Travel Gear Tech Treasures [2011 Cool Yule Tools]

If you have to enjoy the journey, at least make it comfortable with these cool travel gadgets

One thing that has remained constant over the years is that we still like to travel. Whether it’s by plane, train or automobile, we’re always on the go. They say that the journey is more important than the destination, so we feel that if you have to make the journey, at least use some devices and gadgets that can make you more productive, comfortable or informed during the trip. Here are our favorite gift ideas for the road warrior on your list:

Watch a slideshow version of some of these products.

Products reviewed in this categoryGo LIVE 2535 M GPS unit, by TomTom

Omni-Heat Thermal Electric Jacket, by Columbia

Powerbag backpack, by Powerbag

Whirl Mini Notebook Laser Mouse and Mouse Pad Travel Pouch, by Smartfish

USB Dual Mobile Charging Hub, by Qmadix

TruConnect Mobile Broadband service, by TruConnect Mobile

Qumi Q2-W HD Pocket Projector, by Vivitek

SHOWWX+ Laser Pico Projector, by Microvision

Via 1535 GPS unit, by TomTom

Joos Orange portable solar charger, by Solar Components

Guide 10 Plus Mobile Kit (solar charging), by GoalZero

Steamer Beverage Heater, by GoalZero

Bugaglove Max Electric gloves, by Columbia

The reviews

Go LIVE 2535 M GPS unit, by TomTomWith GPS now appearing on practically every portable device (smartphones, tablets, etc.) or being  built directly into cars themselves, the makers of stand-alone GPS units need to make sure they have more and more features to make them appealing. In the case of TomTom, this means adding things like Internet access (to search for places or services depending on your position), live traffic updates, voice commands and Bluetooth speaker capabilities for your smartphone.

The Go Live 2535 M unit we tried from TomTom included all of these features – the most appealing is the HD Traffic Service, which delivers traffic updates to your device every two minutes, to help the user get around traffic jams and other commuter nightmare scenarios. The updates are delivered to the unit when the car charger cable is attached, and in my tests it did a really accurate job of telling me where the traffic jam was going to occur, and approximately how long it would take me to get through it. In cases where an alternate route would provide a faster trip, the system can re-route you automatically (in case you ever wondered if getting off the exit would be faster or not, now the TomTom can tell you). 

Your appreciation of this feature will depend on many things – how often do you travel in bad traffic situations, the availability of alternate routes that would help you, and the accuracy of the traffic information (sometimes, traffic data information is very slow and unreliable). In my case, there usually isn’t a better alternate route on my commute, at least one that speeds up the trip, unless the traffic jam is a major one. But for longer trips or when going to places where you might not know the side roads, this is an interesting option.

The voice command feature was also fun to try – instead of awkwardly trying to type in an address or location where you’d like to navigate, you can use your voice – issuing commands like “take me home” or “take me to an address”, and then dictating the address and city – again, in my tests, the unit was quite accurate as long as I didn’t have a stereo blasting or kids blabbing in the back seat.

Other features of this unit include Google Local Search, a fuel price service, latest weather conditions, advanced lane guidance (always helpful on long trips, the system lets you know what lane is best so you don’t have to cross four lanes to get to your exit) and street name pronunciations. Some of these services are wrapped up in the company’s LIVE services, which costs $59.95 per year, and are only available in the U.S. TomTom also has a wide variety of voices that you can program into the device, including Simpsons characters (Homer and Mr. Burns, particularly are funny), as well as KITT from Knight Rider, and some Star Wars characters (Darth Vader, especially). Those cost about $13 extra and can be downloaded from TomTom’s web site.

One final note – the unit’s Click & Lock Mount was amazingly easy to connect – no longer do you have to worry about whether the mount is going to fall off during your trip – the magnetic mount makes it easy to put the unit on the mount, and the suction-cup part screws in and clicks to lock. Yay!

This is a premium GPS unit, so I’d recommend this for people who travel to new destinations on a daily basis, or need the benefits of the live traffic updates – for casual GPS users, I’d recommend other versions of TomTom’s navigation devices.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $299.95

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Omni-Heat Thermal Electric Jacket, by ColumbiaWhen this jacket first came in to be reviewed, they had to let me do the review, because I was hugging it with a determination that wouldn’t quit. I promised to write love sonnets about this jacket. Of course, since then, I have come to my senses and remembered that I’m not a poet. But I am always cold, and the thought of a heated jacket is simply a dream. I’m that girl in the office who wears a jacket inside (year round) because the office feels like a freezer (I don’t complain, I know I’m the only cold person). So of course, I’m sure it seems outlandish that I also enjoy winter sports. I love to ski, but I’m always so cold that I tend to only ski in the spring, or I stick foot warmers to the inside of my shirt to warm up my back. That is, until I met this jacket! It HEATS itself! How awesome is that?

First off, even without its awesome powers of heating itself, this jacket is so soft and lux. The shell is treated to resist stains and light rain (an awesome bonus if you fall a few times while skiing down a mountain). Plus, the lining is made from Columbia’s Omni-heat insulation and reflective technologies. Basically, the lining reflects your own body heat and keeps you extra cozy. Other features about the jacket include a waterproof zipper, five pockets (including an “interior security pocket,”) and under arm venting to cool you down.

Now, to the good stuff! It heats itself! The jacket has two removable power packs that take approximately six hours to charge. There are three heat settings: Setting 1 for initial warm up and extreme cold, heats to 122°F, battery will last for three hours at this setting; Setting 2 for moderately cold weather, heats to 104°F, battery will last for four hours at this setting; Setting 3 for mildly cold weather, heats to 95°F, battery will last for six hours at this setting. Oh, and you can get a car charger for it.

My only caution is that you make sure the fit is correct. This jacket was large for me and I found it awkward because the batteries banged loose against my hips. The correct fit would be up against my lower ribs. Otherwise, the jacket is sweet, luxurious, and intelligent. If you love being outdoors in the winter but don’t like being cold, check out this jacket. I may not be writing love sonnets for the jacket, but I’m certainly singing its praises. I love it.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $850

Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Powerbag backpack, by PowerbagThis backpack includes a 6000mAh battery tucked inside a pocket that can recharge a whole variety of devices, including smartphones, MP3 players, GPS units, portable game systems, e-readers and even tablets. Inside some of the pockets are cable connectors for some of these devices (such as an Apple connector and mini/micro USB), and an additional USB port on the battery pack lets you connect one of your own USB cables for charging additional devices.

You can recharge the battery by connecting an included power cable to the bag itself to recharge, or you can remove the battery and charge it separately. The battery pack does provide some additional weight, but it's worth it to have the additional battery capability in case of emergencies. The backpack has enough space to hold a 15-inch notebook and has additional pockets for other things that you may want to carry along with you. Other styles are available, including a business class pack, and a deluxe version that includes space for 16-inch notebooks. There are also slings and roller-bag styles available at the company's web site.

If you are looking for a new backpack, it's worth the additional weight to have something that can recharge your phone, music player or other devices whenever you find yourself running low on juice.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $139.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Cocoon 13-inch Sleeve2 for MacBook/MacBook Pro and iPad, by Cocoon Cocoon’s compact black computer carrying case features two zippered pouches, one for an Apple MacBook or MacBook Pro and the other for an iPad. But since I don’t own a tablet, I settled for testing out the product with my 13-inch work-supplied Macbook Pro, which has already gotten scuffed up a bit jostling around in my old Dell laptop case.

The Cocoon case features a nice adjustable strap for carrying the bag over my shoulder (though I always get a little nervous with plastic rather than metal clasps). The company boasts of its “DEFLEXION” shock absorbing material, which translates into a thin but seemingly sturdy enough cushion around the main pockets. The case can also be strapped onto a rollaway luggage system, though I haven't tried this.

Tucked inside is a stiff little organizer covered with overlapping stretchy and rubberized straps for keeping wires, adapters and such under control. While I can’t picture myself ever taking advantage of it, and I haven’t yet, it’s probably a good idea for the very organized. The product features a limited one-year warranty. I personally can’t imagine paying $70 for a computer bag, but it’s a solid product.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $70

Reviewed by Bob Brown

Whirl Mini Notebook Laser Mouse and Mouse Pad Travel Pouch, by Smartfish TechnologiesThis mouse has been on my desktop and my “main mouse” ever since I opened it up and started using it, despite its odd design. The USB wireless mouse is designed for ergonomic comfort – instead of a solid base, the mouse is placed on top of a swivel-style base. This configuration lets users move their wrist to the left or right when resting or controlling the mouse. This creates a more comfortable feel, and can help reduce the chance of a repetitive stress injury.

Powered by two AAA batteries, the USB dongle/receiver can be stored inside the battery compartment, and there’s an on/off switch that can conserve battery life (although I generally forget to turn off the mouse). You have a choice of six colors, and part of the money that Smartfish receives from its products go to the Hospital for Special Surgery Rehabilitation Education Fund in New York.

The Travel pouch is a nice accessory to add if you want to travel a lot with the mouse, the circular pouch can be used as a mouse pad, and then it zips up into a half circle-sized mouse holder (it looks like a calzone when zipped up). A strap on the outside has a snap on it, which lets you attach the enclosed pouch onto a backpack or other item if you desire, plus there’s enough space if you want to store an additional item, like a cell phone or your keys.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $50 for the mouse, $15 for the travel pouch

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

USB Dual Mobile Charging Hub, by Qmadix As we acquire more and more i-devices and the like, recharging them while in the car is getting to be more of a hassle. While our mini-van has two vehicle charging ports (we used to call them cigarette lighter adapters), the addition of keeping a GPS unit charged means we're usually left to one port for the smartphone. When my wife wants to charge her phone on a long trip, we usually have to swap adapters.

So I was thrilled to receive this unit from Qmadix, which uses one of the vehicle charging ports, yet provides two USB slots that can charge two devices. So I can have my iPhone recharging while she recharges her iPod nano or her own smartphone. Yay!

The package comes with one Apple connector cable with the USB port; if you want to have a second device charging, you need to bring your own (or get another cable). But still, it's nice to have one additional device that we can charge during long trips in the van.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $24.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

TruConnect Mobile Broadband service, by TruConnect Mobile Mobile broadband service (3G or 4G) is great for those road warriors who travel at least once or more per month - paying $50 for almost anywhere, anytime access is definitely worth it for those always on-the-go members of your staff or family. But if you travel less, using these services seems like a waste of money. So the infrequent traveler ends up spending lots of money on things like hotel in-room broadband, which can cost up to $20 per night in cases.

TruConnect Mobile has an alternative option. For $4.99 per month, plus 3.9 cents a megabyte, you can get pay-as-you-go mobile broadband plan on a 3G network with the same kind of gear (an $80 Novatel Wireless Mi-Fi unit or $60 USB dongle) that the other services provide. TrueConnect works over the Sprint 3G network, so you should be able to find coverage in all of the major cities across the U.S.

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