July 25, 2012 -- In July 2011, Discovery News Tech expanded its coverage to include gadgets. We added three new bloggers to our team and began rolling out reviews, slideshows and blog posts about the latest, greatest gizmos. To celebrate our team and the one-year anniversary, we decided to pull together a personal list of the gadgets we use on a regular basis. Some of these devices are sophisticated electronics but others are simple plastic tools. All of them make our lives easier and may give some insight into each of our personalities. This slideshow is by no means a endorsement or a review of these products -- it's for entertainment purposes only.
PHOTOS: Top Strange and Impractical Techs from CES 2012
Rob Pegoraro Nexus 7 Tablet and Sony 40-inch LCD HDTV
I liked Google and Asus' 7-inch Android tablet when I reviewed it earlier this July; two weeks later, this $199, Wi-Fi-only touchscreen device continues to be a favorite around and outside the house -- even though we own a perfectly good iPad 2. The Nexus 7's lighter weight and smaller size just make it a better fit for a lot of common tablet scenarios, like consulting a recipe while you cook. It does take a while to charge over a generic USB cable, but I can live with that. Apparently, so can many other gadget shoppers: Google has already had to halt orders for the 16 GB model after running out of hardware.
The 2009-vintage, 40-inch LCD HDTV in our living room is not new and not particularly shiny anymore either (perhaps I should try dusting it off). But this "connected" Sony model has been a model of a gracefully aging consumer-electronics gadget, including a generous two years' worth of firmware updates that added support for such online media services as Pandora and Hulu Plus. It's been an excellent case for buying gadgets that get regular software patches from manufacturers (especially when those install with zero drama and minimal waiting).
Alice Truong Canon 5D Mark II camera, Fitbit Pedometer and Withings Scale
After feeling stymied on a crop-sensor SLR for several years, I found a world of new, dramatic and beautiful images had opened up when I got my hands on the Canon 5D Mark II, inspiring me to shoot more. Simply put, life is much more stunning in 35 mm and the 5D has helped me see the bigger picture (literally).
Though I have to sheepishly admit the Fitbit pedometer enthusiastically overcounts my steps, I feel the tracker is effective keeping me active. Its slim profile also makes it less cumbersome than some of its direct competitors. I'm still not quite over the review unit I lost while hiking the treacherous Kalalau Trail in Hawaii (RIP Fitbit). Worst of all, I never got credit for the 20,000 steps, each way, because I didn't get a chance to sync it first.
One of the first fitness gadgets I’ve ever reviewed, I believe the Withings set a ridiculously high standard for everything else to come. I can't say I've had a more seamless gadget experience. After connecting it to the Wi-Fi, the scale requires no further effort. Just step on, and it'll tell you your weight, body fat percentage and BMI, and send all that information to the Web. Ever since, I’ve expected all tracking gadgets to work like the Withings, but all have fallen short to its user experience.
For a more in-depth review of the items above, visit Alice's blog on Discovery
Jesse Emspak Blackberry Mobile Phone and Rotary Phone
I bought my Blackberry in late 2009, and it's been so good to me that I'm reluctant to part with it even in the face of iPhones and Androids. First, there's the physical keyboard; any phone that uses a touch screen only is for me, too much of a pain to use if I need to type an email. (In the dozen years I have seen "predictive" text algorithms, I have never, ever seen one guess the word I wanted correctly).
It's also tough: dropping it, I've chipped off bits of the case, and the camera doesn't really work anymore (the buttons that control the camera are long gone). But it still functions for email, phone calls and basic Web access, which is all I have ever needed. As a reporter, I need my phone to work; I can't be worried that the battery will cut out after a few hours or that the touch screen will get damaged as it bounces around in my bag or pocket. Yes, you can buy a protector for your iPhone, but I ask: Why should you have to?
Then there's my rotary phone. I got it on eBay back in 1998, after I lost another just like it that came from my parents' house. With a little tweaking (you need an adapter and to change a couple of wires inside), it works -- and better than most cordless phones.
First, it's heavy enough to sit on my desk without jumping off when I pick it up. Second, it has sound quality that is, bar none, the best I have ever used. Nothing replaces the old carbon-diaphragm speakers and microphones for clarity. Third, it needs no batteries, and is powered by the phone line itself, so I am not losing an outlet to another wall wart. During the New York City blackout in 2003, I was able to make calls. My cell phone and my answering machine phone were both fancy paperweights.
Then there's the retro design. When I take notes, via keyboard or pen (yes, I still write with one of those), holding a receiver against my shoulder is a lot easier than doing the same thing with any cell phone. It really is a marvel.
Alyssa Danigelis Garlic mincer and USB Digital Foot Control
My family recipes -- Greek and American alike -- often call for minced garlic. Growing up, I had the unenviable duty of using our old-fashioned metal press. I hated that thing. The holes in it were too small so the whole setup usually resulted in several drops of garlic juice, a mangled clove and some mumbled obscenities. Smashing a clove with the broad side of a knife was fun but it still had to be minced. Later on I give up and bought pre-minced garlic in the jar.
Then my folks gave me a garlic mincer from a museum store for Christmas that brought fresh garlic back into the picture. Put cloves inside the circular interlocking plastic halves, press the halves closed and then twist to mince. So easy. No swearing. That spur-of-the-moment gift has simplified a wide range of recipes, from marinades and salad dressings to ambitious variations on the classic Greek eggplant dish, moussaka. There must be a million ways to mince garlic, but for me this is among the least messy and most fun. As a journalist, I'm sometimes faced with hours of digitally recorded phone interviews to transcribe. In the days of yore, it was possible to transcribe tapes using a pedal to control the recording, separate parts of the pedal allowing it to play, go forward, and rewind. This could cut transcription time nearly in half. Except the last time I'd seen a pedal was 10 years ago in a dusty drawer at the magazine where I worked then.
This year, the prospect of transcribing eight hour-long recorded interviews for a Q&A magazine feature prompted me to start Googling "USB transcription pedal." And lo, this miracle of modern technology did indeed exist. After reading a bunch of reviews, I settled on the Infinity USB Digital Foot Control. The dictation software required was a cheap and easy online purchase.
Ever since then, the pedal has helped me crank through hours of interviews. If only it could make my recorded voice playback sound less annoying.
Scott Tharler Powerbag Deluxe Backpack and Chilipad Mattress Pad
It's rare that I take a trip longer than overnight without packing my versatile Powerbag Deluxe Backpack full of the gadgets it'll re-juice as needed along the way. It's comfortable, has plenty of storage and pockets and -- with 30-pin, Mini- and Micro-USB wires built into the side pocket--helps keep my bag lighter and its contents less tangled. Since October, I made the five-second swap of my "old" 6,000mAh battery for the new 9,000mAh capacity. Beyond that, it'd be great to be able to charge a laptop with the bag. But in the meantime, I'm always happy to see those little lights on the outside ascending to indicate stuff is charging as I travel.
If reluctance to want to return a device once tested is any measure of its worth, the Chilipad is invaluable. You either don't have it or use it every night. The concept is fantastic: a pad no thicker than a regular mattress pad that can heat or cool either side of the bed to both individuals' desired comfort! I like how not just the temperature, but also the timing of each side's settings can be adjusted. I can fall asleep with it warming and have it even out after an hour, while my wife can nod off to a specified number of cooling hours. I've been pleasantly surprised that I don't have to refill the water in the control units as often as I thought I would. But even when I do, it's a small price to pay for nightly comfort and harmony!
Christina Ortiz Dohm SS White Noise Maker and Sennheiser RS 220 Headphones
I am really crazy when it comes to noise. All noise in my workspace has to be either nonexistent or one I can control. I’ve had a Dohm SS (formerly SleepMate) in my office ever since my junior year of college; it’s usually found in doctor’s offices. They create white noise, which makes for more privacy with patients. I use it to block outside apartment noises. When I lived in a noisy building, this was my sanity-saver. The rushing air sound this tiny machine makes can be amplified or lessened by turning its cover to expose more or less holes, and it has two sounds speeds.
When all the big summer announcements where going on at developer’s conferences (Apple, Google, Microsoft) this year, I wanted to follow along with the live keynotes, but I couldn’t just sit there and listen to hours of talking without getting up. That’s where my Sennheiser RS 220 headphones came in handy. The headphones are completely wireless. Their transmitter connects to whatever device you want to listen to (computer, TV, stereo) and transmits the audio to the headphones. That left me free to roam around my house and get things done, while still keeping up with the latest tech announcements.
Nic Halverson Victorinox Swiss Army Camper Knife and Sony ICD-UX70 Digital Voice Recorder
While I may not be rescuing children from a burning school bus as it dangles over a bridge, there are times when my Victorinox Swiss Army Camper Knife makes me feel somewhat like a superhero. So what if the distress calls I answer are usually from someone who needs a bottle opener, a corkscrew or a length of rope cut to hang a hammock? I still find great satisfaction in having the right tool at the right time for someone in need. The Camper Knife is just the right size -- not too bulky and not too small -- and it has all the tools you need for saving the day: Two blades, a can opener with screwdriver, a bottle opener with screwdriver and wire stripper, a reamer with sewing eye, a corkscrew, a wood saw, toothpick and tweezers. Plus it’s made of stainless steel, durable nylon and aluminum that all but guarantees it’ll last for years to come. Accept no substitute.
What do flamenco dancers, DIRTcar racers, gravediggers, last year’s World Series MVP and a former Hells Angel have in common? Their words have all been recorded on my trusty digital voice recorder. When it comes to conducting interviews for my stories, hands down, there’s nothing better than a free-flowing, face-to-face conversation to bag a great quote. As long as I feed it a fresh AAA battery every now and then, my Sony ICD-UX70 makes sure I never miss a word. The thing I love most about it is how unobtrusive it is. Whether it’s in my hand or on a table, it’s so small that my interviewees easily forget that it’s there and talk more freely.
Plus, the specs are pretty great: 290 hours of recoding time, digital pitch control, voice-operated recording, 1 GB of built-in Flash Memory, microphone sensitivity and a USB connection that lets me drop files into iTunes for safekeeping. Once, while I was tagging along with a falconer as he hunted rabbits with a Red-tailed hawk, my recorder fell out of my breast pocket when I slid down a hillside. In absolute panic, I retraced my steps and clawed through the brush until, luckily, I found it. For a moment there, I felt like I lost a child.
Tracy Staedter Apple iPhone and Philips Sonicare DiamondClean Rechargeable Electric Toothbrush
Despite being a career tech and science journalist, I'm not much of a gadget guru. My focus on tech has been the innovations coming out of research labs, not necessarily Best Buy. So, I didn't jump on the iPhone bandwagon until earlier this year. Now that I'm rolling, I'm here to stay. I love having a smartphone for lots of reasons, including apps, Internet access, email, etc. But I especially like Siri. Often, while walking my dog, I think of something related to a story I'm working on and quickly dictate a note. I like being able to dictate reminders and text messages, too. My only complaint is that the iPhone with the protective Otterbox case is quite bulky. Sometimes it doesn't fit in my pocket.
For the first time ever, I bought an electric toothbrush. The Philips Sonicare DiamondClean is one of the higher-end version of this gadget and I think it's great. It has five modes for brushing: clean, white, polish, gum care, or sensitive. In the clean mode, the brush runs automatically for two minutes, with a tone change every 30 seconds that allows you to split the cleaning into four sections and give each one the same amount of time. My teeth look whiter, my gums feel stimulated and the toothbrush is powerful and gentle at the same time. It comes with a charging station that's easy to clean and also has a travel case that charges via a USB port.
PHOTOS: Work It! Human-Powered Machines