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The Best Gear of Summer

These days my clothes pack quickly. My gear takes longer. By the time I synch gadgets, coil power cords, juice up batteries and prepare my SD cards and USBs, the clothes seem practically incidental.

But, these days you are what you carry. For maximizing your travel gear and minimizing the headaches, try a few of these tips…

THE TABLET

Tablets are the most multi-functional device in the portable electronics world. Of course you’re familiar with the ubiquitous iPad, but it’s not the only way to go, nor the most functional. 

A tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Note Tab has a couple of advantages. It’s available in sizes ranging from 5 inches (slightly bigger than a phone) to 10 inches (slightly bigger than an iPad). If you’re planning to use it as an entertainment device for watching movies and TV, the 10 inch tablet is a good choice.

The second (and much touted) advantage is a stylus which which you can jot down a few notes, sketch an idea or even put a note on top of a photo or map.

A third advantage, which is huge if you’re serious about photography, is the Galaxy Tab USB & SD Connection Kit, which will allow you to backup and view photos from your camera on your tablet.

The Galaxy Tab has full HD video recording and playback. It’s your music player, camera (rear and front facing so that you can use it to video chat), e-book reader, email, web browser, and more. And it takes advantage of the high speed 4GS network as well as Wifi and Bluetooth.  

Word of caution – even the 5-inch tablet is bigger than most phones. You won’t want to be holding this one up to your ear to make a call. Invest in headphones. Make sure you install and download your apps before the travels. Getting apps downloaded at remote wifi hotspots is not fun.

THE CAMERA

Even with the built-in cameras on many of today’s tablet and smart phones, you’re going to want a digital camera to step up your game for that once in a lifetime vacation. The two main reasons that digital cameras take better pictures than phones are that they’re optimized for low light, and they usually have better lenses. There are a lot of digital cameras out there, so think a bit about what’s important to you.

If you simply want to point and shoot and get a great shot, you’ll enjoy the Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ7/SZ1. It’s a slim camera with an impressive 10X optical zoom lens that gets you close to the action on the beach or at a soccer match. Plus it captures full HD video. The camera has an image stabilizer that helps you get a clear shot even when you’re zoomed in all the way.

If you’re tough on your camera you might want the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX20. It’s compact and waterproof (up to 16 feet), dustproof and shockproof. It’s a great choice if you want to take photos of the kids while standing in the surf, or if you want to bring a camera with you while doing water sports. And it’s a good choice if you’ve always been a bit rough on the gear.

Those who can never remember where they took their shots should look at the Casio Exilim EX-H20G. It’s got one of the best camera/GPS mapping features with a one-touch globe button that records where you took the photo.

Travelling alone or with the very hip? Try the Casio Tryx – its rotating body lets you do all the self-potraits you crave. A similar option is the Samsung DV300F, with a front-facing LCD display so you can see the camera image even when you’re facing the lens.

For keeping the camera extra steady the pros grab a travel tripod like these from Joby. A tripod is also great for self-potraits using the camera’s self timer.

If you’re going somewhere where you might not be able to recharge the camera every evening, invest in a 2nd (or 3rd) camera battery. eBay is a great place to get extra camera batteries on the cheap, just search for your camera model plus “battery”. For longer trips, consider getting a 2nd (or 3rd) SD card, so you have lots of space. eBay is also a great option for memory cards.

ALL THE OTHER STUFF…

Phone Chargers: Phones and vacations are not a match made in heaven.  The Mophie Juice Pack Air is a slim iPhone case that also acts as a charger, and can nearly double your phone’s battery life.

Schoshe flipCharge Burst ($45) is a tiny emergency battery and charging unit that promises up to 30% of an iPhone charge or up to 70% of an iPod charge, depending on the model – enough juice to get you back up and running in a pinch.

Hands Free Calling and Streaming Internet Radio: Livio Radio makes a number of car add-on kits to let you make hands-free calls and stream thousands of Internet radio stations to your car’s radio.  And it’ll even charge your phone as it plays.

Action sports in your plans? Check out Otterbox. The new reflex series cases are rugged but not rigid. They’ll protect your phone taking a blow or force in a flexible way.

And how to get all of this stuff through TSA without missing your flight? That’s your problem. 

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Best Buy Can Turn into Mobile Experts

Some blame Apple. Some blame Amazon. Either way, it’s clear that Best Buy is taking a beating both in the online and physical worlds of mobile electronics sales. What to do? Look to the mobile market. While the iPhone is a beaut, the world of Android and possibly Windows Mobile are both pretty aggressive. And the carriers all need a refresh on customers. Best Buy could become the new strong mobile player by cashing in on their dual online and physical presence, and by offering multiple carriers and multiple hardware solutions, thereby catering towards a larger client pool.

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Have an App-y Summer

Smartphones in summer are far from perfect. The screens are hard to see when you’re out of doors, they tend to run out of batteries at inopportune moments, and it seems you’re always in a no-cell area when you need one. Still, your smartphone can be your summer companion on the road or in your own backyard. Try these apps for the glory days of summer.

In Your Own Backyard

Start by looking at the sky. Google SkyMaps (free, Android) identifies celestial beings from your point of view. Point the phone at any location in the sky and the app will tell you what you’re seeing. Planets, stars, constellations – are all unveiled. Apple users who want a prettier map can download SkyApp from Celestron (iPhone/iPad).

A surprisingly handy app, Flashlight (iPhone/iPad) transforms your phone screen to a bright white light. For reading menus, finding a keyhole or just getting somewhere in the dark, it’s a handy addition.

Gardening fanatics have a huge number of app choices. Those who prefer an encyclopedic approach will enjoy Botany Buddy ($9.99, iPhone/iPad). It provides an almost overwhelming description of every plant and shrub in existence – all searchable by name, location and description. Cooks should look at iPlant ($1.99, iPhone/iPad), a culinary guide. If your garden is infested, you need Garden Insects (iPhone/iPad), the 99-cent guide to garden insects.

For getting in shape, use your smartphone as a pedometer with Pedometer Pro GPS+ ($2.99, iPhone/iPad). Since it knows your location through its GPS, it can calculate how far and fast you’ve walked and run, through what kinds of terrain. Set your personal goals and get started.

Weather buffs and outdoor party planners might download WeatherUnderground’s free app (Android/iPhone/iPad), where local folks like you contribute weather information in real time. Crowd-sourced weather at its finest!

Looking for a local event to pass the time? From movies, to concerts, to fairs and art, Eventful (free, iPhone) lets you follow upcoming concerts, performances and other live events through the site. Eventful goes a step further by giving fans a place to demand an event. 

On the Road

AccuTerra Unlimited (iPhone) is the hardcore map and GPS tracker for hiking, running, biking, and skiing. We’re talking five million square miles of terrain and trail maps. The maps are beautiful and have been optimized for the iPhone. You’ll want to download just the maps that you need to use (the app can get quite large). This all-access pass comes at the hefty price tag of $29.95.

When you’re off the trail, Where You Go (free, Android) is an app with 500 preset categories that can locate anything from drug stores to restaurants to points of interest.

Campers and RV enthusiasts should head to Camping Road Trip ($2.99). Available on iPhone and Android, it provides a complete list of 15,000 RV parks and campgrounds and lets you share your notes and ratings with others.

On the Interstate? Download iexit ($.99, iPhone) and find out what restaurants and hotels are just off the next exit – without ever exiting.

An app I find especially handy for summer travels is Park n Find ($.99, iPhone). Park your car, take its photo, and the GPS coordinates are captured and reported back to you. You’ll never be the last car out of the lot again because you’ve forgotten where you’ve parked.

TripIt (free, Android, iPhone/iPad, Blackberry, Windows) watches as you book your flights, hotel , rental car information and turns it into your personal itinerary. Trip Advisor (free, Android phone/tablet, iPhone/iPad, Windows) shares the often very vocal opinion of travelers everywhere. Read before you book. 

An Appendix of Kids Apps

My friend Stanley, a poet and inventor, calls it the “App-endix” of kids apps. Like any true curmudgeon, he says the app-endix, just like the real one in your body, will cease to be useful through the process of evolution. There are lots of reasons for Stanley’s gloom. An overcrowded field with too many tepid entries and no real organizing principles make it hard to find quality kids apps. Free apps often bring in advertising and who knows what other computer dangers and annoyances. Apps that cost are inexpensive enough (the average kid’s app is just over $2), but parents are reluctant to spend any money on something that they haven’t seen and have to search through the piles for.

Parents are also a bit reluctant to indulge their kid’s already over-voracious screen time habits. The result? App fatigue.

But, I’m more optimistic about an Appendix being the supplemental guide (usually at the end of the book). Apps can be a kid’s appendix – offering inspiring explorations that make being a kid even richer. I spent the last 2 days in a deep dive app-experience with a group of talented, dedicated folks at the Dust or Magic App Camp. Some of the work that I looked at was like finding the hidden gem in a video game. If you’ve been unsuccessfully searching through the pile of rubble that we think of as kids apps – flash cards, connect the dots, and horrid voices telling you to try again – feast your eyes on these.

WindoSill by VectorPark 

These folks didn’t  attend the app camp but were selected by a panel of kids-in-residence as a favorite. Windosill is a whimsical adventure puzzle; your mission is to get through doors by solving them various bits of logic machines. The entire game has an Alice in Wonderland meets Pablo Picasso feel to it. Beautifully rendered art, puzzles, logic, physics and a very responsive multi-touch system all make the play super-fluid. I hate people who say that you have to play it to understand it, but in this case that’s the truth. Try the first levels for free at the site.

Leonardo daVinci by TouchPress App

More like a PBC special than a kid’s app per se, TouchPress Apps is all about making beautiful books about beautiful subjects into exploration apps. The company has created books on the Solar System, Elements and Skulls, and one of their latest is on the anatomy works of Leonardo DaVinci. Of course you knew that Leonardo, in addition to being a great artist, was a super-skilled anatomist, right? This app lets you explore that piece of DaVinci. The app renders these anatomical drawings glorious 3D rotations. The text is engrossing, the artwork stunning, and of course includes Leonardo’s famous backwards writing. ($13.99)

The Numberlys 

Created by some ex-Pixar talent, the Numberlys begins as a black and white “Metropolis” where numbers are in command with letters still unborn. It’s an epic story, with a look and feel that gives a nod to great films of the past from King Kong to Flash Gordon to The Wizard of Oz. Players will get to birth numbers by spinning and multi-touching away. To get a feel for the game, visit the website. ($5.95)

Noodlewords

They say that kids learn by watching and doing, by engaging with all their senses, and through their hands. Noodlewords introduces words with raucous giggle-producing action. Unlike so many kids apps that use hum drum or action overdoses or art, this one concentrates on having kids delight in a specific action/reaction. Too adorably engaging bugs dance, bump, and otherwise teach those action words through their carefully crafted antics. ($2.99)

 MathDoodles 

This whimsical work by Daren Carstens is a dotted landscape of special touches. From his love of “doodles” to his reasoning that simple math drills can be playful and fun – kids will through in every number system from money to binary to Roman Numerals. Once you create stacks of sums (there is no right answer), the numbers shake and dance, and glorious words of encouragement appear on screen. Daren includes a bit of his own motivations for creating the app by telling of his own discovery that math is fun. The fun is evident in his work. ($0.99)

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College Education, The Prices Are Insane!

Higher-education costs have skyrocketed 450 percent, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard lots of chatter about new online models for higher education. Some critics are outraged by the thought of removing the classroom experience from the equation. Others cite cheating and accountability as major obstacles. Still others, no doubt, recognize the warning sign in the form of a pink slip.

Techy optimists see online education as the next great Internet democratization. Anyone willing to learn, regardless of how much is in their checkbook, can gain access to the greatest institutions of higher education in the world. 

From the East Coast bastion of ivy comes the MIT and Harvard salvo. The institutions announced a partnership called edX to offer free online courses from both schools. According to the New York Times, those who complete the courses will get a certificate and a grade, but no course credit. By teaching large numbers of students through a single course, edX hopes to gain insights into the teaching process as well as provide academic opportunities for all types of students.

In the best amalgam situation, Cousera, founded by two Stanford professors, already offers free online courses compiled from some of the best universities: Michigan State, Penn State, Princeton, Stanford.  Interestingly, Cousera teaches the arts, including history and poetry, as well as smogasboard of computer courses. The courses do away with the traditional lecture; the instructor and assistants play the role of advisors, identifying common problems, offering clarification, and stimulating conversation. Peers and experts perform grading and other course interaction. HackedEducation provides a deeper look into Coursera here.

Udacity was born when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and two of his colleagues taught a free online AI course to about 160,000 students. Graded by machine, and focused on the computer sciences, Udacity offerings are all no-cost. An ABC interview says that ultimately the company plans to use student data for recruitment purposes, hence monetizing their efforts. Unlike the others, Udacity is not affiliated with any university, as Thrun and his colleagues left Stanford to start the company.

Together, this trio represents what has come to be known as MOOC: Massively Open Online Courses. Can you learn just as well in a crowd of 100,000 as you can in a small seminar? I suspect that individual learning styles will ultimately create everything from blended models to premium services. Meanwhile, reading through the forums and posts on Udacity and Coursera, it’s hard not to be encouraged by how grateful these far flung students are to be in the midst of this education revolution.

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Can Tech Help Change Your Kid’s Behavior?

You betcha! B.F. Skinner, the father of psychology’s behaviorist movement, would be giving electronics manufacturers the high five right now. It turns out that 1) kids like working for rewards and 2) technology is a really good motivator. A few examples…

Zazoo Kids Alarm Clock: Do your kids wake up at 6AM on Saturday morning believing you should be up too? Do they hop out of bed before the naptime whistle? Zazoo’s charming little alarm clock ($89) helps retrain little bed-jumpers by offering four different sets of background images that tell your child it’s ok to “get up” or time to “stay put”. A moon and dark background say “stay asleep” while bright sunny sunshine says “rise and shine”.

The clock doubles as a digital photo frame, and can play video clips and music – and you can set it so the kids wake up to anything from your voice to their favorite song or video. It has both USB and SD inputs so it can really serve as a little one’s first multimedia machine. The only caveat is that it’s not a touch screen. Parents will have to use a system of menu and arrow buttons on the back of the clock (much like a traditional alarm clock) to set it appropriately. 

GeoPalz could be the best-kept secret on the planet. It’s a $25 pedometer made especially for kids. It comes in all sorts of fun designs like flowers, peace signs, and devils, and is made to be worn on shoes, belts, a pocket, wherever. Each GeoPalz has a unique serial number – kids go about their day, rack up the steps, and when they log onto the GeoPalz website, there’s a payoff. For every step walked, they gain points for prizes. And the prizes are from places the kids love like Target, REI, Xbox Live and others. There are games and challenges, and (of course) a virtual world to explore. Rewards for exercise are a good way to start building a kid’s consciousness about how exercise makes them feel.

Tykoon is a website created to encourage children’s financial literacy. Assign your kids chores or assignments with the opportunity to earn some type of reward. Each task is assigned a frequency by the parents and then checked off when the task is done. Parents can pay cold hard cash or they can decide on a reward system like staying up late or watching a TV program if they’d rather.

Kids are encouraged to set long and short term goals – college, an ice cream, a charity gift – it’s all there for your family to choose how to allot. As your children saves, a graphical view displays how they’re progressing toward their goal. Many parents will take advantage of the “Giving” part of the site to ingrain the importance of charitable giving (the sites partners include Make a Wish, ASPCA, Toys for Tots and others). And of course they get to spend. The site is also a kid’s “shopping mall” (parents need to ok the purchase) filled with kid friendly items from bicycles to video games.

Of course anytime the “bank” is right next to the “store”, you might wind up with the whining tyke-oon, but this is a site that lets families discuss their financial beliefs and gives them the tools to instill those beliefs in their children.

BF Skinner would be smiling from his grave to know that his reward theory for behavior modification is alive and well in the digital age.

 

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Fitbit – To Step or Not To Step

In my last posting I promised to report on my progress with the Kinect and Xbox, but things took an unexpected turn when we began renovations on our kitchen. Since we live in a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan, renovating one room requires the destruction of the other. Hence no living room, no workout room, no Xbox w/ Kinect.

Instead, I decided to take advantage of the fitbit I acquired at CES. My cute little blue fitbit has measured my steps, counted the number of stairs I climbed, calories burned and miles traveled since January. At CES, I was averaging about 15-16,000 steps a day. Despite New York being a “walking city,” it is taking a bit more effort to hit my daily average of 10,000 steps.

I kept to my workout routine of 4 runs of 2- 3 miles each and added a few extended walks on the days that I would normally do a Jillian Michaels DVD. Of course all the cleaning, lifting and shopping involved in renovating a kitchen added steps too. My results using the fitbit took me by surprise.

HOW IT WORKS

The fitbit clips to an article of clothing or slips into a pocket; it’s not much bigger than a USB drive. The blue display screen offers encouragement, number of steps taken, calories burned, and number of floors climbed. It uses a flower metaphor. The more steps you take, the taller the flower.

The fitbit syncs wirelessly to your online account through a docking station that is plugged into a USB port on your computer. Data is then uploaded and posted to your Dashboard. You can also update fitbit data from a smart phone – adding what you’ve had for lunch, for example. The company just recently launched its Android app but I use the iOS version.

REWARDS

Steps, stairs and activities are rewarded with badges as your stated goals are met and exceeded. If you are into it – you can compete with friends on Facebook for leadership board positions or use apps such as My Fitness Pal.

Fitbit has actually become “my little buddy”. I feel quite naked without it. But, I’ll admit some of my friends in the non – CE world are appalled at all of the naval gazing and body monitoring. When I explain that body sensor controls will be the fitness craze of the future they say they’re concerned with what it’s going to do to their privacy. Whatever, I don’t know if “big brother” is watching or not, but I lost 7 lbs, my kitchen is beautiful, and now that I’ve freed my living room I’m about to order my Xbox with Kinect. Any bet on whether Xbox or fitbit will win my self-inflicted weight loss program?

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A College Education: The Prices Are Insane!

Higher-education costs have skyrocketed 450 percent, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard lots of chatter about new online models for higher education.  Some critics are outraged by the thought of removing the classroom experience from the equation.  Others cite cheating and accountability as major obstacles.  Others, no doubt, see the writing on the wall in the form of a pink slip.

Online optimists  see online education as the next great Internet democratization.  Anyone willing to learn, regardless of how much is in their checkbook, is able to gain access to the greatest institutions of higher education in the world. 

One thing is certain, the ivory towers are crumbling as I write, and the 600 pound guerillas are beating their chests.

From the East Coast bastion of ivy comes the MIT and Harvard salvo.  The institutions announced a partnership called edX, that will offer free online courses from both schools. According to the NYT, those who complete the courses will get a certificate and a grade, but no course credit. By teaching large numbers of students through a single course, edX hopes to glean insights into the teaching process as well as providing academic opportunities for students.

In the best amalgam situation, Cousera, founded by two Stanford profs already offers free online courses compiled  from some of the best universities: Michigan, Penn, Princeton , Stanford.  Interestingly, Cousera teaches the arts , including history and poetry, as well as smorgasboard of computer courses .  The courses replace the traditional lecture but the instructor and assistants play the role of advisors , eyeballing common problems, offering clarification, and stimulating  conversation. Grading and interaction is done by peers as well as experts. One of the deeper looks into what’s behind Coursera can be found at HackedEducation.

Udacity was born when Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor and two of his colleagues taught a free online AI course to about 160,000 students. Graded by machine, and focused on the computer sciences, Udacity offerings are all computer science classes and are all free.  An ABC interview  says that ultimately the company plans to use student data for recruitment purposes, hence monetizing their efforts.  Unlike the others, Udacity is not affiliated with any university as Thrun and his colleagues left Stanford to start the company.

Together, this trio represents what’s come to be known as MOCC or Massively Open Online Courses.  Can you learn just as well in a crowd of 100,000 as you can in a small seminar?  I suspect that individual learning styles will ultimately create everything from blended models to premium services.  Meanwhile, reading through the forums and posts on Udacity and Coursera it’s hard not to be encouraged by how grateful these far flung students are to be in the midst of this education revolution.