Holiday gift ideas: Travel Gear

Gadgets were practically invented for mobile business workers -- always traveling, they're always looking for technology that makes their journeys easier, more productive, and even fun or entertaining. You can argue that other categories in the gift guide, such as portable entertainment, smartphones, even computers/notebooks owe their existence to the road warrior. That said, here are some travel (or automobile) specific gadgets that we enjoyed:

TomTom XL 340S LIVE

This widescreen GPS unit from TomTom includes traffic updates through a built-in receiver that can access TomTom's LIVE service. When you buy the unit you get a three-month trial of the services, which provide live traffic information on your current route, local search with Google, fuel price updates, a sped-up time to get your GPS position, and weather forecasts.

The device has a 4.3-inch widescreen display, which in theory lets you see more map when driving, but it's not really that much of a difference than other GPS units I've tried. I did like the new EasyPort mounting system, which makes it a whole lot easier to mount the device on your windshield than earlier suction-cup systems -- an older TomTom unit we have still occasionally falls off. With the EasyPort, you can snap on the GPS device to the mount a whole lot quicker, and also snap it off quicker, which you'll end up doing a lot of because you won't want to leave this in your car so that thieves can take them.Software updates include advanced lane guidance (the system does a good job of telling you what lane to get in way before you need to be in that lane), and it speaks street names for you if you want (which is highly entertaining in Massachusetts, where I still can't pronounce town names, let alone street names, correctly).

Like other TomTom units, you can download its HOME software to your PC, which makes it easier to get map updates and other applications for the GPS. I'm especially intrigued by the ability for users to create their own voices for the system -- I'm half-inclined to have my 4-year-old daughter record directions so I can hear her giving me navigation tips. Another great voice to download is Homer Simpson, who offers hilarious driving directions while you're traveling.

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 starsPrice: $300Product Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw

Samsonite Checkmate II (Boarding Bag / Laptop Shoulder Bag)

Note to the good people at Samsonite -- Good luck getting this back. You'll have to catch me first, and that won't be easy because you made it really, really easy to live out of this bag. You can fit a ton with absolute ease.

I've been looking for a good shoulder bag/briefcase for a while, and because my girlfriend wouldn't let me just use my backpack from college, I have yet to settle on one. In the past six months, I've visited several stores and left empty handed because I couldn't find anything masculine enough to match my personality plus one that's useful enough to possess every day practicality. Apple sure doesn't make one.

Enter this Samsonite bag. It's got an awesome compartment that is padded and protected and designed to safely carry a laptop. It's got another compartment with more dividers that can handle at least two additional laptops, although they wouldn't have the same padded protection as the other compartment. Very good for folders, papers and books though. Or, in my case, on a recent flight from Boston to D.C., I carried my Sony PSP (with carrying case) and audio-technica headphones. That's a good bit of bulk, but the bag handled it easily. I was also able to toss in a copy of CIO magazine and a book. There is another compartment that handles business cards, iPods, pens and pencils, all that good stuff. It's plenty big and I was able to safely fit my iPod in one of the pockets with my favorite mouse in another. 

Between this and the other pocket holding the headphones and PSP, there's another pocket that held an airport-size bag of Life Savers. Holding all this, the bag still fit easily under the seat in front of me -- on a tiny puddle jumper of a plane. The bag never bulged, and I had no difficulty closing any of the compartments.

The big selling point for this bag is its ability to pass through airport security without the customary cavity search, and without having to remove the laptop from its protective pocket. When going through the security checkpoint, you simply open the compartment, and with the laptop safely secured -- and with nothing else in that compartment -- send it through the X-ray machine. I did this both in Boston and in Washington, D.C., and it worked at both airports without any issues. It was definitely nice to leave the laptop in its bag and not have it clunking around on one of those plastic bins.

My only complaint is the shoulder strap. It's comfortable, but for some reason, it seems to have trouble staying put on my shoulders. I'm no expert, but I'd venture a guess it probably has something to do with the shoulder pad lacking any kind of "grippy" surface. Whatever, it's a moot point. It works fine if you sling it over your opposite shoulder. Problem solved. The handle you use to carry the bag is excellent, with comfortable padding and a good grip.

If you're in the market for a new travel bag you can easily take on a plane, and one you can safely transport a laptop around in, I highly recommend this bag. It's well built with high quality materials, and is extremely well designed.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 starsPrice: $ Link.Reviewed by Daniel Hunt

AftPack backpack, by Speck

Despite other designs and form factors for carrying around your notebook, I've always been partial to the backpack (sorry, Daniel). Maybe it's a throwback to my school days, when that was the best way to carry around all your stuff, but I really like carrying my notebook, power cords, papers, etc., on my back, rather than on an over-the-shoulder notebook bag.

The AftPack from Speck can hold notebooks up to 16-inches in size (plus the 17-inch MacBook Pro). In addition to the notebook compartment (extra padding with micro-fleece), the notebook includes a media player pocket with headphone cord pass-through. It's got enough pockets for the rest of my stuff, and the notebook feels good inside.

I also enjoyed the checker design on the outer covering of the backpack, and the neon green padding on the inside as well -- it made me feel hipper than I probably deserved to be carrying a backpack around.

Cool Yule Rating: 5 starsPrice: About $90Product Web site.Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Crave (16-inch) Laptop Backpack, by Targus

The material that surrounds this backpack reminds me of a very comfortable winter ski jacket. It's that puffy material that feels somewhat warm, but it's also weather-resistant. The nylon material includes stain-guard coating, and double foam padding on the inside of the backpack helps cushion notebooks up to 16-inches in size. In addition to the main pocket for the notebook, the backpack includes a secondary compartment with additional pockets for pens and smaller items, and two side pockets with zippers. The bottom of the backpack is also water resistant, so if you accidentally place it on wet ground, it won't soak through and damage the contents on the inside.

The funky material alone should get you some glances while using this, but that shouldn't be the reason you carry one -- it's all about comfort, protection and usefulness. The Crave sports all of those, so the additional fashion is like icing on the cake.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 starsPrice: $50Product Web site.Reviewed by Keith Shaw ~~

WaterField Designs Cargo Bag

At last, someone who gets it. The goal of a laptop bag is to hold your laptop safely, organize all the little bits and pieces you have to carry, and give you enough room for your latest Network World and an airline boarding pass. WaterField Designs' Cargo Bag does all that, and is so solid that the first one I bought went for 3 months and still looks like new. If you want bling, call Oakley; if you want trendy, grab one of those dysfunctional bags in the Apple Store. But if you want the best messenger-style laptop bag around, call Gary Waterfield.

The Cargo in size Large is huge, designed for the packrat. I traded down to a size Medium, and I'm thrilled with the easy, one-handed access to a slash pocket in the front and full-size pocket in the back, plus well-organized storage inside. It's not perfect: the outside cell phone pocket is so tight it takes 9 rings to get the phone out, and the standard seat-belt buckle is gratuitously geeky -- get the paragliding buckle for a sleeker look. The Cargo is completely unpadded, so get their Cargo Mambo Combo to add a laptop sleeve to keep your laptop from banging around and a pouch to hold gear, and you're good to go.

Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $199, $249 with needed accessoriesProduct Web siteReviewed by Joel M. Snyder~~

3M Mpro 120 pocket projector

A miniature projector (known as a pico projector) that fits in the palm of your hand, the MPro120 lets you project videos, photos and even presentations from a video source (such as your notebook, camcorder or even an iPhone) onto a wall or other screen surface. The system can project up to a 50-inch image, offers up to two hours of battery life (a power adapter is included), and 3M says the LED lamp offers up to 20,000 hours of light life. The system includes a carrying pouch, A/V and VGA cabling, and a flexible mini-tripod.

Using a pico projector eliminates the need for a bulkier, heavier, louder and hotter projector -- even the "portable" projectors meant for travelers take a lot of effort to unload, set up and carry around. The MPro120 sets up quickly and is small enough to throw into a laptop bag. Mobile workers who want to ditch the projector can carry this along and connect their notebooks to it for mini-presentations and impromptu meetings.

On the downside, the smaller size of the MPro120 limits the brightness of the screen, which limits the ultimate size of the image being displayed. A 50-inch screen is quite ambitious: I was able to get the equivalent of a 25-inch TV before the image faded and got blurred. The low brightness setting also means you have to be in an almost completely dark room in order to see the best images from your video source. The system also includes tiny speakers, which also limit how loud the unit gets if you're displaying a movie, etc. With these limitations, it seems like it could be just as easy to have your meeting participants gather around your notebook screen (you'd never use this device for a large crowd gathering).

There's great potential here in this pico projector space -- hopefully the technology will allow for brighter projection and louder volume. The size certainly works well for extremely mobile workers who want to ditch a heavier projector, and can accept the other limitations.

Cool Yule Rating: 3.5 starsPrice: $330Product Web site.Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Powermat Wireless Charging Portable Mat, by Powermat USA

The Powermat is a system of three connected square blocks that can recharge your portable gadgets, such as an iPhone, iPod, BlackBerry, Nintendo DSI or DSI Lite, and even cell phones. The system uses magnetic induction technology to recharge the devices without a user needing to connect or carry along another set of charging cables. The basic system comes with a Powercube universal receiver, which then includes charging tips for several devices. You can also purchase specific receivers for other devices (such as the Apple iPhone or iPod touch), which slip onto the back of the device and connect to the Powermat. For BlackBerrys, you can buy a replacement back that includes the Powermat adapter.

Wireless charging technology has been around for a few years, but this is the first system I've seen that's been so aimed at the consumer. Along with a very slick design (such as the power cord that wraps around the adapter very nicely, the three charging blocks fold up easily, making it simple to carry along on trips (the system comes with a nice carrying case, and the Powermat makes a fun, futuristic beep/squeak when your device is attached (magnetically) to the Powermat. Carrying along a Powermat and the charging tips is far easier than packing a bag with individual charging cables.

Even if you only use the mat at home (you can buy a separate Home & Office model, or just use the portable one), eliminating a bunch of power cables not only saves you on some outlet space, it makes everything look a bit nicer as well.

One downside -- when traveling, sometimes I like to plug in my phone and continue to use it while it recharges -- obviously you won't be able to do this, unless you utilize the device's speaker phone, for example.

Cool Yule Rating: 5 starsPrice: $100 (for basic system; charging backs sold separately)Product Web site.Reviewed by Keith Shaw  ~~

Nextar M3 GPS by Nextar

Nextar's 3.5-inch GPS is a solidly built, very accurate and efficient device that does the basics -- it gets you where you want to go. There are none of the extra bells and whistles -- nobody tells you when you're exceeding the speed limit, no Bluetooth, no live traffic reports. But the M3 did a nice job leading me along the back roads on my 16-mile commute to work. When I took an alternate route to avoid a traffic backlog, the M3 swiftly re-calibrated and even showed me a route home that I hadn't considered before.

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