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
$100

Solar Cache High Capacity Battery Pack
$40

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Gomadic Corp.



Liberty Bottleworks Metal Water Bottle

I have way too many water bottles. I think it’s because I’m always trying to find the right one. It wasn’t until I received a 16oz metal Liberty Bottleworks water bottle as a gift that I knew I had finally found the perfect water bottle. So perfect in fact, I ordered the 32oz and 24oz size from their website which claims “the only American made metal water bottle; 100% recycled aluminum; BPA free materials.”

Three things make this water bottle a stand out among all the others I have owned:

1) Cool 1/4 twist on/off locking cap seals up your water bottle tight and allows you to open up quickly to grab a drink or fill it up. You can also order a standard flip top “sport” cap with a straw.

2) One-of-a-kind artistic designs created by real artists with proceeds from each sale going to their favorite charity or non-profit. Their “straight up” series of bottles include colors like Shiraz, Flamingo and Lime or you can get a topo map as a design option on your bottle.

3) Create a custom design. The bottle I received as a gift was specially made with a logo from the university where I teach. You can submit your own custom graphic by uploading a PNG or GIF file to their website and they will imprint your design on a metal water bottle.

This Northwest company creates the most unique, eco-friendly, artist supporting, non-profit supporting, American made metal water bottle. It’s a solid design I have been using for several months that is rugged for day to day use when I throw my backpack on the ground or take it on a hike on the weekends. It’s functional and looks great.

-- Ken Pendergrass  

Liberty Bottleworks Straight Up Water Bottle
$15 – $20, depending on size

Available from Amazon



SSCY Tack Totebag/Backpack

I’ve always had a penchant for bags, of any kind. I adore them. I tend to like them stripped to their absolute essentials, and made well enough that I’d trust my life to them in any sort of unreasonable (and unlikely) dangling-by-my-backpack-from-a-skilift scenario. About eleven weeks ago my wife and I adopted a beautiful baby girl at birth, and so it was about thirteen weeks ago that I purchased the SSCY Tack in preparation for parenthood. I bought it as my ‘diaper bag’.

The nifty trick it pulls off is that it converts gracefully from a one-shoulder tote, to a dual strapped backpack. I’ve seen other bags attempt this, but it usually comes at a cost of complexity and overall weakened build quality. The Tack remains drop-dead simple and bulletproof. The target market is presumably hipster bicycle beer runs and farmer’s market trips. I don’t doubt it’s great for that. The bag is _enormous_. We refer to it as my ‘bag of holding’ because there’s always room for whatever else we want to put in it, and it’s a hilarious magic trick to lay out it’s contents on the floor when it’s been used for a day’s outing. Without a doubt you could put a 24 pack in here and still have room for a large sweater and your lunch.

As a diaper bag it’s great. The outside pockets are ideal size to securely hold bottles-in-waiting, pacifiers, or snacks. In it’s tote configuration the straps are plenty long to hand off of the back of a stroller.

In backpack mode folks used to plus ergonomic padded straps will be dissapointed. This is literally a heavy canvas tub with seatbelts stitched to it. I don’t mind that much, it serves as a reminder not to haul so much weight that it’ll be bad for my back with or without shoulder-chaffing. The other limitation I find is wanting to hang things from it like keys water bottles, kids toys, etc. I’ll probably be stitching some accessory loops to the outside and inside for this purpose.

All in all, I don’t know what I’d do without it. Easily the best money I’ve spent on a bag, and that’s saying something.

-- Phill Tornroth  



Hotel Tonight

Last year my wife and I found ourselves in Scottsdale, Arizona without a hotel room. We came across a hotel that looked good (The Saguaro) and asked the front desk attendant about the price: $279 a night. I was about to pull out my wallet when I remembered that a week earlier I’d installed a free app called Hotel Tonight, so I pulled out my smartphone instead to see if I could get a better deal. It was quite a bit better: $89 a night. I showed the price to the attendant and asked if he could match that price. He said no.

I stepped aside from the counter and made the reservation through Hotel Tonight. Then my wife and I sat in the lobby for a few minutes sipping water drawn from a chilled glass urn with citrus slices floating in it. I returned to the desk and told the clerk I had a reservation. He looked at my driver’s license, tapped something on his terminal and smiled as he handed me my room key. I don’t think he remembered me.

I’ve used Hotel Tonight several times since then. It offers its service in most major cities. Here’s the deal: you can’t use the app until noon local time, so if you are in a city during a busy time of the year, the pickings will be slim. Also, the deals in traditionally expensive cities like New York or San Francisco are not nearly as good as places like Portland or Reno. Still, if you ever end up in a city without a room, it’s worth checking Hotel Tonight to see if you can save a few bucks.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Hotel Tonight
Free for iOS and Android



Skooba Cable Stable

I do a lot of traveling for Engadget. I go to a lot of conferences, and I bring my Skooba Cable Stable with me on all my trips. It looks like a standard binder bag. Inside, there are elastic straps for corralling all of the different things I need as a 24-hour blogger who shoots and produces web video on the go.

It’s got my Verizon Jetpack modem, battery charger, Ethernet cable, Elgato turbo stick (a great way to crunch up video and upload it quickly), various USB cords, some shammies, assorted flash drives, my business cards, and some pens (because every once in a while you do actually need to write things on paper). It’s pretty decently padded, and you could probably fit a 7-inch tablet in there as well.

For a very long time, I just had a jumbled mess of cords in my bag. My new year’s resolution was to be more organized. This is the closest I’ll probably come to being able to do that.

Skooba makes very rugged things. I’ve had cases by them that have lasted me for years. I would say this has been a game changer for me. It has completely changed the way I do shows.

-- Brian Heater  

Cable Stable DLX
$30

Available from Amazon



Stealth Tablet Case

This tablet case is perfect if you want to leave your tablet in your car or any other place where it could be a tempting item to be stolen. Looks like a manilla envelope and has faux postmarks and address labeling (with some minor comedy to boot). It has a little padding and a flap lined with velcro.

-- Lenny Diner  

Undercover Secret Tablet Sleeve for iPad, Xoom, Sony S1, Galaxy Tablets
$20

Available from Amazon



L.L. Bean Carryall Rolling Underseat Bag

One of the perks of my job as a television news & documentary producer is I get to travel a lot. Then again, when I’m waiting in an airport security line, I’m reminded that travel is also the worst part of my job…

So, when I hit the road I try to pack as much business into the shortest amount of time possible — and pack all my clothes into the littlest bag possible. And this little LL Bean suitcase is ideal for trips 2-3 days long: I can fit a toiletry kit, Keen’s sandals [which I wear as exercise shoes in hotel gyms], socks/underwear/t-shirt/shorts, 2 dress shirts, a sweater, and a pair of dress pants. There’s even room for a full-size laptop. My reading material, sunglasses, chargers, snacks, water bottle, DSLR, and sundry gadgets go into a Patagonia Lightweight Travel backpack — though the Bean bag can usually hold most of these items too.

If I need dressier clothes, I go with an Eagle Creek 22″ roll-aboard with a Pack-It suit folder. But 90% of the time this little bag does the trick — and there’s never a problem finding room for it in the overhead bins. With regional jets taking-over more and more short routes, traditional carry-ons almost always have to be gate-checked; I can often slip this one on-board.

For that reason, I can’t speak to how this thing will hold-up to regular abuse by baggage handlers. But I’ve flown with mine at least twice a month for the last three years without any sign of wear on the fabric or wheels.

I know that many will object to having wheels on a small bag, but the fact is I’m rarely moving across unpaved surfaces. Why schlep when you can roll?

Compared with other big-name brands (Travelpro, Briggs & Riley, Tumi, Eagle Creek, Victorinox, Delsey etc), I’ve found this bag has the best weight-to-size ratio and the most useful features for the money. It’s looks are kind of frumpy – hardly a cool design. But as a tool that quietly performs a vital job for me, it’s very cool.

-- Ed Forgotson  



Casio Pathfinder Solar Atomic Watch

I’ve owned a Casio Pathfinder Solar Atomic series watch for about 5 years. The best things about it: 1) it’s solar powered (I don’t like replacing batteries) and 2) it’s linked to an atomic clock.

I only have to change the time zone when I travel, which can be done at the push of a button.

It’s waterproof and does the things most digital watches do (alarms, stopwatch, etc.). It also has a compass, barometer, altimeter, and thermometer, all of which get used when I go backpacking. The compass gets used the most. The barometer is good for predicting weather changes.

I have one small gripe about this watch. It recently needed to be repaired because it displayed “OPEN” on the front. A metal plate inside had shifted. I was able to fix it easily with a PH000 screwdriver.

Its a very tough watch that has been through a lot. After 5 years I still enjoy it immensely.

-- Carl Mixon  

[Alastair Ong reviewed the similar Protrek Solar Watch in 2008. -- Mark Frauenfelder]

Casio PAW1100-1V Pathfinder Atomic Solar Watch
$145

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Casio



TripIt

Keeping track of travel arrangements — hotels, flight schedules, rental car reservations — is a problem for me. I make mistakes writing down the information, I lose printouts, I resent the time it takes to stay on top of everything. That all changed a few years ago when I started using TripIt, an online travel organizer that keeps all my trip plans in one place.

Here’s how I typically use it: I purchase a flight on Southwest’s website. I reserve a rental car on Hertz’s website. I book a hotel through hotels.com. When I get the confirmation emails I forward them to plans@tripit.com. TripIt parses the information and produces an easy-to-read itinerary. It’s easy to add meeting and other plans. I can email the itinerary to other people and refer to it while I’m traveling, via the TripIt’s free mobile app. TripIt also adds the information to my calendar (I use iCal but it works with everything else, too).

TripIt is free, but I pay for TripIt Pro because I like getting text messages about canceled or delayed flights and gate changes. This feature makes it worth $49 a year for the pro account.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

TripIt, Free
TripIt Pro, $49/year



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