Hot Gadgets: Summer Guide 2011
For this year's roundup of cool summer tech gear, I dived into a local pool to snap photos, played a round of golf and grilled up some tasty steaks. Yes, I have a tough job.
But it was all for a good cause: finding the best equipment for gear-heads to enjoy the great outdoors. This well-tested summer gear is perfect for adventurous techies who like to run, swim, camp, hike, play golf and more.
For summer excursions that involve lots of water and mud, an iPhone -- or any typical smartphone -- is just not going to survive. The Casio G'zOne Commando ($199 with two-year Verizon contract) is a rugged Android-powered smartphone that meets the U.S. Department of Defense MIL-STD 810G spec for short drops (about 5 feet), water immersions, contact with mud, exposure to scorching sun and other environmental hazards. (The phone is not meant for swimming, though, and it won't stand up to extreme weight, pressure or impact, such as what it would endure if it were run over by a car.)
The black and red hard plastic outer shell is built for serious outdoor adventures. I sprayed water on the phone, covered it in dirt and dropped it onto an asphalt driveway; the Commando kept on working without a glitch.
But the real highlights are the included apps -- there's one that shows a compass that rotated accurately as I moved, a temperature indicator and one for checking ocean tide conditions. There's even one that counts your steps on a hike.
The G'zOne Commando is not just rugged -- it has an unusually loud speaker for playing music at a campsite, includes a 5-megapixel camera and runs all the typical Android apps. (Angry Birds, anyone?)
A remarkably innovative golf aid, the $89 SensoGlove is aimed at training you to hold the club with a light grip. (Golf experts say a tight grip is the primary cause of an erratic swing on the course.) Sensors in the fingers measure your grip, and an LCD screen alerts you (both visually and audibly) about your grip pressure. You can configure the sensors to warn you when you exceed a threshold, such as a tightness level over 10.
In my tests during a practice session and a complete 18-round course, the SensoGlove actually improved my accuracy for both short chips and long drives. The large LCD screen was readable in direct sunlight.
The glove is made of cabretta leather and matches the styling of other golf gloves. It's available for right- or left-handed players, with versions for men and women in a range of sizes.
The trendy-looking Nike+ SportWatch GPS ($199), which flaunts neon colors that match well with Nike clothes and shoes, connects to a small wireless receiver (included) that you place in the undersole of your Nike shoes. You can track your exact run route, distance and elevation using the watch's built-in GPS receiver; the 2.33-oz. watch also records your speed, monitors your heart rate and estimates the calories you've burned.
I tested the SportWatch with a flashy pair of Nike LunarGlide+ 2 ($82) running shoes. During several jogs, the sensor in the shoe communicated perfectly with the watch, which felt light and snug on my wrist.
The wristband has a USB connector built in. After my runs, I connected it to my PC and uploaded my route, total distance and pace along with other variables to the NikeRunning.com website. One of the coolest features of the site is a "heat map" that shows other runners' favorite routes. I viewed some of the other runs in my area and even broadcast my recent runs on Facebook.
You can also set the SportWatch to ping you with a run reminder if you haven't run in several days, and if you're running a familiar route, it can show you the fastest times both you and other runners have gotten on the route.
The Parrot AR.Drone ($300) is a flying "quadcopter" you control with your smartphone. When it was first released last summer, it worked only with the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, but now Android, Symbian and Bada users can play as well.
Four spinning rotors provide a unique flying experience -- like a real helicopter, the drone can hover in mid-air or fly forward. The device sends your smartphone streaming video captured by its front-mounted camera over an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network; you control the copter using an augmented reality app with soft keys for up and down, forward and back. There's a second high-res surveillance camera onboard for taking video and snapping photos.
In my tests, it took some practice to control the AR.Drone -- which is why every drone comes with a practice shell that protects the plastic parts; it's also good for indoor flying anytime. Once you've mastered the drone, it's amazing to see how high it can go -- up to 160 feet. I recommend flying in a large open area, because a gust of wind can carry the drone into a tree. Fortunately, Parrot offers spare parts at reasonable prices (not to mention helpful repair videos) to help you get flying again after a crash.
A caveat: The rechargeable battery lasted for only about 20 minutes in my tests. However, it charged quickly -- after about 45 minutes I was able to send the drone on another flight. Typical full charge time is more like 90 minutes.
Several multiplayer game apps let you fly your drone in the physical world as you compete in virtual ones: AR.Race for racing and AR.FlyingAce for conducting dogfights are both free, while the AR.Pursuit hunt/escape game is $2.99.