Articles: | PC Video | Web Media | DVD & CD | Portable Media | Digital Imaging | Wireless Media | Home Media | Tech & Society |
Home Media: | Home Media Articles | Home Networked Media Gallery |
Holiday Gadgets 2010: Portable and Wireless (10/2010)
by Douglas Dixon
Holiday 2010 Gadgets
It's been another fun and exciting year for electronic gadgets, heightened with breathless coverage in the media, featuring the heart-stopping excitement of new products like the Apple iPad, and titanic battles like the Apple iPhone versus Google Android.
While you many not share the deep lust of the early adopters for these kinds of devices, they really have proved to be quite useful -- especially for keeping in touch when we're so often on the go.
So here's my take on interesting developments, and products that illustrate new trends in portable and wireless devices, to tempt you for the holidays ...
One key trend is the desire to keep fully connected, not just by lugging along a laptop or netbook, but through more powerful smartphones. Yet there still may be a place for separate dedicated devices, like the Apple iPod touch, or even tablet devices like the Apple iPad. But you don't want to buy a separate monthly cellular data plan for each such devices, so products like the Verizon MiFi or smartphones with Wi-Fi tethering become interesting to share one connection with multiple Wi-Fi devices.
And there's still a place for dedicated media players like the Apple iPod line, but Apple has refocused the iPod touch as the app and media player, and the iPod nano and shuffle as solely portable clip-on music players.
The Apple iPhone and iPod touch also have been redesigned with dual cameras, especially for video calling through the FaceTime app. Video calling is getting much more interesting, with products like the Logitech HD Webcam line for simple and high-quality video calling on laptops and desktops, and Logitech Revue with Google TV bringing direct video calling to the set-top.
Similarly, even though mobile phones have cameras, there's also still a place for dedicated pocket camcorders with the Cisco Flip Video line -- great HD video with dead-simple controls.
These portable devices also call for useful accessories -- portable power with USB chargers, portable sound with Bluetooth headphones and portable speakers, and portable storage with a wide range of tiny to rugged USB flash drives and portable hard drives.
My core device is the smartphone, which allows me to say in touch even when I spend a full day in New York or off-site with a client -- without having to lug around a laptop. I can check e-mail, view and edit office documents, access Web information, and enjoy music and Internet videos, plus do lots more with downloadable apps.
And beyond computer functions, smartphones can help out in whole new ways, so I can bring up maps and directions to find local businesses (including street views of the building facade), or just speak a phrase into Android phones in order to do fast searches for obscure crossword puzzle clues.
At a high-level view:
Apple's 3rd quarter results include:
Apple iPhone 4 - HD display / cameras
While smartphones do have a limited screen size, the new Apple iPhone 4 stepped up its 3.5 inch screen with a higher-definition "retina" display for crisper text and graphics (at four times the resolution, from 480 x 320 to 860 x 540). It also adds dual cameras for FaceTime video conferencing, and you can even edit HD video with the iMovie app. The iPhone 4 comes with 16 GB of storage for $199 or 32 GB for $299.
Verizon Droid X - Larger-screen Android
Meanwhile, the Google Android operating system for mobile phones is growing fast, on new phones like the HTC Droid Incredible (around $199) and Motorola Droid X with a larger 4.3 inch screen (around $199), both from Verizon Wireless.
The variety of Android phones from different manufacturers provides a wider array of options and features than the iPhone, including slide-out keyboard, FM radio, additional removable storage, and replaceable batteries.
Verizon Droid Incredible - Android
Smartphones also seem to have cooled the excitement for netbooks, which were so hot as recently as last holiday season, when you could find them stacked as impulse items in the checkout lanes.
The idea was that a light and inexpensive computer would be your portable Web client, to help you stay connected wherever you go. But cheap computers are also sluggish and limited, especially in a world of HD videos over the Internet. Plus, there's still a lot of hassle with maintaining even a small computer, including the constant nags to keep software upgraded and virus definitions updated.
Apple iPod touch - Closer to the iPhone
But if you're using your smartphone as a netbook replacement, you may not even need the phone call part, as long as you can use Wi-Fi wireless networking to go online. Apple has had great success with the iPod touch, now the most popular iPod -- sort of an iPhone without the phone part, and recently updated with the retina display and dual cameras, but still with more limited processing, camera resolution, and position tracking. It's available with 8 GB for $229, 32 GB for $299, and 64 GB for $399.
The iPod touch also is a great dedicated audio / video player. I use iTunes on my PC to download free audio podcasts so they're ready for long trips, including wonderful presentations from sources including Princeton, Cornell, Wharton, Warwick, the TED conference, and, of course, A Prairie Home Companion.
And these devices can do more -- Apple reports that the iPod touch is now the top selling portable game player in the world. Apple has built an impressive electronic retail market with over 250,000 apps available in the App Store, joining the iTunes Store for music and video and the newer iBooks store, so Apple now boasts some 160 million registered customers and credit cards.
Tablets Take Off
Yet the small screen on a smartphone is still a pain when you're doing extensive work, trying to read a document or even browse through a website. So instead of a netbook, how about a tablet, like the Apple iPad, or Android tablets like the Dell Streak? You get all the wonderfulness and stability of the Apple iPhone / iPod or Android ecosystem, on a bigger screen (9.7 inch on the iPad), and without the pain of supporting a standard computer.
Of course, smartphone apps do not provide the flexibility of full PC software, and upgraded versions of the small-screen apps are required to take advantage of user interactions on the larger screen. But if you accept the limitations compared to full-up PC applications, you still can do quite well. For example, on the iPad, the Apple iWork suite of productivity apps ($9.99 each) includes the Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet, and Keynote for presentations, yet is not particularly helpful with exporting and sharing and printing your documents outside the Apple world.
The iPad with Wi-Fi connectivity is available with 16, 32, and 64 GB for $499, $599, and $699, respectively. And for an additional $130 you can add back in cellular wireless services, not for phone calls, but for wireless data service to access the Internet from anywhere.
After all, the whole point of these portable devices is their always-on connectivity, which requires cellular when you're not at a Wi-Fi hotspot. But you also don't want to be playing multiple separate cellular service plans for each of your devices -- smartphone and iPad and laptop and netbook.
Some smartphones now also offer Wi-Fi "tethering," to share your existing cellular phone service as a 3G mobile wireless hotspot, so you can take your laptop or iPod touch online with one cellular connection. This is supported in the latest Android 2.2 release, including on the Droid Incredible.
Verizon Wireless MiFi 2200 - Mobile hotspot
Instead of enabling the built-in wireless for your tablet or a laptop, you can instead share one service plan with a stand-alone device like the Verizon Wireless MiFi Mobile Hotspot that turns the cellular service into a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to five devices ($99). Verizon Wireless also now sells the MiFi bundled with the Apple iPad.
I like to bring along the MiFi for my talks, since it lets me demo multiple portable devices online at the same time.
Fourth-generation wireless (4G) promises 4 times faster data rates, and is starting to be deployed in the form of LTE by many cellular carriers and WiMAX. These are all-IP packet-based data networks, including voice.
Long Term Evolution (LTE)
The alternative to more general-purpose laptops, tablets, and smartphones is dedicated devices that focus on serving a particular function. For example, compared to tablets, dedicated eReaders with grayscale E-ink screens are crisper for extended reading, and easier to read outdoors, even in direct sunlight. The batteries also run for multiple weeks without wireless, or at least a week even with wireless running.
These devices also are significantly lighter, thinner, and therefore easier to hold comfortably for extended periods (the Apple iPad tablet with 9.7 inch diagonal display is four times the weight of the smaller and thinner 6-inch Amazon Kindle (24 vs. 8.5 ounces), and the larger 9.7-inch Kindle DX is also lighter and significantly thinner than the iPad (19 ounces, and 1/3 vs. 1/2 inch thin).
And eReaders are much less expensive than tablets: the Amazon Kindle starts at $149 for the Wi-Fi version, and $189 with 3G+Wi-Fi cellular, and the similarly-sized Barnes & Nobile Nook is $10 more, with the addition of a 3.5 inch color touchscreen navigation strip below the grayscale E-ink screen. Amazon also offers the larger Kindle DX with 9.7-inch screen and 3G+Wi-Fi for $379, and the new Nook Color with 7-inch color touchscreen is $249.
Amazon Kindle 3rd gen - 6" display - Wi-Fi / + 3G (7/10)
Amazon Kindle DX - 9.7" display - Wi-Fi + 3G (7/10)
Then for dedicated media playback, this year's September update to the Apple iPod line was not just about features and functions, it was more of a re-imagining and repositioning of what iPods are all about. Yes, the new iPods are smaller and lighter and less expensive and sexier than ever, but they also are significantly re-focused in terms of how you might want to use them.
Apple iPod shuffle - Wearable
The tiny clip-on iPod shuffle reaches back to the 2008 model to return the control pad that was eliminated in last year's version (the only controls were on the earbud cord). Trimmed to a smaller size just large enough for the controls, it retains last year's VoiceOver feature to announce song and playlist name, since there's no display for browsing your collection.
But the new version is only available with 2 GB of storage suitable for "hundreds of songs", and no longer with a 4 GB model. The price also drops $10 to $49.
Apple iPod nano - Multi-touch music
Limiting the shuffle's capacity fits in to the biggest change in the iPod line-up -- repositioning the iPod nano from a media / video player back to a music-focused player, but now with a multi-touch display. The new nano is square, with the display filling the front face -- the controls have been eliminated and replaced by touch-screen gestures.
This is a very different nano, shrunk by half to only about 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches. The interface is iPod-ish, with a home screen and the ability to customize the icons, but the tiny 1.5" screen means that only a few buttons or song names visible on the screen at a time, requiring a lot of touching and swiping to explore a larger collection.
This is therefore a new product, not a derivative of the previous nano line. It's no longer a media player, having lost video playback, camera, microphone, and speaker, although it does retain the FM radio. Instead, the new nano is focused as a multi-touch music player, now even with a clip on the back (like the shuffle). It's now more like the shuffle with a display, and with 8 GB of storage for $149 or 16 GB for $179 for thousands of songs.
Video phones and Internet calling have been seemingly compelling concepts for quite a while, but have never seemed to really catch on. But smartphone-based video makes calls as simple as tapping, and today's webcams offer easy and high-quality video. Coming soon, set-top cameras on systems like the Logitech Revue with Google TV with allow us to make video calls from the remote control.
Another innovation in smartphones is video calling, with the Apple FaceTime app for the iPhone 4 and now the iPod touch (although these currently do not interoperate with other devices or computers). With the front-facing camera, you can talk with a friend and see yourself at the same time. But while it's fun to see faces as you talk, it's not so riveting that you need it for all your calls.
Instead, what Apple has cleverly done with FaceTime is to build two cameras into the iPhone and new iPod touch, one over the screen to shoot your face, and another front-facing camera so you can show something much more interesting -- what's going on around you while you chat. So now you can share faces and places, the whole experience.
Logitech HD Webcams
Of course, you also can make free Internet phone and video calls from your computer by hooking up a webcam. Webcams let you share as a group, to keep in touch with the kids when you're on the road, or to check in with the grandparents from home.
Even better, webcams have moved up to high-def resolution to provide a great picture for show and tell conversations. For example, the new Logitech HD webcam line starts at $49, with built-in mics for HD calls and recording. The high-end Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910 at $99 adds 10 MP photos, Carl Zeiss glass optics, wide-angle lens, autofocus, dual mics, and full HD 1080p video recording.
These webcams include Logitech Vid HD video calling software for HD 720p video calling with Logitech HD webcams. It's very simple to use, and also a free download to use with other webcams. They also work with Skype and other common calling software, and support direct upload to Facebook and YouTube. The Logitech software also includes video effects and overlays keyed to face tracking.
But for shooting and sharing videos beyond short camera phone clips, I'm a big fan of the Flip Video pocket camcorders (now part of Cisco). They're easy to carry along anywhere, in a pocket or a bag, so I can shoot vacation shots on the beach that we would otherwise miss because it's too much trouble to always lug along a larger camera.
Today's pocket camcorders shoot with quite good HD quality -- we've even shot entire wedding ceremonies and performances by mounting a Flip on a tripod. These have a built-in flip-out USB connector to easily transfer clips to a computer, and built-in software to edit and share -- to enjoy on the computer, online, or on DVD.
Cisco Flip Video UltraHD and MinoSD - Ease of use
The new Flip Video line continues the emphasis on ease of use. They're always ready to shoot (under four seconds from power on), since there are no options or modes that you can mess up -- Unlike competing products, there are no options for additional features like photos or close-up or low-res or removable storage.
The Flip MinoHD models are particularly compact (6/10 inch thin, 4 ounces), and the slightly larger UltraHD line (4 1/2 ounces) offer removable batteries. These each are available in two versions, to shoot one or two hours, starting at $149. The new models now also have built-in image stabilization, which is helpful with small hand-held devices.
Designed for Flip - Accessories - Bower Wide Angle Lens
While Flip has focused on keeping the devices simple, you can still add new capabilities with new Designed for Flip accessories, including a Bower Wide Angle Lens for wide angle views, Ikelite Underwater Housing for shooting in the wet, and external and wireless microphones for better sound.
Another important accessory for your portable devices is earphones or a headset so you can listen to your music or calls. Bluetooth headsets for mobile phones have gotten very sophisticated, with features like noise reduction for loud city streets, and the ability to simultaneously pair to two devices so you can switch between listening to a music player and picking up a phone call. Or add a portable wireless speaker to share the music with a group.
Jawbone ICON Bluetooth Headset - Simpler, personalization
Bluetooth headsets also have focused more on ease of use, especially for people like me who typically only wear the headset when I'm on a call. For example, the Jawbone ICON Bluetooth headset (around $75) has a separate on/off switch so you can be sure what state it's in, makes voice announcements instead of requiring decoding blinking lights, and uses a standard mini-USB port for charging.
Even better, Bluetooth headsets now can download apps to personalize add new features. The ICON offers updates for A2DP streaming audio playback, a choice of six announcement voices, and voice commands.
Logitech Wireless Speaker Z515 - Laptop, iPad, iPhone
These days, all of our portable devices are also media players, no matter the size -- laptop to tablet (iPad) to handheld (iPhone) -- or whether they are nominally dedicated to other purposes -- from cell phones to eReaders. While these are great personal devices when used with earphones, you can enjoy the music better without being tethered to the device (with a Bluetooth headset), and hear it better with higher-quality external speakers -- which also allows you to share the music with others.
Even better, wireless speakers give you the best of all worlds, connecting easily to a wide range of devices to really enjoy the sound. For example, the Logitech Wireless Speaker Z515 pairs easily with your iPad or iPhone using Bluetooth (no pass code required). And it also includes a small 2.4 GHz USB adapter to stream music from your laptop with a similar lack of fuss.
Native Union Retro mobile phone handset - 50's classic
And then for a more traditional approach to using your cell phone at home or in the office, check out the Native Union Retro mobile phone handset -- It's a classic 50's style telephone design, complete with a curly cord, but that plugs in to your mobile phone. The handsets finished with a comfortable soft-touch texture, and are available for $29, or $59 with a weighed base. So now you can talk on the phone with the comfort of a traditional phone handset.
We're carrying more and more media on our portable devices -- music and photos and now video. And we're carrying more devices with copies of our media libraries, from handheld players and smartphones to tablets to notebook computers. Yet even the larger devices really still are personal viewers, great for enjoying movies on an airplane, but not for sharing the view with a larger group.
A portable speaker helps to share the music, but the addition of photos and video to our media collections now also calls for the ability to play on a larger display, though a portable projector or even wireless display extender.
3M MPro Pocket Projectors - Handheld Displays
Portable projectors like the 3M MPro Pocket Projector line can provide quite reasonable displays (10 to 80" diagonal image size) in a literally hand-held unit. More recent models have added built-in storage, brighter displays to work better in well--lit spaces, and even wireless connectivity. With the internal storage, you can transfer Office documents and PDF files, plus images, audio, and even video -- to play back directly from the projector so you no longer need to bring a laptop computer.
The original MPro120, now available for around $150, takes component AV and computer VGA video input, and displays the image from 10 to 80- inches (diagonal). The display brightness is 15 lumens, which is adequate with controlled lighting, and the unit includes two half-watt speakers. It's under 4 3/4 x 2 1/2 x 1 inch and 5 1/2 ounces.
The MPro150 for around $265 then adds 1 GB internal storage (plus microSD slot).
And the MPro160 for around $360 steps up the MP120 differently, with a 2X brighter display (30 lumens), plus larger speakers (3/4 watts), but also weighs almost twice as much (10 1/2 ounces).
Finally, the MPro180, due in January 2011 for around $450, adds all of the above, including the brighter display and 4 GB internal memory, plus a touch-screen display and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity.
Imation Link Wireless Audio/Video Extender - PC to TV / Projector
While carrying your own pocket projector lets you display anywhere, from any wall to the ceiling at a restaurant, may locations already have a big-screen monitor or projector system. The problem then is hooking up to the display, running the necessary cables between where you are talking to the display device.
The answer, of course, is to go wireless. But while Bluetooth is fine for streaming stereo audio, and local Wi-Fi supports streaming Internet video, maintaining continuous live display of real-time HD video really requires a dedicated higher-bandwidth connection. One solution is Wireless USB, also known as Ultra-WideBand (UWB).
One early such product is the Imation Link Wireless Audio/Video Extender for $149, which wirelessly transmits HD video and audio from a PC or Mac to a television or projector. It supports HD video (720p / 1280 x 720), stereo audio, and still photos at 1080p.
The Imation Link includes a fin-shaped receiver that connects to a TV or projector using an HDMI or VGA cable, and a USB transmitter dongle that plugs in to your PC. You then use the display properties to set up the new display to duplicate your PC desktop, or to extend the desktop.
As you accumulate more of these portable devices, you'll need to be careful to keep them charged up on the road. Most devices now charge through USB, connected to a computer or through a USB wall charger. Just be warned that while USB is a standard connector, it's not a standard power source -- more sophisticated devices like the Apple iPad or Flip Video camcorders require more power and a more "intelligent" interface. So make sure you carry the right chargers, and look for USB chargers that are explicitly rated for your devices, with fast charge capability.
Kensington USB Chargers - Wall, car, multiple ports
For example, the Kensington line of USB chargers, with a wall adapter, car charger, and a bigger 4-port charger for simultaneous charging, with some explicitly rated for the iPod touch and iPhone. These also include international chargers with AC plug adapters and adapter tips for other phones.
One final way to avoid bringing along your laptop on trips is to bring your important files on a USB flash drive. These continue to be the handy answer for storing, sharing, and backing up your files on the go.
With 8 GB drives available at retail for around $20, and 32 GB around $70, you can carry everything you need, and even have dedicated drives for different purposes. I often carry a public drive for swapping files with others, and a personal drive that has other reference material.
LaCie MosKeyto Low Profile USB Drive - 6 mm profile
And there's lots of options for different kinds of drives, depending on your needs. These include ridiculously tiny devices like the LaCie MosKeyto Low Profile USB Drive which extends only 6 mm out of your laptop, designed so you don't accidentally break it with extended use (4 GB for $17, 8 GB for $27).
Imation Defender F200 Biometric Flash Drive - FIPS + fingerprint
For serious business and data protection, since these small drives are so easily mislaid and lost, get a drive with built-in encryption. For example, the Imation Defender F200 Biometric Flash Drive is FIPS 140-2, Level 3 validated, with a rugged metal enclosure, hardware AES 256-bit encryption, and two-factor authentication with password and a built-in fingerprint swipe sensor, for up to ten users.
Western Digital My Passport Portable Hard Drive - to 1 TB
Or for longer trips, you can carry USB portable hard drives like the Western Digital My Passport line. These portable drives are thin and pocket sized, and powered directly over USB (not extra wires required). They're available with 500 GB or even 1 TB of storage down around $100, so again I typically carry multiple drives with my laptop -- a project drive to share archived work data, and a personal drive that stays in my hotel as a local backup, and is also big enough to off-load vacation photos and videos.
LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 Portable Hard Drive - to 5 Gbps
Hard drives also come in more rugged designs, and with the new faster USB 3.0 interface (aka SuperSpeed), which promises another 10X performance boost from 480 Mbps up to 5 Gbps.
For example, LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 portable hard drive is available with a 500 GB disk spinning at 7200 rpm for $135, and delivers up to 110 Mbps -- already some three times faster than USB 2.0 even in this first generation. The drive has a new SuperSpeed USB Micro-B connector, and comes with a cable to plug in to a standard USB connector, so it's compatible with USB 2.0 systems. You can upgrade your existing systems to SuperSpeed with a PCI Card adapter, such as the LaCie USB 3.0 ExpressCard/34 which adds two SuperSpeed USB ports for $60.
See my Peripherals and Accessories Gallery for more on keyboards, mice, and other PC and laptop peripherals.
Microsoft Arc Touch Wireless Mouse - Curve for Comfort, Flatten to Pack
Wireless mice are easier to pull out and use when on the road, but can be clunky to pack up and store. The clever Microsoft Arc Mouse was introduced last year with a comfortable curved design that folds up for travel. And now Microsoft is back with a new and even more ingenious version -- the Arc Touch Mouse. Instead of folding up, the Arc Touch Mouse straightens out to lay flat for storage, or to tuck into your pocket. To use it, you just bend it up into an arc for a comfortable fit in either hand.
Expanded from my annual holiday gadget guide article in the U.S. 1 Newspaper, Oct. 13, 2010:
My Holiday 2010 Gadget guides:
My Holiday Tech Gadget Guides from previous years: