The Gadgets Page

August 25, 2010

When Cats Dream of Laser Pointers

Filed under: Misc. Gadgets — Laura Moncur @ 11:51 am

Anyone who has ever had a cat and a laser pointer in the same room has noticed how much cats love to chase that elusive red dot. But, what do they wish for if they actually were able to CATCH it? The ever-brilliant comic, XKCD, has brought that desire to life:

Click to see full-sized comic

American Science & Surplus Red Laser Pointer With Case and Batteries at Amazon.comIf you have never played with a cat and a laser pointer, now is the time to try it out. Here are a couple of good and inexpensive ones:

August 23, 2010

PostSecret: I Love You And Hate You

Filed under: eBook Readers and Peripherals,Laptops,PDAs and Phones — Laura Moncur @ 9:55 am

This week’s postcards from PostSecret told a couple of interesting stories. Here is the first one:

It reads:

I liked you better before you got your iPhone.

But the second one tells a different story.

It reads:

I’m automatically more attracted to you if you use Apple products.

I found the dichotomy of the two interesting and even laughable. Our computers and cell phones are TOOLS. They shouldn’t make us more or less attractive to others, but they DO. Why?

This strange attraction (revulsion) might go as far back instinctively as our Cro-Magnon days. Those early humans started using tools and the best tools guaranteed survival. Mating with a human with better tools might be like mating with a human with a healthy glow in their skin or wide child-bearing hips. It assures survival of our progeny.

I find it interesting that Apple is able to elicit two very different instincts in people.

PostSecret‘s beneficiary is the National Hopeline Network. It is a 24-hour hotline (1 (800) SUICIDE) for anyone who is thinking about suicide or knows someone who is considering it.

July 15, 2010

When To Go To LED Lighting

Filed under: Misc. Gadgets — Matthew Strebe @ 7:16 am

EvoLux S 13 Watt LED Medium Base Long Light Bulb, Warm White at Amazon.comLED replacement bulbs are the most efficient bulbs on the market. A 13 Watt LED light bulb generates as much light as a 100-Watt conventional bulb. I’ve been testing various LED replacement bulbs and really like the EvoLux 13 Watt Warm White lights from They replace any medium sized light bulb and come in both short (for recessed lighting) and long (for lamps) lengths.

LED replacement bulbs are expensive, retailing for about $60 compared to the $2 cost of a typical light bulb. But LED bulbs last 50 times as long as conventional bulbs, and they use 1/8th the power. These two factors can lower the lifetime cost of an LED bulb dramatically.

Whether or not LED bulbs make sense for you depends on where you live. In San Diego, where I live, I pay 28¢/KWh for the majority of my power. This means that a typical light bulb costs me $30 per year to operate, whereas an LED bulb costs just $4. I’ll also have to replace that incandescent bulb each year based on normal lifetimes, so in ten years I’ll have paid $320 to operate a normal bulb, but just $100 to operate an LED bulb. That’s less than 1/3rd the price overall. Over the 50 year lifetime of the LED bulb, it’s 1/5th the price.

However, if you pay 10¢/KWh for power, you’ll never actually recoup the cost of an LED light bulb at $60.

For me, it’s already time to make the switch to LEDs. Your rule of thumb is simple: When LED bulbs cost twice in dollars what you pay for a KW of electricity in cents, it’s time to make the switch. For example, if you pay 15¢ for electricity, LED bulbs make sense at $30 retail.

The current generation of LED lights are not dimmable, and their light is quite directional, so they are best used in recessed ceiling lights rather than in lamps. Also, most LED bulbs cast a cold white glow that people often find to be harsh, so if you like the warm yellow glow of incandescent, make sure you order warm white bulbs with a color temperature below 3500K. Finally, you’ll have to remember to take your LED light bulbs with you when you move, or you’ll lose their cost effectiveness.

In the end, LED lighting has a initial investment that may seem daunting, but can be well worth the investment, depending on your electricity bills. With a little research, you may find a way to save yourself money AND save the planet.

June 3, 2010

The Case For Automating Your Windows

Filed under: Green Gadgets,Misc. Gadgets — Matthew Strebe @ 1:04 pm

We pay for a lot of power at the highest billing rate in Southern California because we have eight people living in a 5000 square foot home. When we moved in, our average summer time power bill exceeded $700 per month. Cooling the house with A/C was ridiculously expensive, and it put me on a quest to reduce power usage dramatically. I wish I could say I wanted to save the environment, but it was the money that motivated me.

So I looked at my options and came up with two potential solutions to the massive power bills: Solar, and on-site natural gas cogeneration. Either would be big, expensive projects, so in the mean time, we just ran around the house and opened the windows whenever it got hot, leaving the A/C off.

With my roof and location, I can get up to 3.5Kw of solar power generation installed for about $20K. Going through the numbers, it looks like I’ll reduce my power bill by about $220/mo. on average.

Automated WindowsAs we tired of the daily window opening and closing, I setup a simple home automation system to automate the problem. I put motors on the crank-style casement windows and used a $300 home automation controller to setup simple rules, such as “Open the windows if it’s cool outside and hot inside.” The whole setup cost less than $2000 and took me about three days to get running, most of which consisted of fishing wires through the walls to the window motors.

Then I looked into on-site natural gas cogeneration. Natural gas energy is much cheaper than electricity in California, but unfortunately cogeneration wasn’t feasible with a generator. While possible technically, the generators wear out every year. They’re noisy, and it’s not clear that they’re legal. On cost grounds, by my analysis, it would be twice as expensive as paying for power due to the short generator lifetime. I looked at fuel cells as well: Highly efficient, silent, and long-lived, but also very expensive. The payout would be fifty or so years, longer than the unit’s lifetime.

When I revisited the power bill after automating the windows, I discovered that this simple, interim solution had reduced our power bill by over $300 per month! The house was comfortable all the time, and the A/C hadn’t come on since I got the system running. A $2000 investment in home automation equipment would be paid back in just seven months, and was reducing more utility bill costs than a $20,000 solar system would.

The system automatically opens and closes the windows based on the home’s interior temperature compared to the weather outside. I have a simple program that runs on a $300 embedded controller computer (a Universal Devices ISY-99) that monitors the inside temperature, an RSS feed of the weather station where I live, time-of-day, and likelihood of rain, and makes decisions about whether and when to open or close the windows.

This setup saves me, on average, $320/mo. compared to the months when we first moved in and left the windows shut and the A/C and heat on a 68/74 degree thermostatic setting. Those months we were averaging over $740/mo. for power, and now we’re averaging $360.

Before you spend a lot of money on generating electricity, do everything you can to reduce your electrical use. Big wins for us included eliminating AC with natural ventilation and ceiling fans, replacing CRT and plasma televisions with LCD, replacing old appliances with new more efficient models, cold-water laundry, and line-drying clothes. We now have our power consumption down by two-thirds over-all, and have reached a point where adding solar may take us down to zero.

I used Truth casement window operators and controllers from, and INSTEON I/O Linc modules, and an ISY-99 home automation controller from to implement this project.

May 14, 2010

Twitter Updates for 2010-05-14

Filed under: Site News — Laura Moncur @ 5:00 pm
  • Dear Apple, Thank you for the update to Pages. It didn't fix everything, but at least I have my toolbar in landscape mode. #

Powered by Twitter Tools.

May 13, 2010

Inventive Storage in a 344 Square Foot Apartment

Filed under: Misc. Gadgets — Laura Moncur @ 7:51 am

When Mike and I lived in an 800 square foot house, we got quite inventive with our storage and multi-use rooms, but nothing like the ingenious work done by architect, Gary Chang, in Hong Kong. His sliding walls can create many rooms in a 344 square foot apartment. Check out the video from the Wall Street Journal below.

The idea of creating one room with sliding walls that create a different room is a stroke of genius. The media storage wall of the living room slides away to reveal a dressing area.

Living Room wall slides to reveal a dressing area

The guest bed folds down over the bathtub.

guest bed folds down over the bathtub

The master bed folds up into the wall just like an old Murphy Bed.

Murphy Bed

The wall holding his television slides away to reveal a kitchen including a bar.

TV slides away to reveal a kitchen

Gary’s entire apartment is a gadget lovers dream! The walls slide so easily, despite being loaded down with books or a heavy television. I wonder what mechanism he used to make the panels move. The next time you’re feeling cramped in your home, remember Gary and his inventively creative use of space.

May 6, 2010

iPad & Bluetooth Keyboard: Better Than A Laptop

Filed under: eBook Readers and Peripherals — Laura Moncur @ 9:00 am

iPad Bluetooth Keyboard Better Than A Laptop

I bought a netbook a little over a year ago. I thought it would be perfect for conferences because it was so small, but the battery life was so unbearable short that I was always searching for an electrical plug. At the last conference, I ended up going back to my trusty Macbook because at least the battery would last six hours. I endured the bulkiness in exchange for the convenience of not having to find electricity in every room.

With the iPad, however, there is a perfect marriage of long battery life and portability. It’s smaller than my netbook and the battery lasts easily ten hours. I haven’t fully acclimated to the onscreen keyboard and I prefer to have a real keyboard. The Apple Bluetooth keyboard works perfectly and even when I have to carry both around, they are still about the size of my netbook.

When we bought the iPad, I looked forward to reading books, playing video games and watching movies with it. I had no idea how good it was going to be for taking notes and actually working!

April 26, 2010

Zenses for the iPhone

Filed under: PDAs and Phones,Toys and Games — Laura Moncur @ 2:00 am

Zenses for the iPhoneFor the last two years, I’ve loved Zenses Rainforest for my Nintendo DS. I talked about the game here:

Now that I do most of my game playing on my iPhone, I have been looking for a soothing and relaxing game to lull me to sleep. Imagine my delight when I found my favorite game for the DS was now available on my iPhone!

I downloaded the free app, but I had been perfectly willing to pay for it. After I loaded the game, I realized that it was just a demo version of the stacker game. An in-app 99 cent purchase later, and I had the full version.

Zenses for the iPhoneWith this game, you make stacks of three items of the same shape and color. It differs from the Nintendo version slightly because you can’t make stacks of the same shape with different colors for less points. Sometimes, if I was running out of time, I would make a couple of desperate stacks out of different colors, but that’s not an option with the iPhone version.

One of my favorite aspects of the game is the music. I’m the type of person who immediately turns the music and sound effects off on most games, so the fact that I love the Zenses soundtrack is a testament to their ability to create a soothing atmosphere. When I bought the Nintendo version, they gave me a code to download MP3s of the songs in the game. I still listen to those songs at least once a week. In fact, the only reason I searched the iPhone app store for Zenses this weekend was because of a bout of insomnia in which I lulled myself back to sleep by playing Bejeweled with its sound effects turned off and the Zenses soundtrack playing in the background.

Unlike the Nintendo DS version, there is only ONE game with Zenses Rainforest. Fortunately, it was my favorite from the collection, but there were others that I enjoyed and I’m worried that they won’t be ported over to the iPhone because this game is being marketed with the same name as the multi-game version. I hope to see the other relaxing games show up on the iPhone soon and I’d willing pay extra for the multi-game version on the iPad. Here’s to hoping there is more to come from Zenses.

Update 06-03-10:

I just got an email from Christian at Kiloo

Hi all, I tried to respond to your post about Zenses for the iPhone (written by Laura) but as it didn’t seem to work, I try here instead.

There is indeed more games in the Zenses series on their way to iPhone and iPod touch – we’re actually developing the next one as I type this, so hopefully it wont be too long.

Good to hear you enjoyed the first game in the series 🙂


April 19, 2010

Apple’s Keyboard for the iPad Shines

Filed under: eBook Readers and Peripherals — Matthew Strebe @ 11:01 am

Apple iPad KeyboardI ordered the iPad keyboard when I bought my iPad, and it arrived today. The keyboard is amazingly heavy; it’s carved from a single block of aluminum and seems to weigh about five pounds. It holds the iPad firmly, and is just barely heavy enough to stay put when you pull the iPad out. It would be awkward for carrying around. If you want a portable option, a wireless bluetooth keyboard is your best option to take a keyboard with you on the road.

The keyboard itself is basically Apple’s keyboard with a few extra buttons where the function keys would be:

  • Home
  • Search
  • Dim
  • Bright
  • Photos
  • Onscreen keyboard
  • A blank key that does nothing (!)
  • Rewind
  • Play/Pause
  • Forward
  • Mute
  • Volume Down
  • Volume Up
  • Lock

The iconography is quite obvious. Otherwise it’s a typical Mac keyboard, option key and all. One difference is that Alt-delete is not interpreted as backspace–this is a key I miss. Might be a good use for that blank key if the right set were shifted left so it could be placed above delete. The key feel is superb, just like a Mac keyboard, and I can type on it as fast as any keyboard I’ve ever used. I really wish there was an additional dock connector on the long bottom axis so the iPad could be used in landscape mode. I check my email in landscape mode, and I tend to do all of my “producing” work in that mode. I wrote this review in Pages with the keyboard, and I’m quite impressed that the iPad and this keyboard could actually replace a desktop for light users.

The keyboard makes the iPad far more useful when not wandering around, and will allow it to replace a laptop for many users. I consider it to be a mandatory buy for iPad owners.

April 7, 2010

For Entertainment Only: iPad Review by Matthew Strebe

Filed under: eBook Readers and Peripherals — Matthew Strebe @ 11:51 am

The iPad came out Saturday morning as my family and I drove from San Diego to Cape Canaveral to see the Shuttle Launch. Using my trusty iPhone, I determined that we’d be in Baton Rouge at noon, so I picked one up there. The line had been about two hours long, and I arrived at the tail end of it. My wait was ten minutes.

I synced it in the car outside a Winn Dixie, got it connected to my Verizon MiFi, downloaded a few apps, and synced some kids shows to it. The first thing I noticed was the awkward size: too big to really be mobile, and too small to set down anywhere convenient. It’s the same problem I had with my Newton fifteen years ago.

The built-in apps are great–better looking and more seamless than their iPhone or OS X counterparts. iCal is looking seriously stale compared to the iPad Calendar.

The available apps are even better–Pages is a marvel, although how useful it turns out to be is debatable, and the various news readers are fantastic–by far the easiest way to browse traditional news content.

Dragon Dictation [iTunes Link] works well and is free. It’s a must have for text input. I look forward to a future edition that would work as a keyboard.

Omnigraffle is an interesting fail. The app works just fine, but for $50 they should have provided their full suite of stencils. The very basic shapes they provide are a flat-out rip off compared to price of competing apps, and unless they up the ante they’ll be out-competed in short order on this platform. I want to drag and drop network diagrams as I survey new customer sites. For lines and boxes I can use a $5 sketch app. Omni Group needs to either price to the casual market or provide a professional tool. Right now they’re doing neither. As it stands, I’ll be requesting a refund.

The Video player is everything you’d expect: the best mobile video player on the market in any format. Couple that with on demand rentals and the amazing Netflix app, and you can pretty much waste the rest of your life watching movies on it. The built-in mono speaker is adequate for the backseat, but you’ll want a Bluetooth audio system for home use or headphones anywhere public.

Games are awesome–driving games are much easier to control because there’s weight in that steering wheel. Strategy games now have enough map. The 2X iPhone app magnification is awkward and pixelated seeming for utilities, but in colorful games it’s just fine, and preferable to playing them on the iPhone. The mode worked well with everything I tried except Call of Duty Zombies, where the button appears incorrectly rotated and doesn’t function.

Is it useful for business? Unlikely. If you create for a living, forget it. The onscreen keyboard is okay for the occasional email but it won’t replace a laptop, ever. For email it’s fine but not substantially better than an iPhone. For niche work where the form factor allows standing data entry there’s a real niche, but this device is for entertainment through and through.

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