Cool Yule Tools for the Home

Home is where all of the coolest gadgets live - here are some gift ideas to make your home more awesome.

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SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick

$39.99 (for 32 GB; other models include 16GB, 64GB and 128GB versions),

The latest version of SanDisk’s Connect offering has a USB stick with Wi-Fi capabilities, giving mobile device users the ability to access content stored on the device without needing a wired cable or an infrastructure (such as a Wi-Fi router). The main purpose of the Wireless Stick is to provide smartphone and tablet users with a wireless storage option for multimedia content (videos, photos, music). This not only frees up space for those users (storing them on a 32GB stick means they don’t have to keep it stored on their mobile device), but also lets users stream the content while out and about without having to worry about an Internet connection.

The Connect Wireless Stick is slightly larger than a regular USB flash drive (some extra space needed for the Wi-Fi radio, one assumes), but it’s still very portable. Putting content onto the stick is as easy as connecting via the USB port of your favorite computer and dragging-and-dropping the content into the associated folder (such as music, videos or photos). Accessing the content via your mobile device is done through the SanDisk Connect app, available for iOS, Android and Amazon device users.

Video streaming can be done simultaneously for up to three separate devices, so additional users aren’t stuck watching the same video (very helpful for kids in a car ride, for example). Wi-Fi pass-through is also supported for advanced users, which lets you connect the mobile device to the stick and then having the stick itself connect to an existing Wi-Fi router. It’s a nice-to-have option if you really need it, but switching between networks (from the network provided by the wireless stick and your existing Wi-Fi router) is easy enough where you don’t need the pass-through option.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

powergogobundle 620

PowerGo-Go Magnetic Charging Kits for iPhone 6, 6S

As tested: $42 for Charging Bumper Case; $25 for Charging Cable; $60 for Charging Cradle; $79.99 for Car Charger Set; $82.99 for Power Bank; $120 for Bundle set (case, cable, car mount, cradle and one Power Bank).

Magnetic charging of a smartphone has been around for a while, especially if you own a Samsung Galaxy smartphone or other Android devices. For those of us on the iPhone side of the world, magnetic charging usually means some additional adapters, cases, etc., as Apple has yet to put magnetic/induction charging in their phones.

Fortunately, you can still experience the excitement of this technology through the use of the PowerGo-Go Magnetic Charging system. The series of products include an iPhone charging case (we tried out the iPhone 6 charger on our new 6S), which includes the magnetic charging capability; a car mount that can sit on your vehicle’s dashboard and includes a car charger adapter; a charging cradle, which can be placed on a desktop to recharge via USB port; a smaller charging cable (USB with a small adapter) aimed at more portable uses; and the Power Bank, a reserve battery power that can charge your device away from either the mount or the cradle.

You don’t need to buy the entire system to benefit from this – the case and one of the chargers (car mount, cradle, charging cable) would suffice. If you do buy the Power Bank, you still need either the mount, cable or cradle to re-charge that unit.

Like other magnetic charging systems, it’s easy to recharge the unit – just place the iPhone case onto the magnetic power area and it will start to recharge. An additional benefit of the Power Bank is that you can place that on a charger cradle and then place the phone on top of that, giving you pass-through re-charging of your phone while also recharging the Power Bank (I’m not sure which device gets charged first, or if it slows down the recharge rate).

The car mount is easy to install, and the magnetic hold on the phone is strong enough to not shake the phone while driving (although if you’re on really bumpy roads it might slip off).

It’s still not the perfect solution – when you have the case on your phone you lose the ability to recharge the device via other cables or docks – but the ease of use of magnetic charging is nice to have for the iPhone.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

 
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NewerTech 14-Piece Portable Toolkit

$19.95

How many times have you discovered the need for a quick repair? Required a tiny screwdriver to remove the battery door of a toy or game? Or needed a good set of tools to assist in an electronic or mechanical construction project or hobby? The importance of having the right tool cannot be overestimated; I’ve assembled a substantial collection of tools here because nothing drains the rhythm and productivity out of a project like yelling at a tiny screw for which one has no driver.

While the TOOLKIT14 from NewerTech is small, it’s a great start or supplement to existing tool collections. Here we have a workable collection of screwdrivers – flat, Phillips, Torx, and a 1.2mm pentalobe, which fits one class of “secure” screws. There’s a clamp (or hemostat, useful as a heat sink when soldering), tweezers, a nylon pointy probe, and a couple of plastic “spudgers” (extremely disposable, we’d suggest also buying replacements), which are useful in prying chips out of sockets and opening plastic cases, among many other tasks. And it’s all provisioned in a zippered case.

I’ve seen just one of the screwdrivers in this set costing more than the entire collection, and, while what we have here isn’t every tool a hobbyist might need, it’s a great start – and a great value as well.

-- Writeup by C.J. Mathias

r8500 black1 na front hires

NETGEAR R8500 Nighthawk X8 AC5300 Smart Wi-Fi Router

$399.99

I’m not easily impressed – no self-respecting techie would be. But oh my, you’d better be sitting down for this one. Sure, Wi-Fi has evolved over the past 18 years from 1M and 2Mbps to today’s multi-gigabit 802.11ac fire-breathing beasts. But perennial market leader Netgear has accomplished the truly remarkable here, with the latest in their now long and legendary line of Nighthawk routers. I’ve used every one of these over the years, and the Nighthawk R8500 X8 AC5300 (I’m not sure why so many names are required…) blows the doors off of anything they have done in the past – and likely anything the competition has as well. Heck, there are enterprise-class access points that can’t come close to the 8500’s specs and performance.

Specs, you ask? Let’s start with the obvious but perhaps of lesser importance aggregate Wi-Fi throughput number: 5.3Gbps – yes, more than any broadband carrier can offer, but stunning regardless. But it’s not just about throughput, it’s about capacity – the ability of everyone in a residence (and we could be talking 10 or more – I’ve got around 15) clients in a given home these days – to get the performance they need. And, increasingly, that means streaming video off of a local source, not just the Web.

And there’s another equally important dimension of performance to consider: range, or better put, rate-vs.-range, the ability to reach the back bedroom with acceptable throughput. 802.11’s beamforming helps here, but the 8500 goes way past that. This is the first residential-class router I’ve seen with four external active antennas, plus four additional internal antennas. It supports three simultaneous Wi-Fi channels (one at 2.4 GHz., and two 80-MHz./four-stream .11ac channels at 5 GHz.). There are six gigabit-Ethernet ports, and two of these can be aggregated. While the firmware for this isn’t available as of this writing, it will eventually support MU-MIMO. Loaded? Yes.

And there’s more – over-the-air load balancing (the 5 GHz. channels can share an SSID), Quality of Service (QoS) support, USB (one each 2.0 and 3.0) for printer sharing and storage connectivity, and Netgear’s ReadyCLOUD, which provides a server for local and remote access to USB-attached storage. Other features include DLNA and VPN support, backup software, bridge mode (also sometimes called “game adapter” function), VPN access, parental controls, guest access, iTunes server, and an FTP server. The system also includes Netgear’s easy-to-use Genie management console. It’s even open-source if your giftee wants to play around with that.

Setup is easy. Unbox (nice box and industrial design, by the way). Plug it into power and Ethernet. Connect over Wi-Fi using the SSID and password provided on a sticker on the top. Configure. Done. Why hasn’t it always been this easy? Now, to be fair, there are a number of key decisions to be made, such as whether the 8500 will be a router or an access point (I chose access point, as my network is pretty much established, but the router features are considerable). Overall, it’s easy, easy, easy, especially for such a sophisticated product.

The downside is all of this power has a price, and that price is $400. But this is a router that will almost certainly last for years, and which offers among the best performance (throughput, capacity, and rate vs. range) that I’ve ever seen on any Wi-Fi infrastructure device.

-- Writeup by C.J. Mathias

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Seagate Personal Cloud 2-bay network-attached storage

$270 (for 4TB; other capacities available, including 3TB, 5TB, 6TB and 8TB)

The Seagate Personal Cloud is a network-attached storage (NAS) device aimed at the home market, giving home users a central location for their photos, movies and music that can then stream to multiple devices (phones, tablets, computers, even streaming TV boxes). The latest version is an update of the company’s Seagate Central line of NAS boxes, with additional features that now includes apps that you can run from the device itself to provide extra functionality.

The box connects to your home router, so make sure you have an extra Ethernet port available on your router. Setup is very simple, after connecting and powering up the unit you should be able to see the drive on your shared network. After moving files to the device, it’s ready for streaming to other devices through the Seagate Media app (for mobile devices), or directly from the PC or Mac.

Streaming isn’t the only feature, however – the drive can also perform backup functionality for devices on the home network, and you can also set up remote access functions for those times when you want a file but are away from your home network. The two-bay setup is also nice – you can set up the drive to act as redundant storage (so each file is copied separately) or double the storage if you want.

The coolest feature is the addition of apps that you can operate from the drive itself – for example, you can set up a Plex Media Server on the unit that lets you stream movies and videos and other channels from the NAS drive instead of setting up a media server on a separate PC. Other apps include backup, encryption, cloud access and a WordPress server (if you want to finally start that blog you’ve been meaning to do).

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

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Brother MFC-J885dw (all-in-one printer, listed as MFC-J880DW at Best Buy)

$149,99; $99.99 at Staples

They’re not just multi-function printers anymore – they’re multi-function centers. It look very little time to install the paper, put it in the ink cartridges, connect to my Wi-Fi router, download the right drivers and print a document from the Mac. In fact, when you select Wi-Fi connectivity, the printer spits out a page with directions for downloading the software.

I liked how the ink cartridges went into a tray that you access from the front of the printer. This way, you don’t have to open the whole unit and try to squeeze ink cartridges into the guts of the printer. On the negative side, the 2.7-inch touchscreen display was too small – I often had to strain to read what was being shown. And has there ever been a printer with a long enough power cord?

The software download gives you a “control center” app that lets you scan images, emails and files from your computer – at one point, I took a physical photo and copied it to assess the quality of the color printing, which turned out well. Then I hit a couple of buttons by mistake and the photo showed up on my computer – I guess that’s a feature.

You can also connect and print via your smartphone and through near-field communications (NFC). Scanning can be done to cloud services, including Dropbox, Box, Facebook, OneNote and Google Drive.

And that’s why it’s more than a printer.

-- Writeup by Neal Weinberg

logitechz533 620

Logitech z533 Multimedia Speaker System

$99.99

I’ve had a laptop for several years, and the sound quality coming out of the tiny speakers has been nominal at best. I’ve had to suffer through lots of low-quality sound when watching movies or listening to music. Getting a Bluetooth speaker system sometimes helps the situation, but even then the sound isn’t as good as a set of speakers.

So I was excited to receive a sample of the z533 Multimedia Speaker System, which includes two very nice left/right speakers and a subwoofer. The system provides 120 watts of peak power, more than enough power to fill the room with sound.

The system is also designed to support multiple-device inputs, simultaneously (which means you don’t have to switch input modes). While the main use will be for a computer, there’s also two composite audio jacks for older-generation game consoles (such as a Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3 or Xbox 360). A third audio import, via the control pod, supports audio for smartphones and tablets.

Speaking of the control pod, that’s a nice addition – connected to the subwoofer, the circular control panel offers the power switch and a round knob for volume control, as well as a slider for the amount of bass you’d like to have. In addition to the 3.5mm audio jack for smartphone input (AUX cable), you can also attach headphones to the control pod if your wife, kids or anyone else in the room tells you to keep the sound down.

While this system isn’t completely portable for your notebook, it’s still small enough for you to place in an area where space may be limited, and the multiple inputs make this for a more flexible system than with other speaker sets.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

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