Hardware technology products have undergone a renaissance, with scores of new companies developing products ranging from drones to connected devices to gadgets of all kinds. It’s a big turnaround from the past 20 years or so, where investors took pains to avoid hardware investments, preferring to focus on software.

Hardware’s resurgence has been driven by access to new development and manufacturing resources in the U.S. and China, 3-D printing and electronic chipsets that simplify and speed design, and new sources of funding.

But it’s also driven by the innovative spirit of young entrepreneurs who prefer to create something themselves rather than take a less risky job with a large corporation.

While development is still complex, and hardware consumes a huge amount of cash, the opportunity to innovate is driving entrepreneurs like never before. They’re motivated by the success of other hardware companies such as GoPro, Pebble and Apple, and the lower barriers of entry.

So suppose you have an idea. Where do you start? In the old days, you would try to find investment from venture capitalists. But few VCs have been willing to fund innovative hardware development from start-up companies, and they still remain reluctant. Many consider development too costly and are simply not willing to take the risk.

Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo have funded thousands of hardware products. The sites are simple to use and let you create a funding campaign in which you ask for donations from the online community.

You pitch your product, introduce your team and perhaps create a video, all in an effort to get the community to donate money, in return for getting your product at a discount.

The pitfalls are that if you do not reach your projected funding goal, you get none of the money that’s been pledged. Or if you do reach your goal, the product development could cost a lot more and you run out of money, or the product might never be made to work at an affordable price. In fact, a majority of hardware projects on Kickstarter have never shipped.

Since contributors are pledging support rather than buying a product that doesn’t exist, your obligation is to do your best, but you’re not obligated to refund the money or even ship a product.

But there is another way to get started. Hardware incubators are a recent phenomenon that provides an opportunity to develop your idea further, test out its feasibility and help you come up with a business plan in order to raise more funding.

Examples of hardware incubators include Highway 1 and Lemnos Labs in San Francisco, and Hard Tech Labs, EvoNexus and Qualcomm’s Robotics Accelerator in San Diego. There are hundreds of others in cities across America.

In spite of a successful incubation process, one of the major hurdles that hardware companies face is raising enough capital to be able to complete the development, tooling and manufacturing. This can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions.

Much of that money goes toward finishing the design, staffing, building the tooling to manufacture the product in volume, and paying for the product’s components well in advance of production.

Here are a few examples of products that came from these incubators. Many are truly innovative and resulted from an entrepreneur willing to take the risk. Disclosure: I provide occasional support to some of these incubators, although I have not been involved with any of the products mentioned.

• Navdy is a head-Up display that projects information from your smartphone as if it’s floating six feet in front of you in your car. No service plans required. (navdy.com)

• The Cinder Sensing Cooker makes it easy to achieve exceptional results every time, so you can focus on the creative parts of cooking. Using precise temperature, Cinder makes it virtually impossible to overcook or undercook meat, vegetables and other foods. (cindercooks.com)

• Mashgin is building a scanner for cafeterias that identifies multiple items within seconds. The scanner is up to 10 times faster than an average cashier, thanks to computer vision and machine learning. (mashgin.com)

• ecoATM’s eCycling Stations automate the trade-in and buy-back process for mobile phones and other used consumer electronics, electronically and visually inspecting devices, and recycling these products to others. (ecoATM.com).

• Lagoon makes it easy to track home water usage. Using an innovative sensor that easily wraps around a home’s main water line, paired with Lagoon’s free companion app, Lagoon detects and measures water consumption from major point-of-source appliances. Lagoon provides near real-time views on water use, identifying behaviors and appliances that may be wasting water. (golagoon.com)

• Thimble Bioelectronic’s C?r is the world’s first smart pain-relief wearable. It senses pain to deliver TENS therapy for optimized and sustained relief. It’s small and discreet enough to be used anywhere on the body. Effortless to use, all you have to do is place it and wait 5 seconds for effective relief. (thimblebioe.com)


Living in San Diego, it’s not often I have a chance to get a close look at a the hotel scene here.  So I was excited to attend an introduction to the the 211 room Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar. I’ve stayed at hotels all over the world, particularly in Asia, and the Palomar made a really positive impression, particularly it’s 50 room Skyline Collection. These are guest rooms, studios, and a few 2 level penthouses. with sweeping views of the San Diego skyline and bay, some with balconies.

The decor is modern California with a surf theme. Rooms are bright and airy and the materials compare to the best Asian hotels.

The other feature is its spa with gorgeous rooms decorated in wood and marble.

The hotel is located at 5th and Broadway, a few steps from the Gaslamp District, and a comfortable walk to the San Diego Convention Center.

As part of its launch, the hotel is offering an adventure package, Take Flight, available for booking from May 1, 2015 through Dec. 30, 2015. The package includes deluxe accommodations, one pass for tandem skydive at Skydive San Diego, a 20 percent discount at Nature’s Spa by Jurlique, a flight of beer from San Diego’s microbreweries and a custom skate deck, featuring artwork from Grant Pecoff, an acclaimed San Diego artist. Rates start at $399 per night and can be booked online www.hotelpalomar-sandiego.com, rate code PFLY or by calling (888) 288-6601.

Hotel rates begin the mid $200 dollars. The Skyline suites cost about $1500. Think of a suite the size of an apartment – well worth it.




The Travel Goods Show, a yearly industry trade show, was held in March. It’s a showcase for new travel products and is notable for some interesting and even wacky gadgets. Over the years I’ve seen inflatable mattresses that claim to make a coach class seat as comfortable as a business class seat, fold-up blankets with anti-germ coatings, back-of-the-seat organizers, and luggage with a built-in table and chair.

This year’s show in March in Las Vegas was notable for several examples of building technology into suitcases.

Planet Traveler has developed a hard-sided plastic suitcase that includes everything but the kitchen sink — the SpaceCase1 has a built-in biometric lock, luggage tracking, a built-in scale, a Bluetooth speaker, battery pack and charging ports. It also claims to be the first suitcase with its own app to control some of these features.

The company is beginning a Kickstarter funding campaign May 18 with promotional pricing beginning at $199. (www.planettravelerusa.com)

One area of promising technology is being able to track your luggage after you check it in. Several companies are introducing gadgets to do just that. Typically they use GPS or a cellular modem along with a phone app to let you to find the luggage using your smart phone. Most are designed to turn off when the plane takes off and turn back on when the plane lands to comply with FAA regulations.

LugLoc’s tracker uses GSM cellular and costs $70, but you need to pay extra to use it. Traces, which are like queries on the app, cost $10 for ten, meaning you need to pay $1 each time you use the app to check on your luggage’s whereabouts. And the traces you buy expire after one year. It seems likes it’s taking a cue from airlines that charge for extras. (www.lugloc.com)

Trakdot has a similar product, but gets dinged for short battery life and poor location accuracy. It costs $50 plus $20 per year for service. (trakdot.com)

I’ve contacted these and others companies, but they either have no samples available to test, did not respond or have yet to ship their product. My guess is they’re still getting the kinks out.

Bluesmart, a Silicon Valley startup, is developing a hard-sided suitcase with several built-in capabilities, including location tracking. In addition is a Bluetooth lock, USB battery charging, a scale and proximity sensor, should you become separated from your suitcase, all controlled from an app. The company raised $2 million dollars on the Indiegogo funding site. They promise to be shipping by the end of the year. Cost of the suitcase is about $450, less if you commit now.

Not only startups are eying this business. Samsonite and Samsung are working together to develop their own smart bag that will be able to send you an instant message when it is unloaded from the plane and reaches the carousel.

Not to be outdone, Andiamo unveiled its iQ technology luggage at the Travel Goods Show. It includes an app for your smartphone that includes a remote lock/unlock, a digital scale that measures and displays the weight of your case on your smartphone, a Wi-Fi hotspot with international Wi-Fi access when you buy a local SIM card at your international destination and insert it into the suitcase’s card slot.

There’s also a USB battery charger that uses a built-in removable battery pack. A distance alert sends a text message to your smartphone if the case moves 100 feet away from you or if it is coming off the ramp toward you, using its Bluetooth capability. The suitcase will be available this fall at $700.

But let’s get real. Do we really want our luggage to do all of this? Are we now going to need to charge our luggage each time we travel? When I arrive at the hotel, I put my bag on a bed or luggage rack and live out of it.

I don’t want to stand it up so I can listen to the speakers or charge my phone. And it seems strange to use my phone to prevent losing my luggage, when it’s likely the phone will be lost first.

I don’t think these companies have really thought this through or asked travelers what they want. If my bag were lost, would I go up to the baggage counter and tell them that I know my bag is in Chicago and not San Diego? Would that do any good? Would they think I’m clairvoyant? Most airlines don’t lose your bags; they send it on the wrong plane, and know exactly where it is. But others disagree.

My wife, Jane, thinks that luggage that can be tracked is a wonderful idea, recalling several times when her checked bag took a few days to reach her while on vacation. Of course, she’s rarely able to travel with only a carry-on bag. For me, the best way not to lose my luggage is to avoid checking it.


Tired of hearing more about iPhones? Here are two excellent alternatives provided by AT&T for this review.

One is very much a niche product, and the other will likely become one of the biggest sellers in 2015. What’s appealing is that the engineers for each phone thought out-of-the-box to come up with novel designs — just when you thought all phones look much the same.

BlackBerry Passport: The Passport, BlackBerry’s newest phone, looks unlike any other phone. It’s wider than a large smartphone, yet no longer than a standard one. It’s exactly the size of a U.S. passport and, like a passport, can just manage to fit into a pants pocket.

The display is 4½ x 4½ inches square, making it about a third wider than an iPhone 6. The added width makes it capable of displaying a full 60-character line of text. Beneath the display is a three-row mechanical keyboard, wider and with fewer keys than other BlackBerries.

Cleverly, rows of additional context-sensitive soft keys pop up on the display above the top row, turning the keyboard into one with as many as six rows, half mechanical and half touch.

The result is a product with a very good display and an excellent keyboard that’s much superior to touch-screen versions. The keyboard’s surface doubles as a touch-sensitive track pad, allowing you to direct a cursor, replacing the tiny scroll balls and track sticks used on older BlackBerries.

The phone is solidly constructed and well finished with a metal frame and soft-touch matte black plastic back. Typing on the phone takes some adapting, because it requires two hands to hold, and you need two thumbs to type. Holding it up to your ear as a phone is a little awkward as well, but if you use a headset, that’s not an issue.

The display is very high resolution, more than 400 dpi, and everything looks very crisp and bright, both indoors and out. The phone accepts a removable microSD memory card, but its battery is not removable. During my testing, the battery lasted nearly two days between charges. Call quality was excellent and the speakerphone worked very well.

The phone uses the BlackBerry 10.3 operating system, which I still find somewhat unintuitive. The Hub screen, its key feature, provides a list of recent messages including email, calls and messages. And, like all BlackBerries, it has far fewer apps than Android and Apple.

Its camera is better than on previous models, but has less flexibility than the cameras on the iPhone and Samsung phones. But it’s very adequate for a business-oriented phone.

Overall, this is the best Blackberry phone I’ve used because of its ability to combine a very good keyboard with a large display. If you loved your old BlackBerry, but gave it up because of its small display, the Passport is worth a look. It’s available for $669 or $199 under contract.

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge: The new Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge is Samsung’s newest and best phone. It’s a major change from older Galaxy phones that felt cheaply made with plastic dimpled back covers. The S6 is devoid of plastic; it is constructed of a sleekly contoured metal frame with glass on the front and rear faces. The Edge’s display curves around the vertical edges to provide a wraparound display.

Overall, the phone is one of the thinnest ever at 7 mm thick. It’s essentially the same dimensions as an iPhone 6. It’s one of the most striking and beautiful designs of any smartphone and feels great in the hand, almost like holding a polished slab of glass.

Unlike previous Galaxy phones, it’s not full of bloatware — extraneous software that just adds confusion and redundancy. And the aesthetics of the new software is much more contemporary looking compared to previous versions.

Its 5.1-inch OLED display, slightly longer than the iPhone 6, is one of the best of any phone. The curved edge of the screen can be used to display a clock, single-line messages and email titles, all readable from the edge when the phone is flat on a table. It’s cool looking, but doesn’t offer a huge amount of utility.

Its 16-megapixel camera is one of the best I’ve used on any smartphone. Double-click the home button to launch it. The camera offers a huge number of options, including focus tracking a moving object.

Samsung had the iPhone in sight during the development of this phone, and matched it or perhaps even exceeded it. The S6 incorporates an electronic payment system to compete with Apple Pay and a similar-working fingerprint reader.

Like the iPhone, the Samsung battery is no longer replaceable, in order to keep the phone thin and maintain its beautiful aesthetics. Samsung does offer an optional wireless charger device. You set the phone on top of it to charge.

The phone will charge in a little more than an hour, or 50 percent in about 15 minutes using the included fast charger. In my use, battery life was about 10 hours. Like the iPhone, there is no expansion memory slot.

The S6 phone Edge is also available in an S6 version that has a flat display — no curved edges. Its performance is identical and costs $100 less than the Edge. While it’s not possible to test without destroying it, the Edge appears to be a little more vulnerable to breakage of the display, with its curved edges exposed. But either phone is Samsung’s best ever, and comparable to the iPhone, based on its hardware design and performance. If you’re looking for an Android phone, you can’t do better. The S6 with 32GB costs $684 or $199 with a contract. The S6 Edge with 32GB is $814 and $299 on contract.


I’m a big fan of Uber, a new alternative for taxis. I’ve used it in several cities — San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle — over the past several years. For the past week I used it extensively in New York City while on vacation along with five other family members. During this visit, I used New York City taxis on a few occasions, which served only to remind me how good Uber is.

This column is meant to reach those who haven’t tried Uber, have doubts or just may not be aware of what they’re missing.

Every step of the way — from thinking about the need for transportation to arriving at your destination — the Uber experience is superior to using a taxi. In fact, it’s more like hiring your own car for the day and calling for your driver when you need to go to another location. The only difference is the car and driver will vary for each ride.

First, you need to set up your account on Uber, which takes just a few minutes. Download the app, enter your contact information, add your image if you’d like and enter your credit card.

When you need a ride, no need to deal with trying to hail a cab from the street corner or dialing a taxi company’s often-surly dispatcher. Instead, simply open the app, view your location on the map, refine it if needed, adding your street address, hotel, restaurant or other location.

Select the type of vehicle from the several choices ranging from a sedan to a limo, and you’ll immediately see an estimated number of minutes it will take for the Uber driver to reach you. You can see the vehicle’s progress on a map, watching a little icon moving closer to you as the time to arrive decreases. On the bottom of the display is the driver’s name, picture, vehicle type and license number.

You also can text or call to give additional information, and the driver has your phone number if he needs to reach you.

Once I made my request the time it took for the cars to arrive varied from a couple of minutes to about 15, the latter for a six-passenger UberXL during rush hour.

Once the car arrives, jump into the vehicle and you’re off to your destination. Upon arrival, you just get out. All payments are automatic, including the tip. You’ll receive a detailed electronic receipt by email a few seconds later and be asked to rate the driver between 1 and 5 stars. The drivers also are asked to rate you for Uber’s records.

The cost of the ride is similar to that of a taxi if you choose the Uber X option, typically a 4-door compact or full size sedan that holds four passengers. San Diego Uber says its costs are half that of a taxi. Costs for other vehicles are commensurately more expensive.

During my recent New York trip, I typically requested an Uber XL, a larger vehicle that holds six, and that was about 20 percent more expensive. In most cases, the XL vehicles were a Toyota Highlander, Chevy SUV or Toyota Sequoia. In every instance the vehicles were late models in pristine condition, inside and out. Traveling with six at a time would have required two taxis, so there was no alternative to the Uber SUV.

Compared to a taxi, the ride is much more enjoyable. Cabs in New York and elsewhere have a security partition about a foot in front of your face with constant commercials and promotions playing. You feel trapped or at times even claustrophobic, and can’t see out of the window in front of you.

Also, taxi drivers are notorious for going a roundabout way to increase your fare; the incentive for Uber drivers is to get you to your destination as quickly as possible; you even have a copy of the route. On one of my taxi trips, in fact, the driver took a long detour.

Most notably, Uber drivers are nearly always much more professional. They tend to be friendlier, more conversant, better dressed and happier. In interviewing several of the drivers, there’s a lot of reason for their more pleasant attitude.

Unlike cab drivers who work for a taxi company, Uber drivers need not deal with a dispatcher to give them instructions where to go. As one driver expressed it, the customer is the dispatcher.

Uber drivers work for themselves, can begin and end work whenever they choose, and use their own vehicles. For each fare, Uber takes 30 percent commission, and the driver keeps the rest. Of the 70 percent the drivers take, about 15 percent (of the 70 percent) goes to expenses and the rest is profit. The driver never handles any money; Uber provides a direct deposit to the driver’s account weekly.

I also think Uber can be safer that a taxi. It’s much safer for an individual late at night to request an Uber car rather than standing on a street corner trying to hail a cab.

Uber sometime raises the price when demand is high, as much as several times; Uber calls it surge pricing. With one ride I was told beforehand that a 30 percent premium was in effect. I had to accept that to order the car. The pricing is merely a function of supply and demand, and while some complain about it, it’s a choice you can make to get a car quickly. There was never any deception about the pricing.

While Uber is compared to a taxi alternative, it’s really much more. It’s a car service for those who can only afford the cost of a cab.

There are several classifications of cars:

UberX: the least expensive and similar to or less than the cost of a taxi. Cars include Toyota Prius and Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.

UberXL: A vehicle that’s ideal for transporting five or six passengers. Cars include Toyota Highlander, Hyundai Santa Fe, minivans and Honda Pilot. About one-third more expensive than an UberX.

UberSUV: A full-size SUV that’s about 50 percent more expensive than an UberX. For most needs, the UberXL provides nearly the same capability at a much lower price.

Uber Black: The original Uber vehicle that is a large town car. Costs about 40 percent more than an UberX.

These are rough estimates, as the rates and car types vary by location. Rates are calculated on a base plus time and distance of the ride. For more information, go to www.uber.com.


The SmartAlert Night Light from Leeo is a new class of connected products that includes the Nest thermostat and Dropcam camera. These are devices located in your home that communicate to the cloud and to your phone through its app.

In its present incarnation, Leeo is designed to monitor your home for alarms that might sound while you are away and unaware that they’ve gone off. When that occurs, Leeo detects it through its frequency-sensitive built-in microphone and sends an alert to your phone using the Leeo app (iOS only).

It’s designed particularly for identifying smoke, fire and carbon monoxide detectors, and burglar alarms. Leeo is able, according to the company, to hear alarms up to 75 feet away. You are also able to check your home’s temperature and humidity with the app while you’re away.

Leeo is disguised as a night light that plugs into a North American 2-prong wall plug. Light from special LEDs radiates from its conically-shaped rear surface with a soft, diffuse ring of most any color you chose. The microphone is on the front surface to monitor for sound.

Setup is simple: Plug it in and pair it to your phone using Bluetooth the first time used. This allows you to connect it to your Wi-Fi home network, after which Bluetooth is no longer used.

Leeo, as well as the Nest and Dropcam, fall into the category dubbed by the consumer electronics industry as the Internet of Things, or IoT, a catchall for products that connect to the cloud, usually with Wi-Fi.

With the ease today of building products with sensors of all kind, wireless modules, and so much more, we can expect to see a plethora of products with different combinations of functions, some that even seem to be incongruent.

That was how I first viewed Leeo: An expensive nightlight with some features that had questionable value. Sure, I’d like to know when a fire alarm goes off in my home when I am far away, but what if it’s a false alarm? I guess I could keep checking the temperature!

But in conversation with its co-founder and CEO, Adam Gettings, my opinion changed. He explained Leeo is actually part of a well-thought-through strategic vision of home automation and home management. When thinking in that context, the idea could be brilliant.

Gettings — who was previously co-founder and chief robot designer of RoboteX, a provider of tactical robots for first responder teams — thinks of Leeo as an entry point into our homes. We all can use night lights; they are simple to install and rarely removed. It was the perfect paradigm for the beginning of a home-monitoring system that could be customized from the cloud.

New capabilities would be enabled through downloads into Leeo, such as being able to use Leeo to accept commands from around the home, to monitor for intruders, doorbells and more advanced intrusion alarm systems. It could even receive Siri-like spoken commands from us or turn on lights when we enter a room.

Part of what makes this possible is that Leeo is designed with a robust microprocessor that’s capable of handling a lot of capabilities inside that innocuous nightlight.

For now, you’ll need to value it as one of the most advanced (and expensive) nightlights with the ability to detect alarms.

Leeo requires a Wi-Fi connection, iPhone 4S or later and its free app.

Cloud-connected audio devices may just be the next big thing. Amazon is previewing a cylindrical device with a microphone and speaker called the Echo that sits on the counter or next to your bed that responds to your voice. You can ask it for information such as news, music or weather, set an alarm for 8 a.m., or ask any question, much like Siri.

My guess is it can used to simply request a purchase from Amazon. $199/$149 for Prime members. By invitation only. Sign up at www.amazon.com/oc/echo/.



Who would have thought that one of the best email programs for your iPhone and Android phone would come from Microsoft?

I’ve been trying Outlook for iOS on an iPhone 6, iPhone 6+ and iPad mini for about a month, and rarely do I now use anything else. Outlook for Android is available on Android phones and tablets, but is still in beta, and I did not test it.

The program is free and does a terrific job of managing your email and calendar in a single app, much the way Outlook works on computers. It’s almost as if the developers looked at the weaknesses of other email programs and found ways to make this stand apart with clever new capabilities.

The product is the result of Microsoft’s purchase of Accompli, a popular iOS email program.

Compared to Mail, the standard email app on iOS devices, the presentation of email on Outlook is clearer and easier to read, and displays more content on each page, due to the font, layout and use of white space.

Outlook has one feature that I found particularly useful. It does an uncanny job of separating your email into two groups: those that are more important (Focused) and are generally from individuals, and those that are mass mailings, ads, newsletters, confirmations, etc. (Other). You can easily switch between Focused and Other with a single click.

I’ve found this feature alone to make managing my email much easier, as it removes the distraction of useful and less useful email being intermingled and raised to the same level of importance.

If it makes a mistake (for example, group emails from an organization you want to hear from), you can permanently change the emails from this group into the Focused group. Another feature of Outlook is its ability to view just the email attachments of recent email, making it easy to locate a specific document.

Swiping your email, either left or right, will perform your choice of two of these options, i Archive, Delete, Schedule, Move, Mark as Read/Unread, and Flag. I prefer Delete and Schedule, the latter removing the email and bringing it back at a future time and date of your choice.

With Outlook, you can include multiple email accounts in your single Outlook inbox or view them by their specific account, something Gmail still doesn’t do.

For example, I use the account for two Gmail accounts and my iOS cloud account. Outlook can sync mail, contacts, calendar and files from Office 365, Exchange Online, Exchange Server, Outlook.com (including Hotmail, Live and MSN), Gmail, iCloud and Yahoo! Mail.

You can also add attachments from Dropbox, OneDrive, Box and Google Drive, but not Apple iCloud’s drive.

The Outlook calendar is not quite as good as iCal, but comes close, and unlike iCal, it’s part of the same app. It allows views by the day, agenda and a three-day view when rotated to landscape mode. There’s a slide-down month view useful for navigation.

The integration makes it easy to switch back and forth between mail and calendar modes, and allows you to attach available meeting times while writing an email to let others, a feature called Send Availability.

At the bottom of the page are tabs for Mail, Calendar, Files, People and Settings.

The People tab provides a list of recent contacts that lets you view emails received and appointments with that contact. It’s useful, but not a substitute for the iOS Contacts app.

I reviewed Inbox from Google several months back and liked it a lot as well. It offered similar swiping features and the ability to separate the attachments to view as a list. But its big limitation was that it worked only with Gmail and not with Apple’s iCloud mail.

Most email programs that come on phones are generally good enough, but nothing exceptional. Apple, in particular, has failed to make significant improvements over the past five years; it’s less glamorous to improve products than to work on new ones.

But Microsoft has shown just how much better an email program can be, and I recommend you try it, especially because it’s free.


The idea of wirelessly charging our phones has been a promise for more than a decade. In concept, you just place your phone on a flat surface or pad and the phone automatically charges. No cables to plug in.

While it sounds great, it has failed to catch on and has cost companies millions of dollars in losses. Most notably, Powermat Technologies, an Israeli company founded in 2006, introduced a series of mats, cases and dongles (which attach to electronic devices). In spite of tens of millions of dollars spent on advertising and distribution, the product never caught on. The company’s president was fired, lawsuits for massively missed projections were filed and inventory was written off.

What users discovered was that, contrary to the claims, the products really were not wireless. They still required that the mats where you placed your phones be wired to a charger, and your phone needed some sort of a case or wire dongle connected to the charging port. In addition, they took longer to charge and wasted energy.

I’ve been trying out a new product called Fuel Ion from Patriot Memory (http://www.patriotmemory.com/fuelion/) that takes a slightly different approach to wireless charging. It’s available for a variety of phones — the iPhone 5, iPhone 6, Galaxy S4, Galaxy S5 and Note 3. I’m using it with an iPhone 6. Because of the way it charges, it’s faster and more efficient that the Powermat, similar in speed to using a cable.

You need to use the company’s phone case ($50), with different models available for each phone. The phone is inserted into the case, and a connector in the case plugs into the phone’s charging port at the bottom, resulting in a case that’s a half-inch longer than normal.

The second component is a 4-inch-diameter white plastic pad ($30) — it looks like a coaster — on which you place your phone. Hidden magnets position the phone, causing tiny contacts on the back of the case to align with contacts on the pad. Of course, the pad needs to plug into a charger.

An additional accessory, a stand-alone battery ($50) can also be charged by dropping it onto the pad. Fuel Ion also offers a stand ($50) that works much like the pad.

So what is the benefit of all of this? Like Powermat, it eliminates the need to plug a charger cord directly into your phone each time you want to charge it. You can just drop your phone into place. Each of the products seems to be well made, attractive and works as intended. But it just seems a lot of cost for its minor benefits. You could also plug your iPhone into a phone-charging dock from Apple or Twelve South.

A better approach would be for phone makers to build the charging technology into their phones to avoid the need for a special case. A number of Android phones are now doing just that, either building it in or using special replacement back covers containing the charging circuitry. These companies offer a pad, stand or pedestal where you place your phone to be charged.

For widespread adoption, the industry would need to settle on a single standard. There are now several, all incompatible with each other. The Powermat uses inductive charging, in which electricity is passed from the pad to the phone by magnetic fields; the Fuel Ion uses conductive charging, in which the electricity is passed using physical contacts. The industry seems to be settling on a standard called Qi, electromagnetic charging, which is different from each of these.

One of the best implementations was developed by Palm for its ill-fated Palm Pre phone. It used induction built into the phone’s optional back cover that charged whenever the phone rested on a small cylindrical stand. It worked well, but few seemed to care and it was not enough to prevent the phone’s demise.

The promise is that once a standard emerges and becomes widely used you’ll be able to charge your phone in stores, restaurants, your car, and many other places.

For now, Starbucks is building Powermat charging mats into tables in their stores and will sell you a $10 plug-in ring-like device for your phone that electronically mates with the mat.

IKEA is looking to build charging mats into some of its furniture, and some automotive companies have talked about including a mat in their cars. Dell has announced that it will add wireless charging to some notebooks.

I still can’t help but think that much of this activity is technology searching for a solution that has limited value. But the lure of wireless charging has not stopped companies from trying again and again.


With spring arriving — at least in California — and the Travel Goods Show in Las Vegas just concluding, attention is turning to travel. Here are some products I’ve been trying out.

Bolt Briefcase: The new Bolt Briefcase from Waterfield Designs is a refreshing change from the staid black bags so many of us carry. My wife said it’s the best looking of all my bags, and on recent flights, two passengers asked me where I got it.

It’s particularly well designed for carrying the all of the essentials but not much more. It has one padded pocket perfectly sized to fit a MacBook, along with an assortment of pockets to organize the rest of what we carry. There are two front outside pockets with magnetic closures for a phone or pens and business cards, two interior pockets for keys, chargers and cables, and a large 4-inch-wide central interior section for holding a compact camera, headphones, music player, iPad, file folders and books.

The Bolt has a clever water-resistant zipper and a carrying strap with shoulder pad. What makes it so stylish is its rugged waxed canvas fabric and chocolate leather trim and handles. It looks like it should stand up to years of use. It’s also available in other choices of leather, as well as black ballistic nylon for those more conservative. It comes in three sizes for 13-inch, 15-inch and 17-inch notebooks, and slips over the handle of a rolling suitcase. $249 to $279, made in San Francisco. (www.sfbags.com).

CC Skywave Traveler’s Radio: The CC Skywave has just been introduced as the ultimate travel radio. It was developed under the direction of C. Crane of Fortuna, known for making radios that can receive stations hundreds of miles away.

This new model, measuring, 4.75-by-3-by- 1.1 inches, provides excellent AM reception as well as shortwave (2.3-26.1 MHz), weather, aircraft traffic and FM bands. It will turn on to warn you of emergency weather conditions and has an illuminated clock, timer and alarm to use as a bedside clock radio. Stations can be tuned using its scan function or their frequencies can be entered directly with buttons, and you can enter 400 stations into storage for quick retrieval.

The internal speaker provides good sound and it can also be used with headphones. The radio is battery and AC operated and will work from 60 to 70 hours on two AA batteries. In my testing, the radio pulled in stations from San Francisco at night, and the aircraft band provided access to some air traffic control. Some countries, however, don’t allow the use of aircraft scanner radios. $90 at www.ccrane.com.

Cabeau Memory Foam Evolution Pillow: Air travel is getting less comfortable, particularly in coach. So I’ve been trying out travel pillows over the past year, including inflatables, and others filled with small beads, foam rubber and everything in between, hoping to find a little more comfort.

Most of those I tried were not worth the inconvenience of carrying something so bulky. But one pillow stood out; it was also one of the most expensive, but worth it.

That’s the Cabeau Memory Foam Evolution Pillow that costs $40. It’s made of high-quality memory foam similar to what’s used in expensive mattresses. It felt softer and more pliable than the other pillows, yet was firm enough to provide good support. The foam takes a temporary set under pressure and heat to mold around your head.

The pillow is shaped with a thin wall behind the neck to avoid pushing the head forward, and has extra side support for resting your head. The plush velour fabric cover felt luxurious compared to many of the others, and can be removed for washing.

It has a pocket in the pillow to hold a phone or music player and a carrying strap for hanging it on your suitcase or securing it around your neck. With a little effort, the pillow can be compressed and rolled up to about a quarter of its size and slipped into a supplied case. For $40, it just might make your trip a little more comfortable. Available at www.cabeau.com.

TGT Compact Wallet: If you carry lots of credit cards and a few bills, and want to avoid the bulk of an ordinary wallet, look at the TGT wallet. It’s the smallest wallet I’ve ever come across, short of a rubber band. It will hold a stack of credit cards plus several folded bills in a neat tiny package. It’s constructed of soft Italian leather and a special U.S.-made elasticized fabric that seems to stretch enough to hold a dozen cards, yet still lets you easily expand the stack to retrieve a particular card. The wallet is manufactured in Brooklyn.

I’ve been using it for a few weeks, carrying about six bills, folded in quarters, tucked into its leather pocket, and ten cards stacked together, held by the elastic fabric. While the design seems simple, it took the inventor a couple of years to engineer it, so it all works. First introduced in 2012 on Kickstarter, he raised over $300,000, more than any other wallet. It comes in several color combinations and costs from $34 to $46. (www.tightstore.com).


Visa just announced a new technology it will be using to reduce credit card fraud when we make purchases. It’s called geolocation, developed by Finsphere of Belleview, Wash.

Visa is the first to offer this service, which allows its banking partners to know where you are when your credit card is used.

How does it work? When you install your credit card company’s app on your phone, it will ask for permission to allow your location to be checked when you make a credit card charge. When your credit card is used, the app compares your phone’s location with the merchant’s location to check if they match.

If there isn’t a match — in the case of the card being used for an Internet or phone charge, or by an unauthorized user — it will revert to conventional methods for verifying whether the charge is legitimate.

This technology also makes it more convenient for us, the cardholder. It eliminates the need to contact our credit card companies when we’re traveling outside the country, and reduces the need to remember passwords or PINs or having to call the credit card company when our card is declined.

According to Mastercard, four out of five international transactions denied are actually false positives.

Many of us have experienced the results of these thefts, the most common being unauthorized charges on our cards. Fortunately, our liability is limited to $50, but not so with the banks, which are estimated to be losing $5.5 billion this year worldwide.

In fact, just this past week, Chase canceled my Southwest Airlines credit card after it detected a $9.95 charge for the music service Spotify made from New York. Chase representatives told me they thought it was a test charge from a professional credit card ring, and they detected the transaction using algorithms that the company developed.

Finsphere’s business is based on using mobile devices to reduce the risk of fraud while making fraud detection transparent to the consumer. Finsphere performs the actual verification for Visa and its other customers, comparing where the credit card transaction took place with the location of the phone in just a fraction of a second.

The 11-year-old company holds many patents on the technology and expects it to be adopted beyond credit card transactions, including applications relating to access security and the cloud.

For example, the technology can be used to verify an ATM transaction or when an employee uses his badge to access a secure area.

Geolocation verification can eliminate the need for using passwords on a computer by comparing the location of the phone with the IP address of your browser.

Unlike unwanted tracking for marketing purposes, this technology provides a real benefit to all and requires you to opt in. As a result, it’s not expected to face objections from privacy advocates.

In a survey taken by the market research company Penn Schoen Berland, 74 percent of the public said the concept of this technology is appealing, 84 percent said they would be likely to use it and 65 percent said their confidence in the transaction’s security would increase.

Of course, it requires us to keep our phone with us for it to work, so it would not be the only form of verification a bank would use.

While other technology is also being developed to prevent credit card fraud at the point of the transaction — such as biometric identification using thumbprint readers, eye and face scanners and voice detection — they are much more complex, take more time to use and require huge costs to upgrade point-of-purchase terminals.

Mastercard is working on its own verification using geolocation with another company, Syniverse, and AT&T says it’s working on its own service.

Eventually, I would expect this technology to be used for all financial and security transactions without requiring us to opt in. Few of us now object to being tracked because, while it can be abused, it makes things much more convenient for us.

When Google or Yelp knows where you are, their searches are more relevant and you don’t need to enter in an address. Maps and navigation apps, of course, must track your location; Uber and its competitor Lyft need to know where you are when you request a ride.

So in spite of many of us once objecting to being tracked, it’s become much more acceptable, in spite of a loss of some confidentiality. And now tracking to reduce the risk of financial fraud is one of the best reasons of all for doing it.