16 January 2019


Screw and Nut Grabber

Spring-loaded jaws grasp tiny screws

I came across this Screw and Nut Grabber ($8) in the impulse buy section during a Christmas shopping trip to a Lee Valley retail store. When I saw it sitting in the jar on the counter I hoped it was the solution to the headaches caused by my sausage fingers. At $8 it was worth the gamble. It has found itself and permanent home in my tool kit, unlike other items found in the spaces usually reserved for mints and chocolate parts.

I repair medical equipment on site for a living. While many screws are magnetic and will hold to a bit for installing upside down, I have found some manufacturers use small stainless screws to install circuit boards in devices where there is any risk of moisture ingress. This has led to me dropping many screws, accompanied by some colorful language and a scavenger hunt.

I have looked at similar devices that hold a screw onto a screwdriver but they are designed to be used for one type of screwdriver bit and I would have to carry multiple specialty drivers. This is not ideal for keeping my tool kit lightweight and portable. But this tool is small enough to fit into hard to reach areas. While not designed to allow you to apply torque it allows me to start a machine screw with little risk of cross threading then follow with a normal driver to tighten.

For starting a screw it is limited to small (~1/4″) heads or the holding prongs will slip. I have also used it for its intended purpose to the pick up dropped fuses, screws, nuts, etc.

I have used this tool for almost 2 years 3-10 times per week and it has held up very well. It is small enough to fit into any tool kit. This tool has saved me many hours of searching for dropped screws and nuts and maintain a professional demeanor at the same time.

[Amazon sells a similar tool for $7 — MF]

-- Arthur Heffernan 01/16/19

16 January 2019


Software-Defined Radio

Receiving radio signals using a tuner dongle

While doodling around in YouTube, some videos bubbled up about SDR – Software Defined Radio. It’s an amazing topic. If I don’t screw up the explanation: Rather than a whole lot of radio receiver hardware that lets you pick up a transmission-at-a-time in a particular band that the radio’s designed to handle, an SDR receiver ($30) (in this case, a USB dongle) does some of the RF stuff, and the software (& hardware) in the computer does what the usual radio hardware does. And it adds a whole lot of flexibility. Here’s a pretty good introduction:

This kit is $28 and includes a few antenna combinations. I’ve put SDR# on my not-really-elaborate laptop (gotta follow the installation directions on this one, it’s not hard or complicated, but not being aware of some details will frustrate), and boom, it comes right up. There’s some exploration necessary to figure out what’s what, but the payoff comes quickly: Being able to see (spectrally) & hear all sorts of stuff in a wide band of freqs. For almost no money, really. And the spectrum available to even this cheapie dongle is far beyond what normal hardware-specific radios are capable of handling. Of course, you can always work on improving your antenna setup, and there are more elaborate (& expensive) radios, so there’s room to grow new capacities. For Hams, there are SDR transceivers, too. There are ways these things can provide broadcast TV reception, too. Even grabbing satellite weather images is possible if you want to chase that. It’s amazing, and cool too.

-- Wayne Ruffner 01/16/19

15 January 2019


Micro USB Adapter Connector

Adapter connector for cell phones and tablets

One of these ($4 for 5) came bundled with a USB Flash drive I purchased. Insert one end into the male USB plug of the Flash drive, and the other end is micro USB compatible, so it can plug into your phone or other devices. For years, I just used it to transfer files to and from flash drives into my phone, but then I learned a really neat thing: It will also work with the transmitter dongle for my wireless keyboard and mouse! On those occasions when I wish to use my tablet (a Kindle Fire 7) more like a computer, I can connect my full-size keyboard and mouse to the tablet with this adapter. The peripherals work just as expected, letting me type at normal speeds, and have the precise cursor control that I expect from a mouse. It has been really convenient. I have this wireless mini-keyboard/trackpad device which also can use in this way. So when I don’t want to carry a notebook computer, but still need to do some typing, this adapter is just the thing. The one I am linking to is very small and inexpensive. It is thin enough that I can store it, in a paper envelope, inside my wallet without trouble.

-- Daniel Kim 01/15/19

14 January 2019


Mpow M5 Bluetooth Headset

Wireless over head earpiece with noise reduction

I spend a ton of time in the office on video and phone calls. Not surprisingly, I’ve spent a ton of time trying different headsets. After years of disappointment (looking at you, Plantronics Voyager Legend) and inconvenience (Plantronics EncorePro) I typed “trucker Bluetooth headset” into Amazon. I mean, truckers spend all day on the phone in a noisy cab, so maybe they know what they’re doing? At just $20, the Mpow M5 was a cheap risk.

Tl;dr: These meet or exceed the voice/video/VoIP performance of every other headset I’ve tried.

We ran a test at the office this morning. There are about a dozen people in an open environment talking to each other and on phone calls. We also have an Echo playing some “western country funk” in the corner a bit louder than I would prefer. We did a video chat, and my colleagues reported they could hear nothing except my voice, and that was crystal clear (I had to turn down the gain slightly within the Zoom app). I could also pace about 20 feet from my desk before the audio got crackly. Things were clear on my side, though there isn’t anything to block ambient noise. We all agree they sound better then elsewhere-top-ranked Jabra Evolve 75 (which is over 10x more expensive!).

-- Joshua Herzig-Marx 01/14/19

13 January 2019


Digital Recomendo

Downloadable, searchable PDF

The Cool Tools website focuses on handy, useful, proven tools. But a lot of great stuff that Mark and I come across are not really tools. We created the Recomendo email list for this purpose. Every Sunday we mail out 6 very brief recommendations of cool stuff: places we love, people to follow, great things to eat, good movies, fantastic podcasts, cool tips, short cuts, favorite items, and many other suggestions. This newsletter, Recomendo, is free and has over 20,000 subscribers. Sign up here.

Last year we took the best of our first two years’ recommendations and put them into about 100-page book. The book (available on Amazon here) is made to be browsed. You can flip through it in any order and most folks will find something of interest on every spread. It is an easy read.

For the benefit of international fans, and for those who don’t want paper books, we have created a digital version. It’s a downloadable searchable PDF, in full color (the paper book is only B&W), weighs nothing, and is available instantly for only $1.99. We priced it so that anyone could afford it.

If you do get one, let us know how you like this format. (We don’t have plans for a Kindle version yet, but maybe in the future.)

-- KK 01/13/19

13 January 2019


Dual scale tape measures/Gmail tips/Papier

Recomendo: issue no. 129

Dual scale tape measures
In my ongoing campaign to make myself literate in metric (used everywhere in the world except the US), as much as possible I try to measure only in metric. I got a Komelon dual scale measuring tape (both metric and inches on one side) and after a month or so, I can think in metric. I really like Komelon measuring tapes because they are inexpensive but high quality. They have four in different sizes in dual scale from 3.5m/12ft for only $5, to a 9m/30ft for $8.50. The 9-meter one is big in the hand but an incredible bargain; however their 5-meter is probably a good size for general use.  — KK

Gmail tips
Gizmodo has a useful article on several ways to improve your Gmail experience. One example: my address is markfrauenfelder@gmail.com. I can sign up for newsletters by using markfrauenfelder+lists@gmail.com and then filter the email to a “newsletter” label. —  MF

Take notes in your browser
My current favorite chrome extension for optimizing a new tab is Papier. It’s just one single note page. This is perfect for taking quick notes without minimizing or closing your browser. Everything you type autosaves and syncs to Chrome. You can create lists with checkboxes, and there are even a few formatting and style options available. But I feel the simpler, the better. Right now I have saved a few lines to a poem I am working on, so that every time I open a new tab I’m reminded to stay inspired. — CD

Ocean-friendly sunscreen
Many sunscreens contain ingredients harmful to coral reefs. Hawaii announced a ban on sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate, which goes into effect in 2021. Our family switched to zinc oxide sunscreen, which doesn’t hurt coral reefs. We like Thinksport SPF 50+($10.25 per tube). — MF

Quickly access delete account pages
I began the year with a purging of accounts I no longer use like Facebook, Snapchat and LinkedIn. This Consumer Reports article has direct links to Delete Account pages for the major platforms. It spared me the hassle of  navigating through settings in search of a delete button. — CD

Best podcast episodes
I’ve been using these two lists of the “best podcast episodes from 2018,“ one from Vulture (10 picks), and one from IndieWire (50 picks), to listen to some great individual shows and to discover new podcasts to potentially subscribe to. — KK



Check out our new Recomendo book! 550 of the best recommendations from the past two years.




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Cool Tools is a web site which recommends the best/cheapest tools available. Tools are defined broadly as anything that can be useful. This includes hand tools, machines, books, software, gadgets, websites, maps, and even ideas. All reviews are positive raves written by real users. We don’t bother with negative reviews because our intent is to only offer the best.

One new tool is posted each weekday. Cool Tools does NOT sell anything. The site provides prices and convenient sources for readers to purchase items.

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We recently posted a short history of Cool Tools which included current stats as of April 2008. This explains both the genesis of this site, and the tools we use to operate it.

13632766_602152159944472_101382480_oKevin Kelly started Cool Tools in 2000 as an email list, then as a blog since 2003. He edited all reviews through 2006. He writes the occasional review, oversees the design and editorial direction of this site, and made a book version of Cool Tools. If you have a question about the website in general his email is kk {at} kk.org.

13918651_603790483113973_1799207977_oMark Frauenfelder edits Cool Tools and develops editorial projects for Cool Tools Lab, LLC. If you’d like to submit a review, email him at editor {at} cool-tools.org (or use the Submit a Tool form).

13898183_602421513250870_1391167760_oClaudia Dawson runs the Cool Tool website, posting items daily, maintaining software, measuring analytics, managing ads, and in general keeping the site alive. If you have a concern about the operation or status of this site contact her email is cl {at} kk.org.