Home and Office Gear Gift Ideas [2010 Cool Yule Tools]

Great stuff to deck out your home or office computing environments.

Desktop or notebook – check. Smartphone – check. After that, though, there might be some additional pieces of gear to make your home or office truly productive. Here are our picks for some products that help you create a better home or office. 

Products reviewed in this category: 

  • Ooma VoIP system 
  • Plustek SmartPhoto P60 
  • iomega iconnect wireless data station 
  • ThinkGeek USB 7 hub 
  • Vtech Expandable Cordless Phone System (Bluetooth/touch/answering) 
  • Plaster Networks - powerline network adapters
  • Epson Artisan 725 Arctic printer 
  • Lexar Multi-card 24-in-1 Reader (USB 2.0) 
  • Smartfish ErgoMotion Laser Mouse 
  • Omnitech/Staples "bling" rhinestone mouse 
  • Das Keyboard Professional S mechanical keyboard 

Ooma Telo VoIP system, by Ooma

Ooma Telo base and handsetThe latest home voice-over-IP system from Ooma includes a base station that you hook up to your broadband router (it actually recommends connecting it between the modem and the router for optimal voice quality). You can then attach a normal phone to the base station, or you can purchase optional Telo handsets, which connect to the base station via DECT wireless. The Telo base station has all the features of the Ooma Hub, with the additions of an online phonebook, the ability to receive HD voice, support of the Ooma Telo handsets, and a USB port for future expansion. You can get a new phone number, or port your existing phone number for a one-time $39.99 charge. 

Once connected and activated, you get free home telephone service (in the U.S.) - no monthly charges for telephone calls unless you want to upgrade to the premium service (which costs $9.99 monthly and offers additional features like an instant second line, three-way conferencing, the ability to forward to a mobile phone, a backup number, and even Google extensions or using Bluetooth to answer mobile phone calls with the Telo handsets. You also get free voicemail for the phone. Ooma also just introduced an iPhone app (for $9.99) that lets you make voice calls from your iPhone through the Ooma Telo base station. 

Setup takes about 15 to 20 minutes, and the sound quality on the phone calls is just as good as any other VoIP service, if not better. The HD voice feature is awesome if you make Ooma to Ooma calls (or Ooma to a handset connected to an Ooma Telo base). If you're sick of paying monthly service fees for home telephone service, the Ooma system is a great alternative, and can pay for itself within a year of purchase.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars 

Price: $250 for Ooma Telo base station, $300 for base station plus one handset. Additional handsets are $50, and the Ooma iPhone app costs $9.99.  

Company Web site 

Reviewed by Keith Shaw 

LS6245 Expandable Cordless Phone System, by vtech

Vtech LS6245 Expandable Cordless Phone SystemI have to admit, this is a product I’ve wanted for some time – a cordless phone system, based on DECT 6.0 (no interference with Wi-Fi) that can expand to a large number (eight) of handsets and also connect to a cellular handset via Bluetooth (actually, two cell phones for additional virtual lines 2 and 3, if you will). You can also connect Bluetooth devices like cordless headsets to the system, meaning the same cordless headset you use with your cell phone can also be used with the LS6245. Convenience is oozing from every pore of this product, and it’s stylish as well, quite reminiscent of those amazingly expensive but oh-so-cool Bang and Olufsen phones.

Hooking a cell phone to a cordless phone sounds a bit complex. Is it? Not really – pairing a cell phone (I used the Sony Ericsson Vivaz) with the LS6245 is no more complex than pairing a headset, and everything worked on the first try. You can then direct outbound calls (via a “cell” button on the vetch handset) to the cellular phone, and, similarly, inbound calls wind up on the cordless handsets. This means you can just drop your handset near the base station when you get home, and voila, inbound cellular calls will reach you anywhere in the house. This is also a great solution for those who have marginal cellular coverage; just put the LS6245 base station on an upper floor, and you’re all set – answer (or dial out) via your cell phone anywhere you have a cordless handset. 

There are a number of counterintuitive user interface features on the handset, and I personally don’t really like the styling or form factor. And I’d like Bluetooth in the handsets – now that would be cool! But the functionality is cool and there’s real value here. I wouldn’t mind getting one of these myself (hint, hint). 

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 stars 

Price: $79.95 for base station and one handset; $39.95 for each additional handset (up to eight total) 

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

USB 7 Port Hub with Power Switches, at ThinkGeek.com 7-port USB hub, ThinkGeek

Having additional USB ports available on a computer these days is a necessity, not a “nice to have” any more. By the time you connect a keyboard, mouse and storage device to your PC or notebook, not to mention any laptop cooler system, or devices that require two(!) ports, you don’t have anything left for any additional gadgets that you may want to connect. The USB hub that I used for many years, by Belkin, has been a solid workforce performer, but so many devices going in and out of the device had me feeling that it was time for an upgrade (don’t ask, hard to explain). 

The older hub also likely didn’t have USB 2.0, so upgrading to the USB 7 Port Hub with Power Switches made sense. First, all of the ports are USB 2.0 compatible, which could speed things up for devices that may have been connected to older ports. Second, I like having power switches on each port, which lets me turn on or off the device by flicking a switch. This is great for things like backup devices or storage drives – I can turn off power access via the hub instead of unplugging the drive itself. 

My one complaint is that I don’t really know who makes the hub – the packaging says it’s made in China, but there’s no company listed, and you can get it through the ThinkGeek Web site. I’d prefer seeing a company like Kensington, Targus or Belkin come out with a branded version, just so I knew where to go to get service. Of course, ThinkGeek offers other USB hub devices as well, so check out their listings. 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Price: $20 

Company Web siteDas Keyboard Model S Professional, by das keyboarddas keyboard USB hub up closeThe latest version of my favorite keyboard has been redesigned with electronics that now provide "full n-key rollover" with a PS2 adapter, which should appeal to keyboardists who know what that means and why it matters. For my part, I know that the mechanical key switches that provide the "clicky" sound and tactile feedback really make my typing go faster. The full-sized 104-key layout is very comfortable to type with, and includes keys like arrow keys, a number pad and six other buttons (insert, home, delete, end, page up and down). 

The keyboard connects via two USB cables, and you can connect one to a PS2 port if your computer still has one of those. The extra cable is used to provide a USB 2.0 hub on the keyboard, giving you two extra ports for attaching mice or other USB peripherals. 

The original das keyboard had no labels on it, and the company has modified that to provide laser-etched labels for all the keys on the Model S Professional. You can still get one without any keys (the Ultimate model), and the company also makes two models (one with labels, one without) that include a "silent" mode that provides less clicky sounds - perfect in case you work in a cube setting and people are getting annoyed by your typing. You can also buy some earplugs for $10 for associates or family members who might be annoyed. 

The das keyboards are a bit pricey, but well worth it if someone on your list is a really fast typist, or really needs a fast-reacting keyboard for PC games (or MMOs). 

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $129 

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

PLN3 and AV200 powerline network adapters, by Plaster NetworksI never thought I'd be impressed by any new features of powerline networking, until I tried out the PLN3 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter and AV200 Powerline Ethernet Adapter from Plaster Networks. The adapters support up to 200Mbps of bandwidth through your existing power outlets in your home, and can help extend your home network in cases where wireless doesn't reach, or if you are trying to connect an Ethernet-only-enabled device to your network. 

Setup was simple - I plugged in the PLN3 to my router, then the AV200 plugged into another outlet. The AV200 includes two Ethernet ports, so you can attach two different devices if you want. Bing bang boom - once connected you should be able to be connected to your home network. 

Plaster Networks PLN3 powerline adapterAnother piece of gear that Plaster Networks sent was their IX2 Isolator, which can reduce electrical noise and interference on the powerline network (sometimes caused by appliances or other gadgets), as well as improve the powerline network throughput. With one adapter in one power outlet, I plugged in the IX2, which has two power outlets attached to it (basically giving you those outlets back for additional gear) 

Here's where it gets interesting: With a PLN3 attached to the network, it collects data that you can access via the Plaster Networks site - sign in and you can get reports on the bandwidth, link performance and link traffic between the adapters. On my connection, it told me I was getting 81Mbps of bandwidth between the powerline adapters. It also told me this was well beyond the bandwidth I would need to stream music, TV and even HD video. My first connection was an Olive O3HD music server, which streamed Internet radio and music from my network servers just nicely. I then attached a Toshiba notebook to the adapter, and was able to stream Hulu and Netflix among other Web activities just fine. 

The reports it generates are interesting, but not earth-shattering. I suppose they would be helpful for network managers looking to troubleshoot a troublesome connection, but for the most part I just got performance numbers between the two links, which didn't look like much because I wasn't doing that much activity. I suppose if I added additional adapters and had activity running over 30 days, then the reports would be more useful. 

Anyway, the main reason to get these are for strong powerline connections for your home network, and to provide access for devices that don't have built-in wireless capabilities. If that's the case, the extra intelligence on the network is a bonus. 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars 

Price: $129 for starter kit (one PLN3, one AV200 adapter); additional AV200 adapters cost $60; IX2 Isolator costs $25. 

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Epson Artisan 725 Arctic Edition, by EpsonEpson Artisan 725 Arctic EditionEpson continues to impress me with its Artisan line of all-in-one photo printers, which also offer regular paper printing, copying and scanning. The network printer (either Ethernet or Wi-Fi) uses Epson's Claria Hi-Definition dye ink (six cartridges instead of the normal four colors) to produce great color photo prints, and 4-by-6-inch prints can be done in as fast as 10 seconds. Normal pages can print at about 9.5 pages per minutes (black) and 9 pages per minutes in color. 

The printer includes a 2.5-inch LCD screen for selecting your photos from an inserted memory card and to perform options, and the white arctic frost design will complement users who have lots of white machines in their office. 

Like other Artisan printers (we still love the 800 and 810 version), this one can do unique things with paper like create coloring book pages from existing photos, individual lined and graph paper (perfect for parents of school-age kids when the student comes up saying, “I need graph paper” at 9 p.m.), and even personalized note paper (watermarks). 

Other fun features include the ability to restore color to faded photos (scan, then correct), printing directly from an iPhone or other mobile device, and printing directly to CDs/DVDs without labels. The printer can even charge your cell phone and other USB-powered devices through a handy charging port on the front. The Artisan 725 Arctic Edition (pictured here) is available exclusively at Best Buy retail stores and at BestBuy.com.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars 

Price: $200 

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Multi-Card 24-in-1 Reader, by Lexar Lexar 24-in-1 Card Reader

At first glance, a card reader that can read 24 different formats makes you go, “Whoa”, but Lexar is cheating just a little bit by counting almost every iteration of a memory card format as a different number. Still, it’s impressive that it can read almost any memory card, ranging from the SD formats (and SDHC, microSD), xD, CompactFlash, MemoryStick (plus Duo), and even MMC. 

The cool part is that you may have some of these older format cards sitting around (old coot alert: I remember when people actually used CompactFlash and MemoryStick cards), and want to transfer images to your PC, or maybe to another card format (like a newer SDHC card, for example). In addition, you may be using an older notebook that doesn’t have a card reader installed automatically (cough cough), and having a nice and easy device to read those cards is needed. While many companies may think that the external card reader device is no longer needed, it’s nice to see a company still dedicated to those of us who don’t have those fancy in-system readers yet. 

The device attaches easily via USB cable, and in a nice touch, the reader pops up from its clear plastic protective case. This will be my new favorite card reader for some time to come. 

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsReviewed by Keith Shaw 

Price: $30 

Company Web siteErgoMotion Laser Mouse, by Smartfish ErgoMotion Mouse by Smartfish

It’s pretty amazing that for the amount of typing and mousing that I do on a regular basis for my job, that I’ve never developed any repetitive stress injuries or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Maybe I’m just dodging a bullet, because my posture at my desk (and when I’m working at home on my couch), is not what the ergonomic experts would call “optimal”. In essence, I'm the "Don’t do this" poster on their "Do's and Don'ts" chart. 

However, if Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is something that you suffer from, or are worried about, there’s a new mouse I tried that may help with this condition. The ErgoMotion Mouse is a 3-button laser mouse that sits on top of a pivot base. You still move around the mouse like you would a normal mouse, but since the top part of the mouse is on top of the pivot base (picture a giant rock on top of a mountain where the rock can swivel and pivot), your hand can be in different positions while mousing and feels more comfortable than in an upward or downward static position. This really can help during long periods of mousing – something I’ve only experienced during long gaming bouts. The ability to rest your hand laterally or forward/reverse makes it a bit more comfortable than a solid mouse that you can’t pivot. Instead of requiring your hand to stay in one position for mousing, the ErgoMotion allows the user to find the most comfortable position depending on their other posture, alleviating pressure not only on the hands and arms, but also the shoulders, neck and back (granted, that is where I’ve experienced some symptoms). 

Like other modern mice, this one has 800dpi laser features, a tiny wireless receiver that plugs into an open USB port (2.4GHz), and runs on two AA batteries (included, and Smartfish says it can go up to 10 months before you need to replace, depending on usage of course). An on/off switch can also save battery life. 

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t suffer from RSI conditions, so it was hard to tell whether using the mouse would improve the situation. In addition, I thought the mouse was larger than I normally prefer, since I have smaller hands I like using smaller travel mice, even at work. Maybe Smartfish can create a travel version of the ErgoMotion? 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars   

Price: About $50 

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw 

iConnect Wireless Data Station, by Iomega Iomega iConnect Wireless Data Station

I’m a huge fan of network-attached storage and run my home and office networks around thin RAID-1 storage servers (which, coincidentally, just happen to be made by Iomega). So, OK, I’m already a fan of the concept and the company, but I’d never seen the iConnect Wireless Data Station before. It’s a compact unit, with four USB 2.0 ports, a gigabit Ethernet port, and a built-in 802.11n radio. The idea is to connect any USB storage devices you’d like, and then access these in your home over a wired or wireless connection. You can even extend access to the Web if you’d like, although I didn’t test this feature.

 There’s a whole bunch of useful functionality here, including basic network-based storage, printer sharing, media server (UPnP, plus this box is both DLNA and iTunes capable), backup (EMC Retrospect is included, along with MozyHome), one-button drive copying, and it can also function as a Torrent or Apple Time Machine server. In short, this is about the easiest way I’ve seen to put storage and media on a network, and, in this case, a completely wireless network if you so desire. 

While I would have preferred a straight HTML user interface, installation really is pretty easy: connect the device to a wired network (yes, you need to do this even if the ultimate application will be completely wireless), load the installation/storage manager program from the included CD, and follow the directions. All other functions are straightforward and should be easy for techies and non-techies alike. 

Of course, performance will vary with the speed of your USB drives and wired or wireless links, but centralizing storage on the network – and providing a convenient, common place to temporarily connect such items as thumb drives and cameras, is just a plain great idea. If you or your giftee are new to NAS, the iConnect is a great way to get started. 

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 stars 

Price: $90 

Company Web site  

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

SmartPhoto P60, by plustek Plustek SmartPhoto P60

If you have a bunch of old photographs that you want to scan or digitize, but don’t really want to invest in a large flatbed scanner or an all-in-one printer with scanning abilities. Or someone gave you a copy of a photo and you want to put it into a new digital photo display. Or you found an old photo that you want to upload to Facebook. 

The SmartPhoto P60 is a compact, palm-sized scanner that can scan paper photographs and digitize them for easy uploading to photo-sharing sites or for digital photo frames. The scanner connects to a USB port on your computer, and a scan button gets you started pretty quickly (after a brief calibration sequence). The P60 can scan at resolutions up to 600dpi, and you can adjust the resolution settings in the software before you scan. A continuous scan function lets you take a stack of photos and feed them one at a time, creating a separate digital file for each photo (it beats pushing the scan button over and over again). Once the photos are scanned, you can edit them in a photo editing software, or just upload them to the digital photo frame or social photo-sharing site. 

I did have some difficulty installing the printer on a Windows 7 notebook, but eventually figured it out. There’s also not much else to do with the device if you’re done scanning photos; it’s too small to scan documents or other non-photo items. 

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars 

Price: About $95

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Omnitech USB Rhinestone “bling” mouse, available at Staples Rhinestone pink USB bling mouse, by Staples

If you’re looking for a cute stocking stuffer for the person on your list who enjoys shiny things, the “Bling” mouse from Staples is certainly an affordable option. This wired USB mouse doesn’t have many bells and whistles – the two-button mouse includes a scroll wheel and is small enough to be used as a travel mouse. But it’s the “covered in rhinestones” feature that may appeal to the style-conscious computer user that you’re trying to impress – and it’s certainly a conversation starter. 

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars 

Price: About $13, available at Staples retail stores. 

Reviewed by Keith Shaw 

MiniMate full sheet cross-cut shredder, by Staples Staples DeskMate shredder

If you do a lot of paper shredding (like if you work in accounting), the small size of this shredder will not likely appeal to you. But if you do some occasional shredding of sensitive documents, then having a small shredder that can fit on your desktop (if you have enough space, it is still somewhat large) can be a bonus and safer than just throwing out your documents in the recycling bin. 

The MiniMate is a cross-cut shredder (very hard to reproduce a document that’s been cross-cut, despite what Hollywood may portray) with a 6-sheet capacity for shredding paper. The MiniMate can also shred credit cards, but not much else – it doesn’t shred CDs or DVDs, or other documents harder than paper (you wouldn’t put the plastic binder through this thing). Documents go in through the side rather than the top of the shredder, and the remnants are dumped through the bottom of the device like a trap door, there’s no bin you pull out, and you don’t have to tip the thing upside down. The unit also has reverse and forward buttons in case you do create a paper jam, and lights will tell you if the system is full, overloaded or overheated. 

For in-home shredding I’ve used the Staples MailMate shredder (to shred bills, etc.), the MiniMate is slightly smaller, but I think I’d end up emptying the bin more often. 

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars

Price: $50 

Reviewed by Keith Shaw 

N5901 Mini Wireless Keyboard, by Lenovo I am a huge fan of all things small when it comes to computers – tiny PCs, tiny storage devices, and tiny prices, although, sure that last one is often problematic when the other two come into play – funny how that works. But after trying Lenovo’s N5901 Mini Wireless Keyboard, I think I’ll have to draw the line at tiny input devices. 

Lenovo Mini Keyboard

At first glance, there’s a lot to like here. The N5901 is a cordless USB keyboard with an interesting “T” shape that can be operated in one hand if desired. There’s a full (if, again, tiny) QWERTY keyboard, multimedia keys, and a trackball. With not too much practice you’ll be typing away in no time, although the small, flat keys might require a glance now and then. But the trackball is another matter. It lacks precision and occasionally slipped a bit, with the ball turning but the cursor not responding. This was a bit frustrating, and it looks like a trackpad would have been a better choice here. Using two hands helps improve precision, but I just wasn’t happy. 

Still, for non-critical or infrequent use, perhaps in a home-theater application, this keyboard might just fill the bill. But with so many good wireless keyboards out there, it would be hard to make the N5901 a first choice. 

Cool Yule rating: 2 stars

Price: $59.99 

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

Learn more about this topic

2010 Cool Yule Tools: The Social Santa

Cool Yule Favorites: 15 Techie Gift Ideas

10 Offbeat Gift Ideas, 2010 edition

After Hours: Top video game and accessories for 2010

Travel Gear Gift Ideas

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