Great gadgets!

Was it Confucius or Shakespeare who said, “He who dies with the most gadgets wins”?

We love our gadgets. There’s nothing like the fun of discovering just the right tool to simplify a difficult job.
The Gadget of the Decade undoubtedly is the cellular telephone, which morphed into the smart phone, which morphed into the app-phone.

In the beginning, cell phones only made and received calls. Next came smart phones, which could manage contact lists and schedules as well as receive and answer e-mail and text messages.

Then came multimedia phones that function like a hand-held computer, surfing the Internet. The latest iteration accepts small programs called apps (short for applications) that extend infinitely the capability of the device to do productive work — all on that tiny screen in your hand.

The iPhone from Apple still reigns supreme among app-phones, despite its limitations and its competition, partly because it runs the most applications — indeed, tens of thousands of apps, most of them free or at nominal prices.

But the competition is heating up. I like the Motorola Droid because it hits several sweet spots. Most notably, it is an exceptionally smart phone that permits busy builders to do productive work away from the office with a device that fits in the pocket, briefcase or on the belt. Late last year, it added free global positioning (GPS).

Although the Droid is newer than the iPhone, its operating system called Android, from Google, is rapidly catching up to the iPhone in the number and usefulness of applications that work on it. In other words, it’s a smart app-phone. It’s also the product of an American company that offers an alternative to Apple and Microsoft.

Less well-known is another new Motorola phone, the Debut i856. It features iDent push-to-talk technology, also called Direct Connect, that lets the phone function like a walkie-talkie. Anyone with a similar phone on your network can be reached with the press of a button rather than having to go through the process of placing a telephone call. Direct Connect permits a simultaneous communication with 20 subscribers. It’s the next thing to having a public-address system on the job site – or anywhere in the United States.

Other cell phone manufacturers, including Samsung and LG, also make models that incorporate push-to-talk technology, but they lack the Debut’s variety of smart phone features such as multimedia Internet access and GPS.

The Debut runs over either Sprint or Boost Mobile wireless carriers. Its operating system is proprietary to Motorola. With Sprint and a two-year contract, the Debut costs $100 after rebate plus a $36 activation fee.

The newest kid on the cell-phone block is the Nexus One, directly from Google. Early reviewers give it high marks for technology and low marks for support.

What does it cost?

Cell phone costs are highly variable, depending on the phone, the wireless carrier and the service plan. If the price seems too high and you can get by with basic phone service, consider a pre-paid plan such as Net10. A service contract is not required. Net10 charges 10 cents a minute and throws in a basic cell phone for free.

Boost Mobile is unusual for supporting a smart app-phone such as the Debut under a pre-paid plan, also for 10 cents a minute, although you have to buy the phone. Most wireless carriers provide only basic cell phones under a pre-paid plan.

New features, such as GPS, are being added so fast that anyone who acquired a phone — wireless or wired — more than a year ago should investigate what’s new. At a minimum, you probably will want a cell phone that can tap into the explosion of add-in applications that add utility to the phone and a landline that costs little or nothing.

Times, they are a-changin’

If you haven’t investigated landline telephone service recently, you almost certainly are paying too much. Landline calls are increasingly being made over the Internet. Since I started writing about voice-over-Internet in Rural Builder in 2003, their clarity and reliability have improved to the point that they effectively equal conventional phone service at a cost that is either free (Skype to Skype) or $10 a month flat when added to my TV and Internet service, with no additional charges for local and long-distance calls. Shucks, $10 a month is less than I used to pay in taxes for my old-fashioned Ameritech phone service.

One of my most useful gadgets hangs over one ear and connects wirelessly with my cell phone or landline phone. The technology, called Bluetooth, enables me to walk around the office and to talk with both hands free. Expect to pay about $125 for a Bluetooth docking station, handset and earpiece.

Do you podcast? Considering adding your voice to your Internet site. The Olympus DM-520 was created specifically to support Internet podcasts. Almost any recording device can capture voice, and some simple video cameras can add visuals, but the Olympus has an external microphone that can be clipped to a tie or a lapel, enabling the recording unit to be discretely in your pocket. Olympus claims that the sound matches CD quality (44.1 kilohertz sampling rate). If you use the DM-520 to record conversations, be sure to get permission from the other parties. Recording a conversation secretly is illegal in some states. The unit lists at $200.

Not too hot, not too cold

Not all cool gadgets are electronic. For example, consider this problem: You want to shower. You turn on the water, and it’s either too cold or too hot. So you nudge the dial a bit. Nothing happens. You nudge it a skosh more. Still no change. So you nudge it once more, and BAM! The water turns either excruciatingly hot or numbingly cold. Grrrr!
Is there a better way? Yes!

Consider the digital thermostatic valve, that Kohler calls the DTV. It works like a digital thermostat. Set the water temperature to precisely the optimum degree and the valve will make the necessary adjustments automatically, without freezing or burning you. Just walk in; the water’s fine.

The catch is cost. The DTV with digital interface is expensive, starting about $2,300. With extras and installation, expect to pay about $6,000. The valve goes behind the wall, requiring a major retrofit, preferably by an experienced subcontractor.

Not luxurious enough for your customer? Consider Kohler’s DTV II, which adds music, light and steam at costs reaching $10,000. Expensive? Sure, but what a marketing opportunity!

In the coming months, expect to see new plumbing fixtures, tools and gadgets that use less water, less electricity and cost less, perhaps giving even modestly priced homes the feeling of a spa.

Now: Tunes to go

Proof that it is possible to get carried away with gadgets: If you can’t bear to be separated from your iPod for even a moment, Atech Flash sells the iCarta Stereo Dock with Bath Tissue Holder. The price ranges from $50 to more than $100. The paper is extra.

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