Sony Pocket AM/FM Radio

It doesn’t have stereo reception or digital tuning or even a darn clock, but my little Sony Pocket Radio has been going strong for a decade. A pair of AA batteries supplies me with months of music, news, and sports broadcasts. Its reception is strong and steady, the volume is more than adequate, I’ve dropped it a few times without harming it, and it’s about the price of a sandwich. Sure, I wish it came it cute colors. Yes, it tends to tip over on occasion. And it’s so easy to carry from place to place that my biggest complaint is that I sometimes don’t know where I left it. But in the age of HD and wireless and internet media, this pocket radio proves that stuff doesn’t have to fancy in order to be great.

-- Jeremy Jackson  

Sony ICF-S10MK2 Pocket AM/FM Radio
$13

Available from Amazon



Kikkerland Universal Travel Adapter

I live on one side of the planet and work on the other. When I go on or come off work, I’m a couple of days in transit, meaning that 1) I need to charge my gadgets and 2) I need to be able to use a variety of outlets when I do it.

I’ve gone through a bunch of international adapters over the last few years. The cheap ones break or quit working. The pricier ones are clunky, and invariably get lost or stolen (everybody needs one, not everybody has one, and if you leave yours somewhere for two seconds somebody will walk off with it, guaranteed). All of them take up too much space in the bag.

I haven’t been using the Kikkerland UL03-A long — only a couple of months now, and I love it. I’m not alone: two of my co-workers saw it and immediately demanded to know what it was and where I got it. It doesn’t take three-prong plugs, only two-prong, but its design is pure genius. It’s not a wall wart. It’s surprisingly flat, and long. You pull it into two pieces and use its various bits to make an adaptor that will fit your socket. It works well and frees up tons of space in your bag. Great if you like to travel light.

Another in this design seems to be the Road Warrior, imported from Japan. I haven’t used one, but it does the same thing.

-- David Hines  

Kikkerland UL03-A Universal Travel Adapter
$10

Available from Amazon



Microwaveable Bowls With Handles

I habitually ate while seated on a sofa or at a desk. I had difficulty with plates and ordinary bowls. They could be too hot to carry; they were liable to spill their contents; and they were tricky to set down safely on my lap or to find free space for on a desk. So I was happy when I picked up a large (20 oz.) stoneware bowl with a handle. (Two cups =16 ounces.) It could hold a large-size can of soup. It was comparatively compact—and its handle was cool after microwaving. To accommodate it, I avoided food that required a knife and fork.

Recently I acquired four brands of containers that have snap-on lids, which:

  • Protect my microwave from getting splattered. (The lids need only be laid atop the containers, not snapped tight.)
  • Keep the heat in, speeding up the heating process and reducing the power consumed.
  • Keep the food warm for longer after it’s been heated.
  • Allow me to store leftover portions—or portions yet to be eaten—in the fridge in an airtight container.
  • Prevent food from spilling while being carried. (Provided the lids are snapped tight.)
  • Permit me (in two of the brands) to steam-cook certain vegetables.

Other advantages are that the containers:

  • Don’t need potholders.
  • Are safe to use in microwaves and dishwashers.
  • Are less tiring to hold (three brands).
  • Weigh less (two brands).
  • Look better (one brand).
  • Are insulated (one brand).

Three of these bowls have 4.5 or better ratings on Amazon, based on at least 150 reviews—the other is 4-rated. Here’s a quick run-down, from the least to the most expensive. Each one has attributes that would make it the first choice for some potential buyer.

1. Microwave Bowl with Lid; Set of 4: $15 for four, or $3.75 each, including shipping. (above photo)

It’s plastic—and there’s no claim that it’s BPA-free. It is about half the cost of the next-cheapest alternative. What you get is basic: the mugs are very lightweight and the lids lack a vent-hole. Amazon reviewers have noted that over time the flimsy lids distort enough in the microwave that they no longer provide a watertight seal—so they can’t be used to transport soup from a home to the office.

The upside is that the extra three mugs can be used as airtight containers in the fridge to store portions from a previously prepared large batch of stew or homemade soup—which eliminates having to ladel each portion out subsequently, and enables one to warm up the container on a countertop for a few hours before heating, reducing the oven’s energy consumption. (In effect, you can use these mugs as Tupperware substitutes. If you like this feature, and you like to make a really large initial batch of stew, you should buy a second set.)

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2. Sistema 656 ml (20 oz.) Soup Mug: $7. All plastic—BPA-free.

Lightweight but not flimsy. Its three clamps are meant to ensure a watertight seal, presumably primarily to allow soup to be carried to the office for heating there. Unfortunately, a trickle of water escaped when I upended it and shook it vigorously. A thick soup or stew would not leak—or not much—even if sharply tilted and shaken during transport. A plastic bag would prevent any slight leak from spreading. It could be safely carried in a car inside a small cardboard box with a raspy-side Velcro patch on its bottom, keeping it anchored to the carpet. (And so could the other containers.)
A tight toggle switch in the lid opens the vent to allow steam release during heating. If left closed—or even if open—certain vegetables like carrots & brussel sprouts can be steam-cooked; you can turn down the power after the initial heat-up phase to save power.

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3. CorningWare French White 20-Ounce Mug; bowl is stoneware, lid is plastic & BPA-free: $13

It’s heavy—so it’s best used at a table or desk. It’s good-looking—it has a nice color, fluted sides, and flared top. It’s similar to #2 in terms of its mild leakiness when shaken and its ability to steam veggies.
Lid removal is easier if the lid’s top is pushed down at the same time its tab is lifted up. (The instruction sheet is devoid of such tips—e.g., that the vent hole is opened by pulling up on the blue tab—it provides only warnings.)

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4. Cool Touch Microwave Bowl With Unique Handle; plastic outer bowl, thin ceramic inner bowl, plastic lid: $13

This is a bowl, not a mug, so it has a slightly larger capacity—24 oz.—than the others. I steam-cooked a half-pound of brussel sprouts in six minutes. You can, unlike the others, set it on your lap (or on a heat-sensitive surface) right out of the oven—the outer shell insulates the heat inside; and it keeps the food warmer for longer.

The innovative thumb-hook handle encourages the fingers to curl under the bowl and support it, providing the comfiest and most secure grip of the bunch, so it’s good for eating in an easy chair or sofa. Its wider base and lower height make it safer in bed. And this is the best brand for someone who is infirm or has arthritis because its handle is the easiest to grasp and release, and because it has a secondary handle on the opposite side.

Envoi: If you are considering buying one of these, you should read the reviews on Amazon to learn its full range of quirks and pluses. (One quirk shared by the three brands containing plastic is that there will be small burrs on their edges that should be sanded off. The plastic is also liable to stain to some degree—although this affects only the underside of the lids in the two brands whose bowls are ceramic.)

-- Roger Knights  



Rayovac Indestructible 2 AA Flashlight

I love Surefire flashlights. I had a 6P for years, and it was my go-to light. When it was stolen, along with my 25 year old D-cell Maglite, I went flashlight shopping and boy things have changed.

The Surefire lights are still high quality, and still highly priced. They also require lithium batteries. With the new LED technology, I was able to try several lights for the price of replacing my Surefire.

I tried Streamlight’s Twin Task (which at the time had two bulbs; a comparable bulb to the Surefire, and an LED bulb for conserving battery power). I liked it ok, but I didn’t like the single button for both modes, and I didn’t like the placement of the button. It also required the same lithium batteries as the Surefire. It’s worth noting here that the model I tested is pretty old by today’s standards. I haven’t tried the new Streamlight options. I generally like their stuff.

I bought an LED Maglite to keep in the truck, and it works as advertised. I probably bought this for sentimentality’s sake since I was so hacked off that someone had stolen my trusty ol’ Maglite. It’s not the brightest light I’ve owned, but it’s a good update on a classic.

I tried the Nebo Redline. I like this light. It’s small, feels durable, and it takes AAA batteries. I particularly like that it has a magnet in the tailcap so it can stick in some handy places while you’re working. It has several modes, including an S.O.S. mode which I’ve thankfully never needed. I do often dim it, at night in the woods the low setting is plenty to get around. It claims that it outputs 220 lumens on its brightest setting. I have no way of objectively measuring this, but I question that claim. It’s bright, but it doesn’t seem to be 220 lumens bright. The way the lens focuses the light seems to cut down on the brightness significantly. Lastly, it has a glow-in-the-dark tailcap, which I find completely useless unless your flashlight had been in bright sunlight immediately before you lost it in the dark. The button is a toggle only, which means you can’t tap it for a quick burst of light.

For the money, I recommend the Rayovac “Virtually Indestructable” flashlight. This thing lives up to its name. I have the AA version, which claims to output 100 lumens. If you look at the photo, you’ll see that it appears to be as bright if not brighter than the Nebo, which claims to output more than twice the light. The endcaps of the Rayovac are rubber, with a hex shaped ring around the front to keep it from rolling (a big plus for me, only matched by my otherwise located Surefire). The rubber tailcap makes for a much more comfortable bite when your hands are occupied. It has a touch-on button, as well as a toggle, which I like. It will stand up on either end.

It does not have a focusable beam. It does not have variable brightness. It does not blink in morse code. It does not have a glow-in-the-dark tailcap. It would not serve you well in a self-defense situation. To all these points: “I care not.” I think I paid about $15 for it at The Home Depot. It was the cheapest of all the lights I tested, and it’s the first one I grab every time. I’ve had it now for over a year and I love the fact that it’s simple and it works.

I’d love to replace my Surefire someday. In the meantime, the Rayovac will do everything the Surefire would do for a fraction of the price. If someone steals it, I’ll just buy another one at Lowes.

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From left to right: Maglite, Rayovac, Streamline, Nebo Redline

IMHO:

-Maglite – Classic
-Streamlight – Eh.
-Nebo – Feature heavy
-Rayovac – Useful

-- Allen Watts  

Rayovac Indestructible 2 AA Flashlight
$23

Available from Amazon



 

Caframo MiniMax Deluxe Battery-Operated Fan

Bought our first MiniMax at a boating supply store a few years back. Runs forever on 4 “D” size batteries, but I found it had a 6vdc input and bought a wall-wart for $1 at the flea market to fit.

Portable and powerful, softish fan blades will not cut off your fingers. Folds flat and will adjust 45°+ tilt.

Nice to de-fog the bathroom mirror after a bath.

Variable speed control on high and Low settings.

Small enough to pack on a trip.

Pretty quiet.

Using one right now (really!) in the kitchen, to cool off some potatoes.

-- Kent K Barnes  

Caframo MiniMax Deluxe Portable 737 4.5″ Battery Operated Fan
$28

Available from Amazon



ASUS RT-N16 Wireless Router

The ASUS RT-N16 is an excellent high performance router that has all the features you would expect from a router in its category. But the feature that stands out is an embedded torrent client that can download and upload torrents to and from an external hard drive plugged into the router’s USB port. I’ve been using it for more than 2 years now, and I can’t count the time and electricity it saved me so far.

The point in having a torrent client in your router is that:

1) To download torrents it’s necessary for someone share it in the first place, and depending on the availability of sources (seeds) this can take some time.

2) The torrent protocol, as any other P2P protocol, depends on people sharing what they have downloaded in order to continue working; so it’s recommended that you upload at least two times what you have downloaded in order to keep the network alive.

All of this requires you to leave your computer on and connected for a long time, and doing this for the sole purpose of downloading and uploading torrents is a waste of electricity and at times just inconvenient. As most people just leave their wireless router on and connected all the time at home, it’s quite interesting to have this task performed by it.

Although many people associate torrents with piracy, it’s just a peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing protocol and it can be used to download lots of legal content, mainly media and software. [Here are 30 sites for legal torrents — Mark]

To use this embedded torrent client you need to connect an external hard drive to one of the router’s USB ports. Then, using the router configuration page through a web browser, just press a button to install the client in this HD. After that you will be able to access the client from your browser through an IP address (just like you do to access the configuration page of any router). The client is updated regularly by ASUS through new versions of the router’s firmware, which can be easily updated through the router’s configuration page.

Beware, however, that this client is much more limited than traditional torrent applications, like uTorrent. Limitations include a limit to the number of torrents you can download at the same time, and not being able to select files to download within a torrent.

-- Alessandro Mattos  

ASUS RT-N16 Wireless Router
$78

Available from Amazon



 

Wide Mouth Adjustable Wrench

I have used this tool for well over 20 years. I use it several times per year, whenever I need to do plumbing repairs. I use it most commonly to loosen or tighten faucet strainers. Ordinary wrenches don’t work because they don’t have a large enough opening to wrap around the strainer. A large mouthed wrench can adjust its opening wide enough to remove or tighten the strainer without scarring it.

-- Dick Spencer  

Channellock 1-1/2″ Cap Wrench
$27

Available from Amazon



Automatic Smart Driving Assistant

The “quantified self” personal measurement tools all seem too constricting to me, at least at this point in my life. But, as one who cringed when I needed to buy my late-model Mazda3 for a commute, the concept of a “quantified car” makes a lot more sense. Buying a car means investing a decent sum of money in a depreciating collection of metal that requires sizable ongoing investments. Even when experiencing the joy of the open road, I’m still haunted by how much this contraption costs me.

So, to ease my heartburn over car ownership, I bought the Automatic “Smart Driving Assistant” just after the holidays. Intrigued by early reviews that I read on sites like TechCrunch and Engadget, I put it on my wish list and ended up buying it with some holiday cash. Spending $100 to get data on your car’s operation, your driving habits and your overall driving quality seems prudent. When that $100 also allows you to benefit from ever-improving software linked to your car’s data, it seems like a bargain. Of course, this assumes that Automatic delivers on its promise.

At present, Automatic is a simple dongle that attaches to your vehicle’s OBD-II port (every car since 1996 has one, apparently). The Automatic dongle samples your vehicle’s speed, fuel efficiency (MPG) and uses an accelerometer to measure your acceleration and braking. If your car has a mechanical problem known to the car’s computer, the Automatic dongle can read the OBD-II code, as well. The dongle then beams that data to your smartphone, using bluetooth, and an associated app then uses your smartphone to analyze and synthesize the dongle data; track your driving route and parking location; and guess at your overall fuel cost (based again on location).

The Automatic Smartphone app is simple but polished. The app presents the MPG, distance and driving habit data per trip; as well as total miles driven, hours spent, estimated fuel cost and average MPG for each week. Featured prominently is your score: a measure from 1-100, which penalizes hard brakes (measured by the accelerometer), hard “accels” (ditto) and minutes over 70 miles per hour. Your scores are calculated daily (Last day = 100!) and weekly (Last week = 98; four hard brakes in city driving screwed me!).

While it’s easy to pick at small flaws with Automatic – isn’t 70 mph arbitrary? why is the route imprecise? what if my hard brakes were the fault of other drivers? – my experience has been: it’s working. I’m now obsessed with avoiding hard brakes and hard accelerations. I scrutinize MPG numbers after each trip, wondering how I can improve it the next time. I brag about my high score to my wife. And, though I still cringe at the potential cost, I’m looking forward to reading the code on my first “check engine” light without taking my car into a mechanic.

I’m hoping that the app will continue to pay dividends. There is a “crash alert” feature, in beta, that duplicates some of the features on more expensive cars. Automatic has published an API, in alpha, which could lead to some awesome other applications. It just announced an integration with IFTTT.com, which allows for user-friendly API access. And, as Horace Dedieu has discussed on his “Asymcar” podcast, a real promise of apps like Automatic is in reselling the car. If a used car seller can document their good driving habits, the car’s performance and their maintenance record (down to the trip) it could help the buyer and the seller.

I’ve got generalized privacy concerns, but they’d apply to most “quantified” gadgets and I view my car as the least personal item I own. Automatic could also, ultimately, let users down. But, for now, the promise of a car quantified through Automatic is soothing my concerns about automotive ownership.

-- Ben Bradley  

Automatic Smart Driving Assistant
$99

Available from Amazon



Hausgrind Hand Powered Coffee Grinder

Let’s cut right to the chase: You cannot find a better hand powered coffee grinder than the Made by Knock Hausgrind. Oh, we know the names of all the competitors – Porlex, Hario, Comandante, and even the Grindripper – but none of them are built like this.

Grinders come in two flavors: blade and burr. Blade grinders are fast, but they burn the coffee beans, and the uneven particle sizes they produce mean a poor cup of coffee. If you care what your coffee tastes like, burr grinders are really your only choice.

Among burr grinders, the camps are pretty evenly divided. Proponents of ceramic burrs will tell you they’re harder and last longer. Advocates of steel burrs will tell you they can be ground sharper and finer than ceramic burr casting technology allows. The Hausgrind uses 38 mm conical tool steel burrs that are conservatively rated to grind 650 kg (= 1433 pounds = ~3/4 of a ton) of coffee beans before needing replacement. I grind 15 grams of coffee beans every day, which is enough for a double shot of espresso from my ROK. That means I could go 43,333 days (= 118.72 years) before the burrs needed replacement. Even if you ground 3 times that much, you could go more than 39 years before you started to think about replacing your burr set.

Many people like to change up the coffee they drink, shifting from espresso to drip to French press at a whim. This means adjusting the setting on your grinder to change the fineness. On every other hand grinder out there, this involves twisting a knob on the bottom of the male burr to tighten or loosen it against the female burr. Often, this adjustment knob is stepped to prevent the loss of the setting as you grind. That means the settings are finite, and if you want something in between, you’re out of luck. With the Hausgrind, adjustment is performed with a graduated, knurled knob on the top of the grinder. The settings are smooth and infinite, held in position with a rubber grommet, and if you want to twist it to 9.6 (or 9.7 or 9.9) for your espresso and 13.2 for drip brewing, you can easily do so. Returning to a previous setting is also just as easy.

Some hand grinders have a problem with their handles coming off while grinding, and this is endemic with the Porlex. This is less of a problem with the Hario, Comandante, and Grindripper, but it is nonexistent with the Hausgrind – the adjustment knob screws on to completely secure the handle.

A lot of people complain that hand grinders are difficult to operate. Although this is largely due to the plastic bearings allowing the burrs to grind against each other, some of the blame can be traced to how the grinder is held. If the grasping hand is not at the very top of the grinder, the top of the grinder will swing back and forth as the handle is turned. The handle design is crucial to this, and some grinders actually come with a handle that forces the grasping hand lower on the grinder body. This is not so with the Hausgrind, whose handle allows the body to be grasped at the very top.

Because even the most freshly roasted coffee begins to stale 15 minutes after grinding, the home brewer gets the best flavor by grinding only what’s needed for the moment’s cup. That means you don’t want any leftover beans remaining in the grinder, so to keep things flowing smoothly, there is a sweep pin to ensure all the beans in the hopper drop into the burrs.

But none of these are the most important factor that set this grinder apart from the others. Whether you like the ceramic burrs of the Hario, Porlex, or Grindripper or you prefer the steel burrs of the Comandante, they all have one thing in common: plastic bearings. With all other hand grinders, the male burr depends from a central shaft that rotates within a plastic tube. Although the female burr is firmly held by the casing, the male burr can easily shift from center as the beans are ground. This doesn’t just cause wear; it creates an uneven grind.

In contrast, the Hausgrind has raced bearing sets top and bottom, and these bearings are held in place by 316 marine grade stainless steel frames. Together, they stabilize the burr sets to effortlessly produce a frighteningly even particle size.

Finally, we’re not talking about some visual monstrosity you wouldn’t show your dog. The Hausgrind currently comes in hand-tooled beech or walnut, and future versions are planned with aluminum and steel casings.

I was lucky to get in on the ground floor for Batch 1. Batch 2 sold out within 35 hours of announcement, and Batch 3 ordering is now closed. You can read more and register for yours here.

At £130 for aluminum and £140 for walnut (they’ll ship anywher), these grinders are not cheap. But they are simply the best, and they’ll likely last your lifetime or longer!

-- Conan Cocallas  

Hausgrind Hand Powered Coffee Grinder
£130 – £140

Manufactured by Made by Knock



MSR Universal Canister Stand

One of the major problems with most liquid propane gas stoves is that they are inherently top-heavy. Coupled with the inevitable lack of flat terrain while camping, it’s only a matter of time before they are accidently knocked or tipped over. At the very least you’re looking at a colossal mess and potentially losing a meal; at the very worst you could be severely scalded or start a fire. These problems can be preempted by choosing the most level cooking surface as possible and using a canister stand in conjunction with your stove.

The best model I have found is the “Universal canister stand” from MSR. Design and operation is dead-simple: unfold the legs into the tripod position, place the rim of your LPG canister under the appropriate set of fixed hooks (outer hooks for 230-450g canisters, inner hooks for 100-130g canisters), and slide the third spring-loaded hook into place. The stand will drastically reduced your stove’s potential to tip over and safely allows cooking with large/tall pots, even on sloped or uneven surfaces.

Other LPG stove manufacturers do offer their own branded canister stands but they are made of plastic, which is nowhere near as durable or reliable as metal. They also have shorter legs than the MSR model, which compromises the stability afforded. At around $12 street price and backed by a lifetime warranty, this accessory should be a no-brainer for anyone who owns a LPG stove.

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-- Nabhan Islam