Cool gifts for geeks, 2011: Home and office gear

Presenting the gems in your home or office environment.

Page 8 of 14

Motormouse Mini-Cooper edition, by MotorMouse 

I've always enjoyed the quirky mice made by MotorMouse, in which the wireless computer mouse is designed like a sleek sports car, with a variety of different color options. The battery and the USB dongle reside in the back trunk of the car, allowing for easy portability. 

The latest version, however, designed after the Mini Cooper, is a disappointment. In trying to make the mouse look exactly like a Mini Cooper, the design creates a mouse that is uncomfortable to use. Unlike the sleek, rounded version of the sports car models, the Mini Cooper has a high roof, causing the height of the mouse to jump higher than a normal mouse. Unless you have very large hands, the additional height causes discomfort when you're trying to use the left or right mouse buttons, as well as the scroll wheel. 

I'd only recommend this if you have someone on your list who has very large hands and is a Mini Cooper devotee - if you still want to get them a unique sports-car-related mouse, check out the smoother/sleeker and more comfortable sports car models. 

Cool Yule rating: 1 star
Price: $55 on Web site
Reviewed by Keith Shaw 

Jabra Pro 9450, by GN Netcom

This system consists of a small base station and a headset that connects to a regular deskphone (via phone cables) as well as to a PC (via USB). When configured correctly, the user can receive phone calls from their desk phone on the headset, as well as use a deskphone application (such as Skype or Google Talk, among others). The system is designed for companies that are looking to move to a unified communications platform, allowing people to continue to use their deskphone and one headset for both systems. This can also be a good system for a remote teleworker to use, connecting their PC to the same headset as a desk system. 

The wireless headset operates on DECT 6.0, which lets you walk up to 400 feet away from the base station while on a call, and comes with an over-the-head style, or a smaller, like a cell phone headset wearing style. The Jabra PC Suite software provides some configuration applications and the ability to switch between the deskphone and the regular phone and put one call on hold while talking on the other one. I also got some audio to stream to the headset (with some difficulty, however, the overall setup is not as set-and-forget as you'd like it to be). 

This isn't the world's best holiday gift idea, but you should consider this for any of your employees who may be expected to take more phone calls via a softphone application on their PC, but still needs a traditional desk phone, and one headset that can control both systems. 

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars Price: Between $200 and $250Reviewed by Keith Shaw 

Wireless Touchpad, by Logitech

I've never been a big fan of the touchpad on notebooks - they're always too small, and when I'm using the keyboard the bottoms of my hands tend to activate the sensors on them. So when traveling, I tend to bring along a small travel mouse for all of my PC navigation needs. 

Maybe what I need is a larger touchpad, which is what Logitech made here with its Wireless Touchpad. The external device offers a 5-inch multi-touch touchpad that connects to a PC or Mac via a USB dongle (2.4GHz wireless). The touchpad connected easily and is powered by two AA batteries, and it has an on/off switch to save battery life. 

The bigger size of the device didn't necessarily tame my dislike of touchpads - I'd still likely bring along my travel mouse instead of this. However, for people who really like using a touchpad and want something bigger (for tasks that require more space on the touchpad), this is a very nice device. I'm not sure whether this will make it to the top of your holiday wish list, but if you have anyone who has been griping about their small touchpad, they can go wireless with this unit. 

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars
Price: $49.99
Reviewed by Keith Shaw 

WES610N 4-Port Dual-Band N Entertainment Bridge with 4-Port Switch, by Cisco (Linksys)

While most Wi-Fi users are familiar with connecting PCs and similar endpoints to a wireless LAN, there is more - much more - that Wi-Fi can be used for. A popular application at my house is creating bridges between networks over Wi-Fi, typically using a "game adapter" that is essentially Ethernet on one side and Wi-Fi on the other. So, imagine such a product that can bridge devices via Ethernet and the home's wireless network, but with a built-in four-port switch - that's the Linksys WES610N. The four additional ports provides convenience, versatility and flexibility by eliminating the need for an external switch. The WES610N can operate at 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequencies, and supports 300Mbps traffic. 

But for some reason I'm at a loss to understand, the switch is only 10/100, and thus a big minus. I'm really not getting this - what's the point of 300Mbps over the air if any given endpoint is limited to 100Mbps? Was there a shortage of Gigabit Ethernet chips when this one was designed? Similarly, the documentation is incomplete - for example, don't use the top connector during initial setup; it doesn't work. Keep in mind that you'll need to manually configure your SSID, unless you use Wi-Fi Protected Setup, which I don't. The firmware is at times frustratingly slow, but you'll likely need to touch it only once. So the WES610N is a little harder to get running than your basic Wi-Fi client, or even access point, but nothing techies can't handle. Still Linksys' documentation and even its Web site - which is hard to navigate - could use some work. 

In operation, though, apart from the wired-port bottleneck issue noted above, everything works transparently. The only really troubling issue is the wired throughput limitation noted above, but if your traffic requires no more than 100Mbps, as is often the case with, say, game consoles and home-entertainment gear, all should be fine. But just think of the possibilities if that built-in bottleneck were eliminated (and, while we're at it, the setup process and the documentation improved) - perhaps another couple of stars. By the way, a single-port WET610N model is also available at less than $100. 

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars
Price: $129.99
Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

N750 DB Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router, by Belkin

A new Wi-Fi router is perhaps the perfect gift - the latest models have greater performance (throughput, range, and reliability), more options, and, well, are inexpensive. Case in point: Belkin's new dual-band, dual-radio N750, which features 450Mbps performance in the 5GHz bands. You also get two USB ports (for printers and adding storage drives), a print server, Gigabit Ethernet, easy Wi-Fi Protected Access security (although real nerds set up security the old-fashioned way - manually), and even a few applications for such functions as PC backup, print and storage management, and playing UPnP/DLNA-compatible video. 

Setup was fast and easy (and limited to setting IP address, security, and SSID; you probably won't need the manual), and I must say that the N750 continues Belkin's tradition of producing stylish routers with a vertical theme that demand placement somewhere other than under a table in the basement. A clever feature on this model is auto-update, which works like system-update facilities on PCs and Macs - new firmware can be automatically downloaded and installed as it is released; no thinking required. 

The only bad news, as can be surmised from the product's name, is that 3x3 performance is only available at 5GHz. This may not be a major drawback; 2.4GHz isn't a great place to use 40 MHz channels anyway. But just so you know. 

I'm going to be testing the performance of 450Mbps routers shortly, and the N750 is on the list for that project. In the meantime, this one is worth considering and is a real bargain if 450Mbps at 5GHz is all you need. 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
Price: $129.99 (list)
Reviewed by C.J. Mathias 

Ooma Telo Wireless Adapter, by Ooma

For users of the Ooma Telo home VoIP service, one of the big problems is that the base station needs to be connected via Ethernet cable to your home router. For many users (myself included), this meant having the Ooma system connected in a basement or closet, where you tended to forget that you had the system. 

That changes with the Telo Wireless Adapter, a USB dongle that attaches to the back of the Telo base station, allowing network connectivity without it needing to be connected directly to the router. Setup was relatively simple - just attach the adapter to the USB port on the back, then connect a PC to configure the adapter to your existing Wi-Fi network. After it configures, you can then unplug the Telo base station and move it to another room in the house (as long as you're in wireless range). It's a nice addition to owners of an existing Ooma system, and recommended if you are getting the entire system for the first time (the Ooma system gives you home telephone service without monthly subscription, using your existing broadband Internet service). 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
Price: $49.99
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Artisan 837 Color Inkjet All-In-One, by Epson

I'm "in like" with the Epson Artisan 837. I wanted to whole heartedly love it, but it fell short a few times for me. First things first, the Artisan 837 is a printer, photo printer, copier, scanner, and fax machine. It even prints labels on CDs. It does a lot! And it does almost all of it, wirelessly. Of course, we at Network World just love that the whole house can easily be networked to the printer. However, because of all of those great things, set up takes a while. It took my tech-savvy boyfriend more than an hour to set up this one. 

The print quality is lovely. The photo print quality is very nice once you get the colors right. Plus, it does all of this wirelessly. The box will tell you that it prints the "world's fastest 4 x 6 photos." It also says those photos will be "ultra hi-definition prints." I found that it will print photos very quickly, but on the worst possible setting they look off. When set to a photo quality, the photos are lovely, but print at a slower speed. 

One feature that sets the Artisan 837 apart is that the machine has its own e-mail address, so you can email the machine and it will print it for you. My first thought was "Why?" But then I realized: mobile devices! If I take a picture on my phone, I can print it, no matter where I am. That's pretty cool. Technically, I could give the e-mail address to my friends and they could surprise me by sending me pictures. The only problem with that is the Epson's e-mail address basically resembles a 26 character WEP code. If you bought this for a grandparent, you could write down the email address and then surprise them with photos of their grandchildren just printing out of their device (if you can remember the email address and as long as the grandparents remember to keep the printer on and stocked with ink and paper). 

Like previous versions of the Artisan printer, you can use your own photos and turn them into coloring book pages - children find it pretty fun to color in pictures of themselves - it's also very nice for homemade art projects or finding something to do on a rainy afternoon. Yes, the Artisan 837 has a fax machine, but we didn't test this (I'm part of the generation that doesn't even have a home phone thanks to cell phones). If you are interested in this feature, it can use the 30-page automatic document feeder. 

The scanner portion comes with software that will convert scanned images into editable text. The scanner can also scan older photos and help clean them up, raising them to 4800 dpi if you want. It can fix colors in old photos, and they do look much sharper. It also says it can remove the appearance of dust, but I couldn't see much of a difference. If the dust is part of the photos (I was testing photos from the 1980s), it didn't seem to clean up any of that. The photo scanner is amazingly slow, and you have to scan them one at a time - the software for uploading photos is also a major pain, because it makes you preview at least one photo if you want to scan anything (and you have to leave that preview open to keep scanning additional photos), but it will remember how many photos you have scanned in so as not to overwrite earlier scans. If you're a blogger and you just want to scan in old photos occasionally, this will work great. But if you want to scan in every photo you have from before the digital age, this isn't the scanner for you. Also, we couldn't scan via Wi-Fi - we needed to be plugged into the printer in order to receive the scans. However, you can scan photos directly to a memory card.

The Artisan 837 also boasts having a touch screen, but I found it to be the slowest, most unresponsive touch screen ever. Yes, you can print straight from your camera this way, and that's great. But using it otherwise is tedious. 

This is a great machine for a combination of home office work as well as photo printing. It's even just great for photo printing. My only warning is that you shouldn't buy it if you only want it for photo scanning capabilities. Otherwise, enjoy all that it has to offer, wirelessly! 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
Price: $234.99 (Amazon)
Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Internet phone, by Bedol

Oh, thank goodness, there's a phone for the Internet! I'm not sure what it's supposed to actually do or if anyone answers ("Hello, Internet? Stop being so slow!"), but there's now an Internet Phone, and it's from Bedol.

Bad name aside, the "Internet phone" is actually a USB-connected handset that works with VoIP programs like Skype or Google Talk. It's the same thing as a USB-connected handset - it gives you a microphone and a speaker, but instead of wearing it on your head, you get a sleek and slim handset that you'd put on the side of your head like you were talking on a normal phone.

When it's in the base station, the phone can act as a speaker for your computer, it works with music apps to play music (say, from iTunes or other streaming sites), or you can use it as a speakerphone as well.

The unit we tested is different from the ones that Bedol is currently selling on the site, which either means I'm trapped in an alternate dimension, or they've upgraded the unit since they sent us one to try out. The unit we had included buttons on the front that would adjust for volume, a play/pause button and a mute button. The one on the site has a digital display that offers time/temperature. I'm not sure which version is better.

Also, the instructions are pretty vague, but they win points for hilarity. Here's an example: "Install the Internet Phone program to your computer and create your username and Personal Profile. You can download the program from the Internet. To use the Internet telephone for calling, your computer should be on line. After dialing your phone call or receiving your phone call on your computer, you can use this Internet Phone Handset to speak and listen through the Internet."

For the price of the phone (listed at $50), there are much better options out there for voice headsets and microphone, but maybe that's only available in this dimension.

Cool Yule rating: 1 star
Price: $50 (Bedol site)
Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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