Travel Gear gift ideas [2010 Cool Yule Tools]

If you’re into gadgets, chances are you carry around a lot of them when you travel. The road warrior uses gadgets as tools and weapons (the figurative kind, not literal), so when it comes time for coming up with gift ideas for them, chances are a new gadget beyond the phone or computer will hit the spot. Here’s a bunch of our favorite weapons for the road warrior:

Products reviewed for this category:

  • Clearwire RoverPuck - 4G Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot
  • Sprint Sierra Wireless 3G/4G Mobile Broadband
  • Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot
  • Optoma PK201 Pico projector
  • Jabra Stone (white) headset
  • BlueAnt T1 rugged Bluetooth headset
  • Plantronics Savor M1100 triple-mic Bluetooth headset
  • Jawbone Icon Rogue Bluetooth headset
  • iSafe backpack (backpack with security alarm)
  • WaterField Designs Vertigo Mambo Combo
  • Magellan RoadMate 3065 GPS unit
  • Eton Scorpion
  • Carmen by Livio
  • Kensington Powerbolt Micro Car Charger

Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot, by Sierra Wireless and SprintLike the Mi-Fi and other mobile hot spot devices, the Overdrive combines a mobile Wi-Fi router with a 3G/4G wireless connection, this time via Sprint. The device can share the wide-area wireless connection (either 3G or Sprint’s new WiMax 4G) with up to five other Wi-Fi devices. The Overdrive also has 16GB of storage space available for file downloads, and you can also tether the Overdrive to a single PC via a USB cable. GPS positioning is also supported, with some mapping apps that could help a mobile traveler find the closest ATM, gas station or other on-the-road location.

The device has been out for a while, but with Sprint’s recent coverage announcement of 4G in the Boston area, I had a better chance to test its speeds and play with the Overdrive device. The 3G/4G aspect is nice – I only had 3G coverage at my home, but 4G coverage at work in Framingham, as well as in most of the Boston area (tough to find the coverage maps, as some sites weren’t updated for Boston yet).

For 3G speeds, I got on average about 1.12 Mbps of download speed, and 270 Kbps upload rate. Not that hot, considering my broadband provided an average of 9-10 Mbps download and 1.06 Mbps upload. But 3G is old news; how does it fare for 4G?

Testing from my Framingham, Mass.-based office (with a 60% 4G signal strength), I was able to achieve an average 3.53 Mbps of download speeds, and 0.58 Mbps average for uploads. These are impressive rates for mobile travelers, and I would have likely received faster speeds if I was in metropolitan Boston.

Setup was simple; a one-button push provided the power and the very handy LCD displayed all the proper information about signal strength, which network I was on, and the Wi-Fi SSD. You can also modify the Overdrive settings (such as enabling GPS, or getting more information on signal strength, etc.) via a Web browser connection to the Overdrive.The only downside is being limited to 4G coverage areas at the moment; for 3G speeds other options (hotel Wi-Fi, etc.) might be more attractive to the mobile traveler. At least until the end of the year, when Verizon says it will launch its LTE 4G service in 38 cities. But if you need/love Sprint coverage, this is a good device if you want the 4G coverage but also want to provide mobile hotspot coverage for additional co-workers/friends.

Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: about $100 (after $250 rebate, plus $50 monthly data plan, plus two-year agreement).Company Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw

Rover Puck, by ClearwireThe Rover Puck is a flat, circular device (think of a flattened out hockey puck) that includes a 4G WAN connection (WiMAX) and a Wi-Fi connection. Users can prepay for the 4G connection, with a daily ($5), weekly ($20) or monthly ($50) rate. The rates allow for unlimited data, and the Wi-Fi connection also provides guest access, so local users can share the Puck’s 4G connection.

The pay-as-you-go option is very appealing to mobile workers who don’t travel enough to warrant a monthly mobile broadband plan, but still want the speeds that WiMax offers. For example, in my tests in New York City, I was able to achieve an average of 3Mbps download and 0.45Mbps upload speed. This data rate allowed me to consistently check e-mail, browse the web and even stream audio at the same time. The $5 daily option was also a welcome relief over hotel Wi-Fi options, which can get as high as $20 for sometimes unreliable connectivity. The Rover Web site also lets you easily “re-up” when your prepaid time runs out.

However, you’re limited to WiMax coverage – if you’re not in a WiMax area (like my central Massachusetts home), it doesn’t drop down to a slower option. Check the map on the Rover Web site for coverage areas.

Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: About $150, plus pre-paid pay-as-you-go options ($5 daily, $20 weekly or $50 monthly)Company Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw

Sprint 3G/4G USB Modem 250U, by Sierra WirelessThe funky design of this USB wireless WAN modem is what first appeals to you – it has a swivel USB port to help angle the antenna better, and a funky round antenna rather than just a straight USB stick or plastic part that juts upward. This combination modem will connect to Sprint’s 3G (CDMA EV-DO) and 4G (WiMAX) networks, depending on whether 4G is in the area you are using the modem. The device pops easily into an existing USB port, and the Sprint SmartView software is an excellent way to see if you’re connected and provides other helpful information. GPS functionality is also provided on the modem.

In my tests between Boston (where 4G coverage was just beginning) and New York (where Sprint has just announced), I ran into several areas where I had 3G only, and the software did a good job of switching between the two networks.

This device is aimed more for the mobile worker who only wants to get the 3G/4G data access – while the device can connect to a mobile broadband router to provide hot spot coverage, I’d recommend getting the Overdrive device instead of trying to use a different model.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 starsPrice: About $250, but check for rebates and specials, plus service agreements.Company Web site Reviewed by Keith Shaw~~

PK201 DLP pico projector, by OptomaThis holiday season, if I can't slim down my figure, maybe I can net a weight loss by shrinking one of the many devices I carry when I travel. Lately I've been craving a more portable projector, and was able to try out the PK201 DLP projector from Optoma.

At 5.6 ounces, and fitting in the palm of your hand, the PK201 DLP projector is most likely the smallest and lightest projector you've ever used. When Optoma says it's portable, they really mean it. A built-in media player and gigabytes of storage (28MB internal, 16GB via microSD) means you don't need to lug around a separate video source. You can if you want though, and the PK201 offers several video inputs, including USB, VGA and HDMI.  A built-in speaker and Li-ion rechargeable battery round out the portability factor for the projector.

At $299 it sounds like a no-brainer, but there are some weaknesses to consider. I'm no expert on lumens (20 ANSI lumens on the PK201), but unless the room is totally dark I'm constantly wishing the projected image was brighter. In a dark room I'm satisfied, even at its 66-inch maximum projection size. The screen is sharp and colors are satisfactory for my needs. But my needs are simple: A chair, a couple of beers, and a movie projected off my iPad onto the side of my house. I was going to say this was perfect for a camping trip, but battery life is only one hour!  That's a huge limitation. Count on needing the included power cord. It also seemed odd that there was no stand included, or any built-in way to tilt the unit upwards -- that's optional. I had to use a short stack of magazines.

My iPhone has taught me that a device can be slim and super-effective. So to see this ultra-portable projector fall short on battery life and brightness was disappointing and limiting. If you're willing to work around these factors, though, I think you've got yourself an exciting weight loss plan for this season!  For me, sadly, the battle continues.

Cool Yule rating: 3 starsPrice: $299Company Web siteReviewed by Gregg Pinsky

Jabra Stone Bluetooth headset, by JabraThe Jabra Stone is a nifty little unit that fits over your right ear and provides outstanding call quality.  It pairs easily with your Bluetooth enabled phone, and when it’s not on your ear it fits nicely into an accompanying recharging station – an oblong “stone” about three inches long and one inch thick. The stone comes with a belt clip, so you can attach it to your belt if you so desire.  Otherwise, you can store it in a pocket or pocketbook.

The headset itself has no physical buttons, although you do press the bottom of it to make and end calls.  You can adjust volume by sliding a finger over the outer part of the headset, which worked better than I expected.  When not in use, simply place the headset into the stone, which recharges it.  Don’t lose the stone, or the headset is worthless because it can’t be recharged on its own or with a separate cable.

The call quality was excellent; I received no complaints from those I spoke with.  It seemed to do a good job filtering wind noise.  There are a few caveats, however.  Due to its unusual shape, the headset only fits over your right ear.  If you wear glasses, or frequently wear sunglasses, you might want to look elsewhere – the headset had some issues coexisting peacefully with mine (even wire rims).  Despite whipping my head about, the headset never fell off – but I was constantly reminded it was there when wearing anything else over my ears.

Another annoyance – hopefully limited to my testing unit – was the odd habit the headset had of emitting a low frequency noise when not in use.  I’ve tested many headsets over the years, and this was the first time I’ve noticed such a problem.  If you don’t leave the headset on when you’re not using it, this won’t matter to you.  But, if like me, you tend to leave it in when not in use (driving your girlfriend crazy in the process), you’ll quickly be broken of that habit.  On second thought: ladies, this might be the perfect Christmas present.  You know, if you’re trying to avoid that Locutus look this year.  The off-putting noise wasn’t constant, but it was frequent enough to warrant mention (it never happened when the headset was in use).

On a more positive note, the headset plays music through the A2DP Bluetooth feature.  Not only does it connect with an iPhone or iPod Touch, it also seamlessly streams music from Android handsets.  I didn’t realize that until I opened Pandora on my phone, and it started streaming wirelessly to my right ear.  If you receive a phone call during playback, it automatically pauses.  Really, a very neat feature.  The audio quality is tinny, but I could decipher the music just fine.This particular Jabra Stone – aka “the white one” – retails for $129, and is available exclusively on AT&T.com, or at your local AT&T store.  The same Jabra Stone headset – sans whiteness, aka “the black one” – is available on Amazon.com for $89.  I recommend the Jabra Stone – regardless of its color – as an excellent Bluetooth headset in terms of audio quality, design, and innovation.  It’s up to you whether you want to shell out another $40 for the white version.

Cool Yule rating: 3 starsPrice: $89.99Company Web siteReviewed by Dan Hunt

T1 Rugged Bluetooth Headset, by BlueAntBlueAnt makes several different types of Bluetooth headsets, and the T1 rugged version is aimed at users who need a more solid version than some others. But in using the T1, I found it to be just OK.

The T1 comes with six replaceable nubs to insert into your ear so you can find the most comfortable for you. It’s also very easy to sync with your phone. I like that it even gives verbal instructions though the headset as you do it. The only downside is that it moves at its own pace, and I couldn’t figure out how to back up during the sync process.

It boasts Wind Armor Technology that allows for “clear audio at wind speeds up 22 mph.” That may be true for other users, but I’m not sure. I personally found the audio to be amazingly spotty while just sitting on my couch. The people on the other end of the phone could hear me just fine, but I found it difficult and inconsistent to hear them.

Another claim of BlueAnt is that the T1 announces the callers, and this is true only if they are saved in your phone. All you have to do is tell the T1 to “answer” or “ignore.” It can also sync with the voice dialing on your phone, allowing you to tell the T1 who to call for you.

Other features include streaming audio of podcasts and turn-by-turn directions from GPS applications on your mobile phone. Android phone users can download a free app allowing for text message readout directly into the headset. These are all fun features, if only BlueAnt had really nailed the main feature for Bluetooth headsets: clear audio for regular phone calls.

Cool Yule rating: 2 starsPrice: $79.99Company Web siteReviewed by Jen Finn~~

Savor M1100 Bluetooth headset, by PlantronicsThe latest premium Bluetooth headset from Plantronics is the first one to feature three microphones – yes, three! The microphones are used to reduce noise and cancel noise and aid in situations like outdoors, noisy environments or wind.

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