Holiday gift ideas: home and office gear

Technology gifts to use at home or at work

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Just because you have a fancy new computer doesn't mean that you're totally set on your technology acumen. You gotta trick out the rest of your office (either at home or at work) with the latest gear to help supplement that fancy new system. Here's some of our favorites from the past few months:

Wi-Ex zBoost YX510-Dual Band Cellular Repeater

Wi-Ex zBoost YX510 dual-band cellular repeaterThere are few situations more frustrating than poor cellular coverage, which remains a problem for users of all carriers in many parts of the country – even those with population densities that might otherwise imply good coverage. I'm in that situation myself – not far from Boston, but with only 1-bar service indoors – at best - for all of the major carriers. That's why the Wi-Ex zBoost YX510-Dual Band cellular repeater caught my eye. Rather than waiting for at least one of the carriers to offer decent service for all the money I send them every month, this box promises a simple solution, albeit for a few hundred dollars. And the fact that it's carrier-independent (except it doesn't support Nextel, we should point out) and covers both the 800 and 1800 MHz. bands is a big plus.

A caution, though – this product involves the use of two antennas, one mounted right on the compact Base Unit, and a much larger one connected by a long length of coaxial cable. The two antennas must be separated by a good distance in order for the unit to function properly. Typically, the larger antenna will be mounted outdoors or in an attic – but professional installation might be required if you go that route.

Setup is otherwise a snap – connect the antennas, position the larger antenna, and turn the power on. Flashing lights will alert you to anything that needs correcting.

So, how well does it work? Outstanding! My Verizon Wireless handset had never seen more than one bar indoors, and often didn't work at all. Now I've got between two and four bars everywhere in the house, and that's with a less-than-optimal temporary installation of the outdoor antenna. Even Keith Shaw's beloved iPhone with AT&T service worked great – and this in a location (my house) where he couldn't otherwise get a signal at all! This one is definitely on my holiday gift list, along with yet another letter to the carriers to once again plead for better coverage - oh, well, forget that. Got cellular? I do!

By the way, you might be tempted to consider a carrier-specific femtocell in place of a cellular repeater or booster. You eliminate the need for the second antenna, as the backhaul is via your broadband connection. But you also wind up with a vendor-specific solution that has additional monthly fees, albeit at a lower initial capital outlay. Me, I'm going with the repeater.

Cool Yule Rating: 5 stars $289.99 at Amazon.com

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Product Web site.

Reviewed by Craig Mathias

Epson Artisan 810 all-in-one printer

Epson Artisan 810 all-in-one printerAt first glance, spending $300 on a printer might seem extraneous when you can buy a complete computer for only a few more bucks (considering the price of netbooks these days). And if you're just looking for something that prints out your e-mails, then sure, there are a number of printers out there for less money.

But if you're looking for something that can also print photos, CDs, make copies and even fax (we're still trying to figure out who still uses fax machines), then the Artisan 810 has to be on your short list. The last time I loved a printer so much (other than last year's Artisan 800) was back when I saved up my money to buy a laser printer in the early '90s (I know, I'm a geek).

The Claria high-definition inks (six individual color packs) truly make the best possible photos I've seen this year. Not only do 4x6 images look amazing, but larger 8x10 prints (something I'm always dreading based on the quality of the original digital image) also look fantastic. I printed photos off several other photo printers this year (including other Epson printers), and nothing looked as good as ones that came from the Artisan 810.

Beyond photo printing, the Artisan 810 can make photo copies and scan documents – the automatic document feeder on top of the device makes this look like my office printer. Network connectivity – both via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, make this a fantastic shared printer for the home or home office. The little things that made the Artisan 800 such a good printer are also available on the 810 – you can scan a photo and then create a coloring book page – it strips out the color and leaves you with grey borders that your kids can then color in. You can take a blank piece of paper and create a sheet of graph paper or lined sheet (good for last-minute requests from school-aged kids that need "just one more sheet"). A great addition this year is a USB charging port on the front of the device that lets you attach an iPod, turning your "printer" into an all-purpose device. There's even the ability to print from your iPhone (we ran out of time before trying that feature). The system is easy to use and operate, thanks mostly to the 7.8-inch touch panel and 3.5-inch LCD screen that pops up from the side of the printer.

Yes, the price may be a bit high and the additional ink could put a strain on your budget, but once you start using the printer you'll never want to go back to other printers.

Cool Yule Rating: 5 stars $300 (act quickly for a $100 rebate)

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Prestige Pro805 all-in-one printer by Lexmark

Lexmark Prestige Pro 805 all-in-one printerLexmark hits all the right buttons with this all-in-one, small-business-class printer. First, let's start with the warranty: Lexmark offers a five-year warranty, plus lifetime phone support. If you can find a printer with a longer warranty than that, buy it. If not, a small business would be silly not to consider this product.

In terms of everyday operation, Lexmark says the Prestige Pro805 offers printing at the low cost of a penny per copy. That's tough to beat for a printer that can crank out 33 pages per minute, offers two-sided printing and can handle 150 pages at a time. This four-color inkjet also handles scanning and copying via a very slick and easy to use 4.3-inch LED touch screen.

In terms of network connectivity, the Prestige Pro805 has both Ethernet and USB ports. Plus, it features 802.11n Wi-Fi. This is an excellent feature that lets you eliminate that extra printer cable. In addition, you can go to Lexmark's site and download applications that let you connect to Web-based photo sites like Flickr, and even download news and weather information to your printer. Why you would even consider getting weather information from your printer is beyond me, but maybe there's a "coolness" factor involved that I'm missing.

The ultimate test of a color printer is when you try to print a 4X6 or even an 8X10 image. In this regard, the Lexmark was surprisingly good. We printed a bunch of 4X6 photos and the quality was excellent. We then moved up to the 8X10 setting and came away impressed. With the Lexmark Prestige Pro, you can do all your small business printing, copying and scanning, plus create excellent prints from your summer vacation. And you can do it wirelessly.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 stars $299.99

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Product Web site.

Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Epson WorkForce 610 wireless All-in-one printer (print/copy/scan/fax/photo)

Epson WorkForce 610 printerThe WorkForce 610 is a multifunction, wireless, small office ink-jet printer whose real claim to fame is the speed of black and white printing and the quality of color printing on plain paper.

Build quality is about what you would expect from a low-cost printer, all of which feature a lot of plastic these days, but this machine felt somewhat solid, particularly the front tip-out control board. And the device performed as advertised through the range of its functions (although we never tested the fax capabilities).

Wireless setup was a breeze, which can't be said of many printers. Using the front-mounted 2.5 inch LCD screen, we had it look for networks and it found the SSID of my wireless network and latched on after I entered the Wired Equivalent Privacy code. With the printer on and seeing the network, I turned on a laptop and connected to the network and ran the Epson software. It found the printer and connected. Effortless.

Printing wirelessly was fast. Even photos transferred in a heartbeat. The printer excelled at black and white document printing and, while not as fast, handled color office documents with aplomb. Full page color documents were not soggy when they came out nor did they smudge. Impressive.

The stack feeder handle pages well, and copying quality was good. Same with scanning.

The printer didn't do as well when it came to photo printing. The pictures were clear, but they appeared a bit flat compared with the quality you can achieve with a dedicated photo printer.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 stars $199 (but company offering $40 rebate)

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Reviewed by John Dix

ScanSnap S1500 by Fujitsu

Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500I love, love, love the ScanSnap! It does exactly what it said it will. It scans double- or single-sided pages, up to 20 pages per minute, 40 sides, at up to 600 dpi. It removes blank pages, it fixes orientations if you put a middle page in upside down, and it does all of these things almost silently. Its software lets you easily crop images, tag scans to easily search them, and increase the quality. Well, it increases the quality of paper images, my photos were not enhanced and in fact were obviously scanned.

The included software is very easy to figure out and use, which surprised me considering the manual is 369 pages! ScanSnap can scan to multiple platforms: e-mail, a printer, Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and SharePoint. Additionally it can create a PDF or a JPEG. The ScanSnap comes with Adobe 9 Standard in case you don’t already own this software.

One feature I really like is the CardMinder. This feature lets you scan business cards, capturing more than just the image of the card – after scanning, you can search through cards by name. You can e-mail directly through the system. You can share the data with Microsoft Outlook and update your address book with one click. It even shows you the front and back images of the original card. This is a great way to organize yourself if you've had a ton of business cards sitting on your desk.

I scanned in everything I could find: photos, papers, packets of information, business cards. It handled everything smoothly and the with the exception of the photos, everything looked better on my computer screen. I really loved being able to type on a document that I scanned off a printed PDF. I even scanned in a handwritten "to-do list" into a Word doc. That was the only thing the ScanSnap didn't handle well. It tried to read my curly writing but everything came out as symbols except for one word and some chunks of it came as images. As a PDF though, my note looked fine.

I'm impressed too because the ScanSnap takes up less room on my desk (when closed and off) than my purse does, and as purses go, mine is rather small. The machine is roughly the length and width of my office phone, although it has more height. My only concern was that when I took it out of the box, I managed to break the feeder flap off the top. My thought was that it was going to be really cheap and work poorly. I was wrong. Once I popped the flap back into place, the ScanSnap worked like a dream!

In terms of its giftiness, it wouldn't be amazing just for anyone. My grandmother would hate it and find it useless. I do, however, think that it would be an outstanding gift for a small business owner, a remote employee, or a student who does many collaborative projects. It's so great for organizing yourself and all of its capabilities are useful. I'm going to be very sad when I give this back, I'm really going to miss it.

Cool Yule Rating: 5 stars $449

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Product Web site.

Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

BlueMax Lighting 70w Desk Lamp, by Full Spectrum Solutions

BlueMax Lighting 70w Desk LampThis is a desk lamp that aims to reproduce natural lighting in an indoor situation. It uses "scotopically enhanced lighting" technology, which basically aims to "stimulate the eye's photoreceptors, making the pupils contract to increase visual acuity."

The light therapy lamp produces 10,000 lux (approximately 4,300 lumens of light) to help those with seasonal affective disorder and aims to help you see more clearly and color more accurately. Features of the lamp include a flexible neck design for aiming the light downward or off to the side (good for projects), a dimming switch that lowers the light to about 20% power, and a solid base that prevents the lamp from tipping over. The company says that about 30 minutes of light therapy in the morning (such as reading e-mail or doing other work) can help you feel better if you're affected by seasonal affective disorder (or if you live in New England in the winter).

I tried this out in my office for a few days and turned off the overhead fluorescent lighting, and it does have a calming effect. Certain things on my desk and my computer screen looked brighter. It's hard to tell whether I'd benefit from this if I contracted seasonal affective disorder – when I was testing this, it was mainly sunny outside, and the winter hadn't kicked in yet. Still, any lighting beats fluorescent lighting in an office situation, so if you can swing the money, pick one of these up.

Cool Yule Rating: 3 stars $159

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Product Web site.

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

FuHzion 22" widescreen LCD by ViewSonic

ViewSonic FuHzion 22-inch widescreen LCD monitorThis is a 22-inch widescreen LCD monitor that is being marketed at gamers. Dubbed FuHzion by ViewSonic, the monitor is supposed be "3D ready." We weren't sure what that meant until we discovered that you need to buy 3D glasses from nVidia ($200, not included with monitor.) So, if you are an avid gamer and want the most FuHzion-iest graphics you need the $250 LCD, the $200 glasses, not to mention the latest nVidia GeForce 8 graphics card. And then you're good to go with 120Hz frame rate viewing. Plus, this baby is wall-mountable for all your HD viewing needs.

However, as a simple computer monitor the VX2265wm is missing some of the features we've come to expect in a monitor. Such as: there's no way to raise or lower the monitor once you fit it into the pedestal. Plus, it doesn't swivel either. Beyond that, there are no settings for basic things like contrast. You can adjust sound and brightness – that's it. On the plus side, the FuHzion does offer a wonderful, clear, widescreen picture.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 stars $249

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Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Laptop cooling systems (Targus, NZXT, ThermaPAK)

NZXT Cryo laptop coolerNotebook cooling devices get a bad rap – I've had readers send me e-mail that it's just as easy to take a sheet of metal and create your own system rather than pay $50 or more for something that basically elevates your notebook to cool it and make it somewhat more ergonomic. If you're handy with tools, then go for it, but I still enjoy seeing different features being made to help cool laptop systems, which continue to run hot – especially if you have a large notebook.

I received three different cooling devices this year, with different approaches. My favorite was the Targus Lap Chill Mat ($50), which combined the best features of some of the other devices I've tried over year. First, two USB-powered fans deliver quiet cooling to your notebook. Second, a soft pad around the mat provides comfort for you and the notebook, and the angled design helps make it more comfortable on your arms when you're typing. The Chill Mat also is lightweight, making it somewhat easy for traveling.

The second device I liked was the NZXT Cryo LX aluminum notebook cooler ($68 street). Designed more for gaming and multimedia notebooks than you'll use in the home, the Cryo LX is a solid aluminum frame that includes three adjustable fans powered by a separate adapter. This cooler also includes four USB ports on the rear of the device, creating a USB hub for notebooks up to 17-inches in size. The unit does fold up slightly, but it's so heavy that I wouldn't recommend for traveling. It's more aimed at the gaming market.

Finally, I enjoyed the simple HeatShift Laptop Cooler by ThermaPAK ($35 for 17-inch model). The simple space-age pad is slightly larger than a mouse pad that you place your notebook on, and it dissipates heat without needing power or fans. The company says that organic crystals inside the HeatShift dissipate heat when a notebook is placed on it. Grooved channels in the pad help enhance airflow. It's extremely lightweight for travel purposes. The only downside: It's not angled, creating some ergonomic issues.

Cool Yule Ratings: 4 stars for all three.Targus, NZXT, HeatShift.

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

ZoneAlarm Z100g Secure Wireless Router, by Check Point

ZoneAlarm Z100g secure wireless routerCheckPoint is well-known for their industrial-quality security products, and the Z100G brings all of that capability to residential settings. This product is an 802.11g router that includes all of the usual router functionality, plus firewall, antivirus, intrusion prevention, Web content filtering, desktop sharing, secure remote access, and a USB print server. There's a nice printed manual included, helpful on relatively complex products like this one.

Setup and configuration are very much like those on other wireless routers, with a broad range of options, and the setup utility is easy to use. Note, though, that updates to the security features will cost you $69.95 (November 2009 price) after a trial period. Note also that you'll likely want firewalls, virus checking, and the like on each PC, and Check Point will be happy to provide you with their own ZoneAlarm product for an additional fee.

So what looks like an astonishingly low price for a very powerful wireless router is actually higher and will involve recurring fees. Thus this may not be a good product for many residential users, but it could be of value to small or even home-based businesses. Of course, in that case, we'd really want 802.11n. So what we have here is a product in need of an update and perhaps a little more marketing focus on small business. Regardless, we've always found Check Point products to be reliable and – for the technically inclined – easy to use.

Cool Yule Rating: 3 stars $149.95 (direct)

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Reviewed by Craig Mathias

Hug Light by MyLight

MyLight HugLightYou can just picture how the Hug Light was invented. There's a guy on a ladder, in the dark, holding a flashlight, trying to accomplish some type of chore. All of a sudden he drops the flashlight and mutters, "Damn. Why isn't there a flashlight that I can just wrap around the back of my neck?"

Well, now there is. The Hug Light is made of twisty wire so you can shape it however you want. The LED lights are at each end of the bright green, foot-long device. Each end has two lights, kind of like your car. You can use the Hug Light with just your regular lights (one LED per side), or with the brights (both LEDs on both sides.) The Hug Light is perfect for all those jobs where holding a flashlight slows you down (picture yourself under the sink or under the hood.) It's also great if you take early morning or late evening walks and want to make sure you’re spotted by cars.

It's a perfect stocking stuffer if you need some extra light in dark places and you’re also holding tools – like trying to fix or connect something on the desktop under the desk.

Cool Yule Rating: 3 stars $14.95

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Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Control4 Home Automation System

We know what you really want for the holidays – a complete home automation system that can, from any of a number of hand-held consoles and remotes (and a big variety of wall-mounted switches and controls), manage all of the major systems in your home – entertainment, lighting, security, energy, and more.

Control4 is a very high-end solution, but – here's the good part – it's also very modular, flexible, easy-to-use, and, get this, it all starts at $499, making it ideal for both new and existing homes of all sizes and family budgets. The Control4 solution is sold by a network of dealers, and we got our demo from Mark Komanecky, president of simpleHome in Westborough, Mass. After configuration and installation, the system is fully customized to the needs of a particular household, with all manner of favorites, parental controls, and everything else we could think of for a complete home automation environment.

Keep in mind that you'll need an ongoing relationship with your dealer; this isn't a system for the do-it-yourselfer or the nerd who wants to hack code. But if you need a complete wired and/or wireless home automation solution (and who doesn't?), Control4 is great place to start - and likely finish as well.

Cool Yule Rating: 5 stars Starts at $499.

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Reviewed by Craig Mathias

Chili Pad by Chili Technology

ChiliPadAre you the type of person that wakes up in the middle of the night and likes to flip your pillow over to the cold side? You’ll really like this product. And menopausal women will LOVE it! The Chili Pad is a mattress pad for your bed that can allow you to make the bed cooler or warmer. Designed by a doctor who was going through menopause, the mattress pad is lined with water-filled coils allowing the temperature to range from 46° F to 118° F. It absolutely works!

You can also get a model that allows you two different zones, so if you share a bed with someone else, they can set it to one temperature and you can set it to another and both sleep comfortably. This is one of the neatest features and it really sets this apart from an electric blanket, both people don’t have to be affected by one person’s temperature issues. Plus, you can cool it down! My menopausal mother tried the cold feature and she said that she’s gotten the best sleep in years, no more night sweats. She recommends to it everyone.

The Chili Pad mattress pad is very comfortable to sleep on regardless of if the device is on or off, it feels just like having a regular mattress pad on. However, the cooling/heating device could use a few modifications. First, on that part, there is a bright white light to let you know the machine is on, a bright blue light if you cooling, a bright red light if you’re heating, and an LCD screen to show you the temperature. These lights will stay on the entire night, so I would advise, don’t buy this product if you like sleeping in absolute darkness. I was afraid to put a towel over the lights because it would also be on the fan and I didn’t want anything to catch on fire. Speaking of which, the heating/cooling requires a fan in order to work. The Chili Pad info claims that it’s a quiet 20 decibels, but if you put that near your head, it seems very loud and the fan will blow on you. Even if it’s on the floor, the sound is noticeable but it feels more like a white noise volume.

All in all, this is a great product, especially if you’re looking to cool down the bed or you want different temperature zones. I would have loved to have tested this in the summer to see if I could use it instead of air conditioning on those steamy New England nights.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 stars: Ranges from $399 - $649

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Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

WBR-3800 Portable Wireless Hotspot, by levelone

Wi-Fi routers have been around for some time, and are now a fixture in many homes for connecting mobile users to the Internet via cable or DSL service. The levelone WBR-3800, however, is one of the new breed of routers that are designed for use with both traditional wired and 3G wireless connections. Both a USB port and a CardBus slot are provided, allowing (according to the vendor; we didn't test this) essentially any 3G service to be used for the backhaul link. The possibilities here are quite interesting – an instant hotspot, as the product name implies, or the use of a 3G modem for emergency or field applications, or even permanently mounting the WBR-3800 is a vehicle for go-anywhere wireless (on both ends!) Internet access.

Some purists might note that this is an 802.11b/g device, and we're well into the era of 802.11n. Not to worry – throughput is going to be limited by the speed of the backhaul (which will be 802.11b speeds or less, and very much less in the case of a 3G connection), so, coupled with the huge installed base of 802.11b/g clients, this product should still have a long and happy life.

Anyway, this compact (12x13 cm) unit would be ideal for portable and relocatable applications involving wireless backhaul. It's pretty plain-vanilla router otherwise, and, lacking 802.11n, wouldn't be my first choice for a primary home connection. But even there it could make sense, using wireless backhaul in the event of a wired-WAN outage.

Our eval unit had something loose rattling around inside – disconcerting, but it worked regardless. Setup is via a utility that requires software installation and a time-wasting reboot – these shouldn’t be required in this day and age. No matter - if you're looking for a mobile WWAN to WLAN connection, this one is worth a look.

Cool Yule Rating: 3 stars $136.61 at Amazon.com

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Reviewed by Craig Mathias

Wi-Fire Long-Range Wi-Fi Adapter, by hField Technologies

As you probably know, most Wi-Fi adapters, whether built-in or add-on, restrict power output in the interest of saving on both product cost and battery life. But there are times when, as a consequence, link quality and performance, especially at hotspots and otherwise outdoors, are less than robust. Enter the Wi-Fire, which is an external USB 802.11b/g adapter with both a directional antenna (for aiming at the spot where signal strength is maximized), and very high transmit power output – they claim up to half a watt (vs. the 100 mW or less of typical adapters today) and claimed receiver sensitivity also better than most. The unit can be clipped to a notebook's screen, and drivers are provided for Windows, the Mac, and even Linux. Sounds good!

Except in testing, where we found that the additional range provided with our 802.11g connection was only about 25% - in our case, a few meters. The directional antenna idea seems valid, but we found in practice that there was no practical benefit. The unit itself is flimsy and could fall off the notebook with not too big a push, and the included connection manager was rudimentary at best. And, of course, it's still 802.11g in a 802.11n world.

The solution, though, is simple – buy your sweetie a shiny new 802.11n adapter. You'll get more range and improved performance even when operating in 802.11g mode – and at a price likely below what the Wi-Fire costs. Here we've got a good idea that suffers from both poor timing and poor execution – not the best combo when opening presents.

Cool Yule Rating: 1 starAmazon.com

Price: $59.99 at

Product Web site.

Reviewed by Craig Mathias

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