Published November 14, 2012
The coolest products aren't necessarily the latest models or the market leaders -- or the most expensive digital doodads. The coolest gadgets are the ones you end up using the most.
So among the welter of wireless accessories, portable speakers, and other digital gear I've reviewed over the last 12 months, I've picked out 6 modestly priced devices that have stood up to daily use -- and hopefully won't get regifted before New Year's.
Aero Wine Aerator, $50
No one likes to wait. Particularly when you're looking forward to a soothing glass of red wine at the end of a long day. The trouble is, you're suppose to decant most bottles of red to let them breathe.
Brookstone's battery-powered Aero Wine Aerator eliminates (most of) the waiting. Drop the device's wand into a bottle and it will give it air in 30 seconds flat (or longer, if needed). The idea is to soften the natural tannins in the wine that can give it a overly harsh edge. Generally, the Aero does the job, although less expensive wines tend to benefit less than older vintages. But even it if can't turn vinegar into Bordeaux, it's still a handy gadget for impatient oenophiles.
One technology that has stubbornly resisted the march of digital progress are scanners that can read documents without errors. Optical character recognition solutions, as they're known, are far from perfect, but one of the handier systems for business travelers I've come across is NeatReceipts.
The portable oblong scanner can handle full-size 8.5- by 11-inch paper, turn scans into PDFs, and crunch receipts into numbers you can export into Quicken. It's main forte, however, is reducing a pile of business cards into digital contacts one can pour into Microsoft Outlook. Out of a stack of 50 cards, it only made minor mistakes on some Asian business cards and failed to read three artsy solid black cards.
It's not the fastest model in the category, either, and its color scans can look a little lackluster, but NeatReceipts is one of the easiest models to use for uncluttering a desk strewn with business cards and receipts.
Blue Ant Ribbon, $69
Have a favorite pair of headphones but hate the cord? Blue Ant offers a nifty little solution called the Ribbon. It's essentially a rechargeable stereo Bluetooth radio that plugs into a set of headphones or portable speaker or other audio device using in a mini (3.5 mm) jack.
The Ribbon is a rubberized thumb-sized clip that can be worn on a shirt collar or jacket. It works with any Bluetooth device -- even with Siri on new iPhone 5 models--and essentially turns wired devices into wireless dongles. The built-in battery is rated to last for up to 6 hours of playback, and the Ribbon comes with earbuds and includes built-in volume controls and a microphone should you decide to interrupt the music to take a call.
HEX3 JaJa Stylus, $90
Aspiring artists can easily use an iPad to do digital fingerpainting. But for more refined work, a stylus is the way to go. For the erstwhile Edward Munch in the family, there's the JaJa Pressure Sensitive Stylus.
It's a wireless pen-like device with a flat, clear end for drawing, sketching and coloring on screen. It works with all iPad models and unlike competing styli it does not rely on a Bluetooth connection. Instead, it uses ultrasound signals that are picked up by the tablet's microphone.
The JaJa Stylus can also be customized, adjusting pressure levels to each artist's individual preferences. The only downside is that it works with just a handful of programs so far, including ArtStudio, Procreate, and Sketchbook Pro. More are promised in the future.
Do you have a game-addled, smartphone addict in the family? (Who doesn't?) The Moga game controller is for them. It's basically a small console-style video game controller with the familiar triggers and XYAB buttons and two directional sticks. An adjustable clamp clips to a smart phone, turning it into a gaming screen.
Owners download a Moga controller app and then connect with the device using Bluetooth. In tests, the left directional pad was a bit balky (or perhaps it was my less than stellar gaming skills), but the controller is large enough for comfortable two-handed operation. So far there are about 40 compatible games, including Asphalt 7, Crazy Snowboard, Pac-Man, and Virtua Tennis. In tests, it ran for more 12 hours on a pair of AAA batteries, enough thumb twiddling time to get you through even the longest commute.
Logitech Cube, $70
Just when you thought nothing new could be done with a mouse, along comes the Logitech Cube. Not much bigger than a couple of chicken bouillon cubes, this portable, wireless mouse fits easily into a pocket and does double duty as a wireless presentation remote.
It's small enough to fit on a cramped airplane tray table, yet has an 85-foot wireless range for PowerPoint pundits preaching to the masses. The block design isn't for everyone, but road warriors will appreciate its Lilliputian size and weight.