TextExpander

I just used it again… And it reminds me of just how important this particularly cool tool has become to my everyday workflow.

It’s TextExpander, a wonderful little Mac program that instantly pastes any long or short snippet of text you have saved into whatever you’re typing — everything from a piece of HTML code to a complete form letter –using a simple code word or abbreviation.

For example, when I type in “xsig” (my abbreviation for “signature”) in the program I’m using, TextExpander, pastes my entire signature block into the email I am composing.

Using Windows? There are similar types of programs–try searching “text expander for windows.”

-- Chuck Green  

[I have used TextExpander for a couple of years. The Macintosh OS has a handy (and free) text epander (System Preferences -> Keyboard -> Tex), which is good enough for most users. TextExpander's extra features ( fill-in-the-blank snippets, Dropbox synchronization, libraries of HTML and other snippets, the ability to add content in the clipboard into an expanded snippet) make it worth the price for others, including me. According to TextExpander's statistics, I have expanded 7,551 snippets, saved 563,966 characters, and saved 47 hours of typing. I have a feeling these numbers are lower than they should be. I must have reinstalled the software recently. -- Mark Frauenfelder]

Available from Amazon



CoolStream Bluetooth Receiver for iPhone Dock

One of the attractive qualities about Apple products is that they can be used seamlessly across a wide range of accessories. With the introduction of the Lightning connector, this is not always the case, especially with sound/music systems. Now consumers must deal with interface adapters and/or replace accessories.

My wife and I recently upgraded to the iPhone 5, which uses the new Apple Lightning connector interface. We have a portable Logitech speaker dock (S715i) we received a year ago as a gift, but the interface is through the original iPhone/iPod 30-pin connector. We also have an older iPod Nano with the 30 pin connector we occasionally use with the speaker. So, we fall into the same category as many Apple product consumers… we have a mixed bag of connectors across our Apple products and accessories.

I decided that I did not want to sell or scrap our sound dock, but I did not want to use the line-in connection either. I could have used a 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter, but I felt that it was too bulky and would create instability and stress on the connector when an iPhone was plugged in to the dock using the adapter. Instead, I found the CoolStream Bluetooth receiver and gave it a try.

This receiver features a 30-pin iPhone/iPod interface. What caught my attention is that CoolStream verified compatibility with our Logitech speaker, along with many other makes & models of iPhone/iPod docking stations. Furthermore, by effectively adding Bluetooth connectivity to our dock, anyone with a Bluetooth transmitting device can connect to the dock, including many Android smart phones. The CoolStream receiver effectively updated our sound dock to be Bluetooth compatible. Considering that we like our sound dock, and that a new, portable Bluetooth speaker would cost in the neighborhood of $100 or more, I felt that the CoolStream receiver was money well spent ($40 at the time of writing this article).

The CoolStream receiver is easy to use. Simply plug it in to the dock, and turn the dock on. Hold the button at the top of the receiver for 3 seconds to turn it on, and then pair the receiver with whatever device you want to use.

However, there are some downsides. The CoolStream does not have an internal battery, so the docking station must provide power. This is typically the case, unless the dock has an internal battery like the Logitech S715i. I found that when the Logitech is unplugged from its power supply, it does not supply power to the 30 pin connector, so the CoolStream receiver does not work. This configuration makes sense to maximize the battery life of the speaker, rather than using the battery to power the attached device Furthermore, some reviewers are reporting issues with using the CoolStream receiver to connect to some sound docks and car stereos. So, as always, caveat emptor. However, before replacing an existing dock or stereo to upgrade from a 30 pin iPhone/iPod connector, it is worth evaluating if the CoolStream receiver is worth the cost to extend the life of your electronics

-- Ryan Gwaltney  

CoolStream Bluetooth Receiver for iPhone Dock
$40

Available from Amazon



Unifi Wi-Fi Access Point

This is simply the best wireless access point I have used.

I live in an oddly-constructed house with poor Wi-Fi penetration, so I’m demanding on the radio envelope of wireless access points. I also use IPv6 and other new protocols that some manufacturers just can’t be bothered to support. The Unifi access points has solved all my problems. It’s designed for offices, hotels and such like, but definitely recommended for domestic use.

The hardware is elegant and effective: just wall or ceiling-tile mount (basic kits for both are supplied in the box), plug in an ethernet cable, attach a Power Over Ethernet adapter if needed (there’s one in the box), and you’re ready to go. Well, one more step: the management software.

And that software is where the Unifi shines. It’s the best management software I’ve used, and it’s cross-platform (written in Java); Linux packages are available. Adding a new AP is a matter of plugging it in, clicking “adopt” when it shows up on the management screen and, well, that’s it. Upgrade all your APs’ firmware? Done. Want to add a new network, unencrypted but with a captive portal? And deploy it to the “public” APs but not the “private” ones? No problem. And DHCP requests are fed through to your existing DHCP infrastructure.

There are several models: the basic AP costs about the same as a high-end normal access point, and is slightly cheaper if bought in a pack of three. Other models are much more expensive and I haven’t purchased them for my own use: the AP LR (long range), which under UK transmission power limits isn’t noticeably better than the standard model; the AP Pro, which does 5GHz as well as 2.4; the AC (which does 802.11ac for even higher speeds); and the AP Outdoor.

I’ve been running on Unifi for about four months now. I’m getting higher transfer rates than ever before, and IPv6 works perfectly.

-- Roger Bell West  

Ubiquiti Networks UniFi AP Enterprise WiFi System
$71



Unicomp Model M Keyboard

I have been using a Unicomp “Model M” keyboard on my Mac for 2 years now and would never consider going back to a quiet, squishy, rubberdome keyboard, including the Apple bluetooth keyboard. The trouble with those quiet keyboards, for me, and probably for most everyone, is that I am never quite sure when a keystroke has been recorded, so I have to carefully watch the screen all the time and press the keys to the bottom of their travel, just to make sure the computer agrees with my intents.

For those of us old enough to remember the IBM keyboards of the ’80s, the ones that came with the original IBM PC’s (and cost $400!), the Unicomp Model M keyboards are about as close as you can get to that same sound and feel, and they cost a whole lot less. In fact, Unicomp makes keyboards for IBM and has since 1996, employing many of the same people who made the originals. The technology used in the Model M’s is called “buckling spring.” In short, you know by sound and feel when a keystroke is recorded, so that there is no need to press each key all the way to the bottom. The pleasing clickety-clack sound is just gravy.

On the Mac you will sacrifice bluetooth mobility, as the Model M’s are connected via USB, but on the other hand, you can forget about replacing batteries, which my Bluetooth mouse seems to like to remind me every so often.

The company makes an array of keyboards, over 2000 models, according to their Web site. Mine is a Spacesaver M, Model UB4ZPHA and it costs $94.

Even better, Unicomp is an American Company, in Lexington, Kentucky.

-- Jim Shapiro  



Logitech G500 Programmable Gaming Mouse

I´m a PC gamer, and every gamer knows the importance of a good gaming mouse, no matter of what type of game you play. The Logitech G500 Programmable Gaming Mouse is an excellent and affordable option. I have been using it for the past 2 years. I think it has the best cost/benefit in relation to its competitors.

This mouse has an excellent ergonomics, at least if you’re right handed; left-handed people should stick with symmetrical mice, like the G300 ($31)

The laser sensor is very sensitive and precise. At your thumb you´ll find 3 programmable buttons. You can use the Logitech profiler software to program them for each game. The mouse wheel has a button next to it that allows either a free-spinning mode for fast browsing or a line-by-line lock mode for better control. The wheel has a good weight and will keep rolling in the free spinning mode.

This mouse has 5 programmable sensor sensitivities and you can select any of those levels on the fly using the “+” and “-” buttons. So, if you’re in the middle of a game and want the mouse more sensitive, just press “+”, and for less sensitivity press “-”. The amount of sensitivity for each level can be adjusted using the Logitech software, and it is stored on an inside the mouse memory. It means that you can take your mouse to any other computer and it will keep the adjusted sensitivity levels. The 5 sensitivities level selection is shown in a neat set of lights near the “+” and “-” buttons, so you always know in which level you are on.

The coolest thing about this mouse is that you can adjust its weight. Out of the box it is very light, since it’s a corded mouse and doesn’t need batteries (I personally prefer corded mouses for gaming since they are lighter and won’t tire your wrist after long gaming hours). It comes with a tray that fits in a slot under it and it is locked by a lever. This tray can hold up to six little weights. A set of weights comes in a nice small metal box and total 27 grams. You can add the amount of weight you want. A mouse too light can make the mouse less precise, and a mouse too heavy can make it less agile, so it’s nice to be able to adjust the weight.

A nice companion to this mouse is the Razer Vespula Dual-Sided Gaming Mouse Mat ($36). It is a reasonably-sized mouse pad with one smooth side for faster mouse action, and a textured side for more precise control. It also comes with a nice wrist cushion.

-- Alessandro Mattos  

Logitech G500 Programmable Gaming Mouse
$48

Available from Amazon



LaCie PetiteKey USB Flash Drive – 32 GB

I cannot say enough about this key-shaped USB flash drive. The first model I purchased I owned for several years. It was only 2GB and I still have it on my keychain, alongside my new 32GB model that I picked up for $35. I use them almost every day. They stay on my keychain, and it means I always have storage space with me as well as pertinent documents I might need, such as the latest copy of my resume, and an ebb-and-flow selection of images from my portfolio.

It is indispensable in my daily activities. I use it to bring home work and exchange music with friends. I even use it in my car to play my MP3s through my usb port thats connected to my stereo. It’s a large amount of space in a small package that’s gone through the wash a few times and still works. I’m still surprised when I hand it to people to transfer files to and they have never seen one.

-- Matthew A. Walker  

LaCie PetiteKey USB flash drive – 32 GB
$33

Available from Amazon



TouchFreeze

I don’t own a desktop computer, so I do all my typing on my laptop. The keyboard is great, except for one major flaw: the position of the touchpad. It is very easy to accidentally brush the touch pad with the palm of my hand or my wrist as I type, causing my mouse cursor to move to a random part of the screen. This is annoying and can cause typos.

I can awkwardly hold my wrists in the air as I type, but this is uncomfortable. I can disable the touchpad, but then I have to remember to turn it back on every time I need to click. Enter TouchFreeze.

TouchFreeze is a simple utility that disables your touch pad whenever you are typing. As soon as you stop typing, the touchpad turns back on. It is complete automatic. Although TouchFreeze does need to run the background at all times, it is very lightweight and won’t slow your computer. I have been using TouchFreeze for about a year, and I love it. It is a simple, elegant solution for a simple problem.

-- Sylvia Richardson  

TouchFreeze
Free (donations accepted), Windows only.



Powerstrip Liberator Cords

When I discovered Ziotek’s Power Liberator cords years ago, my first thought was, “This can’t be safe.” My second was, “Oh my god, I need a dozen.” I was wrong on the first count and underestimated the second. All of Ziotek’s clever ways to “liberate” power outlets are UL approved, which is as reassuring as one could want. And I have at least two dozen, maybe three, scattered around my house and home office.

The “liberator” label referred initially to freeing unusable outlets on a power strip. Just a few years ago, most electronic devices (excepting some computers and all monitors) had hurking power bricks meant to plug into a wall outlet. If you plugged a power strip into a wall outlet, you still had the problem of placement: the bricks interfere with each other with most two-jack outlets. How many strips did you have or still have that have two or three awkwardly placed big-headed AC-to-DC adapters plugged in? It’s a waste. At times I had two or three daisy chained power strips (a practice not recommended by UL and others) to keep all my vampires sucking away.

The first Power Liberator alleviated that specific problem. The Power Extension Cable is 14 inches long with a three-prong plug at one end and a three-prong jack at the other. I have one power strip behind my home A/V cabinet that has several of these, each of which sports a brick at the end. (Some power strips have become cleverer, too, with rotating jacks or the ability to move outlets along the strip’s length.)

Since Ziotek’s introduction of this first cord, they’ve added eight more versions by my count. I own one or more of all of them except the monitor/power-supply models that extend a plug used with a display. The Plus model improved on the original by doubling outlets: every Plus plug has an outlet on its back plus the jack at the end of the dongle. Behind couches and beds, I use the Flat model for otherwise unusable outlets. And a Y Splitter gives you some space between two dongles with jacks on the end.

It’s true that manufacturers have gotten savvier about embedding smaller and more efficient power supplies inside devices, reducing wall warts. But the horror movie behind my television cabinet, with bricks of all sizes and shapes, indicates there are still plenty of outlets to liberate.

-- Glenn Fleishman  

[One particular model of Liberator was previously reviewed on Cool Tools. -- Mark]

Ziotek Powerstrip Liberators
Prices vary depending on model

Available from Amazon



ASUS RT-N66U WiFi router

For the past few years I’ve been using an Apple Time Capsule as my WiFi router. The range was awful but I kept trying to boost it with Airport Express devices. Finally I threw in the towel and bought a new WiFi router, the ASUS RT-N66U. Suddenly we have amazing coverage all over the house, even way down in our basement. I’m kicking myself for not getting this little powerhouse long ago.

-- Dan Lyons  

[After reading Dan's recommendation, I bought one of these to replace my Airport Extreme, which couldn't penetrate the chicken-wire Faraday cages in my house's walls. This greatly improved the range of our home Wi-Fi signal. - Mark Frauenfelder]

ASUS RT-N66U Dual-Band Wireless-N900 Gigabit Router
$150

Available from Amazon



EZ-RJ45 Connectors

I’ve been putting off buying RJ45 plugs for Ethernet cables because it looked like they all suck, and I’m not as young as I used to be, so cutting the wires exactly to fit might be a problem (even though I terminated hundreds of cables in my early networking career).

But recently I needed to help a neighbor who ran cables to relocate his wireless router. On a recommendation I picked up a box of the Platinum Tools EZ-RJ45 plugs and strain reliefs. The video below shows how you attach them to a cable by sliding the wires through and out the front.

I just installed them yesterday and had not a single failure (other than forgetting to slide the strain relief into the plug before crimping on the first one).

The are about one dollar each vs. a few cents for the Chinese & big box versions, but my hair is worth the money.

Platinum sells a special crimp tool that cuts the wires when it crimps. I wasn’t the mood to spring for another $50 for the the tool for my occasional needs so I used a regular crimp tool instead. I cut the wires after crimping with diagonal cutters and tidied up with a utility knife. Certainly if I was doing a lot of cable builds or for a business I’d buy the pro tool.

I bought a few of the Platinum Tools modular jacks, too, but I haven’t wired one up yet. You’ll see in the video that they look like a godsend, too, especially since you can reuse them with ease.

Platinum Tool EZ-RJ45 plugs are highly recommended!

-- Mike Andrews  

EZ-RJ45 CAT 5/5e Connectors
$15 / 15 pack

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Platinum Tools