Additional Techie Gifts to Consider This Year [2010 Cool Yule Tools]

2010 Cool Yule Tools Supplemental Reviews

When we publish the annual Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide, we always have some additional products left over, and some of the “helper elves” decide to finish up what we started. Here are a bunch of additional reviews of tech and tech-related products to consider if you are still looking for some cool holiday gifts.

Controller-Based Wireless LAN Fundamentals, by Cisco PressBooks for the holidays? Absolutely! Real techies love to update their library and always enjoy learning something new. And no one can deny the importance of Cisco’s controller-based WLANs; they do, after all, lead the industry in sales and market share by a wide margin. And they got there without anyone claiming these products are easy to understand and use – they have enormous power and flexibility, but there’s a learning curve on the way to optimal installations.

Cisco Press has always done a great job of producing the books and other materials necessary to make the  most of Cisco technology, and the new volume Controller-Based Wireless LAN Fundamentals continues that tradition. The book opens with a little marketing on the justification for the controller-based approach (which, granted, remains controversial), and then digs into both the CAPWAP protocol that Cisco uses to control access points and the details of 802.11n. There are also chapters on security, network design, Cisco’s unified wireless architecture, troubleshooting, the WCS management platform, and multicast.

This book isn’t a tutorial (it would have received five stars if it had a little more comparative background info); it’s instead designed to present an overview of the key elements in Cisco’s WLAN product strategy. Regardless, it’s very well written, and even non-Cisco-using WLAN professionals will find it interesting and informative. There’s a copy-protected e-book version, which we didn’t review, but the content alone is worth the price of admission for the physical book. Check out the other volumes from Cisco Press as well – there’s something for every networking pro there, and don’t be surprised if your giftee curls up in a corner right after ripping the wrapping off of this one.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $54 (physical book, online price), $43.20 (eBook, Adobe DRM), $70.80 (both)

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

Wi-Spy DBx (device finder directional antenna) and Chanalyzer Pro, by metageekI’ve always been a big fan of the Wi-Spy family of WLAN spectrum analyzers, used to evaluate interference in Wi-Fi installations, ever since their first 2.4-GHz.-only $99 special (which is still available, by the way, if your gift budget is limited). And Wi-Spy got a good review in the last Network World comparative test of spectrum analyzers. The latest edition of their top-of-the-line dual-band DBx (which we tested with the latest firmware) and the latest release of their Chanalyzer Pro software continue the tradition. The user interface of what was already a very easy-to-use product is much improved with additional functions. The optional “device finder” directional antenna lets you walk around looking for an ever-stronger signal from a suspected interferer, and hopefully finding the offending radiator.

Granted, a DBx with top-of-the-line software is going to set you back about a grand – but small businesses that depend upon Wi-Fi will find this is a gift that keeps on giving, as the potential for interference never goes away, and will likely worsen over time. We recommend, therefore, that all serious Wi-Fi installations have access to a spectrum analyzer to either confirm or rule out interference when performance problems arise. And if all you need is 2.4 GHz. analysis, prices here are very reasonable, again starting at that mere $99.

So – if you have a serious Wi-Fi user or network manager on your gift list this year, consider Wi-Spy. And don’t forget to check out their ever-expanding line of other products, including the terrific AirPcap pack capture tools (also top-rated in a Network World review) and the free (in case you’re out of funds at this point) InSSIDer 2 Wi-Fi scanner/discovery tool. This one is open source, in the event you’d like to whip up a custom version for that special someone this year.

Cool Yule Rating: 5 stars

Price: $599-$999

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

AmpliTube iRig iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad Electric Guitar Interface, by IK MultimediaIf you’re a musician, nothing brightens your holiday more than a new gadget for your studio. And just in case you’re not likely to get that original ’59 Les Paul (for you non-guitarists out there, these can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars!) that’s been on your list for, oh, forever, there’s nothing better than a new effects box to at least freshen up your tone a bit.

The iRig is a tiny tube-shaped interface that connects an electric guitar to an iPad (in my case) or related Apple product and provides a headset (or line out) output as well. Download the free app (AmpliTube) from the App Store, or spend a little more on the enhanced version of that app (you’ll want to do this – it’s got a lot more functionality and better sound for very little additional investment), plug into your amp or headphones, and off you go – a personal, portable effects studio that’s very similar to their PC-based product with a great real-world-like interface and at an amazingly low price.

I tested the iRig with an iPad at Salmon Run Studios, Farpoint Group’s media production facility. I’ve been playing electric guitar for a very long time, and I’ve used dozens of effects boxes and amps over the years – and I’m very sensitive to responsiveness, tone, and especially noise – other than what I’m generating with the guitar, at least. The interface is easy to use, the flexibility is amazing, and the noise level manageable in most cases, although it’s not as quiet as the PC-based gear I use in the studio. There are several expansion possibilities, including a $10 four-track recorder. While I might not record my next album with the iRig, I’m looking forward to taking it on the road – or at least upstairs. Pretty cool!

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 stars

Price: $39.99 (list); AmpliTube versions from free to $19.99; additional expansion functions $3 to $10

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

PowerTel PT500 Cordless Phone with PowerTel PT601 Wrist Shaker, by AmplicomWe all know someone who has a bit of trouble hearing, and many of these folks find hearing aids inconvenient or otherwise irritating to use (the sound quality can be just horrid, I’m told). But all that’s required to make many of these folks happy is just a (cordless, of course!) telephone handset with a little more audio output – and the Powertel line of products has established a notable reputation in this area.

The 500 can get really, really loud – I’m not hearing-impaired, so I can’t really judge the quality under these conditions, but the company does advertise low-distortion sound. And while the ringer is loud and the handset has a flashing light to also indicate ringing, there’s also the companion model 601 Wrist Shaker vibrating/visual-alert accessory for the PT handset line, in a (large) wristwatch format. I suspect these products will be of interest not just for the hard of hearing, but also to those in noisy industrial environments – and even in such venues as recording studios, where (with the ringer muted) noisy phones might crush the mood, or volumes are so loud (ah, heavy metal, my one real weakness) that one couldn’t hear the phone regardless.

The phone is full-featured, with big buttons (a personal favorite of mine), and good sound quality. There’s a convenient one-touch button that enables an immediate 35 dB volume boost, useful in many settings, and even a tone (equalizer) control – wow! The Wrist Shaker works as advertised, but the Velcro strap isn’t well designed – it’s hard to get a good fit. Overall, though, while specialized, this product set has a lot of appeal. And, hey, Amplicom, how about a Bluetooth version of the Shaker? That would be a great gift for a much larger audience.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $139.95 for the PT500; $79.95 for the PT601 Wrist Shaker

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

BV-2322 Air SyncHD Wireless HDMI Bridge, by brite-ViewWe reviewed the little brother to the BV-2322 (the HDelight) for the initial 2010 Holiday Gift Guide, and the performance of that product was impressive except in the range department – link quality was quite sensitive to antenna orientation, and the HDelight seems likely to find a home only in PC-based (a USB connection is required) links that start and end in the same room. That’s why we were so excited to the BV-2322, which promises significantly improved range and AC power on both ends, while still providing wireless 1080p service indistinguishable from a cable. The concept is the same as the HDelight, but the transmitter box is bigger.

We set up the BV-2322 between an Oppo BDP-83 Blu-Ray player and a 1080p monitor - and that setup is a snap, by the way: connect the HDMI cables, power both units on and – that’s it! We then played a little media, and the results were, well, just great; flawless, in fact. The big test was to extend the range and wow! That same flawless video, but straight up through two floors! I really was just blown away; this is an amazing product that I can’t recommend highly enough.

If you (or someone you really like) have a need to run a long HDMI cable – think twice, and then get a BV-2322, which might be even cheaper than the corresponding HDMI cable, especially considering any installation required. This is an outstanding product that addresses an obvious need in so many home entertainment settings, and which will please both techies and non-techies alike.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars (plus!)

Price: $200 (direct)

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

Q2 Bluetooth headset, by BlueAnt WirelessThe BlueAnt Q2 is the successor to its predecessor, the well received Q1. I’m happy to report they’ve taken a good thing and made it better.

The Q2 comes with BlueAnt’s voice recognition technology, so you can easily tell it who to call, when to hang up, etc. The biggest differentiator, though, is the ability of the Q2 to pair with two phones. This is a welcome feature to anyone who carries two phones (like me), because if you’re addicted to Bluetooth devices (like me), you’ve always had to carry two headsets around. No more. The Q2 brings that number mercifully back to one, where it belongs.

Pairing headsets in the past used to present a challenge to non-tech-oriented people. Pairing the Q2 with the first phone is easy, as you’d expect, but what about that second phone? Press a button and say “connect me”. That’s it. You’re done. Now I have one headset that works in tandem with my Xperia X10 (personal) and my Blackberry (work) smartphones, and that’s been great.

The double pairing worked great with my ancient Blackberry, and less great with my Xperia, which was no surprise (nothing seems to work perfectly with that phone). Most of the time, though, the headset did a great job staying connected to both phones. There were times the headset would be separated from a phone by two floors, and keep the connection, which speaks to its long range. Battery life is admirable, and like the Jawbone Icon, it has an on/off toggle switch, which also works well.

My Android device, a Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, experiences intermittent problems when the volume gets way too low. Well, the Q2 more than makes up for any volume shortcomings on the phone side, because the thing can blow out your ear if you turn it up too high. The Q2 is a good choice for anyone hard of hearing.

Like all other mobile devices and phone this year, it uses micro USB to charge itself. Again, this is fantastic because it means you only need one cord when you’re traveling.

The only real drawback I experienced: it was slightly less comfortable to use over long periods of time as opposed to some other headsets I’ve tried. It takes about an hour to notice anything, and you can quickly switch to the other ear, so it’s not a big deal. And that’s easily offset by the fact it connects seamlessly to two phones at the same time.

BlueAnt proves again it’s one of the top manufacturers of Bluetooth headsets with the wonderfully capable Q2. It’s a handsome, solidly built headset with excellent audio clarity and solid battery life. I highly recommend the Q2 for anyone juggling two or more phones. And it works pretty great even if you’re old- fashioned and have just one phone.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $75

Product Web site

Reviewed by Dan Hunt

Stretch freehands gloves, featuring Thinsulate technology by 3MThe “Stretch” glove by freehands is a great companion for people who need to use their touch-screen smartphones while outside. Freehands says the gloves were designed for skiers and snowboarders, but I question whether it would provide ample warmth in all but the warmest of ski conditions. The reason? The tips of the index finger and thumb flip-up to allow the user to utilize the touch-screen device while leaving the rest of the hand in the warmth of the glove. This means that the cold and elements can seep in unexpectedly on occasion.

Because the tip of your finger is exposed, using a touch screen works exactly as it does when you’re not wearing the gloves.  It wasn’t until testing these gloves that I realized how infrequently I use my thumb to manipulate my phone, and if I had a choice I’d prefer the thumb didn’t “convert”.  Perhaps other people use their thumbs, though.

The material that makes up the palm area grips pretty well, which is nice.  Interestingly, the gloves have four small magnets built into the thumb and index finger, which secures the tip of the thumb and finger to the back of the glove when “converted”.  That actually worried me, because anyone who’s ever experimented with placing a magnet against a computer screen has probably learned fast not to do it again.  Hopefully, the magnets aren’t powerful enough to do damage – I wasn’t about to experiment with a new phone – but I felt that was a feature the gloves would probably be better off without.  To quote the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, “opinions vary”.

Overall, these gloves work well.  If you’re tethered to your phone and deal with snow every winter, or know someone who is, they’re a good gift for yourself or a friend.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $30

Product Web site

Reviewed by Dan Hunt

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