Howard Leight Sync Earmuffs

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For years I have worn the previously reviewed Peltor AM/FM Ear Muffs while out mowing the lawn, or when working around loud noises. I was routinely disappointed by their lousy reception, but put up with it as I couldn’t find anything better for the price that still provided hearing protection. Recently, my stepson (Disclosure: This editor is his stepson.–OH) gave me a pair of the Howard Leight Sync Stereo Earmuffs to try out, and I haven’t used my Peltor muffs since.

The Sync Earmuffs do not have AM/FM reception, but instead rely on a 3.5 mm auxiliary input cable like you would find in a car. They come with an appropriately sized mini-to-mini cable that I plug into my iPhone (which is where you also control the volume). Now instead of listening to poor AM/FM reception, I can listen to the BBC America app, my music library, podcasts, and, if I really wanted to, one of the many available FM/AM emulators from the App Store.

As far as hearing protection, the Sync Earmuffs have a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 25, which is similar to the rating for the pair from Peltor. I have found that they provide the same amount of protection. They are also lighter, don’t require batteries, and are roughly a third the cost of the Peltor pair.

The best part is that I no longer miss phone calls when I’m out on the tractor (which had been a serious problem), and am no longer startled when my wife shows up behind me screaming her head off trying to get my attention. I don’t even have to take the headphones off to take the call, I simply speak into the microphone on the phone and the sound gets ported through my headphones.

-- Rick True  

[For those interested in learning more about sound attenuation, I found this PDF explaining how they calculate Noise Reduction Ratings to be fascinatingly complex.--OH]

Howard Leight Sync Stereo Earmuffs
$22

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Howard Leight



Sous Vide Supreme

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My wife and I both work long hours, and getting dinner on the table can be a challenge. Often our window for doing so may be as little as 15-20 minutes from the time we walk in the door, otherwise the kids will start to get hungry and have a hard time settling down to eat. In the past year we’ve missed that window more often than I’d like, and if we have a half an hour or more of cooking ahead of us, we’ll usually end up ordering instead. In addition to being less healthy overall, this can cost us around $30-$40 per meal over the cost of what we would have paid for ingredients for dinner, even buying top quality ingredients at the farmer’s market.

At $400 the Sous Vide Supreme is pricey, but if it can prevent us from ordering out even once a week, it will literally pay for itself in four months. We used it five times in the first week.Time will tell if this is a novelty effect, but so far I’ve been overwhelmingly thrilled with the results. There’s been a lot of focus on 30-minute meals, but for a busy working parent or two, that can be an eternity. Pair the Sous Vide Supreme with a rice cooker with a timer and a microwave vegetable steamer and it becomes possible to get a completely freshly cooked dinner on the table with minimal work in less than ten minutes. Even without going to that extreme, it significantly cuts the amount of stove time required for a “regular” meal. It’s completely changed the way I look at preparing large portions of food in advance.

Sous vide cooking is actually pretty simple. You seal the food in a vacuum bag (like a Foodsaver bag) and then cook it in a precise temperature water bath at very close to the temperature you want the final product to be. When the food is done (at minimum, enough time for the middle to reach the equilibrium temperature), you take it out of the bag, sear it in a hot pan if needed (most proteins will benefit from a little browning to develop more flavor, but they really only need about 30-seconds per side in a very hot pan on the stove), and serve it right away. If you leave it in the water bath for a few extra hours, it’s no problem; the texture of some food will break down after an extended period of time, but for the most part, it’s hard to overcook things (fish and eggs are two exceptions – they’re more finicky about timing, but that still buys you a margin of an hour or two over). Because you can set the Sous Vide Supreme at 1-degree increments and it will stay at pretty much exactly that temperature, you can get exquisite results with very little effort, and if you get distracted, it’s no problem.

Sous vide cooking certainly requires some planning ahead – it’s not for quick dinners unless you start early, but you don’t have to really figure out how early to start – putting the bag in before you leave in the morning is just fine. It’s also a huge psychological boost, because when you get home, dinner’s already on the way to being cooked. When all you want to do is sit down after a long day and the kids are hungry, it really helps to have things already started.

We’ve done chicken breasts, steak, 30-hour country style pork ribs, carrots in butter – all pretty perfect. Soft boiled eggs and pork chops deserve special mention. Eggs do completely different things in sous vide, because the yolk actually cooks at a lower temperature than the white, and so it cooks first. A soft boiled egg in sous vide gets you a creamy but cooked yolk and a runny white. It’s strange, but entirely delicious. Hard boiled eggs were a little off, because cooking at a high enough temperature to set the white actually overcooks the yolk a little bit. I prefer 8-minutes in water just off the boil. Big fat scallops came out intensely creamy and tender.

The oven comes with a few recipes with common timings, but there’s little news there if you know what your target temperatures are for regular cooking; steak at 130F, pork chops at 135F, chicken at 142F, fish at 140F, etc… There is no shortage of recipes on various food blogs though some are meant for a more industrial setting. There are some extra safety considerations, but it’s mostly just common sense, and much of it doesn’t come into play in a home setting where you’re not storing the bags for long periods of time. You just have to be careful that you’re dealing with a somewhat anaerobic environment that can breed microbes that usually aren’t a problem in home kitchens. As long as you’re buying quality food, treating it with respect (understanding the rules of heating, chilling, and storage), and eating it promptly, you shouldn’t have any problems.

In short, this device is amazing, and it’s the future. For me, it fulfills every convenience promise of the microwave and the crock pot, neither of which I’ve ever been happy with from a culinary perspective. There is a small consideration of the extra waste in plastic bags, but I balance that against the amount of waste generated from takeout, which is far greater.

I can’t recommend it enough.

-- Adam Fields  

Sous Vide Supreme
$429

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Sous Vide



Logitech Unifying Receiver Combo

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The previously reviewed Logitech Solar Wireless Keyboard is one of the group of wireless products from Logitech that can share a unifying receiver. The receiver, which you get with each product, is very small, projecting less than 1/2″ from your usb port, and allows me to put my laptop in my case while still attached. Multiple devices can be used with just a single receiver, freeing up usb ports and giving you extra receivers in case of a failure.

Of the products that use the unifying receiver I own the previously mentioned keyboard, the M570 Wireless Trackball and the Wireless Headset h800.

I have rather severe arthritis in my left thumb at the very base where the thumb connects to the wrist and was told in 2004 that I would need joint replacement within 5 years. Eventually I switched from mice to trackballs and quit having any pain at all from the thumb (even though I also quit using the brace). The Logitech M570 is my favorite trackball of the ones I have owned. You don’t have quite the control and accuracy that you do with a mouse so I do switch to a mouse for working in Photoshop and the like, but for regular tasks, I prefer the trackball.

I haven’t had the Wireless Headset h800 for long but like them very well for my purposes which is using them to take advantage of voice control for my PC. I wear them for up to 4-hours at a time and find them quite comfortable, but I have not used them for listening to music so can’t really evaluate that aspect.

Pairing of all three devices is instantaneous and trouble free, and I don’t think that I have given up anything in exchange for the convenience of the single receiver. The keyboard and trackball are both excellent products compared to similar devices that I have owned through the years. It is harder to give such praise to the headset, in part because I have limited experience with it, but also because headset preferences vary greatly from one individual to another due to comfort issues, etc.

Logitech does offer quite a large range of products that will work with the unifying receiver which are shown on the following web page. Please note that my headset is not shown on the page, nor are any headsets, so this is apparently not an exhaustive list of compatible products.

I would also like to thank Cool Tools for making our Christmas a bit merrier since several of the gifts I gave were purchased after seeing them on the blog and they all went over very well!

-- Margie Fenney  

M570 Wireless Trackball
$47
Available from Amazon

Logitech Solar Wireless Keyboard
$50
Available from Amazon

Logitech h800 Wireless Headset
$80
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Logitech



Ask Cool Tools Unanswered Questions #8

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What’s the best combined bag for a laptop and clothes for 5-6 days of travelling?

What kind of wireless light switches should I get?

Is there a better way to cut plastic food wrap or aluminum foil?

How can I stretch my shoes to fit my wide (EE+) feet?

What’s the best bloatware free scanner that would work well to scan artwork?

What’s the best smoke alarm?

Look for a specific tool? Have a question you need answered? Head over to Ask Cool Tools!

–OH

 



Taunton’s 2012 Tool Guide

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This special issue published by jointly Fine Homebuilding and Fine Woodworking magazines gives in-depth, comparative reviews of several hundred tools. The two sister magazines of Taunton Press roundup all the tool reviews that have appeared in their pages during the past year. They’ll test a bunch of jigsaws, or portable table saws, or T-squares, and then give you smart recommendations for the best one to get.

Their selection of candidates for each tool is wide, fairly unbiased by freebies or advertisers, and just not stuck on the newest things; they’ll include older models as well. I’ve used their annual Guide to find and choose a number of great tools for my toolbox. This year’s list includes deep reviews of the best routers, miter saws, shop mats, hole saws, paint brushes, bench-top lathes, cordless nailers, and many more. (“201 tools tested” they claim on the cover.)

I like their sensibility — stressing function over looks, reliability over fancy features, and I have come to trust their judgements. Generally if they recommend something as good, it is. I especially value the non-power tools they review, such as the best first aid “tools” for injuries on a worksite in this issue. Their reviews are is the same spirit as Cool Tools, but they go much deeper and are more thorough.

These annuals are so good I even recommend the past few year’s versions, since building tools don’t change that fast.

-- KK  

Taunton’s Yearly Tool Guide
2012, $10
2011, $10
2010, $5
2009, $5

Published by and available from Taunton



Western Mountaineering Down Booties

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I am not prone to getting cold very often, but when I do it is almost invariably my feet that suffer. And there is nothing more uncomfortable than cold feet, or the inordinately long time it takes to warm them up again.

After having mentioned this repeatedly to my fiancee I was recently given a pair of Western Mountaineering Down Booties as a gift. They are, I will be the first to admit, absolutely ridiculous looking when worn, but also the warmest things I have ever had the pleasure of wearing on my feet. Designed for winter camping, they are filled with 800-fill power goose down that provide an impressive amount of insulation (which, when puffed up around your feet, also gives the impression of wearing clown/astronaut shoes).

Unlike other models designed solely for wear around the house, the WM down booties have a tough and water proof bottom (with a thin layer of foam insulation) that can be worn while camping or on quick trips to the mailbox. Another useful feature is an elastic collar that wraps around the ankle that traps in hot air (similar to a down collar in a sleeping bag). This amount of warmth the down provides is impressive and far greater than any other slipper I’ve tried. The fact that they weigh 6-oz total (while being significantly compressible) means I can easily travel/camp with them.

While the booties are not cheap they are definitely worth the cost to keep my feet warm around the house (while also allowing me to turn down the thermostat a degree or two) or while out camping on a cold night.

-- Oliver Hulland  

[Note: For those looking for something more appropriate for wear in a sleeping bag I have heard great things about the domestically produced Goosefeet Down Socks. --OH]

Western Mountaineering Down Booties
$80
Available from Backcountry

Manufactured by Western Mountaineering



Hat Grabber

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My husband always complained about his uncomfortable hardhat, and how it would fall off throughout the day. About three months ago I ran across the Hat Grabber on another website and thought I would give it a try.

The Hat Grabber is a piece of textured rubber that clips onto the back of the hard hat strap where it provides greater fiction and a larger surface area to resist the leverage that occurs when the wearer leans over, thereby reducing the likelihood that the hat will fall off. It also means you don’t have to crank down the tightness of the straps.

My husband came home after the first day of trying it out and said, “I don’t know what you paid for it, but it was well worth it.” Now some of his coworkers are wearing them. This is without a doubt a cool tool, and is a must for all the husbands/wives who are in construction.

-- Kerrie Graham  

Hat Grabber
$11
Available from and manufactured by Hat Grabber



Radiator Hose Pick

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I’ve used this tool for the past 40-years and find it to be the perfect solution for a variety of tasks. My favorite uses are breaking the seal of a rubber hose on a metal spigot (for example, when working with automotive radiator hoses force the sharp end of the pick between the hose and the spigot and work it around the circumference), removing cotter pins/small clips/retainers, untying otherwise untie-able knots, lining up small holes in linkage, and prying an item up from a flat surface.

There are numerous other radiator picks but this one from Snap On is my favorite because of the particular bend of the shaft. It is just right for providing leverage to break a hose, pin, or small shaft loose. Highly recommended for anyone working with small engines, car engines, models or other mechanical devices and linkages.

-- Darrow Cole  

Snap On Radiator Hose Pick
$22.90 (two pack with different sizes available for $51.00)
Available from and manufactured by Snap On



Sea to Summit eVent Compression Sacks

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I’ve used these Sea to Summit eVent compression sacks the last few times I’ve travelled abroad or while backpacking, and found them to be an essential travelling companion. Their main function is to keep stuff dry while also compressing and organizing the contents of my pack. The Sea to Summit sacks are unique in their use of eVent fabric (a semi-permeable membrane) which allows for greater compression and the formation of a vacuum like seal.

Before compressing the sack with the supplied compression straps, the Sea to Summit bag’s roll-top is sealed. Then, by pulling the straps taut, air is driven out of the one-way breathable eVent membrane that lines the bottom of the bag. As air is pushed out something akin to a weak vacuum is formed (eVent is impermeable to water and semi-permeable to air). I found that even after loosening the straps the contents remain compressed (it will eventually equalize as air seeps back in, but very slowly). This dramatically reduces the amount of space soft compressible items like socks, clothes, sleeping bags, etc. take up.

I currently own two, in small (10 L) and large (20 L), and have been blown away at how much I’ve been able to compress into my pack. They are super light (4.5 oz and 5.9 oz, respectively), and as tough as any other compression sack I’ve tried. While travelling in Bangladesh they kept my moisture sensitive camera gear dry even during downpours, and all my tests at home found them to be 100% waterproof (just be sure to not compress anything with sharp edges). While they are more expensive than traditional dry sacks, the superior compression and vacuum-like seal really make it worthwhile when trying to minimize pack space while maximizing protection.

-- Oliver Hulland, December 2011  

Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack
XS (6 L), S (10 L), M (15 L), L (20 L) XL (30 L)
$19-$45

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Sea to Summit



BioBrite Sunrise Clock

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The recent return to so little sunshine had me reflecting on a wake-up combo that’s so subtle I enjoyed it for years without really recognizing it. I use a dawn-simulating BioBrite alarm clock along with a programmable thermostat (anyone who has central HVAC without a programmable thermostat these days is just missing out). The combination of light and warmth really gets me awake at consistent times in the morning without really relying on any audio cues. The BioBrite can also be adjusted to increase the light output over longer periods of time (15/30/60/90 minutes), reversed to simulate dusk, or be used as a nightlight.

In the winter, having light come up along with heat is the most natural way to ease back to consciousness that I can imagine.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

BioBrite Sunrise Alarm Clock
$120

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by BioBrite