Our portable wireless devices are here to stay. The smartphone has become ubiquitous — from coffee shops, to train rides, to hiding in the lap during dinner — and the tablet quickly has become the go-to device for answering questions in the living room or passing time on long flights.
Tablets were the break-out hit of the last holiday season, so where is the excitement for this year?
It’s not so much smartphones and tablets, as they are transitioning into a replacement market, divided between the Apple iOS and Google Andoid platforms.
And it’s not the traditional major consumer electronics for the living room, as the CE industry struggles to replicate the past success of CD, DVD, and HDTV with recent offerings like Blu-ray Disc and 3-D TV that just are not energizing consumers.
Instead, the excitement this holiday season is in accessories for our portable devices — gadgets that combine function and design, features and looks, so they can serve as useful tools and fashion statements. Plus more accessories are becoming wireless, making new product categories like wireless storage.
Accessories also are good for business, allowing well-established companies to broaden their product lines, and small companies, entrepreneurs, and craftsmen to find new markets for their skills.
So this year we will focus on accessories for our holiday gadget review, using a sometimes idiosyncratic selection of representative products to illustrate interesting trends across a range of product categories. We will also show a range of pricing from impulse buys to more serious reflection, although the pricing listed is fluid, based on approximate street pricing in the past month.
Audio - Earphones and Headphones
The exemplar of accessories as function and fashion is the world of audio, with an astounding range of earphones, headphones, and portable speakers for listening to music on the go. The focus now is so much on design and fashion that I have been to press conferences for new designer headphones where each model was introduced with a different celebrity endorser, but where there was no discussion of issues like audio quality or sound reproduction.
This does make sense in some respects, as you can assume a base level of performance that is good enough for non-audiophile listeners. Your focus in buying products to stick on your head then may be more on issues like design, comfort, and ruggedness.
Most corded earphones and headphones now include a small in-line control with integrated microphone so you can switch directly between music and phone calls, start and stop playback, and adjust the volume. And more audio devices are coming with smartphone apps to customize the music, by adding an equalizer or other sound enhancement processing.
As one example of line extensions, Bell’O International is a Morganville, New Jersey, company that designs and manufactures premium home theater and A/V furniture — plus A/V accessories including headphones and earphones. For example, the universal Bell’O BDH653 earphones at $39 are designed for most Apple, Android, and BlackBerry devices, and the Bell’O BDH654 earphones for $49 are designed for the iPhone, iPod, and iPad with the Apple remote to also provide access to Siri voice control. These are handsome, classic designs in styles including black chrome and copper, featuring good sound quality, lightweight comfort, and durability, including a fabric reinforced flat cable with strain relief.
Similarly, Velodyne has been a leader in subwoofer designs for almost three decades, and also has expanded into headphones and earphones with an emphasis on sound quality, comfort, and rugged construction. The Velodyne vPulse in-ear headphones at $99 feature a 10 mm driver in an aluminum housing, and include a pressure-relief system to reduce air pressure in the ear. They sport a more visible design, with colors ranging from more subtle classic black to punchier electric blue or hot pink.
In comparison, Audio-Technica is a well-known name in audio with a broad range of earphones and headphones. The Audio-Technica SonicFuel line of earphones is designed for active, daily use, with three models with in-line mics ranging from $49 to $99. These feature ergonomic C-tip earpieces with a crescent flange that nestles gently in the folds of your outer ear to stay more securely in place, plus rotating ear tips that pivot to adjust to the angles of your ear canal. The higher-end model also features larger 13.5 mm drivers for deeper bass.
Headphones. The VOXX 808 Studio over-ear headphones delivers solid performance with aggressive consumer pricing at $40. These are not fancy, with a hard acrylic molded shell and synthetic leather earcups — albeit with a head pad for wearing comfort. But they feature a solid 40mm driver with emphasis on the low frequencies and are built with metal hinges and sliding extenders that fold to pack away.
Then the Jabra REVO headphones at $179 have a simple and clean over-ear design, with comfortable memory foam cups and padded headband. They are solid, with aluminum and steel construction, shatterproof flexible headband, and tough reinforced fabric cables.
The result is a nice comfortable yet rugged design that delivers clear full-range sound with good separation between different elements. The headphones also are relatively light and compact at around 11 ounces. Plus you can augment the music with the free Jabra Sound App to punch up the sound with Dolby Digital Plus sound enhancement, and apply a graphic equalizer with presets for different types of music.
Or you can take a significant step up to the $313 Parrot Zik headphones, which pile on technology for a fully customizable listening experience. The Zik starts with a clean look of chrome, black leather, and matte black surfaces. It adds active noise cancellation with four microphones to measure and remove up to 98 percent of outside sound, plus two mics for clearer phone calls.
But where the Zik really shines is in the control and customization of your listening. The Parrot Audio Suite smartphone app provides a 7-band equalizer with presets, plus the Parrot Concert Hall effect that lets you position the sound and emulate a concert hall listening experience.
The Zik also adds control with a touch-sensitive panel on the right ear cup. It’s amazingly convenient to simply tap to start and pause playback or to pick up a call, swipe vertically to raise or lower volume, or swipe horizontally to skip tracks. A head detection sensor notices when you take the headphones on or off, and automatically pauses or restarts the music, or switches to an incoming call to the smartphone.
Audio - Wireless Speakers
Beyond personal listening, wireless speakers are a fun addition for your portable devices that let you enjoy and share the music with more volume and better clarity than built-in speakers.
The Acoustic Research Portable Wireless Speaker for $99 steps this idea up to larger spaces — including outside. This is a cylinder of sound, 14 inches high and 6 inches in diameter. A two-inch tweeter and three-inch woofer deliver five watts of output for up to 14 hours.
You can play wirelessly over Bluetooth from your device or directly connect your audio player. The weather-resistant design includes a molded carry handle and a built-in storage compartment to tuck away your music player while it’s attached, or to stow your keys or phone. It comes in plain white, ready for you to customize with a free wrap-around design from Skinit.
Damson Audio, a new company from the UK , develops wireless speakers that transmit sound through the surface that they are sitting on. Surfaces such as wood, glass, metals, or cardboard then act as the diaphragm so you hear and feel the sound.
The Damson Twist wireless Bluetooth speaker for $69 is a solid aluminum cylinder, roughly half the height of a small soda can, and the weight of a full can (2 1/4 inch radius, 2 3/4 inches high, and 12 ounces). The Mounting Bracket accessory with a suction cup for $24 lets you use the Twist on vertical surfaces, to resonate on glass, or the fridge, or in a car — or on a window, so you can hear the sound on both sides.
There is an obvious trade-off between shrinking speakers for better portability versus reducing loudness and audio quality. The new Jawbone MINI JAMBOX breaks these constraints with impressive sound in a pocketable size. The original Jawbone JAMBOX for $149 is 6 by 2.3 by 2.3 inches and 12.8 ounces, and the self-explanatory BIG JAMBOX for $299 delivers larger sound at 10 by 3.1 by 3.6 inches and 2.7 pounds.
The MINI JAMBOX is around half as thick and 70 percent the weight of the original (6.06 by 0.96 by 2.28 inches and 9 ounces) — although at $199 you do pay more for the miniaturization. Yet the sound is amazingly clear, with great separation between voice and instruments from the dual front-facing stereo acoustic drivers and passive bass radiator. It provides 10 hours of continuous playback or up to 75 hours of standby.
The MINI supports the newer Bluetooth 4.0, so the wireless connection is especially strong and consistent, especially with newer devices. It can pair with up to eight devices and connect with two devices simultaneously, making it easy to share among multiple people. Plus it’s a wireless speaker for phone calls, with a 360-degree omnidirectional mic with echo cancellation.
Dedicated point-and-shoot cameras and family camcorders have become much less useful in the age of ubiquitous smartphones with quite reasonable lenses and imaging performance. But there’s still a place for dedicated devices, particularly when you can leverage wireless to easily access the results.
You can use a smartphone as a scanner to grab portions of a page or a photo, but the HoverCam Mini 5 offers a more complete solution that folds up into a pocket size case (7 by 1 1/2 by 1 1/2 inches). When expanded, it has a 5 MP autofocus camera to shoot up to letter-size documents, a built-in light, and also can serve as a 1080p full HD web camera. The included software supports document scanning, business card and receipt recognition, direct upload to cloud services, and Web conferencing. It’s available for $239.
You also can use a smartphone as a camcorder, but you don’t want to mount it on a tripod to shoot a long event, or expose it to the elements to shoot an activity. Instead, you can use an “action cam” — a rugged camcorder designed to shoot the experience, whether strapped to a helmet, bike handle, or a boat.
The Liquid Image EGO 727 WiFi Sports Camera is a full-up camcorder in a tiny size (1.5 x 1.25 x 2.25 inches and 2.4 ounces), for $179. You use the smartphone app to set it up wirelessly (through Wi-Fi), including photo or video mode, resolution, field of view, exposure, and other settings. Then start it shooting as you take off on your adventure. When you’re done (after an hour or two), you can re-connect over Wi-Fi to review the footage and transfer it into your smartphone or tablet.
But then how do you share videos? What’s the equivalent of wireless speakers for images? There are a variety of ways to connect laptops and portable devices to a widescreen TV, including various networked set-top devices, but the Google Chromecast is about as dead simple as possible, and is priced at only $35.
The Chromecast plugs into a HDMI port on your HDTV and connects to your Wi-Fi network, so you can connect to it from laptops and portable devices. From laptops, you can use the Google Chrome browser to “throw” what’s on your computer’s screen to the TV, including web pages, images, and videos. And on smartphones and tablets, you can redirect what you’re watching to the TV from supported applications, including YouTube, Google Play, Netfix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, and Pandora. Even better (although Google does not explain this), you don’t tie up your smartphone while you are watching a movie — the playback is redirected to flow directly from the Internet source to the Chromecast.
While USB-based storage is great for computers, it does not help with accessing files from tablets or smartphones. Instead, you can use wireless storage — drives with built-in Wi-Fi so you can access them directly from your portable devices. Just use your smartphone Wi-Fi settings to connect to the storage drive just like any Wi-Fi hotspot, and browse the files or download a free app to access the contents of the drive.
These wireless drives typically support multiple simultaneous users, so the kids can watch different videos or listen to their own music, or family members can independently browse a photo collection. And the associated apps typically support both downloading and uploading, so you can easily transfer files among multiple devices.
For example, the Maxell AirStash wireless flash drive combines three storage and connectivity standards in one device. It’s a standard USB 2.0 thumb drive, so you can plug it in to your computer to read and write files as usual. Plus it uses SD cards for removable storage, so you can swap cards to access more files, and load cards from other devices like cameras and camcorders. And it’s a Wi-Fi hotspot, so the files can be shared wirelessly by up to eight devices at a time. It’s available for $119 with an 8 GB SD card, or $139 with a 16 GB card.
The Kingston MobileLite Wireless drive adds several enhancements in a larger package, for $59. It has no built-in storage, but instead can serve as a hub with both a SD card slot and a USB port for portable drives. And it has a microUSB port for charging, and to connect to a computer to load and transfer files — and to use as use as a USB / SD card reader. You even can use the MobileLite as a portable battery to charge your phone.
It also solves one problem with using Wi-Fi to connect to external storage. When you connect to the drive you are no longer using your regular Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. The MobileLite Wireless also can bridge through to your existing Wi-Fi hub, so you still can surf the Web and access E-mail while sharing files.
SanDisk offers two similar options for wireless storage. The SanDisk Connect Wireless Flash Drive is a USB thumb drive with shared Wi-Fi access for up to 8 devices. It uses a microSDHC card for removable storage and is available with up to 32 GB for $59.
The SanDisk Connect Wireless Media Drive works as a USB disk drive with built-in storage, plus a SD memory card slot. As a wireless drive, it can bridge to a Wi-Fi access point, and simultaneously stream up to five HD movies. It’s available with up to 64 GB for $99.
The NSA Does It,
And So Can You
As the news about the NSA has reminded us, our wireless electronic connectivity opens us to being tracked — passively by our cell phone service, while browsing online, and through E-ZPass, as well as knowingly when we use map and navigation tools. So we might as well take advantage of tracking for our own purposes.
The iFi Smart Tag (“I Found It”) is a wireless “leash” to keep track of your stuff for $29. Attach the small fob to your keys, bag, laptop, or other important movable objects, and the companion smartphone app will alert you when you (or it) moves out of range. You also can tap on the app to find your stuff by having the fob beep, or press the button on the fob to find your phone.
This uses Bluetooth wireless, so the alert range is about 30 feet, though this can vary depending on intervening walls and other obstructions. You also can set a “geo fence” to not alert when you are at the home or office. The iFi app can monitor up to six tags at a time.
The similar Kensington Proximo proximity monitoring system offers two options for Bluetooth trackers — the Proximo Tag, and the larger Proximo Fob with button. These are available together for $43.
Another use for tracking is to monitor your dog, especially if it likes to go exploring. The Tagg Pet Tracker, available from Verizon Wireless, is a small device (just over an ounce) that you attach to your pet’s collar to monitor its activity and warns you if it wanders away.
The Tagg then periodically checks in with the online service to track your pet’s location. You then can log in to the service to monitor its activity levels from day to day. Or you can use a smartphone to track your dog minute by minute using the free Tagg app.
Plus, you can set up a text or E-mail alert if your pup goes outside a designated area, bring up its current location on a map, and track its movements over time. However, the tracking is not real time — The updates are paced by the rate at which the Tagg device connects over the cellular network to check in, which is typically around 3 minutes, but can be more like 10 minutes.
This is because the Tagg uses an embedded cell phone for communicating wherever your dog goes. It requires a mobile data service plan, like a smartphone. It is priced at $99 with three months of service. The service then is $7.95 a month.
Here are a few more specific products to show the range of possibilities that are now available in wireless and electronics.
For typing longer messages with your smartphone or tablet, the Brookstone Virtual Keyboard is small box (around 2 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 1/2 inch) that projects a red laser keyboard image on any flat surface. It works wirelessly via Bluetooth with smartphones and tablets, and even has a microUSB port so you can cable it directly to a computer.
The projected keyboard is around 3 1/2 x 10 inches, and includes a full row of function keys. It also has a virtual mouse mode, which you can use to control the cursor, click, and do two-finger gestures. The front of the unit has a handy OLED display that shows status icons, battery level, and the last three characters typed.
With a little practice, you can type pretty reliably with one or two-finger typing, much as you are used to on a tablet display — including using the shift key and backspace. It also supports a touch typing mode centered on the home row keys. It’s available for $99.
For controlling the lighting in your home or office, Philips Hue is personal wireless lighting — standard-size LED light bulbs that are individually networked, so you can control their light level and color remotely. You can connect up to 50 Hue light bulbs to single system, and then use your smartphone to create the lighting mood with tone, contrast, and color.
You can download apps to define your own light recipes for different ambience, set the lights on a timer, or have them activate when you are near to home. And you can connect the lighting to events, for example to respond to weather, sports scores, new mail, or photos posted online. Or have fun with party apps for a disco experience, or to act like a lava lamp responding to the sound of music, or to flash like lightning.
The Philips Hue Starter Pack is available from Verizon Wireless and others, with three bulbs plus the controller bridge for $199, and single bulbs for $59. Philips has added a bright Bloom Lamp for $79, and LightStrips for $89.
And for more fun, the Orbotix Sphero Robotic Ball is a smartphone-controlled ball with gyro and accelerometer and internal lighting that you can drive around, use to play games, and succumb to the temptation to terrorize cats.
The Sphero Original for $109 can travel over three feet per second. It has a rugged polycarbonate shell, around 4 inches in diameter, and is waterproof up to 15 feet (and floats). The new Sphero 2.0 for $129 is twice as fast, more colorful and three times brighter, and can jump ramps, especially with a removable bumpy rubber shell for rougher terrain.
There are already 25 game apps for Sphero, including golf, draw and drive, and a lab to design your own motion programs.
Finally, to get in deeper with electronics, littleBits Electronic Modules are an electronics construction set that let you (and kids) assemble electronics projects simply by snapping together modules.
You can have fun quickly making basic designs like buzzers and blinking lights, step up to fun projects such as a flickering lantern or interactive card, or move on to a more ambitious motion-based sound generator or simulator for phases of the moon.
What makes littleBits so friendly is that there’s no soldering, no wire-wrapping, no stripping wires. Instead, each littleBits Bit (individual module) is typically a small 1-inch circuit board with brightly colored plastic ends. The modules snap together magnetically, so there’s no fuss and no way to mess up the hook-up.
Start with a Power Bit and add Input Bits to control the action with buttons, switches, and sensors, including light, motion, and sound triggers. Then to make stuff happen, add Output Bits for light, sound, and motion. You also can add Wire Bits to make more involved connections, including an inverter to reverse signals and logic Bits that take multiple inputs.
You can get the Starter Kit with 10 bits for $89, and add Booster Packs for touch controls, lights, or sensors for $49, or you can get individual bits starting at $14.
How Do They Work? Ask Doug Dixon
Doug Dixon’s upcoming holiday gadget talks in the central New Jersey area:
Piscataway Public Library, Monday, December 2, 7-8:30 p.m. John F. Kennedy Library, 500 Hoes Lane, Piscataway. www.piscatawaylibrary.org
Computer Learning Center at Ewing, Tuesday, December 3, 1:30 p.m., 999 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing. www.clcewing.org
Hopewell Township Library / Hopewell Valley Seniors Connect, Wednesday, December 4, 10 a.m., 245 Pennington-Titusville Road, Pennington. www.mcl.org/branches/hopbr.html
Princeton Public Library, Community Room, Wednesday, December 4, 7-9 p.m. www.princetonlibrary.org