Home Entertainment Gift Ideas [2010 Cool Yule Tools]

With all the new TVs, streaming Internet boxes, home audio gear and more stuff for your home, you don't even have to go outside anymore.

Being entertained in your home is as big and popular as ever. New TVs are coming out all the time, with features like 3D, better high-definition, and even Internet connectivity. Internet streaming devices let you connect your TV to services like Pandora, Netflix, Hulu and even more. Speaker systems for your iPod and even iPad let you play the music louder than ever before. Here are write-ups of lots of home entertainment devices and options: 

Products reviewed for this category: 

  • Pure Evoke Flow portable Internet / FM radio 
  • Allegro Wireless Internet Radio (Grace Digital) 
  • Western Digital WD Live TV Plus 
  • Roku XDS 
  • Apple TV 
  • Brite-View Wireless HDMI Transmitter 
  • Sonos ZonePlayer S5 stand-alone speakers/wireless audio system 
  • GlideTV Navigator 
  • LaCie LaCinema Mini High-definition Media Center 
  • iHome iP39 speakers 
  • Gear4 Explorer - SP - portable speakers for ipod/iphone 
  • Gear4 House Party 5 ipod/iphone speaker system
  • Wowee One Gel Audio portable speaker
  • Altec Lansing Octivmini mini-speakers 
  • Gear4 SoundOrb Aurora with wireless sub-woofer 
  • Devotc Solar Sound 2 Bluetooth Stereo Speaker 
  • Coby Vitruvian speakers 
  • Memorex PartyCube speakers 
  • ViewSonic VT2300LED TV 
  • iMation Link Wireless A/V Extender 
  • Olive O3HD Music Server 
  • Samsung B2330HD Series 30 monitor/TV 
  • Gunnar Optiks Anime Onyx 3D Glasses

Evoke Flow Radio, by Pure Pure Evoke Flow RadioPure is a British company now selling its tabletop Internet radio in the U.S. The Evoke Flow that I tested did everything it was supposed to do. I could connect to my home Wi-Fi network and access Internet radio stations with no problems. I tested a similar device from Pandora last year and found that the Evoke Flow has a smoother user interface. The face of the Evoke Flow has a row of touch sensitive, illuminated circles that control a variety of options. You can do any number of things with the Evoke Flow: listen to regular AM-FM radio, listen to Internet radio and listen to music stored on your computer.

However, there were some problems with the radio. First, I didn’t really find a compelling reason to want to listen to Internet radio. I did find a station that played Russian rap music, which was a new experience. But beyond that, I’m not sure what the big attraction is. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you would actually make it part of your daily lifestyle.

Second, it’s not mobile. We live in a world where most people who would spend $200 on a music-related piece of electronics would get an iPod Touch. Third, it’s not particularly cool. Again, people are excited about iPads. People are excited about their latest smart phone. It’s hard to get too excited about a radio, even one that does an effective job.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars

Price: About $200

Company Web site

Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Allegro Wireless Internet Radio by Grace Digital This Internet-connected wireless radio streams music from Sirius Satellite Radio, personal radio via Pandora, audio files on your computer and several other Web-based services. Out of the box, it was a clean, compact unit. But then, I found the instruction manual. Here’s where I tucked everything neatly back into the box and ignored it for a few days. When I gave it a chance, and was pleasantly surprised by the ease of setup. The instructions are not impressive, I did much of the setup by trial and error. However, if you are reasonably technically savvy, you should be able to handle this with ease.

Grace Digital Allegro Wireless Internet Radio

But don’t throw out that instruction manual just yet! You will likely need the instructions on how to register the radio so you can play your Pandora stations and the like. Side note: be sure you are going to the correct Website when you register your radio. Doing a search for “Grace Audio” turned up a website for an audio equipment distributor first, followed by the correct site: www.gracedigitalaudio.com/.

Once it got going, I was impressed. The sound from this small unit is clear, crisp and strong. Its compact size means it could be easily tucked in a corner of a kitchen counter or on the end of a bookshelf. However, the remote control must be pointed at the front in order for it to function, so don’t have visions of placing it too far away. Keep in mind, this includes the volume. Speaking of which, the volume function on the remote control is poorly placed, and quite small. It’s a small gripe, considering the main button on top of the unit handles volume nicely.

As for Internet connectivity, songs took a moment to buffer, creating a few seconds of silence between songs. It also slowed my home wireless Internet connection while running.

But overall, this is an impressive little unit. It would be a great gift for a boyfriend, husband or brother who insists all their Christmas presents plug in. It definitely takes a degree of patience with electronics and a fair bit of time to get all the functions set up, but once you’re there, it’s quite easy. You can also just set up one function (such as Pandora) and gradually add the others when you have time. This would be a great unit for an office or desk, though the sound carries quite nicely over a large space as well. This is not a gift for your grandparents who still use corded phones at home. They won’t use it. If you feel the need to ignore this advice, at least have the mercy to set it up for them, create a few Pandora stations and preset them. At this point, the unit becomes a nice little gadget with strong, clear sound quality.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars

Price: $170

Company Web site

Reviewed by Claire Kiely

Roku XDS Internet streaming player, by Roku I’ve been a big fan of the Roku players for a few years now, the company has done a great job of integrating new features as technologies improve. The latest version (the XDS) keeps up with things like 1080p video support, HDMI video output, dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi and hardwired Ethernet for network connectivity, and component video and optical audio as well. The XDS also includes a USB port that lets you display photos, play music or watch videos stored on a USB drive.

Roku XDS Internet TV box

The best reason for a Roku player is for the Netflix streaming app, but the company also has partnerships with others that make the box interesting as well. For example, Amazon On Demand, MLB.TV and Pandora are available, and a Hulu Plus subscription (you’ll have to play extra) makes the Roku even more appealing. The company is often updating itself with additional content partnerships, improving the box as more deals are made.

Roku also has the best remote control in the business – the new XDS remote includes an instant replay button that jumps the content back 30 seconds (or so, I haven’t timed it), and the menu interface is very easy to use. The box is so easy to connect and use that my 4-year-old knows how to use the remote, and they both love “the Roku box” because they can watch older kids’ shows on Netflix.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $100 (versions with fewer features start at $60)

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Apple TV Shocker - I actually liked the old Apple TV, overpriced though it was. But the sleek – indeed, tiny – new 2010 Apple TV and its amazing $99 price got me to take out the old credit card once again. I like video entertainment, but not watching TV; overpriced cable programming loaded with commercials clearly isn’t resonating with the public. So, will instant access to movies and TV programs change the way America (and the rest of the world) watches TV? After trying the new Apple TV, I think it just might.

Apple TV, new version

It’s not so small that you’ll lose it between the cushions of a sofa, but the compact new Apple TV produces great 720p/5.1 output that requires just an HDMI connection to your television or home-theater receiver. You’ll soon have access to lots of media on the Web (yes, you have to pay for the good stuff), plus Apple TV can act as a server for your local media, both audio and video. It can display photos, and you can control it (via the “Remote” app in the iTunes Store) from an iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad. You do have one of those already, right? And you can also stream content off of one of those and onto the big screen via AirPlay and your Apple TV.

Setup is mostly a breeze, provided you don’t mistype your Wi-Fi key – gosh, it would be nice to configure (and control) Apple TV via HTTP. No matter. Operation is simple, and the video quality is excellent. There are lots of options and things to explore, but almost anyone should be able to have a movie on the big screen in no time (OK, a half-hour after opening the box, tops).

I haven’t done an extensive comparison of media players, but Apple TV is a great product at a great price. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed to receive one as a gift this year.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $100

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

HDelight Wireless HDMI Transmitter, by brite-View With HDMI now the norm for high-def (and often PC) video, there’s that age-old question: how the heck am I going to run an HDMI cable between my PC or Blu-Ray player and my display or projector? In Farpoint Group’s Wireless Media Facility, for example, we’ve had to place some equipment in a less-than-optimal location just so the that the HDMI cable wouldn’t create an even bigger problem. But wireless HDMI is problematic – In order to achieve 1080p at 60 Hz., you need more than 3Gbps. You may recall that the best 802.11n links today peak out at 450 Mbps, with 600 on the way, and, again, that’s peak.

Brite-View HDelight Wireless HDMI Transmitter

Enter the HDelight from brite-View, which promises full 1080p/60 at a rock-bottom price. The HDelight uses Amimon’s WHDI video-processing chips, which promise outstanding (“uncompressed”) video quality – and, in this case, at a price far below that of a good HDMI cable, let alone any cable installation required for aesthetic or other purposes. HDlight really is a wireless HDMI solution – it’s just two boxes, powered by USB or (for the receiver only) a wall wart (cube transformer), both with HDMI connectors. Just connect cable (short HDMI cables are included) between HDMI source on one end and a display or projector on the other, power the boxes on, and that’s it.

So, how does it look? Using some HD clips via the VLC player on the ARTIGO PC (see (link to computers)) as a source and a 1080p display on the other end, well, outstanding with an asterisk. We did have some issues with freezing and breakup, but slightly altering the position of the receiver cured these pretty quickly. We didn’t test for maximum range, but it’s safe to say that sending video across an average room shouldn’t be a problem. If you need more range, the company makes a more expensive version that they advertise as a “multi-room solution”.

In short – this is pretty amazing technology, and we’d challenge anyone to tell the difference between HD over the HDelight and an HDMI cable. Put mine under the tree.

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 stars

Price: $160

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

WD HD Live Media Player, by Western Digital The WD HD Live Media Player is my new favorite tech toy. This device lets you access various types of media through your television. With a variety of connections, including HDMI, composite and component video, you can connect this to almost any TV to enjoy Internet TV and audio services, as well as photos and videos stored on your computer or storage device.

Western Digital WD LiveTV

First, you can access your Netflix account, if you have one. I have to admit, this feature was the only one that WD didn’t nail for me. For some reason I couldn’t get the aspect ratio to be correct, and I felt like I was missing a few inches of each movie, or was stuck with the annoying black bars framing a smaller movie. The movie quality was top-notch though.

I could also access my Pandora account, so that my computer could add some mood music to a party. The machine itself comes with a free test period of Live365. I don’t have my own account, but the free trial of the music software was pretty sweet.

It also comes with a YouTube setting! With one click of a button, you can access YouTube on your TV and view all of your favorite videos. If you have a YouTube channel, the media player can remember that.

The WD HD Live Media Player networked with my computer so I could view all of my stored photos and videos on my TV. It has a photo slide show function, which is like a digital photo frame, but larger. You can also do this with videos, and it just cycles through them. Speaking of videos, if you have a video camera, similar to the Kodak PlayTouch, you can plug it into the media player through its USB connection and view all of your videos and pictures directly. Just as with viewing through the computer, the videos can cycle through if you wish.

Finally, you can plug a hard drive into the WD HD Live Media Player. I’m not saying I did this, and I’m not saying that you should do this, let’s just say you could download movies and TV shows to a hard drive, play them through the media player, and watch them like regular TV. Or you could just download home movies to the hard drive and be able to access them at any time.

For most of its functionality, the media player will need to be connected to the Internet. If your Internet connection is not next where the box will live, you will also want to get the WD LiveWire adapter, allowing the machine to tap into your wireless network.

The player is fabulous and very user friendly. Having said that, I think that if you’re giving this as a gift or want it for yourself, whoever will be using it needs to be at least basically familiar with technology. Without knowing how to use this with various types of media and Internet services, it’s just a box that will gather dust next to a cable box.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: About $130

Company Web site

Reviewed by Jen Finn

Sonos ZonePlayer S5, by Sonos A few years ago, the Sonos multi-room wireless audio streaming system would cost you at least $1,000, and was really aimed at providing high quality audio entertainment for your entire house. The Sonos system utilizes devices that attach to your home router, and then provide a proprietary wireless mesh network to stream audio content around the house to different zone players, which were attached to a home stereo system or external speakers.

Sonos S5 multi-room wireless system

The latest device from Sonos is the ZonePlayer S5, which combines a large speaker with the wireless technology, so you can create a streaming audio player by purchasing the S5 and one other ZoneBridge device, which attaches to your router. The S5 includes two tweeters, two mid-range drivers and one subwoofer driver, and is powered by a dedicated digital amplifier.

Once you’ve installed the S5 and ZoneBridge, you can stream audio from a dedicated computer (with additional software, and as long as you leave the computer on), but it also can stream Internet audio services such as Pandora, last.fm, Napster, Rhapsody, free Internet radio stations (more than 10,000 available) and even satellite radio (for an additional subscription fee). One of the newest services available is Wolfgang’s Vault, which serves up live music concerts, including Bill Graham’s personal archives, with access to concerts from the last 50 years.

The other great advancement from Sonos is the ability to control the S5 (and other ZonePlayers) with either your iPhone or iPad – the free apps let you switch between music sources and ZonePlayers easily with a swipe of your finger, and you can also control the volume of the music with the handheld device as well. Sonos still makes its own controller for $350, but if you already own an iPhone or iPad you can save the money there and use that device.

Of course, once the S5 whets your appetite, you’ll want to experience multi-room audio and purchase additional controllers, so yeah, the cost can get back up to that $1,000 range. But the S5 and one ZoneBridge is a great way to start enjoying some of the benefits from Sonos.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $400 for S5, $100 for ZoneBridge (to connect to router).

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

GlideTV Navigator, by GlideTV The Navigator is a combination remote control and mouse that you use to control a computer connected to a TV. This allows you to “browse” different Internet TV offerings from the comfort of your couch, rather than crouched over a keyboard. If you have committed to having a PC attached to your TV (rather than buying an Internet-connected TV, for example), then the GlideTV Navigator is an accessory that can make the experience more enjoyable.

GlideTV Navigator

The Navigator includes a wireless USB transmitter that lets the Navigator talk to the PC. The Navigator is about the size of a travel mouse, with a touch-pad like interface and a bunch of buttons that let you do things like play, adjust the volume, etc. It takes a bit of practice to get used to the device, but after you figure it out it becomes pretty intuitive.

The GlideTV software is basically a browser, with menu options that let you open up media software (including iTunes, Windows Media Player, etc.), and other Web sites, especially TV-based one. The coolest part of the software is the “What’s on” option, which provides an updated list of several shows that you can watch. A search bar also lets you search for specific shows or topics. The free software works without needing the Navigator hardware, so if you just want to see the “What’s on” part, feel free to download it.

It’s hard to see a really good reason to have this device without having a PC connected to a TV, but maybe if you’ve committed to watching all your TV on your PC, then this can be a handy way of navigating things while you lay on the couch.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: About $70

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

LaCinema Mini, by LaCie External hard drive maker LaCie has entered the multimedia space with its LaCinema line of devices. The main function of the LaCinema Mini is to play multimedia files (movies, music and photos) on an HD-enabled TV. The box includes a 500GB hard drive that can store these files, and the box can be connected to a TV via either an HDMI or composite video connections. Additionally, network connectivity (via Ethernet or Wi-Fi) allows the device to act as a network media server, or network-attached storage (NAS) box. This lets you stream multimedia content from a PC to the TV, or you can play files from the device on another TV (such as a second TV connected to an Xbox 360).

LaCie LaCinema Mini

The main feature that's missing is access to Internet multimedia services, such as Netflix, Pandora or YouTube. There is the ability to view photos from Flickr, but the lack of other services makes it feel like this device would have been cool 1-2 years ago. With devices from Apple, Roku, Boxee and others all providing Internet TV content, the only way this device becomes useful is if you already have a lot of stored content (music, photos and videos), making the 500GB act more like a NAS box or network media server, rather than an Internet TV box. Granted, viewing photos and listening to music on an HDTV with an HDMI connection is cool, but there needs to be more emphasis on accessing streaming Internet services.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars

Price: $230

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

iHome iP39, by iHome The iHome iP39 combines an iPod dock/speaker, an alarm clock, and a radio in a stunning chrome device which has succeeded in waking me up for my 6:45 a.m. school bus.

iHome iP39

Compatible with the iPod Nano and iPod Touch and equipped with a cooking-timer, it’s also ideal for cooking apps and recipes if you want to use this in your kitchen. Unfortunately, iPod Shuffles and older versions of the iPod Nano can’t plug in to the retractable charging dock.

Its remote control makes it easy to operate from across the room or while performing other tasks, though in order to turn the radio on, it’s necessary to use the control panel at the top of the device. Also, there is a dramatic difference in volume between the radio and the iPod settings, so if you forget to turn the volume down before switching the radio on, you may be overwhelmed by the loudness.

However, the USB ports are ideal for charging cell phones and other devices, eliminating the tangled cords, extension wires, and other fire hazards that are present in most teenagers’ living spaces.

Overall, the iHome iP39 is an all-in-one technological must-have.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 stars

Price: $99.99

Company Web site

Reviewed by Abigail Weinberg

Explorer-SP Speakers, by Gear4 The Gear4 Explorer-SP has one massive advantage over the Logitech speaker system I reviewed a few years ago – it comes with an auxiliary input. And an auxilary cord. It has therefore overcome the previous system’s greatest weakness.

Gear4 Explorer-SP speakers

It works adequately as a desktop speaker system. Of course, where it really shines is as a portable iPod speaker; a 21st-century boombox, if you will. It’s portable, which is always nice. It has a built-in, non-replaceable battery, so you can use it pretty much wherever you want (the company claims eight hours play time; two hours to charge).

It sounds good – much better than the offering from Logitech. It also comes with a remote control, which feels brittle but is actually fairly sturdy and responsive. To round everything off, it comes with a cloth carrying case, which is actually a net weakness – it’s tough to fit the speaker in there, and the power cord won’t fit in with it.

Is it innovative? Not really. Does it work well? You bet.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars 

Price: $149

Company Web site

Reviewed by Dan Hunt

PartyCube Sound System, by Memorex With a name like PartyCube, how can you not have fun with this portable speaker system? Designed for the iPod and iPhone devices, the PartyCube features multi-directional speakers that project sound in almost a complete circle. This means you can place this in the center of a room, and people who are sitting (or dancing) behind the speakers or on the side will still hear great sound from the PartyCube. The iPod or iPhone sits in a cradle/dock in a slot in front of the PartyCube, and controls on the top can adjust volume, skip songs, repeat songs or go to shuffle mode.

Memorex PartyCub e

When plugged into an AC adapter, the PartyCube can recharge your iPhone/iPod, but the power adapter also recharges the PartyCube’s lithium-ion battery. When that is recharged, you can ditch the power cord and get between 4 to 6 hours of battery life. With this and the integrated handle, the PartyCube is meant to be mobile – used outside on a deck or other location where the party is happening – it’s not meant to be placed in a corner to collect dust. One small downside – the PartyCube won’t recharge the iPod/iPhone from its battery – for that you need the AC adapter plugged in.

The PartyCube also has an AM/FM radio with included antennas to get better reception (plus six pre-set buttons), and a line-in jack in case you want to connect an audio device that isn’t an iPod or iPhone. A backlit display lets you know what features are chosen and how long your song is, but otherwise isn’t really needed.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars 

Price: About $100 

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Octiv mini speakers, by Altec Lansing If you have a cluttered desktop at home or work (cough cough), then a large speaker system for your iPod or iPhone or other MP3 music player might not be in the cards. Fortunately, the Octiv mini can help you with this dilemma. The speaker has a small footprint, measuring only 4-inches wide by 3.8-inches high by 5.3-inches deep. The speaker is shielded to protect mobile phones from interference, and includes an Apple universal connector for attaching an iPhone (3G, 3GS, 4G) or iPod (touch, classic, nano, etc.). An auxiliary port in the back allows for other MP3-enabled devices if you still own one of those.

AltecLansing OctivMini speakers

With an iPhone or iPod in the dock, the speakers can also recharge the device, although I found it a bit wonky in making sure the device was tightly connected in order for the recharging to occur (perhaps this was because I had an iPhone case on it, or perhaps not). There’s no power button on the device, once it’s plugged in you’re ready to go.

My biggest complaint was the lack of volume adjustment buttons on the speakers – if the volume on your iPod is too high, you have to manually adjust the volume with the iPod app on your phone or iPod – which is tougher to do than with a hardware button on the speakers.

Other Altec Lansing speakers with more features are also available (such as the inMotion Compact, or the more portable Orbit) – clearly this is for people who don’t have a lot of space for their speaker, but still want something more than the tiny speaker on their device. One bonus – you can download a free Alarm Rock app from iTunes and turn the Octiv mini into a mini-alarm clock.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $50

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

House Party 5, by Gear4 The House Party and I started off on the wrong foot. I’m not sure I can love it because of its bad first impression. After unpacking the Home Party, I found the appropriate insert that would fit my iPod Nano and popped it into the Home Party. I followed the instructions and made sure the insert popped firmly in the speaker system, that’s when I hit my first snag. The inserts are designed incorrectly. In order for the connection to be made between the iPod and the speaker system, the iPod has to be backwards because the insert’s opening isn’t right. However, once you rotate the iPod, the connection itself won’t fit. Well done, House Party, well done. My boyfriend had to get out pliers to get the insert out of place and in order to test the product, I couldn’t use an insert. I suppose I could have just used the supplied cord and plugged my iPod into the AUX outlet instead.

Gear4 House Party 5 speakers

So right there, I’m not happy with the product. It looks really cool, which is the reason I wanted to test it in the first place. The sound quality is really clear with both treble and bass, even at the top volume, which is loud enough for a house party. Maybe not a frat house party, but at least a regular party.

Another feature that seems to be missing – you can’t tell whether the speaker is responding when you hit the buttons. They’re not raised, and therefore just respond to a human touch, somewhere near the button. On other systems I’ve tried, buttons will have a light flicker when you increase or decrease volume, for example. This system doesn’t do that. The volume increases very slowly, so with some songs it was almost impossible to tell whether I was increasing the volume. One saving grace – the system’s remote control responds to an actual touch, so you can tell that you’re hitting the buttons correctly.

All in all, I think the speaker system is great, but this model is not user-friendly. I wouldn’t give this as a gift to a child or a grandparent. It might be a good gift if someone you love would use it primarily with the remote control, and wouldn’t use the inserts to protect their iPod.

Cool Yule rating: 2 stars

Price: $130

Company Web site

Reviewed by Jen Finn

Wowee One portable speaker, by Gel Audio The problem with a lot of portable speakers is that they don't give enough bass response, making the sound come out very small and tinny. The Wowee One improves this by enabling bass to flow out onto the surface of wherever the Wowee is placed. So when you place it on a tabletop, the tabletop helps boost the bass, as the Wowee vibrates to assist.

Gel Audio Wowee portable speaker

The device includes a standard portable speaker that delivers the mid to high frequencies, and then a Gel Audio driver to deliver the bass frequencies. The company says it can play up to 20 hours of music per charge, and the internal battery can be recharged via USB cable to your computer (or other USB charging adapter). You can connect any portable audio device (MP3 player, iPod, iPhone, even a computer) through the included audio jack (which also turns on the speaker, oddly enough).

The improvement in the bass is nice, but for songs with higher ranges, it's still a portable speaker, so you still won't get full sound as you would with larger speakers. The device is small enough to pack along if you want to share music with others and don't want to rely on the tiny speakers in your device.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars

Price: $80

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Solar Sound 2 Bluetooth Stereo Speaker, by Devotec Once the “oh, wow, a Bluetooth-connected, solar-power compact stereo speaker system” factor wears off, it might be a good idea to look at whether such a product is really filling a mainstream need. Don’t get me wrong – I can see the utility of such a device, but the drawbacks outweigh the coolness factor pretty quickly.

Devotec Solar Sound Speaker

First of all, like most compact loudspeakers, the sound isn’t very good – a quick check with CD sources (mostly heavy metal, my particular weakness) showed the Devotec to be, well, low-fi. Pop and classical fared no better. And one of the product’s advantages quickly became a drawback – solar rechargeability seems like a good idea, but a full charge may take quite a while, depending upon how much sun is shining. But, then, it can also be recharged over USB, and audio and USB cables (and an AC adapter as well) are included. And, of course, it’s a bit heavy and may not be what one would to carry around in an already overstuffed computer bag.

If you absolutely, positively need portable speakers, say for use with an iPod in a meeting, this might fit the bill, even with the above-noted fidelity, recharge, and weight limitations. But I’d prefer a good set of headphones for personal listening.

Cool Yule rating: 2 stars

Price: $100

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

SoundOrb Aurora, by Gear4 Gear4 SoundOrb Aurora speakersThe SoundOrb Aurora is a 2.1 speaker system (stereo speakers and subwoofer) with a wireless component – the subwoofer is wireless (2.4GHz), letting you separate that unit from the speaker system. The subwoofer also includes an ambient light feature that can be adjusted to create mood lighting while you play the music. The main stereo speakers can also recharge an iPod or iPhone that sits on top of the speakers. 

Other features include video output to a TV, and audio input (from a TV or other audio source) if you want to use these speakers with your TV. The speakers have great sound, and it’s nice to see an iPod with a separate subwoofer that you can move away from the speakers, but at $350 it’s a bit pricey. The best usage I got from the speakers was as a set of powered speakers for other devices I was trying out in the holiday guide (such as the Orb and Olive OH3D Muisc Service). In addition, I thought at first the ambient light function would blink to the beats of the music (creating a disco-light-like effect), but it really doesn’t.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars

Price: $349

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Vitruvian CSMP175 speaker system, by Coby The Coby Vitruvian is a quality speaker system for the iPod or iPhone. The sound from the two 25W speakers is great, even at high volumes. The Vitruvian boasts a remote control button that lets you change the bass level. Personally, I couldn’t figure out if it was working/what it was doing. I didn’t hear a difference, but my boyfriend claims that it did affect the sound, although not greatly.

Coby Vitruvian speakers

Speaking of the remote, it is fully functioning and has all the buttons that you would need: volume, bass, play/pause, etc. The remote even lets you access the menu and move through it as though you were next to the machine. One problem I encountered was that if I was too close to the machine, the remote would work for pausing, but I’d have to actually touch my iPod to get the music to resume playing. If you aren’t using the remote, the machine has actual, raised buttons. They are on the top and are designed well enough to not be distracting. I prefer a machine with real buttons rather than touch-sensitive buttons, that way you can always tell if it’s responding to your touch.

The iPod/iPhone dock can also rotate 90 degrees, which lets you use the cover flow feature of the iPod, or watch movies on the device, with the sound coming through the speakers. In addition, behind the dock is ambient backlighting. The lighting can be changed on the dock, but if you don’t want to cycle through every lighting option, you can use the remote. The light has 10 grades, ranging from almost off to just enough light. This basically lets you create mood music and mood lighting from the same device.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars

Price: About $80

Company Web site

Reviewed by Jen Finn

Link Wireless A/V Extender, by Imation Are you tired of watching YouTube, Netflix or Hulu content on a tiny computer screen and lousy speakers? Would you rather be able to watch that stuff on your fancy new HDMI-enabled HDTV with a better sound system? The Link Wireless A/V Extender by imation can help. This handy little device basically lets you extend your computer's display to an HDMI-enabled TV or a VGA-enabled monitor, through the use of a wireless transmitter and DisplayLink technology (the same type that lets you connect a second monitor via USB cable).

Imation Link Wireless A/V Extender

In this case, a wireless USB transmitter sends screen data to the Link receiver, which is then connected via HDMI cable or VGA cable to your TV or monitor. When connected correctly, your TV becomes a second computer screen, and you can do things like watch Internet TV on your TV instead of your PC, and the wireless aspect means you don't have to have the PC connected with a wire, giving you a little bit more room between the location of the PC/notebook and your TV. It's a neat little trick, and can be a good way to stream Internet TV or video services like Netflix or Hulu to a TV. With an HDMI connection, audio can be streamed to the TV as well, which might have better speakers than your PC.

The only downside is that you need to have an HDMI input on your TV, or VGA inputs; older TVs that have component or composite inputs won't work with this. But if you have a newer TV with HDMI, this can be a nice way to stream that video content on a larger, possibly higher-definition display.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 stars 

Price: About $145

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

VT2300LED TV, by ViewSonic If you’re looking for a high-definition TV for a secondary room, or just something that’s not as big as a 40-plus-inch unit, this 23-inch model from ViewSonic could fit the bill. Features include built-in digital tuners, 1,920 by 1,080 native image resolution, three HDMI inputs, S-video, VGA, composite and component inputs for various devices (like game consoles, Internet streaming boxes, even a computer monitor). The system also includes 10watt-SRS TruSurround HD audio to give you good sound quality from the TV.

ViewSonic VT2300LED TV

The backlit LED provides excellent picture quality, especially with darker blacks and brighter whites on the screen. The unit is wall mountable, or you could set it on its round base. The inputs are easily accessible, and the remote control was very responsive and easy to use.

Again, at 23-inches this likely won’t be your main display, but as a secondary TV or something to connect your gaming consoles (or maybe an Apple TV!) to, this is a very nice set. With three HDMI inputs, the TV is ready for future devices that will likely require this type of connectivity, but also has inputs for older devices should you still have some of those.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: About $400

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

SyncMaster B2330HD LCD HDTV, by Samsung This monitor can be used as an office monitor for your computing needs, or if you want to use it as a TV in a dorm room or other small location, the 23-inches of the multi-function B2330 will give you enough space to think it’s a large TV, but small enough to fit into the small location. In testing, I used this as a secondary TV and connected a Roku box for the kids to watch their Netflix programs on in the living room (apart from the larger HDTV in the family room). The monitor has a nice piano black finish, which would fit nice in either an office or home setting.

Samsung B2330HD LCD TV

Other features include a 70,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio, a 5ms response time to prevent ghosting and motion blurring, a 16:9 aspect ratio, full 1080p support, and two HDMI connections. A picture-in-picture function can let you watch TV while doing computing work as well. The Samsung Connectshare feature lets you play music, movies and photos on the monitor from a USB memory stick or other USB device. It also includes Samsung’s Magic Suite 2010, which include applications Magic Eco, Magic Return, Magic Color, MagicTune and Magic Bright3. Sound quality is excellent, with Dolby Digital Plus sound with 3W built-in stereo speakers supported.

I was slightly disappointed in one thing – on some of my HDMI equipment (the Imation Link A/V, for example), the HDMI inputs weren’t recognized. Even on the Roku XDS box, at times the TV would not register an HDMI signal (the signal and cables worked on other TVs we tried).

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: About $280

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

O3HD Music Server, by Olive The concept behind the O3HD Music Server sounds cool enough - it's a box that's meant to be the centralized location for all of your music, with the ability to play the songs through your home stereo system. It's a CD player, hard drive (500GB or 2TB options) and Internet-connected appliance all in one unit. Unfortunately, several system glitches prevented me from truly enjoying this device.

Olive O3HD Music Server

At least setup was easy. The unit connects a home network, providing it's some form of Ethernet - in my case, I used powerline A/V network adapters to connect to my network. Stereo output ports then connect to powered speakers - again, I used the Gear4 SoundOrb Aurora for my speakers.

There are a few different ways you can access music through the O3HD. First, you can send your CDs to Olive in advance and they'll rip them onto the drive and send you back the server. If all of your music is sitting on CDs instead of some other digital format, this makes the most sense. The O3HD includes a slot-loaded CD player/recorder, so you can add individual CDs to the system, and then rip it yourself and store it on the drive. Third, you can access music stored on any network server you have on the network. This was a bit problematic - in my tests, the Olive could only see two of my four network server locations - it's unclear whether music needs to be stored in a shared drive on those networks. Fourth, the O3HD can connect to Internet radio services if the home network has Internet access.

The major problem I have with this device is the user interface. There's a small LCD screen on the front of the device that has a touch screen for choosing different menu options, and hardware buttons as well. The buttons are woefully unresponsive - every button push caused a 3-4 second delay before the software acknowledged an action, totally unacceptable. The included remote control improved the reaction time, but only by a second or two. The worst thing you want is to push a button, wait, push a button, wait, etc.

Second, the CD ripping was unreliable as well. While you have several format options to choose from, I could only succeed at ripping at a 128-bit MP3 format - others I tried failed. In addition, the system uses the Internet to find artwork for the albums, and several times the artwork was incorrect.

Basically I expected more from a system that costs $1,000. If you haven't yet joined the digital music movement and still have piles of CDs all over the place, then maybe the thought of buying a network music server with all of your music pre-ripped would be appealing. But if you are trying to connect this to an existing network with your music already stored in several locations, this isn't worth the money.

Cool Yule rating: 1 star 

Price: Starts at $1,000 (500GB)

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Anime Onyx 3D Glasses, by Gunnar Optiks Apparently 3D is so hot that you can just go out and buy your own glasses instead of having to rely on either the glasses at the movie theater or the ones that come with the new TV. The Anime Onyx 3D Glasses by Gunnar Optiks does just that. The glasess are RealD compatible, and the lenses provide distortion free polarization with wide-field viewing for enhanced 3D effects.

Gunnar Optiks Anime 3D glasses

They don’t work with the typical red/cyan 3D, so it’s tough to test these out unless you plunk down some cash for a 3D movie, or head to the Best Buy to check out their 3D TV demonstrations. At $99, this requires some serious investment in 3D moviegoing or a 3D TV, or you really want to look cooler than the people with the plastic glasses at the theater.

At least the glasses are comfortable to wear.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars 

Price: $99

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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