It's just peachy to be mesmerized by $20,000 TVs and iPad accessories for potty training -- all part of last week's Consumer Electronics Show in $4-cup-of-Joe Las Vegas. But few of these gadgets are likely to change your life this year (unless you've got an iPad-addicted pre-schooler who has exhausted your potty patience).
Fortunately, not all of CES was about gawking gadget giddiness. There was some practical news about products and services that could actually save you money and make your life easier too. Here are my top three from the desert:
Cable Comes to Roku
All those streaming media players and so-called over-the-top set top boxes are chasing one leader, and that's Roku. It's inexpensive (the Roku 2 XD is just $80), dead simple to use, and offers over 700 channels of entertainment. Soon, for the first time, a cable company -- Time Warner -- will add its channels to Roku's lineup.
But wait, aren't those Internet streaming boxes supposed to cause owners to cut the cord and kill off cable?
Well, in an if-you-can't-beat-em-join-em move, a slew of companies (including FoxNews.com parent News Corp.) chipped in and invested $45 million in Roku last July. Now that investment is bearing fruit, delivering on something people have wanted for years: the ability to watch their home channels wherever they are, no hassle, no extra charge.
In this case, if you're a Time Warner subscriber, you will be able to hook your Roku box to a set, say, at a vacation home, and tune in some 300 stations as if you were back sitting in your home living room. It's similar to a feature already offered by several companies that allows you to watch your channels on an iPad, except in this case you're not restricted to your home Wi-Fi network. The service is expected to be available by the spring.
One other note about Roku: This year you'll see a number of "Roku Ready" TVs from inexpensive brands like Coby, Haier, and Westinghouse. It means you can have Roku bundled with a budget-priced set and still get all those snazzy smart TV features.
A Cheaper and Better Phone
Phone companies are not high on anyone's popularity poll, so cutting them off has been a favorite pastime of budget hawks. Substitute, Internet-based phone services like Vonage have been popular, but you still pay a monthly fee nearly as high as your old bill. One low-cost exception is Ooma, which introduced new hardware at CES that makes cutting off Ma Bell even easier.
Basic monthly phone service on Ooma costs roughly $4 a month (depending on local fees and taxes), but you pay for the hardware up front. Its Telos box costs $180. Ooma is now making its calls even clearer and making it a snap to add extensions all over the house.
Its improved HD2 wireless handset ($60) now syncs your phone book with Google and pops up color photos of callers. Better still is the Linx, a wireless adapter that plugs into any regular power outlet and can then be used to connect any standard phone to your Ooma line.
I've been testing the new Ooma products for months. The call clarity is excellent and for the first time I've been able to put an old favorite corded phone in the living room without installing a special jack.
Have a small business? Ooma is launching a five-line SMB product with an automated receptionist, customized hold music, and a slew of other features starting at just $20 a line.
A Cheaper iPhone
Not everyone has an iPhone--or can afford one. With monthly contracts topping out at over $130 a month and the constant threat of extra hidden fees, plenty of us find touch-screen phones just too expensive. Last week, Walmart debuted an alternative.
For just $45 a month, the discount chain is offering a Straight Talk unlimited voice, text, and data plan--without a contract. All you need is an iPhone, but you'll have to pay for that up front: $649 for the 16 GB iPhone 5; $449 for the 8 GB iPhone 4. But don't let the phone's cost put you off: other carriers charge as much as $200 for an iPhone 5 and then lock you into a $130-a-month contract. That's $1,760 in the first year versus Straight Talk's $1,189.
So if someone in your family is still hankering after an iPhone, it now may finally be within reach.