Sometimes you can sense that tech products are striving to solve problems that are manufactured by their manufacturers. Smartwatches, for instance, have long been a nifty idea — but they've offered few tangible benefits for anyone but health and fitness enthusiasts.
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That's why it's notable when a particular gadget finally breaks through. The latest Apple Watch, for instance, has heart-monitoring features that will appeal to those who aren't active. Likewise, an Amazon digital video recorder makes cable cord-cutting far more practical.
Others remain hanging in not-quite-there limbo. A miniature smartphone from the revived brand Palm has the germ of a good idea, though it can still leave you feeling perplexed.
If you're still considering tech gifts in your last-minute holiday shopping, bear these items in mind. And when looking at other products, ask yourself if they're really ready for prime time or destined to gather dust somewhere.
The newest features in the Series 4 Apple Watch are actually anything but flashy. But they could save lives.
With a built-in EKG feature, you can share detailed heart readings with your doctor without visiting a clinic. Doctors get a PDF file showing the peaks and valleys of your heart rhythm, just as they would with an EKG on paper.
Apple's EKG sensors take measurements only on your wrist and finger, while EKG machines in clinics typically measure 12 points. That means the watch can't detect heart attacks and other conditions. But Apple says it can provide early detection of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm that increases the risk of stroke and heart failure. The company tested the watch against standard EKGs to win U.S. regulatory clearance.
The new watch can also tell if you take a hard fall — and it will call 911 if you can't get up. If someone on your gift list is elderly, you might enjoy greater peace of mind.
The Series 4 watch starts at $399 and requires an iPhone. The EKG feature is for U.S. customers only.
DVRs have lost their allure in the streaming age, when entire TV seasons drop at once on Netflix. Still, some broadcast shows aren't available for streaming at all, or without a significant delay. If you've dropped cable TV service, you can still watch those shows for free with an old-fashioned TV antenna — but then you're back to watching only when they air.
Enter Amazon's Fire TV Recast DVR. It will record over-the-air programs and let you watch on your TV, Amazon's Echo Show or an app on the go.
You need to buy an antenna, which could be the rabbit-ear kind or an indoor one you stick on your window. Thanks to Wi-Fi, the Recast can be near that window rather than your TV.
While the Recast can technically work with just a phone app or the Echo Show, you need a separate Fire TV streaming device ($40 and up) for full functionality. Among the limitations: You can't delete shows through the app. The Recast itself is $230 for 75 hours of storage and two simultaneous recordings, $280 for double the storage and simultaneous recordings.
TiVo, the gold standard in DVRs, has easier ways to skip commercials and more flexible options to record. But TiVo also gets expensive. A model aimed at cord-cutters, the Bolt OTA, costs $250 — but then you have to pay either a recurring fee of at least $70 a year or another $250 a single time to get the program guide. Recast doesn't carry ongoing fees.
Amazon collects data on the shows you watch to personalize and improve its services. If you find that creepy, Recast won't be for you.
PALM'S CONNECTED COMPANION
Before smartphones, there was Palm and its hand-held digital assistants, which offered emails, calendars, notepads and many of the functions seen in apps today. Under new owners, Palm is back with a mini smartphone designed, it says, to let you leave your bigger phone at home and enjoy the moment — without cutting yourself off completely.
The new phone, simply called Palm, is about the size of a credit card, but nearly as thick as a regular phone. It's meant as a stopgap for when your main iPhone or Android phone isn't with you, so battery and speeds are just good enough. It's great for the essentials, such as maps, Yelp lookups or texts to coordinate meetups with friends. The water-resistant phone fits in running shorts during workouts.
The Palm is premised on the idea that you can — or need to — leave your main phone behind. The company says you can rely on just the Palm as you attend a kid's soccer game or meet friends at a bar. You're still connected, on your terms, to pay someone back with Venmo or request a ride on Lyft. Verizon, the exclusive seller of this phone in the U.S., syncs phone numbers, so calls and texts to your main phone automatically reaches this mini phone.
When people are out on the town, they aren't necessarily worried about missing out on calls and texts, but rather missing the shot to post on social media. Photos from the Palm camera range from blurry and dark to adequate — nowhere near the quality of an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy device. Palm says the photos are good enough for online posts, but the quality isn't there should you want to feature one on your next holiday card or family photo book.
And notifications don't sync, unless you manually install the same app on both.
The $350 phone is available only if you have another phone on Verizon, and Verizon charges another $10 a month for service. If you're already paying as much as $1,100 for a top-end phone, you might not want to spend another $590 over two years just to leave it behind.
A better solution: Activate some of the screen-control features now found on iPhones and Android phones. Though that takes discipline, it's free.