Cool Yule Tools 2016: Digital disruption at Santa's Workshop

The 17th annual Network World holiday gift guide has something for every techie (and techie-wanna-be) on your list.

silicon santa banner 3 Stephen Sauer
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Speakers

Ultimate Ears – UE Megaboom
$300
More info: http://www.ultimateears.com/en-us/uemegaboom

Bluetooth speaker systems are great for streaming music in different locations, especially when you’re outside. For years, however, the sound has been relatively small – unless you invest in a large in-room speaker system (see Sonos), the Bluetooth speaker has been something designed for portability, not depth of sound or volume.

That changes with the UE Megaboom – it’s still relatively portable (it is heavier than your typical Bluetooth speaker), but that extra weight packs some additional sound. If you need to blast some tunes at your holiday party, where you’re also competing with people’s voices, the Megaboom can handle the task just fine. The Megaboom includes two 2-inch drivers and two 2-by-4-inch passive radiators, giving you 360-degree sound (so put it into the middle of the room and everyone can hear the music. A giant plus symbol (+) and minus sign (-) on the device let you turn up or down the sound on the device if you can’t reach the phone or music player to turn things down.

In addition, the speaker is waterproof (it can be immersed in liquid up to 1m deep for up to 30 minutes), and provides up to 20 hours of battery life (that goes down if you use it a lot, of course).

And after the party’s over, the Megaboom can be used as a regular Bluetooth speakerphone – just wipe off the guacamole from the speaker before you have that weekly status meeting.

-- Keith Shaw

Altec Lansing Omni Jacket Ultra Rugged Bluetooth speaker
$300
More info: http://www.alteclansing.com/en/al-products/the-omni-jacket-ultra/

Like the UE Megaboom, this Bluetooth speaker is very large (although it’s wider, where the Megaboom is taller). It’s a heavy speaker, but the extra weight brings off some additional benefits, meaning it’s more powerful for large-group audio.

The speaker’s rugged features are also impressive – it’s IP67 rated, floats in water (even with this weight, that’s impressive), and is waterproof, sandproof and “everything proof”, according to the company. The sound extrudes from both sides of the speaker, so you can put it in the center of your gathering rather than hiding it in the corner (“Nobody puts Omni Jacket Ultra in the corner – Nobody!”). Two mounts are included if you want to put this speaker on a bicycle or motorbike if you’re one of those very adventurous types.

The large battery supports up to 60 hours of battery life, which means you’re going to have a very long party. The benefit of that battery means you can also recharge your smartphone (which likely has less than 60 hours of life on its battery) through the built-in USB charging port. Just be sure to recharge your phone when the speaker is not floating on the water, unless you also have a waterproof smartphone.

This speaker produced great sound – buttons on the top allow you easy access to powering the speaker on, putting it into Bluetooth pairing mode, and adjusting the volume. If you’re going to go big on your speaker, this is one of the top contenders in the market.

-- Keith Shaw

Plox levitating Death Star speaker
$180
More info: https://getplox.com/sound/death-star-speaker/

We’ve seen Bluetooth speakers that are tiny, waterproof and gigantic, but this is the first one we’ve seen that can levitate and also look like the Death Star. For any Star Wars fan on your holiday gift list, the Death Star levitating speaker is worth considering.

The “wow” factor is the device’s ability to levitate. A strong magnet at the base forces the Death Star unit (which has an opposite magnet at the bottom), to seemingly levitate above the base. Once it’s positioned at the “levitation point”, it can spin/rotate as well as stay in place.

You could certainly use this as a conversation piece on your desk, but it’s even more fun to use the Bluetooth speaker function to blast some tunes  out of the Death Star (my first choice was the “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back, but you could also play other songs). The 5-watt  speaker includes 360-degrees of sound, so optimal placement would be in the middle of your room. The Death Star globe is charged via USB cable, and it offers up to five hours of continuous playback via Bluetooth.

My only beef with the speaker is the difficulty in getting the Death Star to levitate properly. You can’t just plop it down above the space and expect it to levitate. The base comes with a bracket that aims to help you find the levitation point between the Death Star and the magnetic base, but you will still need practice in figuring it out. If you don’t place it correctly, the Death Star then drops onto the magnetic base.

Speaking of magnets, it’s strong enough where you’re probably going to want to avoid placing this near computers or other devices that can be affected by magnets.

-- Keith Shaw

Konftel Ego Conference Phone
$105.74 (Amazon)
More info: http://www.konftel.com/Products/KonftelEgo

Sure, every mobile phone includes a speakerphone function today. But let’s face it – these often sound terrible, with a limited range of adjustability and the sound quality often, well, meh. Or uninspired at best.

Many of us have been spoiled by the really good speakerphones we often have access to at work. The gold standard here is a sound that makes it seem that all participants are in the same room, or quality at least as good as holding the handset to one’s ear. A good speakerphone has a certain resonance to it, supports full-duplex communications (both parties can talk over one another) and has an overall quality that eliminates the possibility of listening fatigue even during long calls (the content of said calls notwithstanding).

The Konfitel Ego is designed as a personal USB and Bluetooth speakerphone. It’s quite small and its design is reminiscent of those three-sided desktop conferencing phones that many of us have used, and perhaps that serve as a standard to compare the Ego against. It also has a wired headset port, and is internal-battery powered. It’s also software-upgradeable, but we didn’t test this as the required utility only runs on Windows at present, and we’re a Mac shop.

Setup was easy – the usual pairing over Bluetooth was quick. NFC (near field communications) is also supported but I didn’t test this; I mean, Bluetooth is so easy as it is. The unit is small and stylish, and buttons are clearly labeled. Overall, it’s quite simple, and will also work with online services like Skype and Lync. It can also be used as a speaker for music, but options with better sound quality are certainly available elsewhere.

Voice quality was very good – in line with the larger and more expensive speakerphones that I regularly use. One person on the other end reported that they had no idea I was talking on a speakerphone, perhaps because the Ego has two microphones and uses beamforming technology to improve sound quality. The person on the other end of the call sounded great too – by any measure, certainly much better than the standard speakerphone functionality of an iPhone.

Bottom line: this one’s a keeper, and would indeed make a great gift. Konfitel is based in Sweden and makes a wide variety of conferencing systems – and their experience clearly shows in the Ego.

-- C.J. Mathias

AmazonBasics B00I59VBH4 (US model) Bluetooth 4.0 Audio Receiver
$17.37
More info: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00I59VBH4/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o02_s01

Yes, I know Bluetooth speakers have improved mightily over the years, and I even own a few myself. But almost all of them are designed for nearfield (close up) or background listening, not for shaking the rafters during the epic holiday party that everyone will still be talking about come spring break. For that you need big, big speakers. But, even so, all of your tunes are still on your handset. What to do, then?

This clever little (and it’s really quite small, notwithstanding the required wall-wart transformer, which is included) stocking-stuffer is the answer to everyone’s prayers for remediating this epic fail of western civilization, except, of course, for those who warn you about high audio volumes damaging your hearing. It’s a tiny unit that’s paired with a Bluetooth audio source, and then outputs all those dulcet tones to a 3.5 mm stereo jack. The included adapter cable will let you, if you so desire, connect the output to a stereo RCA pair, as is found on just about every piece of audio equipment everywhere.

Setup requires the usual pushing of the Pair button, selecting the device on your handset or similar, and that’s about it. Audio quality is very, very good, and the flexibility here is just what’s needed in so many applications.

So, if your giftee has a stereo system that lacks Bluetooth (integrated Bluetooth is more common today, but lots of older but still-serviceable if not cherished gear will be in use for many decades to come) and a Bluetooth handset, problem solved. Except for the part about hearing damage; I’m pretty sure Amazon’s warranty doesn’t include such regardless.

-- C.J. Mathias

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