Gadgets That Solve Everyday Problems

Special note: Are you sitting down? Here's the scoop: This is my last PC World newsletter; the Tips & Tweaks blog is no more; and I'm no longer writing the print Hassle-Free PC column.

For the last 20 years I've had a terrific gig: I got to play with cool products and write practically anything that came to my mind. And amazingly, PC World actually paid me to do it. Even more important, I had all of you--a bunch of friends who dug into my Hassle-Free PC column in the magazine and came to the site to see what I was up to. Believe me, that meant as much to me as the paycheck.

You can continue to see what I'm up to by sending me a note at my personal address, checking my new Web site, TechBite, or subscribing to my YahooGroup list.

Thanks for reading my scribblings and supporting me all these years--and no matter what, do stay in touch.

--Steve

And now to our regularly scheduled, albeit final, Steve Bass's Tips and Tweaks.

I love gadgets that solve everyday problems. As I look over my desk, I have what seems like dozens of devices that need charging. What to do? Use another gadget, of course. This week I talk about device-charging gadgets, a rear-view camera that I tried out with my RV, and a little MP3 player speaker that lets you play your tunes anywhere.

Charge Six Devices With One Charger

I'm now charging all my devices at once using Callpod's Chargepod, a charger that gets rid of six AC adapters--and the tangled cords.

The Chargepod is a round, hub-like device about 3 inches in diameter. It has six ports for manufacturer-specific adapters for an almost endless array of devices, including most cell phones, gaming devices, PDAs, and MP3 players. The Chargepod can safely handle the assorted voltages of your devices, and a blue light shows which devices are charging. It comes with an AC adapter, and you can buy a $20 DC adapter that lets you use it in your car. The Chargepod is lightweight and small enough so you can toss it into your notebook's traveling case.

What might stop you--and me--from buying one is the price. The base unit is $40, which includes the Chargepod, AC adapter and cable, carrying pouch, and one device adapter. Individual adapters cost between $8 and $10. CallPod sells an assortment of kits; the cheapest is $80, and that includes the charger and adapters for ten devices. Other kits costing $100 have different adapter combinations.

So here's the question: Is the convenience of having one charger for six devices worth almost $100? Not for me, it isn't. Even though I liked the Chargepod a lot, it's just too expensive for me. I think I'll give the $16 PowerSquid a try; my buddy Dan Tynan called it a must-have gadget.

Wireless Rear-View Camera

I've been intrigued with ads for rear-view cameras ever since I bought a used Roadtrek. My small RV's longer than an average van, and seeing out the rear window isn't easy. I tried out Roadmaster's VR3 Wireless Backup Camera ($137)--and even though it was a pain to install, it was worth the trouble.

The outfit comes with a 2.5-inch LCD wireless color monitor that you mount on the dashboard or sun visor. The monitor has controls for brightness and contrast as well as a toggle that lets you change the view from a normal image to a mirror image, which replicates the view from your rear-view mirror.

The camera gets its power in one of two ways: You can plug it directly into the vehicle's power outlet using a 12-volt adaptor, or grab power directly from the vehicle's fuse box. I decided to hire a mechanic buddy to do the wiring. The camera mounts along the top or bottom of the license plate; power for the camera also has to be hard wired.

The VR3 Wireless Backup Camera definitely gives me a better view out the back of the Roadtrek. But I was hoping for a very wide view, so I'd see everything when I backed into a camping site. With a 110-degree horizontal and an 80 degree vertical viewing angle, it's just adequate. Another gripe: The camera occasionally picks up interference, and every so often the image will disappear.

Tiny iMainGo 2 Speaker

If you have an iPod--actually, any MP3 player--and want to share your music with your buddies, the iMainGo 2 portable speaker case is perfect. (OTOH if you're in the next campsite, do me a favor and use your headset.)

The $42 iMainGo is simple to use: Unzip the case, insert your player, plug in the connector, zip it up, and start listening. If you're using an iPod, it's especially handy because you can work the controls without unzipping. Me, I've got an old, no, ancient Samsung MP3 and fiddling with the controls means opening the iMainGo.

The iMainGo is versatile, too. I used it while listening to a movie on my notebook. It was awkward, but I opened the iMainGo, propped it up with a book, plugged it into the notebook's speaker port and happily had good sound.

The battery life is purported to be 30 hours, but that depends on the player you're using. Inserting the four AAA batteries it takes is a royal PITA--the compartment is small and my fingers are big. One thing I didn't like was having to open the case to turn off the speaker. When I didn't think to do that, those AAAs were quickly destined for the recycle bin.

This Week's Roundup of Time Wasters

Okay, now I think I've seen it all... some guy trained his cat to scuba dive. Don't believe me? See for yourself.

But wait, there's more--watch Buddy catch some waves. The famous surfing dog, is a Jack Russell Terrier who can't wait to get into the water.

99rooms.com is one of my favorite sites--it manages to be creepy and artistic at the same time. See the four boxes at the bottom of the screen for instructions (well, kind of). Once you enter the site, watch for how the cursor changes and use it as a guide for what to click (try doors and light switches). There's no beginning or end--just wander around.

And finally, a Halloween game to get you in the spirit. Score points by blasting away pumpkins--just line up three identical pumpkins in a row and they explode. Don't make the rows too long, though, or you lose.

Steve Bass is the author of "PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer," available from Amazon.com. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.

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