Gadling gear review: Grace Digital Audio Eco Pod

The Grace Digital Audio Eco PodGrace Digital Audio is probably best known for its line of Internet radio devices, but the company also produces a line of waterproof cases for smartphones and mp3 players as well. In fact, we positively reviewed their Eco Extreme case back in 2010, and now are similarly impressed with their new Eco Pod as well.

As an active traveler and avid outdoor enthusiast, I almost always cringe when I tuck my iPhone into my backpack with just a regular case to protect it. With that in mind, I was looking forward to seeing what the Eco Pod would bring to the table in terms of protection, and I wasn’t disappointed by what I found. The case’s solid construction and durable poly-carbonate parts definitely give you the sense that it can take a lot of punishment, while still ensuring that your smartphone or music player will remain safe and working properly.

The interior of the Eco Pod is spacious, offering plenty of room for nearly any smartphone or mp3 player on the market. In fact, it is even large enough to store most point and shoot cameras as well, which give the case added versatility for travelers. The Eco Pod also has space for stashing a pair of earbuds and a handy column for winding the cable. Two elastic bands hold your devices in place, while an audio cable plugs into your phone or mp3 player’s audio jack, passing sound through to a similar audio port on the exterior of the case.

Once the Eco Pod is closed, two large and rugged latches lock into place, completely sealing the inside. With those latches closed tight, the case is water proof and rated to withstand being submerged at a depth of three feet for up to 30 minutes, although Grace Digital Audio is quick to point out that the Eco Pod’s waterproofing is designed to protect electronic devices under normal conditions and isn’t intended to actually be used underwater. Still, your gadgets will be well protected during unexpected rainstorms or from accidental submersion just fine. In my testing, not a single drop of water found its way inside the case, even while running it under a kitchen faucet.
The Eco Pod comes complete with a set of waterproof earbuds that are designed to plug directly into the audio jack on the outside of the case. I’m not a big fan of earbuds in general, but the included set were more comfortable, and provided better sound, than I was expecting, and they worked well for listening to music and taking phone calls, while the device stayed safely locked inside the case. A simple rubber knob, located next to the audio jack, adjusts volume while on the go, and is easy to use, even while wearing gloves.

Grace Digital Audio provides multiple ways for carrying the case while in use as well. An integrated strap with a carabiner on the end easily latches the Eco Pod to the outside of a backpack for instance, while a slot on the case allows it to be worn on a belt as well. I personally found it a bit too large and bulky to be comfortably worn in that manner, although others will no doubt appreciate the option. That same slot can be used with an optional bike clamp, which lets you connect the Eco Pod to your handlebars. I didn’t have the chance to test it on either of my bikes, but I think it would be fantastic on longer rides, where a smartphone’s navigational options could be put to good use.

Hikers and cyclists aren’t the only outdoor enthusiasts that will find this case intriguing however. I think paddlers in particular will find the Eco Pod a fantastic addition to their gear closets, as it seems tailor made for kayakers who want to listen to some music, or take phone calls, while out on the water. The rugged and waterproof case can easily be secured to the deck of their boat, allowing for quick and easy access when needed, while still keeping the gadget inside safe and functioning properly, even in the wettest conditions. The fact that the Eco Pod also floats, doesn’t hurt its functionality either.

For travelers looking to protect their electronic gadgets on the go, particularly smartphones and mp3 players, the Eco Pod is a great, and affordable option. I was very impressed with its build quality and well thought out design, and while it is a bit bulky, it also functions like armor for whatever is secured inside. The MSRP of $49.99 is a small price to pay for protecting that fancy iPhone or Android device from harsh conditions that we can encounter while visiting remote places.

Gadling gear review – Sandisk Sansa Clip+ MP3 player

It isn’t often that we’ll devote a Gadling gear review to something as “simple” as an MP3 player. But every now and then I come across a player that is just too much of a hidden gem to ignore. The Sandisk Sansa Clip+ is such a gem. This pocket player caught my attention for several reasons; a low price, memory expandability, easy operation, FM radio/voice record and a good display.

The Sansa Clip+ comes in three “flavors” 2GB, 4GB and 8GB. The cheapest version starts at just $39.99, followed by $49.99 (for the 4GB) and $69.99 for the 8GB. These prices put it at about 40% cheaper than the iPod Shuffle.

Operating the Sansa Clip+ is as simple as can be – you control it with a D-pad, center button and a home button. There is a separate power button and volume controls, so you don’t need to remember complicated key combinations to accomplish simple tasks. Getting music on the player is equally simple – you can “drag and drop”, or connect it to a PC running Windows Media Player. In Media Player, you can either drag individual tracks, or generate playlists.

Once on the player, you can browse by album, artist, genre, playlist or song. Obviously, this is how things work on 99% of the MP3 players on the market – so don’t count this as a “unique selling point”.

The Sansa Clip+ has a standard MiniUSB port (for syncing and charging). The advantage of this, is that it such a common plug, that you’ll be able to find chargers and spare cables very easily. The player does not come with a charger, and relies on your computer for its power. As the name implies, the Clip+ features a clip on the rear. It opens wide enough to attach it to your jacket, bag or other item.

Battery life is a manufacturer rated 15 hours – I tested it on several trips, and have no reason to doubt that rating. The headphone jack is on the side of the player – this obviously works fine for angled headphone jacks, but straight versions will mean your plug sticks out the side about an inch.

Audio from the Sansa Clip+ is surprisingly good – no noticeable background hiss, and a very decent equalizer. Audiophiles will never be content with digital music, but the circuitry in the Clip+ is obviously quite well designed. Best of all, the Sansa+ supports music in MP3, WMV, secure WMV, WAV, FLAC, OGG Vorbis and digital audiobook. That’s right – this $40 player has support for lossless and OGG music files!

If the built in memory is not enough for your collection, you can add your own MicroSD card. With cards as cheap as $20 for 8GB, you’ll be able to add more music without investing too much.

Browsing through the menu is simple. You scroll through Music, slotRadio, FM Radio, Voice and Settings. The slotRadio feature is one worth pointing out, as you’ll either love it, or hate it. Sandisk realized that not everyone owns a vast collection of digital music, and many people can’t be bothered to “rip” their CD collection.

The slotRadio MicroSD cards add pre-selected collections of music to several Sandisk players. These cards cost $39.99 each, and come with a whopping 1000 songs. Cards are available in ten different versions, all catering to a specific music taste. One downside to the cards is that you can not select to play an individual track – you need to pick one of seven pre-programmed playlists and listen to the music in that order. Still, 1000 songs for under $40 is a very decent deal – if you don’t want to deal with the hassles of acquiring your own music.

The Sansa Clip+ comes with a pair of generic headphones – not bad, but not the kind of buds you’d want to wear all day. I tested the Clip+ along with the Macally TurboTune pocket speaker. This 1/2 watt battery powered speaker is the perfect accessory for the player, and helps produce some very good sounding audio.

Final thoughts

In my gadget loving years, I’ve probably seen over 300 MP3 players pass through my hands. For some reason, the Clip+ just seems to stand out. Nothing about the player annoys me (something many other players do). The interface is good, the screen is great (nice OLED). The price is just right, and I can expand it. For traveling, it is the perfect little player – good battery life, small size, it doesn’t stand out in a crowd (or subway) like some fruity players do, and it does voice recording as well as FM radio.

All in all a solid little player which is worth some attention from anyone in the market for an MP3 player. Obviously, it won’t do video, and it won’t hold your 16,000 song collection. But if you just want your favorite travel tunes for on the road, it can’t be beat.

Product page: Sandisk Sansa Clip+

Daily deal – 32GB Creative Zen media player for $179

My daily deal for today is for the 32GB Creative Zen media player.

This device features music and video playback on a 2.5″ color screen.

The device also has a built in FM radio with 32 presets, a voice recorder, a clock/alarm and it can even synchronize your contacts and appointments from Microsoft Outlook!

The player usually retails for around $240, but is currently available directly from Creative for just $179.99.

A 2GB, 4GB, 8GB and 16GB version can also be found on their site. The 2GB is on sale for just $49.99. All orders over $75 ship for free. The device comes with a USB cable and a pair of headphones.

Daily deal – 150 songs to entertain the kids for a buck

My daily deal for today won’t hold your clothes, doesn’t have any buttons, and won’t tell you which turn to take to reach your hotel, making it entirely different from any deals I’ve posted here in the past.

Instead, the deal is for 150 songs for kids, perfect for loading on your MP3 player, or for burning onto a CD to entertain them in the car on the way to your destination.

The normal “retail” value for this collection is about $132 (according to Amazon, even though they sell the CD version for $10), but you can buy all 150 tracks for just $0.99!

Best of all, like all Amazon MP3 downloads, there is no DRM protection on these tracks, so you can do whatever you want with them.

Before purchasing them, I recommend downloading the Amazon MP3 downloader, which is available for Windows, Linux and Mac. The application takes care of the download for you, and can even add the music to iTunes for you.

Product review – Microsoft Zune 80GB (hint: it doesn’t suck)

Let me open right away and warn hardcore geeks to stop reading. Yeah – I know the Microsoft Zune has been out for some time, and yes – I know there is another player out there that seems to be getting most of the attention.

But for the benefit of our readers, I decided to take a Microsoft Zune for a spin to see whether I was missing something (yes, I too was guilty of being one of those geeks who ignored the Zune for too long).

A quick intro – Microsoft introduced the Zune in 2006. Interest in the player was initially very intense, but over the years things seem to have died down a little, and Zune customers seem to revolve around people who despise carrying that “other player”, or those that discovered that the Zune can actually do several things not found on most other devices.

For this product review, I decided to use the red 80GB Zune. I picked the 80GB for several reasons – the right price, plenty of storage space and a decent size screen for watching movies. I’m not going to pretend that I’m one of the first to review the Zune, so I’ll make the main focus of this review the features found on the player that can help travelers on the road.

The player looks like most other devices – you get a screen, a couple of buttons and a headphone jack. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. There are however several smart design features hidden away in the hardware. For starters, the control pad combines a 4 way button with a touch sensitive pad. This Zune Pad makes the controls surprisingly efficient.

Inside the Zune is the other innovation – WiFi. In fact, the WiFi interface is not just a second thought, it is an integral part of how you can use the Zune.

The device has a large 3.2″ color display, behind scratch resistant glass.

Included with the Zune 80 are premium noise isolating headphones, which actually sound quite amazing. They certainly are a step above the boring white things sold by that other company.

The headphones even feature small magnets on their rear to keep them together when you are not using them, preventing you from creating a tangled mess in your bag.

The Microsoft Zune does what you’d expect from a portable media player – it plays music stored in the WMA, AAC or MP3 format. Microsoft does make it very clear that “Fairplay” AAC files will not play – these files contain rights management added by the iTunes music store.

The device also supports 4 different video formats – WMV, MPEG-4, H.264 and DVR-MS (a file format used by Windows Media Center to record TV shows). One incredibly handy features is that the Zune software player will convert many video formats to a version compatible with the player.

The Zune desktop player is actually one of the parts that impressed me the most – the player is quite simply stunning. It manages to take a huge number of features and keep them all in a very easy to use and cool looking interface.

If you have ever used iTunes, you’ll know that it can be horribly confusing, and a real resource hog, using up a ton of your system memory. Even with a 17,500 song library, I had no performance issues with the Zune.

So? What makes a Zune so special, and why should you consider buying one if you are in the market for a new portable media player?

After using the Zune for close to a month, I’ve concluded that there are several very cool features that make the device my new personal recommendation for a media player in its category:

  • The Zune desktop experience – As I mentioned, the Zune software is just awesome.
  • The Zune WiFi features -WiFi is great, but if you can’t do anything cool with it, it becomes useless. Thankfully, the Zune designers have managed to implement WiFi in a way that makes it a fantastic feature. You can of course sync the device over WiFi to your desktop computer. But you can also access the Zune online service and purchase more music, or get access to the latest podcasts. Then there are of course the various Zune social features that let you do things like share a song with fellow Zune users or even play online games.
  • Zune Pass – To me, this was the most important feature of the entire Zune package – Zune Pass is a $14.99/month service that comes with all you can eat music. With this monthly subscription, you can download as many songs as you want, from the millions of available titles in the Zune Marketplace. As with most music subscription services, once you let the monthly subscription lapse, you lose the right to all the downloaded music on your player. Music from your own collection is of course not subject to this. In addition to the unlimited downloads, Zune Pass also lets you convert 10 songs a month into a DRM free track, which means they are yours to keep.
  • Video quality – The Zune 80 is the perfect balance between price, storage and screen size. The 3.2″ screen is of course smaller than your home theater, but still large enough to watch a movie on, without having to sit 4 inches away. The screen is bright, crisp and video files play extremely well. I’m also very impressed with the way the Zune desktop software converts videos – other applications (*cough*iTunes*cough) simply say “can’t transfer video” and expect you to find your own solution to converting the files.

Inside the Zune are several other features you might appreciate – not only does the device offer a well designed FM radio, but the software actually allows you to tag songs you hear on the radio for purchase in the Zune marketplace. This only works with radio stations that broadcast their track names using RDS, but the few times I found a decent sounding station RDS was enabled, and I could tag the song.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article – I’m almost feeling guilty for ignoring the Zune for so long. For some reason I just never had the urge to take it out for a spin – something I’m now regretting.

Battery life is quite impressive – the 80GB Zune is rated for 24 hours of music playback and 4 hours of video, which of course will be cut short if you use the WiFi intensively.

Final thoughts

The Zune 80 I reviewed retails for $229, and its 120GB big brother costs $249. Each player comes with a Zune USB cable, and the 80GB version comes with a pair of premium headphones.

Yes – these retail prices are virtually the same as those of the Classic iPods, but when you look at the specifications, the Zune really does get you more for your money; a larger screen, WiFi and FM radio. I’ll refrain from comparing the Zune 80 to an iPhone or iPod touch simply because neither of those devices offer a hard drive for media storage.

It isn’t all rosy though – the Zune players suffer from a serious lack of accessories, and anyone who defects from the iTunes world will be pretty disappointed how hard it is to find affordable extras for the player.

That doesn’t mean there are no accessories, it’s just not as easy to find a $2 case or video cable on Ebay for Zune devices. The Zune site lists a decent assortment of extras, including docks, a home AV pack and an FM transmitter.

Other than that minor issue, I’m really digging the player. The features in the Zune Desktop are fantastic, the user interface on the device is cool and being able to just pay $15 a month for all the music I can handle is a much better solution than paying $1 per song (or resorting to P2P networks). The short conclusion is what I said in my title – the Zune does not suck, quite the opposite.

If you travel a lot, you’ll appreciate the good battery life, large screen and the ability to get access to the Zune Marketplace anywhere you can find an open WiFi signal.

You can learn more about the Zune players and the Zune service at Zune.net.