My Favorite Things: A Product Designer's Top Tech Gadgets

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by Phil Baker

As a gadget person and technology columnist for the San Diego Transcript I try out dozens of new tech gadgets each month that range from clever to what were they thinking? With my experience in product design, I'm pretty skeptical about many of the products that seem to be created just because they can be, not because they fill a need. Yet out of those that I evaluate, some exceptional ones emerge.

For my final column in this guest role I thought I'd note some of my current favorites. What makes them special? They bring a little joy and pleasure, satisfy a real need, or just make things simpler.

Novatel MiFi Card ($40-$50/month) -- I recently returned from Tokyo where I used an international version of the Novate MiFi Card that I for $15/day. It saved me hundreds of dollars in voice and data charges compared to using my AT&T iPhone. This credit card-sized device created a WiFi hotspot wherever I went. I used it to make calls back to the U.S. for two cents a minute using the iPhone Skype app and sent and received email while riding the trains. In the U.S. I carry the Sprint version of the MiFi card with me everywhere. It's available from most U.S. carriers for $50 plus a monthly charge. Currently Virgin Mobile has the best deal at $40/month.

TripIt Pro ($49/year) -- This service is like having a travel assistant wherever you go. Forward your confirmations for air, hotel, and car reservations in any order, at any time, and it figures out your itineraries, adds all of the information to your calendar, and lets you access them from your iPhone or Android using their free app. While on a trip, it sends you reminders to check-in, alerts of flight delays, gate changes and cancellations. It suggests alternative flights and even monitors your ticket pricing, should lower fares become available.

SugarSync ($10/month) -- This clever software keeps your files synced between multiple computers. Never again do you need you worry where the latest revision of a document or presentation is located. Just note which files or folders you want to keep synced and it works in the background without any intervention. It also works as a backup, as well as giving you access to your documents from your iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android phone.

Jawbone ERA Bluetooth Headset  ($130) -- The brand new ERA improves on Jawbone's previous models with better sound, a longer-lasting battery and a built-in motion sensor that lets you answer a call with a tap of your finger. It streams Internet radio, podcasts, and music between calls, and lets you add apps that personalize it with different voices, languages, and even your favorite number for making a one-touch call. And its new shadow grill styling is stunning.

Livescribe Echo Smartpen ($170) -- This note-taking system consists of an electronic pen and notebook with special paper. It's the biggest advance to note taking since the spiral notebook. You can use it to take both written and audio notes of meetings, lectures, and interviews. Then connect the pen to your computer, and your notes are saved. You can play them back or email them to others. It displays your notes just as you wrote them, including drawings and graphs.

Canon PowerShot S95 Camera ($399) -- This tiny Elph-sized camera takes superb images that rival those made with those huge digital SLR models. It has a 4-to-1 zoom, a high-speed f/2 lens for low-light shooting, a simple all black exterior, and enough manual controls to satisfy a pro. It's simply the perfect camera to carry with you wherever you go.

Pentax K-5 DSLR Camera (About $1500) -- Speaking of DSLRs, the K-5 is a wonderful new camera that's more compact than most, yet is extremely robust with its metal structure and weatherproof design. It uses Sony's new 16-megapixel sensor that captures incredible images, even at ISO speeds of 3200.

ProClipUSA ($50 - $70) -- This Swedish-based company solves the problem of mounting your phone or other devices to the dashboard of your car. You purchase a car bracket designed specifically for your year, make, and model, along with a device holder designed for your specific model phone. The bracket snaps onto your car's dashboard without marring it. Screw the device holder to the car bracket and you have a custom installation. What's so clever is how this Swedish company is able to make and inventory over 2000 different parts to fit every nearly phone and automobile, and to have new solutions within days of the release of new cars and phones.

11-inch MacBook Air ($1200 for the 128GB model) -- This is by far the best travel notebook I've ever used, and I've used dozens of makes and models over the years, including ThinkPads, Vaios, and other MacBooks. Despite its small size, about that of a magazine, there are few sacrifices. It has a great full-size keyboard, a gorgeous display, and weighs just 2.2 pounds. The solid-state drive and machined aluminum housing make the product as travel-proof as anything available. In fact, it recently survived a scary 30-inch drop onto a marble floor at CES with the display opened. Damage? A tiny nick in the case.

Finally, a thank you to Jim Fallows and the Atlantic blogging team. It has been an honor to fill in for someone I've admired for so many years.

Phil Baker is a product development consultant, author of "From Concept to Consumer", and the technology correspondent for The San Diego Daily Transcript. His website is www.techspertsinc.com, and his email is pbaker@gmail.com.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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