BlueStar Range

When we remodeled our kitchen we were shocked at the prices for professional quality cooking ranges. The elite brands like Viking or Wolf were in the $7,000 range for a 6-burner. Worse, their recent reputations for quality, service and dependability were in decline. (No appliance is without horror stories; missing were sufficient new testimonials about great satisfaction to counterbalance accounts of the awful; the higher the premium, the higher the ratio should be.) In the hunt for an alternative pro quality stove, we settled on a BlueStar stove, which was significantly cheaper yet had great user reviews and a big enthusiastic following online. BlueStar is a newcomer with several advantages for us.

First, its large open burners produce really high BTUs. I had hacked our previous stove to increase the heat by drilling larger orifices in the brass gas jets, but Blue Star’s high-heat burners came already engineered for a maximum flame of 22,000 BTUs. (Typical high burners are only 15K.) It could also simmer great. Second, the circular burner design features a ring which can easily lift out so that a wok (which needs super high heat) can seat perfectly near the jets. Third, the dials are analog, no fancy electronics to fail. Fourth, the cast iron grate above the burners forms a single uninterrupted plane so pots can be slid around easily, like a second work surface. Lastly, you have a choice of 200 custom colors for the stove. We went with a yellow to brighten up the kitchen. We’ve been using the BlueStar for a year and a half and really love the craftsmanship and intelligent placement of knobs, trays, switches. It’s super easy to keep clean as well.

There are plenty of far less expensive stoves that cook food. We’d been using one of those for years. In aiming for a life-time purchase of a high performing stove, with great user design, we found BlueStar offered the most for less compared to other high-end stove brands.

-- KK  

Prices vary depending on model

Potette Plus

This is the best portable potty for toddlers. We’ve had ours for about five years, and our second child is now using it. It’s very light and compact, and it allows you to have a toilet available at all times while your toddler/young child is potty training. And for at least a couple of years after that. Like the previously reviewed Travel John, the Potette Plus is perhaps most useful for road trips.

Folded, it’s just 3 inches tall, and its footprint is approximately a 9-by-9-inch square. We’ve always kept ours in the car, but it could also fit in a daypack or large diaper bag. It takes single-use disposable bags (three included) with absorbent liners that you throw away, much like a diaper. Replacement bags are about $10 for 30. We’ve used ours mainly for emergencies, so it hasn’t added up to much.

Having these on hand minimizes anxiety for children, who are still getting used to listening to their bodies’ cues; also for parents, who know they’re covered wherever they go.

It also functions as a trainer seat that fits into a standard-sized toilet, but we’ve never used ours that way. Appears great for that purpose, too.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

2-in-1 Potette Plus
$10 (Liners extra)

Available from Amazon

Boomerang for Gmail

I have been using Boomerang for Gmail on both my personal and business email accounts for close to two years, and at this point I find it indispensable.

It may have more features, but I use Boomerang mainly as a tool that helps me follow-up on critical email conversations. It makes it easy to both use emails as “to do” style reminders, but more important, creates an integrated system to make sure that you do not lose sight of an important correspondence.

Here is how this piece works:
1. You write or reply to an email.
2. Instead of just hitting send and hoping for the best, you have two options at the bottom of your screen — “Send Later” and “Boomerang this…” (this one has a checkbox). I will discuss “Send Later” below.
3. “Boomerang this” means that you are scheduling the email to RETURN TO YOUR INBOX (the awesome part) without any further action on your behalf.
4. You choose exactly when you want the email to return (there are some built-in times–1 hour, 1 day, etc. — but you are able to schedule the exact time down to the minute).
5. You also — and this is a sweet add-on — get to choose whether you want the message to Boomerang as a function of whether your email receives a reply, is not clicked, is not opened, or regardless. So if you you choose to only Boomerang in 1 week if there is no reply because you want to make sure your email is attended to, and then the recipient replies in 2 days, your email will not come back to you in 1 week.

I do use the “Send Later” feature regularly (oops, cat out of bag). You can accuse me of over-thinking my correspondence, but I often have a finished email that I do not want to ship at the moment it is finished. Perhaps it is because I am sure the email will elicit an immediate phone call that I do not want at that time or perhaps I do not want the recipients to know that I am currently dealing with their correspondence. The Send Later feature is perfect here (again, it comes with some pre-fab times but you can also choose exactly when you want the email to send). Some times I am pretty sure I want it to send the next morning but want the night to think it over, acknowledging to myself that if nothing comes to mind before 9:37 am the email can ship automatically. If I do need to make a change I can log in to the back-end and edit the email and re-schedule it. (There is one issue that occasionally shows up with Send Later: You schedule an email to be sent out requesting a piece of info for, let’s say, 7 am tomorrow. At 6 pm today you receive the info, but you either haven’t checked email or forgot about your scheduled message. So then at 7 am your email goes out and, well, you don’t look like the sharpest tool.)

It’s worth noting that you can “Boomerang” and “Send Later” on the same email.

I started with the free version but quickly found 10 messages per month too limiting for my needs. The $4.99/month is reasonable for personal use. The Google Apps version at $14.99/month might seem pricey at first. All I can say is that if you begin to leverage this for your business interactions–unless you truly have a steel trap memory or are an elephant–you will quickly see that it is worth far more.

Customer service has been fine, though it has been over a year since I have contacted them about any issue. They did recently release a mobile version, but I have not yet used it.

-- Aaron Pastor  

Boomerang for Gmail
$5 – $15 / month, depending on plan

Wink Books

Books are not dead! Books printed on paper have their uses. Printed tomes, vs digital books, are more useful for archived knowledge since they don’t need a reader, and won’t go obsolete. In a thousand years you’ll still be able to read a book (if you learn old English), or just want to look at the pictures. In fact, books full of pictures and illustrations are still a little better today on paper than on screens. This won’t always be true, but for the moment, the large size of high res paper, and the immediate no-lag turning of pages mean that large format, heavily illustrated material is best viewed as ink printed on paper.

One of the most popular sections in the Cool Tools book (on paper) is the 6 pages of visual reference items. These are 50 or so seriously visual books that I recommend for designers, artists, and tinkerers as sources of ideas, tips, and inspiration. On paper they work great. The Cool Tools book itself is one of the best examples of the benefits of paper books — its wide horizon of multi-tasking items that optimize browsing could not be done on a small screen.

Another mode that is superior on paper is a how-to craft book that includes materials, or samples bound in it that can get you started. Sometimes a how-to book in paper offers an unusually handy binding that is better than a dainty screen. Pop-up books with their clever engineering only work in paper. Or an atlas with pull-out maps. I’ve also found that children sometimes prefer a picture book in paper so they can sensually turn the pages themselves. And finally, as good as the best retina screen is today in 2014, it cannot quite match a hardback graphic novel printed on nice paper whose illustrations pop better in ink than in pixels.

For all these reasons, there should be a place that recommends and introduces books that belong on paper. There wasn’t one, so we created it: Wink Books. Wink is a website similar to Cool Tools that recommends and reviews one remarkable paper book each weekday. The books will be curated by Cool Tools editor Mark Frauenfelder, former Craft editor Carla Sinclair, and myself. Each weekday we’ll scour our libraries, used bookstores, flea markets and Amazon for the most cool and unusual books on paper. We photograph sample pages from each book and supply the reasons why we find each one worth your while. Of course, we are always eager to hear your recommendations as well. If you know of a favorite book that works perfectly on paper, clue us in. We pay for suggestions used.

Check out your daily dose of paper here at Wink.

-- KK  

Motorola Two-Way Radio

For a consumer level walkie-talkie, I recommend the Motorola MH230R ($47), or for slightly longer range, the MR350R ($54). I lived for several years in the Eastern Sierra where we used these for hiking. Usually they were good for 2-3 miles over mountainous terrain, and of course much further if users were in line of sight. I know from personal experience they are good for at least 11 miles as I used them to talk with my wife via a direct line-of-sight. But while they are rated for 23 and 35 miles respectively, for practical purposes, I’ve never relied on them unless we were within a few miles of each other, with no major obstructions. You can also use them for NOAA weather. They’re light & cheap enough to be practical, require AA batteries (rechargeables work fine) and are durable. On some hikes we’d have 5 or 6 deployed, carried by hikers of varying speeds, so we could keep tabs on where everyone was, and for that purpose they worked rather well — not perfect, but mostly good enough. If you’re within a few hundred yards of another radio, they always worked, even around large obstacles.

-- Kevin Rooney  

[These replace the Motorola model we previously reviewed. -- KK]

Motorola MH230R 23-Mile Range 22-Channel FRS/GMRS Two-Way Radio (Pair)

Available from Amazon

Pianoteq Software Piano

I’m not a musical purist. As a composer for video games and films, I’m totally for electronic instruments that can mimic acoustic instruments. I work on tight budgets and I don’t have, for example, a grand piano sitting in my office. Even if I did, pianos are notoriously difficult to mic — that takes a fair amount of skill and a room with great acoustics, which I also don’t have. Synthesized pianos — meaning sample-based software synthesizers that run on your computer — are a “good enough” alternative, yet less than perfect.

Every time you hit a note on the keyboard, the synthesizer fetches a sample of an actual recorded piano (that resides on the hard drive of your computer) and plays it back for you. The downside to this sort of technology is: a) Sampled pianos never sound absolutely real because they can’t mimic the vast complexity of a real piano, and b) All those large samples take a while to load into your computer’s memory as well as taking up a significant amount of space on your hard drive.

Enter Pianoteq (stand alone or plug-in Mac or Windows). It uses a type of synthesis called physical modeling, which recreates the original instrument mathematically. In the case of the piano, this involves modeling the hammers, the strings, the soundboard, and even the pedals. And it’s hands down the most true-sounding synthesized piano I’ve ever played. Pianoteq captures the sounds of every key at every velocity. It accurately captures harmonics when I press the sustain pedal down. Or that weird (wonderful) buzzing in lowest octave. I’m not a maestro but, in a taste test, I can’t tell tell the difference between a recording of Pianoteq and a recording of a real piano.

But it gets better still. Using sliders, Pianoteq allows me to tweak and adjust practically every aspect of the physical model. No piano or any other synthesized piano that I know of can do this. I can adjust how much hammer noise I want to hear, or what point on the strings the hammers hits. I can change the length of the soundboard or the length of the strings, mute the strings, mic the piano in a virtual space, and on and on. All of this dramatically changes the sound. I can start with a piano that sounds like a Bosendorfer and, in a matter of seconds, I can end up with something with something that sounds almost percussive, but still very acoustic. Or I can tweak the sound toward something more bell-like.

Because Pianoteq is algorithmically based, it’s small… a mere 20 megabytes. Its sampled cousins weigh in at hefty 2 – 4 gigabytes and require around 4 gigabytes of internal memory. The upshot of this: Pianoteq loads lightning fast, which is a nice plus when I’m in the middle of writing music (or just fiddling around).

Before I encountered Pianoteq, I had always partially hid sampled pianos under a veil of other instruments. Using Pianoteq I now tend to feature pianos or even solo pianos, because they sound real. And rich. From my perspective, now I have any number of virtual pianos sitting around in my office, from a wide variety of grands, to uprights, to antique grands, to old detuned pianos, etc….

But a YouTube video paints a thousand words, or something like that. In the short video below using one of my compositions for the film The Immortal Augustus Gladstone, I’ll quickly demonstrate just a few of Pianoteq’s adjustments.

-- Robyn Miller  

Pianoteq 4

Sample Excerpts:

The Condition slider allows you to modify the state of the instrument, from freshly tuned to completely worn out. After a right click on the slider, changing the Random seed parameter will allow you to enjoy thousands of broken instrument variations.



Amped ACA1 Wi-Fi USB Adapter

When the PCI Wi-Fi card in my desktop system died last month, I decided to get something that had an external antenna I could move away from the case and closer to the door of my room, since the wireless router was on the other side of the house. When I saw the ACA1 it seemed to fit the bill, with a few extras: It comes with a clip to attach to a laptop LCD monitor, in case I needed a better connection. It supports the dual band 2.4GHz and 5.0Ghz standards. It also supports the new 802.11AC protocol, in addition to the a/b/g/n protocols that have been in use for years.

What I didn’t expect is the flat-out SPEED this adapter delivers. Yes, it’s USB 3.0, but I didn’t expect that to affect my Wi-Fi usage. From day one, it has registered 48.0 MBps, while the PCI card never got over 5.0 MBps. Also, I see SIDs from neighbors which never registered with the older card.

Setup was easy: Run the Setup CD; Connect the USB 3.0 cable (it’s included) plug it into an available USB port; Select your SID and enter your wi-fi security key.

This was the best $90 network upgrade I’ve ever spent, and with the new AC protocol being supported I look forward to many years of happy net-surfing to come.

-- Opher Banarie  

[This may not work for Mac computers. See the Amazon comments. - Mark]

Amped Wireless High Power 500mW Dual Band AC Wi-Fi USB Adapter

Available from Amazon

Audioflood Waterprooof iPod Shuffle

I learned how to paddleboard this summer and after a while, out on the water, I wanted music. I bought the Audioflood waterproof iPod. (It’s an iPod Shuffle that has had its interior filled with waterproof sealant). I loaded it up with a lot of Phillip Glass, David Byrne and some Gilbert and Sullivan overtures and I set sail. Audio quality was good. The included breakaway headphones were inspired. All seemed to be going swimmingly.

Then I decided to teach my new Swiss Mountain Dog puppy how to paddleboard with me. That worked out surprisingly well, but the Audioflood iPod got knocked into the salt water bay.

In my mind, I composed several letters to Audioflood, blaming them for their poor quality iPod clips, but, of course the clips were Apple’s and it was really my fault.

Five days later, while landing my dog and paddleboard, I saw the flash of hot pink on the seafloor ( through two feet of salt water). There was my Audioflood. I snatched it from among the hungry, musical-loving crustaceans that had gathered round.

When I got home, I plugged in the headphones and “Einstein on the Beach” came blasting. Five days submerged in salt water! This is a great product.

-- Douglas Gray  

AudioFlood waterproof iPod Shuffle with headphones

Available from Amazon

Swiss Army Spirit Multitool Plus Ratchet

Over the years of buying many multitools, I realize there is no “perfect” multitool. But the Victorinox Spirit (plus ratchet) comes close. Victorinox is known for making precise tools, and the Spirit is no exception. I bought the Spirit in 2010. Since then, it has proven to be an invaluable accessory in my everyday carry. With ergonomics in mind, the Spirit is designed with curved handles, and you can access other its tools without exposing the pliers. It can be open with a flick of the wrist, allowing for quick deployment of the blunt nose pliers.

Unlike most other multitools, the Spirit optionally comes with a bit set and ratchet.

The only thing I dislike about the Spirit is the fixed pair of scissors it comes with. Unlike traditional Swiss Army scissors, the one that comes with the Spirit lacks mobility. You wouldn’t be able to cut very fast nor large using scissors from the Spirit. Another complaint most people have is with the “butter” blade. Most people prefer a pointed style blade, and that can be easily solved just by purchasing the Spirit X (but it doesn’t come with a ratchet and bit set).

Finished with beautiful stainless steel, the Spirit is certainly my multitool of choice. It’s not as customizable or rugged as a Leatherman, but the Spirit works for my needs. So far, it has not rusted, or failed on me while on the job as an all-around handyman.

-- Jefferson Deng  

Victorinox Swiss Army SwissTool Spirit Plus Ratchet

Available from Amazon

Worx Hand Cleaner

Over the past 10 years I have worked in a garage, machine shop and most recently an automotive research lab. I have never found a better hand cleaner than Worx.

It is a dry powder type of soap, not a sandy paste. Worx is incredible. It gets the hard-to-clean dirt and great from under and around fingernails. It even cleans in fingerprint ridges with little or no scrubbing. It cleans oily grease and dry dirt/grit equally well. It removes the smell of gasoline, cutting oil and ethylene glycol from skin. It is not harsh on skin. Unlike Gojo you never need to wash your hands twice. Usually the towel I use to dry up even has enough leftover residue to tackle the dirt that gets on my forearms up to my elbows.

I keep a small pouch in my glove box and bicycle bag for dry/semi-dry clean-up after chain or tire repairs.

The manufacturer says the product is organic, biodegradable and all natural. It smells fine, better than many hand cleaners at local part stores. It is not widely distributed in the U.S. but Grainger has it in many locations, and even some Wal-Mart stores. I brought some back to my lab from Canada and my co-workers line up to use it.

-- Kevin Cedrone  

Worx All Natural Hand Cleaner

Available from Amazon