Artillery Pry Bar System

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I previously reviewed the J-Bar as a method for moving super-heavy loads across flat surfaces by the miracle of leverage. As good as a J-bar is at moving things, it’s not a great prybar. When I need to pry something apart, remove nails, separate two things from each other, I fall back on a standard set of lightweight crowbars (I have a titanium crowbar which I’m particularly fond of) to do the work. Often, however, there are jobs which just can’t be handled by a normal crowbar, or which are repetitive or awkward where a crowbar just isn’t the right tool.

Enter the Artillery Pry Bar System. I know, I know – adding the word “system” after anything so simple (“The Dixie Cup System”) makes it seem like some sort of marketing terminology, but in this case the suffix is deserved. This is an erector set for people who want to rip things apart. Various parts thread together or re-configure to take on almost any prying task, from the short to the four-feet-of-leverage end of things. Crowbars will quickly become tools for sissies after you get one of these. I’m reminded of the Far Side cartoon where a Viking is examining his mace and talking with another Viking as a third Viking blowing a bubble is walking into the frame. The text is something like “You know, Lars, there’s nothing like the good solid feel of a mace in your hand to make you want to smash something.” If you have one of these prybars, you’ll find yourself looking for loose boards on the side of the house, hoping to rip one out, or maybe eyeing that abandoned building down the street to see if you can get it to fall down in under an hour.

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I don’t even know what half of these blades DO, but there clearly are parts in there for removing nails, prying up sheetrock, roofing, or whatever. I’d have to say that the simple prybar ends are the ones that are my favorites, but the range of different destructive capabilities is impressive even if you don’t use a few of the more exotic ends.

The length of the bar is adjustable, and there are two different extensions that can be used. There are three different fulcrum options, and even a set of fulcrum extenders for one of them that can be attached for really getting leverage. There are configurations to be used on decking, so you can stand on the deck but rip the deck up from the “open” side. It’s all pretty lightweight stuff; aluminum, mostly, but tool steel where it counts. Lifting this up and prying against walls or even overhead would be possible with no difficulty.

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I just used it for prying up a floor plate in one of my shipping containers, which would have been a much more difficult (and “up close”) episode without the Artillery tool. Unlike crow bars, you can use your foot to assist in planting the blade into whatever it is that you’re prying. Combining your arms and a foot, you can quickly get a purchase under nearly anything that needs to be moved with pretty good accuracy.

This is a PERFECT tool if you live in earthquake country, or for first-responder firefighting or rescue folks. I imagine that with a sledge hammer, gloves, and this tool you could tear apart a whole woodframe house in a matter of hours. Everything you need is in the box, including the big Phillips-head screwdriver and adjustable wrench you might need for switching configurations around.

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The one downside is that it’s expensive compared to a cheap crowbar. But I imagine if you’re a contractor, this would pay for itself quite quickly, especially if you wake up in the morning with a sore back from demolition work where you’re on your hands and knees doing crowbar huffing-and-puffing. There are three different set configurations, ranging in street price roughly from $200 to $330 and they vary by what blades and accessories they include.

-- John Todd  

Artillery Pry Bar System
Different kits are available
$205-$550

Manufactured by and available from Artillery Pry Bar



WiThings Blood Pressure Monitor

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I’ve been using the Withings (same manufacturer as the previously reviewed Withings Wi-Fi Scale) Blood Pressure Monitor for several weeks now and find it better than other monitors I’ve been using for years.

There are three aspects of the monitor that I prefer over other monitors. The cuff is amazingly easy to put on your arm. It has a stiff plastic or metal curved piece that holds the cuff in place on your arm while you wrap the arm band around your arm. It’s the first cuff I’ve used that is easily placed single-handed and shipped with a cuff large enough for my arm without needing to purchase a larger cuff.

The air inflation and sensors are in a small tube on the cuff itself and are battery powered, forms a nice handle to aid positioning on your arm. No tubing to manage and worry about the cat puncturing. No outlet connections needed.

The iOS software is easier to use than other monitors. Plug-in the monitor, the app auto-launches and press start. Offers options to run repeated readings and then average them together. Keeps track of all your readings and provides charts without having to do data entry. Data can be exported to many formats.

The monitor has two downsides. The first is cost. At $129 it’s double many of the common upper-arm monitors. However, it’s worth it to me because it’s so much easier for me to use that I’m better about taking my daily measurements. The second problem is that it is iOS only. The monitor will only plug into an iOS device to work. This isn’t a wi-fi device like the Withings scale. The single cable on the device is an iPod connector cable. Works with iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad.

The software currently does not work with the cuff plugged in on a device running the beta iOS 5 firmware from Apple. I’m running it with an old iPod Touch for readings. The software works on iOS 5 without the cuff so I can still see my results on my other iOS devices.

-- Kevin van Haaren  

WiThings Blood Pressure Monitor
$116

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by WiThings



Casio FX-115 Solar Calculator

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I bought my Casio FX-115 Solar Calculator 25-years ago, probably in Malaysia. It replaced my then aging Texas Instruments calculator. The thing I like most about it is that it doesn’t need batteries. None. You can pull it out of a drawer after a year and it just works. No fretting about whether you left it on or not, and I’ve never needed to replace anything.

The new ones come with a dual solar and battery combo called “solar plus”. Don’t be fooled. The closest new equivalent is probably the Casio FX-260 Solar ($9.99), but that model doesn’t have some of the features of the FX-115.

As far as calculations go, it has pretty much all anyone would need. It has a nice friendly EXP button for scientific notation and infinite levels (18) of parenthesis. It converts and computes in alternate number bases (binary, octal and hex) and does linear regression.

The plastic is a bit scuffed after riding around in my backpack all these years, but it’s been wet and recovered. It also gets really sluggish when used outside in sub zero (C) weather.

-- Derrick Oswald  

[Note: The FX115 comes in two very similar models, the ES and the MS, that feature minor differences. However, it appears that the MS is preferred by some math teachers, and is approved to be used on many licensing exams (where as the ES has in the past not been approved for some engineering exams in California.]

Casio FX-115MS Solar Powered Scientific Calculator
$18

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Casio



The Best Pencil Eraser

I am a fan of mechanical pencils, but continue to be underwhelmed with the minuscule erasers they provide with them (almost as if they expect you not to make a mistake?). I’m tired of buying overpriced refills, and am more interested in finding something that could be used in addition to the pencil.

What’s the best pencil eraser out there? Are there significant differences amongst the materials?

– oliver h

Staedtler Mars Plastic Eraser - Color: White.jpegMars plastic erasers are the best. Abrasive erasers tear up the paper surface too much, and unless you have mastered pressing really hard without breaking the lead a mechanical pencil doesn’t draw that deep anyway.

The plastic erasers can also be cleaned with a wet thumb or a rub on scrap paper for neat work. I always find the “gritty” or “gummy” erasers get so dirty you spend half your time rubbing out their own mess. The Mars compound is stiff enough that corners can be used for fine work, or large areas erased with the flat end. The dirty, used portions just roll off as you use it and are cleanly blown/swiped away. I like the idea of putty/moldable erasers, but they get filthy, crumbly and horrible if kept in a pocket or bag.

-- Alan  

[I have since ordered a pack of the Mars erasers, and they really are the smoothest and most effective eraser. I can't imagine I'll need another for a few years as long as I can avoid losing them.--OH]

Staedtler Mars Plastic Eraser
Pack of 4
$5

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Staedtler



Power Cord Splitter

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What’s so cool about a power cord splitter? Sure, it turns one plug into two, but so what? The genius of this short adaptor is that you can pack it in your travel bag. So when you come upon the lone outlet in an airport, cafe, or hotel lobby that is already occupied, all you need to do is to politely ask to insert this spitter. Now you can add your line without disrupting theirs. And of course, at times you may use its doubling yourself. These little ambassadors should cost less than $3.

-- KK  

Power Cord Splitter Cable
$3

Available from and manufactured by Monoprice



Wilson Electronics Cell Phone Signal Booster

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I have an online editing job, and like to travel by car when I can around North America. Over the last 12 years I’ve hit all but two or three of the continental U.S. states, and worked at least a bit (from my car) in most of them as I passed through. In 2000, Internet cafes were rare outside big cities; when I was on one of my drive-abouts and needed to get online, I’d rush to find a hotel with free local calls and dial-up my ISP. Things got easier with the advent of coffee shops adding WiFi as a perk. And even easier when I could buy cheap wireless online time at truckstop chains like Flying J. Now, in any major population center or along major highways, I can instead get 3G service via my MiFi at reasonable rates (faster than dialup, at least), but only when in the covered footprint. As any cellphone user knows, that footprint doesn’t always match the published, disclaimer-laden maps, and isn’t always consistent.

Enter the Wilson Sleek signal amplifier. I looked at many such extenders hoping they’d match my peripatetic lifestyle, but this model of Wilson (they make others, too, which I can’t vouch for) is the first one that rang all the right bells. It’s small, inexpensive, fairly unobtrusive, and sized for the devices I wanted it for (MiFi, smart phone). Importantly, it also comes with a 12v plug, rather than requiring a 120v outlet, as do some home-centric signal boosters. Note: this device is sized to amplify the signal to only one device at a time, but through creative rubber banding, I had no trouble attaching both of my MiFis, even though I was only using one at a time.

I have not done any formal signal-strength testing, but in the year I’ve had it, I’ve found the Wilson device works well. Just like the too-good-to-be-true testimonials I was skeptical of before buying it, I’ve seen one bar of reception go to four or five, and sometimes zero bars go to one or two. (Which is to say, a *true* lack of reception can’t be fixed by a fancy antenna, and this won’t fix problems that exist between the bigger Internet and the nearest cell tower, but if you’re simply on the iffy fringes, this can put you back in business.) Though I bought the device for the purpose of working while stopped, I anticipate that I’ll now use it as well with the Android tablet I recently bought, which uses Google Maps to navigate. Since those maps are online rather than off, this amplifier extends the tablet’s usefulness as a big-screen, always updated GPS.

When I spent a few months in Puerto Rico earlier this year, the marginal reception I experienced from the Virgin (Sprint) network via MiFi was made considerably more tolerable by this device, once I found a working place for the sold-separately suction cup antenna mount.

There are a few caveats I’d point out, too. First,the amplifier, being powered, steals either a DC outlet in the car or, in my case, an outlet on my invertor. You need to plan ahead, especially if you find (as I do) that it’s easy to grow a Rube Goldberg nest of electronics. Second, the tiny “feet” which hold in place the bottom edge of the device being held both broke for me in the first week of serious use. Yes, I dropped it — twice! — but from such a low height that I was actually amused that each fall broke a different foot. Wilson should make those feet from metal. No worries: a borrowed hairband, though ugly, works just as well.

-- Timothy Lord  

Wilson Sleek Cell Phone Signal Cradle Booster
$92

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Wilson Electronics



Thermos Stainless Steel Hydration Bottle

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This 18 oz Thermos water bottle is terrific. It claims to keep beverages cold for 12-hours, and often I’ll find ice in the bottle from use the day before. It features a wide mouth construction which makes it easy to fill, even with ice cubes. The cap sports a nifty hinged pop-up top that can be opened and closed with one hand and doesn’t require removing the lid. It offers an adult “sippy cup” spout. It also features a safety latch to insure no spills during transport.

The stainless steel does not sweat so it won’t leave rings and the rubber mid section grip has a good “hand feel”. It’s great for the gym, the beach or the car, and fits most cup holders. For liability issues, it’s advertised for cold beverages only, but many of the BB reviews say it work just as well for hot beverages.
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It is perhaps the most stylish and utilitarian product I use on a daily basis. At $15 on sale from both Walmart and Amazon it’s a little more than a standard steel water bottle but it offers so many features it’s well worth it. I have two, and will probably get several more as the summer progresses. All in all,it’s one of my favorite things, and its hard to keep it out of my kids hands

-- Thomas Winberry  

Thermos Nissan18-Ounce Stainless-Steel Hydration Bottle
$15

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Thermos-Nissan



Aerobie Orbiter

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This lightweight boomerang won’t kill you if it happens to strike you or a passerby. It flies fast, wide, and sure. Easy to catch because of its closed shape. It does take practice to get a full no-move-from-start return, but anyone can get it to come mostly back. You’ll need a football-sized empty field for its 90-foot circle performance. Unlike a frisbee, it can be a lot of fun solo.

-- KK  

Aerobie Orbiter
$10

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Aerobie

Sample Excerpts:

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Fenix Flashlight Headband

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I’ve been using the Fenix Headband for about 6 months now and I’ve found it superior to just about any other headlamp system out there.

It’s much more versatile since it allows me to rotate the light 360-degrees, instead of just forward and down. And because it is on the side of my head instead of on my forehead, light doesn’t hit my eyes. It’s designed to fit Fenix lights (most AA and CR123 models), and works with countless others including the outstanding 4Sevens Quark line.

Having a “real” light means actually getting “throw” with a headlamp which is something sadly missing from the older LED technology commonly used on caving/jogging lights on the market. Along the same lines, newer LEDs are more efficient, having a much higher lumen to power consumption ratio, in effect giving me a brighter light for much longer. The plastic light mount is super durable and has a metal hinge, screw and threads so there’s no chance of plastic wear on moving parts.

It’s unique design means I can have all of the benefits of the latest light technology and the versatility to choose which flashlight features I want, for every type of use I can throw at it. I can choose the batteries, bulbs, and modes I want or need in a light and secure one or TWO to my head leaving my hands free to start a camp fire, steer a bicycle, work on electronics, hold a map, or write a note while standing. I can investigate a noise over 100 feet away while unscrewing my water bottle (a simple task but impossible with an average headlamp) and can point it upward then set my light to SOS mode and signal a rescue team while administering first aid.

-- Joel Mellon  

Fenix Headlamp Headband
$19

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Fenix



Best Bookmark Organizer


I have a bunch of bookmarks, and I need a good favorites organizer to make them more usable. What are the best services out there?
– Philntex

While looking for the best bookmarking tool out there I used Delicious for awhile, but eventually switched to Pinboard which is a paid service. I also use XMarks and Instapaper too, just to throw in a tool that’s a bit more than a bookmark organizer. I originally dropped Delicious when they were going through their Yahoo issues. I wasn’t really unhappy with the service but was unhappy with Yahoo. I use each service differently:

1. Pinboard: I store links to individual articles that I want to find again. For example, I’ve many links to individual cool tools in my Pinboard account.

2. XMarks: I use organized bookmarks inside the browser to find sites I want to read/visit on a regular basis. I’ve a link to just the Cool Tools front page in my browser. I then use XMarks to sync these browser bookmarks from my home Mac to my Windows computer at work (and provide an easily restored backup of all my bookmarks). I also have Safari bookmark syncing turned on for my iOS devices. This means I have the same browser bookmarks on iOS, Windows and Mac.

3. Instapaper: I use this to store the full text of articles when i’m interested in reading them offline when I travel or just having because i’m paranoid the article might age away before I get a chance to read it (local news sites can be really bad for this) or if I want an archive of it so I can refer to it later.

Depending on your needs, they’re all good tools.

-- K. Vanh  

[Do you have a better solution? Or, do you need a question answered? Don't forget to check out Ask Cool Tools! --OH]