GPSOLO December 2008
The GPSolo 2008 Shopping Guide to Holiday Techno-Gifts
Techno-tools and toys make excellent gifts for family, friends, law partners, and employees. Giving a techno-gift to an employee or partner may not only engender their gratitude but may further reward you through their increased efficiency. Giving one to your children can make you the coolest of the cool (we know, we date ourselves by the use of that word). Giving one to your spouse, functional equivalent, or lover can get you into a lot of trouble (unless you also give them something personal as well).
This guide reflects considerable research and investigation into a large number of products. Although it represents a lot of work, we have to admit that we enjoy trying out all the techno-gift candidates to separate the good from the not so good and identify the better and the best. If you find yourself tantalized by some of our recommendations, by all means treat yourself to a techno-gift or two (the economy could use some extra spending). We have always maintained that you work better and more efficiently if you are happy with what you do and that having the right tools helps.
Although the American Bar Association (ABA) publishes this magazine, the product comments, suggestions, and recommendations made in this article reflect the authors’ observations and opinions. They do not constitute a position or endorsement by the ABA. The ABA does not make product recommendations. The authors, however, do not hesitate to do so.
Give Me Some Air!
Although the technology world offers many potential gifts that could serve as the leadoff for this year’s gift guide, one stands above the rest. Apple’s MacBook Air ( www.apple.com) offers a wonderful opportunity to score some points by gifting it to another or pick up a few style points by getting your own.
Not a cheap date, the MacBook Air comes in two basic models that look the same but cost substantially different amounts. You can get the 13” laptop with 2 GB of RAM (not upgradable), built-in 802.11n WiFi, built-in Bluetooth (short-range wireless), an Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 1.6 GHz, and an 80 GB hard disk drive running at 4200 RPM for $1,799, or you can pay $2,598 and get a 64 GB flash memory drive (no internal hard disk) and an Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 1.8 GHz.
Either way, you get a full-sized keyboard, a bright, high-resolution screen, the same multi-touch technology that Apple introduced in the iPhone and the iPod touch, and a small footprint design that ranges from 0.16” to 0.76” thin when closed. Tipping the scales at a mere three pounds, this laptop qualifies as a lightweight in more ways than one. It has no optical drive on board (you can buy an external DVD drive for $99 or borrow one from a nearby computer via wireless magic or both). It has no expansion slots, no FireWire ports, no Ethernet port, and only one USB port. Why would anyone want such an underpowered computer? Well, because it looks so darn hot (think of it as a “trophy” computer), it travels well, it does the basic things you need a computer to do when you travel, and it takes up very little space (Steve Jobs carried it onstage at the MacWorld exposition in a manila envelope). Simply put, it has a great deal of panache.
We know a number of people who have purchased the MacBook Air, and none of them wishes they had not purchased one. We have heard all kinds of justifications for why people bought one ranging from its lightness, to its style, to (and this one wins the prize) the fact that it helps attract the interest of the opposite gender (note that it comes with no warranty to that effect).
If you or your intended prefers using the Windows OS to Mac OS X, no worries! The MacBook Air does Windows, too (all Macs running the Intel Core 2 Duo processors can run Windows). If you plan to run Windows on it, however, you should do so using Apple’s Boot Camp software and boot directly into Windows—the 2 GB of RAM available will not run both the Mac OS and Windows very well using Parallels or Fusion. Additionally, the small disk drive capacity of the computer means that you will have very limited storage and software capabilities, especially if you divide the drive between both the Mac OS and Windows. Choose one system and use it.
Yes, you can get other superlight computers. Sony, Toshiba, OQO, and Lenovo, among others, have offered their own super-lights. Despite the other things that these laptops may have going for them, none has the style or the appeal of the MacBook Air.
Computers (especially laptops) in general always make good gifts. Pricing for most computers has come down in relation to their power in recent years, and you can get a very powerful computer for a very reasonable price. If you want to consider other computers, look for name brands running Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors. You can get work-alikes at a lower price, but we recommend that you stay with the Intel processor. Do note that if you go for a superlight, you will probably get a computer running on a slower and less powerful processor in order to economize on size, weight, and battery requirements. Get the biggest hard drive you can and at least 2 GB of RAM (4 or more works even better). Both the Mac OS X and Windows Vista need at least 2 GB to run reasonably well. You can get by with 1 GB if you buy a machine running Windows XP, but Microsoft has announced termination of support and sales of XP. If you plan on working with the Mac OS and a virtual computer running Windows, remember that the virtual computer requires real RAM; a Mac with 4 GB of RAM that has a virtual PC running Windows Vista with 2 GB of RAM dedicated to it has only 2GB of RAM left to handle the Mac OS.
You should also look for a laptop with an optical drive capable of reading and writing CDs and DVDs. Look for a system with WiFi running 802.11n (802.11g works, but much more slowly). Stay away from built-in cellular cards as they lock you into a single provider and require a separate account for each computer. We recommend that you get and use a USB cellular card because even computers that lack Express 34 or PCMCIA slots have USB ports, and you can use a single account and card with multiple computers.
In terms of size, you basically get to choose between 17”, 15”, 13”, and smaller screens. For laptops, the screen size will dictate the size of the machine itself. The 17” screens tend to result in a heavier computer than the others. The 15” screens yield computers heavier than all but those with 17” screens, etc. Laptops with 13” screens or smaller travel better and tend to weigh the least of these three popular sizes. The smaller screens do, however, present some challenges for older users or users who have vision issues. The 15” screens offer a good compromise for general purposes.
Smart Phones, PDAs, and Other Telephones
Most of the so-called “basic” telephones on the market today would have qualified as “smart phones” a few years ago. You have to work fairly hard to find a phone that does not have a camera, include a calendar, play music, show pictures, or access the Internet in some manner. By the standards of a few years ago, we should probably call the current crop of “smart phones” “genius phones.” In truth, the packages currently on the market represent considerable genius as they stack feature upon feature. One can make a pretty fair argument that some of the phones have advanced so far that they eliminate the need to bring a separate computer with you when you travel.
Apple has given us one of the most versatile of the new generation of smart phones in the iPhone 3G. The iPhone 3G displays pictures, shows movies, has a built-in global positioning system (GPS), plays music, and provides an Internet interface based on Apple’s OS X and its Safari browser. It handles your calendar and contacts as well as your e-mail. It interfaces with a number of calendar and contact programs. You can synchronize it to information on your computer using iTunes or wirelessly. In addition to providing its own cellular-based Internet access (AT&T’s 3G system), the iPhone works on WiFi, so you can use it in connection with your wireless network at the office, at home, or on the road. You can expand its functionality almost infinitely by adding applications from a variety of sources. Oh yeah, we almost forgot, it also works quite well as a telephone, handles text messages, and comes with both a built-in speakerphone and Bluetooth, allowing wireless connections at another level.
In conjunction with the release of the iPhone 3G, Apple released iPhone software version 2.0 (which also works on the original iPhones and on the iPod touch). The new software (subsequently upgraded to version 2.1) allows third-party developers to write applications that you can download to your computer or directly to the iPhone. Applications (“Apps”) recently made available for the iPhone include database programs, blogging interfaces, a variety of productivity software, news tracking software, and an ever-increasing inventory of games, foreign language programs, and travel guides. Apple also upgraded iTunes and the iTunes store. The iTunes store now supplies you with music, audio books, movies, and iPhone Apps.
Apple also introduced its new Mobile-Me technology with the release of the iPhone 3G. Although the concept offers great promise, the experience leaves too much that does not work well. When Apple fixes all the bugs, MobileMe should prove very useful, giving you the ability to sync the contact, calendar, e-mail, and bookmark information on your computers and your iPhone.
The shift to the 3G technology provides a faster and better Internet experience. The iPhone still works only on the AT&T system, and the new iPhone requires a two-year subscription to a more expensive monthly account than the older version ($30 per month vs. $20 per month). However, the new iPhones themselves sell for less than the older models: only $299 for the 8 GB version and $399 for the 16 GB version. The large screen makes it easy to read, and Apple’s interface remains extremely user-friendly.
BlackBerry’s Pearl and Curve models ( www.blackberry.com) have proven extremely popular. The Curve has a full thumb board keyboard, whereas the Pearl has a special double-letter keyboard that uses half as many keys and software to make sense out of what you type. The Pearl has a considerably smaller footprint, making it lighter and easier to carry. We prefer the Pearl’s size and weight to that of the Curve, but we opted to use the Curve because we did not like the Pearl’s keyboard as much as the Curve’s full thumb board. If you think you want to get a BlackBerry, visit a local dealer and try keying words on both models, then make your decision. As we write this article, Research In Motion (the manufacturer of BlackBerry products) has announced a new model it calls the Bold, but it is not yet available to us for review. AT&T claims that it will have it sometime in November 2008, so you should have the opportunity to look at it while you do your holiday shopping. We recommend that you check out the Bold before buying any other BlackBerry model.
Samsung ( www.samsung.com/us) positioned its BlackJack as competition for the BlackBerry, the Treo, and the Motorola Q. The original BlackJack had serious battery issues. The BlackJack II has improved battery life, but the device still suffers from a relatively short battery life per charge. The BlackJack II works on the Windows Mobile platform. If you want a phone that works on the Windows Mobile system, the BlackJack II works quite well.
Palm ( www.palm.com/us) lost its place in the personal digital assistant (PDA) industry over the last few years and now seeks to claw its way back in a very competitive market. Palm still makes an excellent although somewhat basic device. Last year it released the Centro (available for Verizon, AT&T, and other networks), a smaller PDA device than its Treo models. It fits nicely into a pocket, works well as a phone, and provides all the features that made the Treo popular. The Centro works on the Palm operating system. The smaller overall size translates into smaller keys (although it still uses a full qwerty-style keyboard) and a smaller display. If the display or keyboard size pose problems for you, look at the Palm Treo 755p (Verizon). The 755p looks more like the classic Treo, but has a smaller size, appearance, and feel without reducing the display or keyboard.
A few years ago, Palm started building devices that worked on Windows Mobile as an alternative to its own highly stable, but more basic, operating system. Palm has announced an upgrade to its own system and also the release of a new Windows Mobile device that had been referred to as the Treo 850 and now gets the name Treo Pro. Palm has not yet made a review model available, but its pictures make it appear much sleeker than the last generation of the Treo. Palm claims a battery life of approximately five hours of talk time on the device. Look for it and check it out. By the time you read this article, you should find it in the phone stores.
A Bluetooth headset makes a very nice gift (or a welcome purchase for yourself). Bluetooth earpieces will cost from $40 to $200. We like the new, small, barely noticeable versions the best, despite their relatively short battery lives and notwithstanding the fact that you look like you are talking to yourself when you walk down the street using one.
Check out Motorola’s MOTOPURE H12 ( www.motorola.com; $199.99 list, as little as $49 online); you will find it is a diminutive device with noise reduction technology that Motorola calls “CrystalTalk.” It works quite well.
The New Jawbone ( www.jawbone.com) lists for $129.99. You can find it in phone stores or you can get it online for less than $100. The new version includes Aliph’s “NoiseAssassin” technology, which filters out background noise reasonably well, allowing the listener to more easily hear and understand your transmission.
BlueAnt ( www.myblueant.com) recently released an updated version of its headset, the Z9i. The Z9i has the ability to pair with up to five devices (the older Z9 only paired with three) and also can work with two phones at a time. The Z9i lists for $119.99, but we have found it online for less than $70.
Cardo ( www.cardowireless.com) claims its S-800 Bluetooth headset will get up to eight hours of talk time on a two-hour charge. The S-800 has noise-reduction circuitry and produces a very satisfactory audio quality. One nice feature: The device will buzz to help you locate it. Granted, the buzz is not terribly loud, so you may not hear it unless you are already close, but if you have ever lost something on your desk or dresser or in your car, you should appreciate this feature. The S-800 lists for $84.99. You may also want to take a look at their S-2 stereo headset, which lists for $99.99 and works for both music and telephone calls.
Motorola also makes a Bluetooth stereo headset that works both with your Bluetooth music player and your Bluetooth phone and, with compatible phones, will smoothly switch from music to a phone call and back. The MOTOROKR S9 is smaller and lighter than the Cardo S-2, using an inside-the-ear rather than an over-the-ear design. Motorola claims up to six hours of music on a single charge. Motorola’s website shows the S9 at an original price of $189 marked down to $110.99. We have not seen it offered at more than $110.99 lately, and you can certainly find it for less.
Portable Bluetooth car adapters also make fine gifts. If we plan to rent a car when we travel, we take a portable Bluetooth car adapter along (our own cars already have hard-wired adapters). BlueAnt’s Supertooth 3 gives you fully portable hands-free duplex technology (i.e., both parties can speak and be heard at the same time) with noise reduction and up to 15 hours of talk time and 800 hours of standby time. The Supertooth 3 lists for $129.99, but we found it online for less than $95. Motorola’s MOTOROKR T505 lists for $139.99, but you can find it for around $80 online. The T505 works on a different principal as it has Bluetooth to connect to the phone and an FM transmitter to wirelessly connect the phone to your car’s stereo system. Ego ( www.egohandsfree.com) offers another interesting variation in its EGO CUP. The EGO CUP provides good quality sound and fits in the cup holder of most modern vehicles. You can find it online for less than $100.
Cases make good and relatively inexpensive gifts. We like the offerings from Case-Mate ( www.case-mate.com) quite a bit. They offer a number of well-made and attractive cases, particularly for the iPhone 3G. Also check out Sena Cases ( www.senacases.com), which offers a variety of styles for many of the popular cell phones and PDAs. Fortte ( www.fortte.com) also has a good selection of handsome and well-made cases for most of the popular PDAs, smart phones, and a number of other devices.
If you need a rugged case for your electronics, look at the OtterBox line ( www.otterbox.com). They make cases for most of the popular cell phones, PDAs, and other electronic devices. OtterBox makes rugged, highly protective cases; some of them are even waterproof. OtterBox cleverly engineered many of its cases so that you can use the device while it remains fully protected by the case. To give you an idea of price, their Defender Case for the BlackBerry Curve costs $49.95. OtterBox also makes some less protective, less chunky, and more stylish cases, but they did not build their reputation on those.
If you want protection against scuffs and scratches, consider Zagg’s invisible-SHIELD ( www.zagg.com). Zagg makes the shield from the same material the military uses on the edge of helicopter blades. The removable shields, which cost about $25 each, form-fit a device and install quickly and easily if you read and follow the directions—especially the part about spraying the installing solution on your fingertips! If you intend to use both a shield and another case, note that the shield may make just enough difference that form-fitted cases with little tolerance may not fit over the device inside the shield or make it fit very snugly, so that you may find it hard to remove the device from the case. BodyGuardz ( www.bodyguardz.com) work pretty much the same as the invisibleSHIELD. Either one should meet your needs. Both offer lifetime replacement guarantees, but the BodyGuardz includes your first replacement in the package (they send two). Of course, nothing would stop you from using one yourself and giving one to a friend. . . .
Face the Music
Many vendors offer MP3 players and devices that display still pictures and video. For our money, if you want such a device for yourself or as a gift, look no further than Apple’s iPod. Apple has iPods for every taste and budget and just refreshed its product line, lowering most of its prices in the process. The shuffle comes in 1 GB or 2 GB models with no display for $49/$69. The sleek and thin nano offers 8 GB and 16 GB models at $149/$199. The iPod classic comes in a 120 GB version for $249. The iPod touch, the newest model in the line, mimics the design, form, and operation of the iPhone and comes in 8 GB, 16 GB, and 32 GB versions costing $229/$299/$399.
Now Hear This
Music lovers will want to upgrade the earphones that come with their music players. Upgrading the earphones can significantly increase listening enjoyment. Generally, music players come with earphones that most would consider adequate but not very satisfying. A good set of earphones can last for years and provide considerable enjoyment. Given that some of the better earphones do not come cheaply, you might want to remember that. Shure’s ( www.shure.com) SE series of sound-isolating devices ranks among our favorites. Shure offers several different levels of earphones at substantially divergent costs. Each step up costs more and performs noticeably better than the one below. The SE110 sells for $119.99, the SE210 for $179.99, the SE310 for $299.99, the SE420 for $399.99, and the SE530 for $499.99. The SE110 or SE210 will work fine for most people. Audiophiles will opt for the more expensive versions. Shure also sells an adapter to allow you to use their headphones with any cell phone that has a standard headphone jack.
We also like Etymotic Research’s ER series ( www.etymotic.com). The ER•4 costs $299 a pair, the ER•6 costs $139. Etymotic has also released a 6i designed for the iPod ($149). If you want to go wireless and your music player supports Bluetooth, you can get the ety8 stereo Bluetooth earphones for $159. You can also get the ety8 with a Bluetooth adaptor for the iPod for $249.
Shure and Etymotic use passive sound isolating technology. The seal between the ear and the earphone keeps out or, at least, substantially reduces outside noise, protecting the integrity of the sound put out by your device. You might also want to consider an active noise-cancellation system that generates “anti-noise” to blank out the extraneous noise that you would otherwise hear from such things as airplane engines.
Bose ( www.bose.com) makes excellent noise canceling headsets. Their Quiet Comfort 2 (QC2; $299) earpieces fit over and around the ear; the Quiet Comfort 3 (QC3; $349) has smaller earpieces that sit on the ear but do not engulf it. The QC3 weighs less than the QC2, making it more comfortable to wear, especially for longer periods of time. The QC3’s noise cancellation hum can, however, become somewhat disconcerting. The QC2 runs on a standard AAA battery, whereas the QC3 comes with a rechargeable battery that lasts up to 20 hours per cycle. Both headphones provide excellent audio quality. Both substantially reduce outside noise levels, although not as well as the sound isolating earphones, which, we believe, produce a better quality, purer sound than the noise cancellation technology.
Sometimes you want to share your music. You can always find a splitter that lets you attach two pair of earphones to one iPod (or other device). Alternatively, you can look at one of the many docking station/speaker systems available for portable music players. As you probably know, the iPod has induced more companies to make more speaker stations designed specifically for it than any other portable player. Those that we have liked the best come from Bose, Altec Lansing, Sony, and Chestnut Hill Sound.
The relatively new SoundDock Portable ($399) by Bose looks very much like the original SoundDock released several years ago. The differences between the two are that the portable version comes with a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and the case looks a bit slimmer and has a handhold for carrying. The handhold works fine for moving the device to another room, but if you plan to carry it for any distance, you will want to invest in the $59 carrying case offered by Bose or another case that will accommodate the system. As an aside, we have recently seen the original SoundDock discounted. Although it must be tethered to an outlet, the original SoundDock also does an excellent job.
Chestnut Hill Sound ( www.chillsound.com) makes the George, an iPod speaker system with an AM/FM radio and an alarm. It comes with a removable faceplate and a full-function remote control. Most importantly, it generates a full, rich, room-filling sound, making it one of the best stand-alone iPod speaker packages we have heard. The George lists for $499.
Sony’s $99.99 Speaker Dock/Clock Radio ( www.sonystyle.com) offers a good combination of features and price. Its sound will not thrill a true audiophile, but we have found it completely satisfactory as a combination charging station for an iPhone/iPod and a wake-up device. It allows you to program your own music to help you sleep at night and wake you up in the morning. It plays your music playlists as well as your favorite radio stations. The only knock we have is that the buzzer (more like a chirp) does not make very much noise. If you are a light sleeper, it may prove all you need. Some of us will sleep right through it and need the radio or iPod/iPhone turned up to a higher level to rouse us from our slumber. Note that, like other devices built primarily for the iPod, the device will work with the iPhone, but unless you put the iPhone in airplane mode, it will create static. The radio knows this and asks you about putting the phone in airplane mode when you dock it (it automatically comes out of airplane mode when you disengage the iPhone from the dock).
If you have an interest in portability, check out the SoundBlade by Altec Lansing ( www.alteclansing.com; list price $129.95). The Blade is only 1” deep, but it provides very good sound through its 2.5 full-range speakers. The system enhances bass performance with SRS TruBass technology, providing the effect of a larger speaker system. The SoundBlade, unlike the other devices discussed in this section, does not have an iPod docking station. Designed to work with cell phones as well as music players, the SoundBlade can connect with Bluetooth or a hard-wire connection to its auxiliary input jack. The SoundBlade also has a built-in microphone that works with your cell phone, allowing it to function as a speakerphone.
How about a Real Power Play?
Technology needs power to run. The Chargepod ( www.callpod.com) concurrently charges up to six different devices from a single AC or DC (car) outlet. You can buy a basic kit, including a case, AC adapter, DC adapter, and a number of device adapters. You can buy additional device adapters or build your own kit from scratch at Callpod’s online store. Most device adapters list for $9.95. They have adapters for phones, PDAs, GPS devices, digital cameras, audio recorders, and anything that you can charge through a USB connection. The basic kit lists for $99.95 (online discounts are available). Think about having one at home and one in your car. It also works well for travel. This makes a great gift for anyone with multiple technology devices.
A rechargeable external power supply also makes a useful gift (especially for iPhone/iPod users). Motorola makes an excellent one, the Mini USB P970, for devices that use mini USB connections (used by many Motorola phones and Bluetooth ear pieces as well as the BlackBerry devices, among others). You can get it at most AT&T stores or online. It lists for $49. Kensington’s Mini Battery Pack and Charger (model number 33442; www.kensington.com) is another of the many similar products for the iPod and iPhone. We like these pieces because they easily fit into a pocket. Other manufacturers make bulkier rechargeable power supplies that may prove more useful to you or your intended recipient as a result of required power or connections.
For Your Favorite Dictator
Digital dictation has taken over as the preferred means of dictation. You can easily upload digital files to transcribing services or e-mail them to your own secretary for transcription. High recording quality also lets you use them in connection with voice-recognition software. Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking ( www.nuance.com/naturallyspeaking), long considered the industry leader in voice-recognition software, recently released version 10 of its program. It readily accepts digital audio files for translation. If you intend to use a dictation recorder that way, be sure to go to the Nuance website and check for compatibility with the software. That program, by the way, would also make an excellent gift for someone.
Although you can get satisfactory sound quality from devices not designed to work as professional dictation equipment, using such a device for dictation will probably cause some frustration. A well-designed dictation device will work better. We are very partial to the Olympus line ( www.olympusamerica.com). One of the authors has used the DS-4000 (list price $549.99/street $449) for several years. Philips ( www.dictation.philips.com) recently released its answer to the DS-4000: the Digital Pocket Memo 9600 (or DPM-9600, street price $499). In many respects, we like the feel of the DPM-9600 better than the DS-4000. Not to be outdone, however, this year Olympus released the DS-5000 (list price $599.99/street $499), which we like at least as much as the DPM-9600. Note, however, that the Philips recorder uses a modified DSS file structure that will not work with the Mac OS. The Olympus uses a standard DSS structure that works with both Mac and Windows. The bottom line: Get the Olympus if you ever plan on working with a Mac.
Need to Make a Record?
If you want to do some general recording (lectures, meetings, interviews, etc.), you can use a dictation device, such as those discussed above, but you have other and better options. Olympus, Roland ( www.rolandus.com), and Samson ( www.samsontech.com) make excellent digital recording devices for general use. All are small, lightweight, and record with excellent fidelity. All were designed for professional recording but work superbly as general recording devices for music, nature, witness interviews, lectures, conferences, and the like.
Roland offers the R-09HR, a high-resolution wav and MP3 recorder with built-in stereo microphones and a large organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display. It accepts SD and SDHC memory cards up to 32 GB for storage. Roland also offers a number of accessories, ranging from cases, to stands, to external microphones and speakers. The R-09HR lists for $450, but you can find it online for under $350. Olympus makes the LS-10. The LS-10 records in WAV, MP3, and WMA formats, comes with 2 GB of built-in memory, and accepts SD cards for additional storage. It also has built-in stereo microphones. The LS-10 lists for $399.99, but we have found it online for as little as $270.
Samson’s Zoom H2 recorder uses four built-in microphones to ensure the best possible fidelity. Samson positioned the H2 for general use in recording music, conferences, meetings, seminars, and podcasts. It comes with a small stand and a 512MB SD card, providing about four hours of recording. You can use SD cards up to 16 GB. The H2 weighs only four ounces and will easily fit in a coat pocket, purse, shoulder bag, or briefcase. The files it produces work with both Mac and Windows computers. The H2 was built to list for $334.99, but we have seen it online for less.
Speak into the Microphone
Those who do podcasting and want to work on the road, those who use their computers for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) communications, and those who use their laptops for video conferencing (formal or informal) could benefit from the use of a high-quality microphone. Blue Microphones ( www.bluemic.com) has introduced the Snowflake, a reasonably priced microphone that works well with both Macs and Windows computers. You can use it as a desktop microphone or with a laptop. It lists for $79, but you can find it online for as little as $59. It connects via an included USB cable. Although the Snowflake folds up compactly, allowing storage of the USB cable inside, it does not come with a travel case (it should). Even so, the Snowflake is a gift worth giving and one you may want for yourself as well.
Blue also makes a desktop microphone setup called the Snowball, which connects to your Mac or PC via USB and provides a high-quality condenser microphone suitable for almost all uses but particularly well suited for podcasting. The Snowball lists for $139.99, but we have found it online for less.
For All That’s Fit to Print
Looking for a really portable printer? Check out the Pentax PocketJet 3 ( www.pentaxtech.com). Just over 10” long and a shade heavier than one pound, the Pocket-jet 3 fits easily in a briefcase. It lists for $349 and comes with all necessary cords and a case. A Bluetooth version costs $429. The PocketJet 3 prints at 200 DPI. A newer version (the 3 Plus) costs $100 more and prints at 300 DPI. The printer, compatible with both Mac OS and Windows computers, uses an updated thermal technology that works quite well. The printer has an internal rechargeable battery and requires special thermal paper, considerably thicker than the thermal paper popular several years ago, and the output appears to last a lot longer. Don’t get this printer with the idea of doing heavy-duty printing—you must manually feed each sheet to it—but if you need or want a small and lightweight traveling printer, look closely at the PocketJet 3 or 3 Plus.
If you have a need for heavier-duty printing but still want something to travel with you, look at the Canon PIXMA iP90v ( www.usa.canon.com) or the HP Officejet H470 ( www.hp.com). Both the Canon PIXMA iP90v and the HP H470 use inkjet technology, making them somewhat more costly to use on a per-page basis than laser printers. Both print at extremely high quality and can print in color or black-and-white. Each comes with an automatic paper feed to make it easier to print multipage documents. The four-pound PIXMA iP90v lists for $249.99, but you can acquire it for less online. If you want a battery pack for the iP90v, it will cost an extra $89.99 for the battery and required housing. The Officejet H470 prints 18 pages per minute in color and 22 pages per minute in black-and-white. You can also get Bluetooth and WiFi adapters for it. It lists for $250. It weights 4.5 pounds without the battery and five pounds with it. Discounts are available online.
Give It a Scan
Fujitsu’s ( www.fujitsu.com) ScanSnap S510 (S510m for the Mac version) offers one of the best values around because it comes with a full version of Adobe Acrobat and costs only a little more than a copy of the program. (By the way, the Adobe Acrobat software, www.adobe.com, recently released in version 9, would also make a good present for anyone, particularly an attorney. The software belongs in every law office.) Closed, the ScanSnap takes about the same amount of space as a football. It opens to allow access to its automatic sheet feeder. Opening it turns it on and wakes up its management program in the connected computer. The ScanSnap works well, has proven reliable, scans rapidly, and can simultaneously scan both sides of a two-sided page. It scans black-and-white and color documents at 18 pages per minute (36 pages per minute if the pages have information on both sides).
Fujitsu also makes the ScanSnap S300 (S300m for the Mac), a smaller, slightly slower, and less expensive version of the ScanSnap. The S510 lists for $495 and the S300 lists for $295. Both come with software for their intended computer platforms. Either would make an excellent home-use scanner. The S510 makes an excellent office scanner for a small office or for an attorney’s desk. The S300 travels very well.
For a really portable scanner, look at Planon’s ( www.planon.com) DocuPen RC800 ($299.99 list). It scans the full width of a standard 8.5” x 11” page. It holds data on a SanDisk micro SD card until you upload it. You wouldn’t want it for high-volume use because it requires manually moving the scanner down the page, but you can’t beat it for portability, travel use, and scanning the odd page here and there.
Most people do not handle received business cards efficiently. They get shoved into drawers, boxes, or books with vinyl sheets, left on the desktop or credenza, or stuck somewhere else with your good intention of transferring the information to a well-organized computer contact management system. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the time or the opportunity to do that transfer. We have found a solution to alleviate that situation. The CardScan Executive ( www.cardscan.com), a USB model scanner, scans in full color and is smaller, faster, and sleeker than its predecessor units. In fact it is now so small that it packs easily for card scanning on the road. CardScan Executive saves you hours by capturing business cards directly into your computer. Without typing, you convert your business card collection into a database of your vital contacts, either in CardScan’s own address book, in Outlook, or in one of many other popular contact managers.
CardScan works only with computers on the Windows platform. If you use a Macintosh, you are out of luck. Just kidding. Actually, I.R.I.S. ( www.irislink.com) makes a formidable competitor to the CardScan Executive, the IRISCard Pro 4, which works on both the Mac and the Windows platforms, using proprietary software to handle the OCR conversion of the card’s information to text for your database. The IRISCard Pro 4 lists for $199 and has a smaller, slower sibling called the IRISCard Mini 4 that lists for $129.
Digital projectors have continued to shrink in size and cost while growing brighter. Digital presentation technology has become an integral part of our personal and professional lives. Professionally, having a digital projector available comes in handy at trials, arbitrations, mediations, and meetings. And aside from their formal business uses, they give you a much bigger screen than your laptop’s for watching a movie or looking at pictures. In the past we had to draw lines between personal and professionally powered projectors as a result of significant cost differentials. Not so any longer. Portable, sometimes diminutive, projectors in the 2,500-lumen to 3,000-lumen range abound, and they generally cost less than $1,500.
Our two favorite projectors this year come from the same manufacturer, InFocus ( www.infocus.com). The IN15 delivers 2,500 lumens with a 1,800:1 contrast ratio and a list price of $1,420 (you can find it online for several hundred dollars less). The IN15 has native XGA (1,024 x 768) resolution but also supports VGA, SVGA, and SXGA. It generates images ranging from 15” to 300” measured diagonally. It takes up about the same amount of space as a ream of paper (10.6” x 1.7” x 7.8”) and weighs just under four pounds. It easily fits into a good-sized computer bag along with most laptops. It even has a green (power-saving) mode allowing it to run at 1,600 lumens if you have a small room or a low-light situation and don’t need the extra power. In short, it does almost everything you would want a projector to do for you. True, it has no built-in audio, but in something that small, you have to expect that certain things will not fit. Besides, we would rather use better speakers than would likely end up in a projector.
Because of lighting issues, contemporary wisdom dictates using a 3,000-lumen projector for most courtroom work. Although the IN15 would probably work in most situations, the IN37 gives you the full 3,000 lumens. The IN37 also has native XGA resolution, but in addition to VGA, SVGA, and SXGA, it also supports WXGA and WXGA+. It has a slightly larger footprint and volume than the IN15, measuring 10.36” x 2.93” x 8.6”. The IN37 weighs in at five pounds, so it remains very portable. It lists for $1,199, but you can find it online for less than $1,000.
Although some desktop computers come with decent speaker systems, none that we have found come with what we would call “excellent” speakers. As for laptops, well, they usually don’t even compare well with the desktop system speakers. That opens the door to a number of possibilities for enhanced speaker systems for computers.
When it comes to laptop computers, we have not found anything we like as well as the very portable Bose Computer MusicMonitors ($399 list). Bose also has an available $59 case to protect them and make them readily transportable. They take up almost no space on your desktop and produce an amazingly full sound for such a tiny package. The speakers have an attractive aluminum housing and a nice, substantial appearance. The system consists of two small speakers, built-in amplification, and a remote control device. They work with Mac and Windows computers on a plug-and-play basis. You can also connect other devices, such as DVD players and music players, to the system. You really need to hear the sound to believe it can come from such a small package. Fortunately, Bose stores all have systems set up to allow you to do exactly that. Go check it out; you will want one for yourself as well as for gift giving.
For desktop use, one of the best buys we found was the Axiom Audiobyte computer speaker system ( www.axiomaudio.com). Audiobyte lists for $349, including two desktop speakers and an amplifier/subwoofer. You can get the housing on the desktop speakers in one of ten different finishes. The Audiobyte provides excellent sound quality, depth, and clarity. It provides excellent playback for music as well as soundtracks for the occasional movie, should you decide to take a break from work. Although not designed specifically to handle gaming, it also does a very decent job with those sounds.
The last system we will talk about moves into a completely different class. TBI Audio Systems’ ( www.tbisound.com) Millenia Majestic sound system lists for $995. It is designed as a complete system that can handle not only your computer but pretty much any sound you care to throw at it and do an excellent job. The component parts of this system come into the range of “high-end” audio. The Majestic Diamond IR speakers use a patented Embedded Transmission Line technology to create the illusion of a concert hall designed for acoustical transmission. You get the same sound quality pretty much all over the room. The Millenia MG3 Class D Integrated Amplifier was built to take advantage of the features and qualities of the Majestic speakers (TBI likes to call them “Audio Monitors”). If you want outstanding, high-end sound quality, check it out.
Want a Good Read?
For a number of years, various vendors have created means of reading books in electronic format. We have two top contenders this year: longtime competitor Sony and new kid on the block Amazon. Sony’s Reader Digital Book (model PRS-505/RC) lists for $299.99 and comes with 100 free eBook Classics titles. The Reader comes in red, blue, and silver and works off electrical current from its built-in battery, a USB port, or an outlet. Note that the free books consist of classics that have no current copyright issues, such as The Time Machine and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If you want any contemporary writings, you have to purchase them at the Sony eBook Store. The Reader requires an account at the eBook Store to load free or purchased material, and you must connect through a Windows-based computer—Sony has made its eBook Store off-limits to the Mac OS for downloads. You can check out the fairly comprehensive list of available titles at http://ebookstore.sony.com/specials/sonyclassics/index.html. The Reader has a slimmer and slicker profile than its competition. It will store about 160 books in its internal memory, but it accepts media cards, allowing you to store more. You can also put your own PDF materials on the cards. It weighs about nine ounces without the protective soft-cover and is a shade smaller than 7” x 5” x 0.3”.
Amazon ( www.amazon.com) recently released its Kindle electronic reader as a direct competitor to Sony (although Amazon sells both). The Kindle is slightly larger and a little heavier than the Sony Reader (7.5” x 5.3” x 0.7” and 10.3 ounces). Amazon sells the Kindle for $359. Most contemporary books go for $9.98 at Amazon’s Kindle Store. You can also subscribe to magazines, newspapers, and blogs and add your own documents and pictures to the Kindle. Although you can sync the Kindle to a computer to add content, the Kindle requires no computer connection to purchase or receive books or periodical/blog subscriptions. The Kindle has its own wireless connectivity using a cellular connection that works in conjunction with the Sprint 3G system, so you do not even have to find a WiFi hotspot. You can go to the Kindle store through the Kindle, select books, magazines, or blogs and purchase or subscribe to them through the Kindle. You can then take almost immediate delivery via the Kindle. All in all, it’s a pretty slick system.
We have worked with both the Reader and the Kindle. We can read the text in each of them quite easily in normal light. They each hold at least a bookcase full of library materials and readily fit in a brief- case, purse, or large coat pocket. Both work well and provide a user-friendly means of navigation. We have a preference for the design of the Reader, as the Kindle has a less substantial and more plastic look and feel, but we favor the Kindle’s performance for three reasons: (1) its full keyboard for notes and comments; (2) its wireless connectivity that avoids the need to sync to a Windows-based computer (we admit that we would have been less moved by that inconvenience if Sony made its system compatible with both the Macintosh and the Windows operating systems); and (3) its ability to get current issues of periodicals, newspapers, and blogs. You won’t do badly owning or gifting either of these wonderful travel companions.
Digital Back-Seat Drivers
Portable global positioning system (GPS) devices have continued to proliferate and to drop in price. They take the place of the old-fashioned back-seat driver, satisfying the duties of a navigator and nagging you about not driving the way they tell you. Seriously, we have had GPS devices in our vehicles for a number of years and have found them very helpful. So helpful, in fact, that in addition to the built-in GPS in our own cars, we carry a portable GPS unit when we travel to help us get around. Many of the devices have become so portable that you can even carry them around as a pedestrian. GPS devices locate your position using signals from a group of satellites and then provide turn-by-turn directions from where you are to wherever you want to go, generally pinpointing a street address but in some cases an intersection or a “point of interest” such as a café, museum, restaurant, or hospital. Most GPS devices have color screens that display either a map of the area in which you travel or the next direction you will execute or both. Most provide verbal as well as visual instructions. A number of converged devices combine GPS with MP3 players, picture displays, and Bluetooth hands-free speaker connections for your cell phone.
Most GPS devices do not hesitate to tell you that you have taken a wrong turn. Although they maintain a certain civility in the way they handle your failure to follow their directions, they leave no doubt about the message. You can expect things like “please make a legal U-turn” or “route recalculation” or the like to advise you of your failure to follow the directions. In most cases, the devices provide a reasonable amount of advanced notice of required maneuvers. In some cases, though, you may find the directions confusing, particularly if the road has changed and no longer matches the map in the device (always make sure you have the most current mapping). Additionally we have found that, although the devices are generally quite accurate, on densely foggy days they appear to lose a little precision, likely because of some interference with the tracking signals.
Most of the portable units have a suction cup mount for the windshield. Although the suction cups work fairly well, over time they tend to release (especially in heat), requiring that you remount the device. As a result, we always try to mount them relatively low on the windshield and as close to the dashboard as possible. In fact, in some vehicles you can rest the bottom of the device on the dashboard, taking the stress of the weight off of the suction mount, significantly reducing the frequency of suction failure.
TomTom’s GO 900 series of GPS-enabled navigational devices ( www.tomtom.com) are portable, easy to use, and have features to spare. The units’ small size and light weight mean you can easily pack one and take it with you. The touch screen allows you to easily navigate to street addresses and points of interest. The built-in MP3 player and Bluetooth functionality allow you to connect your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone for hands-free calling. We have found the TomTom GO 910 online for as little as $249. The newer GO 920 and GO 930 models list for $449.95 and $499.95, respectively. The GO 920T and GO 930T, which can receive traffic information broadcasts, list for $499.95 and $549.95, respectively. The TomTom people allow you to update their current devices and to personalize them by changing the start-up image and the announcement voice via downloads from their website.
The Garmin nüvi 770 lists for $699.99 ( www.garmin.com), but we have found it online for about $200 less. In addition to preloaded street-level maps, speed limits for highways and Interstates, and millions of points of interest for North America and Europe, the nüvi also accepts custom points of interest, such as school zones and safety cameras, and lets you set proximity alerts to warn you of upcoming points of interest. The device sorts multiple destinations automatically to give you an efficient route, and it can save up to ten routes in memory. It has 4.3” wide-screen display, an FM transmitter, traffic alerts, hands-free calling via Bluetooth connection to your cell phone, and more.
In the Magellan line ( www.magellangps.com/en) we particularly liked the Maestro 4250, which lists for $399.99. More or less the middle of the Maestro line, the 4250 provides a 4.3” screen, voice control, hands-free wireless telephony when paired with a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, and real-time traffic reports (with a subscription service). The 4250 includes maps for the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Magellan claims that the device comes loaded with more than 6 million points of interest. We took their word for that, as we have no intention of counting them. The 4250 also comes with information from the AAA Tour Books, including ratings for restaurants and hotels/motels. The Magellan unit has large icons and an intuitive user interface, making it quite easy to learn and use.
We have recently seen a number of good GPS devices advertised at significant discounts online and at stores such as Fry’s and Costco. Note also that the manufacturers discussed above, as well as other manufacturers, have a number of units with various features in different price brackets, many below $200. As long as you get a unit from a reputable manufacturer, you should have no problems. If you buy a GPS unit, particularly one at a substantial discount, make sure that it has street-level mapping built in, unless your intended recipient wants a device solely for backpacking or other off-road uses. You can also find some devices that provide both street-level mapping and off-road tracking.
What’s in a Label?
Label makers have been around for so long that they no longer seem high-tech. Nevertheless, they remain invaluable for addressing mail, printing shipping labels, marking storage boxes, and labeling files, CDs, DVDs, or anything else needing identification. You can even use them to turn your computer into a post office, downloading and printing postage for your mail. Brother, DYMO, and Seiko all produce a variety of quality models. Below we highlight a few that we have tried and like, but check out other models on the manufacturers’ websites; you might find one that better suits your needs. All three manufacturers provide the required operating software in both Windows- and Mac-compatible versions.
Brother’s P-Touch models ( www.brother-usa.com) print laminated labels that resist water, heat, cold, and other environmental conditions. The most basic, handheld unit in this series costs $29.99; computer-connecting P-Touch printers include the PT-1500PC ($79.99) and the PT-9500PC ($299.99). Brother’s QL series prints primarily on paper labels useful for mailing labels, return labels, shipping labels, and the like. The QL printers allow relatively high-speed label printing (up to 69 labels per minute), incorporating logos and other graphics as well as text. The QL printers range in price from $69.99 to $299.99.
DYMO ( www.dymo.com) produces a number of computer-connected printers that will generate labels on paper as well as more permanent materials. Their LabelWriter DUO ($209.99) prints on paper, nylon, plastic, or polymer labels. DYMO also sells what it refers to as a complete “Desktop Mailing Solution” for $239.99. The included LabelWriter Twin Turbo printer ($189.99 sold separately) holds two rolls of labels, one for printing address labels and the other for printing stamps. You buy the right to print the stamps online and print them through your computer. The system also includes a five-pound capacity mail scale. DYMO’s DiscPainter ($279.95) enables you to “paint” a full color label on inkjet-printable CDs and DVDs. The label can include text and images from such stalwarts as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and other graphics software.
Seiko ( www.siibusinessproducts.com) Smart Label Printers come in five different models. Numbered from SLP 410 through SLP 450 and moving up by tens, the SLP printers list for up to $139.99. They allow you to mix text and graphics in your labels.
Flash memory drives (“thumb drives”) come in sizes ranging from less than 1 MB to 32 GB. You can put them in your pocket, briefcase, or purse. Prices have dropped tremendously within the last few months, and we have seen 32 GB drives available in the $100 range. Flash memory cards for still cameras, video cameras, audio recorders, PDAs, smart phones, and other devices have also dropped dramatically in price. You can find flash media in most stores that carry electronics, such as Fry’s, Best Buy, Costco, etc., but you’ll generally find better buys online. We have found www.ecost.com to be an excellent place for discounted media and electronics. Any of the media devices will make a fine gift.
Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is the special issue editor of GPSolo’s Technology & Practice Guide and editor-in-chief of the Technology eReport. In addition to being licensed as an attorney in California, he has been admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He holds faculty positions at California State University of the East Bay and the University of Phoenix. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also get updated technology information from his blog: jallenlawtekblog.com. Alan Pearlman is a practicing attorney in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. He is the author of the nationally syndicated column The Electronic Lawyer and a frequent speaker at national legal technology seminars. He may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or on the web at www.theelectroniclawyer.com.