Miscellaneous Tech Treasures [2011 Cool Yule Tools]

Random goodness for the gadget lover on your list

In our 12th year of presenting our Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide, we’ve done our best to try to categorize the gift ideas into different groups – portable entertainment, travel gear, etc. While many of these ideas could, in theory, be placed there, sometimes we just feel that the device/gift idea should just be placed in “miscellaneous.” So that’s what we did with some of these. Enjoy!

Watch a slideshow version of some of these products.

Products reviewed in this categorySolo 15L Flashlight, by GoalZero

Link dual-output LED flashlight, by ICON

Acme Writing Tools, by Acme Studios

U*Control, Silver Bullet RC Helicopter

HELO TC Touch-Controlled Helicopter, by Griffin

AppSpeed Gyro Controlled RC Monster Truck, by Dexim

Boogie Board paperless writing tablet, by Brookstone (available at Staples.com)

Dulce Gusto Circolo KRUPS coffee machine, By Nescafe

My First Bacon, by ThinkGeek

The reviews

Solo 15L Flashlight, by GoalZeroWhen the GoalZero Solo Flashlight first came in for testing, I thought it would be a cool product for people who love camping. I tested it in nice weather and starting writing my review. Then we got an October snowstorm in the Northeast and half of my coworkers were without power for days – my opinion of this solar-powered flashlight changed. It’s perfect when you have no power! And yes, it would still be great for camping.

Just put this flashlight in the sun (it works in mild shade as well) for 8 hours and it will give you about 2 hours of light. It puts out 15 lumens from its five LEDs. If you’re like me and that means nothing to you, it means that it’s really bright for a flashlight. It’s decently small, much smaller than a regular flashlight that requires D batteries, that’s for certain. I first tested it by putting it outside in my back yard, but after that I started storing it on a window sill. It still charges on there. One last specification that GoalZero would probably like you to know about but doesn’t mean much to me is its aluminum body, “for added strength.”

I’m a fan of this little flashlight. Especially because it’s so low in price, considering you’ll never pay for a single battery for it. So if you like camping and would prefer not to tinkle in the dark, or if you live in a part of the country that can’t seem to keep the electricity on for more than a few months, or if you simply want to illuminate the dark corners of a creepy basement without looking for good batteries, you should check this out.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $13.99

Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Link dual-output LED flashlight, by ICON You never know when you might need a flashlight, whether it’s an anticipated power outage due to an impending hurricane, blizzard or ice storm, or if you just happen to drop something down a small and dark area within your office. Luckily, if you have this flashlight on hand, you can quickly illuminate the area to find your way out of the dark or find what you’re looking for.

The Link has a modern design – it has a nice grip to it and includes a fully integrated carabiner clip, and is solid enough due to its aluminum frame to not shatter when you drop it. The flashlight has two settings, allowing up to 50 lumens of light on its high setting. You can also click the back part to drop down to a low setting of about 6 lumens. The Link creates LED light, is powered by a single AA battery, and is waterproof up to one meter for 30 minutes. The light weight (3.1 ounces) makes it easy to clip onto a back pack or put in your glove compartment or laptop bag for easy access whenever you need some quick light.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $27.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Acme Writing Tools, by Acme Studios At first glance you might say, “this is just a pen!” and for the most part you’d be right. However, these are pens with design and style! For example, the ones we got had a design by the late Verner Tanton, a famed Danish designer. From a “technical” standpoint, the “writing tools” are two pens – one is a ballpoint pen and the other is a rollerball ink style. We also received an alternate front section that could replace the rollerball ink with a capacitive tip (kind of like a nub), which lets you use the pen as a writing tool for an iPad, iPhone or other touch-enabled device.

Because of the amount of writing that I do, nice pens are usually lost on me, which means I also usually lose them easily (in the wash, in the junk drawer, in the car, etc.). Buying me an expensive pen might not cut it, but if you have someone on your list who enjoys finer pens in their work, head to the Acme Studios Web site and check out some of their other designers and styles.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars

Price: $130

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

U*Control Silver Bullet RC Helicopter, by Brookstone This mini remote control (RC) helicopter has flexible nylon rotor blades, landing gear, and built-in LED strobes for, what else, night flights and landings. Brookstone calls it “easy-to-fly”, and I’d agree with that assertion after some practice. My first impression was that the helicopter is delicate, but found that it’s more durable than it looks. It took a few tries to get the hang of the remote control whereby I crashed the helicopter into walls, and dropped it onto a tile floor from 10 feet up. The only fix I had to make after these first attempts was to re-attach the stabilizer bar. (Parents might be glad to know that crashing into walls doesn’t damage paint or woodwork.) However, if you’re worried about breakage, two sets of extra rotors and stabilizers are included. You can also buy a replacement plan for one year ($3.99) or two years ($5.99).

As for ease-of-use, my first attempt had it spinning in one direction, and I couldn’t get any height. Following the simple instructions included, I used the stabilizer trim button on the remote control until it stopped spinning in one direction, and I was able to get lift off. Once in the air, the remote control’s throttle and right and left turn controls are used to navigate. It took a few attempts to get used to the directional controls, but after that, it was a snap.

Six AA batteries are required (but not included). Charging the batteries takes about 20 minutes, but be warned that the charge holds only about 15 minutes, so you’ll need to recharge it fairly often. Visually, while the helicopter takes off, and is in the air, it’s really cool to watch. You’ll want to take it outside to see how high and fast it can go, but it’s labeled for indoor use only. Overall, this gadget is fun, durable, requires no assembly, and is easy to operate after some practice. It says it’s for 8 years and up, but I’d recommend for slightly older children because patience is required to get it up and going initially.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $29.95

Reviewed by Jodie Naze

HELO TC Touch-Controlled Helicopter, by GriffinI love flying, especially when there are no baggage fees, security lines, or bad food, and when my life doesn’t depend on the outcome of the landing. Allow me to introduce the Griffin HELO TC iOS-controlled helicopter. The Griffin HELO features a sleek design that is not unlike the Apache army helicopter, and with an ample set of innovative features that match its looks it’s not a slouch in the performance department either.

The HELO TC is controlled by infrared signaling and soft controls from a downloadable app for iOS-based devices, be it the iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch (sorry, Android users). A swipe pad controls the helicopter’s throttle and elevation, while the i-device’s accelerometer steers the copter with directional tilt. An included “flight deck” plugs into the headphone jack to help communicate your controls to the copter (AAA batteries are not included, but you can also charge the helicopter with a USB cable).

The app boasts impressive features, in addition to the throttle and elevation, you can also use a soft control joystick. You can also record flight patterns and recall them for later use. Different channels also allow up to three separate HELOs to fly in the same airspace, and there’s an emergency button that can delicately land the copter if things go awry, or when you’re done flying for the day.

The helicopter does have a few downsides. If you want to fly in bright sunlight, be advised the infrared link can be easily interfered with (which isn’t great when the copter is 20 feet in the air). If you do fly out of range and crash, you have to remember to turn the throttle off – if you don’t, once it’s back in range the HELO can come back to life quickly, causing some unpredictable results. Sometimes the app would stop responding, and the only way to re-establish a link was to exit out of the app and restart.

These are some minor drawbacks but at a below-$50 price tag, this is a bargain compared with some of the more expensive helicopter flying devices on the market.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $49.98

Reviewed by: Armen Brown

AppSpeed Gyro Controlled RC Monster Truck, by DeximJust in case you thought you had seen everything that an iPhone (or iPod touch) could do, here comes Dexim and its iOS-device controlled monster truck toy. The package includes a small RF adapter that you plug into the bottom of your iPhone/iPod/iPad, along with a quick-charge battery charger for the toy monster truck (it's powered by four AAA batteries). The free app (AppSpeed) is used to drive the truck - you can either use your fingers to move the truck forward, backward and make turns, or you can use the accelerometer on the i-device and tilt left, right, down and back to drive the truck. I preferred using the touch app, it was a bit easier to maneuver the truck around this way. There's also some preset modes that let you do three things with the truck - you can make it spin, do zig zags, or even dance to music on the app.

It's a cute little system, and would be recommended for people on your lists who already have an iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, and who enjoy playing with RF toys (such as my 10-year-old nephew).

Cool yule rating: 4 stars

Price $69.90 (list)

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Remington Touch Control Beard and Stubble TrimmerRemember that "guy moment" on "Seinfeld" when George Costanza wanted to combine his two favorite things – sex and food? So he hid a pastrami sandwich next to the bed and tried to sneak bites without his girlfriend noticing? The Remington Touch Control Beard and Stubble Trimmer is a bit like that – it combines two guy things – shaving and gadgets.

This device not only does a great job trimming your beard, moustache, stubble, etc., with its titanium, self-sharpening blades, it has an LED readout and push button controls that let you select from up to 175 trimming lengths – from 0.4mm to 18mm. And if that’s not enough, there are three speeds. We recommend the fastest.

The Remington device plugs into the wall and takes about 90 minutes to charge. Then it’s good for about 40 minutes of trimming. So, just pick the Hollywood celebrity three-day beard look that you want, and set your trimmer accordingly.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $49.99

Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Boogie Board paperless writing tablet, by Brookstone (available at Staples.com)This “tablet” is a modern version of those old toys where you could draw pictures with a hard plastic stylus, then when you wanted to erase the image you lifted up the plastic sheet and start all over again with more notes or drawings. You could probably still get some of those toys at the dollar store, or you could spend about $40 and get this new version – which comes with a pressure-sensitive LCD screen and an included plastic stylus.

At first glance you’d think this was cool, under the assumption that for $40 you would have electronics that would save/store the image or otherwise capture the stuff you were drawing or writing. But you’d be wrong. Just like those old toys, it’s gone when you hit the erase button. The instructions, in fact, gleefully tell you, “If you want to preserve what you wrote or save a cool picture or doodle, take a picture!” Bwah-ha-hah! You slay me, Brookstone instruction booklet.

Also, the device runs on batteries, but you can’t replace them – once the battery is depleted (the helpful Brookstone booklet says it can erase 50,000 times), the unit is dead, and again, the helpful guide advises you to “please discard as you would a battery, or contact your local authority on recyclable materials).

The only place where I can see this being useful is to place it on a refrigerator to leave notes for other family members, a la Brady Bunch episodes from 1972, or to hand it to one of you children as a toy to either doodle with or practice their writing.

Cool Yule rating: 2 stars

Price: $40

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Dulce Gusto Circolo KRUPS coffee machine, By NescafeIf your office already has a Keurig K-Cup machine, you know how awesome it is to just pop a cup in the tray and create your own single-serving cup of coffee, compared with the old method of brewing it in a regular coffee pot that none of your co-workers ever clean or refill. Like those machines, the Dulce Gusto Circolo KRUPS machine from Nescafe aims to allow for single-serving cups, but with a slight difference – they aim to add other flavors like cappuccino or espresso, but with additional "flavor capsules" that mimic the foam of those flavors (as well as hot chocolate).

This is done through the machine's Control Lever, a manual process that lets the user decide how much strength and mixture to put in their cup. Unlike the automated process of the Keurig machine, if you want stronger coffee you can add less water during the pouring process. Most of our testers were unimpressed with this, however, as they expected an automated process and seemed annoyed that they would have to sit there and pour their own instead of pushing a button and letting the machine do all the work.

Another nice touch on this machine is that it alternates between hot and cold beverages – in addition to all of the coffees, the machine can make iced tea (we only saw a peach-flavored tea available, however). The switch is achieved through water and a heating element inside the device. Because of this feature, it also means users have to add their own water through a plastic reservoir in the back of the unit, unlike the other K-Cup machines which are usually attached to a water line.

While most of our testers enjoyed the chance to have some new flavors of coffee to try, in the end the additional work involved turned them off and they went back to their K-Cup machine. If you don't have that kind of competition, you may find this interesting to use in the home, but you'd really really have to like the flavors that Nescafe is offering (although in theory, these could work with other K-Cups). But you'd still have all of that manual labor.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars

Price: About $250 (Amazon)

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

My First Bacon, by ThinkGeekMy First Bacon, aka “Mr. Bacon”, is a plush stuffed “animal” (object? food stuff?) that belts out the phrase “I’m bacon!” when you squeeze him. He’s awesome because true geeks know that everything goes better with bacon.

I figure he was created to sway toddlers away from vegetarianism (I spelled that correctly on the first try, by the way), because what’s more adorable than a plushy you want to eat?  Nothing.

He’s actually pretty substantial at 19 inches tall. Doesn’t weigh much. Runs on batteries. Highly recommended for babies, toddlers, and man-children who love bacon. 

Dogs are oddly unimpressed.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $14.99

Reviewed by Dan Hunt

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