Chrome Messenger Bags – Are they just a pretty face?

Chrome bags look bitchin’. The question is, do they function as well as they look?  I mean, the logo is rad, the seat-belt style buckle is unbelievably cool, and the color choices kick almost everyone elses behinds.  (Timbuk2 bags also offers cool color varietals, but they just seem so darn preppy.)  Nah, in terms of cool factor, Chrome bags definitely carry the day.  But I’m probably getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack.

This review is about messenger bags, bike messenger bags, and specifically those made by Chrome. While we generally stick to gadgets here at LD, we have reviewed laptop bags in the past.  I got my grubby mitts on a Citizen Bike Messenger bag from Chrome Industries, based in foggy San Francisco, CA. Typically a messenger bag is a single shoulder bag that opens horizontally, has one main strap, a large primary compartment, some level of secondary organizational compartments, and then a myriad of different possible accessories.  These might include some degree of padding, a laptop compartment, stabilizer straps, a removable primary strap, a grab handle, etc. etc. ad nauseum.  (I like bags.)

Working daily in San Francisco, I keep seeing Chrome gear all over the place.  Mostly they’re carried by dirt-baggy, scruffy faced ruffians who nimbly dodge through traffic and congregate during lunch on Market and Montgomery (read: bike messengers.)  The other primary class of people carrying these bags are poseurs.  I mean, serious wannabes who think the logo is cool and want to seem hip with their designer, hip-hugger jeans, their button down shirts with swirly embroidery, their stupid looking goatee with pencil-thin sideburns on their jawline and their aviator sunglasses… yeah, you know who I mean.  I don’t want to be that guy.  And I’m not sure I can pull off the Citizen, especially off my bike (you know, just walking around.)

Now, to be clear, I am looking at messenger bags from a particular perspective.  I do use it on my bike, I commute from San Mateo to San Francisco using my bicycle and the Caltrain.  My typical time on the bike varies between 45 minutes to 1 hour and 45 minutes per day, depending on which route I choose.  So I am doing a fair amount of biking with the bag.  But I am not a bike messenger.  This means a couple things.  I am not on my bike 8 hours a day.  And I specifically need to carry a few key items, not all kinds of random crap for delivery across the city.  I am commuting to work, not routing back and forth across a concrete jungle.  I need to carry:

  • laptop
  • power charger
  • sunglasses
  • a book
  • a layer
  • a snack
  • an iphone charging cord
  • gum
I’m on the train for part of my commute, so I frequently need to yank out my computer, or get to my book to catch up on some leisure reading.  I want the bag to be comfortable, even when heavily weighted.  I want it to be weather proof, I get caught by rain frequently, especially in the Winter time. I’d like some organization options, multiple pockets and compartments.  Ideally I’d like a padded laptop sleeve, so that I can pop out the computer without having to scrabble past all the other junk in my bag.  And I want it to look dope.  Yeah, I’m vain.  I deal with it, and so should you.

Before I ever picked one up, I went to the streets and asked some regular folks sporting Chrome what they thought.  One person complained that though he was really excited at first, he didn’t like the fact that it was just a big sack.  One big hole to drop stuff into, with little or no organizational options.  This is one of my concerns too.  On the one hand, I like simplicity.  The Citizen is straightforward – it’s a bag, it holds stuff.  There are a few pockets.  One zippered, one non-zippered, and a couple of pen / pencil sleeves.
This is sufficient for most of the small items, and offers a decent level of organization.   My biggest gripe, organizationally speaking, is really the lack of a laptop sleeve and the lack of padding.  It would be great to be able to pull out the laptop and leave the rest of my gear undisturbed.  As it is, I use a neoprene sleeve that I bought aftermarket in order to put some padding around my way-too-expensive mac.  This works fine, but the sleeve would be a nice built-in feature.

It’s important to note here that the Citizen is not intended to be, and was not designed to be a laptop bag. It’s a messenger bag, for carrying stuff around on a bike.  I am choosing to use a messenger bag as a laptop bag.  If I use a screwdriver to drive a nail, I might succeed in pounding the sucker in, but I also might get some bent nails.  That being said, more and more people are bike commuting all the time – lord knows it’s hard to get a seat on the Caltrain for the 8:15AM train.  So I think I’m not the only person who’d benefit from a couple of design alterations.  And Chrome, btw, does offer some laptop-oriented bags.  But none of them are quite like the classic “messenger-style” bags, and none of their messenger bags really hit the mark for the computer commuter.

Another oddity to me is the stabilizer strap.  It seems to me like it ought to run opposite of the primary strap.  In other words, if I wear the bag on my left shoulder, then the stabilizer strap should logically come up my right side, no?  Well, Chrome disagrees, and their stabilizer runs along the same side as the primary strap, and runs under armpit (see left.)  I found this to be pretty ineffective – the bag rolls on me just as much with this as without it.
There are a couple of things I would change about this bag, to make it the perfect bag for me.  Let me reiterate – these are not necessarily shortcomings in the bag itself (at least not all of them); rather, these are things that would improve the bag for my purposes:
  • Padded laptop sleeve (I’ve covered this)
  • Waterproof zipper with storm-sleeve to access the laptop sleeve – it would be awesome to be able to yank out the laptop without needing to unbuckle two clips and rip apart massive velcro.
  • Better stabilizer strap – I think it ought to come from the other side of the bag

The lack of a zipper will stop me from using this bag when I travel.  It’s just too difficult to pull things out of the bag when it’s stuffed under the seat in front of me when I’m riding coach in an airplane.  All that velcro, ugh. But I can also understand not wanting to compromise the waterproof integrity of the bag.  And for riding into work everyday, I am willing to put up with the shortcomings because there a lot of things I really like.  I’ll tell you what I think makes this bag a big winner:

  • The buckle – it’s darn near iconic in San Francisco, and it’s just like a seatbelt in a car.  That’s rad.
  • The materials – ballistic nylon and truck tarpaulin are badass, durable and waterproof
  • The anatomical, padded shoulder strap – even heavily loaded this is a comfortable bag to ride with, even without any padding to speak of
  • Shoulder strap again, specifically, the way it holds the bag upright – with a lot of other messenger bags I’ve used (including an Osprey and a Jandd bag) there is a constant tendency for the bag to swing sideways.  The shoulder strap on the Chrome messengers actually hold the bag more or less vertically, and the shape itself (with a little help from gravity) actually hold it in place.  It was this design element that first caught my eye.
  • The one-handed tightener and loosener on the chest strap

The Citizen from Chrome is an outstanding messenger bag with an unusual and innovative design, outstanding materials, the sweetest logo on the market, a wickedly cool (unbreakable?) buckle, and awesome color options.  There are some things it does really well, and others that could stand improvement.  But on the whole I think the bag will serve well enough for my biking commuter-geek purposes, and it’s clearly outstanding for the purpose for which it was originally intended – to be a bike messenger bag that will last for years of hard abuse.  When I’m riding my bike, I’m stoked to have this bag cause it’s comfortable, functional, and cool-looking.  When I’m not on my bike and I carry this bag, I feel like a poseur, a big lame-o that’s trying too hard to look cool.

If I were forced to give this bag a numeric rating between 1 and 10, I’d have to split things up a bit.  For the purposes of a computer-commuter bag, I’d give it a 7.  As a travel bag it’s a 5.  And as a bike messenger bag this one is a 10.  If I change career paths and start delivering packages via bicycle, I won’t carry anything else.  (I’d be laughed at, scoffed and mocked by the other guys if I did anyway.)

This review is also available at 1TO10REVIEWS.

eStarling is Startlingly Cool

eStarling makes several WiFi connected digital photo frames, and I’ve been playing with their Impact V for a bit.  I’m impressed.

From the moment you open the box, eStarling does a pretty good job holding your hand and making use of the frame pretty simple.  You have all the usual options for displaying pictures that past digital frames have lead us to expect, including memory card slots that accommodate a couple different card types (SD, MS, MMC.)  But what’s way more interesting to me is the wireless and social mechanisms for displaying pictures.

When you pull the device out of the box, a greeting card immediately invites you to plug in the frame and connect it to your wifi connection (beware: this frame is much cooler if you have a wifi network.)  Once you’re connected, the frame prompts you to visit their website and activate your account.  Once you do you will get an email address dedicated to your frame, and you (or your friends and family) can email pictures to your frame.  You can also log into your account on their website to upload pictures from your computer to your eStarling account – these will then appear on your frame (it took my pictures about 15 minutes to show up.)  One of the neatest features is the social component – you can link your frame to a variety of social websites and services, including Facebook, Flickr, Phtobucket, Picassa, Twitter (not sure about this one), YouTube and more.   In addition to these services, you can also subscribe to RSS feeds – popular ones like National Geographic or even a user-designated feed.  You can also post small videos to play on your frame if you so choose.

I did have some issues with some of the social services.  For instance, I linked my Flickr account to my eStarling frame.  It was a pretty simple, one-click connection which presumably links up eStarling’s service with Flickrs API.  Two issues presented themselves though:

1. After clicking through the Flickr to link up the accounts, instead of a “Success, awesome job, well done!” screen, I was presented with a page full of gibberish.  There was no message to tell me whether I had successfully linked the account.  I didn’t know for sure until photos started appearing on the frame.

2. When those photos did appear, they weren’t mine.  They were photos of friends mine, people to whom I am linked on Flickr.  But none of my own photos made it into the frame.  Now, I like my friends and all, but I don’t need their photos on my frame.  Whether it’s going to sit in my home, or in my parent’s home, I want my own pictures on my frame.

Ultimately I was forced to use the “custom RSS” feature and take my Flickr account’s own RSS feed and manually link that with my frame.  Even after doing that, only my most recent set (about 20 pictures or so) showed up on the frame.  I don’t really know how to pull specific sets or additional photos from Flickr into the frame.

The frame has an eight inch display (800×600 pixels) and the clarity is pretty darn sharp. (Any blurring in the images in this post is due to the photographer, not the frame.)  It’s a touch screen interface, and there are light-up touch screen buttons along the right side.  You must use the touch screen in order to connect to the wireless network, but almost everything else can be accomplished through eStarling’s web portal.   The touch buttons let you skip through photos, or jump back to menus to select specifc photos, or access settings for the frame.  But I found the touch buttons a little finicky to use – fortunately the included remote also allows you to control action on the frame.

Lastly, there’s packaging.  In the unboxing I discovered very little wasteful or non-recyclable material.  There was one small piece of closed-cell foam for padding, and a foam sleeve for the frame.  Everything else was cardboard, including the majority of the boxe’s padding.  5 gold stars for being conscious of the environment.

Overall I was impressed with the frame.  The picture clarity, the simple setup, and the social components were all fantastic.  I love that it’s wifi, and I dig the fact that I can update the photos remotely, up to and including if the frame is in another state (or country.)  However, I do think the web interface and tools need a little refinement.  They are feature-rich but lacking in the fine points of usability.  Some improvements could include better feedback to user actions (letting you know if you succeeded in linking an account), and better fine-tuning of services (to include / exclude friends’ photos, etc.)  They don’t need more options, they just need to refine and improve the ones they’ve got.

eStarling Wireless Digital Photo Frame on 12seconds.tv

Daniel Lim at Slashgear also wrote a nice review of this frame.  If I were forced to give this frame a numeric rating, something which I am loathe to do, I would give it an 8 out of 10. They did a good job.  I just hope they keep improving the little sucker, especially the web interface and options.

This post is also available on 1TO10REVIEWS.

David's Jawbone II Bluetooth review

I’ve been thinking about a bluetooth headset for a long time.  Since I got my iPhone, I’ve almost exclusively used the included iPod headphones / speakerphone to talk with other people.  But it tangles often and it’s starting to get worn out – the rubber on the earpieces has rubbed off completely.  :(  That combined with the California headset law (and the joy of playing with new toys) convinced me to try to go blue.  Eric Benderoff’s review of several top bluetooth headsets gave me a little background, and the pure sex appeal of the Jawbone II gave me a starting place.

There are a lot of different possible categories from which to assess a gadget like this: form factor, simplicity of use, pairing ability, sound quality, battery life, durability, cost…  I don’t often write really analytical reviews which numerically asses and assign rankings to devices, but this time I plan to for the sake time and conveneience.  Elsewise this review will ramble, extensively.  Long.

I will rank each of the above categories with a numeric ranking between 1 and 10 (naturally) and then average out the scores.  By doing this I am essentially saying 1.) that each of the chosen categories have equal weighting, and 2.) that other possible categories (say, color) do not factor into my assessment.  Those are both true things, so take my review with the appropriate grains of sodium hydrochloride.

Form Factor: 10 (this is a sexy looking gadget, slim, black, ribbed and fancy)

Simplicity of Use: 7 (as bluetooths go, it’s pretty easy to start, pair, adjust and figure out what’s happening)

Pairing Ability: 7 (turn it on, and turn on bluetooth on your phone – they just seem to find each other)

Sound Quality: 6 (I can hear people OK.  When I need to turn the volume up high, it seems to get a little fuzzy.  People can hear me OK.  Not great, but OK.  This might be due to poor pairing, or simply the nature of the device. )

Battery Life: 6 (battery life seems to be about what you’d expect, or just a hair better.  I seem to get about 2-3 hours of active talk time.  If it sits idle on a full charge for a couple days, I can still use it.  If it sits idle after a full charge for 5 or 6 days, not so good. )

Durability: 4 (the device body seems to be fairly compact and well made, I expect it will last as well as anything else out there.  The ear pieces are another issue.  As you’ll see in the pictures below, one of my stems broke.  Jawbone is kind enough to package multiple stems [for differently sized and shaped heads / ears] so I had a backup, even though it’s a suboptimal size.  I did NOT mishandle nor manhandle the ear piece – just rotated it as it’s designed to be rotated, and the little sucker just snapped.  Boy was I irritated. )

Cost: 4 (this is a pricey little sucker.  I’ve seen it at the T-Mobile store for as little as $99, and at a Verizon store for $129.  If you shop around you’ll find it for somewhere over $100.

If we assume that each of the above categories carrie an equal weighting, then the score on the Jawbone II bluetooth headset comes out to 6.29 (10+7+7+6+6+4+4=6.2857147)

I like this device’s style and simplicity.  It’s elegant, pretty, fairly easy to use, and the it sounds good.  Not “oh my god holy crap” amazing, but it sounds good.  The cost of the unit, and the fact that the stem broke in the manner it did are both very offputting for me though, and they are the biggest limiting factors in my estimation.  That particular pair of issues (high cost with questionable durability) is expecially disagreeable.  I’ll be interested to see if/how the company responds to my customer service request.  If they do, I will update this post.

Forced to give a numeric rating between 1 and 10, this device averaged out to a 6.29.

This review is also available at 1TO10REVIEWS.

Freestyle Audio SoundWave Review: Sink or Swim?

Note: this is a guest-written review from Gitamba Saila-Ngita, I felt I didn’t spend enough time using MP3 players myself (not to mention any athletic activities whatsoever) to do an adequate review of the product.

These days the iPod™ is ubiquitous, even to the extent that the term “iPod” has become synonymous with MP3 Player but, it might not be the only game in town! There are other options–especially when you want to take your music to… the extreme!

I recently had the opportunity to check out Freestyle Audio’s SoundWave. Their slogan, “Take Your Music There”, which is coupled with lifestyle images of the outdoors, and instantly got me wondering whether this little 2″x3″ device could withstand the wear and tear of mother nature. The SoundWave comes with everything you need to get started right out of the box; such as waterproof headphones, a replacement belt clip, USB™ transfer cable, arm band, and my personal favorite, 50 free music downloads from the eMusic service (Apple please take note).

The device also comes with a slew of pre-installed tunes which allows you to take it for a spin as soon as you’re ready. It can hold 2GB of music via internal storage (no SD slots to expand it), and packs a substantial 18 hour playback time.

Getting started was fairly quick and rather painless.  After I set up my eMusic account, I uploaded some music onto the device before taking it out for a swim. One major difference between SoundWave and the iPod is that the SoundWave has no official software interface to your computer. This may not be a “make or break” deal for all MP3 Player users, but whether it be iTunes or Windows Media Player, it is definitely a convenience to have something that plays well with not only your music but your gadgets too.

Now before I go further, I’m always rather skeptical of any waterproofed electronic, ESPECIALLY something like an MP3 player.  Usually the “waterproofing” is inadequate, or you sacrifice size to put your device into something as massive as an Otterbox. In some cases you could be like our friend David Spieser who had his iPod™ Shuffle “Waterproofed” for a pretty penny.

Once in the water, things got kind of dicey. The SoundWave features six buttons, each with multiple functions that are displayed on simple and very tiny digital screen. I found the buttons very difficult to press. This may be partly due to the waterproofing, but it definitely made skipping through songs mid-swim a challenge. There is also a 5 second fade out when you skip, so trying to get to that next song to pump up your work out gets really annoying very quickly. I recommend setting up a play list, or enabling the shuffle function to make your work out as fluid as possible (On a side note, for some reason even with correct IDV3 tag encoding all my songs, no matter where I put them, displayed as gibberish – I am still trying to figure out why that happened). I swam for about an hour and also submerged the device up to its maximum depth of 10 feet.

To my surprise, the device showed absolutely no signs of taking on water. The waterproof earphones held up great too, although I wish they were slightly more comfortable (it uses a standard headphone jack so I imagine you could find something waterproof that suits you). The sound quality both under water and above is not bad. The little guy also supports the WOW audio codec and multiple types of EQ to help tailor the experience to your liking.

All around, the Free Style Audio’s SoundWave can take the beating you dish out while getting your sweat(or swim!) on. I recommend this to people who’ve been looking to bring a tough and rugged portable music player with them on active outings, where you won’t need to worry if it can take on a variety of physical and active elements.

A Waterproof iPod Shuffle in Review

A while back, when I first saw Steve Jobs announce the new version of the iPod shuffle, with integrated clip and super-small form factor, I was excited.  I exercise a lot, mostly running, biking and swimming.  Music (or “books on tape”) makes the whole experience a lot more tolerable, and the iPod shuffle with its light weight and built-in clip is a perfect companion.

For running and biking, the shuffle is brilliant, and I use it every day.  Every day.  However, I’ve been swimming a lot more lately, and most electronics don’t do well in water, chlorinated or otherwise.  And I’ll tell you something else.  Swimming laps is boring.  Really boring.  I find it slow, tedious, dull, and insipid.  I like the feeling of endorphin release, and the positive benefits of the exercise, but man swimming laps is uninspiring.

Enter Swimman:

Swimman.com is a service that will waterproof the iPod shuffle.  You can buy the iPod through them, or purchase it directly and send it to them.  The waterproofing treatment takes about one week, and then you’re ready to go.  They also sell waterproof headphones (which I bought) to use while swimming.

Here are the basics:

  • They waterproof the shuffle
  • The On/Off slider and the Shuffle/Continuous play slider are both locked in place
  • The buttons become much stiffer

Otherwise it works the same as before.  If you want to shuffle your music you can set your playlist in iTunes to shuffle.  Once you get your device, you’ll want to clip your headphones and the shuffle to the headband, strap the excess cord under the headband, and then you’re ready to swim.

Swimman offers a number of packages to choose from, including just the shuffle itself, the headphones and the shuffle as a combo package, etc.  I went with package E, along with a pair of swimman headphones.  The waterproofing treatment is $100 plus $15 for shipping and handling.  The headphones are another $100.  And the 2GB shuffle is about $70.  So all told I’m down almost $300 for the luxury of waterproof tunes while lap swimming.

I’ve now used the waterproofed shuffle a total of 8 times.  I am stoked.  I switch back and forth between music and books on tape (nothing gets you pumped up like Joe Mantegna reading the Godfather.)  But I find that I can now swim longer and with less impatience.  Here are some pics of the shuffle in situ – (it looks just like any other):

On the whole I think this is awesome.  It ain’t cheap, so if you’re short of cash you might need to look at cheaper options.  But all of those options are considerably bulkier, heavier, and/or less convenient than the Swimman waterproofing treatment for the shuffle.

If I were forced to give the Swimman waterproofing system a numeric rating between 1 and 10, I’d give it an 8.  It would probably be a 9 or 10 if the price wasn’t so dang high.

This post is also available on 1TO10REVIEWS.

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