Too many black boxes, too many power cords


Heading off for the holiday weekend, I grabbed a bunch of gadgets and junk to stuff in my bag. Amazon Kindle reader – check. Multiple iPods and headphones for the kids – check. Blackberry – check. New Verizon Mifi to test in the boonies – check. Macbook Pro – check. Canon camera – check. They joined the usual assortment of odds and ends that live in my Crumpler Bag of Considerable Embarrassment (actual name) full time.

Of course, with all those gadgets come the required power cords. What a mess. At least the totally awesome  yet horribly named Belkin “Mini Surge Protector with USB” allowed me to forgo most of the bulkier plug-in cords since it can power any gadget using just a USB cord connection. For example, instead of carrying an iPod wall charger, I can just plug in an iPod syncing cable to the Belkin’s powered USB port.

By Monday, the Mifi was out of juice so it was time for a charge. But what’s this? The Mifi can’t use the standard mini-USB to USB connector that works for Blackberries and a few of my other gadgets. It actually has a micro-USB port. What the hey? It’s just like the mini-USB port only — wait for it — smaller. I couldn’t find that cord in the bag so the Internet connection ended early. On such a beautiful day by the shore, no great loss. But can’t the world standardize a bit more? The Kindle and iPods all have their own weird charger connections. I guess it’s too much to hope for everyone to get on the same page to benefit the consumer.

Unpacking it all today, I noticed there’s been a proliferation of little black boxes in my bag of late. Starting from the top left side in the picture below (click through for a bigger photo):

  • a Sony digital recorder
  • a Miquelrius paper notebook
  • a Sandisk Cruzer memory stick sitting on top of the still wicked cool Kensington portable battery pack (mini-USB to power up/any regular USB to power out)
  • a crazy-useful miniature Atech compact flash to USB port reader
  • Sandisk’s handy MobileMate that reads seven kinds of memory cards and goes into a USB port sitting on top of the aforementioned Mifi
  • (Now on the bottom row) An iPod Touch
  • a Blackberry
  • the Belkin power strip
  • the Sprint Novatel cellular modem, soon to be gone


And what did I find smooshed way down in a corner pocket? Why the Mifi’s micro-USB to USB adapter of course. Next time I’ll have to look harder.

For some further good advice about what to carry, Dan Frakes has been writing a fabulous series of columns at MacWorld. The other day he had some good advice on cable selection and Friday he reviewed some miniature gadgets you might want to carry.

Last minute gift ideas for iPod owners and the gadget deprived

Not much time left before the year-end holidays are upon us. Still stumped for the perfect little gift for your gadget-loving friends and relations? Here are a few suggestions based on things we actually bought and used this year around Casa Links below are mostly to manufacturers’ pages, but I’m sure you can find all of these items on Amazon and many at the local Best Buy, too.

I was going to start by raving about how great the iPod Touch is now that we have the app store and all the many new & great programs expanding its greatitude in all directions. But you knew that already. I do have a few less obvious suggestions that go great with iPods, though.

Audio technica ath-anc7 active noise cancelling headphonesI swear by active noise-canceling headphones but they typically cost a couple of hundred bucks a pair. This year I found some cheapie headphones for under $100 on Amazon made by Audio-Technica, the ATH-ANC7, that do just as great a job at blocking unwanted noise as far more expensive models. They are also quite comfortable to wear, if you don’t mind looking like a total audio geek.

I don’t think the sound quality is quite as fabulous as fancier models but it’s still quite good. They also came with a nice semi-hard carrying case that protects them from getting squished in your bag. Absolutely invaluable if you do much travel on airplanes.

apple airport expressI got an Apple Airport Express this year to play music on our living room stereo from files sitting on an upstairs iMac. The Airport Express connects wirelessly or via ethernet cable to your home network and streams songs from any computer running iTunes to anything with RCA jacks or a headphone port. It also can extend your existing wifi network or create its own, aiding efforts to sit on the couch and surf the web. With an iPod Touch or iPhone, you can download the free Apple Remote app to gain full iPod-like control of what’s playing, too. We also set up the Airport Express with this handy Airbase stand from Griffin so it doesn’t have to hang off the wall awkwardly sticking out of an electrical socket.

giftjpgWhile we’re on the subject of iPods, did you know that instead of giving friends an iTunes gift card, you can get a lot more involved and actually gift any specific piece of content? There’s a little gift box icon next to the grey “buy” button. Click it and you are whisked off to the gift giving screen. All you need is your recipient’s email address. There’s even a way to print out a gift sheet with a code number that you can hand someone instead of just letting them know via email about the gift. Among stuff I watched and listened to this year from the iTunes Store, I’m very high on AMC’s “Mad Men” television series, the movies “WALL-E” and “Iron Man” and a bunch of music I’m too embarrassed to disclose.

Power, power and more power. All geeks need more — to keep their iPods and other gadgets charged, that is. I found two useful recharging gadgets that might make good small gifts for iPod owners.

belkin portable mini surge with usbBelkin’s Portable Mini Surge with USB is great for people who travel with multiple gadgets. It turns one outlet into three and adds surge protection and a couple of USB charging ports to boot. That means you can leave your iPod charging plug at home. It’s smartly designed so its electrical prongs can rotate to different angles and fit in the tightest spaces.

The Griffin Powerdock2 has a simple mission, letting you charge two iPods/iPhones at once. It’s very pretty sitting here on my desk in a silver tone that matches my Macbook Pro. There’s also a four iPod/iPhone model. It includes the usual bevy of plastic iPod adapters so the chargers can hold all the various sized versions. Warning: It does not support the most recent versions of the iPod Touch and iPhone which altered the way power flows into their 30-pin connectors.Griffin powerdock two

Beyond the iPod ecosystem, I came across a few other giftable treats this year. My wife needed to do some quick videos for work so we got one of Flip’s original “Ultra” series camcorders. It’s cheap and easy and has it’s own USB plug and software built in. Record videos with the simple controls, plug into a Windows or mac computer and start editing away. The Ultra has since been replaced by some spiffier models, the Mino and MinoHD. Flip has a good web page comparing all the various models. The original is even cheaper now and still pretty nifty. Our kids love it, too.

The wordpress hoodie in actionWordPress is, of course, the platform du jour for blogging but it’s free software. Can’t make much of a gift out of that. But the good folks at Automattic, publishers of WordPress, are selling a line of authorized tee shirts, coffee mugs and hoodies. I have the dark blue hoodie and it’s fun to walk around town and get quizzed about what sport “WordPress” plays. Order big, as these guys tend to shrink.

If you want to buy a gadgeteer a completely captivating yet non-techy gift, we did greatly enjoy Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show (available on CD and DVD) called “Letting Go of God.” Julia may or may not find spiritual bliss on her journey but you’ll be laughing for the entire thought-provoking trip. (Get a little preview in this video from the TED Talks site)

Finally, as I mentioned the other day, I’m hooked on Fran’s Salted Caramels. I got mine at The Cheese Shop in Wellesley Center but check Fran’s web site to buy them online or find a retail location near you. Yum! UPDATE: Careful, some readers are finding them highly addictive.

And that’s the 2008 list of gift ideas. If you’ve got other suggestions, please drop a note in the comments. Thanks and happy holidays.