Ed. Note: This time of year we see lots of gift guides, almost always filled entirely with free products that companies sent editors so that they’d be included in their gift guides.
Since all the stuff people offered to send us was rather lousy, we turned to someone who knows how to pick a good gift, my wife. Her gifting has become legendary, and not just because she once kidnapped me for a Tokyo escape on my 30th birthday (but that’s a pretty good example). She finds little things that others ignore, and pulls a package together in ways you can’t always imagine.
So in a move that combines both nepotism and public service, we turned to her for holiday travel gift …
Smartphones, tablets and iPods have made it incredibly easy to carry your entire music collection wherever you go. This is particularly useful when traveling; you get an entire library of songs right at your fingertips, helping to make those long stays in airports and hotels just a bit easier. Add a portable Bluetooth speaker to the mix and you have a wireless entertainment system with high quality sound that can go with you anywhere. Those speakers have gotten smaller, lighter and more affordable over the past few years, making them a great travel companion for the music lover. Here are two unique options to consider for your next road trip.
Damson Twist ($69.99)
If you’re looking for a compact, yet surprisingly powerful, Bluetooth speaker to take with you when you travel, it’s tough to beat the Twist from Damson. This diminutive audio device really packs a punch and thanks to its unique design it even provides a solid amount of bass — something that can’t be said about most of the competition.
When taking the speaker out of the box for the first time you’ll probably be struck by two things. First, the Twist is quite small, measuring a shade under three inches in height and about two-and-a-quarter inches around. The second is that the speaker is surprisingly heavy for something so small. It tips the scales at 12 ounces, which doesn’t sound like much until you hold it in your hand. For such a small device the Twist feels incredibly solid, conveying the sense that it can take a little abuse and keep performing just fine. The build quality on the speaker is truly top notch and Damson should be commended for creating a portable speaker this good.Pairing the speaker with a smartphone or other Bluetooth-enabled device couldn’t be any easier. After charging the Twist to full capacity, I simply turned it on in “BT” mode and selected it from my iPhone’s list of available devices. The two gadgets communicated with one anther for a few seconds before the speaker gave out a brief chime indicating that it had successfully connected. After that it was ready to begin playing music and moments later it was doing just that, belting out tunes in a very satisfying manner.
Unlike most other Bluetooth speakers, the Twist incorporates what Damson calls “resonance technology” to improve volume and overall sound quality. While holding the device in your hand, you’ll barely be able to hear anything out of the speaker at all, even with the volume turned up fairly high. But place the Twist on a flat surface and it immediately begins pumping out audio at a higher level. In fact, when I set it down for the first time I was caught a little off guard at the jump in both volume and sound quality. The speaker uses natural resonance from whatever surface it is placed on to create a richer and more full audio experience and as a result, it delivers performance on par with a speaker much larger than itself. Damson says the Twist works best when sitting on a wood, metal, glass or even cardboard surface. During my testing I found that I preferred it on wood the most as that helped to amplify bass levels quite nicely.
Battery life is a bit lackluster on the Twist when compared to the competition, although that is somewhat expected considering its size. Damson says you will get about 4 hours of wireless music between charges and I found that to be a solid estimate during my testing. You can extend that life up to 9 hours if you forego the wireless options and plug your audio source directly into the Twist itself. A 3.5 mm audio cable is included in the box for that very purpose and a USB charging cable is included as well.
Available in four colors, the Twist’s outer casing is made of brushed metal. This gives it a very classy look that isn’t found on other speakers in this price range. Damson has even provided a nice travel pouch that helps the device to maintain those good looks when you hit the road. These small touches help to set the Twist apart from the crowd. The fact that it only carries a price tag of $70 doesn’t hurt either. At that price, you can afford to buy two and daisy chain them together for even better sound. Considering how good the Twist looks and performs, I’d say it’s a real bargain.
Boom Urchin ($149.99)
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the Twist is the Urchin from Boom. The two are both Bluetooth speaker systems, but the similarities between the products pretty much ends there. Where the Twist is a small wonder of modern engineering, the Urchin is larger, louder and built like a tank.
The distinctively shaped Urchin features a removable silicon shell that helps protect it from all manner of dangers. This speaker is shock and dust proof as well as water resistant, which means you can hang it in your shower, take it on a camping trip or pack it for your beach vacation in Fiji. In short, it is designed to survive in just about any environment while continuing to wirelessly pump out tunes without missing a beat.
Clearly Boom’s focus was on building a speaker that could withstand plenty of punishment but they didn’t skimp on the sound quality either. While the Urchin doesn’t provide the deep bass that the Twist offers, it does deliver a much more consistent level of sound that isn’t dependent on the surface it is sitting on in any way. The high end of the audio spectrum comes through bright and clear, while the mid-ranges are delivered vibrantly too. The Urchin sounds great even when the volume is completely cranked up with no discernible distortion.
Boom’s technical specifications say that the Urchin’s rechargeable battery should be good for up to ten hours of music and I found that to be fairly accurate. Adjusting the volume to lower levels can extend the battery life a bit longer but as it stands, this speaker is capable of providing music for a full day out. The included wall charger will replenish the battery fairly quickly as well so the Urchin will be ready for use again in no time at all.
One feature that the Urchin has that the Twist doesn’t is the ability to be used as a speakerphone. This is a useful feature for hands-free conversations or making a call in a group setting. When paired with a smartphone the Urchin’s built-in mic allows for two-way communication although I found it to be rather lackluster when used in this capacity. The voices of callers came through the Urchin’s speaker just fine but they reported that my voice sounded muffled and distant. The quality of the cell connection can play a role in this of course, but compared to other Bluetooth speakerphones that I’ve used, this one did little to impress.
Boom ships the Urchin with a carabiner for attaching the speaker to a backpack or even a belt loop. A suction cup and adhesive screw attachment are also included in the box, making it easy to lock down the speaker no matter where you want to use it. The suction cup works great in the bathroom for instance, giving you another reason to sing in the shower. The fact that the company recognized that this is how their customers would want to use the product is an indication of how much thought went into its design.
Both the Twist and the Urchin have qualities that make them great choices for travelers. One packs great sound in a small package while the other is designed to survive just about anything you can throw at it. If you want to listen to music outside in the elements, the Urchin is the clear choice, especially with its much longer battery life. But if you want an inexpensive speaker that you can carry with you when you hit the road, the Twist is an amazing piece of technology that performs beyond its size. Either of the two devices will make music-loving travelers very happy.
One look at the calendar (not to mention the thermometer) will tell you that we are most definitely in the dog days of summer. But it won’t be long until the mercury begins to drop and we’ll start planning our cold weather adventures. The key to enjoying those escapes is good gear that will keep you plenty warm even as the temperature plunges. A down jacket can be the difference between a wonderful day spent outside and hours of misery in frigid temperatures.
Eddie Bauer has a long history of making quality gear that performs well in any environment. Over the years, its clothing has protected climbers on their way to the summit of Everest and explorers traveling to the extreme ends of the Earth. A few years ago, the company launched a new line of adventure inspired apparel that would carry on that legacy into the 21st century. The First Ascent line was designed specifically for active travelers and adventurers with a focus on delivering a high level of performance in an affordable and attractive package. Thw MicroTherm Down Hoodie fits that description very well, keeping the wearer warm and dry when the weather takes a turn for the worse.
Featuring 700-fill goose down, the Hoodie is extremely lightweight and highly packable. This isn’t a jacket that is built for extreme weather conditions but will still serve travelers well when temperatures drop below freezing. Its outer ripstop polyester shell is water resistant and windproof, which will keep the wearer warm and dry when an unexpected storm rolls in. When that does happen the comfortable protection of the integrated hood will be much appreciated as well.
Because this jacket is intended for active outdoor enthusiasts it features an athletic cut that is designed to be form fitting without restricting motion. The closeness of that fit may seem a bit uncomfortable to some, but I personally found it to be the perfect design for those who like to mix a bit of a physical activity into their travels. The Hoodie simply allows you to do the things you want to do while not hindering movement in any way. That means whether you’re climbing a mountain, hiking a trail or simply strolling the streets, you’ll move in comfort and style the entire time.
Speaking of style, I happen to think the jacket looks great too. It has a simple, yet rugged, design that makes it perfect for an active day in the backcountry or a night out on the town. Its lightweight design makes it extremely versatile for travel as well and when paired with a base layer and/or a mid-layer, the wearer can improve performance in colder weather even more. Throw a hard shell over top and you truly have a fantastic cold weather combo.
The jacket features three external zippered pockets, one for each hand and another located on the left breast. Two large internal pockets are large enough to carry a water bottle or other important items too. The breast pocket even includes a media port allowing the wearer to plug a set of earbuds into an iPod or smartphone and run the cord along the interior of the Hoodie. A nice touch in this day and age when we are seldom far away from our favorite gadgets.
If you’re planning a cold weather adventure of your own in the months ahead, and need a high performance jacket to keep you warm, the Eddie Bauer Down Hoodie may be the perfect choice. It is incredibly lightweight and packs down surprisingly small. That is a rare combination of traits to find in any piece of travel clothing, let alone a jacket like this one. Add in a high level of comfort, the ability to move with ease and classic look and you have the complete package.
The Hoodie carries a price tag of $199 and does nothing to harm Eddie Bauer’s long-standing reputation for making excellent outdoor gear that performs well in demanding conditions. While using this jacket on a recent trip to Australia, I stayed comfortably warm, even when cooler temperatures and rain set in. If you’re looking for similar performance out of your gear, I think you will appreciate everything the Hoodie brings to the table.
Awhile back we reviewed a pair of pants from a company called Clothing Arts that were specifically designed to keep your valuables safe and secure while traveling. At the time, we were impressed with their pickpocket proof pants, giving them high marks for security, comfort and style. Since then, the company has continued to evolve its line of travel clothing making subtle improvements to their designs and expanding their offerings. The result is a new generation of apparel that improves on previous offerings in just about every way.
P-Cubed Adventure Pants ($109.95)
The core product in the Clothing Arts line-up remains the P-Cubed travel pants which have seen some nice upgrades since we first took a look at them. For instance, the pants are now available in your choice of two fabrics, the original cotton-nylon blend and the new “nature-like” nylon. The latter of those options is soft and feels a bit like cotton, but has all the benefits of modern high-tech materials. It is lightweight and breathable, dries quickly and is comfortable to wear. It also resists wrinkling and is very durable. In short, it is the perfect fabric from which to make a pair of travel pants.
This new fabric is a fantastic addition to the P-Cubed design but the product hasn’t lost its focus on security in any way. The pants feature six pockets: two on the front, two on the back and two cargo style pockets on the legs. Each of them is deep and spacious, allowing them to safely carry plenty of small items such as keys, a passport and a wallet. There is even plenty of room for a mobile phone, a small camera or just about anything else you may want to take with you on a walk about town or on a trek through the Himalaya.Travel pants with plenty of pockets are nothing new, however, and what sets these apart from the competition is the level of security that Clothing Arts has built into them. Each of the pockets – including the two on the front – have two methods for sealing them shut, making it extremely difficult for would-be pick pockets to actually gain access to the valuables inside. The front and back pockets have zippers and snapping flaps, while the cargo pockets forgo the zippers in favor of traditional buttons. A would-be thief has to be able to penetrate two layers of defense if he hopes to lift something from any of the pockets on these pants.
In addition to the six pockets already mentioned, Clothing Arts has also built in two hidden pockets as well. These compartments are useful for holding your extremely valuable items, the ones that you absolutely can’t afford to lose. For instance, they are excellent for holding a smartphone, mp3 player or a point-and-shoot camera, keeping those devices both out of sight and out of reach from thieves. While these pockets aren’t particularly large they are still very useful. It is a bit like having a small safe installed inside an already secure vault.
Put to practical use, the P-Cubed pants are comfortable, durable and certainly provide good piece of mind while traveling. There is a lot of comfort in knowing that your personal items are secure when visiting places that have less than savory characters looking to separate you from your valuables. But I will admit there were times while wearing these pants that I was a little frustrated with having to hop through hoops just to get to the interior of the pockets. It wasn’t so bad unzipping and unsnapping the rear pocket to get to my wallet, but getting coins in or out of your front pockets can be an exercise in frustration when you have to do it multiple times per day. This is a small price to pay for the level of performance that these pants deliver, but it is certainly worth mentioning nonetheless.
These pants are a piece of clothing that every traveler should have in their closet. They are available for adventure and business travelers alike and Clothing Arts even offers P-Cubed shorts and a pair for women as well. With a price tag of $110, they are admittedly a bit of an investment but that seems a small price to pay for what could be the last pair of travel pants you ever buy.
P-Cubed Travel Shirt ($69.95)
Clothing Arts had so much success with their line of travel pants that they decided to expand their offerings to include shirts as well. The company’s designers have created a product that fits in nicely with their approach to travel-specific apparel by developing a shirt that is comfortable and highly packable, while still offering options for keeping your valuables safe. The result is the P-Cubed travel shirt, an article of clothing that is the perfect compliment to the P-Cubed pants.
Made from the same “nature-like” nylon as the P-Cubed pants, this shirt is lightweight, attractive and extremely comfortable to wear. The fabric delivers the same level of performance as the pants in terms of drying quickly, resisting wrinkles and keeping the wearer cool and dry in warm conditions. Those qualities are even more greatly appreciated in a shirt, however, as I’d argue it plays a more direct role in keeping us comfortable when in a difficult environment.
The P-Cubed shirt features two generously sized breast pockets for keeping a few personal items very close at hand. They are large enough for a passport, smartphone or similar small items. But again, this is a characteristic of many travel shirts and really doesn’t set it apart from the competition. What’s different is that Clothing Arts has cleverly hidden two additional zippered pockets behind these traditional pockets, creating secure places to hold valuable items. Like the P-Cubed pants, these pockets are nearly impossible for someone to gain access to and the contents are extremely safe inside.
When paired with one another, the shirt and pants look smart together. Clothing Arts has designed a set of clothes that look great out and about in town or traveling to the ends of the Earth. No matter where you go, the P-Cubed shirt and pants will see you through your adventure and keep you looking good in the process. What more could you ask for from your travel apparel?
As smartphones have become more commonplace, an entire industry has sprung up around mobile accessories that have the ability to make our gadgets even more useful than they already are. Many of those accessories have been specifically designed to make travel more convenient as well. Here are a few items that may come in handy the next time you hit the road with your favorite smart device.
PowerTrip Mobile Charger ($99)
One of the biggest challenges of owning a smartphone is managing to keep it charged and fully operational for a full day. Answering emails, taking calls, sending text messages and surfing the Internet all require significant amounts of juice out of our phone’s power cells and as a result, more and more of us are carrying external battery packs to help keep them charged while on the go. Small, compact and lightweight battery packs are extremely affordable and portable these days. The problem is that most of them have a hard time standing out against the competition, as they all share similar characteristics and functionality. But the PowerTrip portable charger from PowerStick has several unique features that help to distinguish it from the crowd and make it a wise choice for travelers.In a sense, the PowerTrip is the Swiss Army Knife of portable battery packs. Sure, it is a little larger and thicker than some of the other options that are available from competitors but it also manages to pack quite a bit of technology into a relatively small space. Not only does this charger come with a built-in, collapsible AC power plug, it also has a small solar panel integrated into its case. While the AC adapter allows you to grab a quick charge from any available outlet, the solar panel is capable of generating energy from the rays of the sun. Both options come in handy when trying to keep your phone charged, although I found using the solar panel took a considerable amount of time and was often an exercise in patience. Like most battery packs of this type, the PowerTrip can also be charged via the USB port on your computer too. This level of versatility is really appreciated.
PowerStick has outfitted their mobile charger with a 6000 mAh battery, which is enough to recharge most smartphones roughly three times. The built-in USB port is capable of putting out up to 1.5 volts of power, which means it can even provide power to high-capacity devices such as the iPhone 5 or a fifth generation iPod Touch. It’ll even provide a little extra juice to an iPad, although it can’t fully charge a tablet.
Sturdy and rugged, the PowerTrip feels like it was designed to withstand the abuse that comes along with travel. This is the kind of gadget that you can toss in a backpack and not worry about whether or not it is going to arrive at your destination in one piece. PowerStick has even integrated flash storage into the device, offering the PowerTrip in 4GB, 8GB and 16GB versions. That means you can transfer your important documents to this on board memory and have them with you wherever you go.
If you’re looking for a tough, dependable portable battery for charging your smartphone, digital camera or other devices while traveling, the PowerTrip is an excellent option. While it is a bit bulkier than some of its competition, the built-in storage and AC power plug are nice additions. The solar panel is great in theory too, but it is slow to charge the internal battery, which makes it less useful than I would like. Otherwise, this is one of more versatile and well-equipped mobile battery packs that I’ve come across.
Blueflame Spark Plug 2 Car Charger ($39.99)
While a good portable battery pack can be a lifesaver when away from a power outlet, there is no need to use one while in your car. Instead, invest in a good car charger and keep your phone’s battery fully energized at all times. A car charger will allow you to use your phone’s GPS navigation without running your battery down. It’ll let you talk hands free for your entire road trip without having to hang up at the most inopportune time. It’ll even let you stream Pandora for hours on end and still be able to use your phone when you reach your destination. But like most things in life, not all car chargers are created equal and having the right one can make all the difference.
The Spark Plug 2 from Blueflame is quite possibly the best car charger that I’ve ever used. It features not one, but two, built-in USB ports so you can keep two devices charged at the same time. It has a compact design that makes it easy to fit into just about any 12V DC car adapter and it features excellent build quality that feels excellent in your hands. This charger is capable of putting out 2.1 amps per port, which means that even when you’re using your mobile devices to the full extent of their capabilities, you’ll still be able to keep them fully charged for the length of your trip. That includes smartphones, mp3 players and even tablets such as the iPad. That’s pretty impressive considering that in the past I’ve used some chargers that can barely keep my phone charged while using maps and GPS at the same time.
The Spark Plug 2 ships with a high-quality, 30-pin cable, which works on all Apple devices prior to the iPhone 5. If you’re using an iPhone, iPod or iPad newer than that, or a gadget from another company, you’ll need to supply your own Lightning adapter or standard USB cable. That adds a bit of an expense to a product that is already on the higher end of the car charger scale, but you do get an extremely high-quality product that does its job very well. This is the only car charger you’ll ever need and you’ll be glad you have it in your vehicle the next time your phone begins to die in the middle of the day.
Blueflame Lightning Cable ($29.99)
When Apple released the iPhone 5 last year they also introduced the new Lightning charging and sync cable. This smaller, 8-pin option allowed them to produce a device that was substantially thinner than any phone they had ever produced before. The same adapter was rolled over to the iPod Touch and the standard iPad, not to mention the Mini. At the time there was a lot of grumbling about why Apple would make this change, which rendered most older accessories incompatible with the new devices. Upon release, the new cable was hard to find and it was questionable whether or not third parties would actually be able to produce them. Turns out they can and Blueflame has made an excellent version of that very same cable.
This two-meter long cord provides plenty of length to connect your device to a USB port, no matter where it’s located. The high-quality, tangle-free cable is surprisingly thick and resistant to wear and tear as well, while both the USB and Lightning plugs are extremely durable and easy to insert or pull out of their respective ports. In short, this is a very nice cable that will likely leave you impressed with how well designed and built it is. Cheap cords can easily fray and become unusable, but Blueflame has created a product that feels like it will last longer than the device you’re actually plugging it into. That means you can take it with you on the road with a feeling of confidence that it’ll perform well when you need it most.
Apple charges $19 for a replacement Lightning cable in their stores but for ten bucks more you’re not only getting a cable that is twice as long, but also one of considerably higher quality. I’ve seldom been impressed by a mere cable before, but in this case I am most certainly impressed. This product is worth the praise and Blueflame has put together a very nice Lightning adapter that is well worth the money. They also happen to make a very high-quality, 30-pin cable for older Apple devices as well as an auxiliary audio connector and an auxiliary to RCA audio cable too. Each of them are of the same high quality as the Lightning cable and a good investment for audiophiles.