Hey, it’s the holidays. Some of you may be wondering what to get for others … or what treats to give yourself. So here’s an incomplete list of some of the gadgets, gizmos, services, and other things that I am currently finding worthwhile. Some are for fun, others are for business. All are subject to my own personal preferences, so take them for what they are.
This is the device that makes me happiest at home right now. It ain’t cheap, but it lets me stream music throughout my house. I can listen to subscription tracks from Rhapsody wherever I want, whenever I want. It’s great when my wife and I are talking about a song from the past to be able to instantly call it up and play it. And the Sonos folks have been working hard to continue to improve their product through free software updates that let you search for songs more easily. In addition, it integrates with one of my new favorite services, Pandora.
Hands down, Pandora has opened my eyes to more music than I ever would have ventured to try before. Now that I can use it on my Sonos, I find it to be very valuable. When I had to listen to it on the web using my computer, I was less enthused. But listening to music on stereo speakers throughout my house sold me. I have created a variety of stations for the different types of music I enjoy, and it does a pretty good job of delivering some variety to my listening habits.
OK, so I admit I was wrong when I first dissed the iPhone. The Edge network hasn’t been unusable, though it is slower than EVDO (but for what I use my phone for I rarely notice). I figured out how to type on it pretty quickly. And the navigation features are pretty cool. It even got me back to using iTunes for my portable music because it is nice to carry just one device, and I was simply fed up with DRM issues surrounding portable subscription music (which I would still prefer if someone can get it done right).
Garmin Nuvi 660
I hadn’t used a GPS device until a couple of months ago when I broke down and got the Nuvi 660. Another gadget that isn’t cheap, but it is has already paid for itself, in my mind at least. Now, anyone who knows me understands that I hate to drive and — truth be told — I’m probably not the best behind the wheel. So when I do venture out on my own I want to get where I’m going fast without getting lost. This little guy took me through upstate NH, VT, and NY and didn’t miss a beat. In fact, when I decided to make a side trip on the way back from the conference I was attending, it really came in handy. I was headed to Cooperstown to check out the Baseball Hall of Fame, but a traffic jam that the Nuvi detected threatened to add an hour to my trip and it was already getting late (and the only thing I hate more than driving is driving in the dark). Without my even having to intervene, it re-routed me around the traffic on some scenic side roads and got me to Cooperstown only about 15 minutes later than I had originally anticipated.
I do a fair amount of audio recording for podcasts (my own and others) and frequently find myself on the road. I used to record into my Zoom H4 (which I like for truly portable recording) and then transfer to my laptop. But now I can eliminate a step by recording directly to my Mac using the MicMate which connects a professional microphone (I use the Shure SM-58) through the USB port. It’s about the size of a dry erase marker and does its job very nicely. Very portable and useful. Fair warning: for some reason it does seem to draw attention from our good friends at TSA. It must look like something else on the X-ray screen.
To heck with all those folks who don’t like book readers. I love mine and wouldn’t dream of giving it up. At least not unless I decide to try out the Amazon Kindle.
Now that I use the iPhone I can’t watch the Slingbox on my cell phone anymore, but I still can on my computer. I actually find that I use it a lot at home so that I can watch a game on my laptop while sitting with my wife who is watching some TV show or movie.
Everyone who knows me has heard me rave about Rackspace as a hosting provider. These guys have been taking care of all of my businesses since 2000. I started with one small server, and now have more than I can count along with all sorts of bells and whistles (and a team of people on my end that deal with Rackspace, so I rarely have the pleasure myself). You will notice a theme here as I tell you they aren’t the cheapest solution, but they are worth it. Yes, the servers and uptime are fantastic, but the service is what keeps me coming back over and over again. Like any service provider, we encounter bumps in the road (in fact, we just had a rocky couple of weeks trying to get an upgrade done) but ultimately Rackspace comes through every time — often in entertaining ways. When the head of my tech team once told a "Racker" (as they call themselves) that he figured if he asked for a ham sandwich that they would come through, he got a ham sandwich delivered to him the next day (along with enough for his co-workers). Just recently, he was frustrated at the speed of a response from one of their technicians, so he asked the account manager to "stand on his desk until he gets you the info." Lo and behold, he was greeted with an emailed photo of the account manager standing on that individual’s desk.
OK, I admit it. I cheat on Rackspace once in a while. Very rarely, actually, but sometimes when I want to play with something for personal use or something more R&D oriented that is far from mission critical, I use ServerBeach. These guys are great at setting up quick, cheap servers. I have no experience using them for higher-end stuff, but at the low end they do exactly what they promise for relatively cheap prices. (And for non-mission-critical stuff I find the cost savings over Rackspace to be worth it, though many of these projects "graduate" to Rackspace if they succeed.) I rationalize this disloyalty to Rackspace by the fact that ServerBeach itself was started by Richard Yoo, a co-founder of Rackspace.
It’s where I host most of my blogs, and I have even used it to launch a new company. Now I plan to explore MovableType because I have been so pleased with TypePad but am starting to hit the limits of what I can do with their hosted solution. It isn’t perfect, but I recommend TypePad over WordPress to most business professionals who aren’t inclined to do heavy-duty tinkering.
I didn’t used to be a big fan of Skype. I found it to be of spotty quality, but I went back to it recently and have found it to be a tremendous resource for recording phone interviews for publishing online. I use SkypeOut and have had no significant quality issues. I still don’t use Skype as heavily as some of my colleagues, but it is useful to me in the way I employ it.
In the past, I have chased after the promise of a single phone number to reach me anywhere. I tried some services a few years ago that worked a little, but most of them required sequential attempts at different numbers and weren’t very transparent to the caller. Finally, GrandCentral packaged everything up nicely so there is one phone number to reach me anywhere, anytime. Since I have about 8 different phone numbers and it is virtually impossible for anyone (myslef included) to predict where I will be easiest to reach at any given time, this single number capability is a great communications tool for me. Can’t imagine ever going without it, which is why I am glad Google bought this company up, something that guarantee its stability.
I love including photos and artwork with blog posts and articles I publish online, but most existing services are too hard to understand the licensing arrangements — or the licenses themselves are too expensive — or the photos are of poor quality. Then one of the guys who works for me told me about LuckyOliver. I’m glad he did. It typically costs about $1 per photo to be able to add it to a blog or online article. It’s a great deal to add some sex appeal to the text.
It’s free so you can’t give it away, but this service is now my longest-running RSS reader that I have used. Typically I change all the time, but ever since Google Gears allowed me to read my feeds offline when I’m on an airplane, I have ditched everything else and rely exclusively on Google Reader — and I have no desire to change anymore.
I don’t read my email online with Gmail, but I do forward much of my mail here because it has an awesome spam filter. I still download into a desktop program to read it because I still am not crazy about the Gmail interface, but I couldn’t live without its powerful — and accurate — spam filtering.
I already mentioned this this earlier in this post, but I do like the Zoom H4 for portable recording of interviews. It accepts professional XLR inputs so I can use my Shure SM-58 microphone with it and does a nice job of recording. It looks a bit like a taser, but thus far TSA seems more interested in my MicMate when I pass through security…
Verizon Wireless EVDO Card
When I’m on the road (which is often), not having to worry about finding wireless networks at airports, hotels, conferences, and the like is a great relief. My EVDO card gets me a solid Internet connection from almost anywhere, and I don’t get nickle-and-dimed by every new location I visit.
Yup, I’m a convert. I went away from Macs for some 16 years, but recently returned to the fold. In the past few weeks, I have even weened myself off of Parallels, which I had been using to run many Windows apps as I eased into the transition. Now I’m all Mac baby (though I keep Parallels installed for when I find something I just can’t get to work otherwise). Now, if only I could find a Mac blog editor as good as Windows Live Writer, I’d be a truly happy camper.
Belkin Retractable Cable Travel Pack
Did I mention I travel a lot? And that I carry a ton of gadgets with me? I used to have a horrendous tangle of cables I would carry until I found this handy tool at Staples one day. It’s a nice, compact, complete set of cables that gives me almost everything I need when I’m on the road. It would be nice to have a firewire cable for my video cameras, but I can live without it because this kit offers everything else I need. I’m completely lost without it. In fact, on a recent trip to Manhattan I went out and bought another because I thought I had lost it and couldn’t connect one of my devices to my laptop. When I got home, I realized it was just so small that it had fallen to the bottom of one of my briefcase pockets and I just didn’t see it.
Yes, this is vague, but I have several and have had good experiences with all of them. I have a prosumer version that I use for high-end interviews and it does a great job. It has an external mic and XLR jacks, as well as the ability to record to tape or hard disk. Very expensive, but worthwhile for business use. At the same time, I have an older, cheaper, lower-end consumer version that doesn’t do HD or record to hard disk, but it is much more portable and affordable.
My favorite is the EOS 3D. It is a high-end digital SLR and for much of what I do it is overkill. But it handles action photography much better than its cheaper siblings (like the Digital Rebel). And with young children, waiting for a second or two between shots can be the difference between getting a great photo and getting nothing. I’m not nearly the photo expert that many of my new media colleagues are (like Josh Hallett and David Parmet), so maybe their love of Nikons should steer you in that direction instead. But I’m a happy Canon man and have been for years. I even have a little Canon digital that I keep in my briefcase at all times for quick conference photos and other similar uses.
I’m sure I may think of other things later, but what are your favorite gadgets, gizmos, toys, and tools? What should I ask for this holiday season? What should I give to others?