Back to School Gadget Roundup for September
It’s that time of year again, when students head back to the classroom and the tech-market unleashes new devices and accessories for all of us to enjoy. There are plenty of important essentials of higher learning if you happen to be in school, but if not, you can still take advantage of all the new gadgets that are being released in the BTS season.
We’ll start with the Sunbird Solar Solarpod Buddy (5) power bank. External battery packs are nothing new these days, considering how often we are on our phones and tablets throughout the day almost everyone will require some additional juice to keep our devices going. I myself have a Droid Razr Maxx HD and its massive battery can get me through almost an entire day of heavy useage, but more often than not, I’m still being greeted with low battery warnings. That’s not even taking into account my tablet, Vita, Zune and everything else in my car or bag. When I’m travelling, additional power is becomes a must and I’m always looking for new devices to keep mine charged.
An external battery pack is great; I own quite a few. More often than not the problem you run into with you typical battery pack is that eventually even the battery-pack itself will need to be charged eventually. Once your battery pack runs out of power, you are stuck looking for an outlet to recharge your charger and are back to square-one.
That is why I was pleased to see the Solarpod Buddy. The device is approximately the size of an older generation iPod and weighs just 0.21 lbs. It comes in an attractive and clean, white-casing with a large, prominent solar panel taking up almost ¾ of the entire front. Underneath the solar panel you have 4 small LED lights which indicate the remaining battery capacity, and next to the lights, a test button to check battery capacity.
It’s a pretty simple to use device. You can either charge the Solarpod via USB which will take you approximately 4.5 hours, or you can utilize the solar panels to charge the battery pack under any form of light. This does take about 15-20 hours to charge if it is completely dead. Obviously with this information in mind, it’s best to never let the Solarpod die completely, but don’t forget with solar power, it’s charging anytime it is in light, so it’s almost always charging up, rather than charging down if you’re careful. It doesn’t have the best max-capacity (2800 mAh), so your best bet is to always have it out in the sun or on your desk in the presence of a light source (bright direct sunlight seems to work best). My wife carried it around for a few days (she has an hour long commute in the midday sun), but ignored my instructions and stashed it in the glove compartment, causing it to die pretty quickly. So let’s just say I got to test firsthand how long it took to recharge via the solar panel.
Other than the small-ish capacity and the length of time it takes to charge under a light source when completely dead, the Solarpod is a decent little external battery. If you keep it on your windowsill, car dashboard, or even hang it off your backpack while you’re walking around campus it will work really well. As long as you need some emergency power, you’ll have it. It’s small and sleek and it isn’t even as bulky as some of the other battery packs out there.
As far as back to school goes, Cambridge Audio provided me with a trio of audio products to check out: the Minx Air 200 wireless speakers (3), the Minx Go (8), and the DacMagic XS headphone amplifier (7). Now I should mention that I don’t typically use single speaker sound systems like soundbars or bluetooth mobile speakers. While I wouldn’t consider myself an audiophile by any means, I still grew up with music and sound quality is very important to me, and a single speaker setup simply cannot compare to 5.1/7.1 surround, or even a dual channel stereo experience. That’s not always possible however and both the Minx Go and the Minx Air 200 were a pleasant surprise.
The Minx Go is the smaller of the two systems, you simply connect your phone, tablet, or other devices to the Minx Go via Bluetooth, and you instantly have yourself a powerful, portable sound system. The Go is built with five internal speakers that deliver the latest Digital Signal Processing technology. The GO also has a Bass Radiator that enhances the overall sound quality, including delivering clear, non-distorted sounds at higher volumes.
Perhaps one of the best things about the Go is the fact that it only takes two hours to charge, and will last up to 18 hours. The Go will also remember up to eight paired devices (phones, tablets, computers, etc.) so reconnecting to the Go is a cinch. As far as sound quality goes, it comes down to alternatives. Using myself as an example, I have the option to connect either my phone/tablet’s built in speakers, earbuds, or the Go. If I want something more than earbuds or a shoddy mobile speaker, the Minx Go is a fantastic option, and for $179, it’s affordable as well.
The Minx Air 200 is the Go’s larger brother, and it’s a stunning performer. I have always been partial to Bose speaker systems (as far as single speaker units go), but the Minx Air 200 sounded almost as good during my testing. It was incredibly crisp and clear, and I loved my time with it. I was impressed with just how LOUD the could get with minimal distortion. The main feature of the Air 200 is the Patented Balanced Mode Radiator speaker drivers which delivers a wider range of sound than your typical speaker system. This allows the device to fill your room with rich, full sound better than many other single setups. Unlike regular speakers which only move air in and out to create sounds, the BMR speakers also move sounds horizontally, creating a much fuller, wider experience.
So what does this mean to the layperson who doesn’t really care much for technobabble? It means for $499, which is considerably cheaper than most top of the line setups, you can have room filling sound that sounds nearly as good as any of those $3,000 systems out there (especially when you consider that Cambridge’s in-house acoustics team that design those same top of the line systems worked on the Air 200).
The Air 200 can connect to anything via wifi, bluetooth, or AirPlay. Connecting the device is simple and almost instant, and the included remote control means that once you’re connected and ready to go, you can kick back and relax without having to get up off the couch. In addition to the above mentioned connections, the Air 200 also comes with built in internet radio, accessible with the simple press of a button in the Air app. Also with the Air app, you can adjust your Air 200’s settings without having to get up.
The final Cambridge Audio product I checked out was something that I didn’t think I ever needed; in fact, I didn’t even know such a thing even existed. The DacMagic XS is a headphone amp for your computer/laptop. Now here’s the thing, I never really had any issues with plugging my headphones into my laptop and listening to music or watching a movie. I’m not really that knowledgeable when it comes to audio quality, and as far as I can tell, the laptop audio output sounded just fine. it certainly was not something that stuck out to me as having such poor quality that the experience was ruined.
The DacMagic XS plugs into your computer’s USB port, where you then plug your headphones into the DacMagic’s audio port. It then bypasses the computer’s built-in digital to analogue converter and uses its own high quality 24 bit converter. Simply hook it up, change the bit rate via the Control Panel, and you’re off and running with audio quality that noticeably better than I thought possible. If you have a USB 2.0 port, you can use a dedicated driver to bypass the OS’s audio path, which prevents interference and re-sampling for even higher quality output. In addition, because the DacMagic has its own volume control, the amp can deliver up to 10 times more power to your headphones, much more than typical laptop soundcard can manage.
What makes the DacMagic so convenient is not only its plug and play functionality, but also the fact that it’s about the size of a usb flash drive. It’s highly portable and instantly brings a much better audio quality to your typical laptop experience. For $199, the DacMagic XS might seem a little steep as far as price is concerned, but if you’re someone who places a lot of importance in your audio quality and don’t feel like spending even more for a Minx speaker system (and want to keep your music to yourself and not be annoying), then the DacMagic XS should be an invaluable tool.
Stepping away from audio, we now take a look at some fun phone and tablet accessories. First up is the PureGear Retro game case (2) for the iPhone 5/5S for $29.99. The PureGear Retro is a simple, attractive case with a built-in ball maze on the back. It comes in three varieties; the Amazing (typical maze), the Groovy (get three balls into the center at the same time), and the Undecided (Shoot the ball through a Plinko styled maze to answer Yes and No questions).
The PureGear Retro is nothing fancy; it simply gives your phone a look that sticks out, a bit of device protection, and something to do to kill the time. As far as protection goes, how does the PureGear Retro stand up? Well…it’s no Otterbox, so I wouldn’t be backing any cars over it. Slight drops and bumps should be fine, but stay away from throwing it across a parking lot. This is one definitely more for aesthetics than functionality.
The PureMove Sports Armband (4) is a wonderful armband phone holder for those who like to workout. For the most part, I don’t like using armbands while I workout. They always feel too cumbersome and I’m always afraid I’m going to get my headphone cord snagged somewhere, but then again, hold my phone in my hand isn’t much better. At least with an armband, I can do weights and stuff as well as running since my hands are freed up.
The actual strap itself is nice and comfy, with an antibacterial, odor free, moisture wicking inner layer. It’s hard to actually determine how effective the strap is, considering the only real comparison is having no strap at all, or another strap (which I don’t have). As it stands, I had no issues with comfort, and even as the sweat started to flow, the strap itself wasn’t sliding around or anything. The raised “bumps” that rest against your skin seem to do a great job at channeling moisture away from the armband itself.
Your phone (iPhone5/5S/5C) simply snaps into place along the sides, leaving your entire screen open for use. The fit is nice and snug with no jiggling about as movement occurs. The band also has a cordkeeper which prevents the headphone cords from getting snagged, and also a reflective material along the outside, using the same concept as reflective safety vests to keep runners visible at night. The PureMove Sports Armband retails for $39.99.
Moving along from phones to tablets, we bring you the PureGear Universal Tablet Folio case (1). Nothing fancy here; just a simple, attractive, and functional tablet cover for both 7-8” tabs ($39.99) and 9-10” inch ones ($49.99). The cover has a nice microfiber-esque outer layer with a soft inner layer to keep your tablet screen clean and safe. Along the inside of the left flap are slots for your credit cards, identification, etc (perfect for carrying your student ID around!)
The one thing that threw me off about the case is the mechanism used for attaching a tablet. Rather than a shell to snap the tablet into, the case uses four rubber-based bands (attached to the case itself) in the each on the four corners to hold the tablet in place. It looks awkward and never seems like the hold would be sturdy, but to give PureGear credit, I never once had any issues with the tablet sliding around or becoming undone. It just LOOKS weird. Also, despite the magnetic cover, the case does not actually lock/unlock your tablet, meaning you need to manually press the button to do so. Other than the appearance and inability to lock via the cover however, the cover works nicely and essentially does what it was intended to do. I enjoy the fact that it has a holder for a pen or stylus that you may be carrying around.
The final item I have is not so much for the student, but perhaps more in line with the parent in your life (or the occasional road trip for students). The Felix Roadshow (6) is a car seat tablet mount that utilizes a somewhat unique anchoring method. Instead of snapping your tablet into a case or using something like a vice, the Roadshow uses two large rubber straps with corner grips that extend along the back, and hook onto the upper corners. The bottom of the tablet then rests in a groove along the base of the Roadshow, which is attached to the headrest clamps. It’s hard to explain in words, but hopefully the images will give you some idea.
To be honest, I was extremely skeptical of the Roadshow. I didn’t think that two simple straps could ever offer a sturdy mounting method, but I’m happy to say that my assumptions were wrong. The Felix Roadshow works about as well as any other tablet mount, and I’ve gone through quite a few in my day. Attaching the straps is a breeze, and the base can accommodate basically any tablet size.
The only issue I have with the Roadshow is that it makes a small squeaking sound as you drive along. I double checked everything and it does not seem to result from any loose clamps or anything of that nature. As far as I can tell, everything is mounted nice and tight, and the tablet itself isn’t loose either. Those are bugged by small repeated sounds, you have been warned. Other than that, the Felix Roadshow is an excellent in-car tablet mount that you can get for $39.99.