The Best New Tech Devices on the Market
IT consultants and chief information officers tell us that many technology changes they see in business are driven by consumer products. Employees who stood in line to buy the iPhone 5 and who bring their tablets to meetings are sometimes nonplussed by the office computers. The “bring your own device” movement is forcing IT departments to work with a range of products they don’t control. And the line between work and personal devices is breaking down.
All the more reason to make sure you have the best electronics. If you’re going to be using them 24/7—during both work and leisure time—they may as well be top of the line. We’ve sifted through the technology publications and product websites to find the tech gear the reviewers love and that offers real improvements over the previous versions. Here’s what we found.
Apple MacBook Air
If price is no concern, you’ll want the “retina display” MacBook Pro. The stunning screen resolution and powerful insides have led reviewers to call it the best computer Apple has ever made. But most users are going to be happy saving a grand and paying around $1,200 for the latest MacBook Air. The 2012 edition of Apple’s much-imitated ultra-thin laptop has come down $100 in price, even while making incremental improvements. Battery life has been extended by more than 40 minutes, says CNET, which ran the Air seven and a half hours on a video-playback battery-drain test. An improved processor makes it better equipped for multitasking, and the connections have been upgraded with faster USB ports. The backlit keyboard is shallower than other Macs, but still comfortable to use. It’s lighter, too. The skinny machine weighs less than three pounds and measures just .68 inches at its thickest.
HP Folio 13
Windows loyalists will like this sturdy ultra-thin laptop from HP. The Folio 13 is solid, speedy, and practical. It’ll take two hands to pull open the hinges, which hold the aluminum-backed screen to a tough base with a rubberized bottom. There’s almost no give to it, even though closed up it’s only .7 inches thick. But the Folio 13 quickly springs to life. CNET clocked the start-up time at 20 seconds, and said it took just four seconds from lifting the lid to wake up. Battery life lasted six and a half hours—longer than any other Windows ultra-book. It’s part of a new line of computers aimed at small business and road warriors, as well as mainstream consumers. At around $900, you get top-of-the-class performance, making it a great alternative to the MacBook Air. It weighs slightly more, at 3.3 pounds. The backlit keyboard is prone to fingerprints and the glossy screen can cause glare issues (also problems for MacBooks). The stiff, finicky trackpad isn’t as easy to use as Apple’s, but unlike the MacBook Air, Folio 13 features an Ethernet port for a wired Internet connection.
Lenovo ThinkCentre Edge 91z
This fast, quiet, all-in-one PC more than gets the job done, and saves money, too. The ThinkCentre Edge 91z lacks some of the multimedia capabilities of its competitors, but starts around $800—$400 less than a comparable Apple iMac. Add another discount for energy efficiency. “Lenovo has achieved the holy grail of power efficiency with the Think- Centre Edge 91z,” says CNET, whose tests found it cost $11.28 a year to power, compared with $16.80 for an iMac or $40.24 for Dell’s Inspiron One 2305. Built for the small- and midsize business market, the ThinkCentre Edge is more than up to day-to-day tasks such as reading, writing, and web browsing, though upgrades are recommended for employees doing intensive video or graphics work. “Even when exerted, the Edge 91z makes barely any noise,” says Desktop Review. And it comes with a “spill-proof” keyboard, so you won’t need to spend money replacing it after someone inevitably knocks over their cup of coffee.
Apple iMac 27-inch
Your art director already wants one, PCMag.com warned last year when Apple unveiled its latest generation of all-in-one iMacs. From its enormous 27-inch HD display to the powerful 3.1GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i5 processor, this machine is bigger and faster than most employees would ever need. At $2,000, it’s also too expensive for a general-use computer. But for graphic artists or digital media editors who live in Photoshop or Premiere, these iMacs may be worth the splurge. The latest editions have the same look, but the insides have been turbocharged. “Previously, if you wanted to get this kind of performance from a Mac, you had to spend much more for one of Apple’s Mac Pro towers,” Computer Shopper notes. Unlike so many Windows machines, the iMac comes free of bloatware—pre-installed software that slows down the system. One new feature: a light sensor that automatically dims or brightens the screen based on the room’s light.
Mobile Devices (Phones)
Samsung Galaxy S III
After the iPhone 5, Samsung’s latest Galaxy device was the second most-hyped smartphone of 2012. Available on all four major carriers for around $200 (with contract), the Galaxy S III is a fast phone whose hardware (2GB RAM, 1.5GHz dual-core processor) is as future-proofed as you can find. Samsung has made some interesting software innovations as well, and—get this—it’s actually great for making phone calls. The first thing you’ll notice about the GS3 is its sprawling, 4.8-inch HD display screen, which rivals the iPhone’s screen. It attempts to match Apple’s Siri with its own voice-activated assistant, S Voice, but based on the early reviews, it sounds like there are still kinks to work out. Call quality, on the other hand, sounds great. PC Magazine says the phone’s unique, advanced call quality features make a real difference. They include a custom call EQ, in which the phone plays a sequence of high and low tones, you tell it which ones you can hear, and it adjusts based on your ears. The phone’s speakers also get high praise for volume and clarity. Other interesting features include Smart Stay. Activate it and the phone’s forward-facing camera will track your eyes and prevent the screen from going to sleep while you’re reading an article.
Apple iPhone 5
The new iPhone 5 seems to have gone the way of Apple’s MacBook Air and new MacBook Pro: thin. It’s 18 percent thinner and 20 percent lighter than its predecessor. Those who were disappointed by the unaltered 4S design will like the updated four-by-five-inch retina display, which shows five rows of applications, and brings the iPhone up to standard with its competitors. Other upgrades include better battery life, 4G capabilities, LTE wireless technology, and a smaller “lightning” charger. While the camera is still eight megapixels, it has been optimized for better performance in low-light conditions, and now has the ability to shoot panoramas. Early reviews praise the iPhone’s sleek design and Siri’s much-needed enhancements, but the iPhone 5 isn’t necessarily a game-changer. (For one, the much-hoped-for near-field communications, or NFC, used in the Google Nexus S, is absent.) But given Apple’s strong brand, the ever-present hype, and phone’s new look, it doesn’t need to be a game-changer to be wildly popular this fall and holiday season. Currently, the iPhone 5 is only available for Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T, and will start at $199 (with a two-year plan) for 16GB.
Mobile Devices (Tablets)
Google Nexus 7
Google’s Nexus 7 isn’t an iPad killer—but it may douse the Kindle Fire. PC Magazine calls the Nexus 7 a “game-changer.” It’s the first low-cost tablet that doesn’t feel like a major sacrifice on quality and performance. The 8GB version sells for $200, although we recommend the 16GB for $250 because there is no expandable storage option, and you won’t be able to count on always having access to your documents and media in the cloud. Unlike the iPad, the Nexus 7 is a wi-fi–only device, so you’ll need to find a way to tether it to your phone during commutes, or else download files before you head out. Manufactured by Asus, the device is sturdy and easy to hold. It’s slightly lighter and thinner than the Kindle Fire, with a rubbery, easy-grip back. The touch-screen has higher resolution than the Fire, and reviewers say it’s responsive and easy to use. It’s the first tablet to ship with Google’s Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) platform, which runs fast and smooth. A front-facing camera allows for videoconferencing.
Apple iPad (2012)
If you already own an iPad 2, you’ll want to avoid touching—or more precisely, looking at—the 2012 version unless you plan to upgrade. This year’s iPad looks almost identical to 2011’s iPad 2—that is, until you turn it on. The upgraded “retina display” screen is “stunning,” says CNET. “Because text is rendered with such razor-sharp clarity, everything from Facebook to the New York Times takes on a print-like quality that is easier on the eyes than what any laptop or tablet offers.” Otherwise, the tablet is slightly heavier than the previous generation, and it has an upgraded five-megapixel camera that shoots high-resolution 1080p video. Apple has boosted the RAM and processing power, but users won’t notice much change because most of that added horsepower is consumed by the higher screen resolution. Speaking of which, file sizes for many apps have grown to make use of the new screen, so you may want to spring for more storage space. The 16GB version starts at $500, but a 4G-equipped 64GB version sells for $830.
3M Natural View Fingerprint Fading Screen Protectors
Avoid smudging up that beautiful new iPad screen with these new screen protectors from 3M. The patent-pending film causes fingerprints to fade over time. The ultra-clear, glossy sheets are scratch-resistant and pretty much invisible if you can press out all the air bubbles. They also protect the camera lens without affecting photo quality. Available for a variety of tablet sizes for around $20 each.
Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K750
Goodbye, batteries. This thin, solar-powered keyboard draws its juice from ambient room light. It’s simple to install. Just plug the accompanying dongle into an open USB port and you’re ready to go. Once fully charged, Logitech says the battery can last three months in the dark—perfect for a Minnesota winter. Give it more green points for being made with PVC-free materials. They sell for around $80. Windows only.
Invoxia NVX 610
Is this the future of the office phone? Winner of the Best of Innovation Award at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, the Invoxia NVX 610 is a desktop VOIP phone that integrates with iPods, iPads, and iPhones. Just dock your mobile device with the handset base to access your address book, receive calls, and dial out via Skype or another third-party service. Speakerphone mode is built for group calling, with eight microphones and eight speakers to help differentiate participants. $600.
Touchfire screen-top keyboard
Some people never get comfortable pecking letters with an on-screen keyboard. The demand for a more tactile typing experience was evident last year when Touchfire’s inventors raised more than $200,000 in a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. The clear silicone-rubber overlay magnetically clings to an iPad, giving users keys they can feel as they type. Fast Company says the gummy accessory “turns the iPad into a true laptop killer.” $50.
Lenovo ThinkPad USB 3.0 Secure Hard Drive
It looks like something out of a James Bond movie, but it’ll help keep corporate secrets safe. The ThinkPad USB Secure Hard Drive is smart, simple, and secure. Just plug the box into your computer’s USB port, punch in your pass code, and the drive appears on your desktop just like any other external storage device. Move files back and forth quickly and securely over a USB 3.0 connection with AES 256-bit encryption. If you drop it, the read/write head will sense it’s falling and secure itself, while rubber shock absorbers should cushion the blow. The keypad is wear-resistant so would-be snoops won’t be able to see commonly used keys. Get the password wrong six times, and you’ll have to disconnect and try again. Get it wrong 25 times and you’ll have to go through an elaborate reset. Get it wrong 50 times and it self-destructs. No, seriously—it bricks itself after the 50th incorrect password attempt. For Windows, Mac, or Linux. $170 for 500GB, $200 for 750GB.
Silicon Power Armor A80
If you’re more worried about dropping your portable drive in a puddle than you are about it falling prey to corporate espionage, you may want to consider the Silicon Power Armor A80. The drive’s metal shell can withstand falls up to four feet and is waterproof up to 3.2 feet for 30 minutes. A CNET reviewer dropped it from belt level a few times, left it in a running shower for 30 minutes, and submerged in the kitchen sink overnight and it survived it all. Setup is easy, with no software required, and transferring files back and forth goes quickly thanks to the USB 3.0 connection. (A small cord tucks right into the casing, too.) The Wirecutter picked the Armor A80 as its “best portable hard drive,” noting the risk in having a less rugged drive that’s one “tumble away from the landfill.” Prices range from around $100 for the 500GB version to $135 for the 1TB.
Road Warrior Tech
Garmin nÃ¼vi 2495LMT
We agree with The Wirecutter tech reviewer again here: If you own a quality smartphone, there’s little reason to also have a separate GPS device, but if you want one, the Garmin nÃ¼vi 2495LMT is a good pick. The device features Garmin’s first major interface update in several years, which reviewers say is still easy to use. This unit comes with a hands-free voice command system. CNET says it’s “very possible to get into a car and interact totally with the nÃ¼vi without ever removing one’s hands from the steering wheel.” It also doubles as a Bluetooth speakerphone, pairing with most smartphones. Traffic updates come every 30 seconds, but they’re supported with pop-up ads for hotels, restaurants, and other roadside attractions. $200.
Winter Survival Kit
This smartphone app from the North Dakota State University Extension Service is a good complement to that coffee can full of candles and spare socks that’s rolling around in your trunk. Should you ever wind up in a snowy ditch somewhere, Winter Survival Kit will determine your location, call 911, and notify your family and coworkers, all at the push of a button. It also features a gas calculator, which estimates how long you can run your engine before running out of gas, and reminds you to check for snow buildup around the exhaust pipe every 30 minutes. Free for Android and iPhone.
Welcome to the future. This augmented reality driving app aims to alert distracted drivers when they’re approaching traffic ahead of them too quickly. After downloading the app, the smartphone must be properly mounted on the dashboard or windshield with the phone’s camera lens facing forward. iOnRoad monitors your speed and the distance to the car in front of you. Get too close, and the app beeps and flashes red to alert the driver. The app can run in the background while using navigation apps or making phone calls. How well it works depends somewhat on the phone, but it’s worth a try. Free; for Android only.
Services like Skype and Google Hangouts offer good value, but for growing enterprises that need a more scalable videoconferencing solution, Adobe Connect is a robust option. “If there’s a more capable, customizable web conferencing solution than Adobe Connect, we haven’t found it,” says PC Magazine. Adobe Connect is easily compatible with a wide variety of platforms and browsers, as well as mobile apps for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry. Meeting rooms are highly customizable. Administrators can use templates and change layouts. The price of being able to customize so much is simplicity. Adobe Connect can be complicated to set up, but reviewers say it’s worth it for the added features and flexibility.
Tiki USB Microphone
Sound sharper on your Skype calls with this noise-canceling smart mike. A 2012 CES Innovations award winner, the Tiki is a compact, portable microphone meant to boost the clarity of your conversation. The intelligent speech mode homes in on your voice and filters out background noise such as computer fans, typing, or ambient sounds. It automatically soft mutes the mike when you’re not speaking. It’s barely bigger than a flash drive, and there’s no software to install. Just plug it into an open USB port and it’s ready to go. $60.
Canon Pixma MX882
Auto duplexing and a two-sided document feeder make the Canon Pixma MX882 a good option for a home office or small business. This wireless inkjet multifunction printer produces better than average text quality at average speeds, about 12 pages per minute in plain black and around eight pages per minute in full color. It has a 300-sheet capacity tray and a 35-sheet automatic feeder that can scan, fax, or copy two-sided documents. The Pixma connects to a network via Ethernet, USB, or wi-fi and can be configured to print directly from iPads, iPhones, and Android mobile devices. It’s a nice-looking machine, with an intuitive, easy-to-use control panel. The biggest drawback is the ink cartridges; a five-pack of replacements runs about $66, and high-yield cartridges aren’t an option. $200.
Xerox Phaser 7500
Offices with higher print volumes will want to consider the Xerox Phaser 7500 for its speed, capacity, and low cost per page. Even as it shoots out pages at a rate of more than 28 per minute, this laser printer’s text quality is about as good as it gets. At 145 pounds, it’s a bit of a beast but still lighter and easier to move than some of its competitors. The Phaser 7500 comes standard with a 500-sheet input tray, with the option for additional 500- or 1,500-sheet trays for media sizes up to 13 by 18 inches. The machine sells for around $3,300, but the more important number is the cost of ink per page. A $330 toner is good for nearly 20,000 pages, coming out at about 1.7 cents per page, a good value.
Technology I Really Use
Owner, Saucy Burts
Recommends: Square (squareup.com)
Whether her meatball sandwich cart is parked on Nicollet Mall or at a neighborhood festival, Sarah Burt can easily accept credit card payments with Square. The mobile app comes with a thin, one-inch-square card swiper that clips into her smartphone’s headphone jack. Type in the amount, swipe the customer’s card, and that’s it. “Our interaction is fast; they can grab their food and go,” Burt says. The app serves as a virtual cash register, keeping track of sales and even processing tips and taxes. It’s securely encrypted, and “ironclad,” she says. “Any time of day I log on, it works.” Funds show up in her business bank account a day or two later, and the processing cost is only 2.75 percent per swipe for all major credit cards. “I have more money in my pocket at the end of the day,” says Burt, who recommends Square to any business, small or large, that uses cash registers.
Broker and Owner, Metamorphosis Realty
Recommends: MyFax (myfax.com)
Going paperless—or even just trying to cut paper waste—isn’t easy in real estate and construction, two industries that still rely heavily on faxing. Samantha Strong, owner of an eco-realty and design-build firm, found an inexpensive web app called MyFax that lets her company send and receive faxes minus the paper. Faxes show up as PDF files in her e-mail inbox. Sending is as easy as attaching a document, typing in the destination number, and hitting send. “I can just file it away and never have to print a page,” says Strong, who recommends the service to anyone who wants to go greener, cut overhead, or send and receive faxes on the go. “I know it’s not a flashy service, but for $10 a month, MyFax has improved our connectivity.”
Director of news technology, MinnPost.com
Recommends: GitHub (github.com)
When it comes time to write code for a weather widget or map data for a journalism project, MinnPost.com’s Kaeti Hinck has a crowd to turn to for help. GitHub is a social coding site that lets programmers and project managers share and track code, even with people from outside their organization. “It’s part version control, part wiki, and part social network,” Hinck says. The service gives her team a centralized place to keep all its code, as well as a place to share it with the world when they choose. (MinnPost releases all of its applications as open source, letting others see how they built them.) “It greatly simplifies our workflow and allows me to track changes that are made to projects along the way,” says Hinck, who recommends GitHub for any programmers or project managers looking for better ways to collaborate.
Director of e-strategy, Tunheim Partners
Recommends: Google Hangouts (google.com/+/learnmore/hangouts)
When arranging in-person meetings with clients isn’t convenient, David Erickson schedules Google Hangouts instead. An increasingly robust video-chat tool, Google Hangouts allows up to 10 people to join a conversation. Participants can screen activity and easily collaborate on Google Docs. The entire session is recorded so it can be shared with clients or colleagues. “It is a great tool for doing online presentations and for training,” Erickson says. An “on-air” feature lets users turn video chats into live webcasts that can be recorded directly to YouTube for viewing later. Erickson can envision Hangouts being used for virtual job fairs, product demonstrations, and possibly “the democratization of talk shows,” he says. Retailers could use Hangouts to interview fashion experts on the latest trends, for example. “I think it is a natural tool for anyone with a large audience.”
PR specialist, One Simple Plan
Recommends: 1Password (agilebits.com/onepassword)
Managing multiple social media channels for multiple clients means keeping track of a lot of passwords. Jones uses an app called 1Password to manage all his various logins. After asking permission, the app stores usernames and passwords for any website in a searchable, encrypted database that’s accessible on your computer or through mobile devices. “Instead of having to search e-mail history or try and find files and documents with passwords, the login details are just there,” Jones says. Web browsers such as Chrome and Firefox come with similar services but 1Password offers more security and more management functionality, he says. He recommends it to anyone who uses numerous passwords and currently has them scribbled on scraps of paper or buried in their e-mail inbox. $50 for Mac or Windows.