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Gear For Your Gear

Dressing up your tech ensembles with devices that expand their capabilities is the kind of accessorizing that even a man can love
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Chris Noth, May/June 2010

My wife and daughter assure me that picking the right accessory can add excitement and sizzle to an existing outfit. Personally, my wardrobe accessorizing is pretty much limited to choosing which cap will cover my shiny bald head on a given day. I do understand the concept, though, at least when it comes to my digital gear, where the right add-on can turn a laptop into a TV, a desktop computer into a home audio system, and a home theater system into a digital media showplace. Here are some of my favorite digital upgrades, updates and enhancements.

COMPUTERS

Cheerful Earful
Altec Lansing Expressionist Ultra

I'm always suspicious of sculptural speaker designs-I love Michelangelo's David, but wouldn't want to listen to my favorite tunes through a tweeter behind his belly button. With the distinctively styled Expressionist Ultra, though, Altec Lansing uses a trapezoidal design for the subwoofer and speaker stands that delivers some visual oomph without muddying the audio experience. It's the clarity and precision of the sound that strikes me most here, with crisp reproduction of every hammer hitting a piano string, the full tonal range of a singer's voice and a well-balanced bass rumble that's musical rather than merely muscular. In fact, despite the sheer power at play in this 200-watt system, with separate amplifiers driving two three-inch midrange drivers, two one-inch tweeters and a 6.5-inch subwoofer, I'm thinking that this is a system geared more toward entertainment rather than gaming. You can get enough boom and zoom for a video or PC game from a host of powered speaker sets that go for $79. The Expressionist Ultra delivers subtlety and sweetness plus superb stereo imaging tailored to the desktop environment, with the singer dead center and the instrumentalists arrayed before you, despite the fact that the speakers are close at hand compared with a traditional stereo system arrangement. That's a tough technical challenge, and Altec Lansing has pulled it off with style. $199.95, alteclansing.com

See and Be Seen
Blue Microphones Eyeball 2.0

There are lots of fine Web cams on the market today-I've had good results with units from Logitech, Microsoft and Creative Labs, mostly when using Skype for video calls with family and colleagues. The Blue Microphones Eyeball 2.0 has a few key features that set it apart, though. First and foremost, the audio quality is exceptional, understandable from a company best known as a serious microphone manufacturer. The newly updated two-megapixel camera is nothing to sneeze at either. It delivers a sharp picture even in mediocre light (though, truth be told, some competitive models do track movement with less blur under challenging conditions). I like the way the camera, which sticks out from the side of the micro-phone, can be popped into the body for travel purposes. And, face it, I like the design of the thing. It's fun to look at while it looks back at you, and has been known to raise admiring eyebrows while I'm Skyping over Wi-Fi at my local Starbucks. $79.99, bluemic.com

Hotspot To Go
Novatel Wireless MiFi

I've been itching to try the MiFi since it was announced, and now that I've taken it for an extensive test drive, I have to say this is one of the most insanely cool gadgets I've used all year.

The MiFi is a go-anywhere battery-powered Wi-Fi hotspot. This is a small pocket-friendly device, just two measly ounces, 3.5 x 2.3 inches and less than half an inch thick, with a single button. Press to turn it on and the MiFi unit automatically connects to the Internet via the 3G cellular data network. On your laptop (or iPod Touch, or smartphone, or whatever other Wi-Fi-enabled gadget you're carrying), the MiFi shows up as a standard wireless network, so signing in is a breeze. And up to five separate devices can be connected at the same time, so if you and your colleagues feel like meeting on the lawn instead of that stuffy conference room, you're in business.

In my testing, the connection speed was excellent. Even a data-intensive task like streaming a TV show from Hulu went off without a hitch. There is one hitch, of course-wireless 3G Internet doesn't come cheap. Verizon and Sprint both offer the MiFi device on their networks, and while pricing and plans fluctuate frequently, expect to pay about $100 for the device and $60 a month for a data plan that includes five gigabytes of data, with extra charges if you go over. So, probably not a lot of TV streaming, but plenty of capacity for checking e-mail, surfing the Web, instant messaging and more wherever you wander. And it's worth remembering that you'd pay the same data plan price to have cellular data connectivity for your laptop alone, while the MiFi offers Wi-Fi access to a variety of devices and the option to share your bandwidth with others. $100, novatelwireless.com

Just My Type
Microsoft Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 6000

Laptop computers have gotten smaller and smaller, great for portability, but less than ideal for those of us who spend hours in hotel rooms banging on the new narrower keyboards with our same-size-as-always hands. Microsoft has come up with an elegant solution, a full-width, highly portable Bluetooth keyboard that's about half an inch thick and weighs just over four ounces, including the AAA batteries used to power it. The smile-shaped design is comfortable even for those of us who find most purportedly ergonomic keyboards best suited for contortionists. Rounding out the package is a separate wireless numeric keypad, a godsend for number-crunching road warriors even if they leave the larger keyboard component at home (or you can buy the keypad alone for $45). $89.95, microsoft.com/hardware/mouseandkeyboard

Screen Gem
Diamond BVU195 HD USB Display Adapter

Having multiple computer monitors in front of you at the same time is a beautiful thing. I routinely have half a dozen Web browser windows with research material at the ready on one 24-inch LCD, with my word processor, e-mail and maybe a window playing a local TV news broadcast (see below) on the other. Items can be dragged and dropped from screen to screen with near-magical ease. As someone who thrives on controlled clutter, it's a perfect sandbox for information and inspiration. And with LCD monitor prices falling to historic lows, this is a great time to go shopping for additional screen real estate.

My computer has one slightly unusual feature, though: a graphics card that supports two monitors simultaneously. If you aren't similarly blessed, or are using a laptop without an external monitor connector, there's no reason to despair. This inexpensive adapter from Diamond plugs right into an available USB 2.0 connection and voila: an instant video port added to your system. In fact, if you really want to go nuts, you can add up to six extra displays on a PC or four on a Mac, surrounding yourself with monitors just like those stockbrokers we saw looking smug during the go-go trading years. Greed may or may not be good, but a more effective view of your computer info is a definite plus. $89.99, diamondmm.com


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