TRAVEL: Gift ideas for the out-and-about

It's always been difficult to figure out where to put the hands-free Bluetooth headset in the Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide. Does it belong in its own category or do we combine them into something else?

This year, we felt that most use cases of the headset are when people are traveling - whether in a car, walking down the street or out-and-about on a business trip. We also added some other talk-related devices as well as road warrior tools.

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Holiday gift guide 2012

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

Note: Products are listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.

Earloomz CL 500 Bluetooth Headset (Star Wars model)

$18

Bluetooth hands-free headsets come and go every year, some get fancier with features like voice notification, voice activation, stereo speakers for both ears. But sometimes you want a simple headset with a simple purpose - a quick fit, easy pairing and enough technology where you can hear the person on the other end of the call, and they can hear you. Oh yeah, and a Star Wars design.

Earloomz makes several headsets with the CL 500 designation, but our personal favorite is the Star Wars model. Why get boring silver or black when you can have the Dark Lord of the Sith on the side of your head? That was the initial appeal for me to try out this headset, but fortunately I also found a good Bluetooth headset as well.

The headset fits onto your ear with a plastic earloop (the unit comes with different sizes and loops to let you find the perfect fit). There's only one button - it basically powers the unit on and off. For pairing, you just have to hold the button down for a longer period (basically, the instruction manual tells you what to do).

The headset is good-not-great for making phone calls - no fancy noise-cancellation features, either. A bonus I discovered is that you can use the headset to listen to music - while it only goes in one ear, it's a nice alternative to having to find your wired headphones.

In addition to the Star Wars styles, they have other brands and designs - check out the Earloomz site for more options. At less than $20, this can be a great stocking stuffer - who'd ever think that a hands-free headset would be a stocking stuffer?

- Keith Shaw

Plantronics Marque 2 Bluetooth headset (model M165)

$60

I have often found Bluetooth to be an odd tool. Walking around with a miniature extension of your phone sticking out of your ear chatting away and basically looking like you're talking to yourself - well it's just not my thing. This is exactly why I agreed to test the new Plantronics Marque 2.

I would have liked to record this old-fashioned girl's daily struggles with Bluetooth, but that would have made this a full feature and not a review. To give you some idea, on my first day I forgot to turn it off and then misplaced it while driving home. My son continued to call and I could not answer my phone! Overall I can understand the draw to the hands-free benefit of a Bluetooth headset, though I found myself yelling "Answer, Answer" at least three times before it would pick-up a call (the Marque 2 features voice recognition for answering or ignoring calls without having to press a button).

The Marque 2 is lightweight and has a sleek silver finish. The sound quality is very good from the user's end, as I could easily hear others. However, I used the headset during several conference calls and was told that I sounded like I was underwater, and needed to really raise my voice.

Other features include the ability to listen to music, Internet radio streaming or driving directions via your smartphone's GPS app, as well as Plantronics' new DeepSleep power saving mode. This activates when the headset goes beyond the Bluetooth range of 33 feet - the headset goes off (if it's away for more than 90 minutes), and you can turn it back on with a tap of the "call" button. Plantronics says it can extend the battery of the headset for up to 180 days, but we didn't have the headset for that duration to fully test that claim.

The headset has great comfort and design, but I think I need more time on using the functionality before I truly can appreciate using a Bluetooth headset.

- Rari Hilditch

D-Link DIR-505 All-in-one Mobile Companion

$50 (Amazon)

Wi-Fi routers designed for travel aren't a new idea - but the D-Link DIR-505 is certainly the smallest of these that I've ever seen. Measuring roughly 6.5 x 4 x 5 cm, this pocket-sized marvel packs quite a punch. In addition to functioning as a router (with NAT, SPI, WPA2, guest access, MAC address filtering, and many more vital features found on "big boy" routers), the DIR-505 can also function as a wireless repeater (substituting another Wi-Fi network for the wired Ethernet connection).

You can also set up a local hotspot connection for sharing files among a workgroup, again with reasonable security. Configuration is via HTTP, and there's a USB port for connecting storage to be shared, and this port can (of course!) also charge a USB device such as a handset or tablet.

One small quibble - it's limited to 150Mbps in the 2.4-GHz band, but there's still plenty of capability, function and performance for the average road traveler.

While you might be tempted to carry the DIR-505 just to secure a wireless connection to a hotel's wired Ethernet service, don't overlook the handy charging feature. Remember, this entire unit is only the size of a typical charger, and can plug directly into an AC socket - no other power supplies or cables are required.

This one is going under my tree - highly recommended!

- Craig Mathias

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