This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Retractable Cable Combination Lock

[UPDATE 6 January 20014: Unrecommended! See video of how Mark cut the cable with a pair of scissors.]

You ran into the store for one minute, came back out and your bike was gone! Or your skis, or motorcycle helmet.

You know that big, heavy, secure lock you never carry because it’s too big and heavy? This is the compromise solution – easy to carry and easy to use. This lightweight cable lock fits in your pocket and prevents “casual theft.” Let them steal someone else’s bike/skis/helmet (not cruel, just realistic). The retractable cable extends 24 inches.

I’ve been using these for about 10 years or so. Squirt a little WD-40 into it once in a while to keep it from freezing in the cold. Replace it at the first sign of balkiness (it’s cheap enough).

-- Evan Marks  

Master Lock 24-Inch Retractable Cable Lock
$9

Available from Amazon



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Bestek Wall Charger

The Bestek MRJ1870-1 wall charging station provides the best bang-for-the-buck in its class I’ve seen yet. Most travel chargers are inadequate for contemporary, gadget-laden needs. Compare it with another $20 charger I bought before getting the Bestek: the Belkin BST300. It has 3 power outlets and two USB ports. The catch is that USB ports share 2.1A, which can’t be relied on to simultaneously charge both an iPad-sized tablet and a second device. I actually couldn’t even charge a single iPad (4th-gen) alone on the ill-equipped Belkin charger.

Woefully disappointed, I ended up buying the beast o’ Bestek, which comes with 6 power outlets split across two sides, 4 USB connectors (2 with 2.1A for hungrier devices and 2 with 1A), and even an old-school 30-pin connector in the top center for earlier Apple iPhones, iPods and the like (no word on if there’ll be a Lightning version yet; meanwhile, you can use an adapter). Having all these ports is practical if you’re a gadget enthusiast — or are traveling with family and/or friends with multiple laptops, tablets, hotspots, and so on.

But wait, as an infomercial tends to say, there’s more: there are separate status lights that show if power is actually being supplied to both the 3-prong and USB outlets, and a night light at the bottom (press it twice for brighter light, a third time to turn off).

While physically imposing and bulky (4.25″ x 6″ x 1.5″) compared to mini travel chargers, the design is compact for what it offers, versus a conventional power strip.

Despite my praise, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of concerns. First, due to its size, the Bestek blocks two wall outlets. It actually has a screw to perma-attach it if you’d like it to serve as a home hub, rather than a travel charger. Second, a plastic post extends from the Bestek into the ground receptacle of the lower outlet (seemingly for wall-fit stability; I haven’t researched the ramifications of snipping it off), which startled me with a spark of electricity and smoke upon first insertion. While uncommon, I’ve noticed a couple of poor reviews of a similar, breaker-tripping nature. So far, I’ve had no problems upon reinserting the Bestek into that or subsequent outlets in the month I’ve been extensively using it. Also, note that even with the USB ports, you may experience faster charging with certain devices’ own AC adapter, like the iPad 4′s 12W / 2.4A charger, which is where more power outlets comes in handy.

If you’d prefer the Bestek to not hog the wall, I suggest a 1-ft. extender — like Ziotek’s Power Strip Liberator, which comes in a 5-pack — although this obviously sacrifices the Bestek’s vertical stability. However, if you need full access to the Bestek’s 6 power outlets, you can use the remaining Liberators to assure that there are no AC adapter blockages whatsoever. Not quite as fine a pairing as wine and cheese, but as you happily rest and recharge, so will your plugged-in cool tools.

-- Torley Wong  

[People on Amazon have reported fires from this. -- Mark]

Bestek MRJ1870-1 Wall Charging Station
$20

Available from Amazon



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Wakemate

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[Update: This tool has been unrecommended given several negative responses from commenters who have had difficulty getting the product to work on both Android and iOS, and have had little or no response from the manufacturer. Several readers have commented about alternatives and a review is forthcoming.--OH]

The WakeMate is a wristband that tracks movements in your sleep and when paired with an iPhone, Android, or Blackberry app serves as an intelligent alarm that wakes you at an optimum time in your sleep cycle based on actigraphy, a method of monitoring sleep through tracking movement.

To use the device you wear the wristband, sync it via Bluetooth on your iPhone, Android, or Blackberry phone, open the WakeMate app, and set the alarm to a certain time which provides you with a 20-minute waking window. For example, I set my alarm within the WakeMate app to 6:42 AM, and that means it will wake me between 6:22 AM and 6:42 AM.

The band uses your phone as the alarm that goes off at the predicted optimum time based on movements in your sleep, in effect waking you when you aren’t about to dive into deep sleep but instead are coming out of it.

In addition to waking you at optimum times, the application also provides useful analytics detailing how long you slept, how long it took you to sleep, and how many times you awoke, and uses this information to produce a sleep score on a scale from 1-100 (I average about a 71, and this goes up and down based on the hours of sleep I got).

I bought WakeMate after reading about actigraphy and sleep tracking. I’ve used it since February 8. So far, with few exceptions, I’ve noticed that I wake up feeling more refreshed than I did before using it. Most importantly I like how easy and comfortable it is to use. For example, although this might be obvious, if I sleep any less than 5 hours, my sleep score significantly decreases. And if I sleep over 6 it keeps going up until I get about 10 hours of sleep. Outside of using it as an alarm, the ability to quantify the quality and quantity of sleep has more than likely contributed to the quality of my rest.

-- Robert Dawson  

Wakemate
$60 for the wristband
iPhone/Android/Blackberry/Web app included

Available from and manufactured by Wakemate



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Companion 8 in. Wire Cutters

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I am responsible for over a dozen miles of 4 and 5 strand barbwire fence. A good reliable wire cutter is a godsend, and this is it. It’s ingenious and simple. The key part is the lock mechanism. It’s a sliding lock. You hold it “jaws-down,” press the grips and it locks. You are now free to place it in a slash or slot pocket on typical painter’s/carpenter’s pants. When you need it you pull it out, hold it “jaws-up,” and it unlocks. Ready for use. No more “sprung” pliers or vise-grips stuck in rear pockets impossible to pull out while you have only one hand free!

-- Arthur Schultz  

[Sears no longer carries this tool in its online store. Nevertheless, based on the comments for the post, its sounds like you might consider a cutter from HK Porter. If you would like to recommend that brand or any other, please let us know. ]

Companion 8 in. Wire Cutters
$10

Available from and manufactured by Sears



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Creative Labs Vado HD

The Vado HD by Creative Labs is an incredible gadget to have. With dimensions similar to an iPhone, the Vado’s an HD camcorder that is easy to slip into a pocket and take anywhere, always ready to take high-res videos wherever I go. I do carry an iPhone, too, though I rarely use it for video, as the quality is decidedly less than stellar. The Vado records twice the amount of video as its main competitor, the Flip MinoHD, for about the same price. And the Vado’s screen is 2 inches where the Flip’s is only 1.5.

With a slightly rubberized plastic housing the Vado feels grippy. It’s light, but the build is solid. Upon pressing the power switch, it’s ready to record video in less than a second and a half. The interface is simple, too. After powering the unit on, just press the button in the center of the control pad to start recording, and once again to stop.

The unit comes with 8GB of on-board flash memory, storing approximately 2 hours of 720p footage. Grabbing videos off the Vado is a breeze, too: just pop out the built-in USB dongle concealed in the bottom of the unit, plug it into a PC or Mac, and drag the files across. Video is recorded in H.264, and there is software preloaded on the unit itself that you can run directly off the camcorder when it is plugged into your computer to view, edit and create movies.

Creative Labs also offers some decent accessories, such as a waterproof pouch that will let you record up to 15 feet underwater, spare batteries and an external battery charger. They also include a silicon sleeve, which gives a little extra grip for the hands or some extra bounce if it’s dropped.

The only minor complaints I have are that the rocker buttons in the main keypad are a tad too sensitive, and the lack of optical zoom is disappointing. I’ve always messed around with helmet cams and such for filming road biking, mountain biking and snowboarding, and the Vado HD has me very excited about the upcoming snow season.

-- Josh Cain  

Creative Labs Vado HD 720p Pocket Video Camcorder
$75

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Creative Labs



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Canon G10

I haven’t enjoyed using a camera this much in years, and I take pictures for a living. Smaller than a digital SLR but larger than an ultracompact point and shoot, Canon’s G10 is portable yet substantial enough to hold steady. I’ve had other point and shoots in the past, but this is the first that’s given me the right combination of intuitive exposure control and ease of use, so that I actually make the effort to grab it and use it every day. The big bright LCD allows me to forgo the optical viewfinder entirely (something I never imagined I’d do), and the exposure-indicating display is similar enough to those found on the analog cameras I used years ago, with the bonus of its histogram preview. Setting shutter speed and aperture manually makes sense as it would on a full-size DSLR. With the G10 I don’t have to be bothered to choose a lens to mount on the front of the camera before stepping out of the house, so I do step out of the house with it, daily. And yet when I’m pushing pixels later on, I’m not disappointed by files that are sub-par.

Traditional camera lovers tend to enjoy the subtly classic design of the G10, reminiscent of the Contax G2 35mm rangefinder, and those same photographers might also enjoy the Panasonic LX3, with its wide Leica lens and sleek body, which is more compact than the G10 and a close competitor. l prefer the G10, partly because its greater telephoto capabilities allow me to take snapshots of unfamiliar birds while out hiking, so that I can identify them later. And it is $200 cheaper than the LX3.

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Image quality from its 14.7 Megapixel CCD sensor is impressive, particularly in daylight settings. Movie quality is very good (640×480 px. @ 30 fps), though zooming capability while shooting would be a welcome enhancement. The macro feature is outstanding. Full manual controls are available, as are RAW files, necessary for getting the most out of any digital camera. The G10′s predecessor, the G9, is also a worthwhile buy (check eBay, since the G9′s no longer on the market), though the pending doom of obsolescence is one step nearer.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

Canon Powershot G10
$450 (used, via Amazon)

Manufactured by Canon

Available from Amazon

Or $500 new via Google Shopping Note: The G11 has since replaced the G10, so supplies of the G10 are limited.



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Ames Salt & Sand Spreader

I have about 125 feet of mostly-uphill driveway. Before purchasing this salt and sand spreader, I found the only way to do a decent deicing job was the shovel method, which requires many trips up and down the driveway or dragging a bucket along. Though a truck-mounted automatic unit might be easier, for the money, this analog spreader is the best tool I have seen. You just fill the hopper and jiggle the handle up and down as you walk, spreading a nice even layer of sand, salt or mix. The spreader can hold up to 22 pounds, so one load should be plenty for the average driveway or walkway. Much faster than a shovel, easy to use and and unlike other manual spreaders I’ve tried, there are few moving parts to break. Should last a good 10 years, given decent care. Being made of plastic, the most important thing is to keep it out of direct sun. They’re listed on Amazon for around $160, but I picked mine up at a surplus/salvage store for under $20 and have found them online for around $30.

-- John Wilde  

Ames Salt & Sand Spreader
(no longer available)
Manufactured by Ames True Temper

Available from Amazon



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Korg nanoKEY

Replaced by the NanoKey 2.

A USB-connected MIDI controller, Korg’s nanoKEY looks much like a mutated computer keyboard. It weighs less than a pound and takes up less room in one’s bag than a paperback book. At first blush, it seems impossibly thin and a bit cheaply made, but after a few minutes, I found it to be playable just like any other keyboard. It has a trio of buttons that approximate a full-sized keyboard’s pitch and modulation wheels (albeit in a binary fashion, no nuance available). There are also buttons that shift the keyboard’s range up or down several octaves, and a special CC mode that makes each key output a MIDI continuous controller value when struck (instead of a MIDI note) which is handy when trying to get a hold of the dozens of little buttons that festoon modern music software. There are several behavioral options under the hood, too, and the included editor makes tweaking things simple.

So far, I’ve taken the keyboard with me on several trips and countless public transit rides. It has allowed me to take down ideas — direct to my laptop — that I never would have chronicled otherwise. It’s also just plain fun.

I’ve been making music on computers since the early 90s, and the march of miniaturization and affordability in computer music gear has never ceased to astound me. The equivalent of a setup that once cost thousands of dollars to assemble and occupied an entire second bedroom now runs on a laptop which comes with me everywhere. But one of the main things that remained a challenge to small-ify was the MIDI keyboard. M-Audio’s Oxygen 8 led the charge, being small enough to throw into a large backpack with one’s laptop, but it was still rather heavy and chunky. In time, various other keyboards were created that slimmed things down even further, but the form factor remained that of something you needed to create space for in one’s bag, and lugging one around all day was not a fun prospect.

Finally, the nanoKEY seems to have gotten it all right. Now I can always have a keyboard with me, wherever I go, with little weight or space penalty. Lovely.

Manufactured by Korg

-- George Cochrane  

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Korg nanoKEY
$40

Available from Amazon



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Remington Shortcut

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The Remington Shortcut is a clipper designed for self-administered haircuts. A curved clipper head makes it almost impossible to over-cut small or large regions, and the clipper’s unconventional hairbrush-like shape makes it easy to reach the most awkward spots on your head. Before getting the Shortcut, I’d tried cutting my own hair several times and always had disasters. On my first attempt with the Shortcut, I got about the same results I’m used to from a pro, which rather astounded me. It seems almost impossible to mess up. Using the Shortcut takes me five to ten minutes, which I usually fit in just before showering for obvious reasons. The cutter can be set from “skinhead” to “George Clooney” and you can easily mix lengths on the sides and top for effect. Once you get used to five minute haircuts on-demand they’re rather addictive. Going to the barber for a typical male haircut now seems as silly — and time wasting — as traveling across town for a shave. Every time I use the Shortcut I save about $20 and at least an hour and a half of my time — a good return on my initial investment.

-- Jonathan Coupe  

Remington Shortcut
$31
Manufactured by Remington

Available from Amazon



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Levenger Surf Desk

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I always thought lap desks were for the bed-bound, until the Levenger Surf desk arrived on my doorstep, an early birthday gift from Levenger’s founder, Steve Leveen. The Surf Desk is a super-light desk made of the same materials used in surfboards, and as hip-looking as something one might see in Malibu. I’ll admit I was a bit puzzled by the thing at first and I never imagined a lap-desk would be a useful tool, but I now use the darn thing every day! It’s perfect for working with a laptop and my notes while slouching on a couch, or relaxing outside on a deck chair. In my office, I often set it atop an open file drawer as an impromptu credenza to hold paper sprawls during big projects. When I am not using it, the Surf Desk parks conveniently in a corner or propped up in my closet (though I use it so much it is hardly ever there). The folks at Levenger joke about “alternative desking,” but I think the term gets at what makes the Surf Desk so interesting: it gives vastly more flexibility in choosing how — and where — to work. I haven’t taken mine away from home yet, but the Surf Desk is so light and convenient (and presumably water proof), I’d think anyone who wanted a travel desk in their SUV, van or the like would enjoy this one. And solo surfers take note: pull out a surf desk at your local espresso bar and you are sure to draw a crowd, especially if you are close to the beach!

Levenger Surf Desk
$148
Available from Levenger