Remember when cell phones were as big as a brick and required a separate shoulder pack to keep the battery up and running? Yeah, so do we. But we also remember the birth of the smartphone, and since then, they’ve gotten smarter and smarter. With dozens of choices out there now (several iPhone models and carriers, along with multitudes of Android devices), we figure that your gift recipient already has a smartphone. So we’re focusing on some products that can enhance their smartphone, whether it’s a nice case, charging device, Bluetooth headset or other cool accessory. Here’s what we liked this year:
Products reviewed in this categoryHTC Wildfire S smartphone, by T-MobileMarque M155 Bluetooth headset, by PlantronicsSpeaky Bluetooth car speakerphone, by Bluetreki4 Charging Station, by IDAPTCel-Fi RS1 Cellular Repeater, by Nextivityi1Eco universal charger, by IDAPTCase-Mate iPhone 4 Monsta CaseAegis Series for iPhone 4, by Trident CaseThe Callet - phone case and wallet in oneSpeck iPhone 4 cases (many varieties), by Speck ProductsSpiderpodium, by BreffoPowerSlice universal charger, by FuseZip Touch-n-Go Multi-Charging Station, by The Joy FactoryMobile Power Station, by IOGEARInductive Charger, by EnergizerCarbon Bluetooth headset, by BluetrekFreeway Bluetooth speaker phone, by JabraM50 Bluetooth headset, by PlantronicsJabra Supreme Bluetooth headset, by JabraVoyager Pro HD Bluetooth headset, by PlantronicsIcon HD Bluetooth headset + The Nerd, by Jawbone
HTC Wildfire S smartphone, by T-MobileI know iPhones are all the rage, must-have, cool, and hey, wait a second – if that’s true, why is Android outselling the iPhone by such a wide margin? Is there anything wrong with Android? Well, as an Android user myself I can tell you, sure, nothing’s perfect, but for most users the differences between Android and iPhone are inconsequential. And since an iPhone is going to set you back a wad of cash (OK, except for the antique 8GB 3GS, which, like the Wildfires S reviewed here, is also now free), handsets like the Wildfire S are truly worth a look.
So, what can you get for free? It’s 3G, of course, has Wi-Fi, GPS, and has a 5-megapixel/720p camera. It’s a true world phone, covering all the major bands, and supports HSPA, tethering over both USB and Wi-Fi (essential for business use, IMHO), and there’s Bluetooth and a 3.5mm audio jack. It runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and HTC’s Sense UI, and has all manner of sensors and other bells and whistles. For most people, this is a more than serviceable phone.
What’s not to like? Well, this can be both a plus and a minus, but it’s small – much smaller than an iPhone or most Android phones, but still very usable. Screen resolution, though, is limited to 320 by 480, a consequential disadvantage. The processor is slower than higher-end phones. Storage is primarily on the MicroSD card, but these can range up to 32GB. The battery cover must be removed, however, and as is common, to access this slot.
In use, the Wildfire S is like any other Android phone. Everything works, and with a little practice, even techno-novices will take to this one. OK, it’s not as fast or as slick as some higher-end phones, but anyone looking for a truly pocket-sized Android handset will likely be quite happy with this one – especially now that T-Mobile is literally giving them away (OK, with a contract, but still…)
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: Free (Web pricing) with activation and data service; free shippingReviewed by C.J. Mathias
Marque M155 Bluetooth headset, by PlantronicsThe Marque M155 headset from Plantronics is aimed at owners of smartphones like the iPhone or Android phones. In addition to its regular Bluetooth hands-free headset features, the Marque M155 can synch with the MyHeadset app, which gives you additional tips and tools. Like previous versions from Plantronics, the M155 includes access to the Vocalyst voice service (which lets you dictate Facebook and Twitter updates via the headset), and can also stream music, podcasts, Internet radio and even GPS directions via Bluetooth v3.0 and A2DP stereo support. The headset also includes multipoint technology, which lets you pair the headset to two phones simultaneously.
The headset is also extremely tiny - if you are worried that a Bluetooth headset will make you look like a cyborg, fear not - this is barely noticeable on your head. The eargel fits securely and comfortably on the inside part of your ear (not inside your eardrum); different sizes are given for you to find the best fit. If you want an earloop to go over your ear, it's available, but you shouldn't need one with the cleverly designed eargel tips.
Pairing the device to your phone is very simple - a voice inside the headset walks you through the process, so even a first-time Bluetooth user should be able to get paired quickly (as long as they know where on their smartphone the Bluetooth settings are located). Speaking of voices, when a call comes in, you don't even have to check your phone - you can say "answer" or "ignore" and keep your eyes on the road while driving, for example. Another great part of the headset? An on/off slider switch that lets you save its battery power, so you don't have to worry about constantly recharging it. The same voice that helps with pairing the device also tells you if the phone is paired with the headset, and approximately how much battery power you have left.
There's no noise cancellation or wind noise reduction as seen on more premium headsets from Plantronics, but the sound quality was still pretty good while I was driving my car (as long as the radio and air conditioning was off). If you don't need some of the advanced functionality found in some of the premium headsets, the Marque M155 is a great value.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $59.99 (list)Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Speaky Bluetooth car speakerphone, by BluetrekThe Bluetooth speakerphone that normally attaches to the driver’s side visor gets an upgrade with the it-may-be-too-cute-for some Speaky – at first glance, it looks like a tiny fat baby (or Ziggy), but inside is a Bluetooth speakerphone that provides hands-free cell phone calls. Speaky comes in either black or pink designs, and quickly connects via Bluetooth to your cell phone. If you leave the system powered on, every time you enter the car, it finds your phone and says “Hi, what’s up?” when connected. In fact, my kids started answering Speaky whenever they were in the car and it started talking to us. In fact, Speaky has an impressive set of words and voice prompts, it can tell you when it needs a charge (“Please charge me up!”) or if it loses the Bluetooth connection (“I lost your phone!”).
The system also comes with a cigarette adapter charger, and an auxiliary headphone jack if you want to use Speaky to connect an iPod/iPhone for music purposes. Since I already have an AUX jack on my car stereo, I didn’t see the need for this, but for cars that don’t have the AUX jack, you could utilize Speaky in this way. The system also came with a nice Velcro base that you could stick onto the dashboard quite easily.
Overall this is a speaker system that’s geared towards users who may not be familiar with more advanced Bluetooth car speaker systems, or for kids or others who want to have some fun (in fact, you could take Speaky out of the car and use it as a Bluetooth speaker system for music). It may be too cute for your husband or other power user on your list, but for others (teens, kids, grandparents), it might be a perfect fit.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $69.95Reviewed by Keith Shaw
i4 Charging Station, by IDAPTAnother device aimed at reducing the cable clutter from your phones, gaming devices, music players and other electronic gadgets, the i4 Charging Station provides three pod-like areas (plus one USB port) to let users recharge up to four devices. Each pod gets fitted with an adapter tip that inserts into the pod hole, allowing for flexibility on the part of users to pick-and-choose which devices they want to recharge. The system comes with six different adapter tips (iPod/iPhone, Samsung, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, microUSB, miniUSB), which easily pop in and out of the main base station. The USB port also had enough juice to recharge my iPad 2 via its adapter cable, so we’re not completely cable/clutter-free, but we’re getting closer.
As families start gathering more gadgets for their life, eliminating the power cable clutter is an issue they’ll likely face. I also like how the system is a bit future-proof, as new adapter tips come out they should be able to make an adapter to fit the system. The company says the system works with more than 4,000 devices, so the chances are good that it will work with your device.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $60 for station (with six different tips; additional tips cost about $10 each)Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Cel-Fi RS1 Cellular Repeater, by NextivityI am a huge fan of using cellular repeaters to solve residential cellular coverage problems – you know, you’ve only got one bar and both call quality and data throughput, to say nothing of battery life, both suffer. A repeater is a simple, transparent solution to the problem. Once installed, it’s literally forgotten and just works – more bars with no monthly bills or changes to service plans.
The big problem with most repeaters, though, is the installation. The typical requirement is to install a remote antenna, ideally outdoors, that connects to an indoor electronics box that connects to another box of indoor electronics with an integral antenna over a coaxial cable – meaning major installation expense for that length of coax, if you or your significant other have any appreciation for aesthetics and/or safety, anyway. That’s a big limitation to this otherwise valuable approach to solving the cellular coverage challenge.
Until now. The Cel-Fi Cellular Indoor Coverage Solution with Intelliboost requires no coax! The link between the two is wireless, using spectrum at 5GHz. Simply mount the Window Unit near a window (duh), and the Coverage Unit near the interior of the house. That’s it. There are enough indicators to troubleshoot a problem if you have one, most likely either no visibility of carrier signals or too much or too little range between the two units.
I tried the RS1 using a T-Mobile Windfire S handset (reviewed in this article), and, well, I have poor T-Mobile 3G coverage at my house. The Wildfire S could not pick up 3G at all until I installed the Cel-Fi gear. All of a sudden, I got 3G, and a noticeable improvement in data speeds. OK, I didn’t always get maximum signal strength as I walked around the house, but 3G working at all was quite a feat.
The bad news – they don’t have a version for Verizon users yet – this is for T-Mobile, AT&T, and UMTS/HSPA carriers only. But still, there’s a lot of people out there who could use a product like this, and the very easy installation is a landmark achievement for this type of product.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $525 (list); get a $100 discount by entering “5BARS” when ordering directly from the companyReviewed by C.J. Mathias
i1Eco universal charger, by IDAPTUnlike the desktop charging stations offered by IDAPT and PowerSlice, the i1Eco universal charger by IDAPT is aimed to be a more portable device for users, allowing them to recharge their gadgets while on the go, either in the car or when traveling. The unit is a very small handheld unit that includes a small port for the different charging tips, which include the adapters for use. The system we tried came with three tips, one for iPhone/iPod, a microUSB and miniUSB port (other ports are sold separately). The unit also comes with two power cords – one that attaches to normal wall power outlets, and another one that connects to a car charging adapter (it feels weird to say cigarette lighter). A USB charging port is also included, so you can recharge two devices at the same time (as long as you have the right USB charging cable with you). The USB port couldn’t recharge my iPad 2, but I could recharge it through the adapter tip (kind of a weird quirk of the iPad charging abilities/requirements). One other small complaint – the cord for the wall charger is too small – it’s convenient for travel purposes, but not long enough if you want to recharge something on a desktop.
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $25 for adapter (with three tips), each adapter tip costs $10 eachReviewed by Keith Shaw
Case-Mate iPhone 4 Monsta CaseI’ve never liked bulky iPhone cases for a few reasons – the extra weight it adds to the device, and the inability to then recharge the phone in a docking station or attach the headphone jack. On the other hand, the really thin cases tend to break apart quickly and become useless after heavy usage.
The Monsta Case is small enough to still allow attaching to a docking station and headphones, and light enough to not add the extra bulk. The silicone base is flexible enough where it doesn’t break with wear and tear, and it has a nice textured grip that keeps you from dropping it. If you do happen to drop it, you get some protection that your phone won’t shatter (unless you drop from a very high place or it lands on the uncovered glass part). It’s easy to put on the case and pull it off if you want to switch it.
The monster design and choice of colors (I preferred the green/dark green version) adds some unique styling to your device. One quick downside – the grippy bumps on the back of the device will attach itself to your money if you put the case in your pocket and pull out the phone. Several times I pulled out my phone and my cash fell out of my pocket, so be careful!
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $24.99Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Aegis Series for iPhone 4, by Trident Case This is a two-layered iPhone case to provide more protection than a standard case/offering. The first layer is made of a flexible silicone that wraps around the device. The second layer adds a hard polycarbonate shell to provide more protection from drops. It also comes with a scratch and smudge-resistant screen protector for the front of the device, and the hard shell is available in six colors.
The first layer is nice, as it also has covers for ports like the charging dock and headphone jack, which would appear to create a seal for waterproofing purposes. The problem lies with the second layer hard shell, which doesn’t quite create a perfect fit when you’re trying to connect the first layer and the device – you sort of create little air bubbles. The second layer also adds additional bulk to the device, preventing you from connecting it to a recharging dock (a pet peeve of mine). But if you’re looking for the extra protection, you might have to deal with these issues.
Cool Yule rating: 3.5 starsPrice: $29.95Reviewed by Keith Shaw
The Callet - phone case and wallet in oneThe smart phone has become one of those items that you carry around with you everywhere, much like another thing - the wallet. So why not combine them into one device? That's basically the idea of the Callet, a rubbery phone case that has a couple of "sleeves" in the back that can hold a few credit-cards (or your driver's license) and some cash.
It won't completely replace your wallet, especially if you're one of those types (like George Costanza from 'Seinfeld') who carries around a giant wallet for all your receipts and cards and other things. However, if you need something that can carry a few cards and your license (say, you're going to work out or something), then the Callet may be a good fit. Styles are available for BlackBerry owners, and a few different colors are available (nothing super fancy, just blue, black, pink, etc.)
Just remember that if you lose your phone (or it gets stolen), then you're also losing your cards and license and stuff, so you need to be super super extra careful.
Cool Yule rating: 3 starsPrice: $19.95Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Speck iPhone 4 cases (many varieties), by Speck ProductsMany people think that getting a cover for their iPhone (or other smart phone, tablet, ereader, etc.) is just a style choice, or something that will make their antenna work better (cough, cough, iPhone 4). For the most part, they're right, but we continue to see innovations in the case space as well, and Speck Products are one of the leaders in this space.
For our gift guide we received several different varieties of products and styles, and rather than writing up individual reviews, I'm going to lump them all into one entry. These don't even scratch the surface of what's out there, so if you like these, head to the store or go online to check out your favorites.
CandyShell Card: Like the name implies, the CandyShell case has a hard outside shell but a soft, rubbery center (the part that touches the iPhone). This gives it protection from drops, but won't scratch the surface of the back of the iPhone as well. The "Card" part of the name is an extra slot on the back for carrying some credit-cards, cash or your license. Much like the Callet (reviewed earlier), just be careful that you don't lose the phone when using this, as you'll then lose whatever you've got in the card slot.
CandyShell: See above part with the CandyShell Card, but without the card slot. One extra thing to note, these aren't meant to be taken on and off like more rubbery cases - once you put it on, it should stay there.
ToughSkin: A ruggedized case, offers two different pieces to help your phone survive drops and scratches and other assorted calamities. The ToughSkin also features a rotating belt clip (for those people who still like wearing their phones on their belts). The belt clip can also fold out to create a kickstand for the iPhone.
Fitted Burton: This is a hard plastic shell that provides some protection, with a fabric backing with style designs by Burton (the snowboard makers). Get one for your favorite snowboarder.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: Varies, between $30 and $40.Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Spiderpodium, by BreffoInstead of buying a single case or dock that only has one purpose, you might want to check out the Spiderpodium, a multi-purpose grip and docking station – not only will it create a nice dock for your smartphone, but you can use it for GPS devices, digital camera and other handheld gadgets. With its eight flexible “legs”, the Spiderpodium can be molded into any shape for the purpose that you want. The back of the package gives you some good ideas – you can wrap it around the back seat of a car to provide a stand for viewing movies (or a plane seat). You can create a mount for your dashboard (put some of the legs inside your heating/air conditioning vents), or you could mount a digital camera onto a chair for a hanging tripod. You’re only limited by your imagination on how you can use this to create an instant stand or dock for your handheld devices.
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $19.99Reviewed by Keith Shaw
PowerSlice universal charger, by FusePower cable clutter becomes a very big issue when you start accumulating a lot of smartphones, music players and other assorted gadgets. The PowerSlice universal charger aims to help relieve some of this clutter by providing one power cable that helps recharge three devices via its circular charging station. Users can insert three adapter slices (sold separately) of the circular pie (the fourth slice contains the innards of the unit) and recharge an iPhone/iPod (through the Apple universal adapter), or any device with mini USB or micro USB. If you want, you can buy three slices that just have the Apple charger port, which lets you charge three iPhones if you want.
Connecting the individual adapter slices is a bit tricky at first, but once you do the charging station looks elegant, and yes, it did eliminate cable clutter for the three devices that I wanted to recharge. There’s also an additional USB port on the unit for recharging other systems (5V output), but sadly, this didn’t work with my iPad 2.
This would make a good kitchen countertop unit for families to recharge their cell phones and possibly music players to help reduce (but not totally eliminate) the power cable clutter situation.
Cool Yule rating: 3 starsPrice: $40 for the base unit, slices cost $10 each.Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Zip Touch-n-Go Multi-Charging Station, by The Joy FactoryLike some of the other portable device charging stations reviewed this year, the Zip will charge multiple devices (cell phones, game consoles, etc.) via a central location. In this case, the Zip station includes 16 different circular spots where you can charge a device. Instead of a solid adapter for re-charging, the device recharges via conductive electricity (similar to the Powermat or Energizer devices). Your phone, music player or gadget connects to the Zip via a very small magnetic Ziptail.
The vast amount of devices that can be connected make this very appealing for central locations, like in an office conference room or other common area (I can’t really see a family that needs 16 devices recharged at the same time). The base station has a nice sleek black look and a very thin profile.
However, I’ve got two complaints. First, the ziptail cords are way too short – I know the company is aiming for a clutter-free look, but with a very short cord, most of the recharging will be done on the outside of the device, not on the inner circle areas. As you add more devices, the small length of the cords hurts the overall effectiveness. My second complaint was the lack of an iOS cord in the bundle, but it appears that this oversight has been fixed (an updated bundle has occurred). If you get a bundle without one, the Apple 30-pin cord is $12.95.
Cool Yule rating: 3 starsPrice: $80 for base station and 3 charging cords; additional cords cost $12.95 each.Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Mobile Power Station, by IOGEARThis handy square device is basically a large battery with two USB ports. When the battery is charged up (through a separate power adapter cable, and you can also recharge via USB), you can recharge your mobile devices as long as you have the appropriate USB charging cable. The system supports most smartphones, cell phones, tablets (including the iPad and iPad 2), digital cameras, BlackBerry devices, most MP3 players and devices that plug into a USB or microUSB source.
The nice part of the device’s mobility is the ability to disconnect the power adapter and just bring the battery along with you when traveling or out and about – meaning you can recharge your devices without needing to be near a power outlet. So for hiking, camping or other outside activities, you can still recharge your mobile gadgets.
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $72Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Inductive Charger, by EnergizerThe Energizer Inductive Charger makes it easy to charge up smartphones like an iPhone or a BlackBerry Curve 8900 wirelessly. All you do is slip the phone into a plastic sleeve (sold separately for either the Curve, iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4) and then sit your phone on top of the Inductive Charger. A blue light flickers on to let you know the phone is being charged and goes out when the charging is done. The device uses "Qi" (pronounced “chi”) technology, a new charging standard developed by the Wireless Power Consortium that's also used in the sleeve. How well does it work? Exactly as billed. Charging my iPhone took about the same amount of time as if I had plugged it into my computer or a wall charger.
The charger – basically a flat 9-inch black-and-silver square – has two charging "plates," so you can charge more than one device at a time. There's also a separate USB port that you can use to plug in a charging cable if you need another phone charged. The only downside to the system is that you can't use any other external cover for your phone; the Qi sleeve stays on full time. While it’s not too bulky, it does add a few ounces of weight. So if you're someone for whom a phone cover is a needed fashion statement, you'll want to think twice about getting the Inductive Charger. The same goes for iPhone users who place a premium on design; the sleeve isn't the most stylish addition to your mobile hardware collection. Otherwise, it's a convenient, reliable way to make sure your phone is always charged up and ready to go.
Cool Yule rating: 4Price: $89.97 for the charger; $34.97 for the charging sleeveReviewed by Ken Mingis
Carbon Bluetooth headset, by BluetrekThe Carbon Bluetooth headset, by Bluetrek, is one of the more visually innovative headsets I’ve seen in several years. As its namesake implies, the majority of the headset is made of carbon fiber, which comprises a relatively long, cylindrically shaped extending microphone. It fits snug into your ear without an ear loop (although one is available in the included kit). Perhaps a result of building it from carbon fiber, the Carbon is very light – you’ll feel it sitting snugly in your ear, but in my experience it was on par in terms of comfort with other headsets I tested this year (although not quite as comfortable as some I’ve tested in the past). You can leave it in your ear for a decent amount of time before it becomes uncomfortable.
The Carbon features the latest 3.0 standard for Bluetooth connectivity. It weighs 5.9 grams, offers 4.5 hours talk time/5 days standby, and uses tactile buttons(!). Audio quality was excellent, and the microphone boasted some impressive results. Chalk it up to the extended reach of the microphone, perhaps. It can pair with two phones simultaneously, a feature quickly becoming more a given than a perk, but one appreciated, nonetheless.
Overall, I was very impressed with this headset. For this price, it is absolutely worth your consideration and I recommend it to anybody looking for a non-traditional – albeit still attractive – headset to pair with your phone.
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: About $50Reviewed by Dan Hunt
Freeway Bluetooth speaker phone, by JabraThe Jabra Freeway is a Bluetooth speaker phone that resides on the overhead visor of your car. It features an elegant design, long lasting battery, and relatively easy to use navigation buttons.
It pairs up to two active phones simultaneously. One of my phones is a BlackBerry Curve, and the options with that phone – voice dialing commands, redialing, etc. – are extensive and work well. My other phone is (regrettably) an Android (running 2.1), and offers far fewer voice command options – one of the many drawbacks to owning an Android device. I also tested a 4-year-old Nokia phone – it offered more voice options than the Android.
The Freeway speaker is capable of producing excellent sound. Audio call quality is good, bordering on excellent at times. My BlackBerry, which runs on the Verizon network, offered noticeably lower call quality than did my Android phone, which runs on the AT&T network. This disparity in call quality between the networks is a trend I’ve noted over the years, even when not using Bluetooth devices. In testing, callers were quicker to note the road noise when using my BlackBerry; I never experienced that issue using the Android. The phone will announce to you – with varying degrees of success – the name of the incoming caller when you receive calls. In general, it had an easier time announcing names heavy on vowels; in some instances, the names were virtually indistinguishable.
Battery time was excellent. There is a neat feature that lets you leave the device on at all times, and the Freeway will automatically turn itself on and off by sensing when you enter or exit your car (presumably, using motion and/or sound detection). One drawback to that feature: every time you get into your car, the device will LOUDLY announce it has paired with your phone. If you’re carrying two phones, it will make two announcements. And it will scare the hell out of you the first couple times. So far as I can tell, there is no way to decrease the insanely loud volume at which it announces a successful pairing. You get used to it eventually, but it still catches me off guard every once in a while.
Back to the battery. I travel frequently at night, and have taken to using an app on my Android phone to connect to a radio station in New York. The Freeway automatically streamed the audio from my phone, which was an obvious improvement over playing the show from the Android’s speakerphone. And the great battery meant weeks and weeks of doing this (on weekends) without needing to recharge. That streaming feature alone actually makes this worth purchasing. All told, the Freeway saw extensive use for about six weeks before I had to recharge it. Like a successful pairing, it will loudly tell you when it’s low on battery – and will continue to remind you loudly every two or three minutes until you either toss it out the window or turn it off.
Also worth noting – the Freeway will also transmit audio wirelessly to an FM station on your radio, if you’re so inclined. It’s a feature I tested (successfully), but not one I used on a regular basis. I personally find it cumbersome to search for blank FM channels to stream with as I’m traveling, and would rather just route audio through the Freeway itself. But if you know of blank spaces on the FM dial (there are relatively few available in Boston), it’s a feature you’ll probably enjoy.
The button layout is sensible, placing the most used button – start and end calls – in the most prominent, easy to reach location (closest to you). The buttons are tactile, which is a relief to someone who finds touch-sensitive buttons a nuisance.
One suggestion for Jabra – make a voice command listing on a removable piece of plastic that you could stick on your windshield, similar to the oil change reminder sticker. Depending on what phone you connect to the Freeway, there are a ton of voice commands that are available, but not always easy to remember.
The Freeway comes with a wall adapter, manual, and a car adapter. The car adapter is especially welcome, as the Freeway is charged via micro-USB, and chances are you’ll enjoy finally having a car adapter for your devices, if you didn’t already.
All in all, I highly recommend the JABRA FREEWAY as an excellent Bluetooth speaker for your auto.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $129.99Reviewed by Dan Hunt
M50 Bluetooth headset, by PlantronicsThe Plantronics M50 Bluetooth headset is an excellent, low cost option for getting into the wireless headset game. It features a sturdy design, comfortable (if somewhat firm) fit, and good battery life.
The M50 is somewhat unusual when compared with its contemporaries in that it sports a non-detachable, prominent translucent ear loop. It works well, and for people like me who prefer the security an ear loop offers, it won’t be a drawback. Many other headsets on the market today offer a detachable ear loop, with the loop-less option being just inserting the headset directly into your ear. I’ve never found that terribly comfortable or snug, and have always opted for the ear loop (until I tried the Carbon from Bluetrek). If you don’t want anything wrapped around your ears, or glasses are a permanent fixture on your face, you should look elsewhere.
Voice quality was good. Generally, this was a better microphone than those found on Jabra headsets, but not quite up to BlueAnt’s offerings in previous gift guides. Audio reception was excellent, and I always appreciate a headset that offers tactile volume buttons – which the M50 does – along with a sliding on/off switch. On smartphones like Android and iPhone, it can also relay audio from apps and music libraries; I found this a useful feature for relaying streaming talk radio, although you shouldn’t plan for the M50 to replace your dedicated headphones any time soon. My current Android phone is set to make an audible tapping noise whenever I’m using the keyboard; the headset tries to keep up by relaying those audible clicks to the headset, but there was occasional lag relaying the signal when I’d rapidly belt out text messages – hardly a deal breaker.
Like all Bluetooth headsets going back the past couple years, it charges via an included micro USB cable. Expect at least eight hours talk time, with long standby hours during periods of inactivity. If you’re connected to an iPhone, the iPhone will display a battery icon (Android users are bereft of this feature). Once you run low on battery, expect the headset to verbally remind you every few minutes it’s low on juice. This can get annoying.
One immense frustration was my inability to pair two headsets, which is an advertising spot for the M50. I was unable to locate instructions on how to do this in the user manual, and Plantronics’ website wasn’t much help, either.
However, the M50 is recommended for anyone looking to get into the headset pairing game for about $50.
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $49.99Reviewed by Dan Hunt
Jabra Supreme Bluetooth headset, by JabraA quick upfront admission: My boyfriend synched this Bluetooth headset to a PlayStation 3 instead of using it with his phone. He did test it on his phone quickly when I asked him to, but he primarily enjoyed using this while gaming. And enjoy it, he did. He found it to be very lightweight and easy on the ear. Plus, it feels more like a phone resting outside the ear than the kind meant to be an “in ear” device. Because of those features, and a long battery life, he was able to wear it constantly while gaming for hours and was still a fan.
It took just a few simple minutes to set up. The ease also continues with usage. To turn the headset on, all you have to do is flick the mouth piece away from the earpiece. To turn it off, just fold it in half. Because of this feature, there’s no mistaking whether the headset is on or off.
The headset does allow for voice commands. You can ask it to give you the battery life and connection status. It will let you answer or ignore incoming calls vocally. Plus, it provides spoken caller ID. We were pleased to discover that the box included a power adapter for the wall and a computer (USB), not just one or the other. It also comes with a few extra pieces as back up, in case say the part that wraps around your ear breaks.
Finally, the Jabra Supreme claims to have HD Voice. Perhaps that’s true as Bluetooth headsets go, but it’s certainly not comparable to a nice set of headphones. Like many phones it also touts that it has wind-reduction and noise-cancelling technology. Unfortunately, as this was mostly tested on a PS3, he didn’t encounter enough wind in our living room to say one way or the other if he agrees with the claim. He definitely recommends it for anyone who likes to participate in multi-player games that suggest or require headsets.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $99.99Reviewed by Jennifer Finn
Voyager Pro HD Bluetooth headset, by PlantronicsI've been a fan of the Plantronics Voyager Pro series for a few years now - on the upper end of the Bluetooth headset market, this headset provides great call quality and an over-the-ear wearing style that guaranteed it wouldn't fall off my head or get loose in the ear.
The latest version of the headset includes the company's "Smart Sensor Technology", which means the headset can figure out when you place it on your ear, automatically answering incoming phone calls. This can be great for a person who doesn't like wearing their headset all of the time, or someone who takes a longer time fishing through a bag trying to find it, only to have them miss the phone call by the time they get the headset on. In fact, the headset can also sense this - if you answer the phone first and then find the headset, it will automatically transfer the call from the phone to your headset once you put it on your ear. The smart sensor also prevents accidental dialing by locking down the call button when you're not wearing the headset (although I think you can still "pocket dial" or "butt dial" from the phone separately).
The Voyager Pro HD also includes access to the company's Vocalyst service, which lets you hear emails, check the weather or even update your Facebook status via the hands-free headset. Like many of the company's headsets, the Voyager Pro HD supports streaming audio from a phone. This was one of the downsides in my testing, because the smart sensor also activates your music app whenever you put the headset on as well. So if you want to make a call (rather than answering one), putting on the headset will play the last song you were streaming, and you have to pause that in order to open up the Phone calling app.
A voice inside the headset will announce how much battery life is left and whether you are paired to your phone (again, this makes pairing the phone much easier), and the package comes with different ear bud sizes. I have a few small complaints - first, one of the foam covers for the earbud ripped too easily when I tried to attach it; second, the unit comes with a power button but not an on/off slider switch, which I've preferred on devices like the M110 and M155 headsets.
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $99.99Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Icon HD Bluetooth headset + The Nerd, by JawboneThe Jawbone Icon HD is a Bluetooth headset designed for your mobile phone with NoiseAssassin 2.5 software to create great-sounding phone calls from your end (that is, the recipient hears no noise; you may still hear some from their end). The Nerd is an extra USB dongle that can be attached to a PC or Mac, providing a wireless Bluetooth headset for computer-based VoIP applications (Skype or other unified communications software). In addition to providing audio for phone calls, the headset can stream audio from your mobile phone or computer for when you're not on a call.
The addition of the Nerd USB dongle makes this ideal for users who want a Bluetooth headset for their cellphone, but then want to use the same headset for VoIP calls on their computer, instead of investing in a separate headset. Like other headsets of its ilk, the Icon HD seamlessly switches between streaming audio and incoming calls, pausing the music to let you take the call, then returning to the music after the call is finished. It's also nice to have different fitting options -- the package comes with seven earbud sizes, as well as a plastic earloop that can fit behind the ear for a more snug fit. In my tests, the earbud-only option worked just fine -- I didn't need to worry about it falling out if I tilted my head.
I loved the addition of an on/off switch on the Icon HD -- it saves a lot of battery life for when you're not using the headset. The HD technology made for great audio quality on cellphone and Skype calls, and really enhanced music streaming from my iPhone; it only suffered slightly when streaming from the PC via the Nerd dongle.
And my callers are very appreciative of the noise cancellation features, which means I don't have to shout when I'm in a noisy environment like my car or the airport, where I'm doing the bulk of my cell phone calls. Bravo!
Some downsides - the power adapter has a very short USB cable -- if you use a wall outlet, you may forget that the headset is attached to it (I prefer longer cables that let you move the headset away from the wall outlet). While pairing the headset with my iPhone was extremely simple, I had more difficulty pairing with the Nerd USB dongle, bringing me back to the early days of Bluetooth where you had to hit buttons in the proper order and before time ran out on the pairing. Also, I preferred the voice activation feature on my Plantronics headset (the Savor M1100), which lets me answer an incoming call by saying "Answer"; on this headset, when an incoming call comes in, I needed to press the "talk" button on the phone. But that's a really minor quibble.
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $140Reviewed by Keith Shaw
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