When it comes to booking flights, thereís no scarcity of Internet sites to use. Three of those I like are Kayak, Expedia and Hipmunk.

Each site lets you enter a specific itinerary and will come back with a list of flights to chose from, often numbering into the hundreds. Kayak and Hipmunk are aggregators, meaning they collect the listings from other sellers and collect fees from referrals and click-throughs. Expedia sells the flights directly.

Whichever you use, the process is much the same; the big variation is in how results are sorted and displayed, and to some extent, the flights they find.

But searching through each list can be frustrating. Mixed in are often strange routings connecting through out-of-the-way cities or with long layovers on airlines youíve never heard of. Just this past week I needed to book a flight from San Diego to Hong Kong, and the choices were endless, even including one itinerary with a stop in London and another in Dubai.

What Iíve learned to do is to find a few of the best selections on each of several sites and then print them out and compare. I’m often going back a day or two later, to look at the flights again, essentially conducting the same search all over again with a few variations. So while the Internet brings us gobs of information, it still requires a lot more work on our part to find the most suitable flight. And according to industry research, the average user has nine online sessions before booking a flight.

A few days after I booked my flight to Hong Kong (a non-stop from LAX), I learned of a new software product, Pintrips, which claimed it could make these searches easier. Iíve been trying the product, which is still in public beta. (That means it works, but is not yet complete, and is still a little rough around the edges).

Pintrips addresses the difficulty of searching through different sites to come up with the best flight. In essence, it lets you compare a choice of flights selected from any travel site, by bringing them all together to a single location. Not only can I compare flights from the sites noted above, but also from the airline websites such as Delta, Alaska, United and Jet Blue.

The Pintrips name was likely influenced by the hugely successful site, Pinterest, which lets people post or “pin” images of all sorts of things to a virtual bulletin board. But Pintrips is a serious product in its own right, and has the potential to be an effective travel-planning tool. Itís currently available as a plug-in for the Chrome browser, with new browser plug-ins in the works for Firefox, Safari and Explorer over the next few months. According to the company, mobile apps are also in the works.

Once installed, Pintrips lets you go to any travel website, select one or more flights and, with a single click, capture the flight information and “pin” it to your personal dashboard or list. Youíll then end up with a dashboard listing the flights you selected from all the sites you visited, side-by-side, so that you can compare them or even share them with a friend.

You can also use Pintrips to compare flights going to different locations. For example, suppose you were looking at visiting Europe, but were open to several cities, depending on price. You can create your dashboard with several different destinations. Thatís something I would have found useful when I compare my flight options to Hong Kong leaving from either Los Angeles or San Francisco.

One of the best features of Pintrips is that the flight details listed on your dashboard are continually updated in real time. You can check back at any time and see current pricing and availability.

If youíre planning a trip with friends, you can use its collaboration features to share the dashboard and communicate with each other through a built-in chat feature. Once you select your trip, you can book the flight directly from the Pintrips dashboard.

Pintrips is a Sunnyvale-based startup, founded in 2011 by now-CEO, Stephen Gotlieb, who became frustrated with trying to book flights for his parents in Israel and then communicating with them by email to make a final selection. He would find that the time it took to settle on a flight, due to time zone differences, often meant that the flightís price changed or was no longer available. That led him to create Pintrips.

Pintrips is free and its plug-in can be installed on a PC or Mac version of Chrome browser (pintrips.com). If youíre really intent on finding the best flight, whatever your criteria may be, Pintrips can be a big help.

Read More...

I find I’ve been using the calendar applications on my computer and smartphone nearly as much as the browser. They’ve become indispensable for planning for the day or the month, for scheduling both business appointments and travel.

Ever since moving to the Mac, I’ve been using its bundled calendar program, iCal, synchronizing with the calendar on my iPhone, most recently via Apple’s iCloud.

In theory, adding an appointment to either device syncs with the calendar on iCloud and populates the other device. While I’ve dabbled with other applications, including Microsoft’s discontinued Entourage and Outlook for Mac, syncing has been more problematic, so I’ve stuck with iCal.

While iCal provides basic functionality, it has barely progressed over time, and some of its changes border on strange. In its latest version, a gold-colored leather strip with a torn sheet of paper was added across the top to resemble a paper calendar; that’s provoked an outcry and third party apps to remove it, being so out of character with the Mac’s modern look.

While iCal is fine for basic needs, it’s limited in a number of areas including the ability to customize views and to handle to-dos.

I’ve been trying out an alternative, BusyCal2 from BusyMac, that’s targeted directly at Mac users that want something more.

One of the best features of BusyCal2 is how it handles to-do items or tasks. Unlike with iCal, which treats tasks as a separate function, BusyCal2 lets you integrate tasks into the calendar and create alerts, just like you do for appointments.

That works more like the way we work. We plan each day to both attend meetings at specific times and to accomplish tasks during the day. Sometimes we create a list of tasks and schedule them for completion in the future. Tasks and appointments are treated similarly. To-dos in BusyCal appear on your calendar on the date due, as well as in a side window. You can click on a to-do to open a very large window where there’s plenty of room to add lots of information. If a to-do is not completed by the due date, it’s carried over each day in the calendar.

BusyCal2, at first glance, could be mistaken for iCal, with its similar look and arrangement of windows, although there’s no “leather strip.” It even works much like iCal. It syncs to iCloud and has views by the day, week, month and year. But it also adds a very useful list view. Unlike iCal, it doesn’t support Microsoft Exchange.

But, BusyCal2 offers much more depth and many more options: Here are some of my favorite features:

It has a useful icon on your top menu bar; click it and a drop-down window shows your day’s schedule with a text window to add an appointment by just typing naturally (e.g. “call Phil on Monday at 7 am”). The drop-down menu also shows the weather, based on your location.

BusyCal2 lets you adjust what your calendar displays by applying smart filters. For example, you can view key dates of a project, while hiding everything else. Or choose to view personal items or just business appointments with one client. The filters you create are listed along the top of the calendar window so you can invoke them with a single click.

You have much more capability to customize your views, such as adjusting the number of days or weeks displayed. Rather than showing a full seven-day week view, I sometimes prefer to display four or five days at a time so that more details will be visible on those days. You can display two to 14 days. The 14-day view works especially well on a large monitor. Two sets of arrows let you scroll the week view by one day at a time or a week at a time.

In the month view, I can show one to a dozen weeks at a time. I typically use five or six weeks to provide a broader picture and to schedule multiple-day events that span adjacent months. Its year view cannot be adjusted, but displays more information than does iCal.

You can open a small floating window that displays your contacts and drag several of them to your calendar to set up a meeting. BusyCal2 will send out an invite to each contact and keep you informed about who has accepted and declined. It also has powerful alarm capabilities that display more details about the appointment, along with a snooze alarm for any duration of minutes, hours or days.

BusyCal2 is not a cure for some of the syncing problems inherent with iCal, such as with invitations sent by others using Google calendar. While you can add the appointment or sync a Google calendar to BusyCal2 quite easily, Google appointments added to iCal and BusyCal don’t sync to iCloud and, therefore, never show up on your phone. (That’s because Google appointments must remain on Google’s servers and cannot be moved to Apple’s iCloud. A workaround is to accept Google appointments both on the computer’s calendar and the phone’s calendar.)

Some users report occasional syncing problems between iCal and their iPhone or iPad, but I didn’t notice much difference between the two.

After using BusyCal2 for two weeks I like it well enough to replace iCal. It’s easy to install and it imported all my appointments from iCal, as well as other calendars such as TripIt and Google, during setup. It took just a couple of minutes, and leaves iCal intact, should you want to switch back.

BusyCal2 is available as a free 30-day trial or can be purchased for $30 until February 15, a discount from the regular $50 price. (busymac.com)

Read More...

This week I’ve asked Marc Parrish, a friend who has extensive experience managing big data for the high-tech industry, to provide his views for this column, based on a previous article he wrote for The Atlantic online.

Big data refers to an accumulation of information that is so big, it’s not possible to manage it using commonly used software and personal computers. Instead, it’s often managed in the cloud using massively parallel software running on hundreds of servers at one time.

In Marc’s previous work in senior marketing positions at EggheadPalm and Barnes & Noble, he has pioneered the use of big data and cloud database technologies to spot trends, anticipate customer needs, manage sales data, understand the buying process, and much more.

Big data and America’s gun problem

By Marc Parrish

Big data needs to be unleashed on America’s persistent gun violence. After the rates of gun violence plummeted in the 1990s, the last 10 years have seen little change in gun homicide rates. We should do better.

We need a national database of gun owners, firearm and ammunition purchases.

Even with no new restrictions on the guns we buy, data can arm us. Simple math and the power of crowds can red flag those at risk, not only for committing violence against others, but against themselves.

During my entire business experience, I have noted that the more open the access has been to the data, the more insightful the resulting decisions are. As a nation, we would do better.

Some privacy advocates and the NRA may hate this idea, but an open national database of ammunition and gun purchases can lead us toward the knowledge needed to save lives.

In the majority of the shooting sprees that have shocked America, there have been patterns of behavior in the purchases immediately beforehand that could have warned us of the impending disasters. Most involved a quick, massive buildup of arms in an uncomplicated pattern by individuals with mental health issues.

In the past few weeks, since the massacre of the Newtown children, many have attempted to analyze our meager data. But there is no public data available that provides information on the weapons and ammunition that are being bought by individuals. Ironically, this information already exists in the sales records of the hundreds of retailers who sell these items.

Though we call this information big data, a database that tracks ammunition and gun purchases would be, in fact, tiny.

According to the ATF, about 4.5 million new firearms, including approximately 2 million handguns, are sold in the United States every year, along with approximately 2 million additional secondhand guns. No one knows how much ammunition is sold yearly in the country, but as a yardstick, the U.S. military bought 1.8 billion rounds in 2005.

That sounds like a lot — but it isn’t. This data would fit on a thumb drive.

By numerical contrast, Netflix, with 24 million users, will stream several billion movies this year, and Walmart sees many times this in a single day of transactions. Twitter had 150 million tweets about the 2012 London Olympics, and 12 million in the first hour after Osama bin Laden was killed.

Big, complicated data, this is not. But the political will to create a firearm and ammunition purchasing database will need to be massive if we’re ever going to have one. There has been political paralysis for decades as tens of thousands of Americans die every year from gun violence.

Keep in mind that the Second Amendment’s first line, before it gets to the “right to bear arms,” states, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.” Tracking weapons would seem to be part of regulating the militia — in fact every state’s National Guard and the U.S. military maintains records of its weapons and ammunition. Most states, however, don’t even require a license to buy or keep a gun.

The NRA’s opposing argument will be that collecting data will be an invasion of privacy for gun owners. But in our post-9/11 world, we already have ample precedents to do this. Go into any airport and see what happens when you try and buy a ticket with cash on the next flight out. You will not board the flight without security calling you aside for questioning.

Go into a pharmacy in dozens of states and buy cold medicine, and you will be asked for ID and tracked in the NPLEX database. Go on the Internet and read that the cellphone carriers told Congress that U.S. law enforcement made a staggering 1.3 millions requests for customer text messages, caller locations, and other information just in 2011. And that the number of requests has doubled in the last five years. Most of this cell phone data is requested without even a warrant issued by a judge.

There is no outrage by the American public over any of this, even though it causes citizens inconvenience and invades their privacy. We are willing to permit much when we are convinced that it is in the interest of government making us safer. Getting carded for cold medicine does not bother anyone as a freedom limiter.

Ammo, handguns and rifle purchases have been excluded from the simple tracking mechanisms and from the scrutiny of algorithms that these other pursuits are subjected to.

Why?

After all, flying on a plane, buying cold medicine, and using your cellphone are much more common (so more people are tracked) than purchasing a weapon, and much less dangerous.

To keep us safe, our government has decided it needs the brightest mathematical minds to analyze records on the former and not the latter.

Imagine if that were to change. Armed only with data, we could begin to see the patterns between guns and ammunition purchases and violence, and to flag those people most at risk of doing harm.

We’re one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. Let’s put some of that technology to work for the common good and to save lives.

Read More...

One of the mistakes I made this past year was my review of Verizon‘s new Share Everything Plan. My initial reaction was to reject it and recommend staying with its unlimited data plan that was grandfathered to many of Verizon’s longer-term subscribers. Part of my skepticism stemmed from years of putting up with the rules and restrictions that the cellular companies used to find new ways to charge us more for less. But, as it turned out, my skepticism was mostly misplaced.

At first glance, being able to have unlimited data seemed like something you would never want to give up. My own plan provided me with two lines sharing unlimited data, 1,400 minutes of voice calling and 200 text messages. One phone had a $20/month, 2 gigabyte data hotspot option, allowing me to connect my computer to the phone by Wi-Fi and then access the Internet over the cellular network. For all of this I paid $200 per month, including all taxes.

But, in using this plan, I had to monitor my voice calling minutes, my text messages and my hotspot data usage. While I rarely exceeded the limits, it meant some additional work and choosing a voice plan one level higher than I would typically need. That was generally less expensive than occasionally going over and paying 40 cents a minute.

But after passing up the new Share Everything Plan when it was first introduced, I began monitoring my data usage and was surprised to learn that it rarely exceeded 2GB per month and averaged closer to 1 ½ GB. The hotspot usage, whose data is counted separately, averaged only about ½ GB each month.

So just how important was it to retain my unlimited data plan? As it turned out, not very, because I never used the services that consume lots of data, specifically downloading videos and streaming video onto my phone. Those who regularly watch movies, TV programs and live sporting events on their phones can consume about ¼ GB data per hour. That can mount up quickly, and, if that’s the way you use your phone, then you do want to retain your unlimited data plan. Others who may want to retain the unlimited data option are those who send and receive dozens of high-resolution photos each day, such as professional photographers. But for the rest of us, even those with frequent use of email, Internet browsing, texting and most everything else, the data usage is quite small.

Going to the Share Everything Plan has proven to have some important advantages. My phone calls and text now are unlimited, so I never need to monitor whether I’m close to going over. My data allotment now includes all data, including my hotspot.

Although you need to monitor your data use, Verizon offers several tools for doing this easily, including dialing #DATA (#3282) and receiving a free text message report. You can also request free data alerts that let you know when you’re nearing or exceeding your limits, and can change your data allowance anytime without extending your contract.

However, the pricing plan for data tends to skew us toward taking more data than we might normally do: 1GB costs $50, 2GB costs $60, 4GB costs $70 and 6GB costs $80. Ironically, because of this pricing, it now makes more sense to add other family members to your plan. Each additional phone adds just $40 per month and comes with unlimited voice calling and texting. You would likely want to add data as you add more users, but the incremental cost is inexpensive; you can triple your 2GB of data to 6GB for just $20 for everyone to share.

As a result I’ve added my son’s and his wife’s phone to my plan. They’re thrilled because they were paying $150 from Sprint that will now be reduced to $90 on Verizon.

As noted, my original plan with unlimited data cost $200 per month. When I went to the Share Everything Plan, the cost dropped to $155. And when I add the two new phones, my plan costs $240, including the additional data. So now the four of us averages $60 each for unlimited text and voice with 6 GB data for all to share. Should you choose to do so, you can allot a specific amount of data to each person. Verizon allows up to 10 phones per account, so the savings can pile up if a large group utilizes a single plan.

While this plan is not for everyone, it is a big step forward in simplification and providing significant savings.

Read More...

This week I’ve been working with two small sound systems designed for playing music and other sources wirelessly from your computer and smartphone. The first of these systems is the Sonos sound system, and the other is a Pioneer AirPlay speaker.

While the Pioneer is a single stand-alone speaker, the Sonos is designed to be more of a system that can be expanded to play music through multiple speakers in different rooms. The source can vary in each room. However, as in my case, the Sonos can also be used much like the Pioneer as a single speaker.

Sonos

The Sonos system consists of a speaker that connects wirelessly to your home network. Instead of using your Wi-Fi network, it uses its own built-in proprietary wireless network to connect the speakers to a bridge, a small box that plugs into your wired network. If you have cable, that means the bridge plugs into your cable modem. A speaker can be located up to about 50 feet from the bridge.

You first need to run Sonos software on your computer so that it can find the bridge and speakers and register them onto the Sonos network. That then allows you to control your music source from your computer or phone (iPhone and Android). You can connect to pretty much every imaginable source of music, including your iTunes library, Pandora, Rhapsody, Sirius, Spotify, Internet radio stations and much more. If you use subscription services, such as Sirius, you will need to register separately.

Sonos offers two sizes of bookshelf speakers, the Play:5 and the Play:3, costing $399 and $299, respectively. Currently Sonos provides the $50 bridge at no cost with the purchase of either speaker. Each speaker is small enough to be tucked onto a small bookshelf and essentially disappear from sight. I’ve been using the Play:5, the larger of the two.

Using Sonos’ app for the iPhone, iPad or Android devices provides the biggest benefit. You can view, access and search all of the sound sources from your device to manage what you’d like to play, as well as create a program list. Controls allow you to skip songs, change sources and control volume.

The sound quality is similar to what you’d expect from a moderately priced bookshelf speaker: good mid-tones, some thinness in the base and high frequencies, and a lack of rich vibrant sound that you would get from a much larger speaker. But it’s perfectly adequate for most music and casual listening, especially considering that the music we listen to is so compressed.

Pioneer A4

The Pioneer XW-SMA4 is an AC-powered speaker that connects to your computer and other Apple devices using AirPlay. AirPlay is a new wireless technology developed by Apple for streaming content between different devices. It was introduced last year and is now finding its way into speakers and receivers from a number of companies, including Pioneer. It has the capability to display song titles, artists, album names, elapsed and remaining time, and album artwork on those devices with graphical displays. The A4, however, has no display.

Setup began auspiciously with a huge folded instruction sheet that’s almost as big as a small area rug. Because there are so many ways to set it up, using either wireless and wired technology, you follow a maze of instructions. I chose to set it up wirelessly over AirPlay, and, after waiting for a sequence of lights to go on and off, then pushing a button on my Cisco router (that I was unaware existed), the speaker connected via Wi-Fi to my MacBook and iPhone. It appeared on each device in the list of output audio sources.

I was able to play music from both the phone and computer using the iTunes controls. A remote control also comes with the speaker for on/off, skipping tracks and adjusting volume. The speaker would play perfectly even when I moved the computer to the other end of the home.

Sound from the speaker was quite good, just slightly better than the Sonos speaker. There was a fuller bass from its built-in sub-woofer without being booming. The Pioneer speaker is about the same size as the Sonos, finished in glossy black plastic. (The speaker is also compatible with HTC Connect, HTC‘s AirPlay equivalent for its One-series phones.)

Pioneer also makes a model XW-SMA3 with a built-in rechargeable battery and water-resistant design for the same $399, but without a sub-woofer.

Both products, while simple to set up when things go well, can be challenging to diagnose when problems surface. I required support from Sonos to solve a Wi-Fi problem; its technician was very knowledgeable and helpful. The Pioneer device can be thought of less as a music system than one of a new class of speakers that play music from your devices wirelessly and without needing to be plugged in. But you will need to use a variety of apps to find your sources rather than everything being integrated on the Sonos app.

Both systems offer the convenience of playing audio content from the Internet and your devices. Neither will replace a full-fledged audio system with high fidelity sound, but they are certainly better than the boom boxes of years past.

Read More...

Tech Predictions for 2013

This week I go out on a limb again to make my tech predictions for 2013. Actually the limb is not so long, since many of these predictions are becoming self-evident.

Tablets – We’ll continue to see a huge growth of tablets, as they continue to replace notebooks for many consumers who don’t require a full computer. Tablets also appeal to a much wider age range of users, from 2 to the elderly. And it’s not uncommon to see 2 or 3 units in a single household. While their sizes vary from 7 to 10 inches, expect to see a large majority in the 7 to 8-inch range next year, led by the Apple iPad mini, and overtaking their 10-inch models.  We’ll also see an iPad mini with a higher resolution display in March.

Last year I predicted we would see a lower priced iPad for about $349. Today you can buy models for $329 and $399.

But I also predicted that Google would introduce its own tablet with some clever new features in an attempt to inject life into Android, but it wouldn’t get much traction. I was half right. Google is selling a 7-inch Android tablet. Its clever new feature is a low, low price ($199), and it’s selling very well. I’ll predict that Google will introduce another 7-inch model in 2013 with a price of $99.

In 2012 the new iPhone prediction did pan out and in 2013 I expect to see a new version of the 5 with a few minor embellishments and more colors. Apple will also bring out a much lower priced phone for $99.

Expect to see new phones from Samsung, with some unique displays that are curved and unbreakable. Next year the iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones will continue to be the top selling models, while the companies continue their lawsuits against one another. No let up in sight, with more acrimony than ever.

In the meantime Google will add new capabilities to their Android OS that will offer predictive information by looking at your calendar and anticipating your needs, something envisioned in this column almost 2 years ago. Alerts will tell you when to leave for an appointment, knowing your location, where you need to be and the time it will take, even accounting for traffic and weather.

Microsoft did introduce their first notebooks with a touch display, as predicted. I referred the product as the best of both worlds. That proved accurate with Microsoft’s introduction of their RT Surface tablet and new Windows 8 operating system. But whether it’s the best of both worlds remains to be seen. Why? I expect that these products will have disappointing sales in 2013, allowing Apple to make new inroads in the business community.

Many of the above predictions aren’t particularly venturesome, but here’s one that might be a surprise. Remember RIM, the maker of the Blackberry? Expect to see RIM’s new Blackberry models with a new operating system and hardware. I predict these will be well-received, and will find new customers who still dislike the phones that have on-screen keyboards. In fact, real keyboards will be the trend in 2013.

I had expected privacy to be a big issue this year, with lots of criticism directed to Facebook and Instagram for constantly treading on privacy concerns. I was wrong, as few users seemed to care. Facebook has won this battle and, sadly, privacy will continue to become less important to most consumers.

Apple will introduce a gorgeous new TV in 2013. Expect it to be a >50-inch HDTV with the ability to buy movies and TV shows as well as to play music and display photos, all controlled from your iPad and iPhone. It will even allow you to cut loose from cable. It will cost about $1500, be ultra-thin, and will be a huge hit. Of course, I predicted this last year, but this year it will happen.

Expect to see a new crop of cameras emulating the Sony RX100, putting a large sensor into a small body. Caught between the improving cameras on the smartphones and the large DSLR cameras, this new class of products will be very hot next year.

Other than Apple’s new connected TV, we won’t see many new categories next year, as we’ve seen some past years. It will be more about improving the specs on existing products. With an increased focus on conserving our resources, that’s not a bad thing. Maybe we don’t need to buy the latest gadget just because it has few improvements over what we have.

But there will be one exception to this. For the first time there will be a rival to Apple iTunes from the music industry that will offer music of astounding quality, reminiscent of vinyl. Unlike photography, video and printing, in which the transition to digital has brought higher quality, digital music has become much worse. We’ll see an exciting reversal of this in 2013.

Best wishes for a very happy holiday season.

Read More...

Here’s my list of the year’s best products, with a few of the worst products thrown in for good measure.

Best pocket camera

The Sony RX100 is the clear winner for a camera small enough to fit in your pocket. While it’s costly ($650), it significantly raises the standard for how good an image you can get from a camera small enough to take almost everywhere. It accomplishes this by using a 20 megabyte sensor that’s several times larger than what’s found in other cameras of the same size. It adds to that an excellent 28-100 millimeter equivalent zoom lens, a sharp LCD display, and excellent software to produce a camera that has no equal. (sony.com)

Best DSLR camera

The Nikon D600 provides a full-size 24 megapixel sensor in a relatively lightweight (1.6 pounds) package at a relatively affordable price ($2,000 for the body). It takes incredible pictures, offers fast sequential shooting and has a compact body. It compares favorably with cameras from last year that cost twice as much. In the back-and-forth race between Canon and Nikon, this model has now taken the lead. (nikon.com)

Worst camera

Lytro has developed a camera that records not only the image, but also information that allows the focus to be changed after the image is recorded. It’s a marvel of technology, but makes for a terrible camera. It costs $400 to $500, creates a low-resolution image, and has none of the normal camera features, such as a built-in flash. It’s great technology looking for a problem to solve that few of us have, and it is a brilliant research product, not a consumer product. (lytro.com)

Best Notebook computer

The MacBook Air 13-inch computer is not only the most popular, but also the best notebook available, regardless of operating system. It’s lightweight (3 pounds), slim and has a battery life rated at up to seven hours, although in my testing I get four hours. It has a bright, crisp and color neutral display, an excellent illuminated keyboard, and a fast built-in solid-state drive. It’s my computer of choice. (From $1,200, apple.com)

Best PC

The Lenovo X1 Carbon is a lightweight yet full-function PC notebook that follows Lenovo’s traditional all-black design. It’s the company’s version of the Ultrabook designation bestowed by Intel on PC competitors to the MacBook Air. This model, which I reviewed in September, gets everything right. It has a terrific expansive keyboard with newly shaped keys, one of the best 14-inch displays I’ve seen on a PC, and a shock-proof solid-state drive. It’s now available with Windows 8 from as low as $1,250. (lenovo.com)

Best all-in-one printer

The Epson WorkForce WF-3540 all-in-one printer has proven to be a consistent performer doing everything well, including printing, faxing and scanning. Its large capacity (500 pages total) pair of front trays make so much sense, that every printer should make it standard. Quality of output is excellent, and its print cost is less than average. It works with a USB cable connection, Wi-Fi or Ethernet. ($150 street price, epson.com)

Best portable speaker

The Beats Pill is a compact portable speaker system that sounds better than most other speakers of it size. It has a terrific iconic industrial design, shaped much like a giant pill in capsule form. It connects to your music source using Bluetooth wireless and has a built-in microphone that enables it to function as a speakerphone. In side-by-side comparisons with the Jambox, the Pill excels. ($200)

Best Wi-Fi Device

While MiFi hot spots are in less demand because most new phones can be set up as a hotspot, Novatel Wireless’ MiFi Liberate for AT&T might just renew interest in this category. It’s another pocket size MiFi device that creates an independent hotspot by connecting to the 4G phone network. What sets it apart from other models is its color touch display, which simplifies setup and use and displays useful information, such as data speeds and what’s connected. Its best feature is its ability to last for 10 hours between charging. I took it on a four-day trip and never needed to recharge. It’s $50 with a two-year contract from AT&T. (novatelwireless.com)

Best navigation app

The new Google Maps app for the iPhone has been out for less than a week, and in my testing it, I have found it’s even better than the earlier version that Apple pulled from its products. It’s fast, it displays a lot of details, shows three-dimensional views, provides public transit directions, has a database of 80 million businesses located around the world, and integrates Google Earth. For the first time it has turn-by-turn directions that work just like its Android version. Whether you use an iPhone or Android phone, this is a must. Available from Apple’s iTunes store.

Worst navigation app

Is there any question? Apple Maps, which occasionally routes you to the wrong location, has been a huge embarrassment to Apple and has raised concerns on Wall Street about its CEO’s skills. As some users in Australia discovered, it’s also dangerous, sending users to isolated areas that put them in potential danger. Unfortunately, even with Google Maps installed, some of your apps will still default to this app.

Best smartphone

This year I have two selections: the iPhone 4 and the HTC One X. Why not the iPhone 5? While the iPhone 5 has a larger screen, is thinner and lighter, and uses 4G, it suffers from too many issues relating to call quality to be the top choice this year. And the iPhone 4 is available from many carriers for free or $99 with a new plan.

The HTC One X takes the top spot for an Android phone. It has a 4.7-inch curved display, a gorgeous industrial design, and uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon quad-core processor. In contrast to Samsung’s Galaxy IIIS, it is better constructed and has a more elegant industrial design. It’s available for $99 from AT&T with a new plan.

Best tablet

This year’s best all-around tablet is Apple’s iPad mini. It does everything Apple’s large tablet does, but in a more compact, lighter package. While it doesn’t have as high a resolution as some, it’s sharper than the original iPad. I picked it for the large number of apps available and its ease of use compared to Android tablets. (apple.com)

Best new health gadget

Pear Sports of Solana Beach has developed a clever training system for those who engage in running, weight training or exercising to lose weight. Using its iPhone app, earbuds and sensors that you wear, you’re provided real time audio guidance from world-class coaches. Pear offers a huge library of content that addresses users at all levels. ($149, pearsports.com)

This year we saw a healthy assortment of new products, although many of the products are just improvements over older models. There were few new categories of products, and some older categories are fading away or have peaked. That includes personal navigator devices, portable DVD players, desktop computers and music players.

Next week I’ll offer my predictions for 2013.

Read More...

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 phil.baker@sddt.com.

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)

Nike+ Fuelband

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)

New cases

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)

Read More...

Portable backup batteries have become an important accessory to keep many of our gadgets charged. It’s a category that’s exploded in recent years, fueled in part by devices such as the iPhone with non-removable batteries. When you’re not able to snap in a second battery or access an outlet to recharge, a backup battery offers the best solution. It’s typically a small, thin box containing a lithium ion battery and circuitry with a battery gauge, an on-off switch and connectors for charging it and charging your devices using separate USB cables.

They’re incredibly useful in a pinch. I carry one to charge my iPhone and Bluetooth headset when I’m on the road and doing lots of calling. It’s a big help when using the GPS function on your smartphone, which can drain a battery in less than three hours. The battery also recharges my phone on a long airline trip when I’m listening to music or watching videos. Some are even powerful enough to charge an iPad.

The batteries are rated by their capacity, in milliamp hours (mAh). Phones typically have batteries with a capacity of 1200 to about 2000 mAh and tablets of about 6000 mAh. So if you buy a backup battery for an iPhone 5 that has a 1434 mAh battery built in, then to completely recharge the phone from empty requires a battery of about 1700 mAh. It needs this extra capacity because there is about a 20 percent loss when charging from an external battery.

The maximum output current of the battery is also important, because some batteries can only output a maximum of 0.5 amp (the same as many computers’ USB ports). Others can output up to 2 amps. This affects the ability to charge iPads and iPhones in a reasonable period of time.

I’ve been testing two major brands of accessory batteries, the Mophie Juice Pack Powerstation Mini ($60) with 2500 mAh capacity and the recently introduced ZaggSparq 3100 ($70) with 3100 mAh.

The Mophie is an attractive matte black rectangular slab that’s styled to look a little like an iPhone, with a silver band running around the edge. While it may be good-looking, it has some serious deficiencies. It’s unable to be recharged while it’s charging your device, a huge inconvenience. Its on-off switch can be inadvertently turned on, and it requires a separate USB charger and micro USB cable to charge it.

The ZaggSparq 3100 is a slightly larger device and not quite as stylish, but offers many improvements over the Mophie. It can be charged while it is charging, it needs no extra charger or cable, and it plugs directly into an outlet using its built-in folding plug. It can also output sufficient current to charge an iPad. Bottom line: The ZaggSparq 3100 is a far superior product.

Plantronics Voyager Legend headset

The Legend is Plantronics‘ latest version in its long-running Voyager Bluetooth headset line, an iconic design that’s become the gold standard of wireless cellphone headsets. The Legend retains the over-the-ear design with a boom microphone. I’ve liked this design because it stays on your ear, has extended talk time with its larger battery, and the boom improves call quality.

The major differences between this model and its predecessor, the Voyager HD, is a new multi-microphone design that’s intended to provide better noise rejection, a longer seven-hour talk time, a new magnetic connector for attaching to the charger, moisture proofing, and a new line of accessories. Like the previous model, it knows when the headset is placed on your ear and automatically answers a ringing phone or transfers one in progress from the handset to the headset. Or you can say “answer” when it’s being worn, and it will answer the ringing phone after announcing the caller.

Performance is excellent using an Android phone, but I did experience poor-sounding digitized calls and garbled sound on occasion with an iPhone 5. It’s a problem that exists with other brands of Bluetooth headsets, and apparently is caused by a design flaw in the iPhone 5. Apple engineers are working on a fix, and Plantronics has come out with upgraded software. This is perhaps a consequence of Apple’s ultra-high secrecy that prevents its phones from being tested more widely before being released.

The Legend has a sleeker look and a new magnetic connector that replaces the micro USB connector used on earlier models. That enables quicker attachment to the charger and accessory desktop stand, but also requires a custom cable for traveling, a step backward. A good workaround is to use its optional charging case ($30), which provides an additional 14 hours of talk time when the headset is stored, and can be charged using a micro USB charger. (plantronics.com, $100)

Read More...

With the help of the Internet, my wife Jane and I enjoyed an incredible vacation last month in Italy.  Before the Internet it would have been nearly impossible to discover this company that created it, and it would have cost a fortune for the company to find customers such as us. It’s a great example of how the Internet has become an integral part of our lives in everything that we do, and how it’s being used to help companies find customers.

Six months ago we decided we’d like to spend a week in Tuscany in the Fall to leisurely tour some of the small Italian towns and to enjoy the area’s unique food and wine, perhaps even taking cooking lessons. We knew we didn’t want a large organized tour, nor did we want to tour the area on our own.  Jane began searching TripAdvisor, the site with millions of reviews of hotels, tours, and restaurants, posted by travelers from around the world.

She came across a company called Culture Discovery Vacations that had all five-star ratings and rave reviews. It was a small company that claimed to provide something different, more of a family experience. The company offered hands-on cooking lessons held in a family-owned villa, a few minutes from the town square of Soriano nel Cimino, a beautiful little town in central Italy.

But, as it was explained, the lessons were just a small part of the experience. There were visits to small towns in Tuscany and Umbria, excursions to wineries and olive mills, and sightseeing in the beautiful countryside.

The description, the reviews, the Website (culturediscovery.com), and its Facebook page, all sounded too good to be true. But we decided to take a chance and sign up for the week’s vacation that we combined with a first week on the Amalfi Coast.

The welcoming to the town was just as expected, a family greeting for each of the 17 guests. The first night was a huge dinner at a local restaurant with as much food and wine as we could consume. Once we arrived, there were no further expenses. Every meal, every trip, every admission and every snack were prepaid.

Each of the guests stayed in an apartment in or just off the town square. Like local residents, we ambled down each morning to the local pastry shop to enjoy our breakfast with the town residents. We then went shopping in the local grocery store, cheese store, and vegetable market, picking up ingredients for the day’s cooking lesson.  We then were whisked away for the day in a comfortable, large, well-outfitted bus with seating for about 18.

The intent of Culture Discovery is to immerse everyone into the Italian culture with everything we did. We all participated in the cooking lessons in the beautiful Villa, side by side, each trying to make pasta dough, pizza dough, ravioli or something else, each with the right combination of flour and eggs so the dough was just the right consistency. Sometimes it went well, and other times, we laughed at the messes we were creating.

When we set out for an excursion each day, it was like a family outing. Fortunately the group of 17 on our tour became one happy family that all participated in their own way. They were from many different parts of the United States including Texas, Illinois, Iowa, Oregon and California. The guides were terrific, local residents that seemed to have as much fun as we had. One was originally from Los Angeles and another from Australia that lived in Soriano.

Culture Discovery was started six years ago by Michael Kovnick, an entrepreneur from Los Angeles who founded a successful technology company, Cyberspace HQ. He wrote Internet software for online marketing, which was a skill he was to put to good use. He met his wife, Paola, on a visit to Italy when he was 18 ; two years later they married and began traveling between Los Angeles and her hometown, Soriano nel Cimino.

The idea for their company resulted from entertaining friends and family and hearing from them how special a vacation it was, and how different it was from the typical tours they would take. That led Michael and Paola to create an experience in which the guests were treated like family. Instead of being centered in a large city, guests would stay in Paola’s hometown and use her family’s villa for the cooking school.

And that’s just the way it worked. The small group was just the right size to do most things together. Everything from making pizza and Tuscan chicken in the Villa’s 200-year-old brick oven, to making cheese with the town’s cheese-maker, to making grappa in the wine cellar. Excursions were trips to cities including Montepulciano, Viterbo, Montalcino, Orvieto and Durata, visits to small wineries, and to an old olive oil mill. Many of the meals were at restaurants the locals frequented, which made it much like a family celebration.

What I found remarkable, besides the week’s vacation, was how Michael built his company, spreading the word solely through technology with an advertising budget that’s 95% spent on Google AdWords. In fact, you’ll likely not find Culture Discovery through a travel agent.  Nearly all discover him from the Internet. He’s created a Facebook page in which, with permission, he posts pictures taken each day by his guests. The guests can then tag the images so their friends will see them and can express a Like of the pictures, and their friends will see them. In an average week, 350,000 to 500,000 people will see the images and learn about Culture Discovery.

As a result, the company is experiencing exponential growth and now fills 28 weeks a year with vacations. There are many repeat visitors, leading to additional weeks being offered in Sicily, Notcia, Barollo and, soon, Amalfi.  In each location Michael has rented a villa to maintain the similar family feeling.

Jane and I have visited many countries, taken numerous planned tours, and have taken driving tours on our own. But we both agree that this week in Italy surpassed them all. We really felt like we spent a week with family and used our limited time in Italy in the best way possible. And like family members, we’ll go back soon. Pricing is available online and is very reasonable for what is offered. All thanks to the Internet.

Read More...