. For example, in "Mario's Tennis," Mario, in the forecourt, plays a rousing set with Donkey Kong Jr., all of which is red on black. Every game uses the same color format, which I found painful to stare at--but I'm not in my teens, so what do I know? The game features a 32-bit processor (as opposed to Game Boy's eight) that makes these graphics faster and more complex. (In September the company will one-up itself with the launch of the Ultra, a 64-bit system.) The Virtual Boy features digital stereo, a far cry from the tinny noise that leaks from less-powerful games. Unfortunately, the 350-title Game Boy library isn't compatible with this system, which now stands at 12 titles. An eye advisory cautions that your kids should be at least seven years old to play, and though the system operates on batteries, it's not a good idea to go virtual in a moving car: Wait until you arrive at the hotel. And, by all means, keep your sanity and buy the headphones. Call 800-255-3700.

Your last name doesn't have to be Eastman to know that the 35-millimeter camera market is in a slump. The problem--an embarrassment of riches, really--is that virtually everyone who's going to own a camera does so by now. Surveys show that consumers have seen little reason to trade up because, despite the growing sophistication of point-and-shoot models, the one variable that has remained unaddressed is human error. The photo-taking masses still shoot pictures that are either hopelessly backlit or overexposed and fraught with red eyes (the solution, a double flash, is equally maddening because photo subjects still think that the deed is done with the first flash). Believe it or not, incorrectly spooled film accounts for more than a few foul-ups.

To answer these and other problems--and in the meantime stealing some thunder from the growing video market--five companies (Kodak, 800-242-2424; Fuji, 800-3854; Nikon, 800-645-6687; Canon, 800-828-4040; and Minolta, 201-825-4000) have collaborated to develop a whole new line of films and cameras called the Advanced Photo System. Introduced in April, the film-loading system of these cameras is dunderhead-proof: no tail to thread, just drop the canister in. The film, camera, and processing mechanisms communicate by way of a digital feature that lets them swap information, thus heading off any aesthetic don'ts before an image is committed to paper. For instance, if you just flashed grandma's face into overexposed oblivion, the camera relays this to the film, where it is encoded, then read and adjusted by the processor. These auto-conversations take place on a frame-by-frame basis, so you can backlight and overexpose with abandon on the same reel.

Besides your prints (which are logged with time and date), the film comes back from the processor still in the canister--along with a contact sheet of all the frames. The idea is to help better organize your photos. And it stands to reason that quality and color are stunning: The system also improves upon current film-emulsion and paper technologies.

The film is about one-third the size of a traditional roll, so the camera is considerably smaller, too. The companies are all marketing products under their own brand names, with most camera lines featuring multiple models spanning several degrees of sophistication. The lowest priced, around $50, still let you set print sizes before snapping your shot: the standard 4 by 6 format, a fuller 4 by 7, or a panoramic 4 by 10. Zoom, digital editing, and custom identification features (you can tag your photos with more than just time and date) are available in the more expensive models (prices were still being determined at press time).


As anyone who's driven a carpool in the past five years knows (but as car manufacturers are just now discovering), most sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are rarely, if ever, driven off-road. The vehicles' heft (which is perceived as correlating directly to road safety and impact-resistance), cargo space (the better to haul groceries or kids with), and image (an SUV doesn't scream June Cleaver the way a minivan does) are often more important than their off-road work ethic. And even though SUVs really aren't being used as they were intended, the category is booming. In 1995, 1.5 million vehicles were sold, accounting for a ten percent share of the new-car market--and more and more SUV-buyers are women.

These vehicles are being driven by families, who would prefer that they ride less like a truck (more emphasis on sport, less on utility). Toyota's new RAV-4 is the first SUV to be mounted on a car--not a truck--chassis. Subaru's Outback blurs the lines even more: the first SUV that actually is a station wagon. Even the category's best-known SUV brands aren't ignoring this consumer directive for add-on luxuries. The '96 models of the Jeep Cherokee are even more civilized. In addition to subtle exterior changes, the interior has been Mercedes-ized with new creature comforts, and the body's been engineered to reduce road noise, vibrations, and the rough ride of trucks. Nissan's Pathfinder sports an updated and more refined body design, plus a new strut-type front suspension for responsive steering and better shock absorption. And we mustn't forget the staying power of GMC's Suburban (aka the mansion on wheels) and its cousin, the Chevy Tahoe (the four-door model is as opulent as the Suburban and not quite as huge--but it's still bigger than the standard SUV).

New this spring is Mercury's Mountaineer
The Mercury Mountaineer, which arrives at dealer lots in May, is the latest example of the ultra-SUV. The success of this hot new prototype has inspired an engineer-confab between Mercury and Ford that's produced what's basically a chichi Explorer. I test-drove one three months before its inauguration and was quite impressed with the safety and family-friendly features it offered. For instance, short-legged kids and working moms in fitted skirts appreciate the side running boards. With its spare stored underneath, 4 Runner-style, valuable cargo space is freed up--without an inconvenient swinging gate. If you have small kids, you'll immediately take to the doors, which automatically lock when you shift to drive. (I'd nix the backseat radio control, though--I'm the dial overlord in my car.)

Luxury has its price, and this vehicle is quite luxurious: It'll be selling in the $30,000 range. Besides a vast array of indulgences that includes a hefty five-liter, V-8 engine, the Mountaineer comes standard with dual air bags, reinforced side panels (less chance of injury if you're T-boned by another car), and a four-wheel, anti-lock braking system (ABS)--my particular favorite. During our test drive we were taken to an ice course, where we slammed brakes in an effort to skid or spin the car--to no avail. We also serpentined through an obstacle course, acquiring an appreciation for the handling. I became a true believer when some yahoo drivers, overspeeding through the cones, went vertical on a huge snowbank: Flip-overs did not ensue, which would not have been the case with a tippier SUV.

I drove a Mountaineer with the latest industry buzz, an AWD option. In slippery conditions, the vehicle holds the road with four-wheel-drive (4WD) tenacity by automatically transferring torque from the rear to the front axle--this permits immediate compensation for any traction loss. In short, you get all the benefits of 4WD without even having to think about shifting. It simply reacts to road conditions as needed.

Copyright 1996, Outside Magazine

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