New Trent External USB Batteries


I have used a New Trent IMP500 external USB battery for the last two years, mostly in the backcountry, to keep multiple devices charged (you need to make sure you have adapter tips or a short cable for each type of device) and am impressed with its capacity and durability. These batteries work when you need them to work.

New Trent has consistently made the most powerful and reliable external USB batteries for USB-devices like the iPhone. Look at the New Trent website to decide which product is right for you, then look at the reviews on Amazon for confirmation of my first sentence.

The newest battery, IMP1000, has 11,000 mAH capacity, about 5-6 recharges for an iPhone 4. Before I bought my IMP500 I researched extensively before buying. Since then I have used this battery under extreme conditions for the last two years, and am more than satisfied.

-- Kim  

New Trent IMP1000
1100 mAh

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by New Trent

Patagonia Houdini Jacket


The Patagonia Houdini jacket has become an essential piece of kit that I take with me nearly any time I leave the house. Its main function is as a windbreaker, but the DWR-treated nylon fabric works well in light rain. With that being said, in a downpour the jacket will wet out. But because its so thin and light it dries astonishingly fast, especially when compared to my bigger, heavier, rain jacket that feel wet for hours.

The jacket weighs around 3-ounces, and packs into its own chest pocket forming a baseball-sized bag that takes up minimal room. The fabric, despite being ultralight, is tough enough to survive most branches and scrapes seen while hiking, and it has found a permanent place in my pack while camping.

Above all else, it is the versatility of the Houdini that really sings. In the spring, I only need a light base layer and the Houdini when I go out. If I get chilled I toss it on to cut the wind and stay warm. Alternately, it works beautifully in the summer after a hot day when the temp starts dropping, or when I need a bit of lightweight sun and wind protection at the beach.

There are no doubt cheaper wind breakers out there, but for my money the Patagonia Houdini provides an incredible bang for the buck. Not only does it work just as well in the spring as it does in the summer, but its so light I know I’ll actually have it with me when I need it.

-- Oliver Hulland  

Patagonia Houdini Jacket

Available in men’s and women’s from Patagonia.



This blog focuses on photography rather than just cameras. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the camera. It’s about the eyes, about seeing, about technical compentance, about tricks, techniques, creativity, and what you do with all the images you make or take. It’s about having fun with photography, as well as making money with it. There’s also a lot about the rights of photographers and the complex issues of copyright and “borrowing” from other photographers. There’s plenty about low tech pinhole cameras, and point and shoots, and phone camera photography. And yes, there’s bits about the newest cameras, but that part is not overwhelming. I’ve been reading it daily (about 3 or 4 short posts per day) for the past 18 months and it is continually helpful. The site is brisk, surprising, informative, current, and is not trying to sell gear. It’s one of the better blogs for enthusiasts of any stripe that I’ve seen. Almost anyone taking pictures will find it useful.

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:

San Diego-based wedding photographer Aaron Willcox won 1st place in an engagement photo contest with this shot showing a feat of incredible strength. No Photoshop trickery or invisible wires were used in making this image (nor does the guy have Superman-esque strength)

Altec Lansing Orbit

altec orbit.jpeg

I’ve used this ultra-portable mono speaker for nearly two years, and can’t recommend it enough. Even though it is “mono”, it is “very good mono”, and part of the reason I chose mono is because of the sound limitations of small stereo speakers, best illustrated by Christopher Locke’s comments regarding KK’s review of the iPal.

This little thing easily fits in your backpack, briefcase, purse, or even clipped to your belt for mobile tunes. And the sound is really, really good. Many would call it amazing. Can I compare it to others? I’d rather not get into a holy war. The Orbit, in my mind, is a cool tool for being excellent at what it does for about $20.

I think it is pretty safe to say, that for the intended purpose, it seems to be among the top, if not the top, rated portable speakers for listening to your iPhone, iPad, mp3 player, etc.

I went looking for something like this when I realized that I had a great little MP3 player that was about the size of a matchbox, but unfortunately could only listen to through headphones. There were so many times when we’d go to the park and have a picnic or something and we’d like to have some tunes, but didn’t want to lug yet another thing the size of a boombox. It’s enough to have the ice chest, the bbq, the basket/box of food, etc.

This little hockey puck (well, only slightly thicker, at about 2″) does the trick. We use it often around the house to plug into the laptop when we want to have some tunes but not through the tinny laptop speakers. It comes with a nice little case, a carabiner clip, runs on 3 AAA batteries and just seems to go and go.

There are some minor complaints among detractors, most commonly by people expecting the unreasonable; that a 2 to 3-inch speaker should be able to bring you to your knees with your hands over your ears. It’s not going to be your solution if you want to blast dance band volumes out of your pocket, but it certainly is just the ticket to have on the table with you on the back porch, or beef up the sound out of your laptop.

It is one of my most successful purchases, with great bang for the buck.

-- Jeff Jewell  

Altec Lansing Orbit Portable Speaker

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Altec Lansing

Over-Sized Post-Its

giant postit.jpeg

As a long-time aficionado of office supplies, I feel qualified to review this wonderful new (to me, at least) product. These über-Post-its measure 4″ x 4″ and are a different kettle of fish entirely from others I’ve used. Namely their Lilliputian 1.5″ x 2″, 2″ x 3″, and 3″ x 3″ brethren. These have an entirely different heft and presence under your pencil or pen or Sharpie.

And I like that these notes are lined, because I’m now using them as an aide-mémoire regarding what’s upcoming each day on my blog Book Of Joe. There are just enough lines on them for my eight daily posts and their working titles.

Finally, by combining them with an ultra-fine point retractable Sharpie, I’ve found note-taking heaven on Earth.

-- Joe Stirt  

[For those who prefer naked Post-Its, you can get lineless 4"x6" ones from Amazon.]

Post-It Super Sticky Notes
$12 for six pads

Manufactured by Post-It


AskCT Contest Winners

Congratulations to Ethan Fardoux and Christopher Wanko, winners of the Ask Cool Tools Contest. Ethan’s request for the best everyday backpack was the most popular question garnering nearly 2,000 views and an astonishing 23 answers, while Christopher’s recommended use of colored rubber bands was voted the best solution for managing disorganized electronics cables.

Given the success of this contest we will definitely be holding something like this again in the near future. But for now, can you answer any of these questions?

What is the best way to fix a broken zipper?

What are the best remote classes for developing graphic design skills?

What is a good resource for historical stock price data?

What’s a good supplementary power source for an iPhone?

What’s the best backpacking compass? Orienteering how-to?




GoodReader is a robust feature-rich PDF reader that is my killer application for the iPad. A PDF-reader sounds too simple to be a killer app until you realize that no one else has gotten it right.

I have tried reading PDFs on a PC, a Kindle, an iPhone, and, of course, printed out on paper, and every single format so far has failed miserably. The Kindle’s slow response time, small screen, and lack of effective zoom means that it can’t adapt to the various formats commonplace in PDFs (I haven’t tried the larger DX, but in talking to others the gripes remain the same). The iPhone, while adaptable in its small size, simply doesn’t have enough real estate to read PDFs effectively. Furthermore, scrolling through endless pages of PDFs on my laptops is clunky and poorly thought out, owing to the added bulk of a laptop or desktop, and the horizontal nature of the screen.

I am relieved that my struggle with reading PDFs has been solved by GoodReader. The iPad’s versatile vertical and horizontal format makes for easy reading, while the ability to flip through pages with touch eliminates any of the awkwardness of the Kindle or PC. GoodReader also uses tabs for quick switching between PDFs, a feature that I believe neither OSX Preview or Acrobat has really gotten right.

Outside of reading and reviewing, GoodReader takes advantage of the iPad’s touch input by allowing for easy highlighting, text input, and drawing. Marking up PDFs on an iPad, while not professional-caliber, far exceeds the day-to-day utility of something like Adobe Acrobat Professional, while matching all the benefits of good old pen-and-paper without the associated reams and reams of paper.

Another problem GoodReader resolves is the management of PDFs. Having a dedicated, easy to access management system means I don’t have to search through thousands of files on my laptop. The layout makes it easy to organize PDFs into folders, but the killer feature is the ability to sync GoodReader to DropBox or other servers. Now, when I edit or mark up a PDF I can easily save it and access that copy from anywhere without the hassle of email, or manual syncing.

It seems strange that a PDF-reader would become the killer application on the iPad, but it also makes sense. When it was first released, the iPad was a curiosity; a blank slate without a specific use. As it has matured, the flexibility and familiarity of touch-input plus paper sized high-res screen and long battery life has created an almost-perfect format for working with PDFs. And GoodReader is the application that has made it happen.

-- Oliver Hulland  


Available from iTunes



This tool literally saved me thousands of dollars and incalculable emotional stress. Watercop attaches to the water main on your house and is triggered by remote RF water sensors that can be placed anywhere. When triggered, it shuts off the main and stops all water flowing into the house.

I installed the Watercop 5 years ago with remote sensors in 4 locations and it sat silently, doing absolutely nothing for all that time. A few weeks ago we got back from a week long vacation and immediately discovered that there was no water coming through our faucets. My first thought was that the Watercop had experienced a power fault and failed closed.


I went down to the basement and, in fact, the Watercop was closed. I turned it back on and heard a gusher from our furnace room. You can imagine my shock when I ran into the furnace room and discovered that the floor of our 15-year-old hot water heater had burst and the Watercop sensor in the room was submerged.

I don’t even want to contemplate what would have happened during that week if there had been no automatic shutoff on the main. The damage to our house and personal possessions, along with the inevitable mold, would have been a disaster.

Not only did it work flawlessly, but you can qualify for an insurance discount if you you have it installed by a licensed plumber (you can install it yourself, but it does require decent plumbing skills). As far as setup, you can place the sensors anywhere. The only downsides I have found is that it is not cheap, you have to replace the batteries annually, and it runs on A/C power meaning that when the power fails so does the device.

Despite these few drawbacks, I can not recommend the WaterCop highly enough. This is, without a doubt, the most valuable tool I have ever purchased.

-- Peter Bee  

WaterCop 3/4-inch Valve and Three RF Sensors

Manufactured by and available from DynaQuip

Mushrooming Without Fear


Can you tell the difference between a head of cabbage and a head of lettuce? Then you can safely pick and eat some wild mushrooms. The key is to learn to identify a few easily identifiable delicious species, and then stick with these easy ones for a while. This book does a fantastic job of holding your hand every step of the way. It gives you reliable rules for learning 10 or so yummy and safe mushrooms. I wish I had this book when I was first starting out. It is a great substitute for going out with an expert.

-- KK  

Mushrooming Without Fear
Alexander Schwab
2006, 128 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Rule number 1: never, never take a mushroom with gills!!! This is our life insurance.

Rules number 2: Only take mushrooms with tubes, spines and ridges and the mavericks portrayed in this book. This means thoroughly understanding the information on pages 18-27 of this book.

Rule number 3: Only eat mushrooms which you have clearly identified with ALL of the positive ID marks. The mushrooms you take must be a certain size in order to show all the identification marks. In their baby stage, so to speak, some deadly and poisonous mushrooms are almost indistinguishable from harmless species.

These are summer ceps. However all ceps, summer or autumn, show a fine white network on the top of the stem right underneath the tubes.

PVC Cable Saw


I was actually quite surprised that nobody mentioned these simple PVC saws when someone requested a cheap PVC cutter awhile back. I’ve been using them since high school, and haven’t found a better solution.

Basically, you slip the wire around the PVC pipe and start working it back and forth. It seems to melt through the pipe once you get going, which means less dust and a smoother cut than other saws I’ve tried.

It also has an advantage over other dedicated saws due to its flexible nature. I actually used one of the longer versions to cut a bit off of a kitty litter box once (it had a spot to hold a scooper, which made it a bit too big for the space). That would have been impossible with other PVC saws that hold onto the pipe. It also would have been tricky with a hack saw due to the size.

At less than $10 for even the most expensive ones, it’s a great thing to pick up for an occasional job. And not that painful if you end up losing it.

-- Michael Farnette  

PVC Cable Saw

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Black Rhino