Ignore the hype. Here are nine products proven to be indispensable. They define us. They reassure us that technology works.
The most unpopular gift my wife ever received came from me on Christmas Eve of 2001. She unwrapped the package, cracked open the stylish clamshell box and frowned at the debut model of the iPod, Apple's magnificent music player. It was the size of a pack of cigarettes, gleaming in white and polished stainless steel and ready to swallow hundreds of songs.
"This isn't for me," she said, sliding the whole mess over to my end of the coffee table. "This is for you." She was right. So after a few tepid protestations I took custody of the unloved player and turned it into a high-tech talisman of my inner life. The iPod renewed my love of music and answered a primal need: It made me feel cool.
Today's handheld cameras, phones, music players and organizers pack power into tiny, cheap space and offer features so similar it can be hard to distinguish a Neo from a Treo. So the deciding factor comes down to something more intangible--it's a matter of how the gadget makes us feel about ourselves.
Apple gets this more than any other manufacturer of computer ware, and its designers, with their requisite piercings, tattoos and all-black-all-the-time wardrobe, go to extraordinary lengths to make the iPod something special. Even the power supply--reduced elsewhere to a generic afterthought of black plastic--is a thing of beauty, its white, smooth-sculpted edges concealing hidden notches that pop open to reveal functional parts.
The iPod's fanciest feature: a navigational spinning wheel that no longer spins. Just 2.4 inches across, it lets you scroll up and down a list of songs or turn the volume louder or softer. The first model used a spinning dial that clicked as it revolved. Later models went virtual, letting you navigate simply by skating a forefinger over a stationary wheel (but it still responded with the same comforting click-click-click).
Sometimes slick design can go too far; for those of us with control issues, it would be nice if the iPod sported an on/off button. But underneath its creamy white and clear plastic skin, the iPod purrs with power. The top-of-the-line model, which can be found for $500, holds 40 billion bytes, enough for 10,000 songs, parking lamentations by the Strokes, the Vines and dozens of other groups onto a spinning metal disk the size of a quarter. The original from two years ago cost $400 and could hold only a thousand songs. The sound output could have been escalated. It would have been nice to have had a little more eardrum-threatening juice for a rock anthem like the Pretenders' 1980 hit "Precious".
The iPod is a handy little thing, letting you travel with a prodigious collection of music without having to endure the disarray of a stack of CDs. But utility isn't the point; the real point is to ascend into Apple's elegant world. Like drivers of vintage Corvettes who stop at the same traffic light and give each other a smug thumbs-up, iPod users on the New York subway eye one another approvingly, spotting the distinctive white and tangle-prone earphones that mark another member of the club. Our faces share the same beatific look, as we get lost in sound, gleefully embracing technology that actually delivers.--Dennis Kneale
Copyright © 2003 Forbes.com