Home and Office Gear Tech Treasures [2011 Cool Yule Tools]

Presenting the gems in your home or office environment.

They say that a man’s home is his castle – we figure that if you’re going to have a castle, it needs to be filled up with some really cool, high-tech stuff. If you’re working at a home office or just want to boost that home network in order to get a better connected home entertainment system up and running, the following products are great gift ideas:

They say that a man's home is his castle – we figure that if you're going to have a castle, it needs to be filled up with some really cool, high-tech stuff. If you're working at a home office or just want to boost that home network in order to get a better connected home entertainment system up and running, the following products are great gift ideas:

Watch a slideshow version of some of these products.

Products reviewed in this category

Time Capsule (3TB; Model MD033LL/A), by Apple

WNDR4500 N900 Dual Band Gigabit Router, by Netgear

Meteor Mic, by Samson

Amplifi PowerLine AV 500 4-Port Gigabit Switch, by D-Link

ThinkVision LT1421 LCD monitor, by Lenovo

Newport Station, by J5 Create

Wormhole KM Switch, by J5 Create

Wormhole Station, by J5 Create

Universal WiFi Range Extender (WN3000RP), by Netgear

Echo Smartpen (4GB), by Livescribe

Motormouse Mini-Cooper edition, by MotorMouse

Jabra Pro 9450, by GN Netcom

Wireless Touchpad, by Logitech

WES610N 4-Port Dual-Band N Entertainment Bridge with 4-Port Switch, by Cisco (Linksys)

N750 DB Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router, by Belkin

Ooma Telo Wireless Adapter, by Ooma

Artisan 837 Color Inkjet All-In-One, by Epson

Internet phone, by Bedol

The reviews:

Time Capsule (3TB; Model MD033LL/A), by Apple Apple’s Time Capsule is a clever combination of dual-radio, dual-band 300Mbps 802.11n wireless router, a four-port switch, and, in the case of the particular model reviewed, a 3TB hard disk drive that is perfect for use with Apple’s Time Machine continuous backup feature, now standard on Macs. Time Capsule mostly eliminates the need for RAID storage and manual backups, mostly because there may be a gap between writing new data to the Mac’s local hard drive and Time Machine running to back up the data to the Time Capsule – but that can be tuned to a user’s preference. There’s a big incentive to build your home or small-business network around a Time Capsule – three necessary devices in one.

Setup is easy if you have a Mac or even an iOS 5 device, as configuration is now built into these, but it would be nice if a standard HTTPS interface were included as well. Yes, there’s a downloadable utility to use the Time Capsule with Windows, but still. The Time Capsule has two separate radios, so two different WLANs can be operated at 2.4 and 5 GHz simultaneously. The built-in power supply eliminates the need for a power brick. There’s a clever guest networking feature that grants Internet access (and not network access) for visitors. Other features include a local USB print server, and a USB port that can be used to connect a shared external hard drive. Time Capsule can also be used to provision network storage without Time Machine, so PC users will find the product useful as well. A separate configuration utility is provided for Windows.

I’ve been using an older Time Capsule for some time, and the new model is noticeably faster. Two radios and the guest networking feature have both been quite useful. If you or that special someone on your gift list is a Mac user, it would be hard to imagine living without this one. If you’ve got a PC, well, get a Mac (see the review of the MacBook Air – also a fine gift – elsewhere in this package)!

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $299 (list, 2TB); $499 (list, 3TB)

Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

WNDR4500 N900 Dual Band Gigabit Router, by Netgear Ho, hum, another 802.11n router, you say? Hold on there, Santa, this one is different.

The inclusion of 3x3 MIMO allows up to 450Mbps, and this new router from Netgear has not one, but two of these – meaning 2x 450Mbps performance. Netgear’s dual-band, dual-radio 3x3 MIMO 802.11n access point applies the latest in W-Fi technology to an inexpensive home/small-business router. 

There are a lot of features here – four-port gigabit Ethernet switch, Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS; for easy pushbutton setup of secure connections), DLNA media sharing, USB peripheral sharing (including a print server) of two USB ports, guest access, dual firewalls (NAT and SPI), IPv6, and even parental controls. Guest access, in which guests can only get to the Internet and not the local LAN, is also included. Oddly, the feature set isn’t as complete as Netgear’s dual-radio (600Mbps each) WNDR3800 model, which can function as an Apple Time Machine server among its other capabilities. But for the ultimate in speed today, the WNDR4500 isn’t a bad choice at all. Even the manual is unusually detailed and complete. 

Setup was easy; there’s no CD or other downloaded software required, and you can use any browser-based device you’d care to. The Genie dashboard is easy to use, and it’s all very straightforward. No complaints from me – and 5-star giftability to boot. 

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars  

Price: $179.99 (Amazon)

Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

Meteor Mic, by Samson The eternal quest for excellent sound quality is, well, eternal. But legendary microphone manufacturers Samson (professionals know the name) has taken a big step towards producing the ultimate PC microphone with the Meteor Mic, a clever – and excellent-sounding – USB microphone. This is a condenser mic (professionals know the technology) with a large 25-mm diaphragm and 16-bit, 44.1/48 KHz response. 

The Meteor Mic features a clever design – there are three convenient fold-down legs that provide an adjustable angle when placed on a desk, and rubber tips provide a degree of mechanical isolation. There’s also an adapter for a traditional microphone stand. The Meteor Mic features a clickable mute button and a convenient headphone hack with a volume control – everything one might need for podcast recording and more. Installation is simple; no drivers are required with modern operating systems. And operation is easy – plug it into USB, configure the usual settings in Windows Control Panel or whatever PC/OS you use, and you’re on the air. 

So, how does it sound? Excellent! Tests with Windows Sound Recorder and really good Bose headphones left me asking for nothing more. There is a small issue with sound isolation – even with the rubber feet, taps and thumps can be picked up if one bumps whatever surface the Meteor Mic is sitting on. A regular microphone stand, though, solves those problems quickly, and should always be used for critical applications. 

The Meteor Mic is a big step up from built-in microphones, and will appeal to both musicians and podcasters. Its cool retro looks will attract attention even from non-audio-geeks, and the price is certainly right. As someone who often does recording, I’d add this to my arsenal in a heartbeat – and it’s a great gift (hint, hint). 

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars 

Price: $69.99 (Amazon) 

Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

Amplifi PowerLine AV 500 4-Port Gigabit Switch, by D-LinkLike other powerline networking equipment, this device will turn your existing power outlets into an Ethernet port, using the electrical wiring within your home to create a data network. Unlike other powerline adapters, this device (DHP-500) includes four Gigabit Ethernet ports that can then attach to the powerline network (other adapters basically include one Ethernet port). The system includes QoS Traffic Optimization and advanced software for prioritizing high-bandwidth traffic for those who require it. 

In the living room especially, the growth of connected devices that include Ethernet ports (TVs, Blu-ray players, game consoles, etc.) means you likely have locations where multiple devices could use Ethernet connectivity. If that location happens to also be in a place where wireless is spotty (if you have dead spots, walls or if the devices don’t include built-in Wi-Fi), then a device like this offers a great alternative. 

In my case, I could attach my Internet-capable TV, two game consoles and a Roku streaming media player to the DHP-500 and get Gigabit Ethernet connectivity (up to 500Mbps) for all of the devices. If you want to use the device in a small office setting, you could connect four computers to the adapter and run it through the powerline network, although I think most people will use this for home entertainment data devices. 

One last piece of advice – buy the starter kit (DHP-541), which includes the powerline adapter to connect to your home router, unless you already have an existing powerline network – it’s the same price anyway. 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars 

Price: $200

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

ThinkVision LT1421 LCD Monitor, by Lenovo Add-on monitors are one of the greatest innovations ever. Adding more screen space can improve productivity and convenience – say, when editing video, or when watching TV on one screen while working on, well, work stuff (yeah, let’s go with that), on another. While big, AC-powered LCD displays are common, smaller, portable add-on screens for notebooks have been hard to find. And second displays are usually inconvenient to use – while the notebook runs on batteries, the screen requires AC power. And even small screens have usually been heavy enough to discourage mobility.

Along comes the LT1421 from Lenovo, which connects to the notebook via USB. Nothing unusual going on here so far, but – here comes the amazing part – it’s also powered via USB. You can’t get more convenient than that, although the catch is that two USB ports are required in order to get enough power for the display. Installation was easy – install the driver (a restart is required), plug in the display, configure Windows' display settings to your liking, and you’re off. I tried the LT1421 with an XP-based notebook and set up the screen as an extended display, as in, move the mouse off one screen and shows up on the other. Lenovo, by the way, does their typically excellent job with the manual here. Other vendors should take note.

How does it look? Just fine. Resolution is fixed at 1366x768, but video performance is more than adequate and the LT1421 should be plenty for most mobile apps. This is a simple, intuitive product that really gets the job done.

A convenient slide-on protective cover that doubles as part of the unit’s stand is included. Houston (and everywhere else this holiday season), we (finally) have a portable display that will warm the hearts of notebook users this year – and long after.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $199.99 (direct)

Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

Newport Station Universal Video/Audio Over USB Docking Station, by J5 Create Docking stations can add a lot of convenience to any mobile-computer workspace, enabling easy reconfiguration between a desktop, where several peripheral devices are connected through different ports and connectors, and a mobile operating mode. Of particular interest at the desktop are ports for a second monitor and, of course USB, but also wired Ethernet in some cases.

Universal USB docking stations, which involve simply a single USB connection to the docking station, have been around for some time, and these by definition are universal, meaning you don’t have to buy a new one when you upgrade your notebook. They also put such devices squarely into gift territory, since the giver need not know what specific model of notebook the lucky receiver has.

The Newport Station from J5 Create is slim, stylish, and simple – a cylinder about 39 cm long with little rubber bumpers to prevent marring the surface upon which it sits, and lots of ports in the back – VGA with up to 1920x1200(!) resolution, 10/100 Ethernet, a three-port USB 2.0 hub, and stereo mic and speaker jacks. It’s compatible with both Windows and Macs. It does, however, require AC power (the adapter is included), and the installation of drivers on both PC and Mac platforms. Said installation is easy if one uses the latest releases from the firm’s website rather than the included CD. And don’t forget to push the power button on the end of the unit!

Video on the second screen looked fine at 1920x1200, but, as you might guess, responsiveness was a bit sluggish over USB. Other than that, though, this is a piece of cake – and likely highly useful for many people out there who want to create a desktop experience for their mobile computer.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $129.99 (Buy.com)

Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

Wormhole KM Switch, by J5 Create Getting a new computer is fun, but then the hard part sinks in when you try to figure out how to get all of your photos, music, videos and documents from the old computer to the new one. We've seen devices that help extract the files from an internal hard drive, but you'd think it would be easier than that. What would be great is a cable that connects between the old computer and the new computer, allowing you to drag and drop files and folders in a matter of seconds. 

That's the main aim of the Wormhole KM Switch from J5 Create. The "switch" is really just a 6-foot USB cable, and the process goes just like you would think - connect one port to the old computer, connect the other side to the new computer, and you're all set. Some software installs on each computer, allowing for the connection to allow the file transfer between the two computers. I haven't seen an easier method for getting files from one computer to another than this device. 

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