Home and Office Gear Tech Treasures [2011 Cool Yule Tools]

They say that a man's home is his castle – we figure that if you're going to have a castle, it needs to be filled up with some really cool, high-tech stuff. If you're working at a home office or just want to boost that home network in order to get a better connected home entertainment system up and running, the following products are great gift ideas:

Watch a slideshow version of some of these products.

Products reviewed in this category

Time Capsule (3TB; Model MD033LL/A), by AppleWNDR4500 N900 Dual Band Gigabit Router, by NetgearMeteor Mic, by SamsonAmplifi PowerLine AV 500 4-Port Gigabit Switch, by D-LinkWormhole KM Switch, by J5 CreateWormhole Station, by J5 CreateUniversal WiFi Range Extender (WN3000RP), by NetgearMotormouse Mini-Cooper edition, by MotorMouseJabra Pro 9450, by GN NetcomWireless Touchpad, by LogitechWES610N 4-Port Dual-Band N Entertainment Bridge with 4-Port Switch, by Cisco (Linksys)N750 DB Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router, by BelkinOoma Telo Wireless Adapter, by OomaArtisan 837 Color Inkjet All-In-One, by EpsonInternet phone, by Bedol

The reviews:

Time Capsule (3TB; Model MD033LL/A), by Apple Apple’s Time Capsule is a clever combination of dual-radio, dual-band 300Mbps 802.11n wireless router, a four-port switch, and, in the case of the particular model reviewed, a 3TB hard disk drive that is perfect for use with Apple’s Time Machine continuous backup feature, now standard on Macs. Time Capsule mostly eliminates the need for RAID storage and manual backups, mostly because there may be a gap between writing new data to the Mac’s local hard drive and Time Machine running to back up the data to the Time Capsule – but that can be tuned to a user’s preference. There’s a big incentive to build your home or small-business network around a Time Capsule – three necessary devices in one.

Setup is easy if you have a Mac or even an iOS 5 device, as configuration is now built into these, but it would be nice if a standard HTTPS interface were included as well. Yes, there’s a downloadable utility to use the Time Capsule with Windows, but still. The Time Capsule has two separate radios, so two different WLANs can be operated at 2.4 and 5 GHz simultaneously. The built-in power supply eliminates the need for a power brick. There’s a clever guest networking feature that grants Internet access (and not network access) for visitors. Other features include a local USB print server, and a USB port that can be used to connect a shared external hard drive. Time Capsule can also be used to provision network storage without Time Machine, so PC users will find the product useful as well. A separate configuration utility is provided for Windows.

I’ve been using an older Time Capsule for some time, and the new model is noticeably faster. Two radios and the guest networking feature have both been quite useful. If you or that special someone on your gift list is a Mac user, it would be hard to imagine living without this one. If you’ve got a PC, well, get a Mac (see the review of the MacBook Air – also a fine gift – elsewhere in this package)!

Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $299 (list, 2TB); $499 (list, 3TB)Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

WNDR4500 N900 Dual Band Gigabit Router, by Netgear Ho, hum, another 802.11n router, you say? Hold on there, Santa, this one is different.

The inclusion of 3x3 MIMO allows up to 450Mbps, and this new router from Netgear has not one, but two of these – meaning 2x 450Mbps performance. Netgear’s dual-band, dual-radio 3x3 MIMO 802.11n access point applies the latest in W-Fi technology to an inexpensive home/small-business router.

There are a lot of features here – four-port gigabit Ethernet switch, Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS; for easy pushbutton setup of secure connections), DLNA media sharing, USB peripheral sharing (including a print server) of two USB ports, guest access, dual firewalls (NAT and SPI), IPv6, and even parental controls. Guest access, in which guests can only get to the Internet and not the local LAN, is also included. Oddly, the feature set isn’t as complete as Netgear’s dual-radio (600Mbps each) WNDR3800 model, which can function as an Apple Time Machine server among its other capabilities. But for the ultimate in speed today, the WNDR4500 isn’t a bad choice at all. Even the manual is unusually detailed and complete.

Setup was easy; there’s no CD or other downloaded software required, and you can use any browser-based device you’d care to. The Genie dashboard is easy to use, and it’s all very straightforward. No complaints from me – and 5-star giftability to boot.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars Price: $179.99 (Amazon)Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

Meteor Mic, by Samson The eternal quest for excellent sound quality is, well, eternal. But legendary microphone manufacturers Samson (professionals know the name) has taken a big step towards producing the ultimate PC microphone with the Meteor Mic, a clever – and excellent-sounding – USB microphone. This is a condenser mic (professionals know the technology) with a large 25-mm diaphragm and 16-bit, 44.1/48 KHz response.

The Meteor Mic features a clever design – there are three convenient fold-down legs that provide an adjustable angle when placed on a desk, and rubber tips provide a degree of mechanical isolation. There’s also an adapter for a traditional microphone stand. The Meteor Mic features a clickable mute button and a convenient headphone hack with a volume control – everything one might need for podcast recording and more. Installation is simple; no drivers are required with modern operating systems. And operation is easy – plug it into USB, configure the usual settings in Windows Control Panel or whatever PC/OS you use, and you’re on the air.

So, how does it sound? Excellent! Tests with Windows Sound Recorder and really good Bose headphones left me asking for nothing more. There is a small issue with sound isolation – even with the rubber feet, taps and thumps can be picked up if one bumps whatever surface the Meteor Mic is sitting on. A regular microphone stand, though, solves those problems quickly, and should always be used for critical applications.

The Meteor Mic is a big step up from built-in microphones, and will appeal to both musicians and podcasters. Its cool retro looks will attract attention even from non-audio-geeks, and the price is certainly right. As someone who often does recording, I’d add this to my arsenal in a heartbeat – and it’s a great gift (hint, hint).

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars Price: $69.99 (Amazon) Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

Amplifi PowerLine AV 500 4-Port Gigabit Switch, by D-LinkLike other powerline networking equipment, this device will turn your existing power outlets into an Ethernet port, using the electrical wiring within your home to create a data network. Unlike other powerline adapters, this device (DHP-500) includes four Gigabit Ethernet ports that can then attach to the powerline network (other adapters basically include one Ethernet port). The system includes QoS Traffic Optimization and advanced software for prioritizing high-bandwidth traffic for those who require it.

In the living room especially, the growth of connected devices that include Ethernet ports (TVs, Blu-ray players, game consoles, etc.) means you likely have locations where multiple devices could use Ethernet connectivity. If that location happens to also be in a place where wireless is spotty (if you have dead spots, walls or if the devices don’t include built-in Wi-Fi), then a device like this offers a great alternative.

In my case, I could attach my Internet-capable TV, two game consoles and a Roku streaming media player to the DHP-500 and get Gigabit Ethernet connectivity (up to 500Mbps) for all of the devices. If you want to use the device in a small office setting, you could connect four computers to the adapter and run it through the powerline network, although I think most people will use this for home entertainment data devices.

One last piece of advice – buy the starter kit (DHP-541), which includes the powerline adapter to connect to your home router, unless you already have an existing powerline network – it’s the same price anyway.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars Price: $200Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Wormhole KM Switch, by J5 Create Getting a new computer is fun, but then the hard part sinks in when you try to figure out how to get all of your photos, music, videos and documents from the old computer to the new one. We've seen devices that help extract the files from an internal hard drive, but you'd think it would be easier than that. What would be great is a cable that connects between the old computer and the new computer, allowing you to drag and drop files and folders in a matter of seconds.

That's the main aim of the Wormhole KM Switch from J5 Create. The "switch" is really just a 6-foot USB cable, and the process goes just like you would think - connect one port to the old computer, connect the other side to the new computer, and you're all set. Some software installs on each computer, allowing for the connection to allow the file transfer between the two computers. I haven't seen an easier method for getting files from one computer to another than this device.

Some side benefits - you can use a keyboard and mouse on one computer to control the second computer - for example, maybe the second computer is a smaller netbook or tablet that doesn't have a good keyboard and mouse option. You can also copy something to the clipboard on one machine and paste it on the second.

The only downside on this - it only works with Windows PCs (Windows 7, Vista, XP and Windows 2000). I would have loved if I could transfer files from a Windows PC to a Macintosh, or between two Macs. Perhaps we'll see a universal model that works with both systems soon.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars Price: $19.99 (Buy.com) Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Wormhole Station, by J5 Create Like the Wormhole KM Switch, the Wormhole Station allows connection between two Windows PC, creating an instant link so you can drag-and-drop files and folders from one computer to the other. This also allows keyboard and mouse control on the second computer, good for systems like netbooks or tablets that might not have a good keyboard or mouse.

Unlike the switch (which is just two USB cables), the larger Wormhole Station acts as a docking station for the first system as well (geared towards notebooks, but I suppose you could use this with a desktop as well), giving additional USB ports and three card reader slots (MicroSD, SD/MMC and MemoryStick). The two extra USB slots are nice to have, especially when using with a smaller notebook that limits the number of USB ports on its system.

As I mentioned with the Wormhole KM Switch, this is the easiest and fastest way to move files from one system to another, and would be a nice addition if you are getting a new PC. In addition to the file transfer, you can share a clipboard (copy on one computer, paste on the second), or just use one mouse to control the two systems.

My biggest complaint with this is that this only works with Windows systems - it would be nice for the software to work with mixed systems (one Mac, one Windows), or even a Mac version that could transfer between two Macs. Hopefully that's a future product.

If you're looking to just do file transfer between two systems, go with the less expensive KM Switch version. If you need the additional functionality of extra USB ports and a card reader, this is the one for you.

Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $99 (Buy.com)Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Universal WiFi Range Extender (WN3000RP), by Netgear  This device aims to extend the range of your existing Wi-Fi network, to help reach rooms where the existing coverage is weak or non-existent. The unit plugs in about halfway between your existing router and the room that you want to fill up with wireless to create a secondary network. Once connected, the network should relay your data from the clients down to the router and then out to the Internet.

Setup was moderately easy - newbies might have some difficulty, but the instructions do a pretty good job of explaining what to do. Basically, you plug in the range extender, and then connect to its own internal WiFi network with a Mac or PC via the browser. A software wizard then runs you through the rest, you tell the extender what the SSID and password is for your router, and then the software does the rest, communicating with the router and then setting up a secondary network with the same name, but an "_EXT" extension. In a sense, it creates the second network (fortunately, you can give it the same password). This was slightly different from a Cisco/Linksys range extender that I tested earlier in the year, which used the same SSID (and possibly created some more problems later).

Another strange issue occurred after using the extender - my Internet broadband bandwidth dropped significantly, but it's possible that was just a small glitch - after disconnecting and reconnecting, I was able to get most of my bandwidth back (and it could have just been a temporary glitch with the service provider). I still have some doubts about whether giving up some bandwidth (because of the relay occurring) is worth the extended range (because I could just relocate the router), we'll see how it goes. I definitely preferred this approach for setup compared with the Cisco/Linksys version. Another nice feature is that if you don’t want to use this device as a range extender, you can use it as a wireless bridge to connect non-wireless Internet devices (shocking! Some of those still exist!) to your wireless network.

This may not be the first choice on your list for a holiday gift, but it certainly can solve Wi-Fi connection issues for homes where you aren't currently getting good Wi-Fi and you don't feel like or want to relocate the router (I'm a masochist for projects like that, anyway).

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars Price: $66.53 (Amazon)Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Motormouse Mini-Cooper edition, by MotorMouse I've always enjoyed the quirky mice made by MotorMouse, in which the wireless computer mouse is designed like a sleek sports car, with a variety of different color options. The battery and the USB dongle reside in the back trunk of the car, allowing for easy portability.

The latest version, however, designed after the Mini Cooper, is a disappointment. In trying to make the mouse look exactly like a Mini Cooper, the design creates a mouse that is uncomfortable to use. Unlike the sleek, rounded version of the sports car models, the Mini Cooper has a high roof, causing the height of the mouse to jump higher than a normal mouse. Unless you have very large hands, the additional height causes discomfort when you’re trying to use the left or right mouse buttons, as well as the scroll wheel.

I’d only recommend this if you have someone on your list who has very large hands and is a Mini Cooper devotee – if you still want to get them a unique sports-car-related mouse, check out the smoother/sleeker and more comfortable sports car models.

Cool Yule rating: 1 star Price: $55 on Motormouse.us.com Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw

Jabra Pro 9450, by GN Netcom This system consists of a small base station and a headset that connects to a regular deskphone (via phone cables) as well as to a PC (via USB). When configured correctly, the user can receive phone calls from their desk phone on the headset, as well as use a deskphone application (such as Skype or Google Talk, among others). The system is designed for companies that are looking to move to a unified communications platform, allowing people to continue to use their deskphone and one headset for both systems. This can also be a good system for a remote teleworker to use, connecting their PC to the same headset as a desk system.

The wireless headset operates on DECT 6.0, which lets you walk up to 400 feet away from the base station while on a call, and comes with an over-the-head style, or a smaller, like a cell phone headset wearing style. The Jabra PC Suite software provides some configuration applications and the ability to switch between the deskphone and the regular phone and put one call on hold while talking on the other one. I also got some audio to stream to the headset (with some difficulty, however, the overall setup is not as set-and-forget as you’d like it to be).

This isn’t the world’s best holiday gift idea, but you should consider this for any of your employees who may be expected to take more phone calls via a softphone application on their PC, but still needs a traditional desk phone, and one headset that can control both systems.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars Price: Between $200 and $250Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Wireless Touchpad, by LogitechI’ve never been a big fan of the touchpad on notebooks – they’re always too small, and when I’m using the keyboard the bottoms of my hands tend to activate the sensors on them. So when traveling, I tend to bring along a small travel mouse for all of my PC navigation needs.

Maybe what I need is a larger touchpad, which is what Logitech made here with its Wireless Touchpad. The external device offers a 5-inch multi-touch touchpad that connects to a PC or Mac via a USB dongle (2.4GHz wireless). The touchpad connected easily and is powered by two AA batteries, and it has an on/off switch to save battery life.

The bigger size of the device didn’t necessarily tame my dislike of touchpads – I’d still likely bring along my travel mouse instead of this. However, for people who really like using a touchpad and want something bigger (for tasks that require more space on the touchpad), this is a very nice device. I’m not sure whether this will make it to the top of your holiday wish list, but if you have anyone who has been griping about their small touchpad, they can go wireless with this unit.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars Price: $49.99Reviewed by Keith Shaw

WES610N 4-Port Dual-Band N Entertainment Bridge with 4-Port Switch, by Cisco (Linksys) While most Wi-Fi users are familiar with connecting PCs and similar endpoints to a wireless LAN, there is more – much more – that Wi-Fi can be used for. A popular application at my house is creating bridges between networks over Wi-Fi, typically using a “game adapter” that is essentially Ethernet on one side and Wi-Fi on the other. So, imagine such a product that can bridge devices via Ethernet and the home’s wireless network, but with a built-in four-port switch – that’s the Linksys WES610N. The four additional ports provides convenience, versatility and flexibility by eliminating the need for an external switch. The WES610N can operate at 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequencies, and supports 300Mbps traffic.

But for some reason I’m at a loss to understand, the switch is only 10/100, and thus a big minus. I’m really not getting this – what’s the point of 300Mbps over the air if any given endpoint is limited to 100Mbps? Was there a shortage of Gigabit Ethernet chips when this one was designed? Similarly, the documentation is incomplete – for example, don’t use the top connector during initial setup; it doesn’t work. Keep in mind that you’ll need to manually configure your SSID, unless you use Wi-Fi Protected Setup, which I don’t. The firmware is at times frustratingly slow, but you’ll likely need to touch it only once. So the WES610N is a little harder to get running than your basic Wi-Fi client, or even access point, but nothing techies can’t handle. Still Linksys’ documentation and even its Web site – which is hard to navigate – could use some work.

In operation, though, apart from the wired-port bottleneck issue noted above, everything works transparently. The only really troubling issue is the wired throughput limitation noted above, but if your traffic requires no more than 100Mbps, as is often the case with, say, game consoles and home-entertainment gear, all should be fine. But just think of the possibilities if that built-in bottleneck were eliminated (and, while we’re at it, the setup process and the documentation improved) – perhaps another couple of stars. By the way, a single-port WET610N model is also available at less than $100.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars Price: $129.99 Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

N750 DB Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router, by Belkin A new Wi-Fi router is perhaps the perfect gift – the latest models have greater performance (throughput, range, and reliability), more options, and, well, are inexpensive. Case in point: Belkin’s new dual-band, dual-radio N750, which features 450Mbps performance in the 5GHz bands. You also get two USB ports (for printers and adding storage drives), a print server, Gigabit Ethernet, easy Wi-Fi Protected Access security (although real nerds set up security the old-fashioned way - manually), and even a few applications for such functions as PC backup, print and storage management, and playing UPnP/DLNA-compatible video.

Setup was fast and easy (and limited to setting IP address, security, and SSID; you probably won’t need the manual), and I must say that the N750 continues Belkin’s tradition of producing stylish routers with a vertical theme that demand placement somewhere other than under a table in the basement. A clever feature on this model is auto-update, which works like system-update facilities on PCs and Macs – new firmware can be automatically downloaded and installed as it is released; no thinking required.

The only bad news, as can be surmised from the product’s name, is that 3x3 performance is only available at 5GHz. This may not be a major drawback; 2.4GHz isn’t a great place to use 40 MHz channels anyway. But just so you know.

I’m going to be testing the performance of 450Mbps routers shortly, and the N750 is on the list for that project. In the meantime, this one is worth considering and is a real bargain if 450Mbps at 5GHz is all you need.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars Price: $129.99 (list)Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

Ooma Telo Wireless Adapter, by Ooma For users of the Ooma Telo home VoIP service, one of the big problems is that the base station needs to be connected via Ethernet cable to your home router. For many users (myself included), this meant having the Ooma system connected in a basement or closet, where you tended to forget that you had the system.

That changes with the Telo Wireless Adapter, a USB dongle that attaches to the back of the Telo base station, allowing network connectivity without it needing to be connected directly to the router. Setup was relatively simple - just attach the adapter to the USB port on the back, then connect a PC to configure the adapter to your existing Wi-Fi network. After it configures, you can then unplug the Telo base station and move it to another room in the house (as long as you're in wireless range). It's a nice addition to owners of an existing Ooma system, and recommended if you are getting the entire system for the first time (the Ooma system gives you home telephone service without monthly subscription, using your existing broadband Internet service).

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $49.99Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Artisan 837 Color Inkjet All-In-One, by Epson I’m "in like" with the Epson Artisan 837. I wanted to whole heartedly love it, but it fell short a few times for me. First things first, the Artisan 837 is a printer, photo printer, copier, scanner, and fax machine. It even prints labels on CDs. It does a lot! And it does almost all of it, wirelessly. Of course, we at Network World just love that the whole house can easily be networked to the printer. However, because of all of those great things, set up takes a while. It took my tech-savvy boyfriend more than an hour to set up this one.

The print quality is lovely. The photo print quality is very nice once you get the colors right. Plus, it does all of this wirelessly. The box will tell you that it prints the “world’s fastest 4 x 6 photos.” It also says those photos will be “ultra hi-definition prints.” I found that it will print photos very quickly, but on the worst possible setting they look off. When set to a photo quality, the photos are lovely, but print at a slower speed.

One feature that sets the Artisan 837 apart is that the machine has its own e-mail address, so you can email the machine and it will print it for you. My first thought was “Why?” But then I realized: mobile devices! If I take a picture on my phone, I can print it, no matter where I am. That’s pretty cool. Technically, I could give the e-mail address to my friends and they could surprise me by sending me pictures. The only problem with that is the Epson’s e-mail address basically resembles a 26 character WEP code. If you bought this for a grandparent, you could write down the email address and then surprise them with photos of their grandchildren just printing out of their device (if you can remember the email address and as long as the grandparents remember to keep the printer on and stocked with ink and paper).

Like previous versions of the Artisan printer, you can use your own photos and turn them into coloring book pages – children find it pretty fun to color in pictures of themselves – it’s also very nice for homemade art projects or finding something to do on a rainy afternoon. Yes, the Artisan 837 has a fax machine, but we didn’t test this (I’m part of the generation that doesn’t even have a home phone thanks to cell phones). If you are interested in this feature, it can use the 30-page automatic document feeder.

The scanner portion comes with software that will convert scanned images into editable text. The scanner can also scan older photos and help clean them up, raising them to 4800 dpi if you want. It can fix colors in old photos, and they do look much sharper. It also says it can remove the appearance of dust, but I couldn’t see much of a difference. If the dust is part of the photos (I was testing photos from the 1980s), it didn’t seem to clean up any of that. The photo scanner is amazingly slow, and you have to scan them one at a time – the software for uploading photos is also a major pain, because it makes you preview at least one photo if you want to scan anything (and you have to leave that preview open to keep scanning additional photos), but it will remember how many photos you have scanned in so as not to overwrite earlier scans. If you’re a blogger and you just want to scan in old photos occasionally, this will work great. But if you want to scan in every photo you have from before the digital age, this isn’t the scanner for you. Also, we couldn’t scan via Wi-Fi – we needed to be plugged into the printer in order to receive the scans. However, you can scan photos directly to a memory card.

The Artisan 837 also boasts having a touch screen, but I found it to be the slowest, most unresponsive touch screen ever. Yes, you can print straight from your camera this way, and that’s great. But using it otherwise is tedious.

This is a great machine for a combination of home office work as well as photo printing. It’s even just great for photo printing. My only warning is that you shouldn’t buy it if you only want it for photo scanning capabilities. Otherwise, enjoy all that it has to offer, wirelessly!

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars Price: $234.99 (Amazon)Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Internet phone, by BedolOh, thank goodness, there's a phone for the Internet! I'm not sure what it's supposed to actually do or if anyone answers ("Hello, Internet? Stop being so slow!"), but there's now an Internet Phone, and it's from Bedol.

Bad name aside, the "Internet phone" is actually a USB-connected handset that works with VoIP programs like Skype or Google Talk. It's the same thing as a USB-connected handset - it gives you a microphone and a speaker, but instead of wearing it on your head, you get a sleek and slim handset that you'd put on the side of your head like you were talking on a normal phone.

When it's in the base station, the phone can act as a speaker for your computer, it works with music apps to play music (say, from iTunes or other streaming sites), or you can use it as a speakerphone as well.

The unit we tested is different from the ones that Bedol is currently selling on the site, which either means I'm trapped in an alternate dimension, or they've upgraded the unit since they sent us one to try out. The unit we had included buttons on the front that would adjust for volume, a play/pause button and a mute button. The one on the site has a digital display that offers time/temperature. I'm not sure which version is better.

Also, the instructions are pretty vague, but they win points for hilarity. Here's an example: "Install the Internet Phone program to your computer and create your username and Personal Profile. You can download the program from the Internet. To use the Internet telephone for calling, your computer should be on line. After dialing your phone call or receiving your phone call on your computer, you can use this Internet Phone Handset to speak and listen through the Internet."

For the price of the phone (listed at $50), there are much better options out there for voice headsets and microphone, but maybe that's only available in this dimension.

Cool Yule rating: 1 starPrice: $50 (Bedol site)Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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