May 2020: pandemic gift of the month
In the midst of the pandemic, I took a step beyond just owning a "Phone Soap" to sterilize my phone with UV light. I bought a serious 60 watt UVC light that can kill lots of bacteria and viruses and basically, is dangerous. Here's a picture.
Out of the box it was not supported and needed a base. I made a 3-way base that allows it sit on a table, to be hung horizontally, or to be mounted on a tripod for full room sterilization. It can do a room in as little as 15 minutes. It also generates ozone, so much in fact that the air in the room is unbreathable and must be vented!
For daily use, I built a 3 ft x 3 ft x 4 ft box in the garage with all surfaces made of reflective material. Everything that comes to the house spends at least 15 minutes in that box. There are no perfect solutions to combating viruses, but if you like the idea of using high-power UVC light and ozone, then you will like this lamp! If you want one, look here.
Note: in response to a couple of comments: UVC light has been used for many years to clean air in hospitals and other places with sources of infection, typically as a vented fixture near a ceiling. Tests by the NIH and elsewhere confirm that UVC will deactivate viruses both in aerosols and on surfaces. Ozone is also effective.
April 2020: useful gift of the month
I am going to repeat an old recommendation! In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, you want to keep contact with anything to a minimum, and that includes your phone! So when you do have to go out to buy food or other essentials, a Bluetooth headset will help you avoid the need to pull out that phone. Get any headset you want, that is comfortable. I had previously recommended the Motorola H730 because it hugs the ear effectively. Under the circumstances, this is a good gift for anyone you want to help stay safe.
Now for the good stuff. Want to answer a call? Tap it. Want to make a call or start the GPS? Tap it. When you are back in your car, you should find that anything you say to the car ("OK Google") will be answered through the car, and anything you initiate with a tap will be handled through the earpiece. Nice and easy!
March 2020: questionable gift of the month
If you read my Harbingers of Failure article (check out my blog), this is one of those candidates IMO. I have come out strongly in favor of carrying a battery pack to keep phones and tablets topped up. What if I said to you, here is a battery pack that costs more, and only gives you half of the power you paid for. Would you buy that? Well, here it is. The sales advertisement even admits you will only get half of the power. So you pay for a 10,000 mAH charger and get the value of a 5,000 unit. Of course you can use a cable with it, but that defeats the idea.
Is it worthwhile to pay more and lose half the power?
Why only half power? Because you lose half through inefficiency when you transfer power with an inductive loop.
If you are traveling, you can afford to use a short cable to charge your device. If you are charging while on the run, your phone cannot sit peacefully on the platform. And you will need the cable anyway, to charge the battery pack!
2019 HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE
Let me say that as I look out at the many things one could buy in our marvelous high tech world, I am not impressed! It’s not just that I have seen things before, and so I am bored. I am not merely cynical that quickly obsolete trinkets will seem exciting to younger folks. Well maybe a bit. But really, I am not impressed. And I certainly won’t recommend home Internet accessories that record your conversations and images, sharing them to those big companies we all know by name. Get over it folks, and flip that switch with your fingers, the original “digit” solution!
For my 2019 list, I start with items that are not expensive, and many will not be in high demand, so you won’t have trouble buying them even at the last minute! Note that I provide a lot of links to Amazon. I am not encouraging you to buy there, I use their links because they are handy to illustrate products.
The best tech gifts last a long time, and are not high carbon footprint fads.
Of course if you want to spend money on something that is totally cool and involves imbibing, check out the review of the Pico Brew farther down in this page.
Semi-transparent water-resistant mesh zipper pouches. These are sold in art stores and The Container Store for general use but they are perfect for stowing cords,plugs, adapters and so on for home or travel. Why do I call out this design? They let light in so you can find your stuff. They don’t look ugly when they get scratched with use. And, they are TOUGH! Here are some sold at The Container Store.
Lightweight HDMI patch cords. If you travel, there are times when you want to plug your laptop into the hotel TV to watch movies through your own system. To make life easier, just carry a mini HDMI cord. Check this one out at Amazon
Folio-style phone cases. The best way to get your phone cracked is to put it in a skimpy plastic shell. I highly recommend a folio- or book-style case. You can also store notes, business cards, money and other items and it doubles as a stand. For a price that is often lower than the skimpy shell, you can get substantial protection and still look stylish. Here's an example at HDAccessory.
Cord squids. I don't know if that's an official name but they look like squids to me and I am hungry for seafood right now. A cord squid has an input USB plug on one end and several output plugs on the other side. Typically now, you get a USB-C, Lightning and MicroUSB. Some cords have more than one of each and will also include a mini-USB. These cords are not only handy for travel but they are also great in the car. You want at least two feet length and you want it to be in-line, for ease of use. Pair it up with a car adapter rated at least 2AMPs and it’s a sweet gift! Here’s one I like at Amazon.
<<< This Not this >>>
Car holders to convert phones to dashcams. Everybody’s got old phones sitting around wasting space. If you have been wanting a dashcam, that old phone will do a great job, better than expensive dashcams! The tricky part is finding a holder that will sit high enough to get a forward view, that does not block the camera. This will take some research and experimentation. Software is available for free or cheap to convert Android, iPhone and Windows Phones to be excellent dashcams. Here is an example of a YouTube video to encourage you.
Phone-Activated Switch Lock Kit. More accurately, it's a switch that is activated by touch tone dual tone sounds (DTMF) first offered by ATT back in the 1960s and of course still in use today. The kit comes with a microphone which would allow you to play sounds at your lock. Or, if you are the Steampunk type, you could use 9 volts, a few resistors, and operate the lock from a vintage phone. Pretend your door is the entrance to Iron Mountain, just like in Sci Movies of the 60s-70s! This is a kit, and it requires expertise with soldering, PC boards, and DIY in general. Very cool. Find it at American Science and Surplus.
Mouse Jigglers. Hoo Boy, that sounds kinky! But in fact, it’s an amazingly handy tool. If you are working with a desktop or laptop that times out to lock or go to sleep, this handy device will keep things awake for you. It was a good way to keep my work PC laptop from driving me nuts when working from home. I just plugged it into the port replicator on my desk. The device installs on the USB mouse interface. If there is no activity after a set time, the Jiggler will move the cursor randomly, a pixel or so in several directions. The original and best is made by WiebeTech. You can see several models on Amazon.
External 5V battery packs. Anyone who spends time traveling even for a day, finds themselves with dead batteries on their phones. You can make life better for a friend by picking up a power pack. Those phones get hungry so don’t pick a model with capacity less than 10,000 mAH, and 20,000 would be really nice. Try a search for 5V external battery packs on your favorite website. I like the Astro because it looks like a phone, and seems to please the TSA. You could start here on Amazon.
180 degree flashlight. Flashlights are old news right? Maybe not. High brightness low temperature LEDs get people thinking of new ideas. On the other hand think how many horror movies will never be made again if people stumbling in the dark can actually see where they are going?! Here is one of several models on Amazon.
Bluetooth earpieces. I despair at the people I see walking, driving and worse, with one hand and their $900 phone at their ear when a simple earpiece would free their hands. We can’t cure stupidity, but we can do our best to help others avoid mistakes! Not all headsets are alike. I prefer the Motorola models that cannot be turned on by accident because the earpiece must be unfolded. A good example is the H730, here at Amazon.
The Flying circus of Physics, with Answers. You have seen books that describe how things work? Well, you have seen nothing like Jearl Walker’s book! He poses puzzles, observations and questions about natural and man-made situations from the tame to the bizarre, then provides both the simple and the hard science explanations. It is an amazing read for anyone who has a basic grasp of science and math, or a diverting collection for your favorite genius. You can get this through any bookstore. Here is the author's site.
Outdoor wildlife cameras. These cameras can cost as little as $40 and are weatherproof. Everyone can enjoy watching for local animals going about their business. Some people leave the camera active for a year and build visual timelines of activity. And, it can double as a security camera! Take a look on Amazon and other sites.
They all look like creepy aliens. Cool.
LED roadside emergency "flares" This is a promising replacement for combustible flares, but ONLY if you regularly replace your batteries. In fact if you want to do this right, you will use non-rechargeable Lithium batteries (expensive) because they have a long shelf life, and work well at low temperatures. Don't bite on the ads until you look around. 1tac models are 3 lights for $40 at Walmart, while a lookalike Tobfit model sells as 12 lights for $60 on Amazon.
Roku streaming sticks (and boxes). If you have not yet bought a streaming device, stop before you get the Fire Stick or Apple TV. Those products force you to take subscriptions through them for streaming channels that are available independently. Instead, check out the Roku device family for a similar price. It must have been ten years ago that I met up with Roku at a Pepcom event. While many others disappeared, Roku set the bar for quality and channel access. You can always take out independent subscriptions, and use them any way you like.
Bluetooth speakers. Now there’s a subject that may be over for some, but if you don’t have experience you must resist buying something at the mall that’s on special. Good sound quality with portability is paramount! There’s no substitute for the UE BOOM models. They are a "gold standard" and they are widely available from many stores. Even the smallest has power and quality sound. My son informed me that the cylindrical models can be rolled down the hallway at full volume, turning any office into a party zone! I also like the basic model from Photive. It pairs quickly, reports its battery level to your phone, and has a real on/off switch. Not as much bass, though. But it did a perfect job of shouting remote control sound effects in my Halloween haunted trail and never ran out of power. Here is a link to the Photive Hydra.
<<< UE BOOM Photive Hydra >>>
Zoetropes. Perhaps you have heard of the earliest animation systems that relied on rotating images and mechanical stroboscopic effects? There are kits galore of all sizes and complexity on the Internet for the original 2D models. Here is a good place to start on Amazon.
But if money is no object, and you crave awesome results without being an artist, you can get involved in high tech 3D Zoetropes through a Indiegogo project called 4-Mation.
Piano Instruction. My head is full of music, but I never learned to play beyond drums or to read music. I sat for few minutes at a Pepcom event and tried out this learning system and I must say that I felt good about it. I really think I could jump a lifetime of gaps and learn to play. The system is adaptive to the learner's perception. At this point we are leaving the "low cost recommendations" station. If you are looking for an in-home method to learn, it's worth a look at the One Smart Piano.
Enabling the young engineer. Another nice find from Pepcom. If you have technically-inspired children, here is a fun computer kit that allows them to build their own “laptop” computer using snap-together materials. At the core is a Raspberry Pi, which also serves to guide construction and to teach lessons, using a Minecraft-style presentation. I especially like the way that the kit combines physical construction, discrete computer inputs, and Linux programming to give a balanced learning experience. Check out model two of the Piper Computer. And while we are on this topic, when I was a kid the big deal was the Erector Set, followed much later by Capsella. Today you should consider buying the IQ Key, which you can see here at Amazon.
<<< PIPER 2 IQ-KEY >>>
What about virtual reality? Well, unless you want to do your own programming, I would not get too excited yet. The clunky VR sets you can use today are good enough for some, but I am picky. Look into augmented reality games and apps, and if you don't know what that means, think about the Pokemon game that had people wandering around a couple of years back, seeing the world modified through their phone camera. Maybe what you really want for a gift is a 360 degree camera. For anyone into sports in particular, these can be fun. However, they are expensive and every model has its detractors. The 360fly which has been featured at many events including my favorite Pepcom, it a simple way to get started. By reading negative reviews on all of these products, you can learn how best to use them. Here is the link to the 360fly company website. And here is a detailed review at Tom's Guide.
CYBER IMBIBER "I DON'T BUY" ZONE
Please buy whatever you wish. It's your decision. I am not stopping you. But I will offer my opinion.
These are items I will not buy
Tapper Brand AirPods Carrying Strap. Seriously. A plastic cord with two plastic lumps at the ends to hold your AirPods. A bargain for only $60 at Nordstrom's. A plastic cord with two plastic lumps at the ends. At moments like this I realize that my personal honor and honesty keep me from creating things like this. Otherwise I would be rich.
The PhotoStick. There are lots of gallery management solutions for Windows and Mac. Maybe this is good for a totally nontechnical person on a PC, but I would rather point them to something like Google Photos.
Car diagnostic readers with a hard sell. For $59, the FIXD, a diagnostic code reader for your car will provide the same information you can get through devices costing as low as $10 using independent apps available on iPhone and Android. Mechanics don't hate home car code readers, but I don't like the flood of ads that use this kind of language. IMO, the readers can bring them more business.
You will see a lot of ads for devices to "speed up your home wireless network". In nearly all cases these are simply repeaters. They will extend your signal range but they will not speed up your Internet connection and they will add latency. Rather than use repeaters, you should cable up some additional fully supported access points, often for the same cost as the repeater.
Avoid apps that claim to repair your phone battery. An example is BetterCharge. Battery technology has moved on, and your systems have hardware-level control over battery charge state. In any case your battery's optimal life is just a few years and you can't do anything about that. This PC Magazine article presents a good factual review of battery management.
EARLIER POSTS - with more gift ideas!!
Geeks Gotta Eat.
The fastest fresh breakfast sandwich on the planet!
September 7, 2019
Meet the Hamilton Beach Breakfast Electric Sandwich Maker. I was gifted this sandwich maker for Xmas 2018 and I use it every day when I am home and not traveling. It makes a perfect sandwich and it's foolproof! Plug it in to warm up. Add an English Muffin, a slice of meat and one of cheese, an egg and wait four minutes. Amazing! You can make your entire breakfast and only use one small plate. Cleanup is easy! For variation use cream cheese with olives, sun dried tomatoes, Aldi Queso-style dip, sliced onions, instant biscuit mix and sausage and more. This is truly one of the best ever small appliances, taking little room on the counter, hiding next to the coffee maker. Mine cost about $15. Popularity has driven the price higher, but still worth it. Find it at many stores and of course, online! Visit the main website at this link. And for two dozen or more recipe ideas, look at this link.
Pico Brew makes craft beers from across the world, on your kitchen counter top.
August 22, 2019
You could also put it on your desktop, but people will talk. Believe it or not, this amazing little machine is partly the brainchild of a former Microsoft executive. See, miracles do happen. For just a few hundred dollars the entry level model will make a fantastic brew for you in as little as 2 days and change. The ingredients come in cartridges to avoid mess. The company has managed to strike deals for ingredients with many well-known craft breweries. The starting models of this innvovative design were a hit at a Pepcom event a few years back. Check out the Pico C entry level model here. On the other hand, if you are a tightwad looking for a mug of strange brew, check out my fast, cheap hard cider page.
Mobile Power Banks Make Life Easier
August 12, 2019
Don't buy those silly cheap battery boosters at the supermarket aisle. On trips long or short, mobile surfing is inevitable and even if I use battery saver settings, come afternoon I am risking no juice to call an Uber. You need at least a 10,000 mAH rated power pack. The Astros have a distinct advantage for travelers. The shiny front, home button and charge indicators look more like a phone, which means less hassles at security checkpoints. Sadly, Anker has moved on to produce new models that look exactly like batteries, so the CyberImbiber suggests that you dig around to find the Astro.