Having packed up after the International Housewares Show in Chicago last week, Salton product manager John Howell is still bursting with pride for what he claims is a first: the $300 Westinghouse Unplugged Cord-Free Vacuum, a full-size vacuum cleaner that runs on rechargeable batteries and is due out in June. "This," he says in dead earnest, as if showgoers had never seen a Dustbuster, "is completely revolutionary."
Hyperbole is nothing new at this annual showcase of just about every gizmo ever featured on, or destined for, an infomercial. The $6 Pizza Fork combines a pizza cutter and fork in one utensil ("Easy! Amazing! Versatile!" screams the flyer). The $80 Cooper Cooler chills a can of soda in 60 sec.--after you add 24 ice cubes and two cups of cold water and plug the thing into the wall.
This year more than ever, high-tech gadgets were hot. In the kitchen-appliance department, big spenders got to oooh and aaah over LG Electronics' $8,000 Internet refrigerator with built-in 20-GB hard drive, MP3 player and digital camera (so you can look up recipes, cook to music and e-mail photos of the results). A one-of-a-kind garbage can, the $55 Smart Bin from Innovative Products, automatically pops its lid when you wave your hand over its motion sensor.
Some of the most practical gizmos were the simplest. Cordless was big. In addition to the vacuum cleaner, Maytag, Panasonic and Euro-Pro were all hawking cordless clothes irons. At $25, Select Brand's battery-powered corkscrew was both cheap and useful, taking only seconds to uncork a bottle of Chardonnay in our tests.
Folks who never saw the need for a Palm Pilot but could still use more order around the house might like the $90 Home Organizer Plus from Simpliciti, available this May. The size of a wall-mounted phone, it features oversize buttons that make it easy to enter grocery lists, reminders and phone messages. Recipes and a scheduler are built in; a $50 snap-on printer is optional.
Digital displays have been fastened to everything from curling irons to space heaters--with mixed results. We found the LCD screen on Rival's prototype Recipe Smart-Pot (a high-tech Crock-Pot with 200 built-in recipes) too small to scan entire recipes at a glance. By contrast, the $100 Electronic Weight Control System from Concord Technologies was handy and easy on the eyes; the bathroom scale stores the weights of a family of four for as long as a year and comes with a wireless remote that you can attach to the wall at eye level.
Of course, there's more to high-tech housewares these days than computer chips. The pricey $30 Orka oven mitt from iSi North America is made of silicone, like many new spatulas. Heat-and flame-resistant up to 500°F, the stain-proof glove allows you to pluck hard-boiled eggs and potatoes out of boiling water and grab chicken wings that fall through the barbecue grill. We found the stiff material a little awkward, however, for pulling pans from the oven.
And if you want something to brighten your day, the multicolored, $15 LightTro bulbs from Color Kinetics are a lot of fun. Each bulb contains 11 LED lights, controlled by a PC circuit board, that produce a variety of effects, including strobe. Push a button near the base of the bulb and watch the bulb fade from blue to purple, orange to red, or cycle through a rainbow of colors.