Here’s my selection for 2014 Father’s Day tech gifts. I’ve tried each of these items and can definitely recommend them.

Pocket Pro Cameras: There have been many improvements over the past two years in pocket-size cameras, spurred on by the competition from smartphones. But these cameras beat a smartphone every time, with their larger sensors, stronger flashes and optical zooms. The best pocket-sized models you can buy are the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II or their new III, the (fixed lens) Ricoh GR, and the Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark, each from $700 to $800.

If these tax your budget, consider the tiny Canon PowerShot S110, a model that’s been replaced by the S120, but is still available for an amazing $249. Lastly, the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX7 continues to provide great results and can be found for less than $350. It’s the same camera that had sold under the Leica brand for nearly three times the price. I’ve tested all while traveling on business and vacation, and they all are excellent, producing images that are sometimes as good as those from DSLR cameras.

A bag within a bag: With some of us now using just a lightweight computer such as a MacBook Air or Microsoft Surface, or even just a tablet, there’s less need to travel with a huge briefcase, particularly once you have arrived at your destination. Consider these cases, which you can carry separately, but are also small enough to pack inside your larger case.

Briggs & Riley KA001 Digital Cross Body: This case ($129) is just the right size for carrying a 13-inch notebook, plus a tablet, power adapters, pens, keys and cards. I used it on a recent business trip to China and it was much easier carrying this each day than a fully loaded briefcase, particularly while climbing up six flights of stairs in a factory that that had no elevator (briggs-riley.com).

Another choice is the Muzetto leather bag from WaterField Designs. Handmade in San Francisco, it’s a vertical bag available in a wide range of sizes and colors from $179 to $259 (sfbags.com).

Or consider the Levenger Stealth Laptop Messenger ($299), a slim, zippered, soft leather bag that fits a 15-inch computer, tablet and other small items (levenger.com).

Logitech Case [+]: This iPhone case is so new your dad will likely not even have heard of it. Dubbed as the only case you will ever need, it is really a multipiece system. The basic case is a high-quality black matte design with a brushed metal back panel that’s attractive and provides good protection. It comes with a snap-on battery back that provides a full recharge of the phone without adding a lot of bulk. The advantage over other battery cases is it snaps off when you don’t need it and it can be recharged while off the phone.

The case comes with a clever compact magnetic mount for your car window or dashboard. Two add-ons snap on the back of the phone case. One is a compact wallet that holds a few cards and the other is a folding stand to prop up your phone for watching videos. $199 in a presentation gift box (logitech.com).

Gene Coffee Roaster: If you can’t afford to tour the world’s coffee-growing regions, then you may want to imagine visiting them by enjoying their coffee beans. Start with the green coffee beans from Sweet Marias (www.sweetmarias.com), with more than 70 constantly changing choices. Each comes with a detailed description of the geographic area and the farms where the beans are grown. Then add a coffee roaster. The Gene Coffee Roaster (genecafe.com) is one of my favorite products tested over the past year. I liked it so much, my wife bought it for me for last Father’s Day, and I’ve been using it nearly every week. The Gene Cafe ($585) roasts a half-pound of coffee in about 15 minutes using a clever off-axis rotating design that lets you watch the beans turn from green to brown. I find the coffee to be noticeably better than even my favorite local roasters. Coffee beans cost about $6 to $7/pound, about one-third to one-half of roasted beans. (genecafe.com)

T-Mobile and the HTC One (M8) Phone: This is the perfect gift for the International traveler. For the first time, you can use your normal cellphone wherever you go in the world and forget those huge roaming charges for calls and data that Verizon and the rest of the companies charge. T-Mobile’s new Simple Choice Plan lets you call for just 20 cents a minute in nearly any country and get free data. Couple it with a HTC One (M8) phone and you’ve got the best possible combination.

iPad Air: While the Air may look like an incremental improvement over the original 9.7-inch tablet, it’s really quite a breakthrough in its reduced 1-pound weight, faster processer and only 7.5mm thickness. It retains a 10-hour battery life and is the best iPad you can buy this year. $499 for the 16GB version, $100 more for 32GB. (apple.com).

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Last week I wrote about my experiences with T-Mobile in China, and said I would get back with more details.

T-Mobile has implemented big improvements in how it charges for a new phone and services, particularly what it charges for calling and data outside the country. Late last year T-Mobile introduced its Simple Choice Plan that made text and data free and reduced calls to a low flat rate of 20 cents a minute in more than 120 countries.

That has allowed international travelers to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Most importantly, it transforms our phone from a very dangerous-to-use money sink to the convenient item it was designed to be, to keep us in touch and accessible without worrying about cost.

T-Mobile recently released a survey of international travelers that compared customers from other carriers that pay the large charges with the T-Mobile customers who have been using this new plan.

“It’s completely outrageous that old-guard carriers are still raking in billions each year from these ridiculous roaming fees,” said John Legere, T-Mobile’s outspoken president. “That they continue to gouge their customers to the tune of 90 percent margins every time they set foot outside the country is shameful. Americans deserve better.”

His comments are accurate; when I speak to friends living in other countries, they are astounded at how much we pay.

The company’s survey showed that 88 percent of those polled said they were frustrated by the expenses and challenges of staying connected while abroad; of those, 20 percent said they just don’t use their phones, 40 percent said they turn off data roaming and 20 percent said they would turn off data roaming if they knew how. That’s 80 percent of carrier customers struggling to avoid the high costs of staying connected while traveling abroad.

Those using T-Mobile behave much differently. They make three times more calls, text seven times more often, and use 28 times more data.

T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan simplifies not only international use. Domestically, there are no annual contracts, no overage fees of any kind, phones can be upgraded anytime and all calling and texting is free. Depending on what you pay, you also get a given amount of high-speed data in the United States. For example, you get 3GB in a $60/month plan. Should you go over your data, there are no penalties. The speed slows or you can buy more data for that month.

Other carriers make you choose how much data you think you will use and if you go over, you pay a penalty. Most of us choose conservatively to avoid going over, resulting in paying for more than we use. As a result, we’ll want to sign up to get warnings at 50 percent of data use, 75 percent, 90 percent, etc. Don’t we have something better to do than worry about all this?

So how good is T-Mobile’s domestic coverage? What good is a phone if it doesn’t work where you are?

While all of our experiences will vary depending where we spend our time, I’ve experienced good results with T-Mobile. I’ve been trying it out for the past few weeks, mostly on the West coast, from San Diego to north of San Francisco, as well as in the outskirts of Denver. California cities and towns include San Rafael, Ross, Corte Madera, Larkspur and Tiburon, San Francisco, LA and all over San Diego, including the airport.

I’ve carried both the T-Mobile HTC One (M8) and my Verizon iPhone 5S. I’ve monitored the signal strength, made and received calls, sent and received email, and browsed the Internet. The last time I did this, about three years ago, I found Verizon’s coverage to be noticeably better.

This time I found little difference. I was surprised how strong the T-Mobile signal was, often when Verizon was just two bars. At home in Solana Beach, T-Mobile actually provides a stronger signal. My testing is certainly not scientific or broad, just anecdotal.

With more extensive testing, Consumer Reports rates Verizon and AT&T as best, so I would still be cautious about shifting to T-Mobile without trying it out. Like other carriers, T-Mobile offers a free 14-day trial and will take the phone back within that period, waiving restocking fees if the return is due to coverage issues.

With the discussion of mergers between Comcast and Time Warner, and AT&T and DirecTV, it’s interesting to recall that when AT&T attempted to buy T-Mobile it said it would be better for the consumer. If that had happened, does anyone think we’d have seen such a reduction in international rates?

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I just returned from a business trip to Shenzhen, China, which gave me a chance to try out some technology services.

Connecting: On previous trips I’ve always needed to plan ahead to bring along solutions for making and receiving phone calls, and having data access for Google maps and email, particularly for the many hours spent in vans driving between companies. In the past, I’d do everything to avoid using my Verizon phone because of the huge price of data and phone calls.

I learned the hard way that if you are not careful, you can rack up charges of hundreds or thousands of dollars. That’s because Verizon charges $25 for 100 MB of data, and $1.99 per minute for calls in China and often more in other countries. That’s $250 per gigabyte, compared to $5 per gigabyte at home! And you need to buy your data in advance and be careful you don’t exceed it, or your rate reverts to even higher charges. Verizon is not alone; AT&T and Sprint are equally bad.

This time was different. I tried out T-Mobile’s new Simple Choice plan, which puts the other carriers’ usury charges to shame.

I signed up for the $60-per-month plan that includes free everything in the United States and 20 cents per minute when you call from other countries. This plan provides 3 GB of data at 3G/4G speed and then slows to 2GB when you exceed that. There’s never a penalty for going over and you can add more high-speed data if you chose. When traveling internationally, data is free regardless of where you use it; its speed will vary by country and service. I used a T-Mobile version of the HTC One phone (M8) that I reviewed last week.

I also took my Verizon iPhone 5S and bought 100MB of “discounted” data for $25 to see how the two services would compare for data speed and service.

I used the phones while I traveled around Hong Kong, Shenzhen and small towns within two hours of Shenzhen. When out of the large cities, much of the available data is only 2G, so both phones performed similarly. But closer to the big cities, T-Mobile outperformed Verizon. I sometimes connected to 4G on T-Mobile, while Verizon never exceeded 3G speeds.

In the past, I’d avoid answering calls on Verizon to avoid the $2 per minute charge, but this time I freely gave out my T-Mobile number, paying just 20 cents per minute.

After years of huge out-of-country charges from Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, T-Mobile has changed the rules and given international travelers a huge gift. And it’s not that the other carriers couldn’t do what T-Mobile is doing; according to some industry sources, Verizon and the others take more than a 90 percent margin on these services.

I’ll continue to try out T-Mobile service in the United States to see how the coverage is and provide a full review of their plans. But just based on my experience in China, if you travel internationally, consider T-Mobile’s new plan. It’s a game changer.

LA Airport: I flew out of LAX on Cathay Pacific Airlines and enjoyed the remodeled Bradley International Terminal, which has a great shopping mall, especially for those looking for travel gadgets. The terminal has improved waiting areas and seating, better restaurants and an expanded customs area. Its free Wi-Fi was excellent, with coverage throughout the terminal.

I have been using LAX for many of my international destinations, driving from San Diego and leaving my car at Wally Park, one of the most luxurious parking structures I’ve encountered; cars are parked in stalls with blankets hanging between parking spaces to avoid scratches. It costs about $20 per day with a AAA discount, or a dollar extra a day for valet service.

Traveling out of San Francisco has been less reliable, with flights from San Diego often delayed because of weather, running the risk of missed connections.

On my return, customs lines in L.A. had wait times of more than 30 minutes, but with the $100 Global Access pass, I was able to go directly to one of the electronic kiosks and whiz right through. You don’t need to be a frequent traveler to benefit from this. Some Citibank and American Express cards even pay for the pass.

Cathay Pacific: Cathay has become my airline of choice for traveling to the Far East. While I have more than 1.5 million miles on United Airlines, upgrades from coach to business are never available, and the seating, service and amenities in coach cannot compare with those on Cathay’s more modern fleet.

On this trip I was able to upgrade to business going out and flew Premium Economy on the return. Business provides an amazingly comfortable lie-flat bed with a huge video display for entertainment. Seats are arranged so that you cannot see another passenger in any direction, providing a greater sense of privacy.

Cathay’s Premium Economy provides wider seats than economy with plenty of legroom, comparable to many domestic first class seats. The seat inclines almost 45 degrees, making it possible to sleep. Regardless of class, Cathay’s service is among the best I’ve experienced. Check it out here: http://products.cathaypacific.com/premiumeconomy/.

Airline lounges: In both L.A. and in Hong Kong I found airport lounges accessible using the Priority Pass card, a benefit from the American Express Platinum card. I had never paid much attention to this free benefit until I discovered that it works in many domestic airports, such as the Alaska Lounge of Southwest Airlines (Terminal 1) in San Francisco.

Luggage: I’m always trying to avoid lugging a heavy briefcase through the long airline walks, without scrimping on how much I take. (You know — all those gadgets!) This time, in addition to my roller bag with my clothing, I used the new Briggs and Riley U116 (Baseline) cabin bag ($339). It’s larger than a large briefcase, great for a short one- or two-night trip, or as a large business case. I used it to carry my notebook, tablet, chargers, headphones, camera and a load of files and reading material, along with a small computer case. That way, when I went off for work each day, I could take the lightweight computer case and leave the cabin bag in my hotel room.

The cabin bag could also be carried on top of my suitcase or wheeled alongside. It’s one of the first cabin bags I’ve come across that has four 360-degree wheels, meaning it takes little exertion while walking through the airports, and it fits under many airplane seats.

Last, I was reminded that as entrepreneurial and progressive China’s tech business climate is, the government still blocks some Internet sites including Facebook and the New York Times.

Traveling is rarely fun, but with careful planning, you can improve both your comfort and save money.

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by Jane Baker

Phil and I have a deal – he earns the miles and hotel points and I spend them. (We have the same deal with his salary, but that’s a whole other story!)

In the old days, when you wanted to plan a vacation, you had no choice but to go to AAA or a travel agent and let them plan all the details. This is still a great choice for many people, but I am a bit of a control freak (ok, more than a bit) and, besides, I want to use points as much as possible to cut down the costs.

This year, the destination of our vacation is my choice, in honor of a big birthday I just celebrated. (Don’t ask how big!) I first consulted the book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die, (not being morbid, just practical). I made a bucket list of places I wanted to see and prioritized them into 2 categories: (1) those I need to do now while healthy, able to walk long distances, places I would not want to have a medical emergency in, etc. versus (2) those that are less strenuous, such as a cruise.

I chose Russia. I decided that this year, I did not want to do all the planning, so had my friend and travel agent book an 8 day tour, beginning in Moscow, ending in St Petersburg. I then researched how to get there, using United Airlines points on business class. I could not go directly so chose a round trip to Oslo, giving us 8 days to enjoy Norway, 4 before Russia to be spent in and around Oslo, and 4 after in Bergen and the fjords. So I spent many hours on line researching and reserving hotels and planning train and boat tours. I would have liked 2 extra days at the fjords, daily checked on the United web site to extend the trip, but to no avail. Turned out to be a good thing.

Unfortunately, politically speaking, this is certainly not a good year to go to Russia, so after much debate with Phil, (with our children and even our travel agent agreeing with him,) about 2 weeks ago, I relented and cancelled that part of the trip. I had, wisely, bought trip insurance, and with some pressure from my travel agent, the tour company did refund our deposit.

But now where do we go? At this late date, I could not change my flights to any other city in Europe so needed to find a place easy to get to from Bergen and Oslo. After days of research, I settled on a flight to Paris, renting a car and doing a driving trip through Normandy and the Loire Valley. Neither of us has been to Normandy, and my trip to Loire had been as a teenager, so all chateaus and no wine tasting.

Now the real work began. I checked my guidebooks, decided what sites and towns to see, and then hit the web sites, beginning with Google Maps. I checked all the driving distances between each and every town that I wanted to see and determined how many nights to spend in each area. I tried not to move to a different hotel each night, too exhausting. Then I checked on Relais & Chateau, Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Trip Advisor, Expedia, plus Google to convert euros into dollars. Most of the time the hotel sites had the same prices as the discount sites, but in 1 case, in Giverny, I saved $250 for the night, booking on Expedia.  One thing I found though, the hotels seem to save their lesser rooms for the discount sites, such as the smaller rooms or the attic rooms with slanted ceilings. Not a problem for us when staying just 1 night though, we just want a comfy bed, nice amenities and a great restaurant.

It took a solid week of researching, planning, pricing, reserving, but I finally have an itinerary: Paris – Giverny (1 night) – Bayeux (2) – Tours (1) (with a visit to Mt St Michel on the way) – Amboise (3) and back to Paris for our flight back to Oslo. I was able to use a feature on Google Maps to create my own map, showing our entire driving itinerary. The last time we went to France, Phil had bought a GPS map, so we have that to use to get us from place to place. But I’ll also print out Google maps for each leg of the trip as a backup.

Changing flights was a mixed bag. I had booked the one from Oslo to Moscow on SAS  using United points. Changing this was no problem at all; I just called United and asked them to change the flight to a different date and now going Bergen – Paris. There wasn’t any penalty and I even saved some points. The flight I had made on SAS from St Petersburg to Bergen I had paid by credit card. I called SAS and they said it would be simpler to cancel it on line as I had made it on line. So I tried doing that. I think it went through but they said it would take 7 days for them to process and there would be a $150 cancellation fee but the rest would be credited back. Lesson learned – use points whenever possible, even if it’s an inexpensive flight.

Next came the trickier part – Norway – trickier because we are using public transportation all the way. First I had to change or cancel all the hotels reservations I had made previously as the dates had changed. There is a trip called Norway in a Nutshell that takes you from Oslo by 2 trains to Flam, to a ferry through the narrowest fjord, then bus, another train, ending in Bergen. You can book this whole tour with one click. However, I also want to stop in Flam and do a detour to another part of the fjord for 2 days, then return to Flam, go by ferry through the narrow fjord and end up in Bergen. Moreover, our timing is really tight as we need to arrive Bergen in time to go to a 6:00 PM Neil Young concert that is taking place on the very day we arrive there.

I could not find how to reserve all of in one easy click, so I ended up making each boat and train reservation separately. This was also not easy. Sometimes I had to search for the company’s contact information and send them an email just to find the correct site for booking the trips. And although the web sites all have the option for English, once you get to the schedule pages and payment pages, they are often in just Norwegian. After all that work, you don’t want to click on Cancel rather than Book! So I had to, once again, use Google to translate the choices to make sure I was clicking on the right one, as well as to convert Norwegian Krone to US dollars to find out how much all this was costing.

My last task was to get myself a Global Entry pass to expedite customs when we get home. I applied on line last night and am awaiting my personal interview. As we travel a lot, it will be well worth the $100 I had to pay, as it lasts for 5 years.

So, after weeks of 24/7 planning and schedules running through my dreams, it’s done! But I’m exhausted.

I NEED A VACATION!

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Samsung and HTC each have introduced, as they’ve done in years past, contenders for the best new Android phone. Samsung’s new model is the Galaxy S5 replacing the S4. HTC has introduced the HTC One (M8) that replaces the HTC One (M7).

I’ve been using each of them and, while they both run the same version of the latest Android, Kit Kat, they each follow a different design philosophy. From using the products and having been part of many design teams, it’s easy to imagine the different goals each company had.

Samsung followed the same approach as it has with its previous phones and HDTVs — it’s primarily about the display and less about aesthetics. Samsung puts much less attention into the ease of use and the appearance of the software and the phone itself. There’s an amalgam of garish colors, unattractive fonts and cartoonish icons.

The phone looks much like previous models, going back several years. The edges are still chrome-plated plastic and the back is a thin removable cover that snaps on and off. While the phone looks somewhat cheap, it’s durable and well constructed. The one major addition is a fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone.

HTC, on the other hand, continues to place its attention on the aesthetics and user experience of both the phone and software. HTC follows Apple’s approach of using premium materials and creating a beautiful industrial design. As a result, it has produced a phone that’s much more attractive and somewhat easier to use than the Samsung S5.

The HTC One (M8) uses a machined aluminum housing with a beautiful brushed finish. The back has a slight concave shape, making it comfortable to hold in your hand. It is one of the best-looking phones I’ve ever used.

Putting aside aesthetics, both phones offer a dizzying array of features, thanks to Google’s continual advancement of Android. As an iPhone user, I think Android has now surpassed Apple on the feature front.

Compared with Apple, however, usability is a different story. Out of the box, the challenge is figuring out how things work and how to navigate around the occasional ads and announcements that pop up on the display while setting up the phone. For example I kept getting a screen on the Samsung asking me to sign up for a magazine subscription.

Much of this is not just the phone maker’s fault, but is the crapware the phone companies add to their phones. Neither came with very comprehensive instructions, and Samsung’s were particularly hard to read.

Both phones have beautiful, large 5-inch displays. The Samsung’s OLED is more contrasty than the HTC’s LED, but is also more difficult to read in sunlight. Overall, the differences are minor and both screens are the best you can find on any phone.

While both batteries easily got me through a day of heavy use, the Samsung’s battery is easily removable, should you want to carry a  spare to pop in. The HTC One battery is sealed inside the housing. From teardown reports online, replacing the HTC battery by a service company looks to be a real challenge.

The S5 addresses some of the criticism from last year’s model S4, by eliminating or burying many of the software add-ons that rarely worked, such as eye tracking and tilt to scroll.

The S5’s fingerprint reader doubles as the home button, as on the iPhone 5S. Unlike the iPhone, in which you touch the home button, the S5 requires you to slide your finger over it. I found it to be much less reliable and worked only about half the time. It confirms Samsung’s design approach, placing a priority on adding features before it irons out the reliability.

New this year is the Samsung S5 water resistance, which is accomplished by adding a rubber gasket inside of the back cover and a plastic cover over the mini USB connector that needs to be removed each time for charging. This won’t make the phone waterproof, but allows it to survive a splash or a quick dunk in a glass of water.

Both keyboards use an effective predictive technology that significantly reduces the number of keystrokes. Both have Google Now, an Android feature that displays a screen with timely information it thinks you would like to see. For example, it showed me the most recent Padres baseball score, a flight update for a trip I was taking later in the day, the estimated driving time to the airport and the weather of the destination city. Very cool.

Both phones have excellent cameras for stills and video. While Samsung offers more pixels and is a tad sharper, HTC has larger ones, producing better low-light images.

Call quality was excellent on both phones, using the Samsung S5 on AT&T and the HTC on Verizon. Data speeds were consistently faster on AT&T compared with Verizon, a result of AT&T’s 4G network.

My conclusion? I much prefer the HTC for its superior hardware and user interface design. It’s the most Apple-esque of any Android phone. In fact, it’s in some ways better than the iPhone with its add-in memory slot, 5-inch display and the new features of Android. But if aesthetics is not a major consideration to you, the Samsung is also a good choice. Each of these phones represents the most powerful and feature-laden Android phones ever.

You can find each phone at Sprint, AT&T and Verizon for $200 with a new plan. T-Mobile allows you to spread the retail price (about $650) of either phone over two years, so it adds about $24/month without the initial $200 payment. The Samsung comes in white, black, blue and gold, and the HTC comes in dark gray, gold and natural aluminum, all varying by carrier.

And one last note. If you do opt for the HTC, check out the very cool Dot View case. The display shines through the holes on the front cover to show timely messages and information using large letters and icons. But you’ll want to remove it to show off the phone’s good looks.

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