Gadling Gear Review: Kindle Fire HD

Kindle Fire HD tablet from AmazonThere is no doubt that tablet computers have had a dramatic impact on travel over the past few years. These lightweight and versatile devices provide us with all kinds of entertainment options while keeping us in contact with friends and family back home. Of course, the iPad is the 900-pound gorilla in the tablet space, but over the past year or so some real competition has arrived on the scene giving consumers some new choices. Take for example the Kindle Fire HD from Amazon, which is a powerful and affordable alternative to Apple’s device.

The Kindle Fire HD is available with either 16 or 32 gigabytes of storage and in two models: one that is ad supported at a slightly reduced price and one that is completely ad free. It features a 7″ HD display with a resolution of 1200×800, dual-speaker Dolby audio and high-speed Wi-Fi. It is powered by a 1.2 Ghz dual-core processor and has a built-in, front-facing HD camera for capturing photos or making video calls. In short, it comes with just about everything you would expect in a tablet all in an attractive, compact and lightweight package.

Amazon chose to use the Android operating system on the Kindle Fire, although you would hardly recognize it at first glance. The online retail giant has modified the OS to fit their needs, giving it its own look and feel. Not unlike Apple’s iOS, stock Android provides a desktop-like interface with folders and app icons all over the screen. But Amazon has simplified that interface greatly providing users with the “Carousel” and a series of straight forward, easy to understand menus. The Carousel occupies the majority of the display, providing access to your favorite and most commonly used apps. But when you need to dig deeper into the Kindle experience, the menus let you find your books, videos, photos, music and more. It is a simple, yet effective design that takes only a few minutes to learn.Since the Kindle is running Android there is already a large library of apps ready for download. The Kindle app store isn’t quite as large as Apple’s, but there are still plenty of options to choose from and most major apps are available. For instance, Netflix, Hulu, Skype, Facebook and Twitter are all here, just waiting to be installed. The one area that seems to have fewer choices is games, although rest assured you’ll still be able to find all the versions of Angry Birds and most other major releases.

Kindle Fire HD from AmazonPerformance on the Kindle Fire is, for the most part, quite good. The OS is tuned nicely to the device and the interface is slicker and more intuitive than previous generation Kindles. Being an iPad owner, I occasionally found the experience to be not quite as smooth as what I am typically used to, and tapping on some selections were unresponsive at times, but if this is the only tablet you’ve ever owned, you’re not likely to notice these things quite so much. Reading books or watching videos on the Fire HD’s clear, bright screen is a joy and listening to music with a pair of headphones is a wonderful experience as well. Most games played without a hitch too, although I did notice some slow down and frame rate drops while playing Real Racing 3. To be fair, that is one of the best looking games available for any tablet at the moment, so I wasn’t surprised to find the Kindle struggled with the high-end graphics a bit. But for the most part, apps and movies ran very smoothly, which travelers are sure to appreciate on long flights.

One of the most impressive aspects of using an iPad is the entire ecosystem that Apple has built up around it. Between the app store and iTunes, iPad owners have access to tons of content including magazines, books, movies, television shows and music. Amazon has built a similar ecosystem for the Kindle, which provides all of those same entertainment options to their customers as well. Owners of the Fire HD won’t have any need to feel jealous of their friends who can watch the latest films on their iPad because chances are it’ll be available to the Kindle too. In fact, I’d say the strength of the Amazon ecosystem is one of the best selling points of the device with a wide selection of every form of entertainment available. Amazon Prime subscribers also gain access to a larger library of videos absolutely and gain the ability to borrow one book per month absolutely free.

Amazon lists the battery life on the Kindle Fire HD at 11 hours, although I was never able to quite eek out that much time. In typical day-to-day use, watching movies, surfing the web, checking email, reading a book and listening to Pandora, I found that my test unit needed a recharge about every 7-8 hours. That’s a solid amount of time out of any device this small and versatile, but it is quite a long way off from the advertised battery life. Most tablets have a hard time meeting their listed specs when put to use in the real world, although the iPad gets a lot closer than most. You can go longer between charges by adjusting screen brightness, turning down the volume and switching off Wi-Fi when not in use, of course, so it is all about compromise and striking a balance.

I wasn’t quite so impressed with some of the Kindle’s built-in apps. For instance, the email app wouldn’t recognize my Gmail account even though it comes pre-programmed with a Gmail options. I eventually got it working by manually entering all of information, but it took longer than it should to set it up. The email client also doesn’t seem to check for mail when it isn’t open, which is a bit disappointing as you can easily configure the iPad to check for mail on preset intervals. I searched for a setting to have the Kindle do the same thing, but was unable to discover such an option.

Similarly, I wasn’t very impressed with Amazon’s Silk browser, which the Kindle uses to surf the web. It passes most web traffic through the company’s own servers in an effort to reduce load times, although I couldn’t really tell if it made any difference. I didn’t find the interface particularly user friendly either, although others may find it to be a perfectly serviceable way to browse the web.

Coming from an iPad, I also found the Kindle Fire’s 7″ screen to be a bit too cramped at times. When reading web pages or scrolling through emails, I often wanted to see more than it could display. Don’t get me wrong, the screen looks great and is definitely bright and clear, but it was a bit on the small side for my taste. For day-to-day use, I preferred the iPad Mini’s 7.9″ screen, at least in terms of size, over the Kindle’s. But this is again a personal preference of course, as a larger screen comes at the expense of added size and weight.

If there is one area where the iPad has no chance of competing with the Kindle Fire it is on price. The ad-supported model is just $199 and the regular version is $214. I’d recommend coughing up the extra 15 bucks to get the version without the ads, but quite frankly the “special offers” that Amazon displays are not intrusive in any way. They appear on the lock screen when you first power up the device but they are not in any way obnoxious. The budget conscious will barely notice them for the most part. Amazon also offers the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″, which as the name implies comes with a larger 8.9″ display. That device has recently been reduced in price to just $269, which is well below any version of the iPad as well.

If you’re looking to buy a full-featured, well built tablet for travel, but don’t want to shell out a lot of cash, the Kindle Fire HD is a great alternative to the iPad. It does make some compromises along the way, but overall it is a high-quality product that will satisfy consumers on a budget. Travelers especially will love all of the options that the Kindle Fire brings to the table, delivering a compact yet powerful device that will make travel easier and more enjoyable.

Gadling Gear Review: Acme Made Camera Bags

Camera bags from Acme Made are stylish and functionalOne of my biggest concerns when traveling is making sure that my expensive camera gear is well protected from harm. In the hustle and bustle of packing, rushing to the airport and flying to our eventual destination, a lot can happen to our photography equipment, even when it remains in our possession. There is nothing worse than embarking on that trip of a lifetime only to find your camera isn’t working when you arrive.

A good camera bag not only helps prevent accidental damage to our gear but also keeps us well organized too. Carrying extra lenses, memory cards, external flashes and other photography equipment can be a bulky and cumbersome affair, but a good bag can lighten the load and make it easy to find all of those important items when you need them. A well-organized photographer is less likely to miss the important shots and do a better job of capturing the moment.

New camera bags from Acme Made offer travelers the protection and organization they need in stylish and distinctive packages. Their Montgomery Street line of packs have a retro look with modern sensibilities that allow them to stand out in the crowd without sacrificing function for form. Here’s a look at three of these bags that were designed with the traveling photographer in mind.

Montgomery Street Backpack ($99.99)
The largest entry into the Montgomery Street line-up is the Backpack, a versatile bag with plenty of room for just about everything you’ll want to take with you when traveling. Designed for carrying a DSLR or the increasingly popular compact system cameras (CSC), this pack offers well-padded compartments and pockets for camera bodies, lenses and more. A dedicated laptop sleeve is perfect for carrying a 13-inch MacBook, ultrabook or tablet, while organizational pockets hold travel essentials such as a smartphone, passport and other important items.

Putting this bag to the test in the field left me very impressed with its overall quality. It is built with fabrics designed to resist the wear and tear that comes along with travel, while still managing to provide ample protection for all of the important gear inside. Magnetic snaps and high-quality zippers seal up pockets and compartments nicely, while Acme’s FlexFold System allows users to adjust and expand the interior to their needs. When not in use, the Backpack also folds down to a compact size, making it easy to store and transport. The Backpack is capable of carrying a CSC camera and two extra lenses or one DSLR and a single additional lens. That makes it a perfect choice for most travelers but could be a bit too confining for those with more photography gear. This won’t be a problem for most, however, and when you add in the ability to carry a laptop or tablet – as well as all the cables, batteries and chargers you’ll need for the road – you end up with a pack that performs above and beyond expectations.

Those who like to travel light and are looking for a stylish, compact bag will absolutely love the Montgomery Street Backpack. It provides ample storage space for plenty of gear and its versatile nature ensures that it can accompany us on many different travel adventures.

Montgomery Street Courier ($79.99)
Camera bags from Acme MadeAcme Made’s Montgomery Street Courier shares much in common with the larger Backpack. There is a distinct look about it that quickly identifies both bags as being part of the same line and their feature sets are very similar. The Courier is capable of carrying mostly the same load as its larger counterpart, offering room for a compact camera system body and two extra lenses or a DSLR and one additional lens. It also offers organizational pockets for travel documents, a smartphone and other items that you’ll want to keep close at hand. This bag even includes the FlexFold System, which makes it a breeze to expand the interior to hold more items when necessary.

But the Courier is designed to be a smaller camera bag than the Backpack and as such, some compromises had to be made. The biggest difference is that the Courier doesn’t have enough space for a laptop. It does include a quilted sleeve with enough room for a tablet such as an iPad, but travelers using this bag will need to leave their laptops at home.

The other main difference between the two bags is that the Courier is a sling pack designed to be worn over the shoulder. This adds a level of accessibility that isn’t found in a backpack, as it is easy to grab a camera, lens or new memory card without ever taking the bag off. This makes it a very convenient option for travelers, who often need to access their photography equipment and other gear on a moment’s notice.

The Courier is made from the same high-quality materials as the Backpack and features the same zippers and magnetic snaps as well. For all intents and purposes, it resembles the larger bag in every way, just in a scaled-down fashion and with a shoulder sling. This makes it a great, yet uncompromising, alternative.

Montgomery Street Kit Bag ($59.99)
Montgomery Street Kit bag from Acme MadeFor the ultimate in compact camera packs, the Montgomery Street Kit Bag is the way to go. While it doesn’t look exactly like the Backpack or Courier, the family resemblance is still undeniable. Like those other bags, the Kit Bag is made of tough, durable fabrics that are designed to weather the challenges of travel and stay attractive and stylish for years to come. The interior is lined with quilted fabrics to protect its contents and the twin zippers that run along the stop are smooth and easy to operate.

This small camera bag is especially useful for CSC cameras, providing space for a body and two lenses. It’ll also hold a DSLR body and a single lens as well, although larger zoom lenses may be a bit cramped. Exterior pockets can accommodate a smartphone and passport, although unsurprisingly there isn’t much room for anything else.

Although the Kit Bag does come with a shoulder strap, I found this pack worked best inside another bag. It is perfect for storing camera equipment when checking luggage or for safe storage inside a larger backpack. It is the perfect option for those who don’t carry a lot of camera gear with them when they travel, but still want a bag to keep things safe and organized.

All three of these camera bags are excellent choices for travelers looking to take their precious camera gear with them on the road. They are all affordable, extremely well made and provide plenty of versatility. Serious photographers will want one of each as part of their gear options but all three are individually outstanding as well. Each fits its own niche and you can’t go wrong with any of the bags in the Montgomery Street lineup.

[Photo Credit: Acme Made]
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Gadling Gear Review: iPad Mini

Apple's iPad Mini Over the past couple of years the demand for tablet computers has gone from nonexistent to one of the hottest segments of the entire consumer electronics market. At the forefront of that demand is the iPad, which not only launched the tablet revolution but has continued to push it forward since its introduction in 2010. The iPad’s dominance has been so complete that competitors have been forced to attempt to carve out a niche with smaller and cheaper tablets, sometimes with solid success. Not one to let a market slip away, Apple released a smaller tablet of their own a few months back, bringing an excellent entry to the growing 7-inch tablet segment.

The iPad Mini was released this past fall and garners its name from the fact that it features a 7.9-inch display as opposed to the 9.7-inch screen found on the full size version. But the size of the screen isn’t the only part of Apple’s tablet that has gotten smaller. The Mini is also considerably thinner and lighter than its larger counterpart, which is probably the thing that is most striking when you first hold one in your hands. The fact that it slims down so nicely and still manages to maintain Apple’s legendary build quality is just icing on the cake. Put simply, the iPad Mini feels great in your hands and makes you think that this is what the iPad should have been the whole time.

Despite its smaller screen, the iPad Mini still runs all of the iPad Apps without a problem. That means that buyers get access to the best tablet apps on the market, while Android owners continue to wait for many of their apps to be optimized for larger screens. Apps look fantastic on the Mini’s bright and vibrant screen as well, although it doesn’t feature the amazing Retina display that is found on the larger, more expensive iPad. It seems logical that the first update to the Mini will be adding some form of the Retina display in a future update, but hopefully not at the expense of added weight or thickness.The Mini provides fast and smooth performance, running Apple’s iOS mobile operating system very well. In fact, I didn’t notice any appreciable difference in how the tablet responded or ran apps when compared to my third generation iPad, which features a much more powerful processor. The device also features two built-in cameras, one on the front and one on the back, which take passable photos and are great for video conferencing.

Apple's iPad MiniTravelers will absolutely fall in love with the Mini. Its smaller size and weight makes it a great travel companion, easily slipping inside a carry-on bag or purse without adding any kind of noticeable bulk. Its ten-hour battery life keeps it running for a long time and its vast library of apps provides games, movies, television shows, magazines, music and plenty more diversions for long flights or layovers in the airport. The fact that it is also considerably cheaper (the Mini starts at $329 for a 16GB model) than the regular iPad will make it attractive to new buyers as well.

In a lot of ways the Mini is the best iPad yet and as an owner of the full-size model, I am looking forward to Apple bringing some of the design elements over to the larger tablet. But as someone who actually does work on his iPad, the smaller screen is a compromise that I’m not ready to make just yet. I once wrote a 1000-word story on my iPad while on a flight home from Jordan with no real issues, but I can’t imagine doing the same thing on the smaller screen of the Mini. The smaller tablet is a fantastic option for those who consume media on their mobile devices, but it isn’t the best option for those that want to create content as well.

But the Mini’s competition isn’t just the full-size iPad, as both Google and Amazon have competing products that stack-up well with Apple’s device. Those tablets are smaller and lighter, yet feature higher definition screens and come in at a lower price tag. They also feel less solid in your hands and have a build quality that can best be described as “cheap” when compared to the Mini. Couple that outstanding construction with a larger display and an app store that is unmatched in the number of options designed for tablets and I believe the Mini provides an outstanding bang for the buck.

Just like the larger iPad, Apple offers the Mini with 16, 32 and 64 GB of storage and with options to connect to 4G data networks for Internet access on the go. No other small tablet offers such a wide variety of options in storage and connectivity, albeit at an increased cost as well. And that versatility is appreciated by consumers, particularly in an increasingly connected world. My third generation iPad is a 64GB model with LTE access and I find that to be incredibly useful for staying connected while on the road.

As far as I’m concerned, the iPad Mini is the best tablet on the market for travelers. Its small size and compact shape make it easy to carry with you whether you’re heading across town or across the globe. It is impressively built, powerful and versatile, and it comes with the best app store available for any tablet on the market. If you’ve been reluctant to invest in one of these devices in the past, then you really should take a look at the Mini. It is a fantastic product that will convince many first-time buyers to finally bite the bullet and add a tablet to their travel gear. And if you’re an owner of an older iPad who has been considering an upgrade, you’ll want to take a look too. You may find the Mini’s more svelte design too enticing to pass up, even though you’ll be reducing the size of your screen.

Make no mistake; Apple has more competitors in the tablet market than they have ever had in the past. But they also continue to stay two or three steps ahead of that competition, delivering the best devices in the category at competitive prices. The Mini not only continues that legacy but extends it.

[Photo Credit: Apple]

Gadling Gear Review: Pelican Elite Tablet Backpack

When you see the baggage handlers hurling your suitcase on the car or you watch a fellow passenger trying to crush their carry-on to the already packed overhead bin, you start to ask yourself: is it time to switch to hard-sided luggage? Pelican makes super rugged packs that are something of a compromise. Your heart won’t lurch in your throat as you remember that you left your tablet in your pack at the same moment that the bus driver hurls it up on to the luggage rack, but there are some tradeoffs.

The U140 Urban Elite Tablet backpack is built around hauling your tablet from A to B and getting in there in one piece. It’s got a hard-shell, a plastic case built right in. There’s a divider to keep it separate from your keyboard, if you’ve got one – it’s removable or you can keep it as a little extra padding. The compartment clamps shut – it is not going to fall open, but you could add a cable tie or a padlock, if you’re feeling extra security conscious. Your iPad or netbook will be well secured; that’s for sure.

The rest of the pack has your typical daypack features. The front pocket has lots of compartments and sleeves for your phone, your business cards, the kind of stuff we all carry around. There’s a sleeve-like middle pocket where you could stow any paperwork or a sweater, but it’s a little shallow – you’re not going to get a lot of bulky stuff in there. If you pack carefully, you might be able to stow a change of clothes, but it’s going to be tight and you’ll have to be a master folder. You can strap your jacket (or beach towel) on to the bottom of the pack and there are lash hooks on the side that do not feature a water-bottle pocket.When you flip the pack over, there’s another compartment at the back. You could absolutely stow a minimal photography kit in here. There are no dividers provided, so you’ll have to figure out your own system, but I was able to get my DSLR with the 300 lens in there, no problem. You will have to take off the pack to access that pocket, but it’s a great place for things you’d like to secure and don’t need ready access too.

The back of the pack (where that lumbar pocket is) and the straps all have comfortable padding on them. Everything is adjustable for fit. There’s a chest strap, but no waist strap – I’m a little surprised by that given that you could be carrying quite a bit of weight.

The weight is the thing you’ll sacrifice on with the Tablet Elite pack. It’s heavy. The built-in case, the plastic handles and grips … it weighs just short of seven pounds. There are scenarios where it’s worth making the trade off around weight. Any traveler who’s mentally inventoried the contents of their pack while watching it sail off a roof or hearing it slide around in the bus hold or… let’s just say it’s not a good feeling. I watched the backpack holding my camera drop to the floor from a coat hook once. There was a sickening crunch and later, I unpacked a shattered telephoto. That would not have happened with a hard side extreme conditions pack.

The pack retails for about $250, though I’ve seen it for about $100 less, so shop around. When you add up the potential replacement value of the gear inside it, you may find that spending the money on the pack gives you peace of mind. The gist? Pricey. Heavy. Your sanity could be worth it.

Related – I rather liked the Gregory Border day pack, gear guy Kraig Becker had favorable things to say about ECBC’s Javelin day pack.

[Images courtesy of Pelican]

Gadling Gift Guide: Family Travel With A Lap Child Under 2

After many trips around the world with a baby (we’ll board our 40th flight next week to Brazil), I’ve seen all manner of products labeled for travel. Many of them are too bulky, heavy or otherwise impractical when you are already dealing with a squirmy child, diaper bag, carry-on, and stroller, but I’ve discovered a few things that can make travel easier and collected many of them on Pinterest. Last year, I recommended some favorite gear and toys for young families, and this year, I’ve divided it by stage. From newborn to toddler, many gifts will work well beyond the early years and if you are traveling this season with an infant or small child, check out our tips for holiday travel with a baby.

For newbies (both parents and newborns):

Gift guide - travel bassinetQuickSmart 3-in-1 travel bassinet
Babies sleep a lot of the time in the beginning, and while they are still very portable and can’t sit up alone, they are often happy to snooze in a stroller or car seat. But when traveling, however, you are often faced with the problem of what to do with the baby without a stroller, such as in the airport or out at a restaurant. Enter this handy diaper bag that can unfold into a changing station or bassinet. You might want to stash a small reusable bag to store any objects in the diaper bag while unfolded.

gift guide Flye Baby seat
FlyeBaby hammock seat
Your flight isn’t long enough for a baby bassinet, you can’t afford a separate seat, and the plane is full. This is the perfect time to pull out this brilliant hammock-like seat, which can attach to your tray table and holds a baby up to 25 pounds, though babies able to sit up unassisted might not like being restrained. You’ll still have to switch off for mealtime, unless you want to eat your $8 in-flight sandwich off baby’s tummy. You can also use the FlyeBaby as a portable high chair, but we like the more squashable Tot Seat below.For babies six months to one year:

Gift guide - Tot Seat high chairTot Seat portable high chair
Most babies start on solid food by six months, when they can sit up and may even have some teeth to explore nibbles. Instead of toting around a huge booster seat or limiting yourself to “family” restaurants with high chairs, try this ultra streamlined “seat” that can be tied onto virtually any chair with a back, can be tossed into a washing machine for cleaning, and best of all, easily fits into a purse or diaper bag. It’s one of my favorite bits of gear, and with good reason, it’s ingenious and indispensable.

gift guide - Sophie giraffeSophie the giraffe teether
All over the world, kids and parents know Sophie. She was born in France and has looked the same for over fifty years. Sophie is perfect for teething babies (her soft rubber body is heaven for tender gums) to toddler age, but will be rediscovered and enjoyed when it comes time to play with dolls and stuffed animals. The classic Sophie teether toy can make a great stocking stuffer, but generous gift givers might also check out the Sophie play house.

For crawlers and early walkers (one year and up):

gift guide - Sidekick carrier and bagSidekick Diaper Bag and Carrier
Another cool combo product from the makers of the Travelmate car seat/wheelie bag gear, the Sidekick can be used as a hip carrier, shoulder or waist-strap diaper bag, or both. It’s good for when you want the option of carrying the baby occasionally but without extra gear, though the weight distribution might make this uncomfortable for a long day out. It’s also sleek and un-girly enough that either parent should feel comfortable about wearing as a bag or carrier.

gift guide - Bobux shoesBobux soft-soled shoes
Although everyone loves giving them as gifts, new babies really don’t need shoes. Babies taking their first steps might want a little more protection without too much structure, which is when these soft-soled shoes are perfect. Even as a confident walker, we still pack these for flying days, since they are light enough to be comfortable for a nap on the plane (and not bother the parent holding her), but give some traction and coverage for any airport explorations.

For older toddlers:

gift guide - Boba Air carrierBoba Air
For the first year and a half, the Boba wrap has been my go-to carrier and I included it in last year’s gift guide. As babies get heavier and more independent, parents will use carriers less and less, but they still come in handy in situations when you can’t use a stroller but need to keep your child contained. The Boba Air is a good option to keep stashed in a bag for when you need it. About half the weight (and price) of an Ergo, it can be folded into its own pouch when not in use, and worn as a front or back carrier.

gift guide - Leapfrog LeapPadLeapfrog LeapPad
I like to limit my daughter’s travel toys to things small and inexpensive, like a cosmetics bag with travel-sized toiletries, a deck of cards, or a metal pencil case filled with magnets, all available at a 99-cent store. But for really long-haul flights, you want to break out the big guns, and the Leap Pad learning tablets from Leapfrog are a good investment. Technically, they are for kids age 3 and up, but these days, as babies are able to operate iPhones practically out of the womb, toddlers can still find it entertaining. Yes, there are also plenty of educational apps and kid-friendly accessories for tablets, but if you’d rather keep your iPad to yourself and free from little fingers, this $79 (for the original LeapPad 1 shown here) device is a worth putting on your Santa list. Remember to keep volume low on flights, even though the sound beats that of a screaming child, it can still be an annoyance to other passengers until your child is ready for earphones.

For dreamers:

gift guide - map blanketSoft Cities blanket
Can’t travel this year or want to instill a love of maps early? Get a customized blanket with any map of your choosing. Enter your home address, or perhaps that of a dream destination, and you can add multiple “I am here” or “I was here” markers within a two-mile radius. Available in several color schemes for girls and boys, as well as a watercolor design, the blankets can be customized in different ways to create real works of art. It’s a bit late for this Christmas, but could be ordered for a 2013 trip!

gift guide - phonetic alphabet poster
Phonetic Alphabet poster

Know a frequent flier expecting a lap child? Future aviators and air traffic controllers will need to learn their Alpha Bravo Charlies early. It’s a cute way to show a little travel nerdery in your nursery without a too-obvious airplane theme or being oversimplified for kids. Other travel decor ideas might include airport codes, luggage tags or chalkboard maps.

[Photo credits: QuickSmartGo.com, FlyeBaby.com, Meg Nesterov, GoGoBabyz.com, BobuxUSA.com, BobaFamily.com, Leapfrog.com, SoftCities.net, AllPosters.com]