Gadling Gear Review: Two Versatile Mobile Chargers

Waka Waka Power Mobile Charger
Off-Grid Solutions

There is no denying that smartphones have changed the way we work, play and stay connected with one another. Our phones provide us with directions to the nearest restaurant, tell us what time our movie begins and will even help us alert our friends when we’re running a little late. They give us weather reports, stock tips and warn us about traffic delays, all while taking great photos and sharing them across a variety of social networks. We truly live in an age of wonders during which we hold a powerful piece of technology right in the palm of our hand. That is, until the battery dies.

If there is one thing that my iPhone can’t do that my old “dumb phone” could, it is go for days without needing a recharge. You remember those days right? Back when you charged your phone once a week rather than every night. Now days, I’m lucky if my battery can get me through a single day, let alone a full week. Thankfully there are a slew of options for helping us keep our favorite devices from becoming a useless hunk of glass and plastic, including some interesting new mobile chargers that can help keep your phone up and running for hours longer than it could on its own. Here are two such options that travelers will find as worthy additions to their carry-on bags.

Waka Waka Power ($79)
With the advent of low cost and more efficient solar panels, charging our devices from the sun has truly become a viable option. The Waka Waka Power takes that concept and wraps it in a nice looking, lightweight package that is easy to carry with you just about anywhere. The charger is a little over 4.5 inches in length and weighs in at a svelte 7 ounces. That makes it easy to store in a glove compartment, purse or your carry-on, ensuring that you’ll have power whenever and wherever you need it.This mobile charger features an internal 2200-mAh battery that can be charged via the small built-in solar panel, or by plugging the Waka Waka directly into a USB port on a computer. Charging times vary greatly no matter which of those methods you choose, as the amount of direct sunlight or the level of current running to the USB port determine how long it will take to fill the power cell. Four blue lights across the top indicate the battery’s status, while an accompanying red light blinks at varying speeds to indicate how quickly the device is charging. This comes in particularly handy when the Waka Waka is collecting energy via its solar panel, making it easy to find the most direct sunlight possible.

The Waka Waka’s built-in USB port provides enough juice to charge even the most power hungry smartphones such as the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4. It can even charge an iPad, although the Waka Waka’s relatively small battery capacity doesn’t have the same level of impact on the battery life of a tablet. While testing the device, I was able to charge my iPhone 4S a couple of times before the Waka Waka itself needed to power up.

Off-Grid Solutions, the company that designed the Waka Waka, certainly had travelers in mind when they build the charger. Not only is its sleek design perfect for taking with you on the road, but it also comes with a built-in flashlight that is very handy at times as well. The light has four brightness settings and a flashing “SOS” mode, and is good for at least 20 hours on a full charge. And when the battery starts to run low, simply stick the Waka Waka back into the sunlight to start charging once again.

Demonstrating their commitment to encouraging the use of clean solar energy, Off-Grid Solutions has even vowed to give away a Waka Waka charger for every one that is purchased. So when you buy the device, the company behind it will ship another one to a developing nation to be given out to someone who doesn’t have easy access to other forms of power. That is a great program indeed and quite a gesture on the part of the company.

New Trent Travelpak Plus ($54.95)

New Trent Travelpak Plus Mobile Charger
New Trent

If you’re looking for a more traditional mobile charging option, the Travelpak Plus from New Trent brings a lot of great featuress to the table. For example, it is available in two versions, one with a 4000-mAh battery and the other with a 7000-mAh battery. That means even the lower capacity model has nearly twice the available power of the Waka Waka. I tested the 7000-mAh model and found that it provided ample power to recharge my iPhone more than three times without needing a recharge itself.

While the Travelpak Plus doesn’t have a solar panel, it does come with a built-in AC adapter. The back of the device has a power-plug that flips out when needed, allowing you to plug it in to a wall outlet whenever you need to charge the battery. It also comes with two USB ports, giving you the ability to charge two devices at the same time. When plugged into the wall, the Travelpak plus instantly becomes a powerful AC adapter for any device that charges via USB and when you take it on the road, it can greatly extend the life of all of your gadgets, including an iPad or other tablet.

New Trent included an ambient light on the Travelpak Plus as well and while it isn’t nearly as useful as the one that is included on the Waka Waka, it does serve as a decent nightlight when plugged into a wall outlet. That actually comes in handy when traveling, helping you to find your way in a strange room in the middle of the night.

This mobile charger is durable and well put together, and while it weighs a bit more than the Waka Waka, it isn’t incredibly heavy. It is substantial enough that when you slip it into a travel bag you’ll know that it is there, but not enough to really make it a bother. Besides, having a powerful source of energy with you at all times more than makes up for a little extra weight.

The 4000-mAh version of the Travelpak Plus costs $44.95, while the higher capacity model is just $10 more. With such a slight difference in price, I think it makes more sense to shell out the extra cash for the 7000-mAh version. You may not need that much power all that often but it’ll be nice to know it is there when you need it. A traveling companion will appreciate the extra USB port when their gadgets start to run low on power too.

Whether you go with the Waka Waka or the Travelpak Plus, you’ll be happy to have the extra power when you need it. Both of these options are great choices and each brings their own unique options to the table. The solar panel of the Waka Waka is great for charging anywhere and the extra capacity and duel USB ports on the Travelpak are excellent as well. Either way, you can’t lose.

Gadling Gear Review: Ematic Genesis Prime Android Tablet

Ematic Genesis Prime Android Tablet
Ematic

Over the past few years the tablet market has grown from a small niche with few buyers into one of the fastest growing segments in consumer electronics. The introduction of the iPad created consumer demand where there had been none before and naturally a host of competitors soon followed. The most successful of those competitors are powered by Google’s touch-based Android operating system, which is now run on dozens of devices, including smartphones and tablets. Android has delivered on its promise to provide inexpensive devices that rival those built by Apple, and as a result someone looking to buy a tablet on a budget now has some legitimate options from which to choose. Take for example the Genesis Prime from Ematic, a device whose biggest selling point is its very affordable price.

At its core, the Genesis Prime is a 7-inch tablet with a 1.1 GHz processor, 4GB of storage and a front-facing VGA camera. It runs Android 4.1 (Jellybean) and has full access to the Google Play store, giving users the ability to download games, apps, books, music, movies and more. The device is just .4 inches thick and tips the scales at a svelte 9.6 ounces, which makes it thinner and lighter than most other tablets on the market. All of these features are pretty much the minimum of what you would expect out of any Android tablet these days, although the Genesis Prime does have one feature that helps it stick out from the crowd – its price. Ematic sells the device for just $79.99, which puts it squarely into the “budget” category and well below most of its competitors.In order to reach that price point some compromises obviously needed to be made with the technology incorporated into the tablet. How much of a deal breaker those compromises are depends on the value you place on having cutting edge technology in your gadgets. For instance, the 7-inch touch screen on the Genesis Prime runs at a resolution of just 800 x 480 – which is well below the 1024 x 768 display found on the iPad Mini or the 1280 x 800 screen that Google puts in it’s own Nexus 7 tablet. Ematic also skimped on storage space, offering up just 4GB out of the box, although that can be expanded up to 32GB using MicroSD cards. But that’s not all, the processor used to power the Genesis is on the slow side, the built in camera is sub-par and the battery life is just a shade over four hours, which isn’t even enough to complete a cross-country flight.

With all of that in mind, I tried to approach my review on the Genesis Prime from the perspective of the consumer who isn’t necessarily in the market for Apple’s high-end devices or even Google and Amazon’s mid-range tablets. I put myself into the shoes of someone who wanted a tablet but didn’t want to blow their budget acquiring one. Even coming at it from that angle, I found that I needed to set my expectations accordingly in order to not be disappointed. The Genesis does offer a full Android experience and provides access to the Google Play ecosystem, but it is also sluggish and slow at times, which can be a bit frustrating, particularly when you’re not sure if the device has registered your touch inputs or is actually doing something in the background. Once I started to install a few apps, it also didn’t take long to run into storage issues due to the paltry 4GB that comes built-in. At one point, I couldn’t even update some apps because there simply wasn’t enough storage capacity left to do so. Adding a MicroSD card fixed the problem, but that is an extra expense that some consumers shopping in this space may not be prepared for.

Ematic Genesis Prime Android TabletStill, the Genesis Prime isn’t without its merits. It you’re looking for a device to check email or your social networks, it works just fine in that capacity. It’ll even handle light web browsing activities relatively well and streaming from Pandora or Spotify worked great, although the sound quality was better coming out of a decent pair of headphones rather than the built-in speaker. Reading books through the Kindle app or Google’s own Play Books was also fine, although the low-resolution screen is likely to be a more of a strain on the eyes. Some of the more popular 2D games, like Angry Birds, performed reasonably well too, just don’t expect to play some of the more advanced 3D games in the Google Play store. Something like EA’s Real Racing 3 would probably be more of an exercise in frustration than anything else.

If you’re in the market for a tablet device and you don’t have much money to spend, you fit exactly into the target audience that Ematic had in mind when they designed the Genesis Prime. $80 for an Android device is extremely cheap for sure, although the old adage of “you get what you pay for” couldn’t be more applicable than it is here. The all-around performance of this tablet is below that of the competition, but then again most of them cost at least twice as much. The Genesis Prime is a decent enough product, provided you go in knowing its limitations. But aside from the low cost of entry, it is hard to recommend this tablet. Especially when Google’s entry level Nexus 7 costs just $199 and comes with a much better screen, four times the memory, double the battery life and a considerably faster processor.

At the start of this review I mentioned how quickly the tablet market has grown over the past few years. It has gotten so big in fact that tablets are now projected to start outselling traditional PC’s as early as next year. Apple of course commands the largest part of that market share with their iPad, but Android has carved out a nice slice of the pie with lower-cost, alternative devices. Perhaps Ematic is looking to create a bargain basement space in which they can become the dominant player. If that is the case, the Genesis Prime is a solid device at a great price. But if you can manage to dig a little deeper into your wallet, you’ll find the alternatives are much better devices all around and well worth the extra money spent.

Two Great Travel Apps You Will Actually Use

travel apps
mikebaird/Flickr

New smartphone travel apps are released every day. Keeping up with which ones work can burn time better spent on planning, dreaming or, better yet, actually going some place. Many travelers are appaholics who just can’t get enough. They test, load and organize pertinent apps specifically for each trip. Others want an uncluttered home screen or just travel in a more unplugged way. They only want apps they will use frequently. Here are two of those.

Shall I go on that hike right now?
Dark Sky is a simple weather app that uses state-of-the-art weather forecasting to predict weather at the user’s location for the next 60 minutes. I ran across Dark Sky looking for a good radar application to track spring storms that pop up quickly and might be coming our way. The radar feature is simple and easy to use, but the near, live forecast feature makes this one an app travelers will use frequently.Too many apps?
Passbook, the feature, is an iPhone iOS 6 exclusive and not actually an app at all. This must-use travel feature keeps boarding passes, loyalty cards, retail coupons, movie tickets and more all in one app-like place. I keep this one on my home screen because it also retains boarding passes in history for easy “did I get my miles out of that?” checking later.

To grab all that data, Passbook taps apps from airlines, movie theaters, retail places and more. Another app that works with Passbook, Squarewallet, is making fumbling for cash or cards a thing of the past. By storing your card info then presenting it, along with a photo of you and your signature at an ever-increasing number of retail places, Squarewallet is simplifying paying and eliminating clutter on smartphone home screens.

No iPhone? No problem. There is indeed an app for that too. Passbook Viewer for Android will do the trick. Check this video for more about passbook:

Cruise Travel Apps Free To Use At Sea

travel appsWhen we review travel apps that actually do something, they often tap crowd-sourced information that is as rich (or not) as the number of users who have contributed their opinions or reviews. GPS-based travel apps take existing technology and manipulate it in one way or another to bring every thing from finding a friend on the road to creating a virtual journal of our travels, step by step. In the world of cruise travel, the number of apps available is limited compared to other modes of transportation but they are often highly specific, producing information not available elsewhere.

travel appsNorwegian Cruise Lines has a newly updated travel app that can be a helpful planning tool in advance of sailing with information about destinations, ships and special offers. Once on board Norwegian’s newest ships, even more helpful features are available.

The free download for iPhone, Android and Windows 7 features photo galleries and videos; ship information including deck plans and on-board amenities; stateroom descriptions, images and floor plans; 360-degree virtual ship tours and more.

On board Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Breakaway, passengers can log on, select an Internet package to buy then text and call others on the ship who are also connected, using time from their pre-paid plan. Free services include the ability to see previews of and book shore excursions, restaurants and other on-board products like spa services and shopping. Users can view their shipboard charge account as well as a list of daily activities at any time, also without using purchased Internet minutes.travel appsSailing some other cruise line? Cruise Ship Mate ($1.99), can be even more helpful in the planning stages of cruise travel as it has the ability to see all itineraries of all major cruise lines. Included among features that do not need an Internet connection to use are deck plans, cruise ship information and a packing list. Connected, users get cruise ship deck cam links and a chat feature that enables passengers on a specific ship and sailing date to communicate in advance of and during sailing.

A unique feature on the Cruise Ship Mate app is a Cruise Ship Tracker. This one allows users to see the exact location of any ship at any time, using technology similar to that of CruiseCal, the long running subscriber-based website that pinpoints where ships are and which ships will be in port at the same time you are.

But maybe you are not really into apps but have some favorite travel websites that you would like to access quickly on your Apple iPhone or iPad?

iPhone 5 users can create quick links to their most-visited websites using the “add to home screen” option, like I did for the Gadling site. On your favorite site, in Safari, just tap the “Share” button at the bottom of the screen, tap the icon labeled “Add to Home Screen,” tap the “Add” button then launch the website from your Home screen by tapping its icon.

Looking for other helpful travel apps? Check this video for apps that tell us everything from what is going on at any given destination to where restrooms are located.


[Image credit - Chris Owen]

National Park App Maker Back With Better, Free Offer

national parkLast year, in celebration of National Park Week, Chimani Apps gave away their suite of National Park apps. Normally, the apps sell for between $4.99-$9.99 each with an average rating of 4 1/2 stars, but the company gave away one million downloads. Now, Chimani is back with five new national park apps that feature an augmented reality viewer, crowd-sourced maps and a social sharing tool enabled with Near Field Communications (NFC) technology. Better yet, they are all free.

“Chimani users are now able to actively contribute to the national park community and help build better geo-spatial data for each of the parks,” said Kerry Gallivan CEO/Co-Founder in a NationalParksOnline article.

The company is releasing a new app on each of the five days of National Park Week. New parks added are Grand Teton National Park, Glacier National Park, Olympic National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and Bryce Canyon National Park. These, and all other Chimani apps, will be available for free starting Monday, April 22.

The apps have constantly updated maps, event schedules, points of interest, hiking details, as well as sunset and sunrise times for scenic overlooks. Users can access tide schedules along the coast, review lodging options and more on the apps, all designed to work without a cellphone signal.

We like that Chimani does not just throw their apps out there and hope for the best. Their users actively contribute to the national park community by helping build better geo-spatial data for each of the parks.

“A great example of this is Openstreetmaps.org’s user Tomthepom who spent the winter meticulously editing the park data within Grand Canyon. Thanks to Tom, the data found within the Chimani maps is the most detailed and up-to-date available anywhere – digital or print,” said Gallivan.

The Chimani apps are available for the iPhone, iPad, Amazon Kindle and Android devices. They can be downloaded directly from Apple’s iTunes App Store, Google Play and Amazon AppStore.


[Photo credit - Flickr user Dark_muse]