I’ve been poring over some of the new products I saw last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Here’s a selection among those that stand out and add to the use of your cellphone.

Reach79: I’ve been trying out a new phone case from Antenna79 for the iPhone 6 that’s designed to improve cellular performance. The case has a built-in antenna that works with the one in the phone to improve signal strength and transmission speeds. The intent is to reduce dropped calls and improve data speeds. The case in the antenna works passively, meaning there is no electrical connection with the phone.

The case works with the iPhone 6 version for AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, but not Sprint. The case is a matte black, hard-plastic shell that snaps onto the phone. It adds little bulk to the phone and is similar in size to most standard cases.

The gold-colored antenna element is sandwiched in the back of the case with a portion of it visible through a decorative grill on the back.

The name of the product, Reach79, refers to the number for gold in the periodic table. The company, originally called Pong Research, was founded in San Diego and makes cases designed to reduce radiation from the phone. Catterton, a private consumer-focused equity group from Greenwich, Conn., is the company’s major investor.

Reach79 case for iPhone 6. Courtesy photo

The case is designed to work best when the phone is held in your hand or against your head. CEO David Vigil, a 20-year veteran of Qualcomm, says it works best in areas of marginal signal strength.

I tried it using an iPhone 6 with Verizon service in about a half-dozen locations around San Diego. I used the free Ookla app (www.ookla.com) to test download and upload speeds with the case on and off, and with the phone up to my ear and in my hand, positioned to view the screen.

I was unable to draw any conclusive conclusions from this test. That’s likely because there are many other variables, including tower congestion, Internet traffic, environmental conditions and lack of repeatability. In fact, when I measured speeds several times in a row, first with the case on and then with the case off, I’d get differences in upload and download speeds that were often larger than the differences with the case on and off.

Anytime you tamper with the radiation patterns of a phone, it’s important that you don’t create new problems. The company has conducted extensive tests and says the phone meets all of the standards of the iPhone alone for the important measurement of SAR, the Specific Absorption Rate of RF energy in the body. In fact, they say it’s likely one of the most tested cases ever.

The company plans to offer optimized models tailored to particular carriers as well as models for other phones and other colors. The product costs $60 for the iPhone 6 and $70 for the iPhone 6 Plus.

Although my tests were inconclusive, this does not necessarily mean that the case does not work as designed. If you experience frequent dropped calls and slow Internet connections, it’s certainly worth a try to see if this helps.

Other cases and mounts: Over the past few months I’ve received a wide variety of sample cases, for the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Among them all, I prefer those with a front cover that protects the display, especially from scratches and damage to the coatings. Displays have coatings designed to reduce glare and smudges.

• The Tech21 Classic Shell with Cover case for iPhone 6 offers a combination of protection, lightness and minimal bulk. Cases from this British company use a patented material as a liner to absorb impact to the phone when dropped.

This new case is much like the hugely popular Frame case that’s been one of the Apple Stores’ best sellers. The difference is that it adds a thin hinged cover to protect the display, adding minimal bulk; calls can be made with the cover closed. $35 for the iPhone 6 and $45 for the iPhone 6 Plus. (www.tech21.com).

• Another great case is the BookBook for iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. It looks like a vintage leather book that can also be used as a stand. The phone snaps into a plastic case within the book and can be removed and used separately. $60, www.twelvesouth.com.

• When I’ve tried using my phone as a GPS, I’ve had trouble finding a way to mount it to the car, particularly when traveling and driving a rental car. I didn’t like the designs with a long arms and suction cup that sticks on the window: They’re too large to carry and not legal unless they’re attached to the corner of the windshield.

The best solution I’ve found is the Airframe, a small U-shaped device that’s tiny enough to fit in your pocket. It pushes onto an air-conditioner vent with a rubber nub that works with varying thickness vents oriented both vertically and horizontally. The frame expands to fit all brands of phones with displays of up to 6-inches (including the iPhone 6 Plus). Some phones even fit while in their case. $25, www.kenu.com and at Apple Stores.

• For a small, discreet mount that’s more permanent, Nite-Ize introduced at CES a mounting system called Steelie. It consists of a small steel ball that mounts to your dashboard using non-marring adhesive. A small magnetic disc sticks onto the back of your phone or case. The two connect with a firm click and allow a wide range of movement of the phone to position it just right. The disc is thin enough so as not to add much bulk to your phone.

There are several elements that can be added, such as a stand for your desk, a ball mount for your vent and a case with the magnetic disk built in. About $30 from www.niteize.com.

Are you torn between your old Blackberry and an iPhone? Typo offers a solution, the Typo keyboard and case. The keyboard looks much like a Blackberry thumb keyboard. (The original version looked so much like one that it was sued and had to recall their product). Typo adds ¾ inch to length and provides a very satisfactory type experience, almost as good as a Blackberry, although it doesn’t have all of the special Blackberry function keys and shortcuts, and the balance in the hand is not quite as good.

The Typo is backlit, runs off of a rechargeable battery, and connects to the phone using Bluetooth. It replaces the home button with a substitute key, but it frees up a lot more of the display. To get around the patent, the company modified the shape of their keys. $99 at typokeyboards.com.


If there’s one thing that U.S. companies should have learned by now it’s not to tamper with anyone’s ability to go online. The FCC’s proposal of considering a fast lane and slow lane, proposed by Comcast, resulted in 6 million email and phone complaints.

The FCC has learned its lesson and is now expected to propose regulating the Internet much as it does a public utility, treating the Internet like phone service. That will mean the idea of charging for faster speeds goes out the window, and we have real net neutrality.

Rarely has an issue been so universally supported by the public, which would be up in arms against any attempt to tamper with that access. Access is now as important as a phone line, not a luxury, but a necessity.

Now, tampering with how we access the Internet has become an issue.

Marriott, one of the largest hotel chains with more than 4,000 properties around the world, recently created a firestorm when it tried to prevent some of its guests from using their phone to connect via Wi-Fi.

In early 2013, the Gaylord Opryland Marriott in Nashville blocked the Wi-Fi connections of guests attending a conference in an effort to make them buy the hotel’s own Wi-Fi services for a whopping $250 to $1,000 per person. The blocking prevented guests from using the hotspots on their cellular phones to create connections to their computers.

Marriott said it was done to improve their guests’ security, an excuse that made little sense and brought them even more ridicule. But most saw it as the first step on a slippery slope that would eventually lead Marriott to block its customers’ Wi-Fi in their rooms, forcing them to pay Marriott’s daily connection fees.

To its credit, the FCC responded quickly, warning Marriott to never let this happen again and fining them $600,000. Under the FCC consent decree, Marriott is prohibited from blocking Wi-Fi at any of its properties. The company must also file a statement of compliance each quarter for the next three years.

“The Communications Act prohibits anyone from interfering with authorized radio communications, including Wi-Fi,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. “Marriott’s request seeking the FCC’s blessing to block guests’ use of non-Marriott networks is contrary to this basic principle.”

“Consumers who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal Internet connection will be blocked by their hotel or conference center,” said Travis LeBlanc, FCC enforcement bureau chief.

Well, you’d think that Marriott would get the message and drop the idea. Instead, they dug themselves an even deeper hole. Along with their trade organization, the American Hospitality & Lodging Association, they petitioned the FCC to alter the Communications Act itself to let them block wireless access in their conference room areas.

They claimed once more that such a change was needed to prevent their guests from launching attacks against the hotel’s own network and steal other guest’s credit cards. But it’s actually easier to jeopardize security by allowing guests to use the hotel’s Wi-Fi then their own hot spot.

That action created more negative publicity, and Marriott faced protests from business travelers, including their elite members, and many companies in the high-tech industry, such as Motorola and Google.

Companies and individuals threatened to boycott Marriott. Some compared Marriott to Comcast, reputed to be the most hated company in America.

Marriott’s action also brought unwanted attention to a policy most travelers despise: paying from $13 to $15 a day for a Wi-Fi connection at their full-service hotels, while the hotel chains’ lower-cost properties offer it free. Even after paying the hotel’s Wi-Fi charge, the connection is barely faster than dial-up.

If all this seems like Groundhog Day, you probably remember how hotels once charged exorbitant rates to make phone calls from hotel rooms, even to toll-free numbers. The growth of cellphones put an end to those charges. Now cellphones with hotspots will put an end to Wi-Fi charges.

If Marriott failed to get the message, archrival Hyatt sent another one: Wi-Fi will now be free at all Hyatt Hotels. This is the future: free Internet access and access to a neutral Internet.


If you are considering buying a new iPhone for use on Verizon or AT&T, you might want to select the T-Mobile version instead, or a special new model that Apple has just introduced. I’ll explain why.

When buying a cellphone, we normally select a model designed specifically for our carrier of choice. Should we decide to change carriers, we’ll need to buy a new phone compatible with the new cellular company’s radio frequencies. The carriers have always liked this arrangement because we’ll be less likely to switch, even if we become dissatisfied with their service or rates.

But if your phone could work on another carrier, it normally comes locked, preventing it from being used on compatible carriers you might find in the United States or overseas. You can request the carrier to unlock your phone, but they usually require several months of use and that it be fully paid up.

Now that’s all changed. The new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus for T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are identical phones and capable of being used on each other’s networks.

Unlike the phones from Verizon and AT&T, only the T-Mobile version comes unlocked if it’s bought from Apple, which allows a SIM card from any of the three carriers to work on their respective networks.

It’s no more expensive to do this. The T-Mobile iPhone 6 costs $649 with 64 GB memory, the same as the other carriers’ locked phones. The iPhone 6 Plus costs $100 more.

Why is this important? If you can use one phone on all the carriers, you now have the ability to switch carriers without needing to buy a new phone. You can buy local SIM cards while traveling, and change carriers if you move to an area where your current carrier has poor reception.

It’s also important because some carriers and reseller offer monthly plans without commitments. With an unlocked iPhone, you can change carriers at will, depending on the best rates; the carriers cannot lock you in. If you travel overseas, you can even get a T-Mobile SIM card to use their unlimited data and 20 cents per minute international rates for just a short time.

The carriers don’t publicize this, and in fact, prefer we don’t know. They still are selling what appear to be unique models, but the uniqueness is simply the software that locks the phone and provides some of the carrier’s apps.

So for those who want to maintain flexibility with plans and be able to use the phone outside the country, buy the T-Mobile version of the iPhone 6 (A1549) or the iPhone 6 Plus (A1522) from Apple’s store or from their website. If you purchase it from T-Mobile it comes locked.

If this isn’t confusing enough, Apple has just begun selling its own SIM-free unlocked iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, models A1586 and A1524.

The A1586 supports a few more LTE bands than the A1549, but is nearly the same. The main difference is it doesn’t come with software from any of the carriers; it’s carrier-agnostic. The phone sells for the same price: $649 and $749 for a 6 or 6 Plus with 64 GB memory. This phone is an equally good choice as the unlocked T-Mobile version.

In short, buy these phones from Apple if you want the ability to switch carriers if a better deal comes along and use any SIM card from anywhere in the world:

Slowly but surely, we are gaining our freedom from the carrier’s restrictive policies meant to limit our flexibility and freedom of choice.

What about Android phones? I checked two of the most popular models, the HTC One (M8) and the Samsung Galaxy S5. They each offer carrier-specific models and no one-model-fits-all version.


One of the major themes at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the Internet of Things or IoT. Many of the speakers — including CEOs of major corporations, industry analysts and investors — discussed the topic.

IoT refers to devices and home appliances wirelessly connected to the Internet, the cloud or to each other that provide new capabilities. And from all of the discussions, many think it’s destined to be the next big thing in consumer tech.

With such connectivity, including cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, devices can be smarter and behave differently as a result of external information or events. They can react based on communications from the cloud, the user or other devices, automating things that are now done manually.

For example, the Nest thermostat reacts to outside weather conditions, which it learns from being connected to the Internet, and detects activity levels in the home, lowering the temperature when no one is there.

While IoT offers great promise, it is also something that has the potential to make our lives more complicated if we are not careful. Clearly, there are some things we do that could benefit by this, but many of these will not make a huge difference, and some will be downright annoying.

One idea mentioned at CES was a device that turns off your TV and lights when your fitness tracker detects that you have fallen asleep. While it sounds innocuous and maybe even useful, can you imagine setting it up? You need to connect your fitness tracker, the TV and lights to the cloud or to a hub in the home. Each likely requires an app, and you need to set up your preferences. And it’s probable that each item, made by different companies, won’t work well together.

We already have devices that turn the lights on when we turn into our driveway or enter a room, and turn them off when leaving. But if we’re simply reading on the couch when the lights go out due to a low level of activity, we then must wave our hands to turn them back on. If something like this cannot be done perfectly, how well can more complicated activities be done?

The area of health offers great potential. New sensors that monitor vital signs that can alert us or our doctor could be life-saving. Dr. Brian Alman of Encinitas, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, imagines emotional-mental-behavioral solutions for health sensors detecting high stress where he can deliver a short phone message or video to the user, much like a personal coach.

The challenge is to make these devices easy to set up and maintenance free.

As more devices become connected, imagine trying to troubleshoot a problem. Was the alert message on my phone triggered by the heart sensor on my watch, the sleep sensor in my bed, or the activity sensor on my treadmill?

The CEO of Samsung says that all their products — including humidifiers — will have wireless connectivity. I’m sure he’s motivated by using IoT as an opportunity to sell us something extra and encourage us to buy only Samsung products so they can talk to each other.

We are already interrupted hundreds of times each day, if we allow it. Emails, messaging, phone calls and so on. Do we need more interruptions from our clothes dryer, frying pan or coffeepot? We don’t want to be a slave to inanimate objects. It’s important not to be awed by the technology, and focus instead on specific applications. Is the benefit worth the overhead?

These are some the challenges that need to be overcome:

• Standards: Every company will have its own standards and it will take years to sort this out so products from different companies can talk to each other. Just think of the difficulty now in setting up a universal remote control. While there are some industry standards evolving, we’ll likely buy a complete solution from a single company.

• Setup: It will be difficult setting up so many things with different interfaces and different functionalities. Some of us still have problems getting a Wi-Fi connection in our home.

• Privacy: With all these devices and sensors connected to the cloud, some enterprising startup will figure a way to provide us with free devices and services for sharing all of our home and health data and allowing them to sell it to advertisers.

You’ll hear lots about IoT in 2015. Some of it will offer amazing new opportunities. But remember, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be!


I’ve tried and even paid for wine apps that promised to help me select a great bottle or glass of wine, yet have been consistently disappointed. The Wine Spectator app, for example, charges $5 per month to access its wine ratings, but more often than not a search for a particular wine brings up a not-found message. Other apps let you take a picture of the label to access a review, but the results are much the same: wine not found.

But now that’s all changed. I’ve been trying an app called Vivino (www.vivino.com), and have been delighted and amazed at how well it works. The app was created in Copenhagen in 2011 and Vivino now has an office in San Francisco with just five employees. It’s free for both the iPhone and Android phones and works the same way on each.

You start by taking a picture of a wine label that’s sent to Vivino. A few seconds later, a scrollable page opens with information about the wine, including a picture of the label, a 1 to 5 rating from other users who have rated it, average price, detailed reviews, a comparison with other vintages and recommended food pairings. You can also enter your own review and add notes for future reference.

I tried the app on about 20 different bottles; 16 were identified immediately and four required a delay for manual matching. Three of the four came back in a few minutes, and one never did (a Vosne Romanee). My test included a wide variety of wines from around the world and a couple of small family wineries.

What makes Vivino stand apart from other wine apps is the number of users — 8 million who have scanned in and reviewed 100 million bottles of wine. Of these 100 million reviews, there are 5 million unique wines in the database.

I spoke with Steven Favrot, Vivino’s vice president of marketing, who said their users are increasing faster than any other wine app — 15,000 to 20,000 per day. With so many users — he estimates 20 times more than any other app — there’s a high likelihood that many users have reviewed the wine you’re checking. Typically, there were as many as 10 or more ratings, making the results more meaningful.

If you ever perused a wine list in a restaurant trying to decide which wine to order, a second feature in this app can help you choose. Take a picture of a restaurant’s wine list and in a few seconds, that image will come back with ratings superimposed next to each wine on the list. That solves the dilemma of trying to find a wine with a high rating at an affordable price. This feature also worked for me when I took a picture of a wine list off my computer screen.

With that said, it’s likely you can get more nuanced opinions from a fine restaurant’s sommelier who’s much more familiar with the selections on the wine list or, if listed, from a publication such as Wine Spectator, where the tasting is done by professionals.

In fact, Vivino’s newly announced Premium version will add these reviews. For $5 a month or $49.95 per year, you can have them deliver a biweekly Wine Buying Guide. The guide tailors the report to your needs and includes access to up-to-date pricing from more than 50,000 merchants worldwide through Wine Searcher. It also adds expert wine reviews from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and so on, and helps you keep track of your wine cellar.

Vivino is a perfect example of the value of crowdsourcing, where a large population of users benefits each member, much as Amazon does for product reviews and Waze does for traffic conditions. Based on my use, Vivino improves the odds of choosing a wine of your liking and price point, whether in a restaurant or in a wine store. But don’t ignore recommendations from a store’s employees, restaurant’s sommeliers and other experts.