TechnoFile's most interesting tech gadgets of 2012
By Jim Bray
Presented for your enjoyment, edification or just plain derision, here's TechnoFile's latest annual list of the most interesting technological gadgets of the past year.
Again, as with the annual "most intriguing cars" feature, this list doesn't necessarily represent the best in a particular field, the most significant, or any such parameter. Instead, it's limited to the things that were actually featured in TechnoFile's virtual pages, so if you're looking for pompous pronouncements about game changes, new trends or the like, you're looking in the wrong place.
But if you'd like pompous pronouncements about the niftiest stuff I played with over the past 12 months, this is for you.
Most interesting home theater component: I didn't play with a lot of home theater stuff this year, but one that really turned my crank was the Tunelink Home Bluetooth device for home audio systems, from New Potato Technologies. This little $100 device connects to your audio system's preamp (or receiver) and lets you stream the tunes – and other audio apps – from your smart phone right to your system.
I loved this, because it brought the same type of Bluetooth convenience to my big home theater that I get with my smaller Bluetooth-enabled devices, Bose's SoundDock 10 and SoundLink. It also lets me use my phone's playlists – which I spent considerable time organizing – and it hooks in via optical connection, ensuring a digital-to-digital signal path.
You can also use analog cables, but the TOSLINK worked better – and sounded better – in my setup.
You can also supposedly download an app that will let you control your components via the smart phone. I can't find an Android version, but there's one iPhone and iPad.
Most interesting "lifestyle" device: This can only be the FitDesk. The $250 FitDesk is a pretty cool idea that blends a fairly standard upright exercise bike with a desk on which you can do real work. The desk is more of a big, black flat area stuck on top of the handlebars, but you can perch your notebook, netbook, tablet, game controller or whatever onto it and work while you pedal.
I use the FitDesk (which folds a bit and has little wheels for easier storage) several times a week – not to do work per se, but to ensure I get at least some exercise in my sedentary life. I generally "ride" for eight to 11 miles per session, vegging out in front of the plasma TV (watching "Top Gear" usually) with my iPad in front of me. Sometimes I've even done some work, though I try to minimize that.
Am I a slim Adonis-like figure yet? There aren't enough FitDesks in the world for that. Nor do I plan to be (I find something pleasingly organic about being pear shaped), but thanks to the FitDesk's convenience and quiet performance – and the fact that it's there, silently daring me to ignore it – I'm nearly half way to my goal of losing 30(ish) pounds. Sure, it's taken a lot longer than if I actually paid attention, but it's working in spite of that and that's fine with me.
Most interesting computer software: This goes to the WM Recorder bundle, which lets you capture streaming media right off of the websites from which they stream. Just saw a YouTube video that turned your crank? Fire up WM Recorder and it will find the videos on that particular web page and download them to your hard drive, after which you can have your way with them as you will.
The $50 program, now in version 14, can snag all the popular formats, including Flash, Windows Media, Real Media, MPEG and Quicktime streams. The software records streams automatically, even if you don't actually play them (they just have to appear on the web page) and the included companion app WM Converter lets you save them as AVI, iPod/iPhone, WMV and other popular formats.
You don't even have to stick around to watch/listen to the media as it appears on the page; once WM Recorder gets its virtual clutches into it, it downloads the source file – so you can surf away to someplace else and only sample the recording once it's finished.
The only hitch is that in my experience, it'll grab every media file from a page, so if there are video ads, you'll get them too. But they're all saved as separate files, and it's easy to delete the ones you don't want.
You can also buy WM Recorder as a "Bonus Bundle" for $79, which also includes WM Capture (record video from ANY web site or player by capturing it directly from your screen), VideoClone and WM Splitter, the latter of which lets you trim portions of audio and video files – for instance, to get rid of the darn commercials.
Most Interesting Blu-rays: There are more Blu-rays available these days than you can shake a stick at, but only two really stuck out this year as being exemplary examples of the species. Remember, of course, this only includes Blu-rays I actually reviewed – so titles like "The Avengers" (a fantastic Blu-ray in its own right) aren't included.
But "Forever Marilyn" brought seven of the late icon's films to the high def format – albeit in a rather crummy package – and they look and sound even better than you might expect from films this old. The movies run the gamut from musical comedy to western drama, from the screwball comedy of "Some Like it Hot" to John Huston's "The Misfits."
With the possible exception of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," the films look great in high definition, with a nice and sharp image that's rich in color and even offers some pretty good depth. The audio is merely okay – as you might expect from films of this age, but for what it is, it's fine.
If you ever wondered why Marilyn had such a mystique, this collection will show it in high def spades.
And if you're looking for a fantastic audio experience from a movie, you don't have to go farther than Steven Spielberg's "War Horse." Kind of like a "Forrest Gump for horses" crossed with a little bit of "Ben-Hur for horses" (the movie follows Joey the horse through all kinds of adventures, trials and tribulations), it's a film that looks and feels truly epic, and it's also a fantastic example of what can be experienced in today's home theaters.
The Blu-ray offers audio and video that's simply astonishing. The 1080/24p video is superb, with lovely, rich colors and superb black levels. It's easily reference quality.
And the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 audio track is even better, though I listened to it in 5.1. It fills the room beautifully: whether it be John Williams' sweeping score, the battlefield ordnance and equipment, horses charging, or just a thunderstorm, all channels are used to their best, including the low frequency effects channel. It's a fantastic home theater experience.
Most interesting audio recordings: I only reviewed a couple of audio albums this year – and in fact I haven't even finished reviewing my winner here – but the nod must go to Norway's 2L studio for their outstanding Blu-ray audio-only recordings. They sent me three of their new ones and, though I'm not a huge fan of the actual music, the audio quality is to die for.
2L shines its light on Norwegian composers and performers, not surprisingly, but the composers aren't limited just to Norwegians. For example, one of the three new discs they sent, Trondheimsolistene Souvenir, includes Tchaikovsky, while La Voie Triomphale – by the Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces – plays stuff from Berlioz, Saint-Saens and Dukas, among others. And what a great blend of genres! TronheimSolistene is a string ensemble, the Armed Forces band is (not surprisingly) brass-focused – while "Quiet Winter Night" is courtesy of the Hoff Ensemble, a small combo featuring voice, trumpet, guitar, piano, fiddle, double bass and percussion.
The company's recordings emphasize surround sound, with all three of these BD's recorded in churches. You can also play them in stereo, however. I tried the stereo tracks on a smaller audio system and it sounded great, but you can't beat the surround versions played on the big audio system in the home theater. It's definitely reference quality stuff – and I will be adding these titles to my list of recordings to use when reviewing audio equipment.
I should also mention Reference Recording's "Horns for the Holidays," which isn't Blu-ray or SACD but which pushes CD audio (in this case HDCD) about as far as it can go. I did have some issues with the recording itself (though not enough to hate the album) but if you're looking for a fantastic album of Christmas music done as you may not have heard before, this could be your baby. And of course the fact that it's on CD makes it accessible to a larger potential audience than SACD or Blu-ray (especially if you want to take it in your car).
That's it for this year. None of these products are cures for cancer, of course, but depending on your wants and/or needs, they could be just what the tech doctor ordered.
Technology moves so quickly, it's hard to keep up. Heck, it seems as if whatever gadget you buy is replaced by a newer, better one almost within days – so some of these products will undoubtedly be newer and improved – or even made obsolete – before too long.
I so look forward to seeing what'll be on tap in 2013!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Copyright 2012 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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