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Stay Sane on the Plane

Our guide to taking the edge off the many hours of cramped airplane time with a trove of portable tech—from noise-cancelling headphones to super laptops to e-books and gaming—will keep you sane on the plane.
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

You’re about to spend an eternity in a cramped seat sealed in an aluminum tube suspended at 30,000 feet. It’s going to take some serious electronics to help you ignore the screaming kid three rows back, the smell of the takeout garlic and cheese pasta the woman across the aisle brought on board and the insistent shoulder-to-shoulder pressure from the fat guy in the next seat over. Here are some first-class products to help you cope with coach.

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

You don’t realize just how noisy it is inside a plane until you put on a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones and hear the nagging thrum-thrum fade away, and the music or movie you’re listening to come through loud and clear. I generally leave the noise-cancelling cans on even when I’m not listening to anything at all—the relative quiet makes a long trip less stressful.

Bose has been making noise-cancelling headphones since 1989, and the QuietComfort 15 model ($299.95) clearly demonstrates the lessons learned in more than two decades of fine-tuning the tech. Powered by a single AA battery (much more convenient than the rechargeable battery in the previous model), the QuietComfort 15s do an exceptional job eliminating background noise without turning music to mush.

You get nice crisp highs, accurate midrange and convincing bass. Particular improvement is noticeable over conventional headphones or ear buds in vocals and movie dialog. The nicely padded cups fit around your ears, fulfilling the comfort promise in the product name. And while the headphones will take up some room in your carry-on, the ear cups swivel to lie flat with the headband, a worthwhile space-saving strategy.

A more recent entrant in the high-end noise-cancelling headphone arena, Monster Cable’s Beats by Dr. Dre Studio ($350) is a collaborative effort by the cable manufacturer and the famed hip-hop star. Everything about the Beats is big. They’re physically large, with a wide headband and solid construction throughout. The sound is big too, in marked contrast to the more restrained Bose audio.

For one thing, they play louder with the same input. The QuietComforts aren’t pip-squeaks by any means, but the Beats can really assault the eardrums if that’s your style. The sound profile is quite different too. Where the Bose model maintains a balanced sound, the Beats play favorites with certain instruments. Anything with a strong bass line really gains drama, and drums step right to the front of the stage. All in all, I found the Beats really pump up the impact of instrumental music—anything from jazz to orchestral tracks—along with rock and, yes, hip-hop.

For softer guitar and vocal sounds, and movie dialog, I favor the Bose sound. One feature that might sway you toward the Monster phones: they come with two cables, one straight audio, one with a mic and control button for use with a cell phone. Unfortunately, the ear cups don’t fold flat like the Bose design, so you’ll need even more carry-on space.

Finally, for those who like to pack light, I recently discovered a terrific set of noise-cancelling ear buds that now come along for the ride whenever I jump on the commuter train or subway. The Phiaton PS 20 NC ($129) consists of a pair of ear buds and a cylindrical case housing the noise-cancelling circuitry and a AA battery. The buds themselves are nicely designed, with an off-center tip that fits in your ear canal and a disc base that rests outside—I found they fit comfortably and don’t feel like they’re about to touch my brain, like some in-ear buds.

There’s enough bass so that you won’t feel thump-deprived and very pleasing reproduction of strummed guitar and vocals. I spent several hours in a row recently listening to an audiobook using these, and from street to noisy subway platform to quiet hotel lobby it was an excellent experience. What’s more, unlike the full-size phones described above, the Phiatons still let you listen if your battery runs out of juice, albeit without the noise cancellation benefit.

Ultraportable Laptops

The older I get, the lighter my laptop computers become. It’s partly that my loathing for lugging increases with age—a six-pound laptop starts to feel like an anvil when I’m racing from meeting to meeting across town. It’s partly the hassle of pulling the thing out of your bag at airport security. And happily, it’s partly thanks to laptop design improvements that have produced ultraportables with none of the significant compromises of a few years ago, and at reasonable prices.

The goal here is a machine that weighs in at about three pounds. That used to mean sacrificing screen size, but not anymore—I can get a perfectly workable 13-inch display in this weight class. Another point of pain for ultraportables was the keyboard, but comfy choices are now available. Processing power? You’ll find the same speedy processors in today’s ultraportables as in far bulkier laptops. And while most ultraportables still ship without DVD drives, fine choices in my weight class now accept DVDs for movie watching and software installation.

I have two machines to recommend here, one pricey, one surprisingly inexpensive, both delivering the core characteristics outlined above.

We’ll start with the high-priced spread, Sony’s top-of-the-line Vaio Z series. These tricked-out machines, with lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber chassis, start at $1,970. You’re not investing in silly features or twee design, though: you’re getting performance that will hold up to all your computing challenges, including tough stuff like editing video and playing games, in a perfectly portable 2.5-pound package. Instead of a built-in DVD or Blu-ray drive, the Z series comes standard with an external Power Media Dock that combines an optical disc drive with souped-up graphics, three USB ports and HDMI for connecting to a high-def TV. Speedy Intel i5 and i7 processors are available, along with solid-state drives that combine ruggedness with low power consumption. And speaking of power, the Vaio Z series delivers an estimated eight hours of battery life on a charge. Add a slender sheet battery to the bottom and you’re up to 16 hours, which should handle even the most migraine-inducing ground delay.

If the Vaio sounds a little rich for your blood, take a look at the Toshiba Portégé R830, with prices starting at a very reasonable $899.

At that price the Toshiba runs a slightly slower Intel Core i3 processor. With a lower-resolution screen and a less powerful graphics system, these laptops are targeted at business users, though they’re still fine for watching DVDs or downloaded movies. The entry-level configuration also comes with a standard hard disk drive, though solid-state drives and faster processors are available in step-up models. Beyond these few spec differences, and the more eye-catching style of the Vaio versus the corporate-looking Toshiba design, the two laptops are quite similar. The Portégé weighs in at a featherweight 3.2 pounds, with a durable magnesium alloy case, a built-in DVD drive and a claimed nine hours of battery life. Given the price/performance combination, this is a breakthrough machine.

Of course, having a laptop aloft is even more appealing if you’re on one of the 1,000+ planes equipped with the Gogo Inflight Internet service from Aircell. Seven domestic airlines have partnered with Gogo;  AirTran, Delta and Virgin America have their entire domestic fleet equipped for Wi-Fi. There are pricing plans based on flight length and others based on days of service, outlined at the gogoinflight.com website —a coast-to-coast flight runs $12.95, for example. For international service, check with your individual carrier.

Nintendo 3DS

Yes, cell phone games are ever-more sophisticated, and there’s no arguing the addictive quality of those Angry Birds, but if you’re looking for hours rather than minutes of entertainment, a handheld game console is still a much better choice, if only for the far more precise and sophisticated controls.

With the new 3DS system, Nintendo is pushing boundaries in several intriguing ways. The headline feature, of course, is a 3-D display that works without wearing special glasses. And it does work surprisingly well—since you are holding the 3DS in your hands, it’s relatively easy to position it in the “sweet spot” where two separate images are seen by your right and left eyes, creating the 3-D effect. There’s a second, conventional touch screen on the lower panel, plus the usual array of buttons and a new analog controller, sort of like a squat joystick, that adds superior control for smooth movement. And, taking a cue from the Wii game console, built-in motion sensors provide yet another game-control option.

There are three, count them, three cameras in all, one of which faces the player. The other two face outward, allowing 3-D photography (unfortunately, the photos you take won’t play back on a 3-D TV set). The 3DS is compatible with existing Nintendo DS games, many of which are intriguing for grown-up players (I’m still a fan of the Advanced Wars strategy titles). They’ve also cranked up the processing power to support a new generation of games, with impressive results. Especially noteworthy are augmented reality games, which take live video from the front-facing camera and overlay game objects and effects on top of the image. In combination with the motion sensors, I was able to move the 3DS around, find enemies appearing all over the room and shoot at them. When I missed, it appeared to poke a hole in the live video background, a very slick effect.

The initial line-up of games for 3DS wasn’t awe-inspiring. Best of the bunch: The Pilotwings Resort flying game uses the 3-D effect well, while the Rayman animated adventure is a classic in the run-and-jump genre, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is a first-rate strategy game. Happily, Nintendo is bringing out the big guns before the end of the year, with versions of Mario Kart 3DS, Star Fox 64 3D and the irresistible Super Mario 3DS. What’s more, they added Netflix software to the 3DS platform, so if you’re a subscriber and your flight has Wi-Fi, your handheld console will double as a movie player.

eBook Readers

There are lots of eBook readers, but the big three contenders are Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Touch Reader and Nook Color.

The decision between black-and-white (Kindle and Nook Touch Reader) or color depends largely on what you read, where you read and how often you’re willing to charge the battery. The Kindle and Nook Touch both use the same six-inch electronic ink display, with a sharp, high-contrast, paper-like appearance. The matte screen doesn’t glare or wash out when you read in bright light, which sets the monochrome readers apart from the Nook Color (and the iPad, for that matter). Electronic ink technology uses no electricity to maintain the on-screen display. With the wireless connection turned off, you can read thousands of pages without recharging. Of course, you can’t read in a pitch dark room, since the screen doesn’t light up, but airplane reading lights provide perfect illumination, and cases with built-in lights are available.

As the name implies, the Nook Touch Reader lets you move from page to page by stroking your finger across the screen, or touching the left or ride edge. The balance between a natural-feeling page turning motion and the possibility of greasy fingerprints on-screen is one you’ll have to weigh for yourself. The Kindle has buttons for page turning, and a full physical keyboard for typing in notes and shopping in the online store.

The basic Kindle uses a Wi-Fi wireless connection, while the Kindle 3G offers Wi-Fi plus cellular connectivity. While the Kindle 3G costs more, there’s no fee for using the wireless connection, providing a shop-anywhere experience. The Nook comes in only one model, with Wi-Fi. Another difference between the two: the Kindle can play back audiobooks and MP3 files, while the Nook Touch is mute. The Nook has a portability advantage, though, at about an inch shorter and an ounce lighter.

The Nook Color is nearly the same overall size as the Kindle, though the screen is a bit larger (seven inches), and it weighs nearly twice as much. The big draw here is the high-resolution, touch-screen, color LCD display. Some find that reading for long periods on its a backlit display is more tiring than with the reflective displays on the black-and-white readers. Others like the brightness of the screen and the ability to display color images. As you’d expect, battery life is much shorter with a color screen—Barnes & Noble ballparks it at eight hours of reading.

The strongest suit for the Nook Color is reading magazines and children’s books in their full multihued glory. The experience still isn’t flawless, since magazine layouts weren’t designed for a seven-inch screen. You can zoom in and scroll around, or you can call up a special Article View and have the text reformatted to fit the screen, but it’s still not like the luxurious printed page you’re currently reading. Photos and illustrations look great on the Nook, though, and you can fit a huge stack of books and magazines into one small device. Barnes & Noble has also put extra effort into creating enhanced children’s books, which can be read conventionally by the parent or child, or read aloud by a professional recording.

Vuzix Wrap 920

All right, I have to say up front that it takes a certain self-confidence to look cool while wearing the Vuzix 920 video glasses. The look is wrap-around sunglasses à la Arnold in the first Terminator movie. But with a wire dangling off one side of the glasses and a pair of ear buds inserted, you are inevitably letting your geek flag fly with these perched on your nose. On the other hand, you get to watch whatever you like in perfect privacy, a significant benefit. Surely I’m not alone in feeling uncomfortable watching an R-rated movie on a packed flight, or sharing home videos and photos with the stranger in the next seat. Well, for $350, Vuzix will gladly deliver a hefty helping of personal privacy. And with two screens positioned close to your eyes, the image is like watching a big-screen TV from across the room.


Out of the box, the Vuzix 920 comes with a standard audio-video connector (for use with a portable DVD player, for example) and an iPod/iPhone/iPad connector. If you’d like to view your laptop screen, you’ll need a $50 optional adapter.
The glasses are powered by two AA batteries (they last about six hours). They’re reasonably comfortable, though eyeglass wearers may find the fit less than ideal. Fortunately, you can adjust the focus point through a wide range of settings. I use strong reading glasses, but I was able to watch glasses-free after tweaking the focus, and you only have to do it once (unless you’re sharing, of course).

The Vuzix experience still has some rough spots. The image you see is pretty good, but it’s in 4:3 format rather than the widescreen 16:9 used for movie discs, and limited to 640 x 480 resolution—fine for standard-def TV, but not sharp enough to read text from your computer, where airborne privacy would be especially welcome. The glasses are heavier than regular eyeglasses, a fact that becomes more noticeable the longer you wear them. And a wireless version would certainly be a big improvement. Even with these shortcomings, though, if I’m trying to decide what kind of movies I’d like to watch while flying, the option to choose Bonnie and Clyde, or even Hot Tub Time Machine, without permanently scarring the little kid in the middle seat has definite value.

Portable Chargers


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