Summertime, and the living's not easy. Water's splashing, and your gear isn't dry. Traveling's tough, and your flab's not good-looking. So hush, little baby, don't you cry—go shopping instead! We've got the gear right here to tackle the challenges of summer living with style, whether you're sweating in the sunshine, staying cool by the pool or venturing far from home in pursuit of warm-weather pleasure.
Dash Express GPS
In primeval days, if a wandering ape-man asked a passerby the way to such-and-such pond of primordial ooze, he would promptly be clubbed over the head and, in short order, be transformed into a snazzy item of clothing. At least that's my natural-selection explanation of a man's ingrained distaste for asking directions, and for the resultant sales boom in GPS navigation units, which would seem to have closed the issue. But despite their near-magical ability to locate and direct you, most GPS devices have two inherent shortcomings: limited storage and the map database's inevitable loss of accuracy over time.
Dash Navigation came up with an ingenious solution—a GPS unit that communicates with the outside world. The Dash Express introduces wireless communication over the cellular network. That means maps, points of interest and even the system's internal software can be regularly updated, without the user lifting a finger (or booting a computer).
That's great—but it's just the beginning. Wireless connectivity on the go means you can search the Internet (via Yahoo! Local search) for precisely the destination information you need, instead of relying on a limited points-of-reference database stored in the GPS. Dash uses the wireless connection to include gas-price quotes when you search for gas stations, and movie schedules when you search for theaters. That rates a "wow" already, and more information services are in the works.
The other killer feature is that every Dash unit regularly, and anonymously, reports its speed and position back to the company's Mother Ship to generate up-to-the-minute traffic reports and send them out to other vehicles. Until now, the accuracy of traffic information was severely limited by the scarcity of highway sensors. When every Dash-equipped car becomes, in effect, a live road sensor, the accuracy and the range of traffic info should skyrocket. The units just began shipping, so it's early to judge the value of this feature. But the company says that dozens, rather than hundreds, of active units in an area are enough to produce reliable traffic information.
All this cellular data chatter isn't free. There's a monthly charge of $12.99 for using the Dash network (it's lower if you commit to one or two years of service).
Everything isn't perfect in this first release, including some GPS fundamentals. In a drive around my neighborhood, the system misread a highway underpass, identifying it as a traffic circle and misdirecting me as a result. The distance to a turn was often displayed inaccurately, making me wonder whether to take the turn I'd reached, or one still coming up. On the other hand, the text-to-speech reading of road names was near flawless, the display is bright and easy to read and the controls are logical enough to work without your having to read the manual. As for the software problems, Dash is bound to fix them soon—and the fixes can be delivered with no work on your part.
Nintendo Wii Fit
If you've been looking for a spouse-friendly excuse to splurge on Nintendo's wonderful Wii game console, I have just what you need. The Wii Fit add-on kit combines a pressure-sensitive balance board with cleverly designed software that leads you through more than 40 different exercises and activities that develop balance and flexibility, health and stamina. And if the required Wii console happens to also play the irresistible Guitar Hero game, and my current favorite, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection, we'll just call that a side benefit.
Which is not to downplay the value or the fun factor inherent in Wii Fit across gender and age barriers. The kit includes the two-foot-wide balance board, which communicates wirelessly with the Wii console, and Wii Fit software. When you stand on the board, internal sensors precisely measure weight and balance. Lose an ounce (or vice versa), and the Wii Fit software can tell. This is much more than a glorified bathroom scale, though. Every time you change your center of gravity, even slightly, the system can tell, an ability that fuels diverse activities in four categories: balance, aerobics, yoga and strength.
If the typical high-intensity gym-equipment workout leaves you cold, Wii Fit could be perfect for you. Many of the activities come gift-wrapped in games that are enough fun to keep even the congenitally lazy among us moving. Bob and weave with your head to hit virtual soccer balls, or swivel your hips (preferably when nobody's watching) to keep make-believe hula hoops spinning. There are yoga postures (including the ever-popular Downward-Facing Dog) and strength-training exercises (leg lifts, torso twists, push-ups, etc.) too—plenty of variety, in fact. And all your efforts are recorded by the software, so you can track your progress over time. Take it seriously if you like, or just play around if you prefer—either way, Wii Fit is an excellent alternative to another hour slouched on the couch.
I've reviewed lots of weatherproof speakers, many of which deliver fine sound and effectively laugh off the elements. All, though, require wires to connect to an audio source located who-knows-where, which adds installation headaches to the outdoor sound equation and kills the ability to spontaneously move high-quality audio with you from deck to yard, for example. The OutCast takes the Pinocchio approach to the problem—it's got no strings to hold it down, to make you fret or make you frown. Instead, it has a rechargeable battery that lasts about 10 hours and a wireless receiver that connects to an iPod or other audio source, up to 350 feet away. Waterproof construction makes the OutCast a perfect poolside companion, and you can even leave it outdoors when rain clouds roll in.
The OutCast stands nearly three feet tall and weighs about 40 pounds. (A well-placed handle on top makes carrying it from place to place easy enough for a manly man like yourself.) The size is justified by the quality of the audio produced by the combination of four high-frequency drivers (placed to provide 360-degree coverage around the device) and a big eight-inch, down-firing subwoofer. Rich bass is generally tough to achieve outdoors, but the OutCast powers through the problem impressively, whether you're looking for the thumping bottom end of a jazz quartet or the sonic firepower of a rock band turned up loud enough to piss off the neighbors.
As for music sources, you have a wide range of choices. The system comes with the company's iCast dock, which holds an iPod and transmits its music wirelessly to the OutCast. (There's an auxiliary input jack on the iCast to send other audio sources, and an auxiliary input jack on the OutCast if you simply want to plug in a player outdoors.) When using the iCast/OutCast combination with an iPod, the OutCast offers wireless controls for basic functions (play/pause, track forward/back). Attach powered speakers directly to the iCast dock and you create a party-friendly atmosphere with the same music, indoors and out. Or if you really want harmonious musical coverage from room to room, the company sells indoor wireless speakers for a whole-home solution.
Canon Vixia HF10
Admittedly, not everything you might shoot with a camcorder this summer is going to look better in high definition. But when you balance out the short-term discomfort of watching your mother-in-law on a 50-inch high-def TV against your adorable kids viewing videos of your family vacation on their electric wall 20 years down the line, it's clearly time to start shooting in HD. And Canon's made the move particularly appealing with the compact, easy-to-use and reasonably priced Vixia HF10.
Several high-def camcorder formats are available today, including those that record to tape cassettes, DVDs and Blu-ray discs. The HF10 uses flash memory, which has several advantages. With no moving parts in the recording mechanism, the HF10 can be smaller and lighter, with longer battery life and better resistance to bumps. High-def video is stored as computer files in the flash memory, which makes it easy to transfer to a hard drive, edit on your computer and save onto DVD, Blu-ray or a future HD format. The first flash-memory models suffered from short recording times, but the 16 gigabytes of memory built into the HF10 can hold over two hours of high-def video at top-quality settings, and removable, thumbnail-size SDHC memory cards can hold twice as much.
Canon's HF10 gets all the basics just right. It weighs less than a pound and, at 5.1" x 2.9" x 2.5", is perfectly portable. In addition to an array of buttons, there's a convenient little joystick control that makes frequently used adjustments easy—for example, a quick push to the right or the left will adjust volume while recording. The 12x zoom lens moves smoothly and quietly, and the sharp 2.7-inch LCD display stands up well to bright sunlight (good thing, since there's no optical eyepiece). And connections for an external microphone or video light, so often missing on consumer camcorders, are both present and accounted for here.
Most important, the test video I shot looks amazing when shown on a big-screen high-def set. My adorable American Eskimo dog? Fantastic! My wife's cat? Every hair in place, with her perpetual feline smirk captured in exquisite detail. As for the ultra-detailed video shot at a recent family barbecueÉhey, you can't blame the camera.
Olympus Stylus 1030 SW
Some of the most exciting summer photo opportunities occur in environments that would turn an ordinary digital camera into a pricey high-tech paperweight. That's where the Schwarzeneggerian Stylus 1030 SW comes in. It boasts an all-metal crush-proof body that can withstand up to 220 pounds of pressure, and bounce back from a 6.6-foot drop. It's sealed to protect against dust and grit, and waterproof down to 33 feet. Worried about splashes from the pool? This camera's so well built you can actually take it swimming with you and capture underwater stills or movies. And the 1030 SW's durability keeps paying dividends in the winter, when it will keep shooting at temperatures as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit. In short, this camera is far more willing to just keep on shooting in adverse conditions than I'll ever be.
The fact that the 1030 SW is tough as nails doesn't mean it won't serve perfectly well as your everyday snapshot camera, with its high-res 10.1-megapixel image sensor and easy-to-use controls. The 3.6x optical zoom offers a wider-angle lens than most pocket cameras, making group shots and landscape photography more effective. Macro mode lets you shoot screen-filling close-ups, with the subject less than an inch from the lens. What's more, a little LCD light illuminates your ultra-close-up shots when the camera itself is so close it blocks the room light—a great feature for shooting jewelry or coins you want to sell on eBay, for example.
Some of the features are a bit more basic than you'll find in competing models at this price. Face detection, for example, adjusts focus and exposure based on a single face in the frame, while others recognize multiple mugs. The top-resolution movie mode (640 x 480, at a smooth 30 frames per second) only works for 10-second clips—you have to throttle back the specs for longer movies. These minor limitations pale in comparison, though, to the exciting ability to take wonderful pictures under rotten conditions.
Dynamic Bicycle Cruz 7
The very first time I took this bike out on the road for a test drive, it demonstrated its unique advantage. I took off on the Cruz, my daughter Jessica on her regular bicycle. About a mile from home, she looked down and, in the most ladylike terms, of course, expressed her dismay—she'd grazed the bike chain with her leg and smeared grease on a pair of pants she'd bought the day before. No grease on my pants. In fact, even on my clumsiest day, there's no way I can rub, catch or otherwise disfigure my pants on the Dynamic bike chain—it doesn't have one.
Dynamic has abandoned the chain that traditionally carries power from the pedals to the back wheels in favor of a sealed drive shaft mechanism. It pedals just as smoothly as a traditional chain bike, works just as efficiently and requires less maintenance. Another huge benefit: with no chain, and the shaft drive coupled with the Shimano Nexus seven-speed gear mechanism, you can jump from high gear to low or vice versa, even when you're not pedaling. Say you've abruptly stopped at a traffic light while powering along in a high gear. Instead of pushing off uncomfortably in that same high gear, you can downshift while standing still and pedal away easily in first or second gear when the light changes.
Dynamic offers a wide variety of styles and sizes, from touring bikes to mountain bikes to hybrids to practical commuter-oriented models, and even a folding bike (see the full line at the company Web site). I chose the Cruz 7, new for 2008, for its comfortable upright riding position, and wasn't disappointed. The bike is sturdily built and surprisingly easy to assemble—it took me under an hour with the included Allen wrench, plus a standard adjustable wrench—and I'm no bike mechanic. These bikes are sold direct by Dynamic and L.L. Bean, plus a handful of bike dealers, so it's unlikely you'll be able to go to your local store and kick the tires. Still, refunds are available with no questions asked, minus shipping costs and a 15 percent restocking charge. And frankly, unless you have something against a well-built product that delivers truly breakthrough convenience, I can't imagine you'll be anything but delighted with your new Dynamic bike.
As air travel becomes more cramped, amenity-free and generally unpleasant, the ability to enjoy a high-quality audio experience at 30,000 feet becomes all the more precious. With that in mind, let me introduce you to my newest traveling companion: the amazingly effective MDR-NC500D noise-cancelling headphones.
Before we get to the technological wizardry used to kick out the noise and bring in the funk, a word about the importance of fit. It's tough to judge how comfortably a pair of headphones will feel after a five- or 10-minute test run. A hop from New York to California, though, separates the innocent-looking ear-crushers from the truly comfy, and I can attest to the success of the MDR-NC500D design. The foam cushions are stiffer than most, which works particularly well with my somewhat elephantine ears—the earcups fit tightly (a big plus in sealing out external noise), but don't squish down on the ears themselves. Well done!
On to the bits and bytes. Sony has taken an advanced, all-digital approach to noise cancellation. Basically, noise-cancelling headphones work by reading background noise with a microphone, then creating a sound wave reciprocal to that noise—the two cancel each other out, letting the desired music, movie soundtrack or what have you come through clearly. Unlike most noise-cancelling headphones, the Sony places the microphone near your ear, to accurately sense the sound in your immediate surroundings, then uses digital signal processing to tailor noise-cancellation performance to the particular listening environment. For example, the noise in an airplane is loud, but falls within a limited frequency range. In an office, on the other hand, the distracting noises are much softer, but fall in a wider range. By taking this difference into account, the MDR-NC500Ds are extraordinarily effective at noise cancellation. Combine this with high-quality audio components and you have an audio treat that's well worth the premium price.
Sennheiser MX W1
While wireless stereo headphones have been around for a few years, they've all relied on a variation on the same Bluetooth technology used for cell phone earbuds. Bluetooth sound quality is fine for phone conversations, but using it to handle the demands of stereo music yields AM-radio-quality audio at best. A new wireless technology, dubbed Kleer, promises to deliver an interference-free, CD-quality audio experience in compact devices with long battery life. Based on my testing of the Sennheiser MX W1 earbuds, the first system to combine Kleer technology with first-rate amplification and audio drivers, the technology works.
The Sennheiser MX W1 earbuds are unlike any others I've worn. The modern-looking design is a bit large (each earbud has to incorporate a rechargeable battery) but still lightweight. A small nub at the top tucks into the fold of your ear for a secure fit. They still aren't the most comfortable buds I've ever worn, but they're acceptable, and don't become annoying when worn for long stints.
The MX W1s are charged inside a cradle with its own built-in battery, allowing you to recharge the buds on the road up to three times without having to find a power outlet—very smart.
To get the music from your audio player to the earbuds, a lightweight transmitter (about the size of a matchbook) plugs into the earphone jack. You get an assortment of rubber bands to strap the transmitter to the player—even with a little iPod nano, this system worked fine.
The promise of these undeniably pricey earbuds is superior sound quality, and on that score they absolutely deliver. Even such difficult-to-reproduce sounds as plucked violin strings and brushed cymbals came through loud and clear, and there was no audible degradation caused by the wireless connection. Top-notch audio quality combined with a clever recharging system that lets you listen all day long make these Sennheiser earbuds a winning pair.
Since 2006, Nike has marketed a clever way to let runners know exactly how they are doing, both during a run and afterward: the Nike+ iPod Sport Kit. It works through a sensor inserted into footwear that is Nike+-enabled. Data about your run then flows wirelessly to an iPod, which tells you verbally how your run is progressing. Which is great—if you own an iPod, want to carry it while you run, want to run wearing earbuds and want to have your music interrupted while you get nagged. Now Nike has incorporated the same technology into a much cleaner system: a slim wristband with a digital readout showing your pace, miles, elapsed time and calories burned.
Accessing data while you run is only half the equation with the Nike system. The other is transferring that information into your computer, where you can track your performance over time. Here again, the Nike+ SportBand system is simplicity itself. The data readout/storage part of the system is a detachable USB device. Just pull it off the band, insert it into a USB port on your PC or Mac and your latest results are automatically uploaded to the nikeplus.com Web site, where the information is stored and charted, and training suggestions and challenges are readily available. Personally, unless Godzilla is lumbering up Fifth Avenue behind me, I'm not naturally inclined to break into a run very often. With the SportBand on, though, the positive reinforcement of readily visible performance improvements just might get me to kick up my heels a little. And if worse comes to worst, the wristband looks very sleek, and tells the time when you're not Just Doing It.
Verizon Wireless G'zOne Type-S and Plantronics Explorer 370 Rugged Edition
You say you want to make cell phone calls while you water-ski? These are the products for you, my hyperactive friend. Personally, any excuse not to carry a cell phone is just fine with me, but then I'm part of that moldy oldie generation that remembers when 24/7 availability wasn't even a possibility, much less a necessity. That said, even I am impressed with the technological achievement embodied by the G'zOne Type-S phone and Explorer 370 Rugged Edition wireless headset.
The G'zOne (don't ask me how to pronounce it—I don't have a clue) is a chunkier phone than most, but that's the price you pay for near indestructibility. The phone was subjected to rigorous military-grade testing for water, humidity, dust and shock resistance and passed with flying colors. I didn't have the lab gear needed to simulate a rainfall of two inches per hour with a 40-mph wind, but I did run my own informal tests, and can tell you with confidence that leaving the phone for a half hour in a bathtub full of water had no ill effect, nor did kicking it around the living room. This latter test intrigued my dog Gracie, who added her own distinctive battery of tests. Verizon will be pleased to hear that teeth and slobber are no match for the G'zOne either.
Voice quality was consistently very good, whether I held the phone to my ear or used the pleasingly loud-and-clear speakerphone. As for fancy features, they're relatively sparse—photo and video quality are mediocre, and you can't play MP3 music, but you can use Verizon's subscription navigation service, and the phone supports Bluetooth wireless earbuds, which its predecessor didn't.
And speaking of Bluetooth, I recently tested a new Plantronics Bluetooth earbud that would make a perfect match with the G'zOne. The Explorer 370 Rugged Edition is lightweight and comfortable, and the sound quality is significantly better than most buds I've reviewed. As for proven toughness, the 370 passed similar military-style testing for water, dust and shock resistance, ensuring that whether your whole head gets environmentally assaulted or you just drop your earbud in challenging conditions, at least something will make it through unscathed. My own rudimentary headset testing included an extended dirt bath, several dramatic drops from my second-floor window and a good washing under running water, all with no ill effects. I even took both the G'zOne and Explorer 370 into the shower and placed a call while under the water—every workaholic's dream, and now a reality. Isn't technology wonderful?
G'zOne, $150, www.verizonwireless.com
Explorer 370 Rugged Edition, $80, www.plantronics.com