Christmas in July: 11 cool gadget gifts

As you may (or may not) have noticed, the print version of the Cool Tools column is no more. The main reason (about 100%, really) is that the print version of Network World is gone, and it's tough to have a column in a print product that no longer exists.

That being said, we aim to continue the realm of the Cool Tools universe here in the vast expanse of cyberspace. As everyone knows, the Internet provides us with unlimited space (I don't have to fit columns into a specified number of words), fewer-to-no deadlines (no copy editor shouting "Where's the column?") and other such frills. It's a win-win, right?

A few weeks later, and I now have a pile of boxes containing untested, unwritten-about devices. It turns out the regular deadlines and word limits kept me (somewhat) motivated to finish columns and produce content. With those limits gone, let's just say I got distracted a bit on other projects. Meanwhile, the gadget-industrial-complex keeps churning out more and more cool tools to try. What to do?

Roundup time!

We're also at the middle of July (sort of), and with the holidays only six months away you might want to get started on your holiday shopping. Here's a quick roundup of some Cool Tools that we've tested recently, all with the "Keith Shaw Seal of Approval" (")

Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone: This one's a no-brainer, the hardest part will be deciding whether you want to get it through Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile. The successor to the Galaxy S3 smartphone, the S4 adds additional photography features that are quite nice - I had a blast trying out the phone's Drama mode (which takes a series of action shots and merges them into one image), Animated photo (to create animated GIFs) and Eraser mode (which aims to eliminate photo bombers). Like the S3, the Galaxy S4 is the cream-of-the-crop in the smartphone space - right up there with the iPhone 5 on the high end. Getting into a debate of "which phone is better" is like trying to settle a debate about which soda is better - Coke or Pepsi. You've likely already made up your mind about whether to go with iOS or Android, and will just upgrade to the latest device in that OS line once it becomes available. If you haven't yet invested in a smartphone, flip a coin - both devices are awesome and you'll love either one. Cost: $300, plus data/voice monthly service via carrier.

Lenovo ThinkCentre Edge 92z: This all-in-one PC features a unit with monitor and computer combined to help save space on your desk or within your cubicle. With Windows 8 as its operating system, the 21.5-inch display's touchscreen lets you use your fingers to navigate through installed apps, or you can attach a wired mouse and keyboard to get your work done in the more traditional sense. The system includes support for Microsoft Lync's VoIP software, including a built-in 1080p webcam and a digital array microphone that also suppresses keyboard noise (so you can type notes during those conference calls with colleagues without having someone yell "mute your phone!"). Device cost: Starts at $899.

Seagate Slim portable external hard drive: It's no surprise to see external storage getting smaller physically while growing in capacity. The latest small storage device from Seagate continues this trend - the Slim comes in a very light offering - it's almost smaller than a smartphone, but with 500GB of storage space. The device can be used on a Windows machine, a Macintosh system or a combination of both (if you install some Paragon software to enable read/write capabilities on both systems). In addition, backup software lets you grab content automatically from Facebook and Flickr to the drive (Windows software only). A USB 3.0 cable to enable higher-speed transfer of data (if your computer has USB 3.0 ports on it) enhances the Slim even more, especially if you are transferring lots and lots of data. Cost: $80 (for 500GB).

Damson Audio Twist wireless portable Bluetooth speaker: This tiny speaker can produce some pretty big sound, but a lot depends on where you place it. The Twist speaker produces larger bass sound when you place it on any flat surface - you'll have fun testing it in different locations and on different objects (hollow objects like an empty box seem to work best, but flat tables work well too). The Twist name comes into play for operating the device - twist the top half left to go into Bluetooth wireless mode - twist the top half to the right to go into regular power mode for connecting devices via the included 3.5mm jack. The unit also includes a Line Out port, which lets you connect multiple Twist speakers or other speakers that have a Line In jack (we tested ours with a Marware UpSurge mini speaker). The system comes with a carrying pouch and 5V DC charging cable (it charges via USB port) in case you wear out the up-to-9-hour built-in battery. For fashion-conscious users, the Twist comes in four color options - grey, black, blue or red. Cost: $70.

Duracell Powermat wireless power chargers: I was a big fan of the Powermat wireless charging system when it came out - providing a way for smartphone users to place their devices onto a flat surface and recharge them. Now that Duracell owns PowerMat, the company has come out with two new devices - PowerMat that can charge two devices (as long as you have a wireless case as well), and the PowerSnap Kit, which provides a wireless case and additional detachable backup battery. Duracell sent us a case/battery for the iPhone 5, but other smartphones are also available. Like earlier Powermat systems, the latest version is easy to set up - once it's plugged in, it can provide wireless power charging for any Powermat-enabled device placed onto its surface. You'll know it's recharging when you hear a series of beeps - you hear it when you connect or disconnect from the Powermat base unit.

The wireless case itself provides some additional protection for your iPhone, but the bottom part of it looks a bit odd - the color scheme helps identify it as a Duracell-branded product, but there's extra space at the bottom that seems odd. Attaching the extra battery power adds some additional heft, but it's a nice-to-have option for when you're down to single-digit battery percentages on your phone (the battery pack itself charges via an included USB cable, or you can place it on a Powermat as well). Cost: $100 for PowerSnap Kit; $50 for PowerMat two-device unit.

Ultimate Ears Boom wireless speaker / speakerphone: If a tiny Bluetooth speaker isn't your thing, you'll want to check out this larger unit, courtesy of Logitech's Ultimate Ears division. The Boom is about twice the height of the Twist speaker, yet still cylindrical in shape, which provides listeners with 360-degree sound. Connecting to the unit via Bluetooth is quite simple - it works nicely with a Bluetooth-enabled iPod, iPhone, iPad or any other Bluetooth device. If you have a smartphone with near-field communications (NFC), you can connect to the speaker this way.

The unit produces very loud sound, which makes it great for parties and other large gatherings - testing the unit in the quiet realm of my office meant I needed to lower the volume settings to its lowest level. You can change volume on the device itself (there are giant Plus and Minus symbols for doing that), as well as on your music player. The speaker can connect to two Bluetooth devices at once in "Multi Host" mode, which means you can play one song, pause the device, hit play on another device and keep the music going. The unit also contains a dual-microphone if you want to use the speaker as a speakerphone for your next conference call.

If you love one speaker, you can also "double your sound" by getting a second Boom unit and then using the UE Boom Mobile App to set up two units to play from the same music source at the same time (we only had one unit, so we didn't test this feature). The system comes with a nice charging brick and USB cable to recharge its battery, and there's a nice hook on the top of the cylinder to allow you to hang the speaker from the ceiling or on a wall (an interesting touch). You can choose from six color options as well. The unit also has a line-in port for connecting older non-Bluetooth devices, but you have to provide your own cable. Cost: $200.

Fitbit Flex: Wearable fitness devices are the rage now, giving you tons of information about how much activity you're doing on a regular basis. The Fitbit Flex can measure how many steps you take, how far you walk, how many calories you burn and how many minutes that you're "active". In addition, when you wear it at night, it can track your sleep in terms of how many hours, how many times you wake up, the quality of the sleep and provide you with a silent vibrating alarm. You can check how you're doing by tapping the unit to get LED lights in terms of your daily goals, or you can synchronize statistics with your smartphone and computer.

The Flex wristband is water-resistant, so you can keep it on when you're jumping into a pool or taking a shower (or if you feel like running in the rain). The unit has about a five-day battery life, and can recharge via the included USB cable. Synchronization with a computer occurs via a tiny USB dongle - with a smartphone it's via Bluetooth. Your enjoyment depends a lot on how much data tracking you want to engage in - during my week of testing I monitored my progress more through the smartphone app than I did with the website, although the website seems to have more data available.

While the Fitbit gives you data on how many steps you take and how many calories you've burned (which I found inaccurate compared with the number you get on a treadmill, for example), you have to do more work like inputting different activity types, the food you eat and other such data in order to get more interesting analysis from the reports. The sleep report, for example, told me how long it took me to fall asleep, how many times I woke up, and the length of sleep, but no other analysis beyond that (Am I getting enough sleep? Am I waking up too often?). It's possible that this analysis comes with the Premium membership, which offers more regular reports for $50 per year. Device cost: $100.

BlueAnt Connect voice-controlled Bluetooth headset: The combination of a Bluetooth headset and voice control options, both on the smartphone and headset, make this a nice device to keep yourself hands-free while driving or doing other things. The Connect headset continues BlueAnt's excellence in this space - the headset was easy to setup (the voice inside your earpiece guides you through the process of pairing), and you can easily answer, ignore or make calls by just talking to the device. If you have voice control features on your smartphone (such as Siri on the iPhone), you can activate those by talking through the device. The headset provides wind, echo and voice cancellation features that can help with noisy and outdoor environments as well. My only complaint was on the headset's fit - the unit only provides two sizes of earbuds, which didn't seem to fit very comfortably on my ears during my tests. Device cost: $70.

CoolStream Bluetooth Stereo Headphones: A lot of the wireless headphones I've tried recently have been big, bulky models, or smaller earbud-style devices that become uncomfortable after a few hours of use. The CoolStream Bluetooth Stereo Headphones (model BTH301) are in-between those two extremes - a smaller over-the-ear device that is a lot more comfortable to wear. The Bluetooth profile lets you listen to music from a Bluetooth device (iPod, iPhone, Android smartphone, etc.) hands-free without a cable getting in the way (although I'd not likely wear these for working out because of the possibility of sweating all over them). This also lets you move up to 30 feet away from your music device. The headset has a nice play/pause button on the right side earphone (which can also answer/end phone calls if you're using this with a phone), and an easy-to-find up/down volume control button. The unit comes with a USB charging cable, but not a power adapter. An on/off switch also helps save battery life for the rechargeable battery. I tried the company's Bluetooth Receiver for iOS-based docking speakers during last year's holiday guide - CoolStream (owned by Exeter Science & Entertainment) is a smaller company but they are producing outstanding systems. Check them out. Device cost: $49.99

Karma mobile hotspot: Similar to the FreedomPop Photon mobile hot spot, the Karma device is a small, pucklike device that provides wireless 4G network connectivity (WiMAX network via Clearwire) for its users, who connect to the puck with their mobile devices via Wi-Fi. Unlike mobile hot spot providers from larger carriers (Verizon, AT&T, etc.), Karma doesn't require a monthly subscription for data access. Users get 100MB of data for free, and then can "pay-as-you-go" for additional data access, including $14 for 1GB, $28 for 2GB and $70 for 5GB. In addition, users can earn additional data by sharing their "Karma" with others. When the Karma puck is active, other users seeing the Karma's Wi-Fi signal can sign up for free access, and the owner of the puck receives an additional 100MB of data. For mobile users who need occasional data access without being tied to a monthly subscription plan this is a nice idea. My only complaint - the Clearwire WiMAX coverage is more limited and offers slower data speeds than carrier-based 4G LTE networks. Device cost: $100 (with first 1GB); $149 (plus 7GB) or $279 (with 20GB).

Eye-Fi Mobi: I've been a big fan of the Eye-Fi cards since they first arrived a few years ago, enabling Wi-Fi access via SD cards for devices like digital cameras and camcorders. The company's latest card is the 8GB Mobi card, a less expensive version ($49.99) of the company's 16GB Pro X2 card ($100). The card can be used in almost any digital camera or camcorder that stores data on an SD card, and with the free Eye-Fi app (for iOS, Google Android or Amazon Kindle Fire devices), users can easily transfer photos and videos taken with their camera to their mobile phone or tablet. This may not be the right device if you already use your smartphone's camera for photos and videos, but if you prefer to use a smaller digital camera (or a better one than your phone), the Mobi card offers an easy way to get images/videos transferred to the phone so you can share via email or social network. Device cost: $50 (for 8GB).

Shaw can be reached at kshaw@nww.com. Follow him on Twitter: @shawkeith

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This story, "Christmas in July: 11 cool gadget gifts" was originally published by Network World.

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