Review: Wireless Data Devices Useful, but Too Pricey

Ambient Devices made a splash a few years ago when it released an odd glowing glass orb that changed color depending on the direction of the stock market or the temperature outside.

The orb provided just a single point of data, an approach that was the opposite of a computer's rich, confusing way of presenting information. It was a refreshing idea, but not one that's become mainstream, especially not with its $150 price tag.

Now, the Cambridge, Mass.-based company is making some rather more practical gadgets that present the same kind of information in a less cryptic form: panels that spell out the weather forecast, or the day's stock movement, on plain, easy-to-read LCD screens.

• Click here for's Personal Technology Center.

Unfortunately, they're still expensive, making these more of the Sharper-Image-gee-whiz type of gadgets than everyday items. But we can hope the prices will come down.

And lest you think Ambient has gone all straight and boring, the company also just introduced an umbrella that tells you if it's going to rain. More about this kooky uncle of the gadget family later.

The most useful of the panels I tried is the 7-day Weather Watcher, a 9-inch LCD device that shows the current weather, temperature, daily highs and lows, wind direction and strength, UV index, pollen and air quality warnings, plus a seven-day forecast. The data are supplied by

It's really a very simple device: There are two buttons on the front that let you set it to show the weather in a U.S. city near you, and that's it. The simplicity is really striking.

It doesn't even need to be plugged in to an outlet: It will run for up to a year on four AA batteries. If it is plugged in, the backlight will turn on, with a color that corresponds to the current temperature: green if it's normal, shifting toward blue if it's cold and red if it's hot.

There's a flip-out stand at the back of the 1-inch thick panel, which also can be attached to a wall. Not a bad complement for the kitchen. Too bad about the price: $199. It will be available in October at Sharper Image and some other national retailers, plus catalogs.

Ambient does have a smaller five-day forecaster out already for only $85, but it's not as easy to set up, relying on three-letter codes for the cities.

Competitor Oregon Scientific has similar weather panels, but none with a seven-day forecast. Also, they use signals from FM radio stations to get their data, with coverage limited to major cities.

Ambient's devices use a pager network instead, which it claims reaches 90 percent of U.S. households. It's a nifty way to reuse this dated technology, long since overshadowed by cellular networks.

As a bonus, devices that tap into this network don't use much power, which explains the yearlong battery life of the Weather Watcher.

There's no need to connect the panel to a phone line, Internet connection or any other data service. There's no subscription cost either.

The other panel I tried was the Market Maven, a 4-inch LCD that shows the level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Nasdaq composite index and Standard & Poor's 500 index with the change from yesterday's close.

The information is updated every 15 minutes (again, through the pager network) and is at least 20 minutes delayed.

It also shows a chart of the movement in one of the three indexes at 15-minute intervals. If you sign up for an $8 a month subscription, the chart can show your own portfolio, which you enter at Ambient's Web site. (I wasn't able to try this feature on the unit the company supplied.)

I found this a useful little gadget to keep at my desk, even though I could call up the indexes on the computer if I wanted to. It's just nice to be able to see this information at a glance. Another alternative would be to tune a TV set to a financial channel, but I find that much too distracting.

Again, the price for this modest-looking device is too high, at $130. It will ship from Hammacher Schlemmer later this month (they're calling it the Wireless Stock Market Reporter). Brookstone will carry it in September.

So what about the umbrella? Well, the company calls it "a stunt," rather than a serious product. Stunts sometimes go wrong, and this one may have.

It's a huge umbrella, practically large enough for four people, and costs $140. If AccuWeather predicts rain in your area today, the pager antenna built into the handle picks up the signal and sets an array of blue LEDs flashing.

They're intended to remind you to bring the umbrella when you leave the house. It's powered by a single C-battery in the handle, supposedly good for a year.

The two sample umbrellas shipped from Hammacher Schlemmer didn't work, indicating a possible problem with quality control. A third unit shipped directly from Ambient did appear to work, but I wasn't able to subject it to a lengthy test.

To get the umbrella to show the forecast for the right area, a user has to go to Ambient's Web site and enter the ZIP code and the umbrella's serial number. This sounds simple but was actually a bit confusing, which may have been part of the reason the first two umbrellas didn't work.

Setting up the Orb through the Web site was also difficult, and I was never quite sure what the Orb was showing. Ambient's best products seem to be the self-contained LCD panels that don't rely on the user entering information on the Web site.

Now, what I really want is an umbrella that reminds me not to leave it in a restaurant, taxi cab or subway car.