TRAVEL: Gift ideas for the out-and-about

It's always been difficult to figure out where to put the hands-free Bluetooth headset in the Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide. Does it belong in its own category or do we combine them into something else?

This year, we felt that most use cases of the headset are when people are traveling - whether in a car, walking down the street or out-and-about on a business trip. We also added some other talk-related devices as well as road warrior tools.

Holiday gift guide 2012

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

Note: Products are listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.

Earloomz CL 500 Bluetooth Headset (Star Wars model)

$18

Bluetooth hands-free headsets come and go every year, some get fancier with features like voice notification, voice activation, stereo speakers for both ears. But sometimes you want a simple headset with a simple purpose - a quick fit, easy pairing and enough technology where you can hear the person on the other end of the call, and they can hear you. Oh yeah, and a Star Wars design.

Earloomz makes several headsets with the CL 500 designation, but our personal favorite is the Star Wars model. Why get boring silver or black when you can have the Dark Lord of the Sith on the side of your head? That was the initial appeal for me to try out this headset, but fortunately I also found a good Bluetooth headset as well.

The headset fits onto your ear with a plastic earloop (the unit comes with different sizes and loops to let you find the perfect fit). There's only one button - it basically powers the unit on and off. For pairing, you just have to hold the button down for a longer period (basically, the instruction manual tells you what to do).

The headset is good-not-great for making phone calls - no fancy noise-cancellation features, either. A bonus I discovered is that you can use the headset to listen to music - while it only goes in one ear, it's a nice alternative to having to find your wired headphones.

In addition to the Star Wars styles, they have other brands and designs - check out the Earloomz site for more options. At less than $20, this can be a great stocking stuffer - who'd ever think that a hands-free headset would be a stocking stuffer?

- Keith Shaw

Plantronics Marque 2 Bluetooth headset (model M165)

$60

I have often found Bluetooth to be an odd tool. Walking around with a miniature extension of your phone sticking out of your ear chatting away and basically looking like you're talking to yourself - well it's just not my thing. This is exactly why I agreed to test the new Plantronics Marque 2.

I would have liked to record this old-fashioned girl's daily struggles with Bluetooth, but that would have made this a full feature and not a review. To give you some idea, on my first day I forgot to turn it off and then misplaced it while driving home. My son continued to call and I could not answer my phone! Overall I can understand the draw to the hands-free benefit of a Bluetooth headset, though I found myself yelling "Answer, Answer" at least three times before it would pick-up a call (the Marque 2 features voice recognition for answering or ignoring calls without having to press a button).

The Marque 2 is lightweight and has a sleek silver finish. The sound quality is very good from the user's end, as I could easily hear others. However, I used the headset during several conference calls and was told that I sounded like I was underwater, and needed to really raise my voice.

Other features include the ability to listen to music, Internet radio streaming or driving directions via your smartphone's GPS app, as well as Plantronics' new DeepSleep power saving mode. This activates when the headset goes beyond the Bluetooth range of 33 feet - the headset goes off (if it's away for more than 90 minutes), and you can turn it back on with a tap of the "call" button. Plantronics says it can extend the battery of the headset for up to 180 days, but we didn't have the headset for that duration to fully test that claim.

The headset has great comfort and design, but I think I need more time on using the functionality before I truly can appreciate using a Bluetooth headset.

- Rari Hilditch

D-Link DIR-505 All-in-one Mobile Companion

$50 (Amazon)

Wi-Fi routers designed for travel aren't a new idea - but the D-Link DIR-505 is certainly the smallest of these that I've ever seen. Measuring roughly 6.5 x 4 x 5 cm, this pocket-sized marvel packs quite a punch. In addition to functioning as a router (with NAT, SPI, WPA2, guest access, MAC address filtering, and many more vital features found on "big boy" routers), the DIR-505 can also function as a wireless repeater (substituting another Wi-Fi network for the wired Ethernet connection).

You can also set up a local hotspot connection for sharing files among a workgroup, again with reasonable security. Configuration is via HTTP, and there's a USB port for connecting storage to be shared, and this port can (of course!) also charge a USB device such as a handset or tablet.

One small quibble - it's limited to 150Mbps in the 2.4-GHz band, but there's still plenty of capability, function and performance for the average road traveler.

While you might be tempted to carry the DIR-505 just to secure a wireless connection to a hotel's wired Ethernet service, don't overlook the handy charging feature. Remember, this entire unit is only the size of a typical charger, and can plug directly into an AC socket - no other power supplies or cables are required.

This one is going under my tree - highly recommended!

- Craig Mathias

Earloomz GL-311 Bluetooth Headset

$35

Bluetooth headsets still make great accessories for mobile handsets, and the stylish (well, many of the color schemes for this product are stylish) GL-311 from Earloomz is the latest in a long line of these from more vendors than I can count.

What makes the GL-311 interesting is the single-button/single-LED (although both blue and red are used) user interface. This limited set of objects controls power (on/off), pairing, call answer/end/reject, and redial. There's an audible beep when the headset needs to be recharged.

I paired the GL-311 with my shiny new iPhone 5. The process is trivial and was completed in seconds. I then placed a test call and the party at the other end reported excellent sound quality - as good as the default microphone in the iPhone 5. The over-the-ear design is simple and comfortable, as well as secure in that it would be hard for the headset to fall off accidentally. It's easy to get used to the command set, and I think everyone will be happy with this one.

My sample unit was a black-and-grey argyle, which, while matching my socks, just isn't me. There are many other colors and patterns to choose from, and should meet the fashion needs of even the most discriminating giftee. Your hardest decision may be choosing the design rather than the technology inside the headset.

- Craig Mathias

Blue Tiki USB Microphone

$42

In general, I love Blue microphones. I've used them in the studio many times - this is a company that makes microphones that can cost thousands of dollars, so it knows what it is doing.

The little Tiki USB microphone we tested is a clever idea - a high-quality microphone at the end of a USB cable. The device features two modes of operation. One auto-mutes when the ambient sound level drops, making it ideal for conference calls. The second mode is continuous, making it more suited for podcasts and other audio recording. A little button on the front switches between the two modes.

The microphone itself is quiet and even stylish, although I'd prefer it had a real stand rather than an included USB extender.

Unfortunately, the Tiki is no match for a good-quality studio microphone, and it really wasn't any better than the built-in mic on my iMac in sample test recordings. That's the bottom line - if your built-in mic isn't so hot (and most aren't), the Blue Tiki can be a great upgrade. But don't expect to get professional recording-studio sound out of this one.

- Craig Mathias

netTALK DUO and DUO Wi-Fi

$50 (netTalk DUO); $65 (netTALK DUO WiFi)

We realize that most people can get by with a mobile phone. But there are times when a second phone line comes in handy. Maybe your handset battery goes dead, or your household just needs more phones.

The netTALK DUO is a dual (USB and Ethernet) phone line emulator that costs little and offers inexpensive voice service, even for international calls. All of the usual phone-line amenities are included, such as call waiting, voice mail, etc.

The DUO can be connected to a PC via USB, or you can connect it directly to your wired network for PC-free operation. For the ultimate in flexibility and convenience, the netTALK DUO Wi-Fi eliminates the need for wired Ethernet (although a port is there if you ever have the need); a simple setup program connects it to your Wi-Fi network, letting you place a phone line literally anywhere.

Call quality was excellent - both of these devices are small, cheap and even a little cool. 'Tis the season of giving - help your giftee port and preserve that precious landline phone number with one of these.

- Craig Mathias

Brenthaven Pacific Backpack for MacBook

$80

I've had my computer backpack for about 10 years now, and it's starting to show its age. It's had a great run - it was a very nice padded unit that could not only carry my work notebook, but also the assorted power chargers, gadgets, paperwork and other gear that I needed for covering trade shows or just going back and forth to work. But the pockets on the side started to rip, so I wanted to see if backpack technology has improved in the past decade.

The Brenthaven Pacific backpack is definitely smaller in size than my previous model, but has many more pockets and space for different devices. The unit's main pocket will protect a 13- or 15-inch MacBook (you could probably put a non-MacBook in this if you wanted to), and there's also an additional pocket to keep an iPad safe. The secondary pocket includes spots for a smartphone, pens and a few other smaller pockets that can be secured with Velcro snaps.

The arm straps are solidly built (with nice adjustment ability), and the opposite side has a nice cover that lets you place a small jacket or sweatshirt inside it, closeable with bungee-type cords. Finally, a pocket on each side lets you store a water bottle or other refreshment.

There's even a nice small bonus that you might not immediately discover - a protection whistle. Located on the "sternum strap" (the strap that connects the two arm bands) is a plastic whistle that can alert other people if the user is feeling threatened by someone or is in trouble. Nice!

If you're in the market for a new computer backpack, this one is a very nice option.

- Keith Shaw

Plantronics Voyager Legend

$100

The Plantronics Voyager Legend offers some of the best voice and audio quality Ive ever experienced in a Bluetooth headset. And Ive been reviewing these headsets for a long time. While theres one potential drawback, its mostly an exceptionally well-made Bluetooth headset.

The Legend takes a different path than many other conventional headsets these days: instead of getting smaller, it seems to have gotten bigger. You look at it and wonder why its so large. Im happy to report the extra size and weight is balanced by a comfortable design, and you quickly acclimate to the extra heft on your ear. The larger size seems to lead to better quality calls, and that is obviously important. The headset includes a volume rocker, power, call, and mute buttons. The large microphone extends a bit further than you might be used to, but again, that seems to lead to better quality calls. The headset is easy to sync and features good battery life.

The drawback is potentially substantial, depending on how you plan to use the headset: you need a proprietary docking station to charge it. There is no micro-USB port on the headset, nor is there any other type of port. If you plan on traveling with the headset, you better plan on traveling with the dock, too.

Fortunately, the dock works great. And it uses micro-USB to connect the cord to the wall. I was surprised Plantronics didnt fit an emergency charging section into the headset itself, making it chargeable (and therefore more useful) on the road. The headset slides into the dock and locks magnetically, and it does a great job doing that. I often left the headset dangling from an outlet overnight as it charged, and it never once accidentally dropped out of the dock. I did test it on the road and while driving, but because it cannot be charged on the road (and I dont travel with the dock), I used the Legend primarily at home and in the office. It really shined in those settings, where it was tested on many business calls and never once received a complaint.

The Legend includes moisture protection properties making it resistant to sweat, water, coffee, etc.; properties I expect will be appreciated by each and every owner. It will stream audio media from your phone (tested to confirm with Windows Phone 8, iOS, and Android), features excellent noise cancellation, and has an extensive list of voice commands built into it. There is a much-appreciated feature that answers the phone when you put the headset on (assuming your phone is ringing), and if youre already wearing the headset you can use a voice command to answer or ignore. This is intuitive and worked very well for me, with a few exceptions when I was driving.

The Voyager Legend is a very well constructed device, made of top quality plastics, metals, silicon, and rubber. I very highly recommend it for your home and office. If you can keep track of the charging station, it makes an excellent road companion, too.

- Dan Hunt

Blue Mikey Digital

$90

The Mikey Digital by Blue is a iOS-compatible microphone that attaches to the 30-pin port on an iPad or iPhone 4 and up (also works with 4th-gen iPods) It will work with the newer iOS devices by use of Apples Lightning adapter.

As a voice recording microphone I didnt find the sound quality too much better than the builtin microphone on my devices. The plus the Mikey has with voice is that there is more control over the gain, as it has three settings, and you can adjust the direction.

I think the real strength on this product is the ability to connect an instrument to your iOS device for recording. This works with anything that has a line out, like a keyboard or a guitar. In this I think the sound quality is much better. There is a port on the top of the Mikey that takes a Mini plug in and it comes with a 1/4-in-to-Mini adapter.

I think this can be a great first gift for someone who wants to start recording, whether an instrument or their voice. They can move on to MIDI later on if they like it.

- Tom Lupien

Booq Python Courier Camera Messenger Bag

$180

The booq Python Courier Camera Messenger bag makes a great camera case. Its sleek and modern, and doesnt read immediately as a camera bag, which I appreciate when Im in hotels or walking through airports. Inside the main compartment it is well padded, and generously deep. The two internal lens compartments are really well built, so the camera and lenses all feel very securely packed and protected. The dividers can be moved to accommodate your needs, which is a nice feature. I carried one extra lens, and used a second compartment for an extra battery, flash cover, and USB cable. Everything fit really well, and nothing felt like it was moving around. The bag was great for storing the camera too - you can put it on a shelf, and not worry that the camera could get damaged if it fell. With the messenger style, there is no zipper around the top of the camera, which I always worry will scratch.

If this bag billed itself exclusively as a camera case, Id be sold. Its well designed, solid, and has cool features like a Terralinq serial number. You can register the bag, so if its lost and found by an honest individual, they can log on to the Terralinq website and hopefully return it to you. All great stuff.

However, this bag doesnt simply bill itself as a camera case. They tried to go above and beyond, which is where the problems begin. If you remove the padding for the camera, you can use this bag as a regular messenger bag. Great & but where do I put my camera while Im using the bag? If it allowed the camera to be pulled out and still protected, this might make more sense, but it doesnt. Actually, I take that back - why in the world would you want to use your nice, clean camera bag for anything else? Its simply not a practical concept. There is a narrow back pocket, but this is not padded on the back wall, so anything inside will be banging against your hip, suitcase, etc. While it is billed as perfect for an iPad, I tried that. I slid it over the handle of a suitcase, and heard the dull thud of my laptop against the handle. Whoops.

The moral of this story- if youre looking for a subtle camera case that doesnt scream steal me, Im a DSLR! when youre traveling, this is a great option. It has great pockets and padding, and a really nice design. But this is a camera bag. Using it for anything else just doesnt make sense.

- Claire Kiely

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