At Current Analysis I head up a group focusing on mobile devices and how competitive they are in the market. As always, while vendors do send me review units, I do not profit from them (they are typically returned at the vendor’s expense), no money was paid for inclusion on the list, no Senate seats were offered as bribes, I don’t own stock in any of these companies, and Current Analysis clients did not receive any special treatment. Given the state of the economy, I’ve reigned in prices this year; suggestions start at $8.99 and nothing exceeds $200.
In past years, I have recommended buying aftermarket headphones as a way to really improve your mobile music experience. This is still a great way to go, and I’m a big fan of almost anything from etymotic or Shure; this year I tested out Ultimate Ear’s Triple.fi 10’s ($400, but they sound great). However, if you’re on a budget this holiday season, there are two ways to improve the headphones you probably already have. The cheap earbuds that come with most MP3 players aren’t awful – Apple’s are pretty good for pack-ins – they just don’t physically stay in many people’s ears. Two companies have stepped up to solve this problem without breaking the bank:
- Acoustibuds, $12.99, look a bit strange and wrap around the end of the earbud and turn it into an in-ear speaker. The company claims that this will ensure that they don’t fall out (true) and improve the sound (not so much). Acoustibuds will work on any earbud, so if you’ve got a Sansa rather than an iPod, you’re still covered.
- BudFits from Innovelis, $8.99 (an amazon exclusive for now) is the simplest solution you could possibly imagine: a silicone clef that attaches to the base of the earbud (Apple only, unfortunately) and wraps around your ear. They’re comfortable, inexpensive, and they work. Apple really ought to include these from the outset.
I’m on the road a lot, and when you’re in a hotel room you have one of two choices: bring speakers and get some work done, or turn on the TV and end up watching reruns of Entourage on HBO until 2 AM. I’ve tested a bunch of portable speaker systems, but most of them are either too bulky to pack ‘just in case’ or just plain sound awful. Nokia’s MD-4 strikes the perfect balance – tiny V-shaped speakers that run on AA batteries and can fill a hotel room with decent sound (face them towards the wall to improve the sound quality further). What’s more, they’ve been on the market a while, so they’re a bargain: Amazon has them marked down from $99 to $35.
One of my big complaints with the iPhone 3G is that it doesn’t have enough battery life for all the things I want to do with it. There are several aftermarket battery pack add-ons, but the one you want to give as a gift is the mophie juicepack. Oh, sure, at $99 it is expensive – other battery add-ons are half that – but the juicepack is the only one that looks and feels like something Apple might have designed themselves. The juicepack greatly extends the iPhone’s battery life (I didn’t do run-down tests, but I’d guess it triples the available power) as it cradles your iPhone like an iPhone case, so you can continue using the device.
With mandatory headset rules in more states, sales of Bluetooth headsets are rising. There’s an alternative designed just for the car – Blueooth speakerphones that slip onto your sun visor. I’ve tested a bunch of these. My favorite is Motorola’s T505, which not only has a speakerphone built in, but also an FM transmitter. If your phone has stereo Bluetooth (most musicphones and pretty much any smartphone other than the iPhone), you can transmit your music from the phone to the T505 to an empty station on your radio. When a call comes in, it switches to speakerphone, and then resumes the music when the call is over. Like all FM transmitters, it works better the farther away you are from crowded radio markets like New York, but the T505 will scan the airwaves for you, find an open frequency, and then tell you what number to tune your radio to. I tested a prototype earlier this year on an endless drive from New Jersey down to the Virginia-Kentucky border and was impressed. This is another product on a great sale at amazon, $65 (down from $139).
One of the problems with modern TV/home theater setups is that they are far too complicated: you really don’t want to spend a half hour with your babysitter explaining how to watch a movie. Logitech’s line of Harmony remote controls solves this problem. You set it up by answering questions online, and then it presents you with a list of Activities (“Watch TV,” “Play Wii,” etc.). It still isn’t perfect – the web-based setup interface still isn’t quite as idiot-proof as it ought to be – but the remotes themselves have gotten a lot better. The least expensive model (Harmony 510, currently just $49 at amazon) will get you the most bang for your buck.
If you have more to spend, I would skip the next step-up models and jump to the Harmony One ($179 at amazon). The One isn’t all that much different from Logitech’s other Harmony remotes in terms of specifications; the touchscreen is nicer and it can handle more devices, but that’s about it. What makes the Harmony One stand out is the attention paid to ergonomics – every button is shaped differently (so you can feel it without looking) and is placed just where your finger expects it to be. This is not something easy to describe, but pick one up and you’ll see. When I first laid hands on the Harmony One at a Logitech event, they offered to send me a review sample, but I pulled out my credit card instead (review samples have to go back, and this one was mine).
Budget iPod Alternatives
Apple continues to innovate in the iPhone and iPod touch lines, turning them into handheld computing platforms this year, but the regular iPod line got less dramatic improvements. The most popular model in the line, the iPod nano, costs $150 for an 8 GB model. The nano is still the most stylish MP3 player (it’s even prettier in your hand than in photos), it still syncs with Apple’s excellent iTunes software, and it still connects to the largest number of accessories. In short, if you can afford one, it’s worth the money. But what if you’re cheap?
SanDisk’s Sansa Fuze looks like SanDisk was trying to copy last year’s iPod squarish nano design, and it barely has any accessories to speak of. However, the Fuze is $50 less expensive than the nano, and the user interface on the Fuze is quite nice.
At lower price points, SanDisk’s Sansa Clip competes with Apple’s iPod shuffle; again, the Clip isn’t as stylish, but it’s still pretty darn small, it costs less than the shuffle (starting at just $35), and it includes a handy screen, which the iPod shuffle lacks, so you can see and choose what you are listening to.
Another iPod alternative I’m enjoying is the Slacker G2. This is tied to Slacker’s “personal radio” service, which is a cross between satellite radio, Rhapsody, and TiVo: first, you choose from various themed stations, and you can create your own by starting with an artist (say, the Delbert McClinton channel). Then you customize the stations over time by selecting “heart” or “ban” when you hear songs you’d like repeated or never wish to hear again. You can listen free (online on the web or on the player) with a few restrictions (there are a few commercials and you are limited to six “skip song” requests per hour) or pay $7.50 per month (which eliminates commercials, allows unlimited song skipping, and stores specific songs for on-demand playback). The G2 pushes the upper limit of this year’s list: $199 for a 4GB player, and that’s without the premium service – but even the free service is quite appealing.
Not everyone wants an iPhone or BlackBerry. There, I’ve said it. It also happens to be true – there are people out there who are not technophobes, yet they do not want multifunction devices. These people love their phones, but do not want to use them phones to surf the web or add applications or tie into corporate email systems. If one of these strange creatures is on your gift list, I have two recommendations:
- If they don’t want a smartphone but do want to access personal email wherever they go, the Peek might be perfect. It’s a dedicated personal email device – that’s all it does. It looks like a ten year old BlackBerry that went through a deli slicer (it’s boxy but extremely thin), and it is straightforward to use – my mother would have no problem getting up to speed, and she is a bit of a technophobe. Peek is sold at Target stores for $79, and there is no contract, but there is a catch: monthly service is expensive ($20/month).
- OK, I cheated: this one is a convergence device, combining a basic mobile phone with an extremely sophisticated camera (and WiFi plus a basic MP3 player, but let’s ignore that for now). Still, I think Motorola’s ZINE ZN5 will appeal primarily to the type of person who doesn’t want a smartphone, just a phone …but if you could combine a basic phone with a really good digital camera, that would be nice, too. The ZN5 is dead simple to use: to launch the camera, you slide down the lens cap. Then, most of the button labels disappear, leaving only camera-specific controls. Close the lens cap, and it’s a phone again. Now, the ZN5’s camera is still not as good as an inexpensive Canon digital camera with a glass lens, larger image sensor, and optical zoom. However, the ZN5 is always with you, and it takes pictures that easily cross the “good enough to print” threshold. Motorola co-branded the ZN5 with Kodak. It has a Xenon flash (like a regular digital camera), autofocus, and plenty of resolution should you want to make prints (5 megapixels). Most importantly, shutter lag is minimal, and shot-to-shot times are good. In fact, the ZN5’s imaging is every bit as good as the best high end convergence devices from Nokia and Samsung, but without the complexity and for only $99 with a 2 year contract at T-Mobile.
Many of the items on any gadget list are likely to be purchased at amazon.com, and the amazon prime program ($79/year) is a gift that will keep giving impatient technology buyers all year long. With amazon prime, 2 day shipping is free for any item sold by amazon itself (as opposed to other merchants listing wares on amazon) and overnight shipping is just $3.99. This makes overnight shipping affordable for heavy items or just-in-time gadget purchases. I should note, however, that my wife uses amazon prime for something considerably less technical: just-in-time diapers to the door without having to drag them home from the store.
I have been recommending that Microsoft build file synchronization into Windows for several years now – it would make it a lot easier to have more than one Windows device if your data was automatically replicated across every machine you had – desktop, notebook, netbook, whatever. Well, they’ve done it. No, not Microsoft, but a small start-up, SugarSync, has designed a service to do three things: back up your data to the web, give you access to your data from any web browser, and replicate that data to any machine. There are a lot of services that do online backup and access, so where SugarSync is special is data replication. For example, you can start a Word document on your desktop, then run out to a meeting with your notebook. As long as both machines have Internet access, your half-finished document will be automatically saved on both machines and available for you to finish on the notebook. Plus, your files are always backed up somewhere, and you can access them from PC’s, Macs, and some smartphones. Sugarsync costs $25 a year for 10GB of storage.
In the past I’ve recommended gift subscriptions to Netflix, and that’s certainly one I’m happy to list again this year. I haven’t found too many movies on my list that are available for instant download, but hopefully that will change over the next year. In the meantime, Netflix is still the most convenient way to get movies on DVD or Blu-ray.
Another holdover from last year – and a perfect complement to Netflix movies – is gourmet popcorn. Dale and Thomas Popcorn offers various ridiculously delicious treats including all sorts of chocolate & popcorn combinations sure to cushion even the largest stock market drops (and expand your waistline in the process). Everything is kosher, making it a good Chanukah gift, too.
Last year I looked at the first Asus Eee PC, and it’s not surprising that netbooks are even hotter a year later. However, I have a nagging feeling that a lot of the netbooks being bought today are DrawerWare – in a year’s time, they’ll be in a drawer. The least expensive units are getting the most attention, and I find the small screens, Linux OS, 3 cell battery, and compressed keyboards to be overly limiting, even for taking notes, webmail, and Internet surfing. Once you equip a netbook with a large screen/Windows/memory you’re really edging into cheap notebook territory. There is one area where netbooks make a lot of sense: the top end of the netbook pricing ladder is really interesting for road warriors. HP’s Mini 1000 (in the upcoming 6 cell/WWAN modem version) gives people who prize mobility pretty much everything they’d get in a $1500 – $2500 subnotebook from Fujitsu or Sony for a tiny fraction of the price. (The MacBook Air, which I’m also testing, is a bit of a different animal; it’s pricey and lacks ports, but it’s crazy thin and runs OS X.)
In last year’s Guide I noted that I wanted to recommend the SmartShopper shopping list gadget, but couldn’t. I still can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but I must note that the company didn’t ask for it back, and a year later we’re still using it daily. When it ran out of thermal paper rolls, we opted to buy more rather than go back to pen and paper. It is still somewhat buggy, it eats batteries alive, and nobody actually needs one. Then again, it has come way down in price ($55 on amazon, down from $129 last year) and we do like it.
Research Director, Mobile Devices