Review: Gadgets to check out this summer

Cool Tools to entertain or keep you connected this summer.

Reviews of Cool Tools to entertain or keep you connected this summer.

Gadgets and summer go together like hot dogs and baseball (or something like that). Whether you're using gadgets to stay connected to the office while on vacation (although you shouldn't have to), or whether you want to use gadgets to enhance your vacation experience, there's a bunch of new toys to play with this summer. Check out our complete reviews below.

Plus, we've compiled a slideshow of our favorite summer-related gadgets and gizmos that we've been enjoying recently.


Product: Notebook Cooler SCompany: Antec $34.95 Antec is in the business of keeping computers cool (mostly internal component), so it's no surprise to see them in the business of notebook cooling as well. The company's first notebook cooler was about the width and length of an average notebook, and would cool the bottom of a notebook when plugged into a USB port.

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The latest version, the Notebook Cooler S, is about half the size of the original, and is meant to be placed behind a notebook at an angle (the back part of the notebook sits on top of it). This allows the unit's two fans to cool behind the notebook and under it, creating a wave of circulation that will keep the notebook's components cooler. The angled nature of the notebook also may help a user's ergonomic position when typing, but we're not ergonomic experts so we can't say for sure whether this is a better or worse position for the notebook.

Like Antec's earlier version, the Notebook Cooler S is powered by the USB port on your computer, and the cable/plug is passthrough, which means you can plug another USB device into the plug so you don't lose a USB port for your cooling efforts. That in itself is cool (good thinking, Antec!). In addition, the unit has two cooling settings, low for a quieter cool, and high for maximum fan spinning. When I tried the unit, the high setting wasn't really that noisy.

If you're going to be using your notebook during the summer, having the Notebook Cooler S with you will eliminate any fears of overheating for the notebook (I can't say anything about you overheating).


Product: Obsidian wireless rechargeable mouseCompany: Saitek $49.95 The tag line on the packaging of the Obsidian mouse from Saitek reads "Design Meets Desire," which sounds more like an ad for perfume than a peripheral. Still, I was impressed by the design of the Obsidian mouse – sleek, shiny black and oval, with well-designed curves all over the place.

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The 5-button, 1000 dpi optical mouse's unique feature is the use of a touch scroll wheel. Instead of a mechanical wheel to use for scrolling, the Obsidian lets users move their fingers up and down to indicate scrolling, as well as tapping the area once to engage the "auto scroll" feature (the feature where you tap and then scroll by moving the mouse). This takes some getting used to, especially if you've been using a mechanical scroll wheel for a very long time. I usually scroll with my middle finger, but when using the Obsidian that was uncomfortable, and I had to switch to my index finger. This slowed down my usual mousing speed, as my index finger usually rests on the left-click button area. The round design also makes it left comfortable for the hand overall, I prefer a mouse that has indentations on the side that conform more to the shape of the hand. But this wasn't a major problem.

Another unique feature is the Obsidian's recharging station, which connects to a computer via USB for power. Instead of requiring that the entire mouse be recharged, Saitek gives you two round rechargeable batteries that can be recharged on the base station's circular pad. A wireless USB dongle (it uses the 2.4GHz frequency) can also connect to the base station, but if you want you can just use the dongle in the USB port without the cable for the base station (but then you lose the recharging functionality). This can be good if you want to take a fully charged mouse and the dongle on the road without the base station. I also love the spare battery, which means you never have to worry about power to the mouse.

If you're looking for a designer mouse with some unique features and a great rechargeable battery system, the Obsidian might be your desire.


Product: Luna iPod alarm clock and speaker systemCompany: XtremeMac $149.95 The Luna system combines an advanced alarm clock with an iPod speaker system. If you're tired of waking up to a buzzer or the Crazy Morning Zoo Crew (or other radio station), you can connect your iPod to the docking port on top of the Luna and wake up to your own iPod tunes.

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Alarm clock features include two separate alarms with different volume controls, the ability to customize snooze settings up to 60 minutes, and a sleep setting from up to 90 minutes. The Luna also features an auxiliary in port for attaching other audio devices, and the AM/FM stereo features four programmable presets. For iPods that have the universal docking connector, the Luna can recharge it while docked.

Installation was simple, although working through some of the menu items took some trial and error, mainly because the knob system used for navigation sometimes didn't work as well as it should have.

Overall the Luna is a good iPod speaker system and alarm clock, a very good value for $150. It's tough to rave completely about the Luna because of my experience with the George system from Chestnut Hill Sound (http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2007/031907cooltools.html). The $550 George system has a much better remote control and better speakers than the Luna. It's like comparing a Mercedes (George) with a Honda Accord (the Luna). While the Luna is a good, affordable system (and that may be what you're looking for), the George is still the class of the field.


Product: NAV200 GPS Navigation systemCompany: Delphi $299 (with extra $199.99 for real-time traffic subscription): At first glance this looks like any other portable GPS device that includes turn-by-turn navigation, points of interest and other such features to get you from Point A to Point B in either the fastest or best route possible. For the most part, it is just like several other GPS devices, in testing it got us from Point A to Point B without much difficulty. The NAV200 installs easily, and after some time figuring out the interface, it got us where we wanted to go (although I wasn't totally pleased with the voice quality giving the directions).

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The reason I wanted to try this was the inclusion of the real-time traffic kit, an extra receiver and antenna that attaches to the NAV200 device. The kit provides access to the Traffic Message Channel, basically a radio station that sends out traffic information alerts. With the TMC receiver and antenna installed, the NAV200 can receive messages on where traffic trouble spots are in your area. If one of these trouble spots is on your route, the system gives you the option of re-directing your route. The traffic kit is a lifetime subscription for $200, without requiring a monthly service fee or any other renewal fees. If you live in an area with lots of traffic trouble, or if you're looking for the fastest way to the beach, the $200 may be a bargain.


Product: Squeezebox Slim Devices (a division of Logitech) $299.99 The Squeezebox is a great networked digital music player that plays music stored on a PC (or even an Infrant ReadyNAS network-attached storage device) and plays the music to a connected stereo system. The Squeezebox includes an Ethernet cable for direct connection to a home LAN, and some versions include Wi-Fi connectivity, which is great for stereo systems that might not be near an available Ethernet port.

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The Squeezebox accesses music stored on a PC via the SlimServer, a piece of software that's installed on the PC or the NAS device. After a quick download from the Slim Devices Web site, you can configure the Squeezebox to connect via your Wi-Fi network or just attach it to your LAN via Ethernet. The SlimServer software scans your PC or NAS for available music files, and can identify pre-existing playlists created with other music software (including iTunes). If you haven't yet done this, the SlimServer software can help you create playlists, but it's easier to create them with the other applications. After the SlimServer is done scanning the system, you just have to leave the computer on to enjoy music from the Squeezebox.

The device comes with a great remote for choosing what music to listen to – all of the standard methods for browsing are here – listen by album, artist, genre, etc. You can use the remote to select different playlists, and there's a "favorites" button that plays specific favorite playlists (you have to identify a playlist as a favorite before it will show up in that specific area).

If you get bored with your own music, the Squeezebox can play music from Internet radio stations – the system comes with a number of different preloaded stations, and the device supports a number of different Internet radio services (such as Live365, SHOUTcast, etc.). Slim Devices itself has a number of its own Internet radio stations, so there's enough music to choose from without having to search for your own. If you don't find what you're looking for, just open up iTunes and find your own station this way. The system can also play podcasts, either ones stored through iTunes or your other music application, or through a supported "podcast" menu option (although it only plays the "top 50" or "new" podcasts from www.podcastalley.com).

The only downside on this great device is the lack of support for M4P files, also known as DRM-enabled content from the iTunes Music Store. This isn't too much of a problem (many other devices don't support the file either), but it was kind of a pain to look at some of my playlists and try to remember whether the songs on the list were from music that I had burned from a CD or whether I bought it from the iTunes Store.

If you've been waiting for a good networked digital music player, you can't go wrong with the Squeezebox. The sleek design will look good in a home stereo system, the Wi-Fi connectivity reduces cable clutter and the music stored on a PC has never sounded better.


Product: UpStage mobile phone (with Sprint service) Samsung $299 (or $99 after rebates and 2-year activation) Looking at the dual-sided Upstage mobile phone, one has to wonder why nobody ever thought of merging two devices (a mobile phone on one side, a digital music player on the other) before now. Until now, most mobile phones that wanted to squeeze multiple applications and features into a mobile phone just put them into the phone interface and hoped that users would be able to figure out how to take their mobile phone keypad and use it for things like listening to music or take a digital photo.

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Along the way someone thought, "Let's just have a second screen and put it on the back of the phone." Brilliant. So on one side of the UpStage, you have a larger screen that's dedicated to playing music. It reminds me of the iPod nano in terms of the thin size. Then, if you want to make a phone call (or one comes in), you push the "flip" button on the side, then turn the phone around and you've got a standard cell phone user interface and keypad. Voila.

The UpStage lets you download songs directly over-the-air from the Sprint Music Store, or you can "side load" music onto the miniSD card through a PC (it comes with an SD card adapter as well as a USB cable). Other features include a 1.3 megapixel digital camera/camcorder, and Bluetooth connectivity for a hands-free headset as well as Bluetooth headphones (for listening to your music wirelessly).

On the music player side, the UpStage wants to be more like an iPhone, with a touch-sensitive keypad instead of buttons to push. Training yourself to apply the correct pressure on the keypad to make the right choice takes a while, and you'll either get really frustrated by this process or you'll bear with it and just curse at the menu on occasions. I think Samsung was trying to be too cute with the touch interface instead of just providing a better system of navigating around menus.

Holding the UpStage can be tricky, also. Whatever side you're looking at, the other side of the phone will be touching your hand, and both displays will eventually have to be cleaned of handprints / fingerprints, etc. Fortunately for carrying the phone around, the UpStage comes with a "cover battery pack" that doubles as a second portable battery and case cover to protect it from scratches while you're transporting the phone around.

With the Apple iPhone (available exclusively from AT&T) coming very soon, it should be interesting to see whether Sprint will market the UpStage as an iPhone killer or iPhone alternative. From a technical standpoint the UpStage can do many (if not more) of the features the iPhone claims to support, but without the Apple mystique it could face an uphill battle as other vendors and carriers come out with their own iPhone combatants.


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