Totes Compact Umbrella

When I got back from a trip to Europe, the one thing I felt I needed more than anything, was a good sturdy umbrella. After much research I found this small Totes umbrella. In my past experience, most small collapsible umbrellas were utter garbage. This is simply not the case here. I have had this thing for about 2 years now. I bring it with me any time there is rain in the forecast.

It’s slightly larger than most collapsible umbrellas (about 14 inches long when collapsed). The handle feels strong and sturdy in hand. It’s comfortable to hold for long periods of time. The auto open and close button works brilliantly and opens with strong force. When open, it is a full “golf size” umbrella, able to easily fit two people underneath. In the wind, there is a magical springiness to it that keeps it from being unwieldy. I’ve had absolutely no issues in heavy wind.

-- Sam Rosenblum  

Totes Golf-Size Auto Open Auto Close Compact Umbrella

Available from Amazon

Vapur Collapsible Water Bottle

One of the problems with water bottles is their bulkiness, especially when empty. The Vapur water bottle collapses and rolls up into a tiny package about the size of a change purse. It’s BPA free and dishwasher-safe. It weighs about 1 oz, you can fill it with water and freeze it. There’s a carabiner on it so you can attach it to stuff to carry it. Capacities range from 0.4 liter to 1 liter-sized bottles. The manufacturer sells replacement caps and carabiners, and a new kind of bottle with whose flip-top cap has a built-in carabiner (I do not have personal experience with, but looks like an improvement on the older style). There’s even a variety with a built-in filter for outdoor use. I’ve had a couple of these for about a year and it’s become my gym bottle of choice.

-- Amy Thomson  

Vapur half-liter water bottle

Available from Amazon

Mono EFX Producer Bag

Having tried many other “messenger” style bags over the years, none of them seemed to find the balance between sturdy construction, flexible space, and affordable price. Discovering Mono bags about 3 years ago was a godsend. Geared towards those in the music industry, Mono has created bags, instrument cases, and other portable storage solutions that have unparalleled design, build quality, and comfort standards. Built with military specs, Mono bags feature a waterproof shell, anti-skip zippers, solid rubber sole, and rugged stitching.

I have used their Producer bag for the last 2 years with minimal wear and tear. I can throw a laptop, power cords, cables, hard drives, and sheet music in there, with plenty of room to spare. The main compartment can be reconfigured with 2 removable padded dividers.

If the Producer is too much bag for you, they have plenty of other sizes and styles of bags to choose from, all with the same high-quality construction. Guitar and bass players should also check out their new Vertigo gig bags. I own an older M80 model for my 5-string bass, and it’s been so sturdy, I’ll never use another brand for my instruments. Unbelievable quality for a great price.

-- Greg Mazunik  

Mono Case EFX Producer Bag

Available from Amazon

Ulmon Offline Mobile Maps

When I travel to another city in the US, I use my iPhone’s Maps app to guide me, especially when I’m on foot. It’s great knowing I won’t get lost as I wander through the streets.

Using online maps when I travel outside the US is too expensive, though, because they consume data, which costs a lot of money. Fortunately, I learned about Ulmon Mobile City Guides. These are free, well-designed offline maps that work with your phone’s GPS to show you where you are and your desired location, without needing a data connection. Just make sure you install the city guide you need before leaving for your trip.

Ulmon maps also include interactive subway maps, Wikipedia articles attached to points of interest, restaurant guides, and other useful travel features, such as the ability to drop pins and add notes to the places you want to visit. I’ve had excellent results using these guides in London, Paris, and Rome (Tokyo, New York, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Vienna, Venice, and 18 other cities are available).

The one thing they won’t do that online maps will do is draw a route from point A to point B, but that has not been a problem for me, since I haven’t driven a car in the countries where I’ve used the maps.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Sample Excerpts:


Uber Car Service

Uber is a car service that’s much better than a taxi in almost every instance. I’ve used Uber for seven months in different cities in the US and have never had to wait more than five minutes for a car to arrive.

Download the Uber app on your iPhone or Android. The app displays a map and you are in the center. You can see nearby Uber cars waiting to pick up customers. Click the “request” button and the nearest driver is dispatched to your location. It feels like a video game.

Why is Uber superior to taxis? Here’s a list of reasons:

1. The app sends your GPS coordinates to the driver so you don’t need to know your address or intersection.

2. You can see the driver (represented by a symbol) on the map as he comes to get you. I dislike wondering whether or not a taxi really was dispatched when I need to go the airport.

3. The app shows you a photo of the driver and the make, model, and license plate of the car so you can be sure the right driver is picking you up (and not a so-called “gypsy cab.”)

4. You can communicate with your assigned driver by phone or text before he gets to you, in case you have special pick-up instructions. (“I’m wearing a blue jacket.”)

5. When your driver reaches you, you get a text that he is waiting for you (I say “he” because I’ve not had a woman driver yet). This is good if you want to wait in a restaurant or hotel lobby.

6. You can enter your drop-off location and get a fare quote before you request a car. The price of an Uber ride is usually as much as a taxi ride. Sometimes it’s a bit less.

7. Payment is automatically charged to the credit card you registered with. There’s no cash involved and no tipping. When you reach your drop-off point all you have to do is say good bye to the driver and get out. Your receipt is emailed to you.

8. The Uber website saves your trip history, complete with fare payment and maps.

When is a taxi better? When you are standing on a curb and want to get somewhere nearby and there are plenty of available cabs driving by. Then it is easier to whistle.

Check here to find out where Uber is available (the taxicab lobby has delayed Uber deployment in certain cities).


-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Free app, price for rides depends on distance and location

Frost Pak Soft Coolers

I like the versatility of soft coolers, which can be more easily stored when not in use. This includes keeping one in the trunk of the car for unanticipated needs. Unfortunately, the few of these I have previously owned suffered from poor insulation, shoddy zippers and a tendency to leak as soon as the ice starts to melt.

I finally came across an especially robust and capable soft cooler called the Frost Pak from Seattle Sports. I liked it so much I purchased three of the four sizes available (ranging from 12 to 40 quarts).

They’e made of heavy duty vinyl with well attached handles and quality zippers. While not quite as insulative as a good hard cooler, these are more than sufficient to fit most of my needs within a day. While not inexpensive, the Frost Pak is a much better value than all those coolers which simply didn’t hold up.

-- Mike Pel  

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Seattle Sports

Four-Port USB Charging Station

While I rarely use USB for data transfers these days, almost all my portable devices use USB cables recharging. Now that I travel with my iPad instead of a laptop I needed an army of chargers to carry with me. Even if they all used the same connector, I wanted to wake up with all devices charged, meaning multiple chargers. I replaced the multiple transformer bricks with a $40 Antec USB charging station.

The USB charger provides 4 ports for simultaneous charging. Two ports can provide up to 2 amps, and two ports up to 1 amp. The 2 amps can fast charge devices that support it. I use them with an iPad 3 and an iPhone 5. The two 1 amp ports I use for other devices like my bluetooth headset and bluetooth keyboard. With devices charging on all 4 ports it barely warms up. The long (tranformerless) power cable can plug into power outlets hidden behind hotel TVs, desks or beds.

You can find cheaper USB chargers but you have to read carefully to ensure the power output meets your requirements. I found many of the cheaper ones would provide “2 amps of output power” in total. Meaning with one device plugged it the full 2 amps were available, but plug in one more and it would drop in half. Add a third and frequently iPads would no longer charge.

-- Kevin van Haaren  

[Above: a video review of the charger. - Mark Frauenfelder]

Available from Amazon

Mophie Juice Pack Powerstation Duo

I bought this 6000mAh USB charging unit because I have a lousy sense of direction. I get lost in buildings and in cities, even ones I’m familiar with. My iPhone’s GPS map is a godsend. I use it when I’m driving, walking, and taking public transportation.

When I was in Tokyo in June, I brought along a small Android phone installed with a local data SIM card. I used the phone as a wireless hotspot for my iPhone, and appreciated having access to the online map to guide me from my hotel to the subway station, and to attractions like the Tsukiji fish market and Kabuki-Cho. It was also nice to call home using Skype, and to post Instagram photos. The only problem was that the batteries on the Android phone and iPhone drained after a few hours, forcing me to ask people, chikatetsu wa doko desu ka? in badly-accented Japanese, to find the nearest subway station.

On my next overseas trip a couple of months later, I brought along a Mophie Juice Pack Powerstation Duo. It’s a beefy battery pack that has two USB charging ports. I kept it in my daypack and my family and I used it to charge our phones while we were walking around London and Paris. It was like having a portable wall outlet, because it never came close to running out of juice, despite nearly constant use. It’s bulky — about as wide and tall as an iPhone 4 and nearly three times as thick (see photo below). I wouldn’t carry it in my pants pocket, but it isn’t a problem in a jacket pocket or bag.

If you want all-day smartphone Internet connectivity, the Mophie Powerstation Duo is what you need.


-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Mophie Juice Pack Powerstation Duo

Available from Amazon

Skooba Laptop Weekender Travel Bag

I go somewhere on a plane at least twice a month. For over ten years I’ve used a Briggs & Riley roller carry-on, and I’ve been fairly happy with it. It’s heavy for its small size and the zipper pulls all broke off (I made replacements from binder clips and Sugru) so I’ve been keeping my eye out for a replacement. After hearing great things about the accessibility and capacity of the Skooba Weekender duffle, I decided to give it a try. It turned out the be the most convenient carry-on I’ve ever used.

Measuring 18″L X 12″H X 11″D this boxy duffle features a capacious central container that holds a week’s worth of clothing plus my large toiletries case. The exterior is micro-ballistic nylon. Around the four sides of the main storage container are zipper pockets. One is a reinforced laptop pocket (designed for laptops up to 15″). Another is meant for iPad-sized tablets and contains a mesh pouch for cables. Another side pocket is good for my AmazonBasics Universal Travel Case. The fourth pocket has small pouches and a zipper mesh pouch that’s perfect for pens, notebooks, and other goodies.

Recently, I took the Weekender on an overnight trip to Chicago. It doesn’t have wheels, so I was concerned it would be a pain to haul around. As a test, I walked 2.5 miles from the metro station to my hotel. The reinforced shoulder strap was excellent, and I was comfortable carrying it. Every 1/2 mile or so I would switch the strap to my other shoulder.

Emboldened by the experiment, I took the Weekender on a 5-day business trip to Tokyo and it performed terrifically. The central container was large enough to hold all my clothes plus a bunch of souvenirs, and I quickly memorized which side pockets held which gear, making it easy to retrieve and replace stuff without digging through clothing.

On my recent 12-day trip to Europe I used my beat-up Briggs & Riley, but from now on, any trip under a week is going to be with the Skooba.

The video below provides a nice overview of the Weekender’s compartments.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Laptop Weekender Duffel V.3

Available from Amazon

SunVolt Portable Solar Power Station

I’ve been trying to live off the grid for a while now. I bought land in Cabo San Lucas that I plan to entirely run by solar and wind turbines.

I also use my cellphone a lot. I burn through batteries so quickly, that I only buy phones that use replaceable batteries. My current cellphone is a Samsung Galaxy S3 and I have a 7500 mAh battery (no, that is not a typo) and a fully charged backup 3500 mAh battery that I keep in my pocket.

With my committment to living off the grid, I have tried those little solar cell phone chargers that you can get in China; I have tried the Solio and I have even tried to fabricate my own solar charger. The problem with all of these devices is that the solar panels are so small that to give your phone even a small bump in energy, you have to keep your charger in the sun for a minimum of 6-8 hours.

Enter the Gomadic Sunvolt Solar Power Station and Solar Cache High Capacity Battery Pack. It is an all-in-one solar charger and high capacity battery in its own sturdy carry case. At first, I thought, wow, it is as big as my laptop, and I would never lug that around. True, it’s big, but this is because it contains a large 10 1/2″ x 10″ solar panel. The case acts as a stand so you simply unzip and position the panel to receive optimal sunlight and you’re good to go. The design of this system is really well thought out — the outer pockets of the case hold the battery and every conceivable connection to every conceivable electronic device. Even if your device connection is not included, all you’ll need is a USB cable to your device as the out port on the battery is a standard USB port. Best of all, the power output blasts all of the other solar chargers in the market. It outputs between 8.0 – 14.4 watts (and I understand that they are coming out with a more powerful one).

The solar panels charge a 3400 mAh battery which is good enough to charge my cellphone for a day’s use, although you can hook up your device to be charged directly from the sun.

I recently brought this to Thailand, where it is 100 degrees in the shade, and I found the system to be extremely helpful, especially in the south where modern electronics were sparse. The case is extremely durable and well made. The near-empty battery was fully charged after two hours in the full sun, which is extremely quick. I found that during the day, I would charge the included battery and then at night would use it to replenish my dying cell phone.

The only thing I would wish for is a charging indicator that would confirm me that the panels were getting enough sun and that I have a proper connection to be providing a charge.

-- Alastair Ong  

Gomadic SunVolt High Output Portable Solar Power Station

Solar Cache High Capacity Battery Pack

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Gomadic Corp.