Amped ACA1 Wi-Fi USB Adapter

When the PCI Wi-Fi card in my desktop system died last month, I decided to get something that had an external antenna I could move away from the case and closer to the door of my room, since the wireless router was on the other side of the house. When I saw the ACA1 it seemed to fit the bill, with a few extras: It comes with a clip to attach to a laptop LCD monitor, in case I needed a better connection. It supports the dual band 2.4GHz and 5.0Ghz standards. It also supports the new 802.11AC protocol, in addition to the a/b/g/n protocols that have been in use for years.

What I didn’t expect is the flat-out SPEED this adapter delivers. Yes, it’s USB 3.0, but I didn’t expect that to affect my Wi-Fi usage. From day one, it has registered 48.0 MBps, while the PCI card never got over 5.0 MBps. Also, I see SIDs from neighbors which never registered with the older card.

Setup was easy: Run the Setup CD; Connect the USB 3.0 cable (it’s included) plug it into an available USB port; Select your SID and enter your wi-fi security key.

This was the best $90 network upgrade I’ve ever spent, and with the new AC protocol being supported I look forward to many years of happy net-surfing to come.

-- Opher Banarie  

[This may not work for Mac computers. See the Amazon comments. - Mark]

Amped Wireless High Power 500mW Dual Band AC Wi-Fi USB Adapter
$85

Available from Amazon



Logitech Anywhere MX Mouse

Okay, okay, I know. A mouse is a mouse is a mouse, right? It’s true — once it points and clicks, anything else is luxury. Which is where the Logitech Anywhere Mouse MX comes in.

I’ve been using the Logitech Anywhere Mouse MX now for about two years and I couldn’t be happier. The Anywhere MX is designed to work on almost any surface, making it prime for use with laptops, though I use one as my primary desktop mouse as well. It has a good, solid weight and an extremely responsive wheel that spins with what I can only describe as a perfect momentum. In one mode, its movement is unfettered and it spins smoothly, undamped, with a single stroke — useful for flying through large documents and lists. By pressing the wheel in, you can switch to a stepped motion for more precise scrolling.

As a left hander, I have had difficulty with contoured mice. The MX is mostly symmetric, but includes two buttons presumably designed to be operated with the thumb of the right hand. I find that side of my left ring finger works just as well. The included software allows you to easily remap any of the buttons, which I use for fast switching music and windows. It conforms to the excellent Logitech Unifying standard, meaning that only one tiny USB receiver is needed to connect up to six mice or keyboards.

This is a mouse anyone can pick up and feel immediately comfortable using. I have large hands and haven’t felt any of the cramping I’ve previously experienced with other wireless mice, which often tend to be on the small side. It takes two AA batteries, and power on/off is controlled by a well-machined sliding switch that covers the laser lens in the off position.

My biggest complaint is that it makes using other mice frustrating.

-- Alexander Parkinson  

[We reviewed this a couple of years ago, but I wanted to run Alexander's review, because he's left-handed and has figured out a way to use it. -- Mark]

Logitech Anywhere MX Mouse
$45

Available from Amazon



Index Card Holder for Internet Passwords

When the Web was new (I climbed on board in 1995) like everyone else, I started accumulating passwords. Slowly at first, but with two websites to manage and a fondness for on-line shopping, by 1999, I was pinning scraps of paper to my bulletin board, jotting in notebooks, tucking them into my wallet, in various files in the filing cabinet, and, oh heck, just sticking Post-Its to my computer monitor. And more times than I’d like to admit, I forgot to write them down at all. I knew some people who kept their passwords straight by using the same one for everything, but that seemed to me an invitation to hackers.

About ten years ago, I started noting each password on its own 4 x 6 inch index card, then filing it alphabetically by service (e.g., Amazon.com under “A”) in a little box that looks just like my grandmother’s cookie recipe box.

Call it the Grandma’s Recipe Box Solution to Password Management.

On each index card I note:

Name of Service (e.g., Amazon.com)
My password
My username
My email address for this account
Any other relevant information

Now that I’m still on-line in 2014 and managing a plethora of websites, a batch of blogs, two YouTube channels, Vimeo, three Twitter accounts, and do my banking on-line, use PayPal, and have not set foot in a shopping mall in more time than I can remember, I have accumulated a prodigious stack of index cards. But my little plastic index card holder, with its alphabetical tabs, is still right here by my desk, doing the job.

I have found that there are several advantages to this method:

1. I can keep all my passwords at my fingertips (so when it’s time to check my bank balance or tweet or shop on-line, if I cannot recall the one I need password, I just pluck it out);

2. Filing the cards alphabetically allows me to plunk one back in quickly (and find it again just as
quickly);

3. I can use longer and more varied passwords without having to remember them nor go through the hoops of waiting for it to be resent to my email, and then having to click on some link to confirm;

4. If I need to change a password, I just pluck out the card, note the change, and put it back;

5. When I had to cancel one of my email accounts, I was able to whip through the stack of index cards to see which accounts needed updating;

6. It’s cheap and after 10 years the plastic index card holder still looks like new;

7. Its small enough to stash in a locked drawer;

8. Finally, should anything happen to me, my family knows where to retrieve all my passwords to put my affairs in order. That’s a gruesome thought, but a realistic one. Last I checked, no one gets off this planet alive (except astronauts, and only temporarily).

-- C.M. Mayo  



Magic Cable Trio

The good news: the world has standardized on mini- and micro-USB. The bad news: the cables are too long for your day bag. This minimalist 3-in-1 connector combines a mini-USB, micro-USB, and an iPhone 30-pin adapter in a single gadget. As simple as possible, but no simpler, this is the cable Einstein would have carried. I’ve had mine for a year and use it every day.

-- Meng Wong  

Innergie Magic Cable Trio
$15

Available from Amazon



Magic Wand Portable Scanner

I’ve been using this hand-held scanner for a little over 2 years. I don’t use it daily, more like several times a month, but for my purposes the name is appropriate… MAGIC.

I’m a CAD sub-contractor, and am often asked to create high resolution, photo-realistic images of (among other things) furniture or cabinet designs. In order for these images to be as accurate as possible, I need to use the finish sample (such as a wooden panel) selected for the project.

In the past, I took a digital photo with the best lighting I could find, and manipulated the image in software to attempt to even out the lighting, correct the perspective, crop out the background, etc., creating a “texture” that my CAD program used to render the object. This was always time-consuming and usually resulted in less than stellar results.

Now, I can run this scanner across a 8-inch x 8-inch sample, or even an 8-foot-long sample, and get a full-size, good resolution, consistently lighted image of the board, or other material. Often the only reason I will edit the scanned image in a photo manipulation program is to reduce the resolution. (Recently, a production manager commented that images from one of my CAD models that had been rendered with a scan of a stained burl veneer sample looked better than the finished piece of furniture.)

This scanner will not scan (easily) without a little distortion somewhere. It is relying on you to push it along, after all. The more consistently you move the scanner, the less distortion you’ll get. That said, I’m usually surprised at how little distortion there is. (But I would not count on it to give me a perfect scan of an important picture of grandma.)

It uses 2 AA batteries – and they last a long time if left out of the unit when not in use. It produces Jpeg images, which it stores on a microSD card – not included. It uses a common USB connection and includes a cable to transfer images to a computer. There is no special software required to access the images on the scanner in Windows (Vista thru 8). I’m not sure about WinXP or Mac, but any SD card reader ought to be able to read the Jpeg files on the microSD card.

I highly recommend the VP Solutions carrying case ($15) as well. It has plenty of room for the scanner, battery storage cable, etc. It is compact and very solid.

-- Sean Frey  

Magic Wand Portable Scanner
PDS ST415 (replaces the PDS-ST410)
$80

Available from Amazon



Logitech Wireless Rechargeable Touchpad T650

I began suffering symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome earlier this year, and in my search for alternatives to my computer mouse, a friend recommended the Logitech Wireless Rechargeable Touchpad T650.

I was skeptical, because I’ve used laptop touchpads for years and always found them to be second-rate in terms of real usability — you know, good enough when you’re traveling, but not a real mouse replacement. I have also used trackballs and, even though they help relieved the pain in my arm, they are notoriously inaccurate as pointing devices and are pretty much useless (for me, anyway) when doing mouse-heavy graphic work like Photoshop.

But after three months of daily use, I am happy to report that the Logitech Touchpad has solved my carpal tunnel problem without decreasing my computer proficiency. It took only a short time to acclimate myself, and the 2- and 3-finger multi-touch capabilities are terrific, even with Windows 7. It is much more sensitive than the touchpads I’ve used on laptops, and more reliably so. It has a pleasant surface feel and provides easy cursor control. Plus it is much larger than a mouse trackpad, so one can be more accurate with it.

In addition to surface tap functions for right and left click, the front footpads of the device contain switches which act as left and right mouse buttons if you press down on the bottom left or bottom right corners of the pad.

I use my Touchpad T650 in combination with a laptop touchpad — I find that using my left hand for the left-click button on the laptop touchpad and dragging with my right index finger on the touchpad is faster and more accurate than using the Logitech touchpad alone and makes it as effective as a mouse when working in Photoshop and other GUI software. With a bit of patience and practice it has become a solid replacement for my mouse…and my arm feels much better.

The Touchpad T650 is wireless with a built-in rechargeable battery. I get a week to ten days of daily use before having to plug it into a USB port to recharge it.

Oh, and there’s a side benefit: when I carry the Logitech Touchpad with me, it is flat, as opposed to egg-shaped like a mouse, so it’s a lot easier to pack.

-- Curtis Long  

Rechargeable Touchpad T650
$48

Available from Amazon



Postbox

Postbox is sort of what comes after Eudora. I wanted an offline email reader that could

1) Use offline. This was before Gmail had that option.
2) Sync on more than one computer. So I use Postbox to read my mail on my MacBook Air when I travel, and if I delete something on my Air, it deletes on my desktop, etc.
3) Continue using SpamSieve since I have trained it so well for 10 years.
4) Interface with Gmail.

My kk.org mail goes through Gmail first and then SpamSieve so I have zero spam. One spam per week gets through and once every month I will check my sieve for one maybe two false positives.

Also, Postbox does threaded conversations (unlike Eudora) so it’s easier to track a conversation in email. It has a lot of other functions which I have not learned to use even though I have been using it for 3 years.

I can always read my mail in gmail if I want to go on the web.

-- KK  

[I've been using Postbox since Kevin told me about it. It's the first email client to woo me away from using Gmail's web interface. I am impressed with its speed and its excellent integration with DropBox, Evernote, and Google Calendars. (Kevin and I can't vouch for the Windows version as we are Mac users.) - Mark Frauenfelder]

Postbox for Mac and Windows
$10



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