Great Gadgets
Roy W. Miller
My personal web site (http://icesuite.com/RMiller)

Great Gadgets

Major Update September 2004.

As a consultant and lover of gadgets, gizmos, and the latest technology, I get to try out and put technology to the test. Some of these items I find are very useful and may be of interest to you. So in this section, I have noted my personal opinion of some of these items. Send feedback to me using this link.

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  • Affordable GPS, Maps, and your Laptop (Major Update 2004/09/03)
    In the future cars will display maps with the car's current location shown. If you want that kind of ability now, it might cost you the best part of $1,000 Canadian.

    But now for $150 Canadian you can buy a package for your laptop that includes the GPS hardware and the associated detailed maps of North America! Read more...

  • SD or Multimedia Cards (Updated 2004/10/01)
    These are storage cards the size of a postage stamp (24x32x2.1mm. or 1"x1.25"x1/16".) They are readily available in capacities to 512 MB (million bytes). That's a lot of storage in a very small package! It is almost the capacity of a CD, which typically holds about 600MB. SD cards are supported on PDAs, digital cameras and digital camcorders. Read more...

  • Pocket USB Drives (Updated 2004/10/01)
    These devices package a "flash memory" device with a USB plug. These devices are similar to the SD/Multimedia cards discussed above except these include a USB plug that allows them to be plugged directly into the USB ports that you find on most laptop and desktops. While many laptops have places you can plug in SD/Multimedia cards, most desktops do not have them.

    These devices are often on sale as their prices keep dropping. It makes sense to use them when your need is to transfer information between computers. They cannot be used to transfer information between digital cameras or PDAs and a computer.

    These devices are currently available in sizes up to 2 GB (2,000 MB) although the bigger sizes are quite expensive. The 1 GB size goes for almost $500. The 512 MB size is reasonably priced at about $100 Canadian.

    If you plan to plug these devices into a desktop computer's USB plug you might need a short USB extension cord since there might not be much room around the USB slot on the desktop.

  • Digital Cameras
    Finally digital cameras are coming down to reasonable prices. I would recommend going for a camera that has at least 3 mega pixels of resolution and one that supports a SD card. Best to use rechargeable NiMH batteries for these cameras. These are much better than the rechargeable NiCad batteries. Look for high capacity rating of over 2000mAH. You can get 4 of them with a recharger for about $30 Canadian at Costco. In my case, two of them lasted for 100 mostly flash pictures between charges.

    Don't bother with the camera's docking station -- they are typically overpriced, bulky and basically obsolete.

  • Digital Video Cameras (USB vs. Firewire)
    Digital video cameras are very affordable now. Add in the ability to edit the videos on your computer and you get a very nice package. But there are few shortcomings for most of the current crop of these cameras when it comes to connecting the camera and your computer. Read more...

  • PDA (Personal Digital Assistants) and Bluetooth
    PDAs are likely to loose their popularity as cell phones get more and more of PDA functions built into them. Still some may find PDAs still useful today particularly if they have built in Bluetooth communications. That allows it to communicate with your laptop and then on to the web.

    Most PDAs today are either Palm-based or Windows Pocket PC compatible. The Palm-based units have typically been less expensive than the Windows ones but that is changing. Now a typical PDA with typical features is in the $300-$400 Canadian price range. The HP iPAQ 1940, a Windows Pocket PC, is a good unit. (Others may be good too. There are so many that we cannot try them all out.) The 1940 uses SD cards and has Bluetooth as a standard feature.

    Bluetooth is a short range wireless radio technology that typically is used to communicate with other electronic things you have. For example, it can communicate between your cell phone on your belt and an earphone on your head. Contrast this to Wi-Fi which is a wireless technology that is used in a multi-user network configuration that typically includes Internet access. As you might expect, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies require different hardware. Both technologies have adapters that plug into USB ports on your computer. The Bluetooth unit is much smaller although the pricing is similar at about $75 Canadian each.

  • Wireless Wi-Fi Networks (Major Update 2004/09/01)
    Although it sounds complicated, wireless networks are extremely useful and are likely to be used in many homes and offices.

    Most homes are getting a high-speed Internet connection through a TV cable connection or telephone DSL connection. Introductory prices are typically less than $1/day. If you want to connect more than one desktop computer or just one laptop then a wireless Wi-Fi connection is highly recommended. Wi-Fi gives you the ability to connect several computers to one high-speed connection without running the specialized network cable between them. For laptops, you can take it to the TV room, living room, or even outdoors while still being Internet connected.

    Business travelers can use Wi-Fi to connect their laptops to the Internet in coffee shops, hotels, airports, etc.

    To get started with a laptop at home look for the combined Wi-Fi router and Wi-Fi PC card in one package for about $150 Canadian. Most units support the 802.11b Wi-Fi format. Some newer units support the faster 802.11g standard. There is even a faster "Turbo" version of the 802.11g standard. Most public Wi-Fi locations only support the 802.11b format.

    Don't get too hung-up about the speed of your Wi-Fi card. While the faster speeds sound great they are often faster than the Internet connection you are connected to. The "slower" 802.11b connection supports speed of 10Mbps while a DSL Internet connection supports about 1/3 that speed. Where the speed matters is when you are connecting to a local office network that is running at 100Mbps and you want to transfer files between your computer and local network.

  • Writing Your Own DVDs (New 2004/09/12)
    Many computers now come with hardware and software that allow you to "burn" (write) your own CDs. That is now quite straight forward to do. So why not buy a DVD writer and burn your own DVDs? In concept that should also be straight forward to do but there are a bunch of pitfalls that may not be obvious. Read more...

  • LCD Monitors
    If you use a computer a lot then I recommend getting an LCD monitor instead of the TV-style CRT display. LCD displays are much easier on your eyes. A 15 inch LCD display at around $350 Canadian will be good to replace a 17 inch CRT. (The sizes are measured differently so the two have almost the same viewing area.) 17 inch LCD screens are typically $100 more are will be as big as most people will need.

  • Reconditioned Desktops
    If you mainly want a computer for surfing the Internet, a used desktop such as a Pentium II at 400 MHz and 128MB of RAM memory will serve you well. This configuration can be purchased for about $100 to $150 Canadian. Add a screen for about $100.

    Want to speed up an old computer? Add ram memory to it. Internet browsing machines should have 128MB of RAM. Increasing it to 256MB should produce a noticeable improvement. Same for taking it to 512MB. Beyond 512MB, the effect of additional memory is not so noticeable for most general purpose computing.

  • Reconditioned Laptops
    Reconditioned laptops, alas, are not very attractive since their battery usually needs to be replaced. At $200-300 these batteries are about the same cost as a used laptop. Of course if you are going to use it plugged into the wall all the time then the battery is not a problem. Another possibility is an external laptop battery. See note about that.

  • External Laptop Batteries
    You can now get an external laptop battery that is about the same size as a laptop but quite thin. It is designed so you can place your laptop on top of it. It can hold a charge for about 2 to 3 hours that is in addition to what your laptop holds. The unit costs about $300 Canadian and is available in several models to match the plugs of different laptop manufacturer.

  • Car Power Adapters
    Soon after you buy your cellular phone, computer or CD player; you are tempted to pay something like $30 for an adapter that you can use it in your car. Best to get an AC adapter for your car that will give you power plugs just like you house has. Now you don't need adapters anymore since you have AC power in your car. Best to go for a 400-watt converter that will cost about $50 Canadian. (Units greater than 400 watts will not connect to your car's cigarette lighter.)

    You can go one step more and get a car battery power pack for about $50. This consists of a battery and booster cables in one unit. You can recharge the battery booster from a regular AC adapter. The unit is designed to boost your car's battery if it goes dead, but it can do other very useful things. For example, combine this unit with the converter above and you will get AC power anywhere such as on a beach or where you are camping. This is also great during a power failure in your house so you can run some of your appliances. These units will not handle items that use a lot of power such as kettles, toasters, and other such heating devices.

  • Wireless Indoor/Outdoor Thermometer
    Not a computer device but still a very useful piece of technology. Previously indoor/outdoor thermometers required that you drill a hole in a window frame to connect to the outside unit. And since the outside unit has fixed length of cable, you ended up with a less than ideal location for it. With a wireless unit, you locate the outside unit at a good location and have it transmit back to the inside display. Unconventional uses include its use to show the temperature inside a portable cooler from the front seat of your car.

  • Mouse, Tablets and Pen-based Computing
    I really do not like using a computer mouse. But what alternatives are there? Plenty. And more coming in the immediate future.

    Most of us by now have got used to using a mouse. But remember, how it took some time to learn how to double click the mouse buttons? Then we use a laptop we get presented with a touch pad and/or a tiny stick imbedded into the keyboard instead of a mouse. These laptop pointing devices seem a step backwards in the ease of use of a computer. While some have mastered this latest challenge, many have just given up and attached a mouse to the laptop as the preferred pointing device. Read more...

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