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

Presenting the gems in your home or office environment.

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Some side benefits - you can use a keyboard and mouse on one computer to control the second computer - for example, maybe the second computer is a smaller netbook or tablet that doesn't have a good keyboard and mouse option. You can also copy something to the clipboard on one machine and paste it on the second. 

The only downside on this - it only works with Windows PCs (Windows 7, Vista, XP and Windows 2000). I would have loved if I could transfer files from a Windows PC to a Macintosh, or between two Macs. Perhaps we'll see a universal model that works with both systems soon. 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars 

Price: $19.99 (Buy.com) 

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Wormhole Station, by J5 Create Like the Wormhole KM Switch, the Wormhole Station allows connection between two Windows PC, creating an instant link so you can drag-and-drop files and folders from one computer to the other. This also allows keyboard and mouse control on the second computer, good for systems like netbooks or tablets that might not have a good keyboard or mouse.

Unlike the switch (which is just two USB cables), the larger Wormhole Station acts as a docking station for the first system as well (geared towards notebooks, but I suppose you could use this with a desktop as well), giving additional USB ports and three card reader slots (MicroSD, SD/MMC and MemoryStick). The two extra USB slots are nice to have, especially when using with a smaller notebook that limits the number of USB ports on its system.

As I mentioned with the Wormhole KM Switch, this is the easiest and fastest way to move files from one system to another, and would be a nice addition if you are getting a new PC. In addition to the file transfer, you can share a clipboard (copy on one computer, paste on the second), or just use one mouse to control the two systems.

My biggest complaint with this is that this only works with Windows systems - it would be nice for the software to work with mixed systems (one Mac, one Windows), or even a Mac version that could transfer between two Macs. Hopefully that's a future product.

If you're looking to just do file transfer between two systems, go with the less expensive KM Switch version. If you need the additional functionality of extra USB ports and a card reader, this is the one for you.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $99 (Buy.com)

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Universal WiFi Range Extender (WN3000RP), by Netgear This device aims to extend the range of your existing Wi-Fi network, to help reach rooms where the existing coverage is weak or non-existent. The unit plugs in about halfway between your existing router and the room that you want to fill up with wireless to create a secondary network. Once connected, the network should relay your data from the clients down to the router and then out to the Internet. 

Setup was moderately easy - newbies might have some difficulty, but the instructions do a pretty good job of explaining what to do. Basically, you plug in the range extender, and then connect to its own internal WiFi network with a Mac or PC via the browser. A software wizard then runs you through the rest, you tell the extender what the SSID and password is for your router, and then the software does the rest, communicating with the router and then setting up a secondary network with the same name, but an "_EXT" extension. In a sense, it creates the second network (fortunately, you can give it the same password). This was slightly different from a Cisco/Linksys range extender that I tested earlier in the year, which used the same SSID (and possibly created some more problems later). 

Another strange issue occurred after using the extender - my Internet broadband bandwidth dropped significantly, but it's possible that was just a small glitch - after disconnecting and reconnecting, I was able to get most of my bandwidth back (and it could have just been a temporary glitch with the service provider). I still have some doubts about whether giving up some bandwidth (because of the relay occurring) is worth the extended range (because I could just relocate the router), we'll see how it goes. I definitely preferred this approach for setup compared with the Cisco/Linksys version. Another nice feature is that if you don’t want to use this device as a range extender, you can use it as a wireless bridge to connect non-wireless Internet devices (shocking! Some of those still exist!) to your wireless network. 

This may not be the first choice on your list for a holiday gift, but it certainly can solve Wi-Fi connection issues for homes where you aren't currently getting good Wi-Fi and you don't feel like or want to relocate the router (I'm a masochist for projects like that, anyway). 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars 

Price: $66.53 (Amazon)

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Echo Smartpen (4GB), by LivescribeAs a student, I really liked the Echo Smartpen. This is a great gift idea for other students or anyone who takes a lot of handwritten notes in meetings.  It’s also ideal for slow writers or auditory learners.

Here's what it does -- as you’re writing notes on the special paper, the Echo records the pen strokes as well as the audio from the room (either you talking or, if you're in a lecture, the professor/teacher). Later, you can place the pen on the notes, and it will replay what was being said when those notes were written. You can also scan your notes and upload the recording into your computer, thus making it easier to share notes from class with peers or to review at the end of the year for a final exam. The Livescribe dot paper uses regular paper printed with a unique pattern of tiny microdots. The pattern allows a smartpen to capture everything it writes or draws on dot paper. The Echo comes with a small notebook with 50 pages. You can also buy additional notebooks separately or print your own from Livescribe.

Setup is really simple and so is the use. If you don't want to write with the pen, you can just choose to record the audio. The notebook also comes with a calculator on the inside front cover. Plus, you can purchase apps to go with the pen. The test app is a piano, but I have no rhythm or musical ability so the app was lost on me. However, there are a bunch of other apps you can buy including a dictionary, an app with key travel phrases in foreign languages, or assistance with geometry. There are also game apps like Sudoku and Hangman.

With 4 GB of memory, you can record up to 400 hours of audio, 64,000 pages of notes, or hundreds of apps. The battery life lasts for about 6 hours.

Personally, I think it’s a really cool idea and very helpful when taking lots of notes while listening to someone. The pen is a little bulky, but not terrible overall. This would make a great gift for any student in your life.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $134.30

Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Motormouse Mini-Cooper edition, by MotorMouse I've always enjoyed the quirky mice made by MotorMouse, in which the wireless computer mouse is designed like a sleek sports car, with a variety of different color options. The battery and the USB dongle reside in the back trunk of the car, allowing for easy portability. 

The latest version, however, designed after the Mini Cooper, is a disappointment. In trying to make the mouse look exactly like a Mini Cooper, the design creates a mouse that is uncomfortable to use. Unlike the sleek, rounded version of the sports car models, the Mini Cooper has a high roof, causing the height of the mouse to jump higher than a normal mouse. Unless you have very large hands, the additional height causes discomfort when you’re trying to use the left or right mouse buttons, as well as the scroll wheel. 

I’d only recommend this if you have someone on your list who has very large hands and is a Mini Cooper devotee – if you still want to get them a unique sports-car-related mouse, check out the smoother/sleeker and more comfortable sports car models. 

Cool Yule rating: 1 star  

Price: $55 on Motormouse.us.com Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Jabra Pro 9450, by GN Netcom This system consists of a small base station and a headset that connects to a regular deskphone (via phone cables) as well as to a PC (via USB). When configured correctly, the user can receive phone calls from their desk phone on the headset, as well as use a deskphone application (such as Skype or Google Talk, among others). The system is designed for companies that are looking to move to a unified communications platform, allowing people to continue to use their deskphone and one headset for both systems. This can also be a good system for a remote teleworker to use, connecting their PC to the same headset as a desk system. 

The wireless headset operates on DECT 6.0, which lets you walk up to 400 feet away from the base station while on a call, and comes with an over-the-head style, or a smaller, like a cell phone headset wearing style. The Jabra PC Suite software provides some configuration applications and the ability to switch between the deskphone and the regular phone and put one call on hold while talking on the other one. I also got some audio to stream to the headset (with some difficulty, however, the overall setup is not as set-and-forget as you’d like it to be). 

This isn’t the world’s best holiday gift idea, but you should consider this for any of your employees who may be expected to take more phone calls via a softphone application on their PC, but still needs a traditional desk phone, and one headset that can control both systems. 

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars  

Price: Between $200 and $250

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Wireless Touchpad, by LogitechI’ve never been a big fan of the touchpad on notebooks – they’re always too small, and when I’m using the keyboard the bottoms of my hands tend to activate the sensors on them. So when traveling, I tend to bring along a small travel mouse for all of my PC navigation needs. 

Maybe what I need is a larger touchpad, which is what Logitech made here with its Wireless Touchpad. The external device offers a 5-inch multi-touch touchpad that connects to a PC or Mac via a USB dongle (2.4GHz wireless). The touchpad connected easily and is powered by two AA batteries, and it has an on/off switch to save battery life. 

The bigger size of the device didn’t necessarily tame my dislike of touchpads – I’d still likely bring along my travel mouse instead of this. However, for people who really like using a touchpad and want something bigger (for tasks that require more space on the touchpad), this is a very nice device. I’m not sure whether this will make it to the top of your holiday wish list, but if you have anyone who has been griping about their small touchpad, they can go wireless with this unit. 

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars  

Price: $49.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

WES610N 4-Port Dual-Band N Entertainment Bridge with 4-Port Switch, by Cisco (Linksys) While most Wi-Fi users are familiar with connecting PCs and similar endpoints to a wireless LAN, there is more – much more – that Wi-Fi can be used for. A popular application at my house is creating bridges between networks over Wi-Fi, typically using a “game adapter” that is essentially Ethernet on one side and Wi-Fi on the other. So, imagine such a product that can bridge devices via Ethernet and the home’s wireless network, but with a built-in four-port switch – that’s the Linksys WES610N. The four additional ports provides convenience, versatility and flexibility by eliminating the need for an external switch. The WES610N can operate at 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequencies, and supports 300Mbps traffic. 

But for some reason I’m at a loss to understand, the switch is only 10/100, and thus a big minus. I’m really not getting this – what’s the point of 300Mbps over the air if any given endpoint is limited to 100Mbps? Was there a shortage of Gigabit Ethernet chips when this one was designed? Similarly, the documentation is incomplete – for example, don’t use the top connector during initial setup; it doesn’t work. Keep in mind that you’ll need to manually configure your SSID, unless you use Wi-Fi Protected Setup, which I don’t. The firmware is at times frustratingly slow, but you’ll likely need to touch it only once. So the WES610N is a little harder to get running than your basic Wi-Fi client, or even access point, but nothing techies can’t handle. Still Linksys’ documentation and even its Web site – which is hard to navigate – could use some work. 

In operation, though, apart from the wired-port bottleneck issue noted above, everything works transparently. The only really troubling issue is the wired throughput limitation noted above, but if your traffic requires no more than 100Mbps, as is often the case with, say, game consoles and home-entertainment gear, all should be fine. But just think of the possibilities if that built-in bottleneck were eliminated (and, while we’re at it, the setup process and the documentation improved) – perhaps another couple of stars. By the way, a single-port WET610N model is also available at less than $100. 

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars  

Price: $129.99 

Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

N750 DB Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router, by Belkin A new Wi-Fi router is perhaps the perfect gift – the latest models have greater performance (throughput, range, and reliability), more options, and, well, are inexpensive. Case in point: Belkin’s new dual-band, dual-radio N750, which features 450Mbps performance in the 5GHz bands. You also get two USB ports (for printers and adding storage drives), a print server, Gigabit Ethernet, easy Wi-Fi Protected Access security (although real nerds set up security the old-fashioned way - manually), and even a few applications for such functions as PC backup, print and storage management, and playing UPnP/DLNA-compatible video. 

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