Home Entertainment Gift Ideas [2010 Cool Yule Tools]

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Wowee One portable speaker, by Gel Audio The problem with a lot of portable speakers is that they don't give enough bass response, making the sound come out very small and tinny. The Wowee One improves this by enabling bass to flow out onto the surface of wherever the Wowee is placed. So when you place it on a tabletop, the tabletop helps boost the bass, as the Wowee vibrates to assist.

The device includes a standard portable speaker that delivers the mid to high frequencies, and then a Gel Audio driver to deliver the bass frequencies. The company says it can play up to 20 hours of music per charge, and the internal battery can be recharged via USB cable to your computer (or other USB charging adapter). You can connect any portable audio device (MP3 player, iPod, iPhone, even a computer) through the included audio jack (which also turns on the speaker, oddly enough).

The improvement in the bass is nice, but for songs with higher ranges, it's still a portable speaker, so you still won't get full sound as you would with larger speakers. The device is small enough to pack along if you want to share music with others and don't want to rely on the tiny speakers in your device.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars

Price: $80

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Solar Sound 2 Bluetooth Stereo Speaker, by Devotec Once the “oh, wow, a Bluetooth-connected, solar-power compact stereo speaker system” factor wears off, it might be a good idea to look at whether such a product is really filling a mainstream need. Don’t get me wrong – I can see the utility of such a device, but the drawbacks outweigh the coolness factor pretty quickly.

First of all, like most compact loudspeakers, the sound isn’t very good – a quick check with CD sources (mostly heavy metal, my particular weakness) showed the Devotec to be, well, low-fi. Pop and classical fared no better. And one of the product’s advantages quickly became a drawback – solar rechargeability seems like a good idea, but a full charge may take quite a while, depending upon how much sun is shining. But, then, it can also be recharged over USB, and audio and USB cables (and an AC adapter as well) are included. And, of course, it’s a bit heavy and may not be what one would to carry around in an already overstuffed computer bag.

If you absolutely, positively need portable speakers, say for use with an iPod in a meeting, this might fit the bill, even with the above-noted fidelity, recharge, and weight limitations. But I’d prefer a good set of headphones for personal listening.

Cool Yule rating: 2 stars

Price: $100

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias~~

SoundOrb Aurora, by Gear4 The SoundOrb Aurora is a 2.1 speaker system (stereo speakers and subwoofer) with a wireless component – the subwoofer is wireless (2.4GHz), letting you separate that unit from the speaker system. The subwoofer also includes an ambient light feature that can be adjusted to create mood lighting while you play the music. The main stereo speakers can also recharge an iPod or iPhone that sits on top of the speakers. 

Other features include video output to a TV, and audio input (from a TV or other audio source) if you want to use these speakers with your TV. The speakers have great sound, and it’s nice to see an iPod with a separate subwoofer that you can move away from the speakers, but at $350 it’s a bit pricey. The best usage I got from the speakers was as a set of powered speakers for other devices I was trying out in the holiday guide (such as the Orb and Olive OH3D Muisc Service). In addition, I thought at first the ambient light function would blink to the beats of the music (creating a disco-light-like effect), but it really doesn’t.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars

Price: $349

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Vitruvian CSMP175 speaker system, by Coby The Coby Vitruvian is a quality speaker system for the iPod or iPhone. The sound from the two 25W speakers is great, even at high volumes. The Vitruvian boasts a remote control button that lets you change the bass level. Personally, I couldn’t figure out if it was working/what it was doing. I didn’t hear a difference, but my boyfriend claims that it did affect the sound, although not greatly.

Speaking of the remote, it is fully functioning and has all the buttons that you would need: volume, bass, play/pause, etc. The remote even lets you access the menu and move through it as though you were next to the machine. One problem I encountered was that if I was too close to the machine, the remote would work for pausing, but I’d have to actually touch my iPod to get the music to resume playing. If you aren’t using the remote, the machine has actual, raised buttons. They are on the top and are designed well enough to not be distracting. I prefer a machine with real buttons rather than touch-sensitive buttons, that way you can always tell if it’s responding to your touch.

The iPod/iPhone dock can also rotate 90 degrees, which lets you use the cover flow feature of the iPod, or watch movies on the device, with the sound coming through the speakers. In addition, behind the dock is ambient backlighting. The lighting can be changed on the dock, but if you don’t want to cycle through every lighting option, you can use the remote. The light has 10 grades, ranging from almost off to just enough light. This basically lets you create mood music and mood lighting from the same device.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars

Price: About $80

Company Web site

Reviewed by Jen Finn

Link Wireless A/V Extender, by Imation Are you tired of watching YouTube, Netflix or Hulu content on a tiny computer screen and lousy speakers? Would you rather be able to watch that stuff on your fancy new HDMI-enabled HDTV with a better sound system? The Link Wireless A/V Extender by imation can help. This handy little device basically lets you extend your computer's display to an HDMI-enabled TV or a VGA-enabled monitor, through the use of a wireless transmitter and DisplayLink technology (the same type that lets you connect a second monitor via USB cable).

In this case, a wireless USB transmitter sends screen data to the Link receiver, which is then connected via HDMI cable or VGA cable to your TV or monitor. When connected correctly, your TV becomes a second computer screen, and you can do things like watch Internet TV on your TV instead of your PC, and the wireless aspect means you don't have to have the PC connected with a wire, giving you a little bit more room between the location of the PC/notebook and your TV. It's a neat little trick, and can be a good way to stream Internet TV or video services like Netflix or Hulu to a TV. With an HDMI connection, audio can be streamed to the TV as well, which might have better speakers than your PC.

The only downside is that you need to have an HDMI input on your TV, or VGA inputs; older TVs that have component or composite inputs won't work with this. But if you have a newer TV with HDMI, this can be a nice way to stream that video content on a larger, possibly higher-definition display.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 stars Price: About $145

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw~~

VT2300LED TV, by ViewSonic If you’re looking for a high-definition TV for a secondary room, or just something that’s not as big as a 40-plus-inch unit, this 23-inch model from ViewSonic could fit the bill. Features include built-in digital tuners, 1,920 by 1,080 native image resolution, three HDMI inputs, S-video, VGA, composite and component inputs for various devices (like game consoles, Internet streaming boxes, even a computer monitor). The system also includes 10watt-SRS TruSurround HD audio to give you good sound quality from the TV.

The backlit LED provides excellent picture quality, especially with darker blacks and brighter whites on the screen. The unit is wall mountable, or you could set it on its round base. The inputs are easily accessible, and the remote control was very responsive and easy to use.

Again, at 23-inches this likely won’t be your main display, but as a secondary TV or something to connect your gaming consoles (or maybe an Apple TV!) to, this is a very nice set. With three HDMI inputs, the TV is ready for future devices that will likely require this type of connectivity, but also has inputs for older devices should you still have some of those.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: About $400

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

SyncMaster B2330HD LCD HDTV, by Samsung This monitor can be used as an office monitor for your computing needs, or if you want to use it as a TV in a dorm room or other small location, the 23-inches of the multi-function B2330 will give you enough space to think it’s a large TV, but small enough to fit into the small location. In testing, I used this as a secondary TV and connected a Roku box for the kids to watch their Netflix programs on in the living room (apart from the larger HDTV in the family room). The monitor has a nice piano black finish, which would fit nice in either an office or home setting.

Other features include a 70,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio, a 5ms response time to prevent ghosting and motion blurring, a 16:9 aspect ratio, full 1080p support, and two HDMI connections. A picture-in-picture function can let you watch TV while doing computing work as well. The Samsung Connectshare feature lets you play music, movies and photos on the monitor from a USB memory stick or other USB device. It also includes Samsung’s Magic Suite 2010, which include applications Magic Eco, Magic Return, Magic Color, MagicTune and Magic Bright3. Sound quality is excellent, with Dolby Digital Plus sound with 3W built-in stereo speakers supported.

I was slightly disappointed in one thing – on some of my HDMI equipment (the Imation Link A/V, for example), the HDMI inputs weren’t recognized. Even on the Roku XDS box, at times the TV would not register an HDMI signal (the signal and cables worked on other TVs we tried).

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: About $280

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

O3HD Music Server, by Olive The concept behind the O3HD Music Server sounds cool enough - it's a box that's meant to be the centralized location for all of your music, with the ability to play the songs through your home stereo system. It's a CD player, hard drive (500GB or 2TB options) and Internet-connected appliance all in one unit. Unfortunately, several system glitches prevented me from truly enjoying this device.

At least setup was easy. The unit connects a home network, providing it's some form of Ethernet - in my case, I used powerline A/V network adapters to connect to my network. Stereo output ports then connect to powered speakers - again, I used the Gear4 SoundOrb Aurora for my speakers.

There are a few different ways you can access music through the O3HD. First, you can send your CDs to Olive in advance and they'll rip them onto the drive and send you back the server. If all of your music is sitting on CDs instead of some other digital format, this makes the most sense. The O3HD includes a slot-loaded CD player/recorder, so you can add individual CDs to the system, and then rip it yourself and store it on the drive. Third, you can access music stored on any network server you have on the network. This was a bit problematic - in my tests, the Olive could only see two of my four network server locations - it's unclear whether music needs to be stored in a shared drive on those networks. Fourth, the O3HD can connect to Internet radio services if the home network has Internet access.

The major problem I have with this device is the user interface. There's a small LCD screen on the front of the device that has a touch screen for choosing different menu options, and hardware buttons as well. The buttons are woefully unresponsive - every button push caused a 3-4 second delay before the software acknowledged an action, totally unacceptable. The included remote control improved the reaction time, but only by a second or two. The worst thing you want is to push a button, wait, push a button, wait, etc.

Second, the CD ripping was unreliable as well. While you have several format options to choose from, I could only succeed at ripping at a 128-bit MP3 format - others I tried failed. In addition, the system uses the Internet to find artwork for the albums, and several times the artwork was incorrect.

Basically I expected more from a system that costs $1,000. If you haven't yet joined the digital music movement and still have piles of CDs all over the place, then maybe the thought of buying a network music server with all of your music pre-ripped would be appealing. But if you are trying to connect this to an existing network with your music already stored in several locations, this isn't worth the money.

Cool Yule rating: 1 star Price: Starts at $1,000 (500GB)

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Anime Onyx 3D Glasses, by Gunnar Optiks Apparently 3D is so hot that you can just go out and buy your own glasses instead of having to rely on either the glasses at the movie theater or the ones that come with the new TV. The Anime Onyx 3D Glasses by Gunnar Optiks does just that. The glasess are RealD compatible, and the lenses provide distortion free polarization with wide-field viewing for enhanced 3D effects.

They don’t work with the typical red/cyan 3D, so it’s tough to test these out unless you plunk down some cash for a 3D movie, or head to the Best Buy to check out their 3D TV demonstrations. At $99, this requires some serious investment in 3D moviegoing or a 3D TV, or you really want to look cooler than the people with the plastic glasses at the theater.

At least the glasses are comfortable to wear.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars Price: $99

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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This story, "Home Entertainment Gift Ideas [2010 Cool Yule Tools]" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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