Travel Gear gift ideas [2010 Cool Yule Tools]

Gadgets and gizmos for the road warrior on your holiday gift list.

If you’re into gadgets, chances are you carry around a lot of them when you travel. The road warrior uses gadgets as tools and weapons (the figurative kind, not literal), so when it comes time for coming up with gift ideas for them, chances are a new gadget beyond the phone or computer will hit the spot. Here’s a bunch of our favorite weapons for the road warrior:

Products reviewed for this category:

  • Clearwire RoverPuck - 4G Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot
  • Sprint Sierra Wireless 3G/4G Mobile Broadband
  • Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot
  • Optoma PK201 Pico projector
  • Jabra Stone (white) headset
  • BlueAnt T1 rugged Bluetooth headset
  • Plantronics Savor M1100 triple-mic Bluetooth headset
  • Jawbone Icon Rogue Bluetooth headset
  • iSafe backpack (backpack with security alarm)
  • WaterField Designs Vertigo Mambo Combo
  • Magellan RoadMate 3065 GPS unit
  • Eton Scorpion
  • Carmen by Livio
  • Kensington Powerbolt Micro Car Charger

Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot, by Sierra Wireless and SprintSprint Overdrive 3G/4GLike the Mi-Fi and other mobile hot spot devices, the Overdrive combines a mobile Wi-Fi router with a 3G/4G wireless connection, this time via Sprint. The device can share the wide-area wireless connection (either 3G or Sprint’s new WiMax 4G) with up to five other Wi-Fi devices. The Overdrive also has 16GB of storage space available for file downloads, and you can also tether the Overdrive to a single PC via a USB cable. GPS positioning is also supported, with some mapping apps that could help a mobile traveler find the closest ATM, gas station or other on-the-road location.

The device has been out for a while, but with Sprint’s recent coverage announcement of 4G in the Boston area, I had a better chance to test its speeds and play with the Overdrive device. The 3G/4G aspect is nice – I only had 3G coverage at my home, but 4G coverage at work in Framingham, as well as in most of the Boston area (tough to find the coverage maps, as some sites weren’t updated for Boston yet).

For 3G speeds, I got on average about 1.12 Mbps of download speed, and 270 Kbps upload rate. Not that hot, considering my broadband provided an average of 9-10 Mbps download and 1.06 Mbps upload. But 3G is old news; how does it fare for 4G?

Testing from my Framingham, Mass.-based office (with a 60% 4G signal strength), I was able to achieve an average 3.53 Mbps of download speeds, and 0.58 Mbps average for uploads. These are impressive rates for mobile travelers, and I would have likely received faster speeds if I was in metropolitan Boston.

Setup was simple; a one-button push provided the power and the very handy LCD displayed all the proper information about signal strength, which network I was on, and the Wi-Fi SSD. You can also modify the Overdrive settings (such as enabling GPS, or getting more information on signal strength, etc.) via a Web browser connection to the Overdrive.

The only downside is being limited to 4G coverage areas at the moment; for 3G speeds other options (hotel Wi-Fi, etc.) might be more attractive to the mobile traveler. At least until the end of the year, when Verizon says it will launch its LTE 4G service in 38 cities. But if you need/love Sprint coverage, this is a good device if you want the 4G coverage but also want to provide mobile hotspot coverage for additional co-workers/friends.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: about $100 (after $250 rebate, plus $50 monthly data plan, plus two-year agreement).

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Rover Puck, by ClearwireClearwire Rover PuckThe Rover Puck is a flat, circular device (think of a flattened out hockey puck) that includes a 4G WAN connection (WiMAX) and a Wi-Fi connection. Users can prepay for the 4G connection, with a daily ($5), weekly ($20) or monthly ($50) rate. The rates allow for unlimited data, and the Wi-Fi connection also provides guest access, so local users can share the Puck’s 4G connection.

The pay-as-you-go option is very appealing to mobile workers who don’t travel enough to warrant a monthly mobile broadband plan, but still want the speeds that WiMax offers. For example, in my tests in New York City, I was able to achieve an average of 3Mbps download and 0.45Mbps upload speed. This data rate allowed me to consistently check e-mail, browse the web and even stream audio at the same time. The $5 daily option was also a welcome relief over hotel Wi-Fi options, which can get as high as $20 for sometimes unreliable connectivity. The Rover Web site also lets you easily “re-up” when your prepaid time runs out.

However, you’re limited to WiMax coverage – if you’re not in a WiMax area (like my central Massachusetts home), it doesn’t drop down to a slower option. Check the map on the Rover Web site for coverage areas.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: About $150, plus pre-paid pay-as-you-go options ($5 daily, $20 weekly or $50 monthly)

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Sprint 3G/4G USB Modem 250U, by Sierra WirelessSprint 3G/4G USB Modem 250UThe funky design of this USB wireless WAN modem is what first appeals to you – it has a swivel USB port to help angle the antenna better, and a funky round antenna rather than just a straight USB stick or plastic part that juts upward. This combination modem will connect to Sprint’s 3G (CDMA EV-DO) and 4G (WiMAX) networks, depending on whether 4G is in the area you are using the modem. The device pops easily into an existing USB port, and the Sprint SmartView software is an excellent way to see if you’re connected and provides other helpful information. GPS functionality is also provided on the modem.

In my tests between Boston (where 4G coverage was just beginning) and New York (where Sprint has just announced), I ran into several areas where I had 3G only, and the software did a good job of switching between the two networks.

This device is aimed more for the mobile worker who only wants to get the 3G/4G data access – while the device can connect to a mobile broadband router to provide hot spot coverage, I’d recommend getting the Overdrive device instead of trying to use a different model.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 stars 

Price: About $250, but check for rebates and specials, plus service agreements.

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

PK201 DLP pico projector, by OptomaOptoma PK201 pico projectorThis holiday season, if I can't slim down my figure, maybe I can net a weight loss by shrinking one of the many devices I carry when I travel. Lately I've been craving a more portable projector, and was able to try out the PK201 DLP projector from Optoma.

At 5.6 ounces, and fitting in the palm of your hand, the PK201 DLP projector is most likely the smallest and lightest projector you've ever used. When Optoma says it's portable, they really mean it. A built-in media player and gigabytes of storage (28MB internal, 16GB via microSD) means you don't need to lug around a separate video source. You can if you want though, and the PK201 offers several video inputs, including USB, VGA and HDMI.  A built-in speaker and Li-ion rechargeable battery round out the portability factor for the projector.

At $299 it sounds like a no-brainer, but there are some weaknesses to consider. I'm no expert on lumens (20 ANSI lumens on the PK201), but unless the room is totally dark I'm constantly wishing the projected image was brighter. In a dark room I'm satisfied, even at its 66-inch maximum projection size. The screen is sharp and colors are satisfactory for my needs. But my needs are simple: A chair, a couple of beers, and a movie projected off my iPad onto the side of my house. I was going to say this was perfect for a camping trip, but battery life is only one hour!  That's a huge limitation. Count on needing the included power cord. It also seemed odd that there was no stand included, or any built-in way to tilt the unit upwards -- that's optional. I had to use a short stack of magazines.

My iPhone has taught me that a device can be slim and super-effective. So to see this ultra-portable projector fall short on battery life and brightness was disappointing and limiting. If you're willing to work around these factors, though, I think you've got yourself an exciting weight loss plan for this season!  For me, sadly, the battle continues.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars

Price: $299

Company Web site

Reviewed by Gregg Pinsky

Jabra Stone Bluetooth headset, by JabraJabra Stone Bluetooth headsets (black and white versions)The Jabra Stone is a nifty little unit that fits over your right ear and provides outstanding call quality.  It pairs easily with your Bluetooth enabled phone, and when it’s not on your ear it fits nicely into an accompanying recharging station – an oblong “stone” about three inches long and one inch thick. The stone comes with a belt clip, so you can attach it to your belt if you so desire.  Otherwise, you can store it in a pocket or pocketbook.

The headset itself has no physical buttons, although you do press the bottom of it to make and end calls.  You can adjust volume by sliding a finger over the outer part of the headset, which worked better than I expected.  When not in use, simply place the headset into the stone, which recharges it.  Don’t lose the stone, or the headset is worthless because it can’t be recharged on its own or with a separate cable.

The call quality was excellent; I received no complaints from those I spoke with.  It seemed to do a good job filtering wind noise.  There are a few caveats, however.  Due to its unusual shape, the headset only fits over your right ear.  If you wear glasses, or frequently wear sunglasses, you might want to look elsewhere – the headset had some issues coexisting peacefully with mine (even wire rims).  Despite whipping my head about, the headset never fell off – but I was constantly reminded it was there when wearing anything else over my ears.

Another annoyance – hopefully limited to my testing unit – was the odd habit the headset had of emitting a low frequency noise when not in use.  I’ve tested many headsets over the years, and this was the first time I’ve noticed such a problem.  If you don’t leave the headset on when you’re not using it, this won’t matter to you.  But, if like me, you tend to leave it in when not in use (driving your girlfriend crazy in the process), you’ll quickly be broken of that habit.  On second thought: ladies, this might be the perfect Christmas present.  You know, if you’re trying to avoid that Locutus look this year.  The off-putting noise wasn’t constant, but it was frequent enough to warrant mention (it never happened when the headset was in use).

On a more positive note, the headset plays music through the A2DP Bluetooth feature.  Not only does it connect with an iPhone or iPod Touch, it also seamlessly streams music from Android handsets.  I didn’t realize that until I opened Pandora on my phone, and it started streaming wirelessly to my right ear.  If you receive a phone call during playback, it automatically pauses.  Really, a very neat feature.  The audio quality is tinny, but I could decipher the music just fine.

This particular Jabra Stone – aka “the white one” – retails for $129, and is available exclusively on AT&T.com, or at your local AT&T store.  The same Jabra Stone headset – sans whiteness, aka “the black one” – is available on Amazon.com for $89.  I recommend the Jabra Stone – regardless of its color – as an excellent Bluetooth headset in terms of audio quality, design, and innovation.  It’s up to you whether you want to shell out another $40 for the white version.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars

Price: $89.99

Company Web site

Reviewed by Dan Hunt

T1 Rugged Bluetooth Headset, by BlueAntBlueAnt T1 rugged Bluetooth headsetBlueAnt makes several different types of Bluetooth headsets, and the T1 rugged version is aimed at users who need a more solid version than some others. But in using the T1, I found it to be just OK.

The T1 comes with six replaceable nubs to insert into your ear so you can find the most comfortable for you. It’s also very easy to sync with your phone. I like that it even gives verbal instructions though the headset as you do it. The only downside is that it moves at its own pace, and I couldn’t figure out how to back up during the sync process.

It boasts Wind Armor Technology that allows for “clear audio at wind speeds up 22 mph.” That may be true for other users, but I’m not sure. I personally found the audio to be amazingly spotty while just sitting on my couch. The people on the other end of the phone could hear me just fine, but I found it difficult and inconsistent to hear them.

Another claim of BlueAnt is that the T1 announces the callers, and this is true only if they are saved in your phone. All you have to do is tell the T1 to “answer” or “ignore.” It can also sync with the voice dialing on your phone, allowing you to tell the T1 who to call for you.

Other features include streaming audio of podcasts and turn-by-turn directions from GPS applications on your mobile phone. Android phone users can download a free app allowing for text message readout directly into the headset. These are all fun features, if only BlueAnt had really nailed the main feature for Bluetooth headsets: clear audio for regular phone calls.

Cool Yule rating: 2 stars

Price: $79.99

Company Web site

Reviewed by Jen Finn

Savor M1100 Bluetooth headset, by PlantronicsPlantronics Savor M1100 Bluetooth headsetThe latest premium Bluetooth headset from Plantronics is the first one to feature three microphones – yes, three! The microphones are used to reduce noise and cancel noise and aid in situations like outdoors, noisy environments or wind.

Other features include some voice recognition options (such as asking the headset whether you’re connected, and how much talk time / battery is left), A2DP stereo streaming (which lets you listen to music on your phone in between answering/making calls, and access to a new online voice service – Plantronics Vocalyst.

The Vocalyst service – also available with the Voyager Pro+ headset – lets users listen to their e-mails and text messages, record reminders, post audio messages to Twitters (as well as listen to their Twitter feed), update Evernote,  and listen to news, business, sports and weather reports. The service comes with a free one-year trial (a $24.95 value) for Savor and Voyager Pro+ owners.

My favorite part of the headset is its on/off switch – not only does it save on battery power, but turning the switch back on instantly pairs the headset back with your phone – and the voice inside the headset informs you of this. It’s a lot easier hearing that than trying to figure out whether you’re connected or not through menu options on a regular headset/phone.

My only complaint is that while the ear loops are designed to stay in your ear, at times it felt like the headset was dangling – I prefer the over-the-ear loop style rather than the in-ear options.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars 

Price: About $100

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Jawbone Icon, by AliphJawbone Icon Bluetooth headsetFinally, a Bluetooth headset that stands up to my old favorite, the Jabra BT250. It’s pretty much perfect.  It’s small, it’s comfortable, and it sits firmly in place.  It comes with a bevy of different size gel fittings to customize for your ear, and you’ll be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t fit you.

Finally, a Jawbone headset I didn’t get any complaints about from users on the other end of my phone conversations.  Well documented are the issues that have cropped up around Jawbone headsets in the past, where users could hear just fine, but the NoiseAsssassin technology muted the user to the listener on the other end of the call.  Those days, finally, mercifully, seem to be over.  Others can hear you fine.  And boy can you hear them clearly.

This Icon has a tactile on/off switch, which you actually slide to toggle.  It works well and is a welcome departure from the trend toward making everything touch-sensitive these days.  The switch is easy to work and intuitive to find, which means you won’t spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to figure out whether the device is on or off.  An interesting note: while it’s not exactly difficult to turn off most Bluetooth headsets, it’s never as straightforward and simple as this.  I found myself turning it off whenever I wasn’t using it, which means I was charging it far less often than I would another headset with similar battery life.  On that front, expect four to five hours of talk time.  You charge it with micro USB, same as most phones these days – which was one of the best things I noticed this year.

It has “in ear caller ID”, which I didn’t find to work well with my Android phone.  It knew when I was getting a call from “Unknown Caller” and said so, but when I got a call from anyone in my phonebook, it wasn’t able to identify them by name, only by the phone number they were calling from.  Better than nothing, but on this front at least, there’s still room for improvement.

The only push button sits on the far end behind the ear bud.  It’s just large enough, and again, quite easy to find.  It depresses just right, and seemed custom-fitted to my index finger.  The number of times you press it depends on what you want to do, and whether it’s during a call or you’re trying to make one.  If you haven’t made a call, press it twice to redial the last person you called.  Press once to answer an incoming call, or to voice dial.  Press twice in-call to toggle NoiseAssassin on and off.  It’s all in the manual, and was pretty easy to commit to memory.

In today’s world, this is as close to perfect as you’re going to get.  It blows away the Jabra Stone in every meaningful way, save the stone.  It’s what I would buy for someone that wanted a Bluetooth headset this year.

Cool Yule rating: 5 starsReviewed by Dan Hunt

Price: $70

Company Web siteiSafe School Backpack, by iSafe BagsiSafe School Backpack with alarmA backpack with its own alarm system? Cool! I was starting night classes to earn a Master’s degree, so yes, I needed a new backpack, but also, the parking garage that I used at night was a pretty desolate place at night.  Admittedly, I was a little nervous about safety.

This backpack, while being a legitimately nice bag, is also built to scare off would-be attackers, including bullies. On the right-hand strap of the bag, under a Velcro flap, is a pull cord. When you pull on the cord, it removes a pin from a socket, making an alarm go off through two small speakers on the front side of the bag. And holy cow, is the alarm loud! In addition, a small line of red LED lights on the front of the backpack will flash.

I’m confident that the alarm system will scare an attacker if they don’t know about the bag. Heck, the first time I pulled the alarm, it scared me! I was so shocked by the volume, it took me a couple of attempts to get the pin back into the socket to turn off the alarm. If you plan on using the bag, I’d recommend that you test it first – go to an empty parking lot and pull the cord to learn what the alarm sounds like and learn how to turn it off. It took me about three attempts before I felt comfortable with the alarm system.

Because of the noise, I was a bit worried about accidentally pulling the cord – how embarrassing would it be to be standing around, chatting with friends, and accidentally pulling the cord? Luckily, as long as the Velcro is securely fastened, it’s really difficult to even access the pull cord, and it’s impossible to pull it out through the strap.

Besides the alarm, this is one serious backpack. For starters, it’s a strong bag with large, sturdy zippers. It has two large pockets to hold notebooks, books, etc., one medium size pocket, one small pocket perhaps for house keys, two side pockets for pens and pencils, and one pocket on the left strap that would fit an iPod nano. All in all, I think it’s a really cool product that seems to be made really well.

Other notes: Other models are available, and the alarm takes two 9 volt alkaline batteries. The product manual also warns that going through airport security with this bag will most likely take longer than going through with a normal bag.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 stars

Price: $59.98

Company Web site

Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

VertiGo Mambo Combo laptop bag, by Waterfield DesignsWaterfield Designs VertiGo Mambo ComboWaterField Designs' VertiGo Mambo Combo laptop bag is a stylish, well-crafted bag with an protective interior sleeve that allows you to carry your laptop vertically (standing up). The Mambo Combo pairs the company's basic black VertiGo bag with a SleeveCase that adds a second layer of much-needed protection in case of drops. The thick ballistic nylon material doesn't offer a lot of padding by itself, which is why the Combo offers more protection, since it comes with the SleeveCase (and a shoulder pad if you get the optional shoulder strap). I recommend getting the $12 strap, as it makes carrying your laptop around a lot easier.I've had this combo for the past year and a half for my 17-inch MacBook Pro and have highly recommended it to other laptop owners. Because the MacBook Pro is a large laptop, carrying it horizontally can be a bit unwieldy, especially when traveling through a crowded airport or even walking along a busy street. That's why I particularly like the vertical orientation of the VertiGo; it lets you keep your laptop closer to you so it doesn't get accidentally knocked around.

The VertiGo bag by itself weighs between 1.1 and 1.6 pounds, depending on size, and the sleeve adds a bit more weight. Even so, it's well worth the extra cost, as it's designed to provide a tight fit for your laptop, with plenty of padding. The bag has several interior pockets, as well as pockets on the front and back, and it zips at the top to keep out inclement weather. You can customize the bag with leather accents if you don't like the all-black look. (I got mine with an orange leather stripe, which makes it stand out nicely from the pack.) Best of all, the VertiGo Combo is extremely durable. Even after more than 18 months of use, the bag still looks as good as new.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $115-119 (varies by size)

Company Web site

Reviewed by Ken Mingis

RoadMate 3065 GPS, by MagellanMagellan RoadMate 3065 GPS unitThis version of the RoadMate GPS series from Magellan includes a 4.7-inch display, as well as its new Traffic Wakeup feature/service. For commuters who have lots of different road options on their way to work, Traffic Wakeup can be the difference between a 30-minute ride and a 90-minute, stuck-in-traffic hellish commute.

When active (meaning when the device is plugged in), Traffic Wakeup automatically powers up the GPS unit and gives real-time traffic updates when the user wants. For example, you can have the system wake up and receive the updates in the morning before the commute, and then in the afternoon before you leave work. This gives the commuter the option of choosing an alternate route before they hit the road, saving valuable minutes.

Other features include Bluetooth support for cell phones, allowing you to hear the caller on the GPS speaker, free lifetime traffic alerts, highway lane assist (it tells you far in advance what lane to be in for upcoming exists), and built-in AAA TourBook data. The GPS supports more than 6 million points of interest to help you find gas stations, restaurants, ATMs, etc. The device also includes AAA Member Roadside Assistance, which tells you your exact location via GPS when talking with AAA should your car break down.

My only issue with the unit is more personal – using the Traffic Wakeup didn’t really help me on my commute, since it’s a pretty direct shot without many alternatives – for me, sometimes sitting in traffic is the same as using an alternative route that takes me well out of the way. In addition, leaving the unit powered up in the car presents a potential security issue, so for the most part the unit was not left on or in the car, which prevents the Traffic Wakeup from operating at maximum level.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $220

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Scorpion, by EtonEton ScorpionThe Scorpion advertises itself as a solar-powered, all-terrain, multi-function unit. That covers about two features in this cool device that you should have in your backpack if you’re out and about doing things like hiking or boating. But it's also a good unit to have in your car in case of emergencies.

The Scorpion includes an LED flashlight, AM/FM radio, NOAA weather radio and a rugged construction that protects it from the elements. It can be powered by the sun, or you can hand-crank the battery to provide short-term bits of power. When the Scorpion has enough power, you can also recharge your cell phone (if the phone is powered via USB cable). There's an AUX port if you want to listen to music through the Scorpion's tiny speakers. The Scorpion also includes a carabiner clip that can be hooked onto a backpack, and there's even a bottle opener on the side. Wicked cool!

If there's an outdoor enthusiast on your holiday gift list, or if you want to give your teenager some peace of mind by putting this in their emergency road kit, the Scorpion will make a great gift for them.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $50

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Carmen by Livio car audio player, by Livio RadioCarmen by Livio in-car Internet radio player and FM transmitterThis is one of the most unique device we saw this year – it combines an Internet radio player/recorder with an FM transmitter (along with AUX jack) and powers and plays through your car’s cigarette lighter adapter. It’s meant to provide the user with more than 2GB of storage for music, either your own music, or music that you can record from Internet radio stations – more than 42,000 stations from around the world are supported.

Here’s how it works – you connect the device via USB to your computer, and the included software then lets you record from the Internet radio stations. After you’ve recorded your content, you then place the device inside your car, and either stream the audio via the FM transmitter, or connect to your car stereo’s AUX jack.

I think this is geared more towards people who don’t have an iPhone, which can stream Internet radio or do other audio streaming through services like Pandora or Slacker. For those who don’t, and have the patience to record Internet radio beforehand, the Carmen can be a cool option. The 2GB storage can record up to 45 hours of content, so you can have enough content for your commute if you desire.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsReviewed by Keith Shaw

Price: $60

Company Web sitePowerBolt Micro Car Charger, by KensingtonKensington PowerBolt Micro Car ChargerMost of the gadgets that are meant to be used in a car with the iPhone (radio transmitters, etc.) usually come with their own power cable that can charge out of the car’s cigarette adapter. But let’s just say you want to keep an iPhone or an iPad charged up while you’re in the car (maybe you’re listening to Pandora or AOL Radio in the car and you want to keep the battery alive). This simple cable and cigarette adapter is just what you need.

It’s pretty simple to operate – just unpack the box, connect the charging cable to the cigarette adapter plug and your iPhone/iPad, and then insert both into the cigarette adapter to start charging. The Micro Car Charger is now 2.1 amps, which means you can charge the iPad (earlier models of the charger couldn’t). Another bonus – you can detach the USB cable and synchronize the iPad, iPhone or an IPod with your notebook away from the car.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars

Price: $25

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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