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

Gadling gear review: Samsung Focus Windows phone

The Samsung Focus Windows PhoneRemember when buying a cell phone was easy? You simply walked into a store, found a device that was the right size and price to fit your needs, bought it, and walked out the door. You usually didn’t have to buy another one until that phone died, and the thought of upgrading on an annual basis was nearly unheard of. The increase in demand for smartphones over the past few years, spurred on by the introduction of the iPhone and Android, has changed that landscape dramatically however, and now we seem more aware of new alternatives that can deliver the best mobile experience possible. One of those alternatives is the Samsung Focus, which runs Windows Phone 7 – Microsoft’s answer to Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems.

From a hardware standpoint, the Focus hits all the right notes. Powered by a 1Ghz processor, the interface is responsive and snappy, which is important considering that Windows Phone does some very different things from the competition. The phone comes with 8GB of on board storage and a microSD card slot allows for quick and easy expansion. A 5 megapixel camera, with LED flash, takes excellent photos and video, which are displayed on a very crisp and detailed 4 inch Super AMOLED screen

Of course, all of that hardware doesn’t mean much if the operating system that runs on it isn’t up to par. Fortunately, Windows Phone 7 is a powerful and interesting take on the mobile OS, which is designed to put the information that is important to us at our fingertips. Those familiar with the desktop version of Windows will recognize a “Start” menu that grants access to installed apps, but it is the new hub-based interface, code named Metro, that is truly unique and different. These hubs are highly customizable and display information on an interactive start screen that lets us know at a glance if we have unread e-mails, Facebook status updates, or Twitter messages that require attention. It is all very slick, well designed, and easy to use – so much so, that the next version of Windows for PC’s will integrate Metro in some fashion as well.These days, consumers rate the value of their smartphone based on the apps that are available and in this area, Windows Phone lags well behind the iPhone and Android. That said however, you’ll find options for most of the top apps from those devices are available here as well, including travel apps from Kayak, XE Currency, and most of the major airlines. The Marketplace, Microsoft’s version of the App Store, also has versions of Angry Birds, Netflix, Yelp, and many of the others apps you’ve come to know and love. Windows Phone may lack the large numbers of apps available on the competition, but there are still plenty of alternatives available to fit your needs.

Using the Samsung Focus around town, on the AT&T network, resulted in good performance, with no dropped calls and decent, if not outstanding, voice quality. Data was fed to the device via 3G network or WiFi quickly, allowing for web surfing, answering e-mails, and sharing photos on Facebook. Everything functioned as you would expect and in this arena, the phone held its own with the iPhone and Android devices.

So how would the Focus fare as a travel companion? In this area it is a bit of a mixed bag. The battery life is solid (6.5 hours of talk, 300 hours of standby) and Windows Phone uses the Bing search engine, also owned by Microsoft, to deliver good local search options and maps, complete with turn-by-turn navigation. The device is actually excellent at multimedia playback, allowing users to listen to music or watch movies on the go, and integration with XBox Live opens the door for the potential for some great games as well. Additionally, the great camera in the Focus is nice for photos and video as well, although I wouldn’t recommend it over a dedicated point-and-shoot.

But the Focus is also larger than the iPhone, which makes it a bit more challenging to stuff comfortably into a pocket while traveling. The large screen may look beautiful, but it expands the dimensions of the device as well. More importantly, the Focus isn’t a true world phone, which means it won’t roam on all mobile networks when traveling internationally. That could be a problem for some travelers, who don’t want to carry a second phone while abroad. The new iPhone 4S does offer that functionality, and the upcoming Windows phones from Nokia will also feature cellular chipsets for connecting globally as well.

Consumers looking for a true alternative to the iPhone or Android will definitely want to give the Focus and Windows Phone a look. Recent updates to the OS have brought even more features to the device and its unique, innovative interface presents important data in a completely different way from the competition. The Focus is also quite affordable, running just $49 with a new contract from AT&T.

AT&T, Expedia.com partner for easier hotel bookings on-the-go

AT&T and Expedia are partnering to provide travelers with easier access to hotels and destination information. The new agreement allows travelers to check hotel rates, room availability and book rooms on AT&T Interactive’s YELLOWPAGES.COM and YP.COM. The platform will be co-branded with Hotels.com, a subsidiary of Expedia.com.

HotelMarketing.com reported the new this morning, but no word on when the new hotel booking functionality will be launched. Once it’s launched, users can search hotels, find the best rates, book rooms and get destination information including downloadable maps, nearby restaurants and bars, and local tourist attractions.

“Our agreement with Expedia creates a natural extension to the travel and hotel information already available on YELLOWPAGES.COM and YP.COM – enhancing the local search experience for those who visit our sites,” said Mike Fordyce, senior vice president of Business Development for AT&T Interactive. “Adding the ability to check for hotel availability and book rooms increases user engagement, giving our advertisers the opportunity to gain exposure among a growing audience who is turning to the Internet for travel information.”%Gallery-84586%

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Gadling giveaway – 2 LG Vu phones with Mobile TV!

The LG VuThe LG Vu is a great phone for travelers. It has a 2 megapixel auto-focus camera with 2x zoom (for photos and videos), streaming radio capabilities, 3G speed, a large, 3″ touchscreen, and it’s equipped with Video Share (one-way live streaming video, meaning you can film something and the person on the other end of your call can watch), as well as AT&T Mobile TV.

AT&T’s Mobile TV is amazing for road trips, couples who can’t agree what to watch on TV in their hotel room, and basically any situation where you’re waiting for any period of time. Channels include CBS Mobile, CNBC, Comedy Central, ESPN Mobile, FOX Mobile, FOX News, MSNBC, MTV, NBC2Go, Nickelodeon, CNN Mobile and Pix, and the service costs $9.99/mo as an addition to any existing AT&T plan. The LG Vu has it, and we have two LG Vus to give away!

You’ll have to get an AT&T plan to use them, but if you don’t already have one, you should know that AT&T has more coverage worldwide than any other network (click here for more info), and was recently honored as having the “Best Mobile Phone Coverage in the World” by Business Traveler Magazine. You can leave one of these at home with your honey and stream them a video of whatever you’re up to abroad; that service starts at just $4.99 per month.

To enter this contest, leave us a comment, telling us where you’re going next and what TV shows you’ll watch on the LG Vu.

Legalspeak:

  • To enter, leave a comment in the section below. You may only enter once. Our robots will delete multiple entries.
  • The comment must be left before December 24, 2009 at 5pm EST.
  • Approximate retail value per phone: $249.99.
  • One winner will be selected in a random drawing to receive two LG Vu phones. Cell phone service/contracts are NOT included in this offer. Sorry.
  • Winner will be notified by email.
  • Open to legal residents of the 50 United States, including the District of Columbia who are 18 and older.

Click HERE for complete Official Rules.

Gadling gear review – Sony Ericsson C905a on AT&T Wireless

Every now and then I try to expand my horizon and review a phone not getting the attention it deserves. Sure, phones like the Apple iPhone and the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G may be the ones getting all the cool TV commercials, but what if you just need a good solid performing phone that won’t break the bank?

The Sony Ericsson C905a is such a phone – it looks like a phone, feels like a phone and yet it still manages to offer a good lineup of features making it worth some attention.
The basics

The basics are all there – this is a Quadband GSM phone with International 3G support. It features GPS, email, mobile music and TV services and games. One feature inside the C905a that sets it apart from most other phones is an 8.1MP “Cyber-shot” camera, with a real flash.

The entire front of the phone slides open to reveal a keypad, and on the top of the phone are some buttons to control the camera.

The Sony Ericsson C905a phone – as a phone

This is where the C905a excels – as a phone. If your idea of a phone is being able to slide the keypad open, and start dialing, then you’ll love the C905a. There is no “phone application” and no complicated array of options to reach the dialer. Just a real keypad and instant dialing. Voice quality is what you’d expect from a Sony Ericsson – crisp and clear. Volume is loud and there is virtually no static or hiss.

What I did not like was the side-mounted charging port. If you need to make a call and charge the phone at the same time, you need to get used to the charger sticking out the side.

The phone itself doesn’t look particularly special – in fact, it looks very much like most other non-smartphone devices on the market. That said, it does feel well made. The sliding mechanism is extremely smooth, and there is no “squeak”.

The user interface

The menu system in the C905a immediately felt familiar – most likely because it hasn’t changed much since the Ericsson T68 I was using back in 2001. The basics are identical. This could mean a lack of innovation, but it could just as easily mean Sony Ericsson did not want to mess with something that works. Personally, I’m leaning towards “lack of innovation”.

The “interface from 2001” is very easy to use though – menus are logical and most functions can be found without the need for the user manual.

The phone also lacks a regular headphone jack, and the box does not include the special headset you need. It does support Bluetooth streaming music.

The camera

The camera lens is hidden behind a sleek sliding cover giving the whole thing a real camera “look and feel”. In fact, it if weren’t for the AT&T logo on the back, you’d have a hard time knowing this was actually a mobile phone.

The camera in the C905a looks fantastic on paper – a Sony Cyber-shot 8.1 megapixel auto-focus camera, with a xenon flash. Sadly, “on paper” is where those specifications stay, because in real life, the performance is sloppy. Don’t get me wrong – it’ll outperform an iPhone 3G in almost any situation, but I really had expected more from a camera carrying the Sony name.

The photo I inserted above looks good – but it took me 12 photos to get something worth using. Performance of the camera is sluggish, and even when set to “auto contrast mode”, photos turn out dark. To make matters worse, the C905a only cares for the Sony M2 memory card format, which means all your SD and MicroSD cards are worthless. M2 cards cost about 2-3 times more than MicroSD.

Final thoughts

Here’s the thing with these non-smartphones (some people call them dumbphones). If you came from an iPhone, Android powered G1 or other smart device, I can pretty much assure you that the C905a won’t impress you.

If you have been able to resist the urge to spend your cash on a smartphone, and just want a phone that is, well, a phone, then you’ll love the C905a. It performs where a phone needs to perform. It delivers just what you need, as long as your idea of a phone is not a device that will let you play Guitar Hero on the bus.

Sadly, I’ve been walking around with some kind of smartphone since 2000 when I purchased the horrible Mitsubish Mondo. As a smartphone user, I don’t see myself making the step down to a dumbphone. The sacrifice is simply too high. I kept trying to press things on the (non touch) screen of the C905a, I got annoyed trying to enter stuff without an on-screen keyboard, and trying to surf the web was about as much fun as a wet fart in a spacesuit.

But if I move myself back 9 years, till the pre-smartphone era, I can vaguely remember a time when I would have loved the C905a – it was a simpler time, a time when we used our computer as a computer, and our phones as a phone. Sadly for me, there is no turning back – but I’m convinced there are still plenty of people out there who still enjoy the simpler times.

This brings me to the worst piece of news about the C905a – even though this is “just a phone”, AT&T Wireless wants $230 from you if you decide this is going to be your new phone. They’ll give you a $50 mail in rebate credit, but that still makes it about the same price as an iPhone or Blackberry Bold. Perhaps now really is the time to move on to something smarter?

PROS: Great lineup of features, GPS, several AT&T applications included on the phone (navigator, TV, music).

CONS: Price, poor camera performance, M2 memory card format, no headset included, some AT&T applications cost extra.

PRICE: $229.95 (179.95 after a $50 mail in rebate).
Available from: AT&T Wireless, online and in retail stores