Tech Gadgets that Work (for Me)

I’m a bit of a gadget lover.  Okay, a full-fledged gadget lover.  I tend to pick up the new toys and play with them, and generally try to integrate them into my life.  I’m not a professional reviewer or sponsored by anyone, which makes what I say here perhaps a little more trustworthy than what you generally find in magazines that write these sorts of articles.

Here’s what I’m going to do:  I’m going to look around the house (and van) and see which gadgets I’ve bought have really become a useful part of my life, and which ones haven’t.  This is the first part, the useful.

So to get right to it:

Useful: iPod & iPod2Car

The time I spend driving to work and back is valuable, and I used to spend it listening to local radio, but I never really enjoyed it.  Talk radio hosts whose goal is just to make you angry, and music radio that’s more talk than music (especially in the mornings).  I tried some other things (more in the next article), but what’s really worked well for me is having the iPod in the car and listening to a combination of audio books and podcasts (and the occasional music).

The iPod2Car hooks into your factory stereo and provides an iPod interface to it.  It’s supported on most factory stereos that can take an external CD changer.  Best Buy sells it and installs it; I think the final price, installed, for the iPod2Car and the vehicle-specific harness was around $320.

I bring in the iPod every few days to sync up some new stuff, and then it’s back in the vehicle.

Feature I don’t use:  iPod Video.  I’ve never watched video on the iPod and doubt I ever will.

Useful: Harmony H659 Remote

Logitech has created a killer product in their line of smart remotes.  It’s a great combination of hardware and software that makes controlling your stereo stuff easy.  I have the Harmony H659, though there are better models available now.

Two things I especially like about it.  First, you don’t program in macros; you tell it what devices you have and how you’d like them configured.  This is different from a lot of learning or macro remotes in that when you press “TV” you’re sending a fixed set of commands, you’re sending the commands necessary to get from the current state to the new state.  If I’m using the XBox 360 and I press “Watch TV”, it knows the TV and receiver is already on and just sends the command to change the inputs.

And the other good thing about it is the Help button, which is a wizard that walks you through getting things to work when they don’t.  For example, if everything is off and I hit “Watch TV”, but don’t aim the remote at the TV, maybe the stereo will turn on but the TV won’t.  Press “Help” and the remote asks you questions like “Is the TV on?”, “Is the receiver on?” and helps you get things back in sync.

Got a complex stereo setup and a wife or girlfriend who is afraid to touch it?  This remote will go a long way.

Feature I don’t use:  The “Media” button and the ability to synchronize the TV guide into the remote.

Useful: The XBox 360

What can I say.  I have it, I use it, I like it.

I picked up an HD DVD drive for it and I use that a lot too – though not always for HD DVD movies.  It’s just nice being able to leave a game in the console while I put in  movie to watch.

Feature I don’t use:  Ability to plug in an iPod.

Useful: Windows Media Center

I use Windows Media Center to watch TV.  It’s go the best TV guide I’ve seen in a PVR, though I haven’t seen a TiVO, and I like the flexibility that it’s a PC.  For example, I recently installed a version of DVRMSToolBox that supports commercial skipping, so now when I’m watching TV and a commercial comes on, it instantly skips past it.  Nice.

The Vista version of Media Center doesn’t look as good as the XP version.  The XP version’s menus were cleaner and simpler.  Hopefully the Vista version gets some attention before the next major Windows release.

Feature I don’t use:  “More Programs”, which are mostly just ads for pay services.

Useful: Laser Printer

I’m sick of inkjet printers.  I don’t print a lot, and when I do, usually one of my ink cartridges is low, or dry, or needs cleaning.  Around Christmas, the Minolta Magicolor 2400W laser printer was on sale for a really good price (under $200) so I bought one.  Now, when I send a document to the printer, out pops a piece of paper, every time.

Printing photos on a laser printer isn’t as nice as printing them on the inkjet, but for the hassles I’ve had with inkjet printers, I’d rather just take my pictures in to Costco and print them there.  It’s cheaper anyway.

Feature I don’t use:  Ability to feed in different sizes of paper.

Useful: Digital Camera

I’ll mention which cameras I have, since I’m generally happy with them, but this is more of a personal choice.  I have an SD450 as my small camera I can carry around anywhere, and an S2 IS when I want something better.

I take video clips almost as often as I take photos, so the S2 IS works out better for me than a Digital SLR, though I acknowledge that they can produce better photos.  The S2 has an awesome 12x zoom, while the SD450 only has 3x zoom, but is small enough that I can take it to the park or wherever, and catch those spontaneous shots.

Feature I don’t use:  Special processing modes like solarize and night mode.  Automatic, one of the manual modes, and movie modes are mostly what I use.

Useful: Canadian Tire Eliminator PowerBox 600A

What good are gadgets without power?  The PowerBox is a big battery with a built-in inverter.  You can charge it from your car or AC power in your house (or a solar panel, which Canadian Tire also sells), and you can use it to provide 110 volt AC power or 12 volt DC power.  I’ve used it to boost the van a few times, and it’s a good extra power source for your laptop, camera, cell phone, etc., when camping.  It’s also a nice safety net for a power outage.

Canadian Tire’s website isn’t very web-friendly so I can’t link directly to it.  Their loss.

Feature I don’t use:  The radio.

Useful: Uniden TRU8866 Dual-Line Cordless Phone

The TRU8866 is a great phone.  It sounds good, feels solid, and importantly, supports two lines.  I started using Vonage about 2 years ago, but didn’t want to commit to Vonage as my only phone, so I had both a Bell line and Vonage for a while.  This cordless phone let me plug one line into Bell and the other into the Vonage PAP2 access point.

You can get add-on bases for it, so when I was doing the wiring for our house, I didn’t bother putting phone jacks every where I might want a phone – I can just pick up a base and plug it in anywhere.  Each phone talks to the base station for access to the phone network, so only the base station needs to be where the phone jacks are.

Cordless phones are an area where there’s a lot of potential for innovation.  802.11 support, VoIP support, colour screens, there are all kinds of possibilities.  I expect someday someone will figure this out and open this market up but for now, this is the best I’ve found.

Feature I don’t use:  Phonebooks.  Just too much of a pain.

Useful: Mio C310x GPS

Any GPS with a color touchscreen interface would fall into the Useful category, I think, but the one I’ve got, the Mio C310x, was surprisingly inexpensive.  I’ve used it on a few trips now and I like it.  The suction cup it comes with holds it to the window in the van, where it quickly picks up a signal and gives a nice pseudo-3D view of where I am and the next part of the route. 

I’d like to have a GPS with text to speech support, and better geocaching support, but for the price, I can’t really complain.

Feature I don’t use:  Ability to play MP3s.

That’s it for now – what gadgets have you found truly useful?