Handy Travel Technology

I’m expecting I’ll be traveling a bit more for work this year and, in preparation for that, I asked for a couple of things for Christmas to help make that a bit easier. There are three devices that I think have become integral to my travel, just in terms of making life a little bit easier.

When you travel, iPhone batteries seem to take a beating. You tend to move around places with weak cell coverage and intermittent wi-fi coverage that keep your phone radios fired up and burning battery. There’s lots of downtime where you’re using your phone to check on fight status, or read the news, or just entertain yourself while waiting for a flight. A couple of years ago I picked up a Mophie Powerstation battery pack. It’s 4000 mAh, which basically means it can charge an iPhone full more than two times, and can also charge an iPad. I charge it, throw it in my bag, and then if I feel like my phone might die that day, it’s small enough to keep in my pocket. One recommendation: get a small cable so that you don’t have to carry the traditional long Lightning cable around with you.

Hotel wifi is notoriously bad. In some hotels, you either pay for each device, or logging one device on bumps another device off. When listening to an episode of Mac Power Users, I heard about the Edimax N150 Travel Router. Basically, it’s a little USB powered wifi router. Once you set it up (it’s not the most straightforward thing), you hook it either into the hotel’s ethernet or wifi. That way, you have one device that’s always connected to the hotel’s internet, and then you connect to it. Since it’s not moving around (the way you often are when using an iPad or iPhone), you don’t worry about losing signal. And, it’s advanced enough to broadcast a hidden (and protected) network so that other folks won’t jump on your connection.

Since it’s USB powered, it fits perfectly right into the Belkin BST300bg. This is a surge protector, USB charger, and outlet expander all in one. So many hotels have only a couple of power outlets, and they’re usually located in the most horrible place possible. You plug the Belkin into any outlet, and it’ll give you 3 surge protected outlets (great for your laptop) and two USB ports. Use one to charge your device, and plug your little Edimax wifi router into the other. Even better at the airport when you need to charge your gear and you’re fighting over one of those airport outlets. Throw this in and share the love.

If you shop smartly (and the links above are to Amazon, so I’ll get a tiny kickback if you buy one), you can pretty much get all three of these for less than $100. That’s $100 well spent, and it’ll make your travel much, much happier.

Quick Review: Sonos Playbar

Thanks to my wonderful future in-laws, we found ourselves in possession of a really awesome Sonos Playbar. In our new living room, we had been using the TV speakers of our new Samsung HDTV for our audio, whether via the TV or when playing music via the Apple TV or Pandora on the TV.

It was fine. Or maybe slightly less than fine. Not nearly as good as the surround sound setup we had in our condo (which isn’t a good fit for our living room). Certainly not good enough to use to play music while making food in the kitchen, or having a little party on the first floor.

We had jokingly asked for a Playbar, mostly since I had convinced myself that I would get one for myself for my birthday. Well, Merry Christmas, we got one six months early.

Let’s start with the handful of cons:

  • The price. It’s expensive. It’s really nice, but that doesn’t make it not expensive.
  • It doesn’t come with a mount. I was sort of astounding it doesn’t come with a mount. Now, the mount isn’t all that expensive, but for what you pay, you’d expect that to be included.
  • No Apple Airplay support. It’d be awesome if it acted as an Airplay receiver so you could throw any old iOS/Mac audio right at it without having to turn on the Apple TV.

There are a lot of pros:

  • Integrated apps. For things like Pandora, or SiriusXM, or Amazon music, or Spotify, you just plug in your info and then you can manage the thing via the Sonos app. And it works quite well. You can control it from almost anywhere in the house.
  • The sound. It sounds great. Really great. Much better than TV speakers, and good enough that I’m not sure we’ll rush to add surround sound to our living room. It’s been great watching movies and Netflix and listening to music.
  • It looks good. Our TV is mounted on a corner mount, so mounting the Sonos wasn’t easy. I had to buy a soundbar mount that mounts to the TV mount, and then mount the Sonos mount to it. It took a bit of work to get it working, and I think we nearly dropped our TV, but in the end, it looks really nice mounted right below the TV.
  • It’s expandable. We like the Sonos enough that I may get another speaker (like a Play:1) and be able to control them all simultaneously.

For the Sonos, you’re paying a premium, and there’s not a lot of discounts available. So you need to really want one (or have some really nice family members). But, so far, it feels like it’s been worth the money.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: #1 The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

The New Pornographers—Brill Bruisers

My favorite song off my favorite album of the year. By one of my favorite bands of all time. Who put on one of my favorite concerts of the year (even if it was in one of my least favorite venues—House of Blues). That’s a lot of superlatives.

But this album deserves it. It’s not The New Pornographers from Twin Cinema or Mass Romantic, but that was 10 years ago. Music has moved forward. This is Twin Cinema re-imagined. And “Brill Bruisers” encompasses that in spades.

The big hooky guitars, straight up power pop sound, the “ba ba” backing harmonies that fill every crevice of the song, this is straight up sugary pop music that makes your ears happy. There’s not an ounce of this song that isn’t completely wrung dry for every possible bit of joy it can offer. And it all lands in a tidy 3 minutes.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: #2 Spoon – They Want My Soul

Spoon—They Want My Soul

Spoon’s album (also titled They Want My Soul) was easily one of the best albums of the year, with amazing song after amazing song. There were three or four songs I could have picked in this spot. In the end, it was always going to be “Do You” or “They Want My Soul”.

“They Want My Soul” is unmistakably Spoon. From the moment you hear the opening line, you know it’s Spoon. The layered build, with each of the first few verses adding instrumentation, just adds to it’s catchiness. The lyrics, in typical Spoon fashion, are dense and intelligent, but you’ll still catch yourself signing along with the chorus by the end of the song.

In many years, this would be my favorite song of the year. And probably my favorite album of the year. Just not this year.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: #3 Foxygen – How Can You Really

Foxygen—How Can You Really

This is such a wonderful little 60s song, an amazing pop gem that gets in your head and will last for days. You’ll play it over and over again, and you’ll pick up on the tempo changes and marvel at the instrumentation. It’s just an outright amazing song that will make you want to check out more Foxygen.

Don’t. Just stop here and listen to this song over and over again and be happy. Really, I’m warning you.

This song though. So wonderful.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: #4 Tokyo Police Club – Argentina (Parts I, II, and III)

Tokyo Police Club—Argentina (Parts I, II, and III)

At almost 9 minutes, this is not your typical Tokyo Police Club in length. But it’s a pastiche of the various styles that Tokyo Police Club have introduced over their past few albums. You’ve got the driving drum beat, sing songy vocal harmonies, hand claps, synths, and the really ragged, fast guitars that make up their sound.

It sounds like a lot; it sounds overwhelming. It’s not. It’s a fun continuum of a pop songs that take you through the hunt for a relationship. Tokyo Police Club make danceable pop music that you can tell your friends is rock music. Isn’t that all you really need?