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Cool Yule Tools 2012

CONNECT: Networky gift ideas for the holidays

Routers, servers and hubs, oh my!

By , Network World
November 19, 2012 08:09 AM ET

Network World - Opening a new gadget for the holidays isn't any fun if you can't connect to the InterWeb or other devices. Sometimes you need to upgrade your network, and they often make great gifts, too!

Holiday gift guide 2012

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

The following are some ideas for connection-type products, as part of our 2012 Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide.

Note: Products are listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.

Netgear Wi-Fi booster for Mobile

$40

Netgear Wi-Fi booster

I was a bit scared about losing my Wi-Fi signal the day that I had a satellite dish installed at my house. The guys who installed it put the wireless router down on the first floor, which is two floors below my office. While the connection was adequate, there have certainly been some nerve-wracking days when it takes forever for a website to load.

But it appears my prayers have been answered with the Netgear Wi-Fi booster for Mobile. Before setting the extender up, I was only getting 62% of the signal over the 2.4GHz wireless spectrum. I've got full power now that the booster is set up. It took just a matter of minutes to plug the booster into an electrical outlet on the second floor, reset my router and voila we are in business.

The device uses Push 'N' Connect using Wi-Fi Protected Setup, which allows for a quick and secure connection. It works with all security standards including WPA-PSK, WPA2-PSK, mixed mode and WEP. Netgear says the booster will work with any 802.11b/g/n router or gateway (on the 2.4GHz frequency), so you don't have to worry if your router/gateway is from another vendor.

- Ryan Francis

Netzero 4G Hotspot

$50 (plus data charges)

The NetZero 4G Hotspot is a nifty device that uses 4G connectivity to create a traveling Wi-Fi network. You can connect up to eight Wi-Fi devices and with battery life of six-plus hours, this hotspot makes a cool gift for any mobile user who's grown weary of Wi-Fi hopping.

NetZero 4G hotspot

Before getting to the setup, it's worth discussing NetZero's data plans. I used the free plan because I was just testing. But this free plan only lasts one year and only gives you 200MB a month, which is not enough for much more than email and Web browsing. So if you are serious about this device you'll want to pay up for a better plan. It's also an option to eschew a stand-alone device and use the mobile hotspot feature on your smartphone, though that can be a real battery and data drainer, and will add an extra $15 per month to your cell phone bill in order to activate this feature.

The NetZero prices are as follows: $9.95 per month for 500MB, $19.95 for 1GB, $34.95 for 2GB, and $49.95 for 4GB. You can also control data speeds. Choosing LightSpeed caps your downloads to 1Mbps, while WarpSpeed allows you to reach 10Mbps. Free and $9.95 plans are already set to LightSpeed; plans that cost $19.95 are automatically set to WarpSpeed. You can adjust the speed at the NetZero Web site.

Out of the box the battery is near dead so you should plug it in. A micro-USB cable and wall charger are included. Turn the device on by holding down a small power button on the left side. One of the best features is a 2-inch LCD screen that lights up on the device and provides information such as signal strength, battery life, 4G connection status, amount of data transferred, number of devices attached, the name of the encrypted NetZero network, and the password.

I connected three devices: a Windows 7 laptop, a Motorola Droid Razr Maxx smartphone and an iPad. All three located the NetZero network quickly and I connected using the password from the LCD screen.

Inside my Boston apartment, 4G connectivity is spotty so the device only showed one bar out of five for signal strength. However, when I moved the device to my front window the signal strength improved to three or four bars. When I took the hotspot device and my iPad outside to a nearby park the signal was even better at four or five bars, and the Internet speed was solid (4G connectivity around Boston is considered top-notch).

A few complaints: The NetZero device is a tad big - it will fit in your pocket but not comfortably. It also took a while to fully charge an empty battery (around three hours). In addition, the Wi-Fi range it promises, 150 feet, does not hold true. Signal strength on my iPad dropped when I walked 30 feet across the room. You could probably still get a signal at 150 feet, but it will be very slow.

I haven't used similar hotspot devices so I can't speak to how the NetZero Hotspot stands up to competitors, but for the price of $49.98 (down from $99.95) this is an affordable and thoughtful gift for your favorite road warrior.

- Shane O'Neill

Targus Ultralife USB hub with Ethernet

Targus Ultralife USB Hub with Ethernet Port

$40

If you suddenly find yourself using a new ultrabook or very thin notebook, you may be surprised to see a lack of USB ports, or the elimination of an Ethernet port altogether. In order to create a notebook that is thinner and thinner, things like these larger ports (or at least providing many of them) seem to go away.

So you may want to pick up this device from Targus, which provides you with three additional USB ports for adding things like a mouse, storage device or other USB-based peripheral. This Ultralife USB Hub also features an Ethernet jack, which can provide you with wired Internet access on the off chance you can't find a Wi-Fi connection (or in a hotel room, where wired is likely going to be better than wireless anyway).

Like other accessories in the Ultralife line, this device is very stylish, colored with a brushed bronze look, and a hole that serves no particularly useful function (other than matching the holes found on other Ultralife-branded products). I suppose you could grab a carabiner clip and connect it to your laptop bag, but in reality it's probably just easier to put this inside the bag alongside other gadgets.

- Keith Shaw

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