Home and Office Gear Gift Ideas [2010 Cool Yule Tools]

Desktop or notebook – check. Smartphone – check. After that, though, there might be some additional pieces of gear to make your home or office truly productive. Here are our picks for some products that help you create a better home or office. 

Products reviewed in this category: 

  • Ooma VoIP system 
  • Plustek SmartPhoto P60 
  • iomega iconnect wireless data station 
  • ThinkGeek USB 7 hub 
  • Vtech Expandable Cordless Phone System (Bluetooth/touch/answering) 
  • Plaster Networks - powerline network adapters
  • Epson Artisan 725 Arctic Frost printer 
  • Lexar Multi-card 24-in-1 Reader (USB 2.0) 
  • Smartfish ErgoMotion Laser Mouse 
  • Omnitech/Staples "bling" rhinestone mouse 
  • Das Keyboard Professional S mechanical keyboard 

Ooma Telo VoIP system, by Ooma

The latest home voice-over-IP system from Ooma includes a base station that you hook up to your broadband router (it actually recommends connecting it between the modem and the router for optimal voice quality). You can then attach a normal phone to the base station, or you can purchase optional Telo handsets, which connect to the base station wirelessly. 

The Telo base station has all the features of the Ooma Hub, with the additions of an online phonebook, the ability to receive HD voice, support of the Ooma Telo handsets, and a USB port for future expansion. You can get a new phone number, or port your existing phone number for a one-time $39.99 charge. 

Once connected and activated, you get free home telephone service (in the U.S.) - no monthly charges for telephone calls unless you want to upgrade to the premium service (which costs $9.99 monthly and offers additional features like an instant second line, three-way conferencing, the ability to forward to a mobile phone, a backup number, and even Google extensions or using Bluetooth to answer mobile phone calls with the Telo handsets. You also get free voicemail for the phone. Ooma also just introduced an iPhone app (for $9.99) that lets you make voice calls from your iPhone through the Ooma Telo base station. 

Setup takes about 15 to 20 minutes, and the sound quality on the phone calls is just as good as any other VoIP service, if not better. The HD voice feature is awesome if you make Ooma to Ooma calls (or Ooma to a handset connected to an Ooma Telo base). If you're sick of paying monthly service fees for home telephone service, the Ooma system is a great alternative, and can pay for itself within a year of purchase.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars Price: $250 for Ooma Telo base station, $300 for base station plus one handset. Additional handsets are $50, and the Ooma iPhone app costs $9.99.  Company Web site Reviewed by Keith Shaw 

LS6245 Expandable Cordless Phone System, by vtech

I have to admit, this is a product I’ve wanted for some time – a cordless phone system, based on DECT 6.0 (no interference with Wi-Fi) that can expand to a large number (eight) of handsets and also connect to a cellular handset via Bluetooth (actually, two cell phones for additional virtual lines 2 and 3, if you will). You can also connect Bluetooth devices like cordless headsets to the system, meaning the same cordless headset you use with your cell phone can also be used with the LS6245. Convenience is oozing from every pore of this product, and it’s stylish as well, quite reminiscent of those amazingly expensive but oh-so-cool Bang and Olufsen phones.

Hooking a cell phone to a cordless phone sounds a bit complex. Is it? Not really – pairing a cell phone (I used the Sony Ericsson Vivaz) with the LS6245 is no more complex than pairing a headset, and everything worked on the first try. You can then direct outbound calls (via a “cell” button on the vetch handset) to the cellular phone, and, similarly, inbound calls wind up on the cordless handsets. This means you can just drop your handset near the base station when you get home, and voila, inbound cellular calls will reach you anywhere in the house. This is also a great solution for those who have marginal cellular coverage; just put the LS6245 base station on an upper floor, and you’re all set – answer (or dial out) via your cell phone anywhere you have a cordless handset. 

There are a number of counterintuitive user interface features on the handset, and I personally don’t really like the styling or form factor. And I’d like Bluetooth in the handsets – now that would be cool! But the functionality is cool and there’s real value here. I wouldn’t mind getting one of these myself (hint, hint). 

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 stars Price: $79.95 for base station and one handset; $39.95 for each additional handset (up to eight total) Company Web siteReviewed by C. J. Mathias

USB 7 Port Hub with Power Switches, at ThinkGeek.com Having additional USB ports available on a computer these days is a necessity, not a “nice to have” any more. By the time you connect a keyboard, mouse and storage device to your PC or notebook, not to mention any laptop cooler system, or devices that require two(!) ports, you don’t have anything left for any additional gadgets that you may want to connect. The USB hub that I used for many years, by Belkin, has been a solid workforce performer, but so many devices going in and out of the device had me feeling that it was time for an upgrade (don’t ask, hard to explain). 

The older hub also likely didn’t have USB 2.0, so upgrading to the USB 7 Port Hub with Power Switches made sense. First, all of the ports are USB 2.0 compatible, which could speed things up for devices that may have been connected to older ports. Second, I like having power switches on each port, which lets me turn on or off the device by flicking a switch. This is great for things like backup devices or storage drives – I can turn off power access via the hub instead of unplugging the drive itself. 

My one complaint is that I don’t really know who makes the hub – the packaging says it’s made in China, but there’s no company listed, and you can get it through the ThinkGeek Web site. I’d prefer seeing a company like Kensington, Targus or Belkin come out with a branded version, just so I knew where to go to get service. Of course, ThinkGeek offers other USB hub devices as well, so check out their listings. 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars Price: $20 Company Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw~~

Das Keyboard Model S Professional, by das keyboardThe latest version of my favorite keyboard has been redesigned with electronics that now provide "full n-key rollover" with a PS2 adapter, which should appeal to keyboardists who know what that means and why it matters. For my part, I know that the mechanical key switches that provide the "clicky" sound and tactile feedback really make my typing go faster. The full-sized 104-key layout is very comfortable to type with, and includes keys like arrow keys, a number pad and six other buttons (insert, home, delete, end, page up and down). 

The keyboard connects via two USB cables, and you can connect one to a PS2 port if your computer still has one of those. The extra cable is used to provide a USB 2.0 hub on the keyboard, giving you two extra ports for attaching mice or other USB peripherals. 

The original das keyboard had no labels on it, and the company has modified that to provide laser-etched labels for all the keys on the Model S Professional. You can still get one without any keys (the Ultimate model), and the company also makes two models (one with labels, one without) that include a "silent" mode that provides less clicky sounds - perfect in case you work in a cube setting and people are getting annoyed by your typing. You can also buy some earplugs for $10 for associates or family members who might be annoyed. 

The das keyboards are a bit pricey, but well worth it if someone on your list is a really fast typist, or really needs a fast-reacting keyboard for PC games (or MMOs). 

Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $129 Company Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw

PLN3 and AV200 powerline network adapters, by Plaster NetworksI never thought I'd be impressed by any new features of powerline networking, until I tried out the PLN3 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter and AV200 Powerline Ethernet Adapter from Plaster Networks. The adapters support up to 200Mbps of bandwidth through your existing power outlets in your home, and can help extend your home network in cases where wireless doesn't reach, or if you are trying to connect an Ethernet-only-enabled device to your network. 

Setup was simple - I plugged in the PLN3 to my router, then the AV200 plugged into another outlet. The AV200 includes two Ethernet ports, so you can attach two different devices if you want. Bing bang boom - once connected you should be able to be connected to your home network. 

Another piece of gear that Plaster Networks sent was their IX2 Isolator, which can reduce electrical noise and interference on the powerline network (sometimes caused by appliances or other gadgets), as well as improve the powerline network throughput. With one adapter in one power outlet, I plugged in the IX2, which has two power outlets attached to it (basically giving you those outlets back for additional gear) 

Here's where it gets interesting: With a PLN3 attached to the network, it collects data that you can access via the Plaster Networks site - sign in and you can get reports on the bandwidth, link performance and link traffic between the adapters. On my connection, it told me I was getting 81Mbps of bandwidth between the powerline adapters. It also told me this was well beyond the bandwidth I would need to stream music, TV and even HD video. My first connection was an Olive O3HD music server, which streamed Internet radio and music from my network servers just nicely. I then attached a Toshiba notebook to the adapter, and was able to stream Hulu and Netflix among other Web activities just fine. 

The reports it generates are interesting, but not earth-shattering. I suppose they would be helpful for network managers looking to troubleshoot a troublesome connection, but for the most part I just got performance numbers between the two links, which didn't look like much because I wasn't doing that much activity. I suppose if I added additional adapters and had activity running over 30 days, then the reports would be more useful. 

Anyway, the main reason to get these are for strong powerline connections for your home network, and to provide access for devices that don't have built-in wireless capabilities. If that's the case, the extra intelligence on the network is a bonus. 

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $129 for starter kit (one PLN3, one AV200 adapter); additional AV200 adapters cost $60; IX2 Isolator costs $25. Company Web site Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Artisan 735 Arctic Frost all-in-one printer, by EpsonEpson continues to impress me with its Artisan line of all-in-one photo printers, which also offer regular paper printing, copying and scanning. The network printer (either Ethernet or Wi-Fi) uses Epson's Claria Hi-Definition dye ink (six cartridges instead of the normal four colors) to produce great color photo prints, and 4-by-6-inch prints can be done in as fast as 10 seconds. Normal pages can print at about 9.5 pages per minutes (black) and 9 pages per minutes in color. 

The printer includes a 2.5-inch LCD screen for selecting your photos from an inserted memory card and to perform options, and the white arctic frost design will complement users who have lots of white machines in their office. 

Like other Artisan printers (we still love the 800 and 810 version), this one can do unique things with paper like create coloring book pages from existing photos, individual lined and graph paper (perfect for parents of school-age kids when the student comes up saying, “I need graph paper” at 9 p.m.), and even personalized note paper (watermarks). 

Other fun features include the ability to restore color to faded photos (scan, then correct), printing directly from an iPhone or other mobile device, and printing directly to CDs/DVDs without labels. The printer can even charge your cell phone and other USB-powered devices through a handy charging port on the front. The Arctic Frost Edition (pictured here) is available exclusively at Best Buy retail stores and at BestBuy.com.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $200 Company Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw ~~

Multi-Card 24-in-1 Reader, by Lexar At first glance, a card reader that can read 24 different formats makes you go, “Whoa”, but Lexar is cheating just a little bit by counting almost every iteration of a memory card format as a different number. Still, it’s impressive that it can read almost any memory card, ranging from the SD formats (and SDHC, microSD), xD, CompactFlash, MemoryStick (plus Duo), and even MMC. 

The cool part is that you may have some of these older format cards sitting around (old coot alert: I remember when people actually used CompactFlash and MemoryStick cards), and want to transfer images to your PC, or maybe to another card format (like a newer SDHC card, for example). In addition, you may be using an older notebook that doesn’t have a card reader installed automatically (cough cough), and having a nice and easy device to read those cards is needed. While many companies may think that the external card reader device is no longer needed, it’s nice to see a company still dedicated to those of us who don’t have those fancy in-system readers yet. 

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