You know the feeling: too many Instagram photos and work emails in an afternoon on your phone and by 3 p.m. you’re down to that nasty red bar and you still have to map your way to dinner. And you forgot your charger. Again.
With data heavy smartphones, we travelers are used to running out of battery power. Charging stations are a welcomed addition to any airport but when you’re downtown in the middle of a city, recharging is a bit more difficult.
That could change, however, as a system called Street Charge hits New York City, providing free cellphone charging stations around the city. A partnership between Pensa, solar company Goal Zero and AT&T, Street Charge will be installed in 25 different spots throughout New York City. The charging stations will be repositioned two more times over the next three months.
Currently, the program is only temporary, but at least for the summer months tourists and locals alike can enjoy free charging while out and about town. And if popular enough, the program could inspire more “urban rest stop” type programs, which would keep us all far away from that discouraging red battery bar.
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.
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.
Augmented Reality apps on our smartphones and tablets can do some pretty amazing things. The basic premise is that these apps use our device’s camera to show us the world around us while also overlaying information that may be of interest. For example, AR apps can give directions, complete with on-screen arrows showing us where to go, or they can display info about hotels, restaurants and bars that include Yelp scores, hours of operation, menus and more. The potential for augmented reality is so great that Google is even incorporating it directly into their Glass project.
But a company called AR-media is truly taking augmented reality to the next level with a new app in development that will let travelers see some of their favorite historical sites restored to how they looked when they were first built. In the case of the demo video below, that means using an iPad to catch a glimpse of the Roman Colosseum as it looked when it was newly constructed.
The software uses special programming to determine where you are in relation to the structure and uses 3D modeling to fill in sections of the building. The results are pretty amazing and show the possibilities of how AR can be used to educate and entertain, particularly in the travel industry.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend staring at some of our more magnificent monuments through the screen of any device. After all, you’re there to see it in person. But if a smartphone or tablet can enhance the experience, then I think that is technology that is working to make our lives better. In this case, the AR app practically allows us to step back in time and see the Colosseum in all of its glory.
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 portablemedia 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’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.
Airplane manufacturer Airbus has been cooking up another innovation: a “smart bag” that allows travelers to check in and track their luggage from their phone.
The tech-infused piece of luggage, Bag2Go, contains sensors and an RFID chip that communicates with airlines systems – including check-in and security – and relays the information to an iPhone app. For packing and check-in purposes, the luggage will be able to automatically weigh the contents of suitcases, and users will be able to track their bag as it makes its way onto the plane. It will also alert travelers if their baggage has been opened, saving travelers the trouble of getting caught in a baggage theft scam, like the one in Italy earlier this year that ended in nearly 50 arrests.
The bag is still in the development stages, but in a promotional video Airbus is saying travelers will either be able to buy a Bag2Go suitcase or rent them trip-by-trip. Although the baggage doesn’t seem to help solve the mystery of what to do if your luggage accidentally gets sent to Timbuktu, we’re glad it’ll save us from milling around baggage carousels as we impatiently wait for our suitcase to materialize.