Great design and technology are particularly satisfying when applied to products that improve doing routine, mundane tasks. Household products have been a latecomer to incorporating clever design, great industrial design and improved functionality. But two companies have shown what great imagination and design can do to set them apart.

One company is Breville, once a low-end Australian appliance company that sold products under the Sunbeam name. I’m testing the new Oracle espresso machine and will report my findings next week, but I say it’s quite a breakthrough.

The other is Dyson, a company that creates vacuum cleaners that outperform conventional machines and have a futuristic design. Each of these companies proves that you can command higher prices by offering better performance and design.

I’ve been trying out Dyson’s DC59 Animal Digital Slim vacuum cleaner, a pricy machine ($499) that provides 26 minutes of high power cordless vacuuming. The animal moniker stems from its ability to clean up animal hairs, something that’s a challenge for many machines.

Dyson is known for creating unusual-looking vacuum cleaners that perform better than other brands. The DC59 is the new top-of-the-line cordless model that, according to the manufacturer, has three times the vacuuming power of any other handheld. It can be used as a handheld vacuum that fits in a large kitchen drawer or hangs on the included wall rack, as well as an upright machine that performs as a full-size vacuum. It comes with four click-on tools, including a short brush, floor attachment and crevice tool.

Dyson’s DC59 Animal Digital Slim vacuum cleaner provides 26 minutes of high power cordless vacuuming. Courtesy photo

The DC59 is held in one hand and operates by pressing its red trigger. The product is made of durable plastic, finished in metallic gray, purple, silver and clear. The full vacuum with its purple aluminum extension and floor tool weighs only 5 pounds. As a handheld, it weighs just over 3 pounds. All parts click together and apart easily.

The most noticeable feature is what appears to be a series of 15 channels forming a circular cap that looks much like a carburetor. It’s unclear whether these are functional or decorative, but it gives it a modern industrial look, similar to what you might see on the cover of Popular Science.

I’ve been using it as a handheld to keep the area around my espresso machine and coffee grinder clean, as each sheds lots of coffee grounds, and I’ve used it to vacuum my car, and clean my computer keyboard. The Dyson’s powerful vacuum leaves everything free of dirt and dust. The lack of a cord makes it easy to maneuver and vacuum when you are far from an outlet.

By snapping on the aluminum shaft and floor attachment, you have a full-size vacuum that will tackle most jobs. For cleaning hard floors, there’s little resistance, and steering is accomplished by just tilting your hand, causing the floor nozzle with its universal joint to quickly change direction. Vacuuming on a plush rug requires more force to push, but my hand never became tired from holding the unit.

The dirt all goes into a clear cylinder so you can see the accumulation. Sliding a button below the trigger opens up the trap door on the bottom of the cylinder and lets the dirt drop into a wastebasket.

If you need additional power — which I never did — you can push a button called “max” to provide even greater suction. In that mode, the battery lasts just six minutes.

The unit can be recharged in about three hours, so you’ll find its best to start a major job with it fully charged. But there is no warning before the batteries run down, so keep it charged.

What’s so special about this vacuum is that it’s two products in one: It works effectively as a full vacuum cleaner, yet also brings that power to jobs requiring a handheld. While it’s quite expensive, it performs very well. ($499,


If there’s one thing our smartphones need more of, it’s battery power. On a recent trip I exhausted my iPhone 5s’s battery by noon. It was partially due to my hotel having poor WiFi and needing to use my phone as a hot spot. But with all the new things we’re doing with our phones — playing games, browsing the Internet, reading books and watching videos — there’s rarely enough battery power to get through the day, particularly with iPhones.

I’ve been trying several products to help alleviate the problem: a power case with a built-in battery and separate battery packs.

Mophie Space Pack: The best solution for those who need lots of power all the time is a battery or power case, such as those produced by Mophie. They come in several sizes and colors, mostly for the iPhone, and a few for Samsung and HTC phones. Their big disadvantage is that they add bulk and mask the sleek appearance of the phone.

I’ve had mixed feelings about power cases for years, disliking them for their added bulk, but appreciating them for eliminating the need to recharge my phone during the day. I’m now at a point where I can’t go without it; I leave it on all the time and no longer worry about my battery running low. They also offer the advantage of not needing to carry anything extra and charging multiple devices.

Mophie’s newest power case, Space Pack, makes it even more useful; it addresses two of the iPhone’s limitations in one product: battery and memory. The Space Pack looks similar to other Mophie battery cases, but is a bit longer and contains 16GB or 32GB of built-in memory. It can store thousands of photos, videos, and tunes, as well as all kinds of files. Think of it as a built-in solid-state drive. I’ve been using it to store important documents that I want to have ready access to, such as presentations, spreadsheets and Word documents.

Mophie Space Pack addresses two of the iPhone’s limitations in one product: battery and memory. Courtesy photo

To use the memory, download the free Space app from the iTunes store. Open the app and press the button on the back of the case and you’ll see six folders with icons labeled Photos, Videos, Music, Documents, Other and All.

You can add content to the folders using email attachments, synching with other apps or plugging into your computer where the memory will appear as a hard drive, allowing you to drag documents from the desktop to the Mophie.

I found the extra storage really came in handy because it addresses one of iOS7’s limitations: the lack of a file system and a way to store documents on the phone. Instead, the iPhone is designed to store documents on the cloud using apps such as Dropbox. Note that the memory in the Space Pack is not integrated with the iPhone’s own memory, but is accessed separately.

The pack’s battery is 1700mAh that nearly doubles your iPhone’s battery capacity. You charge both phone and case batteries with a single microUSB cable and use the on/off switch on the back of the case to allow the case’s battery to charge the iPhone. A row of LEDs tells you the amount of battery remaining in the pack.

The Space Pack costs $150 for a 16GB case, and $180 for a 32GB case. It comes in matte black finish or a glossy white finish. A similar Mophie case without memory and the same size battery, the Juice Pack Air, costs $100.

Ventev battery packs: Separate power packs are another solution. They are basically a large battery in a rectangular box that you charge and then plug into the phone to recharge your phone’s battery. Some packs can double or triple your phone’s battery life offering triple the battery life of the Mophie Space Pack. They can also be used to charge other devices such as Bluetooth headphones, a second phone, and tablets. The downside is they are a bit large to carry around all the time, and it’s another device you need to keep charged.

I’ve been trying out Ventev’s new Powercell 5000 and Powercell 6000+ battery packs, somewhat thicker than a smart phone with a similar footprint. Each has enough power to charge a smartphone almost three times or a typical tablet to about three-fourths capacity. And each has two charging ports, one that provides 1 amp for phones and the other 2 amps for iPads.

The Powercell 5000 is charged using your own USB charger. The larger 6000+ model has built-in folding prongs that plug into an outlet for charging and works as a charger for your devices as well. Each product is handsomely styled and displays their charge level. They’re available for about $45 and $65 respectively at discount. (

If you constantly need more battery power to get through the day, the Mophie power case is your best solution. If you need the extra power occasionally or want to charge multiple devices, then the battery packs may be your best choice.


Note: I’ve asked Alex Daly, known as “Crowdsourcerous” to write a guest column for me this week. Alex has managed the PonoMusic campaign, one of the most successful in the history of Kickstarter. — Phil Baker.

About a year and a half ago I was working as a traditional film producer — raising funds for documentaries the slow and painful way: through grants. Of course, this is not the only painful route for traditional film financing; there are equity partners and investors who can front the capital, but they, too, can create a slow and difficult process.

At least with grants, the funding is donation-based. Investors, on the other hand, have the potential to assume creative control in exchange for their investments, which creates tension and complications around the filmmaking itself — or any creative endeavor.

One day in the summer of 2012, an accomplished editor and producer whom I had met through sharing an office space, approached me about fundraising for his film the untraditional way: through crowdfunding.

I had heard about Kickstarter, but only peripherally. Still, as I tend to do with most things, I agreed to the offer without knowing what crowdfunding was or how to do it. Who doesn’t love an adventure on the Internet? We launched the campaign three weeks later and raised $81,639, surpassing our goal by 163 percent.

Soon after, I raised funds for another documentary, and again we exceeded our goal, this time reaching about 1,000 backers globally. The money helped us finish the film, and we went on to the Tribeca Film Festival. After the second crowdfunding campaign, filmmakers started approaching me to run their campaigns, as I was someone who could raise money very quickly online through this amazing thing called crowdfunding, and I could do it well.

Around the same time, an article was written about me where I was dubbed “The Crowdsourceress” and by the end of 2013, I had raised a quarter of a million dollars for six successful campaigns, including indie films, tech startups and a theater production fronted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I just finished a campaign for Oscar and Emmy-nominated filmmakers, and now I am raising money for Neil Young.

But you may still be wondering: What is crowdfunding? Here’s a quick overview: Crowdfunding is a way to collect donations online for an initiative or project from backers — the “crowd.”

Crowdfunding’s origins come from “crowdsourcing,” a concept where a financial goal is reached by collecting and leveraging small contributions from several parties. The platform that has become synonymous with the term crowdfunding is Kickstarter. Other popular crowdfunding platforms are Indiegogo and Rockethub.

Generally, backers receive a value in exchange for their donation, not equity. If we were crowdfunding $100,000 to finish a documentary, such a value might be a digital copy of film, an invitation to the film premiere, a T-shirt or a name mention in credits. So backers aren’t investing, but pledging for the actual experience.

Which brings me to where I am right now: crowdfunding on Kickstarter for Neil Young’s new audio player. The PonoPlayer, now three years in the making, creates an improved digital music listening experience.

On March 10, we launched a Kickstarter campaign for PonoMusic with the goal of raising $800,000. We have now surpassed that number by 93 percent. How? There are many moving parts to guarantee a successful campaign. Here are our top four:

First: Video. For our video, Neil shot several well-known artists such as Elton John, Eddie Vedder, Beck, Sting, as well as top music industry people who praised the product, which added tons of credibility to what we were trying to promote. Our aesthetic was docu-style and fresh, making it accessible and entertaining.

Second: Copy. For the project page text, we alternated between accessible and explanatory. The PonoPlayer is a complex product and we wanted to satisfy our backers’ questions and concerns as much as possible. We worked to tell a story through the text and to use our brand voice.

Third: Rewards. Apart from T-shirts and a sticker option, the rewards were the music players, which we offered at $100 off the retail price. This really incentivized our backers to donate now instead of waiting until the product is on the market. We also offered “Artist Signature Series,” which includes signed players by top artists at a slightly higher price point. These were extremely popular, and we worked to offer new ones that our backers requested.

Fourth: Audience engagement. We, Neil included, wanted to engage our backers as much as possible. Which brings us back to our main point: appeal directly to a huge community and provide them with a product they have been waiting for.

Most importantly, through Kickstarter, Neil gets to be fully involved with his fans and supporters. And once the campaign is done, he does not need to pay anyone back or run every move by an investor. That is the power of crowdfunding — the direct fan engagement. A portion of Neil’s note to our Kickstarter backers captures this.

“My experience here on Kickstarter has been life-changing,” Neil wrote. “After banging my head against the wall for almost three years, dealing with business experts who didn’t really understand what we were trying to accomplish (to rescue the art of recorded sound and make great music available into the future), I found you people. You are the ones who understand what this is. You have proven it with your amazing support.”

Crowdfunding has the power to revive art in a democratic way — whether it’s a new piece of hardware, a film, album or game. Kickstarter has now raised more than a billion dollars in pledges. So far, almost 60,000 projects have been successfully funded, while just over 76,000 have not. And more than $1 million are pledged daily. Daily. Purely for art. Times are changing.

Daly, known as “Crowdsourceress,” has raised millions of dollars through crowdfunding. She is managing the PonoMusic campaign, one of the most successful in the history of Kickstarter.


While Apple makes many great products, such as the iPad mini reviewed last week, I wish it would address one product that falls far below its usual design excellence. It’s the wireless Apple Magic Mouse ($70), a beautiful-looking device that we use as much as the computer. It was introduced in October 2009, yet has undergone no noticeable improvements since then. It’s the one Apple product that I’ve found to be disappointing and inferior to other mice.

The Magic Mouse has many advanced features that make it appealing — such as a touch surface that works much like a touch display, an advanced laser-tracking system and a sleek form factor that’s quite beautiful — but it’s often frustrating to use and suffers from a number of design deficiencies.

The touch-sensitive surface on the top of the mouse replaces scroll bars and wheels used on other mice. But it’s so sensitive that if your finger accidently touches it while, say editing a Word document, it can cause your document to scroll to another location far from where you were working.

Another big issue is that it consumes batteries many times faster than any other battery product I’ve used, including other mice; I’ve been replacing its two AA cells once or twice a month. Based on sales of Mac desktop computers of 4 million to 5 million a year, that’s about 100 million batteries disposed each year.

For a company that prides itself on being environmentally friendly, it’s missed its mark with the mouse.

The Logitech Wireless Trackball M570 connects wirelessly to the computer. Courtesy photo

When the mouse is dropped on the floor from even from a few inches, the battery door comes off and the batteries often go flying, unusual for most consumer products. Reattaching the door is not at all intuitive because of its complex design.

I’ve also experienced problems when the mouse occasionally disconnects from the computer for no apparent reason. This seems to be a long-standing problem, as reported in Apple’s user forums.

Lastly, the Magic Mouse carries the legacy of being a single button mouse, something Steve Jobs insisted on, when most applications now have important second-button functions.

To use these functions, you either need to use a keyboard modifier key while pressing the top of the mouse or set a preference to use the right side of its top surface as its second button.

But because of the smooth surface, it’s not easy to know exactly where your finger is, and you often activate the left button when you want the right.

With Apple upgrading its iPads, iPhones and computers once or twice a year, it’s time to do the same with the mouse.

So what are some good alternatives? The closest equivalent is the $70 Logitech Ultrathin Touch Mouse T630 that’s more portable than Apple’s mouse and connects using Bluetooth. While it still has a single button, its batteries are rechargeable and the touch surface is less sensitive to accidental activation.

Another alternative is the Logitech Marathon Mouse M705 ($50) that uses Logitech’s 2.4GHz wireless technology. While it requires a tiny receiver plugged into a USB port, the single AA battery will last about two years and the connection is very robust.

While I was searching for alternatives to the Apple mouse, I came across the Logitech Wireless Trackball M570. I used to love trackballs, but assumed they were extinct. But no, Logitech told me they continue to be very popular. Based on Amazon reviews of this product, that certainly is true: 2,800 reviews average 4½ stars out of 5.

I’ve been using the trackball for about six weeks and like it a lot; it’s a keeper. It connects wirelessly in the same way as the Marathon Mouse and addresses nearly all the objections I have with the Apple mouse.

It has a precision trackball that’s thumb-controlled, a left and right button, a scrolling wheel and an additional customizable button for functions you use frequently, such as copy, paste and so on. The major limitation is that you cannot do horizontal scrolling.

What I like most is the precision of the trackball that lets me position the pointer much more accurately than moving the mouse on a desktop.

Sometimes, newer isn’t always better. ($60,


I must admit that when the iPad mini came out, it was a ho-hum to me. I didn’t rush to review it because it seemed redundant. After all, I had an older iPad, the third-generation 10-inch model with the retina display. But once the novelty wore off, I rarely used it. Carrying it with a MacBook Air was one device too many, and I would usually favor the notebook.

However, after a few months of using the mini, I rarely go anywhere without it. It’s just the perfect convenient size and weight that works so well for doing so much. At just about the size of a Moleskine notebook or small datebook, it’s small enough to carry.

It does many of the things that I had previously done with my iPhone, such as write emails or browse my favorite sites. But it’s more convenient for accessing websites and much better for reading spreadsheets, presentations and especially books, something I struggled to do the iPhone. The text is large enough and extremely clear, with the highest resolution of any Apple iPad. And because of its smaller size and weight, I find I read more ebooks and magazines than I did on the iPad.

The iPad mini is a scaled-down version of the original 9.7-inch iPad, but much lighter and with Apple’s sharpest screen yet. It’s perfectly proportioned to the page of a book, rather than the elongated shape of most other tablets.

But something surprising happened. Over time, the mini became more to me than another tablet. It reminded me of a Filofax, a once-popular, leather-covered loose-leaf binder that I used to carry to manage my calendar, address book and notes. That’s the way I look at the mini: something so personal and used dozens of times a day.

Experts predicted the mini at more than $300 could never compete with models from Samsung, Amazon and Google that cost about $100 less. But that’s not been the case. This product just resonates so well as your personal assistant.

The basic iPad sells for $329 with 16GB memory. If you add cellular data and a bit more memory, the price can skyrocket to over $600. I paid $629 for a 32GB memory and Verizon cellular LTE data built in. (And just as a reminder that Verizon can get away with whatever it wants, I had to pay another $30 for a connection. If you find, as I did, that you carry the iPad everywhere you go, you may want to buy a cover. I passed on the Apple cover that folds into a triangular shape, which I found to be more of a cute design than serving a useful function. Instead, I recommend the following two cases that provide protection while adding little bulk.

Logitech’s Folio Protective Case for iPad mini is a thin, stiff cover that wraps around the front and back of the iPad mini. The flap can be folded to prop the mini at two convenient angles for viewing and typing. It’s covered with a durable, washable fabric in a choice of red or black. The cover also turns on the mini when opened. $50, (

One of the most ingenious new designs is the SurfacePad from Twelve South, a beautiful leather cover that positions the iPad mini and also turns the iPad on and off as the cover is lifted. The soft leather wrap protects both sides of the iPad, it leaves the edges somewhat exposed.

The SurfacePad adds just a little thickness to the iPad, the equivalent of two sheets of leather. The back half of the leather portfolio adheres to the back of the iPad with a reusable tacky adhesive sheet. SurfacePad is available in red, white and black leather. $70, (