Family Vacations, Summer 1996
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...
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
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).
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.
PORTABLE TWO-WAY RADIO
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
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.
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.
ADVANCED PHOTO SYSTEMS
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).
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).
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
Filed To: Snow Sports