Gift Guide 2013: Outdoor gear or travel gear

Get off the couch and enjoy the outdoors while protecting your precious gadgets as well

While many of these gift ideas would make for a better fit in our summer gadget gift guide, these outdoor gadgets could still be used in parts of the country (or world) where the chilling cold of winter hasn't struck yet. In addition, cases and things that protect your devices never go out of style, whether indoors or outdoors. Here are our favorite devices that sort of fit this category of outdoor gear or on-the-road gadgets:

[MORE GIFTS: 20 of the hottest holiday gifts]

Product: nuud iPhone 5 caseCompany: Lifeproof

Price: $90

nuud

Lifeproof continues to make outstanding protection cases for mobile phones and tablets, and the nuud case is no different. If you’ve been burned before by cases that protect all sorts of weather protection but fail to deliver, then check out the Lifeproof brand.

[HAPPY HOLIDAYS: See a listing of all the products of Network World's holiday gift guide]

The nuud case takes a lot of its previous technologies and steps it up a notch by actually providing less - it doesn’t have a cover for the screen. It still provides the same amount of protection from dirt, dust, water, etc., but without the sometimes annoying extra layer of film that gets in the way of your finger hitting the screen for activating things on the phone. It’s a pretty impressive feat. Of course, this doesn’t give your device scratch protection, so if you’re worried about that you can add your own separately. But for most people, having the ability to access the screen with your finger is worth the tradeoff of the scratch protection (in my humble opinion, at least).

The case comes in two color options (black or white), and can be connected to a number of accessories such as bike or helmet clip-ons for the user who needs to access their iPhone while doing adventure sports. For the rest of us, just knowing that the phone can survive a drop, rainstorm or (shudder) a toilet should be worth the investment.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: BoostTurbine 4000 Rechargeable Battery with Hand Crank PowerCompany: Eton

Price: $80

boston turbine

I’ve tested a bunch of products from Eton in previous years - the company makes a great variety of products geared toward outdoor use - such as speakers, radios and other such gear that help power up your mobile gadgets when you’re out and about.

Such is the case with the BoostTurbine 4000, a handy product that can help power up your mobile phone at the worst possible moment - when you’re out of juice and you are nowhere near a power outlet. The hand crank helps give you enough power to get a phone call or text sent if you’re totally out of power (Eton says that about a minute of hand-cranking will get you four minutes of talk time). You may never need to use this device, but it’s a great one to store in your car’s glove box, or take along with your backpack when hiking, for example.

The unit also comes with a USB charging cable that can help power its battery ahead of time, so you can recharge the mobile phone without having to hand-crank it yourself, which can get tiring after a while. If you have one of those USB adapters that plug into a wall, you can recharge it that way (or use your computer). The only drawback on this (apart from your arm eventually getting tired from the hand-cranking) is that you need to use your phone’s charging cable, or have that available, to connect to the BoostTurbine 4000. So make sure you get an additional recharging cable to keep with the unit sitting in that glove box.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

------Company: EtonProduct: Rugged Rukus solar-powered sound system

Price: $100

Buy this for: The outdoorsy friend who wants to bring their music with them and not have to worry about cables or batteries.

ruggd ruckus

This “all-terrain, solar powered, music blasting wireless sound system,” as quoted from their owner’s manual, is so easy to set up that I didn’t even need the manual! I left the device in the sun -- first outside, and later just in a sunny spot near a window in my house -- and it charged. One feature I really like about its solar battery, besides that it’s so easy to use it charges through a sunny window, is that a red light turns on to let you know whenever it’s charging. Not sunny? That’s OK too, as you can recharge it from a USB port. Solar charging takes about five hours, while USB charging takes about 2.5 hours. This gives you about eight listening hours for the speaker, and a series of lights tells you how much battery life you have left. One problem we had - either the fourth light (out of four) battery indicator was dead, or the Rukus unit we had couldn’t charge beyond 75%.

The Rukus unit could also charge other devices, such as a phone or iPod, through an additional USB port. What good is a solar-powered speaker if your music player dies - fortunately, you can attach your player via the USB port and recharge it with the sun.

For basic listening use, you can connect the music device via an AUX port or Bluetooth. It can also clip to a backpack with a carabineer and, weighing approximately 1 pound, is light enough to easily carry on a hike. The sound quality is what you’d expect -- it’s not amazing, but it’s good enough. It can get loud enough to fill a few campsites with music; but of course the higher the volume, the lower the sound quality. Honestly, I was more impressed by how quiet the device can get than by how loud. It gets so quiet that you could go on a hike and not disturb anyone around you with your music, unless they were walking with you.

One issue to note: the box says the Rukus unit is water-resistant, but then the first page of the manual warns you not to expose the appliance to rain or moisture, do not submerge in water, and do protect it from rain and high humidity. I’m not exactly sure what to make of their water resistant claim after those warnings.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Jennifer Finn

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Product: Voyager Legend Bluetooth headsetCompany: Plantronics

Price: $100

Buy this for: Any mobile professional who wants a nice noise-canceling, professional headset for noisy environments when they’re using their smartphone.

Over the past 14 years of the holiday gift guide, we’ve tested lots of Bluetooth headsets with different features and functionality. Quite frankly we’re getting quite sick of them, which is why we’re not reviewing that many this year.

But we have a soft spot in our collective heart for Plantronics, and their Voyager Legend Bluetooth headset certainly would make for a great gift for any smartphone user who travels a lot or talks on the phone when they’re outside or in a noisy environment.

You know that you have a great noise-canceling headset when you’re on the phone with someone and they have no idea that you’re using a hands-free unit. Multiple microphones on the device help reduce the sounds created by wind, background noise and just moving around. The boom microphone design of the Voyager Legend may turn off some users who prefer a smaller headset (so they don’t look so Borg-like), but these headsets have been around for so long now that most people don’t mind. The biggest issue with a hands-free headset is noticing when someone is using them - you think they’re either talking to themselves or to you when they’re just on the phone with someone else.

Two other cool features of the Voyager Legend make this worthy of a mobile professional, and put it into a class that’s better than a less-expensive version. First, smart sensors on the unit can detect when you’re putting it onto your ear, and the system automatically answers the call. Sure, you can wear the headset on your ear all day, but it’s much easier to just grab it when a call comes in and the sensors then answer the phone for you so you don’t have to find the phone and flick/swipe the “Answer” box on your device. This is especially cool with the Voyager Legend UC model (a different office-based system) that can pair to a mobile phone and a desktop system - picking up the headset then automatically answers either model.

The second cool feature is the voice control features - when a call comes in, a nice voice in your head (no, not those voices) announces the incoming caller’s name (if the phone knows it) and lets you say “answer” or “ignore”. A button-tap on the unit lets you check the headset’s battery level, and tells you whether the phone is connected to the headset. The Voyager Legend also supports Plantronics’ Vocalyst service, which lets you hear emails, newsfeeds and other items (weather and stock reports!) through the headset.

I also found it very nice to wear the headset on my morning commute, listening to podcasts on my phone and have it stream in through one ear instead of connecting the system to my car’s audio system. I wouldn’t recommend listening to music this way - for that I’d connect the phone to the stereo - but for listening to spoken-word podcasts (or audio books), it’s a nice alternative.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Yellow Jacket iPhone taser caseCompany: Yellow Jacket

Price: $100

Buy this for: Anyone who needs some extra protection - for their phone or for themselves (as long as they live in a state where this is permissible).

taser phone

Yes, they really did combine a stun gun with an iPhone case. The Yellow Jacket case is a “form-fitted smartphone case integrated with a 650,000-volt stun gun that also charges your phone battery.”

The version that was sent to us was designed for the iPhone 4 or 4S; check the company’s website to see when its iPhone 5/5S or Android versions will come out. The case comes with several warnings - you definitely don’t want to have this laying around near children. There are two safety settings on the case - you have to slide up a switch to activate the taser portion - a blue light shines to tell you it’s ready; and there’s a safety clip that you have to undo to expose the two taser prongs. Just pressing the button when it’s activated could be enough to scare away any potential threats - it certainly made us jump when we pressed the button.

Because this is considered a weapon, you have to make sure that it would be legal in your state to own and operate. Since we were in a state where it’s illegal (Massachusetts, but also Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and the U.S. Virgin Islands), we didn’t use the device on anyone, even ones who volunteered. Sorry folks, no video here from us.

However, if you do live in a state or area where it’s OK to use and operate, this is a convenient personal protection system that can give you (or family members) peace of mind. Just be careful out there.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: HackShield BackpackCompany: Das Keyboard

Price: $180

Buy this for: Anyone who wants sturdy protection for their gadgets, and those who might be a bit paranoid about hackers that want to steal their data while they’re out and about.

I’m a big fan of the folks at Das Keyboard - they make fantastic add-on keyboards, but have recently branched out to create new products - their new tagline is “Gear for Overachievers.” One of the new products is the HackShield line of backpacks and wallets - with RFID protection built in so hackers can’t start trying to steal data from mobile devices stored inside the wallet or backpack.

In a world where new details about governments or others spying on people begins to emerge on a weekly basis, you might be less tinfoil-hat-wearing and more willing to look into devices that can keep you protected. Das Keyboard says that its backpack “blocks electronics from transmitting data to and from the cloud, keeping an individual’s geographical location from being traced without the user’s knowledge.” In addition to the RFID protection, the backpack features a “Fidlock-secured” connection that locks down the zipper - it takes some effort to open the pack, which helps prevent any walk-by thieves.

Even if you’re not completely paranoid about this kind of thing, the backpack itself is a very nice one - featuring weather-resistant “1680d ballistic nylon” and other rugged materials to protect your gear from the elements. The backpack will support 15-inch notebooks and smaller devices quite nicely - you might have a hard time with your 17-inch monster notebook - but you really shouldn’t be carrying that with you anyway.

As the web page for the backpack says, “If Batman and Bond had a baby, it would be as awesome as this backpack.” We agree, even if the analogy doesn’t really make sense.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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