Really cool tools

Keith Shaw, senior editor of product testing, picks the coolest of the cool products he tested in '04.

After I try out a product, I often never think of it again - unless I discover that I simply can't live without it. Of the 145 or so products I tested last year, six have withstood the Shaw Test of Time - they remained useful to me throughout long-term tests. Another five were not subjected to longevity testing, but grabbed my admiration all the same. I think of these eleven products as my Really Cool Tools picks.

Altec Lansing's inMotion portable audio speaker: This device ($130) helped jump-start the Apple iPod accessory revolution. Once connected to an iPod (or any other portable music device), these portable speakers blast out your playlists - Barry Manilow and all.

Apple's AirPort Express: Speaking of Apple, this little gadget ($130) does wonders. It's a portable wireless access point (when linked to a broadband connection via Ethernet) that can connect to a stereo system for streaming iTunes music from your PC and to a printer for easy printing from your laptop. The installation isn't the prettiest in the world (especially at Home Interoperability), but once you get things working, it's very cool.

Belkin's Powerline Ethernet Adapter: My home network has become the poster child for interoperability, with different flavors of wireless, Ethernet and about a dozen device types clamoring for network attention. Fortunately, the Belkin Powerline Ethernet Adapter ($57) has solved one of my problems - a flaky wireless connection between an upstairs PC and the rest of the network. By integrating the powerline adapter, I've rid myself of worries about wireless interference from my microwave oven, cordless phones or whatnot.

Epson's PictureMate photo printer: The office now has an official printer for all digital photo printing needs. PictureMate ($199) blows away the four or five other photo printers we tried last year in terms of picture quality, ease of use and the ability to print directly from our memory cards. It isn't as fast as we'd like, but we can forgive that for picture quality. We don't have to worry about replacing specific ink cartridges (when we run out of paper, we replace the ink system with a new pack), just another plus in this fine product.

Logitech's MX1000 Laser Mouse : This cordless beauty ($65) has replaced my old, ratty roller mouse. While the sleek, black mouse oozes style, more important, the "laser" technology runs circles around typical optical mice. You can accurately use the MX1000 on surfaces that you can't with optical mice (including glossier surfaces). And its ergonomic shape makes long Web surfing sessions more comfortable. My only problem - I forget to put the mouse back in its charger when I go home at night.

Sinbon Electronics' USB six-in-one portable card reader : This $20 device, which lets me read a flash memory card on my computer, was a snap to install in my USB hub and made me into an instant fan. This card reader is just so simple, elegant, easy and hassle-free.

And here are the products I tested in '04 that I sure did like but couldn't put to the Shaw Test of Time. Included in this bunch is the $2,500 ViewSonic 32-inch LCD TV (N3200w) that beautifully adorned the office while I tested it. I also would love to own the $500 Archos AV420 personal video recorder, which connects to a TV or recording device (VCR or digital video recorder) and transfers videos to the device for playing elsewhere - allowing me to be the chic geek watching my TV shows on a plane while everyone else is stuck with the in-flight movie.

SimpleTech's SimpleDrive 400G-byte external hard drive ($375) also falls in that category. The device impressed me with its ability to offer quick and easy back-up capabilities, ease of installation and hard-drive size that was nothing to sneeze at.

On the portable device side, I had a hard time saying goodbye to the $800 Sony Ericsson p910i smart phone . This portable device is much, much more than a cell phone - it's practically a mobile office with its ability to store data, organize contacts, use e-mail, play music and create documents. It has a digital camera and video camera, PDF reader, world time locator and currency converter. A storage slot (Memory Stick Duo) allows access to more data and applications.

Finally, I almost ditched my old cell phone for the $200 LG VX7000. The VX7000 is the phone to own if you don't have a smart phone or a converged PDA device but still want to use your phone for more than just voice calls. The device includes a video/camera phone with integrated flash, two color displays (internal and external), five-way navigation button and backlit keypad. Downloading off the Verizon Wireless CDMA 1x network was faster and easier than with any other device I tried, including my suddenly ancient cell phone.

Of course, all these tools and devices might end up forgotten by midyear as the latest and greatest devices come into the office vying for my attention. Then again, maybe not.

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