Cool Tools 2014 Holiday Gift Guide: Gifts for $10 or less

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, we’ll be presenting a series of gift suggestions selected from the pages of Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities (which itself makes a great gift). This week: great gifts for under $10.

Giottos Rocket Blaster ($10)
“This rubber rocket doesn’t provide as much pressure as Dust-Off, but it exhales a forceful-enough blast for dusting photo/electronic gear, and standing upright on its base sidelines as playful desk dressing/stress-relief toy.”

Coghlan’s 12-in-1 Scissors ($8)
“A silly looking and cheap tool that is surprisingly useful. It will cut fairly heavy material, has a bottle opener, screwdriver, and will come apart so you can use it as an awl or hole punch in an emergency.

Photon Microlight II.jpeg
Photon Microlight II ($9)
 ”This is a very handy little light that is small enough to carry around in your pocket on a keychain. It weighs only 4.8-grams and the LED “bulb” is very bright for its size, more than adequate for finding your way around in a dark spot, reading a map, finding key holes, etc, with a simple thumb press on the button”

Fantastic Ice Scraper ($4)
 ”It’s been my go-to ice removal device. I now keep one in the kitchen for cleaning counter tops, glass tables, stove tops and any other hard surface that needs an occasional scrape down. I also keep one in the garage for general scraping and cleaning.”

Snark Clip-On Tuner for Guitar, Bass and Violin ($10)
 ”I’ve tried several clip-on guitar and banjo tuners over the years, and I finally found the best one: Snark SN-2. It’s fast, easy to use, and very accurate.”

Want more $10 gift ideas? Take a look at our 2013 Low Cost Gift Guide


Yaktrax Ski

My wife and I have been using the Yaktrax Ski (previously known as Skitrax) for about 2 years now. We just got back from a skiing trip in Utah, and it reminded me how much I absolutely love using these things.

The product is a rubber sole that slips over the binding clips at the front and back of ski boots. They come in four sizes, each corresponding to a “Mondo” range that you can read off your boot. If they are just a little too tight at first, they can be stretched slightly. If they are a little too loose, putting a twist in the middle can shorten them slightly. Better to err on the tight side, so they don’t come off while walking.

The basic function of the Yaktrax is to protect the plastic binding clips on your boots from getting ground down and distorted from walking in parking lots and on concrete. From that perspective, a $20 investment to protect boots that easily cost $600 makes a lot of sense.

The real benefit, though, it the ease of walking you get with these things. Ever try walking in ski boots? It’s awkward, precarious, and unpleasant. I’ve fallen on slick surfaces in a ski cafe (a little kid’s spilled Coke), sending lunch flying across the room. Getting up and down stairs in ski boots is even worse.

With the Yaktrax, all of these things become pretty easy. They grip really well, so you feel sure-footed. With the Yaktrax on, I can almost jog in ski boots, and I can get up and down stairs with lunch trays and skis in total confidence. They actually make walking in ski boots somewhat fun, mostly because I take a cruel pleasure in how much harder it is for everyone else!

There are a few different flavors of ski boot protectors, and the most common one seem to be the Serius “Cat Tracks” product. I’ve never used those, but I’ve tried them out in stores — they are much flimsier and looser fitting than Yaktrax, and I can’t see any advantage of them other that that they are trivially smaller in size when folded.

Which brings up the Achilles heel of these products — you have to carry them in your pockets while you ski. Each one folds into itself to form a little packet, and each packet pretty much takes up a jacket pocket. That doesn’t bother me, as I have big pockets in my ski jacket and pants. My wife’s clothing is more fitted, and she gets annoyed carrying them. An instructor in Utah had a good solution for this, which was to use the much-maligned retractable Master cable lock to lock the Yaktrax to a convenient ski rack with a small, tight loop of cable. They are so inexpensive that no one would steal them, and even if they did you wouldn’t lose sleep over it.

-- Ash Ranpura  

Yaktrax Ski
$13 – $19

Available from Amazon

Datavac Electric Duster

This is a “can” of compressed air that contains a very small compressor of sorts so you have a never ending supply of high pressure compressed air. As a hobbyist letterpress printer and a confirmed tinkerer, I use this all the time for everything from drying of type that is being cleaned to blowing dust out of old machinery to just helping clean up. The specs are a 500 watt motor, .75 HP, 4.5 amps, and 70 CFM air flow.

Lots of reviews mention how loud it is when operating (it is) as well as how powerful the stream of air is (as I think it should be), and it runs about the cost of 10-12 cans of air so you make back your initial investment quite quickly, cut down on waste (empty cans), and have access to a variety of nozzles to us (including an itty bitty computer keyboard nozzle). And, you avoid some of the chemicals that are in individual cans of compressed air.

-- Neil J. Salkind  

ED500 DataVac 500-Watt 0.75-HP Electric Duster

Available from Amazon


Building Chicken Coops For Dummies / Backyard Chickens

Here are a couple of chickeny resources for the wanna-be chicken keeper:

Building Chicken Coops For Dummies
Like all of the For Dummies books, this takes an arcane art and breaks it down into simple, clearly-explained steps. It presents the basics of constructing a simple structure, and adapts them to rearing chickens. It also presents detailed plans and instructions for five different coops of varying complexity. Using this book, I was able to build a safe, moveable, attractive coop for my three chickens, with only a moderate amount of swearing. It was the first structure I’ve ever built all by myself, and I’m inordinately, excessively proud of it. More importantly, the chooks have lived in it for almost two years now, and I haven’t lost one yet.

Backyard Chickens
Chickens are social animals, and so are their owners. BackyardChickens is a website devoted to chicken keeping. It’s my go-to site when I have a chicken question. It’s helped me plan a coop, select breeds, build a cheap and comfortable brooder, ease health concerns, and understand my chickens’ behavior. Also, it’s fun to read other people’s adventures with chickens. I’ve been using the site ever since I started dreaming chickeny dreams, and it’s been a very helpful resource. Though I’ve been using the site for a couple of years, I’ve only recently joined as a member. Chicken books are helpful, but sometimes you just need some hands-on advice.

-- Amy Thomson  

Sample Excerpts:

Building Chicken Coops For Dummies:

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 1.24.12 PM

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 1.24.43 PM

Backyard Chickens:



Understanding the yolk sack
Growth of a chick begins in the small fertilized area at the top of the yolk. A network of blood vessels begins to develop spreading from the embryo out over the yolk. The yolk sac is attached to the chick’s navel and the chick draws nourishment from it, producing an enzyme that changes the yolk material so that it can be used as a food by the developing embryo. As the chick hatches any remaining unused yolk is drawn into the chick’s abdomen or “navel”. It will supply nourishment for the chicks first few days after hatching.


Co-founder of Quantified Self, Gary Wolf [Cool Tools Show #15]

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Podcast on iTunes | RSS | Transcript | Download MP3 | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

In this week’s episode of the Cool Tools Show, Gary Wolf, Co-founder of Quantified Self, shows us how his favorite Quantified Self inspired apps help him stay consistent, motivated and aware about his most important daily routines. If you’re struggling to keep your healthy habits in check, this week’s episode may help you diagnose where those dips in motivation are coming from.

Quantified Self

Gary’s Twitter

Show Notes:

Equanimity: Meditation Timer & Tracker by Robin Barooah $5

“It keeps a record of your meditation sessions, when you stop, when you start. It gives you a field to take notes and gives you the ability to reflect on the patterns in your practice, including CSV export of all your meditation data in a table. A few years into using it I ran a little analysis of what my practice really looked like and I learned so much from doing that. For instance, I learned that I had an average time without a break between days of about nine days.”

750 words by Buster Benson Free

“It’s premised on the theory that doing some free writing in the morning is very good for you, for your creativity. It can reduce stress by keeping you in touch with the random thoughts and random voices that are in your head and discharging some of the internal narrative and it’s also really relaxing. In a sense it resembles a meditation practice — it releases creativity and reduces stress.”

Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora $30

“It’s unlike any other guide I’ve ever encountered. On almost on every page it contains a story of a personal encounter with the mushroom in question, so it’s as close as you can get to walking through the woods with your own great expert.”

Ball Jars with Wide Funnel ~$20 (For 1 funnel & 1 case Ball Jars.)

“We went to the hardware store and got three cases of Ball jars and a nice big aluminum funnel and took every single item that was in a bag or an open box (including everything from tiny little pieces of pasta to crackers) and we put it in the appropriate size jar and my daughter made sticky labels and drawings for it and we filled up the pantry with this collection. It wasn’t very expensive. It didn’t take all that long. Now everything looks great and every time we open the closet we have a laugh.”



I’m a chronic insomniac, and often listen to music or podcasts in the late watches of the night. SleepPhones headphones have been a godsend. Basically they’re soft, low profile headphones in a fleece headband. My husband gave me the wired version a couple of years ago, and they were an immediate hit. I have fallen asleep wearing them fairly often.

The sound quality is okay, maybe slightly soft and mushy, but they are so astonishingly comfortable and perfect for bedtime listening that it doesn’t matter. You can pull the band down over your eyes like a sleep mask as well. The fit is a little loose on my smaller-than-average head, but it still works fine. Also a small sideways adjustment will lower the volume a bit, which can be either a feature or a bug. The speakers can be removed so that you can wash the fleece band, though I’ve yet to need to do this.

I own the wired version of these, and the wire is a bit in the way, though if you run the wire straight up and over your head, it works better. I’ve just discovered that there’s a wireless bluetooth version, and I hope to upgrade to them in the near future.

-- Amy Thomson  


Available from Amazon

Mother Lode Weekender Convertible Junior Backpack

When I’ve travelled for extended periods I have found that packing is not unlike stowing gear on a small boat. Life on the road is much easier when everything is in its place and there is a place for everything. My favorite bag for packing light, long-term travel is the eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible Junior.


It is a well-designed bag that can be used as a standard soft-sided suitcase or converted into a backpack. Multiple pockets allow for keeping everything organized. Outside pockets can be compressed or expanded depending on the use. A padded hideaway laptop storage area protects a computer but also allows for easy access.


The bag measures 19.5″ x 14″ x 9″ so it’s fairly airline friendly. The exterior is durable polyester with heavyweight zippers that can be locked together using a single lock.


When researching bags for a two-month trip I considered Rick Steves Convertible Carry-On and the Osprey 46. I found this eBags model best fit my needs.

pack-02 pack-03 pack-04

-- Philip Meier  

eBags Mother Lode TLS Weekender Convertible

Available from Amazon

Guitar Pick Punch

As an amateur guitar player, this is a fantastic tool that allows me to achieve the following:

1) Save the environment by recycling plastic
2) Save money through making these for myself and friends
3) Experience different sounds through different plastics and thicknesses

I have used this tool for a year and all my friends have also benefited. This tool is compact yet quite heavy duty. It also allows me to make picks from hotel key cards which makes for great souvenirs. Highly recommend every guitar player keep one of these handy.


-- Paul  

Pick Punch

Available from Amazon

Filofax Personal Organizer

Why a paper-based organizing system in this digital age? First, as Getting Things Done guru David Allen puts it, “low-tech is oftentimes better because it is in your face.” Second, last I checked (channeling Jaron Lanier here), I am not a gadget. I cherish the tools that help me stay organized, yet allow me to abide within generous swaths of Internet-free time—formally known as normal life (you know, when you didn’t see everyone doing the thumb-twiddling zombie shuffle). The Filofax personal organizer is one of them.

I got my first Filofax over 20 years ago and it has been a love story ever since. Part of this English company’s century-old line of organizers originally developed for engineers, it is a beautifully made 6-ring loose leaf binder. With the Filofax diary, address book, paper inserts and other items that get tucked in there, for most users, it fattens up to the size of a paperback edition of Anna Karenina. Or, say, a Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwich. Right, it does not fit in a coat pocket.

Depending on the model, the Filofax personal organizer comes with an assortment of pockets on both the inside and outside flaps. Mine also includes a pen holder on the right and a highlighter holder on the left, and it closes securely, so no loose items (such as that drycleaner’s ticket) can fall out.

Filofax sells a cornucopia of inserts for the 6 ring binder, from a wide variety of configurations for the diary refill, to a personal ruler/ page marker, maps of most major cities, a pad for assorted sticky notes, checkbook holder, business card holder, super-thin calculator, extra paper in a rainbow of colors, index tabs, a portable hole punch, and an address book, among other items.

Countless are the ways to configure one’s Filofax personal organizer. I’ve evolved into using the Week on Two Pages diary for noting appointments, birthdays, and any time-sensitive to-dos; two rulers/ page markers; the assorted sticky notes pad (though now with my own, more economical, Post-Its); the address book at the back; plus a “page” of plastic sleeves for business cards. I stash items such as stamps and paperclips in the front inner pocket (especially handy when traveling). Tickets (drycleaners, concerts) go in another pocket. In addition, I made up several tabbed sections to index my personal, financial, business, and other to do / might one day do lists, to which I slap on ideas scribbled on Post-Its as they occur to me. The tabbed sections follow my personal interpretation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system — his basic idea being, capture all your to dos in one “bucket” you regularly revisit, and thereby can clear your mind for more clarity and creativity in the present moment. (To track more complex medium and long-term projects, I use the Projecteze system of a Word table which relies on the sorting feature—that’s another post.)
As for address book, it’s not my main nor my only address book, just the addresses I like to keep handy in this particular system — so, in part, it serves as a paper backup for the most vital addresses, and those I regularly consult when making appointments.

Usually the Filofax stays open on my desk — which works for me, but clearly that won’t be ideal for those who work in less private and/or mobile situations. I take it with me when I travel or attend meetings where I might need to review my schedule or consult the to do lists and/or address book.

High-end stationary, luggage, and department stores often carry the Filofax line of organizers and inserts — as does Amazon — but to ensure that I get exactly what I want when I want it, I order the refill for the following year from the Filofax USA’s on-line shop on September 1st. At year’s end — following the advice of my tax accountant who says it could be handy in case of an audit — I file the diary with the rest of that year’s tax documents.

There are four major disadvantages to this system. None of them torpedo it for me, but they might for you:

  1. It’s a paper-based system, and for those who want their hand-held and/or laptop to be their all, and the many bells-and-whistles of a cloud-based system, clearly, it’s a headshaker.
  2. High cost. You get what you pay for, however, and I have been happy to pay for the refills and other accessories because their simple and elegant design inspires me to stay better organized. For those who bristle at such prices, however, it would certainly be possible to make a homemade version of many of the inserts.
  3. Security risk. One’s office or house could burn down or someone could steal the Filofax — but then again, they couldn’t hack into it at 3 in the morning from Uzbekistan, either.
  4. Bulk and weight. I can easily toss my Filofax into a briefcase or shoulderbag, but without an on-call chiropractor, I wouldn’t want to haul it around on a walk. That said, when I go for a walk, I go for a walk.
-- C.M. Mayo  

Logitech Harmony Ultimate Remote Control

[In 2011 we reviewed the Logitech Harmony 700, which is no longer available. -- Mark]

In the course of my work I need to test a lot of TV-connected devices for review and evaluation. Two game consoles, two DVRs, and a handful of media streaming devices can become a nightmare to control for myself, much less guests.

To reduce the confusion I’ve always used a universal remote but they’ve always had major drawbacks. Some don’t control everything. Some had to be held steadily pointed towards the devices for minutes to work properly. And of course programming some universal remotes is at best an exercise in tedium.

The best I’ve found so far is the Logitech Harmony Ultimate. It’s not perfect but it has reduced many frustrating problems to mere annoyances and eliminated some altogether.

First the programming is easier on Harmony remotes than almost any other brand. It’s not perfect but easier. You plug the remote into your computer and install some software. Then you tell the software what devices you have. This may take some crawling around on your knees by your TV to read exact model numbers. Also sometimes the model just isn’t there and you just have to pick a close one and hope. Most of the time though everything is there and works. I wish the interface on the software was better designed but it gets the job done.

Once you have all your devices, you set up activities. If you want to Watch TV for instance, you set up an activity that turns on the TV, puts it on the right HDMI input, and turns on the DVR. Same for Watch Apple TV or Play Xbox or any other activity you want to do. Soon it will even add home automation tasks like dimming lights. It handles both infrared and RF controlled devices by the way. So the devices don’t need to be in plain view.

Once you have the remote programmed life becomes much easier. The Ultimate works with a hub that you set up with your WiFi network. The hub takes care of sending commands to your TV. You put the hub by your TV and devices (with an extender if you have a couple shelves) and then you don’t need to point the remote at the devices. In fact you don’t even need to be in the same room. I make use of this when watching DirecTV over Slingbox on Roku in the bedroom.

When all works well, which is most of the time, the thing is a dream. You press a button on the touch screen for the right activity and the remote takes care of the rest. The downside is occasionally something gets out of whack and the wrong input gets selected or a command doesn’t go through. In those cases the remote tries to guess what’s wrong but it’s a very poor guesser. There’s a HELP button that walks you through troubleshooting that can usually fix any issue. I usually just go to the remote’s device menu and take control of the devices myself to put them back in the right state.

If you only have a couple devices, the Harmony Ultimate is probably overkill. But if you have 7 devices hooked up plus a TiVo going through your Xbox One, then this could be a big frustration reducer.

-- Tom Merritt  

Logitech Harmony Ultimate

Available from Amazon