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
From the Print Edition:
Chris Noth, May/June 2010
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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.
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
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
TV on your PC
Hauppauge Computer Works WinTV-HVR-950Q
The idea of connecting a TV tuner to your computer has been around for years, but getting decent reception for broadcast television this way has been hit-or-miss at best. The switch to digital TV transmission is a game-changer here, though. Not only can you pluck high-def video signals right out of the air, your computer already has the high-res screen needed to make the most of that HD video. The WinTV-HVR-950Q is a solid choice, complete with a portable antenna for over-the-air reception, wireless remote control and a cable connection for viewing and recording the video output from your cable or satellite box. The system comes with decent software, but the tuner is also compatible with Windows Media Center if it's installed on your PC. I routinely use this setup to turn my laptop into a road-worthy DVR, watching live TV, pausing and restarting the video at my whim and recording shows to watch later. And if you're a Mac user, Hauppauge offers a version priced $20 more that includes both the PC software and Elgato's EyeTV Lite program for your watching and recording pleasure. $99, hauppauge.com
Logitech Harmony 900
All too often, setting up a universal remote is a head-scratching, blood-pressure-raising ordeal. What a pleasure, then, to connect the Harmony 900 to your PC, launch the included software, type in the model names of all your gear and take the frustration out of customization. The remote itself is a sleek piece of gear, topped with a beautiful LCD touch screen and featuring a full set of clearly labeled keys, equally suited to punching in a TV channel number, programming your DVR and navigating a Blu-ray disc menu. This Harmony 900 version includes an intriguing extra; a radio frequency (RF) control add-on that goes beyond the usual line-of-sight remote control limitation to let you send commands from room to room or through the doors of an audio gear cabinet. If this RF magic trick doesn't matter to you, the identical Harmony One Advanced universal remote sells for $250. $400, logitech.com
Achieve Multimedia Mastery
Western Digital TV Live HD
Most of the myriad devices released in the past few years that let you listen to MP3s, look at your digital photos and watch videos on your TV set require serious technical skills to set up, and the tenacity of a cheese-starved rat scrambling through a maze to navigate. The compact WD Digital TV Live HD media player, though, has a great menu system, a nice little wireless remote and plays back files stored on a USB-connected drive with no special technical smarts required on your part. There's a standard audio/video connection, but the system really shines when you hook up via HDMI cable to a high-def TV, especially when viewing digital photos (one by one or in an automatic slide show). Connect the system to a home network and it gets even better, playing back files from other computers and networked drives, along with music from Internet-based services including Pandora, photos from Flickr and videos from YouTube. My only major complaint here: no built-in wireless networking. Yes, you can connect a compatible USB network adapter, but these are increasingly rare, and shouldn't be necessary.
This is by no means a dumbed-down system, and if you're the type who has a few gigs of FLAC files stored on your NAS and wants to output them via SPDIF connection, you'll feel right at home. On the other hand, if your goal is filling an inexpensive USB hard drive with music and pictures from your computer and enjoying them on your home entertainment system, this is a solid, easy-to-operate way to get the job done. $149.95, wdc.com
Color Me Impressed
When you first drag your lovely new TV out of the box, it's ordinarily set to "Best Buy Mode"-brightness is cranked up to 11, colors are oversaturated to eye-searing levels, contrast and sharpness are off the charts, all so that when the set is placed in an overlit retail environment next to 100 other TVs, you'll pick it out of a crowd. Get it home, though, and the aggressive behavior that was acceptable on the playground with all the other TVs seems positively rude. Adjusting TV settings by eye is entirely possible, of course, but balancing brightness, contrast, color, tint and temperature isn't all that easy. A hundred bucks and less than an hour of your time per TV solves the problem for all the sets in your house, with the Spyder3 TV color calibration system. The package includes a colorimeter (a light sensor that reads red, green and blue levels separately) that you lean against the screen. This connects to a computer running the Datacolor software. The final piece of the puzzle is a DVD loaded with test patterns, which goes into a DVD player connected to the TV that's up for adjustment. At that point you follow the step-by-step software prompts, tweaking the TV settings and taking repeated readings until you have a properly calibrated picture. It's a bit tedious, honestly, but if it takes you more than an hour you're just not paying much attention, and certainly at my house the picture improvements were well worth the effort. $99, spyder.datacolor.com
PHOTO & VIDEO
Manfrotto M-Y Tripod
For most of us, Job One for a tripod has been to let the photographer leave the camera and join the family portrait as the shutter timer ticked. However, with more cameras shooting very credible video-many in full high definition-a tripod becomes much more important. Jostling video, shot by hand, can induce sea sickness in all but the heartiest souls. Whether your goal is the freedom to take stills without blur or shoot movies without "blech," the new Manfrotto M-Y 7322YB-BB carbon fiber tripod is a great choice. It folds down to a compact 18.9 inches, tucks neatly into a nice included carrying pouch, then extends to more than four feet tall for maximum shooting flexibility. The ball camera mount can pivot to any position in an instant, then securely lock even a large SLR into place. And the carbon fiber construction effectively combines light weight with solid construction: your camera won't wiggle or wobble when you place these three feet on the ground. $100, manfrotto.com
Taking a Good Bounce
If you're shooting with a digital SLR, photojournalism professor Ken Kobré's ingenuity can improve your pictures dramatically. Using the built-in pop-up flash on these cameras is better than losing a shot in the dark entirely, but it's nobody's idea of a good time. The flash causes blinked-shut eyes, harsh shadows and pissed-off baby moms. Kobré's creation is simple, effective and inexpensive. The mirrored hood fits in front of the pop-up flash, sliding into the hot shoe to mount securely. Now, when you fire off the flash, the light heads up to the ceiling and diffuses as it bounces back, creating a much softer, more pleasant effect. I was impressed with the results I got with the professor's clever, featherweight kludge, and at $35, the price is right for bouncing light. $34.95, lightscoop.com
Holophone PortaMic 5.1
The really-there feeling that your surround-sound audio system provides when you watch a concert or a football game could enhance your home video of the kids' spectacular performances if your mic captured the same kind of directional audio and ambient sound. Holophone, which makes many of the surround-sound recording systems the pros use, developed the PortaMic 5.1 to work with a consumer-grade camcorder, as long as it has a microphone jack and an accessory shoe. Five mics are positioned around the unit to pick up all the sound around you and record it using Dolby Pro Logic II encoding. Your camcorder treats it like an ordinary stereo signal. When you play it back through a home audio system with Dolby Pro Logic II (in other words, pretty much any home audio system made in the last decade), it miraculously transforms into 5.1 channel surround-sound audio. The PortaMic won't turn the high school orchestra into the philharmonic, but it certainly adds audio oomph to your cherished video of those once-in-a-lifetime ordeals... er, magic moments. And if the chance to record top-flight soundtracks awakens your inner Spielberg or inspires Sundance dreams in the kids, so much the better. $599, holophone.com
Monster GreenPower HDP 900G
You've probably heard about "vampire power," the continuing electrical drain that besets many electronic products and power adapters even when the equipment is turned off. Monster's GreenPower adapter provides the surge protection and power conditioning your home theater deserves plus the wallet-friendly pleasure of lower electric consumption. Four out of eight provided outlets are linked together, with one designated the GreenPower control outlet, to be used for your TV or AV receiver. When that piece of gear is turned off, it turns off completely (take that, you vampire!) along with the three linked outlets, putting a stop to the stealth power-sucking habits of DVD and Blu-ray players, game consoles and other gear. $129.95, monsterpower.com
Get a Charge Out of It
As you wearily trudge into the house at the end of the day, you toss your wallet and keys on the table. Wouldn't it be nice to toss your cell phone and iPod too, without hunting for charger cables? The Powermat makes that possible. It's a two-part system, a flat mat wide enough to charge three devices at once and custom receivers for each piece of gear you want to power up. There are no wires to worry about-in fact, there are no direct electrical connections at all.
Instead, the system relies on inductive charging (the same kind used for charging electric toothbrushes without shorting out your choppers). It's just as safe and fast as conventional charging and a lot more convenient. The downside: you need to buy a $40 receiver for each chargeable device. So far, the number of receivers is limited-iPods and iPhones, the Nintendo DS, and a few BlackBerry models, with more on the way. But if your gear applies, its a cool magic trick. $99.99 plus receivers, powermat.com
Power in Your Pocket
Here's a perfectly portable cure for juiceless, useless cell phones, MP3 players and Bluetooth earbuds. The Ecosol Powerstick is a portable device charger that's about the size of a pack of gum. You charge the Powerstick by plugging it into a computer USB port (an easy-to-read LCD display shows the current power level). Then, when it's time to resurrect your dead portable gear, simply attach one of the nine provided adapters (including most phone models and iPods). No dead phone throwing, no music-deprived road trips, no worn-out alkaline batteries headed for the landfill-it's a great solution. $49.99, powerstick.myshopify.com
Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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