Cool gifts for geeks, 2011: Smartphones and accessories

Presenting the gems that will enhance your smartphones during the holidays.

Page 9 of 20

Aegis Series for iPhone 4, by Trident Case

This is a two-layered iPhone case to provide more protection than a standard case/offering. The first layer is made of a flexible silicone that wraps around the device. The second layer adds a hard polycarbonate shell to provide more protection from drops. It also comes with a scratch and smudge-resistant screen protector for the front of the device, and the hard shell is available in six colors.

The first layer is nice, as it also has covers for ports like the charging dock and headphone jack, which would appear to create a seal for waterproofing purposes. The problem lies with the second layer hard shell, which doesn't quite create a perfect fit when you're trying to connect the first layer and the device - you sort of create little air bubbles. The second layer also adds additional bulk to the device, preventing you from connecting it to a recharging dock (a pet peeve of mine). But if you're looking for the extra protection, you might have to deal with these issues.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars
Price: $29.95
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

The Callet - phone case and wallet in one

The smart phone has become one of those items that you carry around with you everywhere, much like another thing - the wallet. So why not combine them into one device? That's basically the idea of the Callet, a rubbery phone case that has a couple of "sleeves" in the back that can hold a few credit-cards (or your driver's license) and some cash.

It won't completely replace your wallet, especially if you're one of those types (like George Costanza from 'Seinfeld') who carries around a giant wallet for all your receipts and cards and other things. However, if you need something that can carry a few cards and your license (say, you're going to work out or something), then the Callet may be a good fit. Styles are available for BlackBerry owners, and a few different colors are available (nothing super fancy, just blue, black, pink, etc.)

Just remember that if you lose your phone (or it gets stolen), then you're also losing your cards and license and stuff, so you need to be super super extra careful.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars
Price: $19.95
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Speck iPhone 4 cases (many varieties), by Speck Products

Many people think that getting a cover for their iPhone (or other smart phone, tablet, ereader, etc.) is just a style choice, or something that will make their antenna work better (cough, cough, iPhone 4). For the most part, they're right, but we continue to see innovations in the case space as well, and Speck Products are one of the leaders in this space.

For our gift guide we received several different varieties of products and styles, and rather than writing up individual reviews, I'm going to lump them all into one entry. These don't even scratch the surface of what's out there, so if you like these, head to the store or go online to check out your favorites.

CandyShell Card: Like the name implies, the CandyShell case has a hard outside shell but a soft, rubbery center (the part that touches the iPhone). This gives it protection from drops, but won't scratch the surface of the back of the iPhone as well. The "Card" part of the name is an extra slot on the back for carrying some credit-cards, cash or your license. Much like the Callet (reviewed earlier), just be careful that you don't lose the phone when using this, as you'll then lose whatever you've got in the card slot.

CandyShell: See above part with the CandyShell Card, but without the card slot. One extra thing to note, these aren't meant to be taken on and off like more rubbery cases - once you put it on, it should stay there.

ToughSkin: A ruggedized case, offers two different pieces to help your phone survive drops and scratches and other assorted calamities. The ToughSkin also features a rotating belt clip (for those people who still like wearing their phones on their belts). The belt clip can also fold out to create a kickstand for the iPhone.

Fitted Burton: This is a hard plastic shell that provides some protection, with a fabric backing with style designs by Burton (the snowboard makers). Get one for your favorite snowboarder.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars
Price: Varies, between $30 and $40.
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Spiderpodium, by Breffo

Instead of buying a single case or dock that only has one purpose, you might want to check out the Spiderpodium, a multi-purpose grip and docking station - not only will it create a nice dock for your smartphone, but you can use it for GPS devices, digital camera and other handheld gadgets. With its eight flexible "legs", the Spiderpodium can be molded into any shape for the purpose that you want. The back of the package gives you some good ideas - you can wrap it around the back seat of a car to provide a stand for viewing movies (or a plane seat). You can create a mount for your dashboard (put some of the legs inside your heating/air conditioning vents), or you could mount a digital camera onto a chair for a hanging tripod. You're only limited by your imagination on how you can use this to create an instant stand or dock for your handheld devices.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
Price: $19.99
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

PowerSlice universal charger, by Fuse

Power cable clutter becomes a very big issue when you start accumulating a lot of smartphones, music players and other assorted gadgets. The PowerSlice universal charger aims to help relieve some of this clutter by providing one power cable that helps recharge three devices via its circular charging station. Users can insert three adapter slices (sold separately) of the circular pie (the fourth slice contains the innards of the unit) and recharge an iPhone/iPod (through the Apple universal adapter), or any device with mini USB or micro USB. If you want, you can buy three slices that just have the Apple charger port, which lets you charge three  iPhones if you want.

Connecting the individual adapter slices is a bit tricky at first, but once you do the charging station looks elegant, and yes, it did eliminate cable clutter for the three devices that I wanted to recharge. There's also an additional USB port on the unit for recharging other systems (5V output), but sadly, this didn't work with my iPad 2.

This would make a good kitchen countertop unit for families to recharge their cell phones and possibly music players to help reduce (but not totally eliminate) the power cable clutter situation.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars
Price: $40 for the base unit, slices cost $10 each.
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Zip Touch-n-Go Multi-Charging Station, by The Joy Factory

Like some of the other portable device charging stations reviewed this year, the Zip will charge multiple devices (cell phones, game consoles, etc.) via a central location. In this case, the Zip station includes 16 different circular spots where you can charge a device. Instead of a solid adapter for re-charging, the device recharges via conductive electricity (similar to the Powermat or Energizer devices). Your phone, music player or gadget connects to the Zip via a very small magnetic Ziptail.

The vast amount of devices that can be connected make this very appealing for central locations, like in an office conference room or other common area (I can't really see a family that needs 16 devices recharged at the same time). The base station has a nice sleek black look and a very thin profile.

However, I've got two complaints. First, the ziptail cords are way too short - I know the company is aiming for a clutter-free look, but with a very short cord, most of the recharging will be done on the outside of the device, not on the inner circle areas. As you add more devices, the small length of the cords hurts the overall effectiveness. My second complaint was the lack of an iOS cord in the bundle, but it appears that this oversight has been fixed (an updated bundle has occurred). If you get a bundle without one, the Apple 30-pin cord is $12.95.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars
Price: $80 for base station and 3 charging cords; additional cords cost $12.95 each.
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Mobile Power Station, by IOGEAR

This handy square device is basically a large battery with two USB ports. When the battery is charged up (through a separate power adapter cable, and you can also recharge via USB), you can recharge your mobile devices as long as you have the appropriate USB charging cable. The system supports most smartphones, cell phones, tablets (including the iPad and iPad 2), digital cameras, BlackBerry devices, most MP3 players and devices that plug into a USB or microUSB source.

The nice part of the device's mobility is the ability to disconnect the power adapter and just bring the battery along with you when traveling or out and about - meaning you can recharge your devices without needing to be near a power outlet. So for hiking, camping or other outside activities, you can still recharge your mobile gadgets.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
Price: $72
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Inductive Charger, by Energizer

The Energizer Inductive Charger makes it easy to charge up smartphones like an iPhone or a BlackBerry Curve 8900 wirelessly. All you do is slip the phone into a plastic sleeve (sold separately for either the Curve, iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4) and then sit your phone on top of the Inductive Charger. A blue light flickers on to let you know the phone is being charged and goes out when the charging is done. The device uses "Qi" (pronounced "chi") technology, a new charging standard developed by the Wireless Power Consortium that's also used in the sleeve. How well does it work? Exactly as billed. Charging my iPhone took about the same amount of time as if I had plugged it into my computer or a wall charger.

The charger - basically a flat 9-inch black-and-silver square - has two charging "plates," so you can charge more than one device at a time. There's also a separate USB port that you can use to plug in a charging cable if you need another phone charged. The only downside to the system is that you can't use any other external cover for your phone; the Qi sleeve stays on full time. While it's not too bulky, it does add a few ounces of weight. So if you're someone for whom a phone cover is a needed fashion statement, you'll want to think twice about getting the Inductive Charger. The same goes for iPhone users who place a premium on design; the sleeve isn't the most stylish addition to your mobile hardware collection. Otherwise, it's a convenient, reliable way to make sure your phone is always charged up and ready to go.

Cool Yule rating: 4
Price: $89.97 for the charger; $34.97 for the charging sleeve
Reviewed by Ken Mingis

Carbon Bluetooth headset, by Bluetrek

The Carbon Bluetooth headset, by Bluetrek, is one of the more visually innovative headsets I've seen in several years. As its namesake implies, the majority of the headset is made of carbon fiber, which comprises a relatively long, cylindrically shaped extending microphone. It fits snug into your ear without an ear loop (although one is available in the included kit). Perhaps a result of building it from carbon fiber, the Carbon is very light - you'll feel it sitting snugly in your ear, but in my experience it was on par in terms of comfort with other headsets I tested this year (although not quite as comfortable as some I've tested in the past). You can leave it in your ear for a decent amount of time before it becomes uncomfortable.

The Carbon features the latest 3.0 standard for Bluetooth connectivity. It weighs 5.9 grams, offers 4.5 hours talk time/5 days standby, and uses tactile buttons(!). Audio quality was excellent, and the microphone boasted some impressive results. Chalk it up to the extended reach of the microphone, perhaps. It can pair with two phones simultaneously, a feature quickly becoming more a given than a perk, but one appreciated, nonetheless.

Overall, I was very impressed with this headset. For this price, it is absolutely worth your consideration and I recommend it to anybody looking for a non-traditional - albeit still attractive - headset to pair with your phone.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
Price: About $50
Reviewed by Dan Hunt

Freeway Bluetooth speaker phone, by Jabra

The Jabra Freeway is a Bluetooth speaker phone that resides on the overhead visor of your car. It features an elegant design, long lasting battery, and relatively easy to use navigation buttons.

It pairs up to two active phones simultaneously. One of my phones is a BlackBerry Curve, and the options with that phone - voice dialing commands, redialing, etc. - are extensive and work well. My other phone is (regrettably) an Android (running 2.1), and offers far fewer voice command options - one of the many drawbacks to owning an Android device. I also tested a 4-year-old Nokia phone - it offered more voice options than the Android.

The Freeway speaker is capable of producing excellent sound. Audio call quality is good, bordering on excellent at times. My BlackBerry, which runs on the Verizon network, offered noticeably lower call quality than did my Android phone, which runs on the AT&T network. This disparity in call quality between the networks is a trend I've noted over the years, even when not using Bluetooth devices. In testing, callers were quicker to note the road noise when using my BlackBerry; I never experienced that issue using the Android. The phone will announce to you - with varying degrees of success - the name of the incoming caller when you receive calls. In general, it had an easier time announcing names heavy on vowels; in some instances, the names were virtually indistinguishable.

Battery time was excellent. There is a neat feature that lets you leave the device on at all times, and the Freeway will automatically turn itself on and off by sensing when you enter or exit your car (presumably, using motion and/or sound detection). One drawback to that feature: every time you get into your car, the device will LOUDLY announce it has paired with your phone. If you're carrying two phones, it will make two announcements. And it will scare the hell out of you the first couple times. So far as I can tell, there is no way to decrease the insanely loud volume at which it announces a successful pairing. You get used to it eventually, but it still catches me off guard every once in a while.

Back to the battery. I travel frequently at night, and have taken to using an app on my Android phone to connect to a radio station in New York. The Freeway automatically streamed the audio from my phone, which was an obvious improvement over playing the show from the Android's speakerphone. And the great battery meant weeks and weeks of doing this (on weekends) without needing to recharge. That streaming feature alone actually makes this worth purchasing. All told, the Freeway saw extensive use for about six weeks before I had to recharge it. Like a successful pairing, it will loudly tell you when it's low on battery - and will continue to remind you loudly every two or three minutes until you either toss it out the window or turn it off.

Also worth noting - the Freeway will also transmit audio wirelessly to an FM station on your radio, if you're so inclined. It's a feature I tested (successfully), but not one I used on a regular basis. I personally find it cumbersome to search for blank FM channels to stream with as I'm traveling, and would rather just route audio through the Freeway itself. But if you know of blank spaces on the FM dial (there are relatively few available in Boston), it's a feature you'll probably enjoy.

The button layout is sensible, placing the most used button - start and end calls - in the most prominent, easy to reach location (closest to you). The buttons are tactile, which is a relief to someone who finds touch-sensitive buttons a nuisance.

One suggestion for Jabra - make a voice command listing on a removable piece of plastic that you could stick on your windshield, similar to the oil change reminder sticker. Depending on what phone you connect to the Freeway, there are a ton of voice commands that are available, but not always easy to remember.

The Freeway comes with a wall adapter, manual, and a car adapter. The car adapter is especially welcome, as the Freeway is charged via micro-USB, and chances are you'll enjoy finally having a car adapter for your devices, if you didn't already.

All in all, I highly recommend the JABRA FREEWAY as an excellent Bluetooth speaker for your auto.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars
Price: $129.99
Reviewed by Dan Hunt

M50 Bluetooth headset, by Plantronics

The Plantronics M50 Bluetooth headset is an excellent, low cost option for getting into the wireless headset game.  It features a sturdy design, comfortable (if somewhat firm) fit, and good battery life.

The M50 is somewhat unusual when compared with its contemporaries in that it sports a non-detachable, prominent translucent ear loop. It works well, and for people like me who prefer the security an ear loop offers, it won't be a drawback. Many other headsets on the market today offer a detachable ear loop, with the loop-less option being just inserting the headset directly into your ear. I've never found that terribly comfortable or snug, and have always opted for the ear loop (until I tried the Carbon from Bluetrek). If you don't want anything wrapped around your ears, or glasses are a permanent fixture on your face, you should look elsewhere.

Voice quality was good. Generally, this was a better microphone than those found on Jabra headsets, but not quite up to BlueAnt's offerings in previous gift guides. Audio reception was excellent, and I always appreciate a headset that offers tactile volume buttons - which the M50 does - along with a sliding on/off switch. On smartphones like Android and iPhone, it can also relay audio from apps and music libraries; I found this a useful feature for relaying streaming talk radio, although you shouldn't plan for the M50 to replace your dedicated headphones any time soon. My current Android phone is set to make an audible tapping noise whenever I'm using the keyboard; the headset tries to keep up by relaying those audible clicks to the headset, but there was occasional lag relaying the signal when I'd rapidly belt out text messages - hardly a deal breaker.

Like all Bluetooth headsets going back the past couple years, it charges via an included micro USB cable. Expect at least eight hours talk time, with long standby hours during periods of inactivity. If you're connected to an iPhone, the iPhone will display a battery icon (Android users are bereft of this feature). Once you run low on battery, expect the headset to verbally remind you every few minutes it's low on juice. This can get annoying.

One immense frustration was my inability to pair two headsets, which is an advertising spot for the M50. I was unable to locate instructions on how to do this in the user manual, and Plantronics' website wasn't much help, either.

However, the M50 is recommended for anyone looking to get into the headset pairing game for about $50.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
Price: $49.99
Reviewed by Dan Hunt

Jabra Supreme Bluetooth headset, by Jabra

A quick upfront admission: My boyfriend synched this Bluetooth headset to a PlayStation 3 instead of using it with his phone. He did test it on his phone quickly when I asked him to, but he primarily enjoyed using this while gaming. And enjoy it, he did. He found it to be very lightweight and easy on the ear. Plus, it feels more like a phone resting outside the ear than the kind meant to be an "in ear" device. Because of those features, and a long battery life, he was able to wear it constantly while gaming for hours and was still a fan.

It took just a few simple minutes to set up. The ease also continues with usage. To turn the headset on, all you have to do is flick the mouth piece away from the earpiece. To turn it off, just fold it in half. Because of this feature, there's no mistaking whether the headset is on or off.

The headset does allow for voice commands. You can ask it to give you the battery life and connection status. It will let you answer or ignore incoming calls vocally. Plus, it provides spoken caller ID. We were pleased to discover that the box included a power adapter for the wall and a computer (USB), not just one or the other. It also comes with a few extra pieces as back up, in case say the part that wraps around your ear breaks.

Finally, the Jabra Supreme claims to have HD Voice. Perhaps that's true as Bluetooth headsets go, but it's certainly not comparable to a nice set of headphones. Like many phones it also touts that it has wind-reduction and noise-cancelling technology. Unfortunately, as this was mostly tested on a PS3, he didn't encounter enough wind in our living room to say one way or the other if he agrees with the claim. He definitely recommends it for anyone who likes to participate in multi-player games that suggest or require headsets.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars
Price: $99.99
Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Voyager Pro HD Bluetooth headset, by Plantronics

I've been a fan of the Plantronics Voyager Pro series for a few years now - on the upper end of the Bluetooth headset market, this headset provides great call quality and an over-the-ear wearing style that guaranteed it wouldn't fall off my head or get loose in the ear.

The latest version of the headset includes the company's "Smart Sensor Technology", which means the headset can figure out when you place it on your ear, automatically answering incoming phone calls. This can be great for a person who doesn't like wearing their headset all of the time, or someone who takes a longer time fishing through a bag trying to find it, only to have them miss the phone call by the time they get the headset on. In fact, the headset can also sense this - if you answer the phone first and then find the headset, it will automatically transfer the call from the phone to your headset once you put it on your ear. The smart sensor also prevents accidental dialing by locking down the call button when you're not wearing the headset (although I think you can still "pocket dial" or "butt dial" from the phone separately).

The Voyager Pro HD also includes access to the company's Vocalyst service, which lets you hear emails, check the weather or even update your Facebook status via the hands-free headset. Like many of the company's headsets, the Voyager Pro HD supports streaming audio from a phone. This was one of the downsides in my testing, because the smart sensor also activates your music app whenever you put the headset on as well. So if you want to make a call (rather than answering one), putting on the headset will play the last song you were streaming, and you have to pause that in order to open up the Phone calling app.

A voice inside the headset will announce how much battery life is left and whether you are paired to your phone (again, this makes pairing the phone much easier), and the package comes with different ear bud sizes. I have a few small complaints - first, one of the foam covers for the earbud ripped too easily when I tried to attach it; second, the unit comes with a power button but not an on/off slider switch, which I've preferred on devices like the M110 and M155 headsets.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
Price: $99.99
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Icon HD Bluetooth headset + The Nerd, by Jawbone

The Jawbone Icon HD is a Bluetooth headset designed for your mobile phone with NoiseAssassin 2.5 software to create great-sounding phone calls from your end (that is, the recipient hears no noise; you may still hear some from their end). The Nerd is an extra USB dongle that can be attached to a PC or Mac, providing a wireless Bluetooth headset for computer-based VoIP applications (Skype or other unified communications software). In addition to providing audio for phone calls, the headset can stream audio from your mobile phone or computer for when you're not on a call.

The addition of the Nerd USB dongle makes this ideal for users who want a Bluetooth headset for their cellphone, but then want to use the same headset for VoIP calls on their computer, instead of investing in a separate headset. Like other headsets of its ilk, the Icon HD seamlessly switches between streaming audio and incoming calls, pausing the music to let you take the call, then returning to the music after the call is finished. It's also nice to have different fitting options -- the package comes with seven earbud sizes, as well as a plastic earloop that can fit behind the ear for a more snug fit. In my tests, the earbud-only option worked just fine -- I didn't need to worry about it falling out if I tilted my head.

I loved the addition of an on/off switch on the Icon HD -- it saves a lot of battery life for when you're not using the headset. The HD technology made for great audio quality on cellphone and Skype calls, and really enhanced music streaming from my iPhone; it only suffered slightly when streaming from the PC via the Nerd dongle.

And my callers are very appreciative of the noise cancellation features, which means I don't have to shout when I'm in a noisy environment like my car or the airport, where I'm doing the bulk of my cell phone calls. Bravo!

Some downsides - the power adapter has a very short USB cable -- if you use a wall outlet, you may forget that the headset is attached to it (I prefer longer cables that let you move the headset away from the wall outlet). While pairing the headset with my iPhone was extremely simple, I had more difficulty pairing with the Nerd USB dongle, bringing me back to the early days of Bluetooth where you had to hit buttons in the proper order and before time ran out on the pairing. Also, I preferred the voice activation feature on my Plantronics headset (the Savor M1100), which lets me answer an incoming call by saying "Answer"; on this headset, when an incoming call comes in, I needed to press the "talk" button on the phone. But that's a really minor quibble.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
Price: $140
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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