Gadling Gear Review: Bluetooth Speakers For Travel

Bluetooth Speaker: Damson Twist
Damson

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.

Bluetooth Speaker: Boom UrchinBoom 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.

Gadling Gear Review: Smartphone Accessories

Smartphone Accessories: PowerTrip mobile charger
PowerStick

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.

Smartphone accessories: The Spark Plug 2 car adapter
Blueflame

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.

Smartphone accessories: Lightning cable from Blueflame
Blueflame

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.

Gadling Gear Review: Kensington Accessories For iPad And Smartphones

Kensington Accessories: KeyCover
Kensington

Smartphones and tablets have become an important part of our daily lives, putting a wealth of functionality and information at our fingertips. Straight out of the box these devices can do amazing things to keep us entertained and in communication while on the go, but companies like Kensington are making some excellent accessories that can extend that functionality even further and perhaps even enhance it. Here are three such accessories that can make your next road trip even better.

KeyCover Hard Shell Keyboard for iPad ($79.99)
There is no doubt that the iPad is a fantastic device, capable of some amazing things, but its onscreen keyboard can be a major obstacle for those looking to use the tablet to get serious work done. That’s where the KeyCover Hard Shell Keyboard comes in handy. This keyboard connects to your iPad via Bluetooth, instantly turning it into an ultra-portable workstation. With the right apps, it can even rival a laptop in terms of productivity.

Typing on the keyboard takes some getting use to, in part because the keys are smaller than what you find on a laptop. The first few times I put it to the test I found the backspace key was getting the most use as I was continuously correcting mistakes. But as with most things in life, practice makes perfect and before too long my large fingers adapted nicely to the smaller keys and I was able to type away almost as quickly and efficiently as I do on my larger notebook. The keys have a high quality feel to them and they make a nice, reassuring click as you type away. When you get on a roll, you might even forget that you’re actually getting productive work done on an iPad.The KeyCover has a few other tricks up its sleeve that will make it a favorite amongst iPad owners as well. Not only is it an excellent portable keyboard, but it also serves as a highly protective case that snaps snugly over the tablet, encasing it in a solid shell that protects the iPad’s screen very nicely. The case is made from anodized aluminum that looks great and provides a level of protection that you don’t get from most other cases. It can be a bit tricky to get off and on at first but after using it a few times it becomes second nature.

Like Apple’s Smartcover, this case uses magnets to automatically wake or put the iPad to sleep when it is opened and closed. It also has a built-in stand that can hold the iPad in either portrait or landscape mode, which is helpful when trying to get work done, but is great for watching movies or making Facetime or Skype calls too.

As mentioned above, the KeyCover connects to the iPad via Bluetooth (version 3.0), which means that it is an electronic device with its own built-in, rechargeable batteries. Kensington says the keyboard’s battery is rated for 120 hours of use between charges and I’ll have to take their word for it. In my testing I was never able to run the battery down fully, so it is clearly capable of lasting for quite a long time. The downside is that the KeyCover is one more item you’ll need to be sure is charged before you hit the road because it won’t be particularly useful if the battery dies.

If you love your iPad but found its functionality slightly hindered by the lack of a physical keyboard, then you’ll absolutely love the KeyCover. It really is an excellent companion for Apple’s tablet. Similarly, if you’re a road warrior who is looking to lighten your load and leave the laptop behind, the KeyCover can turn your iPad into a device that is far more productive. The keyboard even comes in handy for typing emails, iMessages or just about anything else that requires a lot of text entry. It truly will open up a host of new possibilities for how you use the iPad.

The KeyCover is available for the standard iPad. Owners of the iPad Mini will want to checkout some of Kensington’s other keyboard options for their tablet.

Kensington Accessories: Proximity Tag
Kensington

Proximity Tag ($39.95)
Are you one of those people who is prone to losing your keys? Do you often walk away from a restaurant or coffee shop, leaving your cellphone behind? If so, Kensington’s Proxmity Tag was made for you. This light and thin device is roughly the size of a credit card and is designed to be paired with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth, although in theory any Android device should work. Once connected, either the sensor or the phone will alert you when they are no longer close to one another. So for example, you could attach the sensor to your keychain, carry-on bag or just about any other valuable item and if it moves outside of a range of about 30 feet from your smartphone, it will immediately alert you that your valuables have been left behind or taken. On the other hand, should you leave your phone behind somewhere and walk more than 30 feet away, the sensor will sound an alert as well, reminding you to retrieve your device.

Connecting your smartphone to the Proximity Tag is accomplished through an app that is available on the Google Play Store. The app allows you to configure a few options on the Tag itself, although its main use is to pair it with your Android device and to tell the sensor to emit an alarm when you can’t find it. So if you lose your keys and need to discover where they are at any given time, the app will tell the Proximity Tag to emit a sound that makes it easy to quickly track them down.

As mentioned above, Kensington says the Proximity Sensor is compatible with Samsung Galaxy devices, but since they use the Android mobile operating system, I assumed the app would run on any Android device. When installed on a generic Android tablet running the latest version of the OS the app ran fine as far as I could tell, but when I put it on an HTC One it crashed multiple times. I had to borrow a Samsung Galaxy S III to properly test its uses and, as you might expect, it ran without a hitch.

The Proximity Tag is powered by a user replaceable lithium battery that Kensington says should be good for about six months use. Once again, I’ll have to take their word for it, because during my testing it never ran out of juice. It did, however, work as advertised, providing alerts when either the Android device or the backpack that I attached the Tag to passed out of range of one another.

The fact that the sensor is small enough to slip into your wallet is a nice added benefit. That means you can keep it on you at all times and use it as needed. Keep it paired with your phone at all times and connect it to something valuable that you want to keep tabs of as needed. Or better yet, rest assured that you’ll never leave your smartphone or tablet behind again. That is quite a nice level of reassurance for a mere $40.

Kensington Accessories: EVAP Pouch
Kensington

EVAP Wet Electronics Rescue Pouch ($19.99)
Have you ever inadvertently jumped into a swimming pool forgetting you had your iPod in your pocket? How about accidentally dropping your smartphone in a full sink of water? There are few things that can kill an electronic device faster than immersing it in water and usually it means that gadget is gone for good. Fortunately, Kensington makes an accessory that can help with this problem, perhaps saving you hundreds of dollars in repair or replacement costs in the process.

The EVAP emergency pouch is designed to pull moisture out of an electronic device without damaging its delicate components in any way. It contains specially developed drying agents that are specifically made to work with electronics and their effectiveness is nothing short of miraculous.

There really is no trick to using the EVAP, you simply open it up and pull out the two sealed packets that contain the drying agents. Place those packets on either side of the waterlogged device and slip them all back inside and seal the pouch. Kensington says it will take anywhere from 6-24 hours for the process to complete, depending on the device and amount of water involved. A handy indicator on the outside of the EVAP will actually let you know when it has completed the process.

I tried the EVAP with an old iPod Nano I had sitting around my apartment. It still worked but had been replaced by a newer model, so I was willing to sacrifice it under the guise of product testing. I soaked it in a bowl of water for several minutes and when I took it out, it refused to turn on. After blotting it dry with a towel, I sealed it in the pouch and left it inside overnight. The next morning I checked the EVAP right away noticed that it had finished its work. I opened the pouch and took the iPod out and was pleasantly surprised to have it power-up in my hand. The EVAP worked exactly as advertised and my old Nano was back from the dead.

The EVAP is one of those products you hope you never need but you’re glad you have when you do. It is super easy to use, worked great in my test and may save you hundreds of dollars, not to mention endless heartbreak. The product is just $19.95, so it isn’t exactly expensive. It would be a good thing to keep around the house in case of an emergency and if you happen to own a boat, I’d store one there as well. Additionally, if you’re taking a trip to a destination where you’ll be spending plenty of time around the water, you may want to play it safe and have one in your suitcase as well. It could turn out that you’re very cautious and won’t need one, but this is the kind of product that is the epitome of “better safe than sorry.”

There you have it – three very unique and different products from one company. Each works well in its own right and are likely to make customers happy. Kensington’s reputation for creating innovative and functional products continues.

Gadling Gear Review: BirkSun Atlas Solar Powered Backpack

BirkSun Atlas solar powered backpack
BirkSun

As a gear reviewer for Gadling I see a lot of different products come and go across my desk. Everything from high-tech gadgets to travel apparel and footwear are sent my way for evaluation. After awhile, much of that gear can start to look alike and while I seldom come across an item that is completely without merit, it is also rare to find an item that surprises you with how well it performs. That happens to be the case with the new BirkSun Atlas, a backpack whose main selling point is its ability to charge your small electronics via a built in solar panel. But to focus too much on that one feature alone runs the risk of dismissing everything else this high quality pack brings to the table.

When I first took the Atlas out of the box it was shipped to me in, I was immediately struck by the high quality materials that it is made from. It uses soft, yet durable, fabrics that are resistant to the wear and tear that comes along with travel. In fact, after using this bag as a daily commuter pack for several weeks, it hasn’t shown a hint of fraying, abrasions or any other typical blemishes that you would normally expect to come with regular use. Those same materials provide a level of water resistance as well, helping to protect the important items you carry inside. The entire package feels solid, well built and more than ready to hit the road.

Speaking of the interior of the pack, it is absolutely cavernous. BirkSun has designed this bag to allow you to carry all of your important equipment with you wherever you go. It includes a large laptop sleeve capable of safely holding up to a 17-inch notebook, while still giving you plenty of room in the main pocket for an iPad or other tablet, not to mention any other miscellaneous items that you want to bring along such as a camera, book, snacks and so on. A smaller secondary pocket houses the Atlas’ battery pack (more on that later) and some organizational sub-pockets that come in handy for keeping track of smaller items like pens and business cards. An elastic water bottle holder along one side is a welcome touch too.Taking a few cues from messenger bags, the Atlas features a large flap that seals the interior with both heavy-duty Velcro and a pair of very solid plastic clasps. The back panel is thickly padded and works in conjunction with a pair of thin shoulder straps to make this a very comfortable bag to wear, even when it is loaded down with gear. A strategically placed handle on the top of the Atlas makes it easy to grab and go when you’re in a hurry as well.

BirkSun Atlas solar powered backpack
BirkSun

All of these nice little touches add up to a very impressive pack in its own right and that is before we even get to the Atlas’ ability to keep your gadgets charged while on the road. As mentioned, this pack has a solar panel embedded into the flap that efficiently collects power from the sun and stores it in an included battery pack. The battery sits nestled in its own pocket and features a proprietary cable that can be fitted with a variety of plugs to cover nearly every type of smartphone or other small gadget. BirkSun includes both micro- and mini-USB adapters as well as plugs for Apple’s 30-pin and Lightning ports. Those four options will cover just about anything you could ask for including Android phones, iPhones, iPods and a variety of other small gadgets.

Using my iPhone 4S as a test, I was able to get two full charges out of the battery before depleting it fully. As is typical with a solar charger, the length of time that it takes to recharge the battery pack depends on the amount of direct sunlight the solar panel is exposed to. When placed directly into the bright sun, it takes just a couple of hours to restore the battery, but on cloudier days it will be much slower. If you need to juice it up quickly it can be recharged via USB on a laptop or wall outlet, which takes no time at all. This is useful when you’re heading out the door and you want to make sure you’re at full power before you ever leave home. No matter how you charge it, however, you can set out secure in the knowledge that if your smartphone battery begins to dwindle, you’ll always have a charger close at hand ready to help restore it to full power.

BirkSun is a relatively new company but their first foray into the backpack arena shows that they have a keen eye for detail. For instance, the pocket that holds the battery has a small window on the outside of the pack that allows the user to quickly check the level of the charge it holds without ever having to remove it from the bag. I thought that was a nice touch and although it seems simple, it isn’t the kind of thing that the competition would necessarily think to incorporate into their packs too. They’ve even included a nice little carrying pouch to store the various adapters for the charging system, helping to keep them organized and preventing them from getting lost. I also appreciated the strategically placed zipper on the side of the pack that grants access to your smartphone without having to open up the entire bag.

As you can probably tell, I am highly impressed with the BirkSun Atlas. It serves as a great pack for travel or for daily commutes to the office, carrying everything you would need without a hitch. The built-in solar charger and battery pack would make it easy to dismiss this pack as just a gimmick but quite frankly that would be selling it short. This is a product that does an excellent job of doing its primary job, which is to carry all of our gear comfortably and securely. It just so happens to have a nice portable charging station built into it as well. The combination of all of those things make it easy to recommend and with a price tag of $160 it is more than competitively priced. This is a great piece of gear that will keep you – and your smartphone – happy for a long time to come.

Gadling Gear Review: Portable Media Servers For Music, Movies And Photos On The Go

HP Pocket Playlist portable media server
HP

Remember the days before smartphones and tablets? Back when our mobile entertainment options were limited to whatever books and magazines we could cram into our carry-on bag and that one movie that was shown three times on a single flight across the Pacific? It may seem like it was a lifetime ago, but it really hasn’t been that long at all.

Now days when we hit the road, we can carry our entire music collection, multiple movies and TV shows, a library full of books and thousands of photos with us. The options are nearly endless, limited only by the storage capacity of your mobile devices. But when the memory on those devices begins to get full, you have to start making compromises in order to fit everything you want in the limited storage available. In order to make room for the latest episodes of “Downton Abbey” for example, that digital copy of “The Hobbit” may have to go.

But what if you didn’t have to make those kinds of compromises? What if you could carry a tiny portable media server with you that would not only add storage capacity to your device but also allow you to wirelessly share those files with your traveling companions? A few years ago that would have seemed like something out of a science fiction movie but today it’s a reality with both HP and Kingston delivering excellent and affordable options to the consumer.Before I get to both of those gadgets, let me explain a bit about what they both do. These are small devices that can be loaded with music and movie files, as well as photos, before you ever leave home. Those files can then be simultaneously shared wirelessly between multiple devices while on the road. That means that if you have a favorite movie that your kids enjoy, you can save it on your portable media server and it is accessible to them at all times, whether they are connecting from an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad or a device running the Android operating system. The same thing holds true for music and photos as well. Both of these devices bring extra storage, which means you don’t have to completely load up your phone or tablet, nor will you have to delete items just to free up some space. For friends and families traveling together, these mini-media servers can be a life saver and for the solo traveler, they bring versatility and a little extra storage capacity.

HP Pocket Playlist ($129.99)
HP’s entry in the portable media server category is the Pocket Playlist, a sleek device that comes with 32GB of built-in memory. It is roughly 4.5 inches in length and mere .35 inches thick. It also weighs just 2.2 ounces, which means it is small enough to slip into your pocket or carry-on bag and you’ll barely even know its there.

Loading the Playlist with files couldn’t be easier. You simply plug it into a USB port on your computer where it’ll appear as a spare drive. After that, you can drag and drop the files you want on to the device and the Playlist will automatically catalog them for you. If you’re on a Windows PC you can use the included HP software to help convert video files to the proper format to be displayed on your mobile devices, although I found that this was seldom necessary.

Once you have all of your media files onto the Playlist, it can begin serving up those items to any PC, iOS or Android device. Up to five gadgets can be wirelessly connected at any given time without any noticeable degradation in performance. While testing the product I regularly had my iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and an Android tablet streaming various video and music files at the same time, and all of them ran flawlessly. Apps are available as free downloads in each of their respective app stores, making it a breeze to connect to the Playlist, search its media library and playback whatever movies, music or photos you’re looking for.

The Playlist’s 32GB of storage allows you to carry approximately an additional 16 full length movies, 7600 songs or 10,000 photos. That’s a lot of extra entertainment to have at your fingertips at any given time. The fact that the device can serve all of those files up quickly and easily is quite impressive, as once you connect to the Pocket Playlist, the files stored on it perform as if they are actually on your tablet or smartphone.

Most devices are only capable of connecting to one Wi-Fi source at a given time, which could be a problem if you’re hoping to surf the Internet while listening to music that is streaming from the Pocket Playlist. But HP has cleverly integrated Internet pass-through technology that allows you to connect the Playlist to a Wi-Fi router and than pass Internet traffic through to any other device that is attached to the media server. I expected that this feature would work in a pinch but that there would be obvious performance issues, but for the most part I really couldn’t tell that I wasn’t connected to the router directly.

HP claims that the built-in battery on the Playlist can last for up to five hours depending on the number of devices connected and the media being served. In my real world testing, I was routinely able to get over four hours of use before the device needed to be recharged. The Playlist ships with both an AC wall adapter for quick recharges, and HP conveniently includes a car charger to keep it running on long road trips. It can also be recharged via the USB port on your computer, which can come in handy when traveling internationally.

Performance-wise it is hard to knock the Playlist in any way. It is small, lightweight and delivers on the promise of providing more storage for your mobile devices. It is a refined product that is about as simple to use as anyone could ever ask for. HP has delivered a product that anyone can understand and appreciate, which should make the Playlist a hit with those who need extra storage or the capability to share multimedia files while on the go.

Kingston MobileLite Wireless Drive ($59.99)

Kingston MobileLite Wireless portable media server
Kingston

Kingston’s MobileLite Wirelesss drive is an alternative option to the Playlist that performs much the same way, although it does have some key distinctions. For starters, it doesn’t ship with any built-in memory, which is part of the reason it is less expensive than HP’s device. The MobileLite supports a wide variety of storage options however, which makes this a relatively painless thing to rectify. The device is capable of reading just about any kind of SD memory card, including microSD with an included adapter. It also has a full-powered USB port built in, which allows you to plug in a USB memory stick and access its contents as well. You can even plug in a USB hard drive, although that kind of defeats some of the purpose of having a portable media server.

All of these options for storage bring a level of versatility that the Playlist simply doesn’t have. While HP’s device is limited to the 32GB of on board storage, with Kingston’s offering you can swap out memory cards at any time, essentially giving you access to unlimited data. You could, for example, carry multiple SD cards with you when you travel saving one for music, another for movies and a third for television shows. Better yet, you can pull an SD card straight out of your camera, plug it into the MobileLite and begin viewing the photos you took that day right on your iPad or Android tablet.

Like the Playlist, access to the MobileLite is accomplished through apps that are available for iOS and Android. While Kingston’s apps are functional, they didn’t quite feel as refined as those from HP. They definitely get the job done, however, granting access to all of your files, which in this case can actually include Word documents, Power Point presentations, PDF files and more.

Where as the Playlist looks like a sleek piece of modern design, the MobileLite designers seem to have leaned more toward function over form factor. It is thicker (.35 vs .65 inches) and heavier (2.2 vs 3.4 ounces) than HP’s device and definitely feels chunkier in your hand. This is mostly due to the fact that it has a built-in card reader and USB port, which the Playlist doesn’t. Those features add to the versatility, but detract somewhat from the look and size.

The inclusion of the USB port gives the MobileLite the ability to actually provide a charge for your smartphone. Doing so will deplete the media server’s internal battery, of course, and it isn’t as useful as having a dedicated mobile charger, but it will do in a pinch. This feature is just another indication of the versatility of the device.

Like the Playlist, the MobileLite’s battery is rated for up to five hours, but once again I found it was closer to four when put to the test in the real world. Unlike HP’s product, however, it doesn’t ship with an AC or car adapter of any kind. Kingston simply included a USB cable for charging via a computer. If you want to charge from a wall outlet or while in the car, you’ll once again have to provide your own adapters.

The MobileLite features solid wireless performance but it isn’t capable of connecting to as many devices simultaneously as the Pocket Playlist. While HP’s media server can accommodate up to five devices, Kingston’s offering is only capable of handling three. That may seem like plenty, and for a lot of users it probably is, but for a family that is traveling together, it is possible you could run up against this limitation fairly quickly. The MobileLite does have the Internet pass-through option just like the Playlist, however, allowing you to browse files and surf the web at the same time.

Both of these portable media servers are excellent devices and both do their job very well. In fact, it is difficult for me to recommend one over the other, as they both have some advantages and disadvantages. For a family that wants to take the media library with them when they travel, I’d highly recommend the Playlist, as it is simple to use and has the ability to connect to more devices simultaneously. The MobileLite seems like the better option for professionals, however, as it provides more ways of accessing files while in the field. Professional photographers will probably love the device for instance, as it gives them the ability to review their work within seconds of taking their shots.

If you fall into either of the categories listed above, these portable media servers will make excellent additions to your travel gear. But even if you’re just looking to add a little extra storage to your mobile devices, both the Playlist and MobileLite are great options at affordable prices.