Ten technology products that changed the way I traveled in 2011

2011 was a great year for Gadget lovers – the tech industry pushed out new products at an insane pace. As usual, a vast majority of said gadgets were borderline useless, but especially for the traveler, the year proved to be quite rewarding.

Like most years, I went through a huge amount of new gizmos, but some of them really stood their ground – and made it into my bag for more than one trip. Here are the ten products I deemed worthy of claiming they actually changed how I traveled in 2011.
Fitbit Ultra

In the early weeks of 2011, I realized this was to be the year I would take better care of myself. As any self respecting nerd would do, I did not start with “diet and exercise”, but went shopping for gadgets that would make the job easier. As the year comes to an end, one product has stuck with me through thick and thin – the Fitbit Ultra (I upgraded from the original Fitbit to the ultra).

This compact clip-on gadget measures your steps, calculates how many calories you burn and can even determine how many floors you climbed in a day. I have a goal of 10,000 steps a day, and rarely let myself end the day without hitting the goal. The $99 investment in the product has definitely paid off, and I can end the year feeling much better than I did going into it. The unit wirelessly sends your steps to its base, and the (mobile) web site lets you track food, exercise and progress.

Price $99.99
Product page: www.fitbit.com

Verizon LTE

Rarely has there been a product that has worked from day one and never let me down. Verizon’s real 4G service launched in 2010, but expanded almost everywhere I went in 2011. LTE is not the same 4G as you’ll find on some other carriers (I’m looking at you T-Mobile with your Faux-G), this is the real thing. Speeds on the road are faster than what I get on my residential 20mbit cable connection. Finally, I can sit in a hotel room and actually get some work done, instead of work on trying to get a reliable connection.

I’m hooked on LTE – I have an LTE phone, LTE hotspot, LTE tablet and backup LTE USB modem. 2012 should bring even more LTE covered cities to Verizon, and AT&T recently started their own (albeit sluggish) rollout of the service. The largest downside – LTE is not even close to being a global standard, and given how pricey international data roaming can be, it is probably for the best.

Price: Hardware:from free, service: from $40/month
Product page: www.verizonwireless.com

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

It took till the middle of the final month of 2011 to get me the Samsung Galaxy Nexus – the best phone ever made (until the next best phone ever made is announced). The Galaxy Nexus is spectacular – speedy, 4G service, gorgeous looks and the newest flavor of Android.

Sadly, as a T-Mobile user (for phone service), the only way to get one is to fork over $700 to a vendor selling the unlocked version and accept the risk of an imported version with no warranty. Alternatively, you can pick one up for Verizon (with LTE) for around $220.

Price: $220 (Verizon on 2 year agreement), $700 (Unlocked GSM/HSDPA)
Product page: www.verizonwireless.com

Motorola Xoom

Life as someone who tries to avoid Apple products was tough earlier this year – the iPad was the killer tablet to get, and Android lovers were stuck with second class options. Then in February, Google and Motorola released the Xoom – the first device outfitted with a tablet version of Android. It is by no means the best looking tablet, and with the arrival of the new Asus Transformer Prime, it isn’t even the fastest. But now I have 4G in it, it does everything I could ever ask for. Best of all, the insane launch price of $899 has come down to a much more reasonable sub $500 mark.

Price: from $499 (Wi-Fi only)
Product page: Motorola.com

Spotify

For years, Europeans were able to enjoy music service Spotify. Sure, unlike them, we had Google Music, Netflix and Hulu, but the holy grail of streaming music services remained out of our reach until earlier this year.

Spotify is in my opinion as close to perfect as you can get – a massive music selection, mobile apps with offline caching and an easy to use interface. Free versions are relatively limited, but the $9.99/month option gets all you can eat music and mobile listening.

Price: from free
Product page: www.spotify.com

Sony Vaio SE13FX laptop + slice battery

The Sony Vaio SE13FX is the exact opposite of what you’d expect from a travel friendly laptop – it is relatively large (15″) and weighs 4.4lbs – but unlike other computers, this powerhouse keeps on running for well over 14 (real) hours.

See, I learned that a laptop is just not always the best solution for using on a plane – and a small laptop is not always suitable for being productive in your hotel room. So, for this, I carry the Vaio. When I fly, I use my tablet, and when I’m at my destination, I use a computer that doesn’t make me cut corners. I never have to worry about battery life when I’m at a trade show or other event, and if I need to do some last minute processor intensive work, I don’t have to find anyone with a “real” computer. The optional slice battery on the Vaio doubles its battery life, and switchable graphics mean I can make it sip power instead of slurp it. Best of all, the Vaio comes with an insanely sharp HD display.

Price: From $999 (custom configuration)
Product page: Sonystyle.com

Keyport Slide

I hate carrying keys, but after one long summer afternoon waiting outside my house with a dead garage door opener waiting for a locksmith, I decided to never leave my keys at home. Since then, I’ve scratched three different gadgets because of keys in my luggage. Of course, the simple solution would be putting my keys in a pouch, but as a true gadgethound, I prefer to look for the nerdier solution – which lead me to Keyport Slide.

Keyport is a unique gadget designed to hold up to six of your keys. The product can also hold automotive transponders, USB memory drives, a flashlight, or even a bottle opener. Ordering is simple – tell Keyport which blank keys you need, and have your local locksmith cut them. End result is a compact unit which holds all the keys you need. Brilliant.

Price: from $39
Product page: www.mykeyport.com

Canon S95

I am a horrible photographer – the kind that takes 20 photos of each object in the hope that at least one of them turns out alright. Sadly, I’m also a geek, so the more complicated (or the more buttons), the better. In 2011, I threw that lack of logic out the window and settled for a camera that just seems to understand me – the Canon PowerShot S95. I don’t know enough about F-stops or ISO to explain why this camera is so good, all I know is that I can point it at an object, click the shutter, and the photo will look great. Even though the S95 upgraded in 2011 (to the S100), I prefer the reliability of my trusty S95.

Price: $328 (Amazon price)
Product page: Canon.com

Joby Gorillapod Micro 250

One of the smallest products on my list – the Micro 250 is a tiny folding tripod that allows me to place my camera on any flat(ish) object, and take some great photos. Along with the self-timer, it also lets me finally take more photos of myself. When attached to my camera, it still provides access to the battery/card compartment, and infolded, offers a pretty stable platform and ball-joint for getting close to that perfect shot.

Price: $19.95
Product page: Joby.com

Etymotic Research hf3 headset

My quest for the perfect travel noise isolating headphones came to an end in 2011 when I started using the Etymotic Research hf3 headset. I can go on and on about how well they isolate outside noise, or how awesome they sound, but since music is such a personal thing, all I can say is that these are the best (and only) headphones I’ll carry. They include a three button audio control mic, a variety of earpieces (including some freaky powerful rigid foam isolators) and best of all – in its case, the whole thing weighs just 1.5oz. If there was ever a reason to dump the bland white headphones that came with your iPhone, this is it.

Price: $179.99
Product page: Etymotic.com

How we did Kayak, Expedia and Hipmunk in 1991 – the Sony DATA Discman

In 2012, finding the price of a flight is something I could probably ask my five year old to help with – she’ll probably go for my phone and find the Kayak or Hipmunk app icon and tap away. It wouldn’t even surprise me if she managed to get close to the results I was looking for.

In 1991, things were different; Airfare came from your travel agent, and you did not have to concern yourself with anything technical. In fact, chances are, your travel agent wouldn’t let you anywhere near their cherished green-screen terminal.

The business traveler had different needs, and for them there was the OAG guide (Official Airline Guide), a large book with the times and prices of almost every flight in the world. In 1991, OAG released their book on a CD-ROM (and delivered the required equipment with it since nobody back then owned a CD-ROM drive).

For the real hardcore users, a version was also released on the Sony DATA Discman, pictured here on the left. Think of this contraption as a very early Amazon Kindle. The unit read data off small CD’s in a cartridge, and was the worlds first portable electronic flight guide.

With this in hand, you could call yourself the ultimate frequent flier – and probably find airfare quicker than the local travel agent. OAG CD’s for Sony came in the mail every three months, keeping your data up to date with the latest flight times and prices. Sony discontinued the DATA Discman in the late 90′s as the technology moved on to PDA’s.

Powerbag – part bag, part portable power source

Powerbag mobile powered luggage

The Holiday season may be over, but that shouldn’t stop you from paying attention to gift ideas (for yourself). If one of your New Years resolutions is to travel without landing at your destination with an empty iPad or phone, then we recommend checking out the assortment of bags from Powerbag. Their lineup covers everything from a basic sling, to a complete mobile office on wheels.

Now, a variety of luggage is definitely not newsworthy on its own, and what makes these bags worthy of a mention here is that they all come with an integrated power source. Inside each of the bags is a powerful battery pack, integrated battery indicator and power switch and a water resistant AC charger port. Pack your bag, then pop your tablet, phone, headset or other devices inside and plug them in.

The built in battery pack is rated at 6000mAh, which is more than enough to charge a phone 4-5 times, or charge multiple devices at the same time. The system includes power tips for Apple, MiniUSB and MicroUSB, though a regular USB port also allows you to use your own cable. Best of all, Powerbag will gladly sell you a second battery pack in a higher or lower capacity.

The bags start at $139.99 and are available directly from the manufacturer or a variety of (online) retailers. We’ll try and get a full review up on Gadling as soon as we can.

Gadling Gear Review: ioSafe Rugged Portable hard drive

ioSafe Rugged Portable Drive

2011 may go down as (yet another) “year of the cloud”, but that doesn’t mean the cloud is the solution to everything. On my travels, I rely on Dropbox, Google Music, Amazon Music and Sugarsync to provide instant access to my files, but the “instant” part relies heavily on having access to reliable and speedy Internet access. Since speedy Internet can be just as hard to find in downtown Las Vegas as it is in downtown Tallinn, I also trust locally stored files on a good old hard drive and a variety of USB drives.

Of course, the biggest risk of carrying a hard drive is always going to be physical damage – the thing is after all designed around rotating platters with magnetic heads floating micrometers above them. To combat this, there is the rugged drive. One of the most popular names in rugged storage is ioSafe, long known for their line of fire and waterproof drives for at home, but now also the name behind a variety of portable rugged storage.IOSafe Rugged Portable Drive

For this review, we’ll take a closer look at the USB 3.0 ioSafe Go-Anywhere Rugged Portable Hard Drive. On the outside this thing is actually surprisingly slick – taking some of its design inspiration from the gorgeous single piece aluminum products from Apple. The rest of the product is pretty simple – a MicroUSB 3.0 connector (which will work on USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports), an activity LED indicator and a Kensington lock port. The included cables work on any USB port, though most computers will need two ports to power the drive – which also means you don’t need to carry around a power brick.

As soon as you pick the drive up, you’ll feel that it isn’t in the same league as your everyday portable drive – it weighs significantly more and feels like a small brick. The weight (along with some pretty smart innovations on the inside) and single piece aluminum case design are what make it possible to protect against drops up to 20′ (that is 6 meters to those of us that prefer Metric), crushes up to 5,000 lbs and full immersion in water for up to 3 days.

The drives come in a variety of flavors too – spinning platters (500GB and 1TB) and SSD (120GB, 300GB and 600GB). All varieties offer the same rugged protection. Every Rugged Portable drive from ioSafe comes with 1 year of data recovery service (up to $5,000) with options to add up to 5 years of additional coverage. To clarify – this coverage is offered on top of the warranty provided by the manufacturer.

Rugged or not?

Of course, any company can make outrageous claims about their drives, so I decided to do things to this drive that I’d never consider doing to a “normal” drive. For starters, I left the poor thing outside in a pile of snow overnight, then on my way inside, I “accidentally” dropped it on a concrete garage floor. Amazingly, I think the solid aluminum case did more damage to the floor than vice versa.

The target audience

With prices starting at $249, the ioSafe rugged drive is definitely not as affordable as a 500GB drive you’ll find on the shelf of your local Target – but once you calculate the value of your content, the initial purchase price is quite easy to justify. In my case, I use external storage to hold photos and video, as well as images of my laptop in case I need an emergency on-the-road restore. In those cases, the extra $150 for the security of a rugged drive is well worth it.

Final thoughts

There is very little inherently interesting about an external hard drive, but the ioSafe Rugged Portable Drive definitely gives you a sense of security – you can tell that this thing is designed from the ground up to travel the world and be thrown around. Performance is fantastic (especially when on a laptop with USB 3.0) and with sizes up to 1TB, you are bound to have an available option that will hold your storage needs. Prices start at $249 for the 500GB HDD version, up to a painful $1,999 for the 600GB SSD.

Still, once you go back to the whole “how much are my files worth” part, the price really isn’t hard to beat, especially when there are no reasonable alternatives on the market. When you need to store 1TB of content, the cloud just isn’t an option.

You’ll find the entire lineup of ioSafe drives at iosafe.com, along with more of their rugged products and information about their data recovery services.

Go camping in style with this retro VW camper van tent

Planning a 1960′s style camping holiday, but not in possession of an authentic VW camper van? Firebox, the UK retailer of weird products has just what you need – a VW camper tent.

The tent is a licensed 1:1 replica of the van, with enough room for 4 adults to sleep in comfort. Unlike most other tents, this one is even tall enough to stand inside. The package includes the tent itself along with all the required ropes, pegs and accessories.

It is available in yellow, red and blue, but won’t actually ship till August. Shipping is free, but you’ll need to hand over just under $500 to get your hands on one.