A selection of technology gifts for the holidays
While we’re aware of the big gifts for the techie in your life — tablets, e-book readers, cameras and computers — here are a dozen lower-priced offerings that you might not have considered. I’ve tried each of these to provide my opinion and not just rehash press releases that have become so common these days. All of the products are new or updated this year. If you still have questions, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FreeWheelin helmet sound system
Combine action sports with technology and you get a slew of new products, including GoPro’s tiny action cameras (gopro.com) to take videos of yourself skiing, surfing or racing, and LifeProof’s (lifeproof.com) amazing cases that make iPhones and iPads impervious to water, dropping and extreme conditions.
One of the newest products in this category that I’ve been trying is the RichardSolo FreeWheelin sound system for helmets. It’s a lightweight, hands-free stereo speaker and speakerphone system that connects by Bluetooth or cable to your cellphone or music player. The three-piece system attaches to the outside of the helmet using heavy-duty Velcro strips. (It can also be used on your desktop or in your car with an included bracket.)
Unlike headphones, which are illegal for cyclists because they block your hearing, these are legal. Still, after just returning from a long bike ride and enjoying the very good sound, I found that you need to be cautious that they don’t block other sounds, such as nearby traffic. I was more comfortable using them along bike paths than in those environments where you need to be highly attentive to street traffic. ($150, richardsolo.com)
Swiss Tech pocket tools
Ohio-based Swiss Tech makes some of the smallest, most functional tools that can be carried on a key ring, all at bargain prices. I’ve carried its Utili-Key for years, a tiny half-ounce key ring tool with a straight and serrated knife blade; flat, Phillips and micro screwdrivers; and a bottle opener ($11), without ever being stopped by the Transportation Security Administration. (That has made it the tool of choice for travelers.) The company offers a wide range of small tools with screwdriver sets, LED lights, escape tools and much more. Most are $15 or less. Costcoeven sells an assortment of a half dozen of its tools for about $20. (swisstech.com)
Livescribe’s new Sky WiFi Smartpen
Livescribe’s new Sky WiFi Smartpen is the company’s latest model of pen that you use to take notes that can then be uploaded to your computer. This version adds Wi-Fi and cleverly syncs with Evernote. As you take your notes, they’re uploaded through a Wi-Fi connection and appear as an Evernote note entry on its Web browser version of the app. You write in a Livescribe notebook that has specially encoded paper. You can also use the pen to record audio notes, and they will appear in Evernote as well, synchronized with the written text. This new version holds up to 200 hours of audio and thousands of pages of notes and costs $170; other versions that sync via a cable to your computer start at $80. (livescribe.com)
The i4software Steadfast Handle
The i4software Steadfast Handle and Tripod Mount is an inexpensive, plastic handgrip that holds your smartphone in a horizontal position to take photos and movies. It’s adjustable for phones as large as the Samsung Note or smaller phones in or out of their cases. The phone is held by friction using a couple of rubber pads, so use it with care. But it’s a useful and inexpensive gift for those who love taking images using their phones. ($20, i4software.com)
BlueAnt’s Commute for hands-free texting
BlueAnt’s Commute is a new speakerphone for your car that, believe it or not, lets you text and dial hands-free. It’s developed to comply with California’s Freedom to Communicate law that takes effect on Jan. 1. You dial and answer calls using your voice, and it’s compatible with Siri and Google.
The Commute announces the name of the incoming caller (assuming it’s in your address book) and you say “answer” or “ignore.” While I have a built-in Bluetooth phone system in my car, I’ve been trying this on rental cars, and it works great. Sound is loud and clear, better than on most headsets. Just don’t make the mistake I did, leaving it behind in a recent rental. Fortunately, Avis found it, called to let me know and returned it promptly. ($100, myblueant.com)
The Izon home security camera
The Izon 2.0 is a home video monitoring camera that works with an iPhone. This is an upgrade to the original home camera I reviewed last year, and it’s much improved in its performance and ease of setup. You simply point the camera to a QR code on its free iPhone app as part of the setup. The camera can be positioned anywhere in your home to monitor a large room or entranceway from your iPhone from wherever you are. It connects to your Wi-Fi home network and doesn’t make use of a computer.
The camera is a small white cylinder that sits on a swivel base that can be positioned almost anywhere. You can also add multiple cameras and view them from the same app. You can use it as a simple camera or access advanced features such as noise and motion detection, and view video. I made good use of it when my alarm company called after the alarm went off and I was away. I checked my house with the Izon and confirmed it was a false alarm. ($130, steminnovation.com)
The Nike+ Fuelband is one of a new category of devices that monitor your activities and encourage you to keep active. I’ve been using one for about a month and like it a lot. It’s ruggedly designed, with silicon rubber housing, and clips on your wrist with a sturdy clasp. It monitors activity using Nike’s “fuel” units, which correlate to your activity. You set your goal and try to reach it each day. It plugs into your computer to download data and recharge, or it can be synced to your iPhone with its app and built-in Bluetooth. A beautiful ticker-tape-like LED display shows the day’s accumulated points, steps and calories burned with a button push. You can also display time — handy in the dark. One of its weaknesses is that its simple motion sensor does not measure some activities, such as bicycling. The Fuelband comes in black, clear and smoke and is available at Apple and Nike stores. ($150, nikeplus.nike.com)
Along with many new phones, computers and tablets, cases always make a useful gift. For a selection of well-made leather products, check out some of what I consider the best choices from Sena Cases of Irvine, Calif. They’re made of high-quality materials and cost just a little more than the typical plastic cases. Its line of portfolio cases for MacBook notebook computers are more expensive, but exquisite; it looks like you’re carrying a thin leather portfolio, but opens to let you use the computer right from the case. (From $140)
A matching case called the Hampton Flip, for the iPhone 5, protects the front and the rear, and costs $60. (senacases.com)
Levenger’s Circa iPad Foldover Notebook houses an iPad along with its popular Circa notebook with its movable pages. ($89, levenger.com)
For the new iPad mini, the FitFolio case from Speck has a flip cover with a microsuede interior and a hard shell back. It comes in a wide range of colors and patterns. ($35, speck.com)
Eye-Fi Connect X2 Memory Card
While no one has invented a camera memory card with unlimited storage, the Eye-Fi Connect X2 card can almost suffice. Its built-in Wi-Fi frees up space by transferring your images to your tablet or computer while out shooting. ($40, eye.fi)
JBL Micro Wireless speaker
A friend gave me a sample of this just-released portable speaker, and I was amazed at the big sound that it produced. It has a Li-ion rechargeable battery, a bass port and connects to a phone, tablet or iPod using wireless Bluetooth or its built-in speaker cord. It contains one 1-5/8-inch speaker behind a black metal grill, is lightweight and fits easily in a computer case or pocket. It works for five hours between charging using any micro USB charging device. And it’s one of those rare products with a rotating volume dial. ($60, jbl.com)