My favorite toys
All of my favorite "toys" reflect an important trait to my personality: simultaneity.  I am compelled to do as many things at the same time as I can.  You can think of this as collapsing dimensions.  That is, you create the possibility of doing things in places where you previously could not by eliminating the space between yourself and what you need to do.  Read on and you will see what I mean.



Alphasmart portable keyboard/PDA

This is my new favorite toy.  It may look dumb, but all I ever do is write a lot on my computer (other than looking things up on the web, building my own pages, viewing/editing photos, data analysis, playing games, playing music, editing guitar effects patches, text-to-speech synthesis, and using my computer as a dvd player), so I wanted something that would let me get out and write without being trapped in front of the monitor all the time. This is a PDA with a *usable* keyboard.  That's all I want out of a PDA.  What's an ordinary PDA lack?  A keyboard.  And those fold-up keyboards suck!


Background
Alphasmart has been around for quite a while making devices similar to this, but they've finally come of age.  Previously, these keyboards were designed for school kids and the company targeted school districts.  You can find many of their outdated models for cheap on eBay, but they are a hassle compared to the Dana model which is the first genuinely useful model (in my opinion) since it actually runs on the Palm OS rather than Alphasmart's proprietary software.

They're a cheap, easier alternative to a laptop if your primary

You still can't get these at your local office supplies or electronics stores, but you can order them from the company for $400 or find them on eBay for ~$250, which is how much mine was.


Features and how I use it
There's a wireless internet version as well for not too much more, but I just wanted it to be able to type on the go.  I figure a computer would be faster for everything else, but if you type a lot of things people normally hand write, it's great for that.  For example, I use it to add items to my "to do" list(s) as I think of them.  If I'm watching tv, I usually have it next to me, so I just reach over and jot something down.  It turns on and off immediately, just like any other PDA, so it's very convenient.

Dani (my girlfriend) and I took a trip to Dallas last weekend, and we had it in the car with us.  I got some writing done for a web page I was working on about movies, then some more writing about guitar electronics for another page, then some things for the a few other pages.  I also got caught up on my "headlines" for the humor page.  I was almost a month behind, but I caught up in two days because I was able to write new ones every few minutes whenever I had a free moment.  I was doing this while I was stuck in traffic coming home from school the other day, but don't tell Dani.  She thinks I'm a distracted enough driver as it is.

It's good for reference too.  I had lists of places I wanted to explore on it, so I could look up descriptions of the sites I wanted to visit along with their GPS coordinates.  My GPS receiver will store points, but it's tough to enter information into it, so all my descriptions are really short (usually just an 8 character name for the point).  It's nice to be able to carry around an entire file without having to print out new ones all the time.

I also keep things like grocery lists on it as well as lists of book and movies I want to get so I don't forget to look for them when I'm at the library.  Presumably you could carry around even more text such as ebooks (it has 16MB built in with two expansion card slots), but I primarily use it for writing.

One thing that's really cool is that you don't have to transfer files to send short bits of text. You connect it with a USB cable, and you just hit "Send."  That sends the text of the open file over to whatever document you already have open on your PC.  And it's recharging while you're connected to your computer.  An all-in-one cable?  That rocks!  And the thing will already run 25 hours with the backlight on, so it isn't like I need to even charge it all that often.  (They don't say how long it will run without the backlight, but their previous units used to run as much as 200 hours.)


Criticisms
There are a few criticisms that I have though.  For one thing, the screen is always exposed, so it's vulnerable to damage (which is all the more likely since I carry the thing everywhere).  I would have designed it to have a snap-on cover of some sort.  Also, the angle of screen ought to be able to be adjusted.  There are a lot of times when I have to hold it awkwardly so that the light catches it "just so."  It has a backlight, but that shouldn't be as necessary as it often is when there's already available light.

I'm also not so crazy about the operating system.  I've gotten spoiled by my mp3 player, digital cameras, etc., where I can just treat those devices as external storage devices. With those, you can just drag and drop files.  This unit requires you to "synch" up to the computer via a separate utility.  It's no big deal, but it's an extra step I thought computing had outgrown.


Bottom line
Still, the whole thing gives me capability without too much hassle, so I really don't have much to complain about.

Link
Cordless headphones

I have these headphones connected to my tv/vcr, although they can be connected to any equipment with an audio out.  They come with a pair of rechargeable batteries (charge one while you use the other), so they don't consume any external batteries of their own.

When I bought these, I really had no idea how much more productive they would make me.  See, television ties you to, at best, a couple rooms within earshot of your set.  This pair of earphones freed me to engage in menial tasks while continuing to absorb information and/or entertainment.  For example, I typically wore these while cleaning my car, washing dishes, packing up eBay sales, etc.  TV shows heavy in dialog (i.e., where visuals are less than essential) are ideal for this.  You can "watch", say, Star Trek: The Next Generation or interview or discussion programs like Charlie Rose while retaining your mobility.

And added benefit of the design of these particular headphones is that they double as ear protection.  I frequently wear these while operating my lawn mower or power tools.  I can hear my favorite shows while blocking out damaging noise.

Just for the hell of it I tested the range and found that, at times I could go as far as three houses down from mine and still pick up a consistent signal.

Update: I hardly use my vcr anymore, but there are loads of books on mp3 that I listen to, so I swapped them over to the stereo I have connected to the computer.  It's easier to work with these headphones than untangling the ones on my mp3 player, so they have taken on a new role.  Also, since the computer is a multi-media player, this is more convenient to go roaming while listening to streaming audio than having to return to the tv to fast-forward through the commercials.

Check the price of coredless headphones and (hopefully) buy your own at Amazon.com.


Creative's Nomad mp3 player

I use this primarily for books on tape (or books on mp3, as the case obviously would be).  Like the headphones above, this is a good way to still have some mental stimulation when you have mundane tasks to accomplish.  And I can go anywhere with this, so it can often make up for the lack of quality programming on the radio.  The battery can be charged in three to four hours and lasts fourteen.  Not bad.

In addition to audio books, I also use Natural Voice Reader to read text to a WAV, then convert it to an mp3 and drop it onto the player.  This is great with everything from news and research articles to whole novels.

Also, with a 30GB drive, this player doubles as a hard drive.  This is simple enough to use given the USB connection and the fact that it is "plug 'n' play."  Personally, I have used this as a back-up drive for all my data when I had to re-install my hard drive following a terminal infection of spyware.

How much music is 30GB?  Well, at roughly one minute per MB, that's 30,000 minutes.  Or you could play it nonstop 24 hours a day, seven days a week for three weeks without ever repeating a track.  But you will need to recharge the battery in the meantime.  And sleep.  You need that too.

The price was pretty good too; about $280 after tax, which is roughly half what an Apple iPod of the same capacity costs at the moment.  Incidentally, why are people still wasting their time and money with flash memory players?  You pay the same amount for a tiny fraction of the memory.  Don't be duped!

Check the price of this player and (hopefully) buy your own at Amazon.com.


Magellan SporTrak Pro GPS receiver

This is another of those gadgets that you keep finding additional uses for.  To list a few:

Check the price of this camera and (hopefully) buy your own at Amazon.com.


Fuji FinePix A205 Digicam

The specs will have changed and they will have released a better version by the time anyone gets to this page, but this is a great (cheap!) little unit.  It has a couple of picture modes, although I always take my photos in 640x480 (the other available resolution is 1280x960, but I really don't do much high-res image editing).

It basically operates as an extra drive, so you really don't need to use any extra software to retrieve your files once you install the driver (a copy of which is on the website should you end up on a strange computer).  Although it came with a 16 MB memory card, we ended up upgrading to a 64 MB chip when we thought the original was lost while on a trip.  As a result, I occasionally use it to transport files between Dani's and my computer (e.g., text documents, edited photos, etc.).

The camera takes only a couple of AA batteries.  These last for maybe 150 or so shots with the flash (I've never really counted), but the camera requires a lot of current, thus the batteries aren't "drained" by the point the camera can no longer use them.  In fact, I recently ended up swapping a pair over to my GPSr (above), and they were only half-way discharged!  Fuji needs to work on their product efficiency.

I don't like that the lens pokes out and is motorized.  My previous camera did not do this, so it didn't eat up the batteries quite so fast.  It's just something else to go wrong, and I already had problems with the lens not wanting to come out following a drop from a table.  Fortunately, it worked past that problem and the gears are back in allignment now.  I have to admit that I do get a lot of use out of the 3x optical zoom (there's also a digital zoom beyond that, but those are never any good), so I guess it's a trade-off.

Another complaint I have is that the camera takes a bit too long to start up from scratch.  For whatever reason, the first time you turn it on, it takes five or more seconds to wake up.  As a result, I've missed entirely too many shots while waiting for it to come out of hibernation.  It takes a little less time to revive if you use it again within a short time from your last shot, but I think they could do better here.

Still, since it's so small and relatively cheap, we end up taking this camera just about everywhere.  This website will no doubt attest to the fact that I usually have it handy in case there's something to see when I'm running around town.  Also, a digicam is indispensable if you are going to sell your junk on eBay.  When I'm creating auction listings, I use an AC adapter since I'm usually indoors and near a wall outlet.  A universal adapter pretty quickly pays for its cost in terms of the batteries I've saved.

Check the price of this camera and (hopefully) buy your own at Amazon.com.


Western Digital 120 GB External Hard Drive

This is a terrific component for a number of reasons.  Primarily, I use it as my main back-up device.  I used to spend hours burning archived CDs that were only good until the next back-up.  Granted, I'm paranoid enough to continue to do that even with this drive available to me, but this is a much more plastic medium (pardon the pun).  I can constantly update my files with this without having too worry about which version is the most current.

Also, this drive is remarkably portable.  It is about the size of a book club edition hard cover and weighs only a little more than that.  All it requires is a USB connection and its power supply.  This is a great way to pick up and/or deliver mp3 collections or large databases.  Finally, the drive itself is "plug 'n' play," so you don't have to worry about additional drivers.

Automated back-ups

In conjunction with the drive featured above, if you want to automate your back-ups, here's an easy approach.  Write a batch file with just this command:

Of course, change the drive letters and destination directories as appropriate.  An explanation of the above follows: You can then schedule your back-ups as a task for Windows or just start it manually when you feel like getting around to it.

Check the price of this drive and (hopefully) buy your own at Amazon.com.


X10 home automation system

This is the coolest set of gadgets no one else seems to own, and I'm not sure why I am alone in this!  Seriously, you don't have to be Bill Gates to have a remote control house.  Although this system works with any appliance, I use it primarily for my lights and occasionally with a fan.

You might think this is just lazy, but it is more than a little convenient, and it saves electricity besides.  For example, when navigating my house when I come home after dark, I can turn on the lights in a room down the hall.  The one light where I am heading is adequate to show me my path, and I didn't have to turn on every light in-between.

I also set up my girlfriend's place with a set of these devices.  Since we use similar codes in our house, we can use our keychain remotes around each others' houses, which makes it that much easier to find a lightswitch in the dark.

There are a number of other possibilities including connections to home security and monitoring systems, etc.  See the links below for more options.
 
Lamp & Appliance modules
Basically, you plug your lamps and/or other appliances into little boxes like these.  You set the little dials on the front to the number you are assigning that light.  For wall switches, there is similar device that simply replaces the switch.  It takes about five minutes to install, and it is completely reversible if you want to take the system with you when you move.
Remotes
The remote at the left is a larger one that comes in many of the starter kits.  It controls up to sixteen different devices (I have rarely had occasion for more than four).  The smaller remote at right is designed for keychain use, although you can leave them lying around the house in places where you only need to turn on/off a couple of lights.  This unit only controls devices you assign as "1" and "2"  Note that the little blue switches at the bottom of both units ca be used to dim the lights to save electricity or to set the mood.  Also available (not pictured) is a convenient bedside controller.

Transceiver module
This is the interface between all the wireless controls.  This device receives the signals from the remote controls, then passes that signal along through the wiring in your house where it is registered by the appropriate appliance(s).  This component is not required if you only have the aforementioned bedside controllers that plug into the wall, but who wouldn't want a keychain remote?
Computer Interface
As you might expect, you can also have your computer interface with this system as a controller.  The pictured component is from the Firecracker kit, and plugs into the back of your computer.  This allows you to interface with your home through the software provided, which can be configured to turn lights and appliance on/off at scheduled times.

Conclusions

The entire system is remarkably inexpensive, even for a large house, and it only takes a few minutes to set up.

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