Gadling Gear Review: Two Versatile Mobile Chargers

Waka Waka Power Mobile Charger
Off-Grid Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Trent Travelpak Plus ($54.95)

New Trent Travelpak Plus Mobile Charger
New Trent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gadling Gear Review: Nyne NB-230 Portable Bluetooth Speaker

Nyne N-230 Bluetooth Speaker
Nyne N-230

Over the past couple of years, the number of choices for consumers looking to buy a portable Bluetooth speaker has exploded. It wasn’t all that long ago that our options were limited to just a few underpowered speakers that provided low-quality wireless audio, but now there are literally dozens of these speakers on the market making it much more of a challenge to decide which one to buy. It has also made it more of a challenge for the companies who manufacturer these devices to stand out in the crowd, forcing them to try something a little different. That seems to be the approach that Nyne took with their NB-230 speaker system, delivering a product that will remind you more of an old-school boombox rather than the smaller speakers that typically come from their competitors.

The first thing you’re likely to notice about the NB-230 is its size. Most other portable Bluetooth speakers are designed to be small enough that you can toss them in a backpack and take them along with you just about everywhere, but as mentioned above, this speaker is more like a streamlined boombox for the 21st century. While it is small and light enough to take with you on a day trip, this isn’t likely to be the kind of speaker that you’ll want to carry with you on a trip to the far side of the globe. It is simply too large and oddly shaped to want to put into your luggage, although it is great for a day at the beach or family picnic in the park.

Unlike most other portable Bluetooth speakers that I’ve used, the NB-230 doesn’t include a rechargeable battery. Smaller speakers can be powered for hours on their own built-in batteries, but this device is too large for that to be an efficient option. Instead, you’ll need to use six C batteries to keep the speaker operating while away from a power outlet. (When is the last time you actually had to use C cells for anything? Probably the last boombox that you owned more than a decade ago.) Nyne says that those batteries will keep the NB-230 charged for up to four hours, and that is about what I achieved while testing the unit. That means that using this speaker away from home could get costly and that battery life is about half that found on smaller models from the competition.What the NB-230 lacks in portability it more than makes up for in sound quality, however. Because of its size, this speaker can out class most of its competitors in terms of volume without even breaking a sweat. But the two high-quality, 3-inch speakers that Nyne integrated into this device also do an excellent job of replicating a full range of sound. The mid- and high-range elements of your music will shine through distinctly on the NB-230, coming through with surprising clarity. Bass lovers will be more than satisfied with this device as well, as this speaker can deliver a thump that will remind you of your old boombox. I put the NB-230 through its paces using a variety of classic rock, pop, classical music and even podcasts and in all cases it performed admirably.

Nyne NB-230 Bluetooth SpeakerConnecting an iPad, iPhone or other Bluetooth enabled device to the NB-230 couldn’t be simpler. Holding down a dedicated Bluetooth button on the speaker places it in pairing mode and then you simply select it as an alternate audio source from whatever gadget you want to play music from. After a few seconds, the two devices will connect and all audio will begin playing directly from the NB-230’s speakers. Having wireless audio available at all times has gotten to be kind of second nature these days, but it really is nice to have the ability to send your favorite music to a powerful, high-quality audio system from across the room without ever having to get out of your easy chair. For those devices that don’t have Bluetooth functionality built in, the NB-230 also has an audio jack that allows you to plug a device in directly. While it is nice to have this option for use in a pinch, it does diminish the fun of having a wireless speaker system to a degree.

I was also impressed with how well the NB-230 performed as a speakerphone. This is a common feature on other Bluetooth speakers as well, but the size of Nyne’s offering aids it once again in this category as the large speakers enhanced the experience nicely. When paired with a smartphone, incoming calls can actually be picked up directly from the NB-230 itself and a built-in mic makes two-way communication a seamless affair. It performed so well, in fact, that most people I talked to using this speaker couldn’t tell I wasn’t on my phone directly. It even works great in conference calls situations, as the NB-230 can be placed at the center of a table, facilitating a conversation with numerous people in one room.

In terms of design, the NB-230 has nice clean lines that make it a natural fit for just about any environment. It looks just as good in an office as it does your living room or bedroom. It has a sleek, classic look about it that is modern without seeming too trendy. If you purchase one of these speakers, you can rest assured that it’ll still look as contemporary in five years as it does today. That isn’t always an easy thing to pull off on any electronic device.

If you’re looking for a portable Bluetooth speaker to take with you when you travel, the Nyne NB-230 probably isn’t the best option for that situation. Its larger size makes it tough to lug along on any trip that involves getting on an airplane. On the other hand, if you want an excellent wireless audio system for around home, and occasional use elsewhere, this is a fantastic option. It has excellent sound quality across the entire audio spectrum and it can pump out the tunes with plenty of volume. On top of that, it serves as an excellent speakerphone, which comes in surprisingly handy in a number of situations.

The Nyne NB-230 carries a price tag of $129.95, which makes it very competitive with similar devices from other manufacturers, most of which don’t deliver the level of sound quality that you’ll find here.

Cruise Travel Apps Free To Use At Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[Image credit – Chris Owen]

Gadling Gear Review: hipKey Proximity And Motion Sensor

hipKey helps you keep track of your important items. One of the best things about the rise of the smartphone over the past few years is the incredible number of creative ways that companies have come up with to utilize them. We’ve seen thousands of innovative and interesting apps, and more recently some cool secondary gadgets that extend their functionality by interfacing directly with the phone. Take for example the hipKey from a company called Hippih. The device is a motion and proximity sensor that can alert us when our valuable items have been moved, something that can come in very handy when traveling.

The hipKey is a small, half-moon-shaped device that is designed to be attached to a set of keys, your luggage or even a person. When powered on and paired with an iPhone via Bluetooth, it can provide a host of useful functions. At its core, hipKey is meant to alert us to changes to the location of the item it is attached to or help us find that item when it becomes lost. If you attach the device to a set of car keys for example, hipKey will let you know when you’ve left them behind via an alert on your iPhone. Or, if you’re one of those people who can never remember where you left your keys, the hipKey companion app (available for free in the App Store) can activate the device, forcing it to make a loud noise.

The sensor features four distinct modes, each of which is designed to address some specific need. For instance, Alarm Mode is meant to alert the user when the hipKey has moved beyond a certain distance from their smartphone. The distance at which the alarm sounds can be set to short (2-5 meters), medium (15-20 meters) and long (30-50 meters) ranges. In Safe Zone mode, the user can designate a specific place on a map as the “safe” spot, then create a geofence around it at the same preset distances as Alarm mode. If the hipKey moves outside of the zone, it will again automatically trigger alerts. As the name implies, Child Mode attaches the hipKey to a child and sets off alerts if the kid wanders out of range as well, while Motion Mode immediately sets off an alarm if the item that the device is connected to begins to move.The hipKey dongle is roughly 2 inches in diameter, which is at times too large and at others just the right size. I say that because when you attach the device to a carry-on bag, for instance, you barely even notice that it is there. But add it to your keychain and suddenly it feels enormous. But the device packs quite a bit of technology into a relatively small space and for the most part you’ll barely even notice that you have it with you.

When designing the hipKey, Hippih integrated BlueTooth 4.0 technology, which provides better range than previous versions of the protocol while sipping less battery life. The device has a built-in rechargeable battery that I’m told will power the proximity sensor for anywhere from two to four weeks. I tested the device for a period of just over three weeks and I wasn’t able to ever run it out of juice, which bodes well for travelers who want to attach this to their baggage while on the go. I also didn’t notice much of an impact to the battery life of my iPhone while connected to the hipKey either.

As mentioned above, Hippih has developed a companion app for the hipKey that allows the user to program it to their specifications. It is through that app that you can set which mode the device is operating in, adjust the volume of alerts, select the alarm distance and so on. It’ll also tell you the current battery level of the device and allow you to designate your “safe zone.” The app is functional and easy to use – and works nicely on an iPad – but for the most part there isn’t much that is impressive about it.

the hipKey proximity sensorIt should be noted that communication between the iPhone (or iPad) and the hipKey is not just one-way. If you can’t find your iPhone, you can tell the device to send an alert to the phone, causing it to make a chiming noise while also vibrating. The alerts can be heard even if the iPhone is set to silent mode, which can come in very handy when you just can’t seem to remember where you left your iPhone.

For the most part, the hipKey works exactly as advertised. It is a snap to set up and it provides alerts when it moves too far away from the iPhone with which it is paired. I tested the device extensively and it performed flawlessly each time. It is nice to know that it has a solid record of dependability when you’re counting on it to ensure that your bags, keys or child stay safe.

Unfortunately, at the moment the hipKey doesn’t work with any other devices except the iPhone. Android and Windows Phone users will just have to wait to see if Hippih brings the device to those platforms. It seems likely that support will be there eventually – particularly in the case of Android – but for now the proximity sensor only works with Apple devices.

The hipKey carries a price tag of $89.95, which seems a little steep at first glance. But if you consider the level of mobile security, not to mention convenience, that it brings to the table, it comes across as a small price to pay. The perpetually forgetful will appreciate the gentle reminders the device will send them when they walk away without their keys, while worried parents will wonder how they kept track of their little ones without it. Make no mistake, this device is indeed a luxury item, but it is also one that could possibly save you a lot of grief when you need it. Particularly when keeping tabs on your important gear while traveling.

The hipKey is an excellent compliment to any iPhone and surely a gadget travelers will love to have on their side in times of trouble.

Photo Of The Day: A Woman At Work

photo of the day

This Photo of the Day (POTD), titled “A woman at work in the vegetable market in downtown Colombo,” comes from Gadling Flickr pool member MyLifesATrip and was captured with an Apple iPhone 5.

Not normally the camera of choice for photos I find POTD-worthy, MyLifesATrip AKA Gadling contributor Jen Pollack Bianco said of the device, “the iPhone/iPod Touch has the potential to become the must-have travel gadget” in “iPhoneography: Make your iPhone travel pictures spectacular,” a 2011 story written before the improved iPhone 5 was being sold. “Its camera is so stealth and so versatile that you no longer have an excuse for your photos to be anything less than awesome, even if your vacation is a total bust.”

I have to agree. While investing in expensive camera gear may be a good idea for the very best, most professional looking shots, Bianco’s work here is proof that thousands need not be spent to capture an engaging image. Good food for budget thought when planning future travel gear purchases.

Want to be featured? Upload your best shots to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. Several times a week we choose our favorite images from the pool as a Photo of the Day.

Tips for being featured: add a caption describing the image and (better yet) your personal experience when capturing it, details of the photography gear used and any tips you might have for others wanting to emulate your work.

Now, you can also submit photos through Instagram; just mention @GadlingTravel and use the hashtag #gadling when posting your images.

[Photo Credits Flickr user MyLifesATrip]