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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Neil Young, the legendary musician, called me out of the blue in January 2012. He’d gotten my name from a mutual friend who had given him a copy of my book, “From Concept to Consumer.” I’d been a long-time fan and attended many of his concerts over the years, so it was exciting to talk with him. It also turned out to be one of the most important calls of my life.

Neil explained to me about his quest to bring the same high-quality music that he hears in his studio to the public. He explained how the movement to MP3s that reduces the data in the recording by 95 percent, was a huge loss to both the audience and the music industry. He was firmly convinced that those of us who love music would appreciate listening to high quality, uncompressed music, rather than what was being offered by the big electronic companies. He would later tell me that this effort was one of the most important things he has ever done in his career.

Neil invited me to meet him at his ranch in Northern California and asked if I could help him develop a music player that he would call the PonoPlayer (“Pono” means righteous in Hawaiian.)

It was an idea that existed in his mind and a few sketches, but clearly something he had thought about for years. It would be part of his PonoMusic system that would deliver the best possible sound.

Of course, I said yes and assembled a small development team, including a few very smart engineers with whom I had worked before. We then went to work over a span of two years, meeting regularly with Neil.

Neil Young’s PonoPlayer would replace MP3 players. Courtesy photo

Now, two years later, after several starts and stops, overcoming a number of technical challenges and being turned down by venture investors, Neil was ready to tell the world about PonoMusic.

He chose to introduce the product at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, an annual music, film and interactive conference. Neil was the keynote speaker and drew 2,500 people to hear him talk about the importance of his mission: to save a dying art and bring back high-quality music (Listen here http://alturl.com/8hhy4).

Simultaneously, the company, now with a CEO and software head, introduced the product on Kickstarter to raise some funds, but more importantly to see whether people cared about this cause. If we listened to the supposed experts, we could have easily been discouraged. Many claimed MP3 was good enough, that no one can discern audio quality beyond a CD, and many said people just don’t care.

Kickstarter was the ultimate test. Would people be willing to commit to pay for a product on the spot sight unseen? Kickstarter rules don’t even guarantee that the contributor will get the product. We offered our players and special signature editions from many famous artists along with less expensive items, all with the goal of raising $800,000 in 34 days.

While I was hopeful, I was also anxious. Never could I have predicted what would happen in the first few hours of the campaign.

We went live on Kickstarter at 1 p.m. March 11 that preceded by a few hours the talk Neil gave to the packed ballroom. We figured the talk would bring awareness to the Kickstarter campaign and that’s when we’d see contributions begin. But before Neil spoke his first word, $300,000 was donated and the number passed $500,000 during the talk.

That was an auspicious beginning. PonoMusic raised its goal of $800,000 in the first day and by Monday was approaching $4 million. By Friday morning, PonoMusic became officially the most-funded project in Kickstarter’s technology category and the 11th-most-funded in the world.

I’ve worked on many products over the years, many of them iconic (Polaroid SX-70 and Apple Newton), but never have I worked on something so important, particularly to the world of music. It’s been an honor to play a part to help Neil fulfill his goals. While there is still an immense amount of work to be done, we have the wind on our back from those who believe in what we are doing.

Pono will go on sale in the fall, once we finish the engineering and prepare it for mass production, and once the PonoMusic store is completed. (ponomusic.com)


The government-mandated phaseout of the incandescent bulb has opened the door for low-energy replacements. A couple of years back, compact fluorescent lighting, or CFL, was the favored alternative. But, now there’s something better, LED lights. They more resemble the conventional lights they are replacing and they don’t have the mercury found in CFLs.

What’s made LED lights feasible is their plummeting prices due to new design innovations, manufacturing efficiencies and subsidies from electric companies. Priced just a year ago from $60 to $90, LED lamps can now be found for as little as $10.

LEDs are tiny electronic solid-state components that emit an intensely bright light. Individual LEDs have been used in flashlights, lighting in cars and even large-screen LCD TV illumination. And now, many of these high-energy LEDs have been combined to create light bulbs to replace incandescent and CFL lights.

LEDs are more efficient than CFLs and last longer, and at their new lower prices provide a big savings. Replacing a dozen conventional bulbs with LED bulbs can save you $400 per year in electricity or $10,000 over the bulbs’ life.

Most importantly, some of the latest LED designs are much more suitable than CFL light bulbs that have weird shapes and produce uneven illumination. And while I haven’t tested them for many hours, they are advertised to last longer.

Cree light bulbs are said to save 84 percent of the energy compared to typical incandescent bulbs, are designed to last 25 times longer, and come with a 10-year limited warranty. Courtesy photo

I replaced most of my recessed lights and light bulbs a few years ago with CFL bulbs made by FEIT. These bulbs use a coiled tube shape — some bare and some inside a glass enclosure. They are far from a decorator’s dream —the coiled light pattern casts striped shadows on lampshades and the long bodies often peer below the bottom of lampshades or outside recessed fixtures.

CFL lights take a couple of minutes to reach full brightness, while LED lights turn on instantly. And, based on my experience, CFLs last a shorter time than their ratings say. While rated to last 13 times longer than the bulbs they replace, I needed to replace about half of the bulbs in the first year.

CFLs use about 25 percent of the energy of an incandescent, but because of their containments, they must be recycled rather than discarded. However, only some stores that sell them will take back the used bulbs. In the San Diego area, The Home Depot takes them, but Dixieline, where I purchased the bulbs, does not. So CFLs can save money, but they are not ideal.

What’s important in selecting one of these new LEDs? Long life, uniform light distribution, natural color temperature and the same size as the conventional bulb it replaces. It should also be capable of dimming.

In my quest for a better light bulb, I’ve been trying out some LED bulbs from Cree, an American company that has been a pioneer in the development of LED lighting. I first came across the company’s name on some of the first very bright (and expensive) pocket-sized LED flashlights. Cree designed and supplied the LED assembly to other flashlight manufacturers.

There are many brands that make LED lamps, including Philips, Sylvania and FEIT. But I found that at least for now, the Cree bulb most looks like and works like the incandescent bulb it is replacing. The other brands fail to emit light in a uniform pattern in all directions because they have designs that block the light with fins, covers or heat sinks.

The Cree LED bulbs are made with what the company calls Filament Tower Technology, which emulates the incandescent filament in which the illumination originates from the center of the bulb.

The Cree bulb emits a similar pattern with its halo-shaped arrangement of the LEDs inside the bulb around its center axis. The enclosure around this tower is shaped just like a light bulb, and has the same diffuse finish to spread out the light. The illumination appears to be similar in color to an incandescent. What was startling to me was that during use, the outer surface, which looks just like an incandescent bulb, remains cold to the touch.

According to Cree, the bulbs save 84 percent of the energy compared to typical incandescent bulbs, are designed to last 25 times longer, and come with a 10-year limited warranty.

I’ve been trying their 60-watt replacement version. It produces the same 800 lumens as a 60-watt bulb, but uses just 9.5 watts. It fit into lamps that have little room for anything longer or wider than a normal bulb, such as a garage work lamp with a shroud and a living room lamp with a lampshade bracket surrounding the bulb.

With local subsidies from electric companies, the bulbs cost less than $10; retail is $13. If you use them three hours a day, they will last for 20 years! The bulbs are available locally at The Home Depot. Seems like a no-brainer to me.


Imagine a slim, lightweight notebook computer with a capable 11.6-inch screen and full-size keyboard, complete with a Microsoft Office-like apps suite for $249, a fraction of what you would pay for a PC or Mac notebook. It’s the Acer C720/ZHN Chromebook.

What’s the catch? Chromebook uses the Chrome OS, a computer platform invented by Google that’s built around the Chrome browser as its interface. Chrome OS is designed to take full advantage of the cloud, while keeping hardware features to a minimum. It doesn’t need a fast processor or a hard drive. It comes with 100GB of online storage called Google Drive, 16GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM. A Google Drive with 100GB of storage costs $60 a year beginning in the third year.

Not having a complex OS or advanced hardware, the Acer is light at 2¾ pounds, yet fast and responsive. Startup times are quick: about 15 seconds from off and instantly from standby. The notebook uses an Intel 1.4 GHz Intel Celeron chip, a perfect match because of its low power consumption.

The catch, however, is you need a wireless connection to do most of the things you now do on your standard notebook. Relying on wireless means that when you lose connectivity, you lose access to most of your files, your email inbox and office apps, although there are few simple apps that let you write email and docs while offline.

Ironically as I write this column, my Time Warner Internet went down and, even though the company identified the problem as theirs, they can’t send a technician to the area for three days.

You can download additional apps from the Chrome Web Store, but it’s slim pickings — mainly games, utilities and productivity software. Some of these apps are simply links to a Web client such as Evernote and AutoCAD, again requiring a wireless connection.

While you can use applications that work through the Web, such as GoToMeeting, UberConference, OpenTable, Southwest, etc., you will not be able to run those apps that require downloaded software, such as Skype, scanner software, SugarSync, etc. And note that even though Chrome OS is created by Google, it’s a different OS than with Android, so Android apps will not work.

The Acer Chromebook is easy for a novice to use. There’s no OS to learn, no updates to slow you down, just a simple browser window with several icons at the bottom of the screen. One of the icons opens a small settings menu and another opens a small popup window with 24 built-in Google apps, including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Docs, a file manager, music player, camera and photo manager.

Battery life is rated at 8.5 hours and in my use with WiFi on and the display at full brightness, I got almost 7 hours, very good performance for a notebook. The 11.6-inch display with a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels and matte finish can’t compare with a top-of-the-line notebook, but it’s generally good enough.

The keyboard is full size and average compared to other notebooks. It’s not as good as a MacBook or ThinkPad, but it’s easy to type quickly and accurately.

When Google invented this new platform, it chose to make changes to the keyboard, mostly all positive. There’s no caps lock, something that should have been eliminated years ago. That’s the key often struck by mistake leading to A STRING OF ALL CAPS THAT NEEDS TO BE RETYPED. In its place is a Google search key.

There’s a large clickable trackpad below the keyboard, arranged much like a MacBook. Function keys are replaced by a row of useful action keys including forward and back page, reload, full screen, brightness and volume settings.

Another limitation is that you can’t print directly to a printer. You need to set up your printer to use Google Cloud Print, which prints via the cloud and requires a printer with built-in WiFi.

For those who spend lots of time online browsing, doing email, and writing, you may find a Chromebook to be perfectly suitable as a second computer or a first, if you’re on a tight budget.

Overall, I liked the Acer C720 for its simplicity of use, and particularly for eliminating the need to pamper an expensive notebook. Since most of the software and files are on the Web, you need not worry about losing or dropping the computer, upgrading its software or backing it up. That also makes security less of an issue — assuming you trust Google. But that’s a subject for another day.


The Basis’ Carbon Steel Edition watch is one of the latest wearable wrist devices that promise to monitor our activities and motivate us to be more fit. It’s part of a category called wearable technology that’s been generating a huge amount of interest, if not yet huge sales, and one that market analysts predict will become explosive.

Unlike the wristbands from Withings, Fitbit, Nike and Jawbone, the Basis is a somewhat bulky watch with a one-inch-wide silicon rubber strap. It’s not to be confused with another class of tech watches such as the Pebble that links to your smartphone to alert you to calls, emails, texts and appointments.

The Basis is the most advanced of the health-monitoring devices due to its many sensors and its ability to monitor many elements while you are awake or asleep.

The black-and-chrome watch has a digital display with four touch buttons on the corners of its face, a large sync button on the right edge, and six contacts and an optical sensor on the back. There’s also an internal accelerometer that measures motion in three directions.

The Basis’ Carbon Steel Edition is capable of measuring your heart rate, skin moisture and temperature, as well as your activity level. The company claims that it’s able to use these measurements to detect your activity, such as walking, running, biking, and sleeping, although in my use it was unable to detect outdoor biking.

The watch collects this information and syncs it your computer, iPhone or Android phone, and displays the information in several graphs.

Its display allows you to monitor your progress and readings in real time, as well as show the time and date. However, I found the dated black-and-white transflective LCD display to be particularly hard to read because of its very low contrast both indoors and outdoors, even when the backlight was turned on. The company says this is a result of trying to extend the battery life, but an E Ink type of display would be a big improvement.

During the day it measured how long I walked, how many steps I took, my heart rate and calories burned. Oddly, and similar to the Nike Band, it doesn’t display the distance I walked, although 2,000 steps is about equivalent to a mile.

The Basis did an excellent job tracking my sleeping patterns, determining the different levels of sleep, how long I slept and how many times I awoke. It assigned a sleep score each night that ranged from 78 percent to 85 percent. It detected when I went to bed and didn’t need to be manually set to sleep mode, something required by other devices.

While most other health monitors display the calories burned associated with a physical activity, the Basis displays the calories you burn all of the time, so it would not be unusual to wake up and see a few hundred calories burned while sleeping or a couple thousand over the full day.

The usefulness of these devices depends on how well the information is analyzed and displayed, and the advice provided. Also how well it inspires you to improve on your results and motivate you to do better.

Basis does a good job of presenting the information in its charts. You can see a two-dimensional map of your heart rate, for example, how far you’ve walked every day, and an indication of your sleeping habits.

However, as with all other devices I’ve tested, there is noticeable gap in interpretation or explanation of what these measurements mean. For example, I found that my pulse ranged between 60 and 90 over a few hours, but the site offered no explanation or even links to sites that could help me interpret the results.

Likewise, I could see a graph of skin temperature and moisture that changed over time, but no explanation or evaluation. This is a huge omission and lessens the value of collecting this data. Perhaps it’s the caution companies’ not wanting to dispense medical advice, but certainly links to relevant articles would help. Or it may be the actual measurements are not always reliable. In fact, the company notes that pulse measurements taken from your wrist are not as accurate as a chest monitor. In my use, I found sometimes when I was exercising at the gym, the pulse rate remained at 62.

The biggest value of the Basis is monitoring changes over time and altering your habits. For example, I realized when checking the watch that I was getting very little activity sitting in front of the computer, and now make it a point to stop and take a walk. The satisfaction has come from seeing my walking increase over the week, moving from minutes to hours each day.

The software introduces you to new challenges over time using “Habits,” which are like goals. As you do more, you gain points and gain access to more Habits. Examples include starting with the Habit of wearing the watch for 12 hours, then walking 6,000 steps, biking twice a week and so on. You can set targets for each of these.

The Basis has an internal rechargeable battery that lasts for three or four days. It’s easily recharged in a couple of hours by snapping it onto a custom USB cradle that’s also used to upload the data from the watch.

Overall, I found the Basis’ Carbon Steel Edition to be the most useful of all the health-related wearables. Its large size makes it more of a watch replacement than the competitions’ band devices that you can wear with your normal watch. And its large size may be a turnoff to some. The watch costs $199 at mybasis.co, which makes it a good value, considering all that it offers.

You can expect there will be many new products in this category this year, including the highly anticipated iWatch from Apple. Some will combine health monitoring with alerts from the phone, along with more active use of the phone’s own functions such as GPS. So, you might consider waiting to see what else will become available.


Who can resist software that helps you organize and work more efficiently? While many apps claim to do this, these three really deliver on their promise.

Day One: One of my challenges is to find a way to create random notes and be able to retrieve them quickly. I’ve used Evernote, but found it’s become too feature-laden and complex for doing simple things. The note app on smartphones takes it to the other extreme of simplicity with a scarcity of features. I recently discovered Day One and, like Goldilocks’ porridge, it’s just right.

Day One is software for the Mac, iPhone and iPad that replicates the familiar paper datebook or journal we once used to keep track of our daily activities, take notes and jot down reminders. While some may want to use it to keep a meticulous diary of their daily activities, many will use it to jot down random notes that would otherwise end up on scraps of paper and get misplaced. It’s ideal for both.

For example, this weekend I’ve added a few notes including a book to read and a movie to see, all suggested while out to dinner with friends. I used it to note a Web link and key points from a phone call, and then noted a wine we enjoyed. One of the great benefits is that I can create and access the content on all my devices: my Mac computer, iPhone and iPad with syncing done automatically in the background.

The app is beautifully designed and simple to use. I can add a note nearly instantaneously. It’s an example of where less is more. Yet Day One has other features, including the ability to add an image and automatically note the location, date and time when the entry was made. It’s a perfect complement to your calendar app, which is more structured.

Day One syncs across multiple Apple devices using either iCloud or Dropbox. I ran into difficulty getting Apple’s still buggy iCloud to sync reliably, so I used Dropbox, which worked perfectly. Day One cost $4.99 for the iPhone/iPad app and $9.99 for the MacOS version. It’s worth every penny for the peace of mind in being able to keep track of those random notes. (dayoneapp.com).

UberConference: UberConference is the best way I’ve found to set up and make free conference calls. It recently has gone through a major upgrade that simplifies its interface and makes it even easier to use. Simply open the Web page and choose the option of setting up a call now or later. To set up a future call, select the date and time, add the participants’ email (or import them from your contacts), and everyone will be automatically notified. It can add the event to your calendar and notify the participants when it’s time to call in, and they do not need to have the software. When the call begins, as the organizer, you can view on the computer screen who has arrived and who is talking; no more taking a poll to see who’s on the line. When the call is completed you’ll get a summary of the call, including how long each of the participants talked.

UberConference finally found a way to eliminate using a PIN for its Pro account members, something that’s a pain to do, often requiring you to write it down to have it available while dialing. Instead, the company provides Pro users their own local 10-digit phone number that they use to call in to connect. That number remains the same for all of the phone conferences you initiate.

For now, UberConference requires you to set up the call on its website, but will soon roll out apps for Android and iPhone that will let you create the conference from your smartphone.

The free version has a wealth of features and can conference up to 10 people at once. The Pro version that costs $10 per month not only eliminates PINs, but works for up to 100, provides free international access and will call you when the meeting starts.

UberConference was developed by Craig Walker, who previously founded Grand Central, the service that provides us a single phone number to ring multiple phones. Grand Central was bought by Google and renamed GoogleVoice. (uberconference.com).

Sunrise Calendar: Sunrise is a free alternative calendar to iCal and Google calendar. It’s available as an app for iPhone, iPad and Android phones. It adds lots of useful information to the calendar and individual appointments, including birthdays, email, Facebook and LinkedIn links, and other contextual information. To get the most out of Sunrise, you first need to authorize it to connect to your Google, iCloud, contacts, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts, where it accesses pertinent information, such as birthdays, and email addresses.

When you click on a conference call or meeting, you’ll see images of the meeting participants with their email addresses. If you include an address with an appointment, it will display a map and link directions. When a birthday appears on the calendar, you can tap on it and post a message directly to Facebook. Essentially it anticipates the useful information you might need and provides actionable icons in anticipation of what you might want to do next.

I tested the versions for the iPad and iPhone, and while it looks much like the native calendar apps, it currently offers fewer views and does not yet have a search function. I also noticed that my travel events from TripIt did not appear. The company said to expect these additions soon. Otherwise, it’s a great alternative to your regular calendar, and doesn’t preclude you from using both. (sunrise.am)


Bluetooth cellphone headsets were once a fast-growing category with dozens of models, each claiming to magically eliminate background and wind noise, and sound as good as a normal call. The truth was that even the best of them failed to work flawlessly.

The category became one known in the industry for its huge number of returns — as many as 40 percent — from disappointed customers. Fast forward five years later and many of the companies have faded away or left the business.

So I was somewhat skeptical when two companies introduced new models, each claiming once again to be superior to anything else previously available. Jawbone, one of the survivors with products that look great and work better than most, just introduced its new Era model, not to be confused with an older model also called Era that had a three-square design on its face. And a few months ago, Sennheiser introduced its Presence Premium Bluetooth headphone targeted to the business executive.

I’ve been trying each of them and comparing them with what’s become my reference, the Plantronics Voyager Pro ($100). I’ve found the Voyager, now in its fourth or fifth generation — I’ve lost count — to work well with its behind-the-ear battery and a folding boom microphone.

But it’s still not perfect. It doesn’t work well in windy environments and uses an inconvenient proprietary charging cable, but I like it because its works better than most others. It has a long, six-hour battery life and fits over the top of the ear securely and comfortably. It also seems to survive being in my pocket with my keys and change, although it hasn’t survived the washing machine, and has been replaced several times.

So how do these new products compare?

The Era reliably accesses Siri with a quick button push on the end of the headset. The single button is also used to answer, hang up and adjust volume. Courtesy photo

The new Jawbone Era offers one of the smallest Bluetooth headsets ever, at less than 2 inches by 1 inch by a half-inch. To make up for the necessarily smaller battery, the Era can be purchased with a small open metal case that holds a second battery. When the Era is snapped into it, the charge is replenished. The case is small enough to fit on your keychain.

The Era uses a new ear-tip design with a flexible arm that keeps it from falling out of the ear. It comes with one medium-sized left ear tip and three sizes of right ear tips. Fortunately, as a left ear user, the medium worked fine.

The Era is the only headset of the group that reliably accesses Siri with a quick button push on the end of the headset. The single button is also used to answer, hang up and adjust volume. You can program into the headset several frequently used names and numbers to identify your favorite incoming callers, as well as changing the headphone’s voice. One reminds me of Samantha in the hit movie “Her,” but it’s probably wishful thinking.

Jawbone says the Era is designed to listen to music, and, while it’s far from hi-fi, it’s louder and bassier than most other Bluetooth headsets.

I’ve come to learn that it takes a while to judge how well a Bluetooth headset works. As I have used both the Era over time, I have found that it usually worked fine, producing clear voices on each end of the conversation. But occasionally, others have complained that the sound degraded and my words became clipped. Quickly switching to the Plantronics headset seemed to correct the problem.

In my noise-reduction tests, I played a radio in the background at increasingly loud levels while counting slowly. A friend on the other end would listen to whether the radio was obstructing my voice. In outdoor use with a slight breeze, none of the headsets worked well.

The Era can be purchased with the case ($129) or without ($99) and is available in several colors. It also has a free app that runs on your iPhone to change settings, such as voice, adding personal names and numbers, and to help you locate it. Lose your headset? Push a button on the app and the headphone will emit a loud sound, assuming it’s within BT range of about 40 feet. Don’t try it while wearing the headset. (jawbone.com)

The Sennheiser Presence ($160) claims to be for professionals demanding excellent communications. It has what it calls Windsafe technology to allow it to work in noisy environments. It’s a conservative-looking design with a push-pull action to turn it off and on. It fits in the ear with a conventional plug and ear hook.

I found the earhook to hurt after a few of hours of use, and it was difficult to adjust. I eventually lost the ear hook (it fell off on its own) and the headset would occasionally fall out of my ear. Acoustically, the sound is excellent and is clear on both ends much of the time. But as with the Jawbone, there are times when those I spoke with complained of clipping.

All three products did a good job, except occasionally when they didn’t! It’s hard to know what caused the occasional degradation on the Sennheiser and Jawbone, because it was so random and occurred while sitting in an office with a strong Verizon signal on an iPhone 5s. Overall, these two products performed well because these issues occurred about 10 percent of the time or less. But they are not perfect.

If I were to rank the products, I’d rate the Jawbone Era and Plantronics Voyager as the best, followed by the Sennheiser.

For casual users, it’s hard to beat the Era for its tiny size, USB charging and handy carrying case/battery. It’s also more discreet. For serious business users, the Voyager Pro is a proven performer with a longer battery life and an available battery case that doubles its long life. The Sennheiser just does not fit well and is very expensive with no discernable advantage. (plantronics.com and sennheiser.com)