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Blog posts and video from Steven as he “COMBS” through the minutia to discover tech, retro-computing, physical computing, gadgets and sci-fi.

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18 December 2016

My favorite gadgets of 2016

by Steven B. Combs, Ph.D.
tags: gadgets - favorites - list

This past year brought many gadgets into our home. As the year winds up, I decided to share my favorites and those I use on a regular basis. Some of these were purchased prior to 2016, but remain useful. I include prices that were accurate at the time of this writing. Below is a table of contents to provide quick access to each gadget description.

Mobile Tech

My routine requires reliable mobile technology. I am frequently not at my desk and the ability to get things done on the road is important. Below are the mobile gadgets that keep me sane and productive while on the go.

Google Pixel Phone

I’ve posted my thoughts on the Pixel Phone, Google’s first attempt to produce a mobile phone of the same quality and caliber as an Apple iPhone. In my view, this is the best Android phone on the market. While the phone’s high cost may cause some to look elsewhere, Android users looking for a pure Google premium phone need look no further. Use this phone on Google’s Project Fi mobile plan to save money on your monthly service and recoup the cost of the phone or pay for it over time.

Get the Google Pixel Phone - $649.00

Acer R13 Chromebook

Google did something interesting with Chrome OS during 2016; they added access to the Android App Store (Play Store) to some Chromebooks. The new 13 inch Acer R13 Chromebook is one of the first (in beta). The more I use Android apps on this Chromebook the more I like it. The R13 is an aluminum convertible laptop. That is, the screen can fold back on the keyboard to become a large touch screen tablet. The R13 includes 4Gb of RAM, a 32Gb SSD, a 2.10GHz quad core processor, and amazing battery life. It’s a bit bulky, but very compelling. For a less expensive plastic 11 inch option, try the Acer R11 Chromebook ($279.00). It too has access to the Google Play store and would make a great first Chromebook.

Get the Acer R13 Chromebook - $399.99

Amazon Fire Tablets

Amazon manufactures Fire Tablets in various sizes. While these tablets don’t have access to the Google Play Store, don’t have exceptional battery life, nor have the most powerful processors, these are the Volkswagen (from the 1940’s and 50’s) of the tablet world. Utilitarian, easy to use, affordable and rugged, these are the perfect handheld devices for the average consumer. We have two extra inexpensive tablets we use to control our home automation, watch streaming video or simply browse the web while watching television.

Get an Amazon Fire Tablet - Starting at $49.90

Anker USB Charger

USB chargers come in various shapes, sizes and capacities. A good one is often hard to find and Anker provides one of the best. The Anker Quick Charge 3.0 is a 60 watt USB charging powerhouse. Anker’s “IQ” charging feature allows devices to suck juice as quickly as they can; and not just one device at a time, but up to 6. Our Anker charger sits in an IKEA charging desk with various cables attached and easily accessible.

Get the 6 port Anker USB Charger - $33.99

I like Anker’s 6 port version so much, I use their smaller 24 watt two port option for traveling.

Get the 2 Port Anker USB Wall Wart - $10.00

Audio/Video

My daily routine keeps me busy, but I build in time for music and streaming video. These are the gadgets I use to view shows and listen to tunes.

Anker SoundCore

A good Bluetooth speaker is important to any gadget loving geek. The Anker SoundCore is the perfect portable speaker to throw into a travel bag. It’s small, has decent sound, good volume and outstanding battery life. When traveling, I use the White Noise Pro app to turn the SoundCore into a white-noise machine to help me sleep and pair with my Chromebook or MacBook to provide better sound for music and streaming video. There’s even a handy dandy fitted DSALL Travel Bag Hard Case available to keep the SoundCore safe while traveling.

Get an Anker SoundCore - $24.99

Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick

Purchased in 2015, the affordable Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV stick are still the way we consume media on our home television screens. With access to major streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Sling, PlayStation Vue and numerous others, it’s the one device that gives you access to the most popular services. You can even pair a game controller, or use the included remote, and play numerous Android games.

Get the Amazon Fire TV - $89.99 Get the Amazon Fire TV Stick - $39.99

TiVo Bolt

We watch premium cable channels via Playstation Vue; however, for local channels we still have basic cable and use a TiVo Bolt to record network shows. The TiVo Bolt includes access to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and many other streaming services. In addition, we stream content from the TiVo to our mobile devices. The TiVo beta app for Amazon Fire TV streams recorded content to other Amazon Fire TV devices in the home.

Get the TiVo Bolt - $117.99

Sonos Play:1 and 3

These stand alone speakers, with outstanding sound, stream “all the world’s music” at the same time in multiple rooms. With apps available on almost any devices, you can play purchased music and stream from almost any online service. Appreciation for Sonos comes when you have more than one; but be careful, when you have one, you want more so you can fill your home with music.

Get a Sonos - $149.99 and up

Physical Computing

Makers rejoice! This year saw the release of three very exciting physical computing devices. One is an upgrade to a very popular all-in-one computer board and two others come from a new Kickstarter startup.

Raspberry Pi 3

The Raspberry Pi is a staple of the maker community and this past year the Pi received a faster processor, more RAM and integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It retains the general purpose input/output (GPIO) pins so the board can still interface with devices such as LEDs, motors and sensors. The Raspberry Pi 3 is powerful enough to serve as a viable desktop computer. There’s even an upgrade to the Raspberry Pi’s Debian based operating system (OS), Pixel (no, not the Google Pixel mobile phone), that includes the open source version of the Chrome browser, Chromium, making the new Raspberry Pi 3 a worthy cloud computing device.

Get the Raspberry Pi 3 - $39.95

C.H.I.P.

Kickstarter startup, Next Thing Co., entered the physical computing space this year with their new $9 C.H.I.P. computer. That’s right, for $9, Next Thing Co. was able create a competitor to the Raspberry Pi 3 that includes; 1GHz processor, 512Mb RAM, 4GB on board storage (no SD card required, like the Raspberry Pi), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPIO pins. All of this comes on a board half the size of the Raspberry Pi. The Linux Debian based C.H.I.P. OS includes the Pico 8 game development environment and access to Minecraft. While not as powerful as the Raspberry Pi 3, the C.H.I.P. is an amazing piece of technology for makers, budding programmers, beginning Linux server administrators, and anyone in need of an inexpensive computer for rudimentary computing tasks.

Get the C.H.I.P. - $9

PocketC.H.I.P.

Next Thing Co. also released the PocketC.H.I.P. in 2016. Plug a C.H.I.P. into a board that includes a chick-let keyboard, 5” LCD screen, GPIO pins, 3D accelerated OS with PICO 8 and you have a pocket Linux computer suitable for on-the-go game programming, Linux experimentation and physical computing projects. Next Thing Co. even includes a case that is hackable. Be sure to visit the excellent Next Thing Co. online community forums for support and ideas to get the most out of both the C.H.I.P. and PocketC.H.I.P. Read my 10 things to know about your new Pocket C.H.I.P. post for more information.

Get the PocketC.H.I.P. - $69.00

Home Automation

Amazon Echo Dot

When the original Amazon Echo was released, I wrote all about it. The Echo Dot carries on the tradition of the original, but in a smaller form factor and less impressive speaker system; however, it also comes with a lower cost. We have an Amazon Echo and two Echo Dots in our home. Each gives us voice access to music, information and control of our home automation equipment. Pair the Echo Dot with a good Bluetooth speaker to enhance the sound quality.

Get the Amazon Echo Dot - $49.99

WeMo Switch Smart Plug

The WeMo Switch Smart Plug is one of the simplest and inexpensive ways to build a home automation system. Plug it into the wall, plug in a lamp, use the WeMo app to configure and you can now turn lamps, or other devices, on and off with your phone or tablet. Create rules to control devices at specific times. The WeMo switch is compatible with the Amazon Echo. Configure the the switch in the Amazon Alexa app to control devices using your voice. Welcome to the twenty first century!

Get the WeMo Switch Smart Plug - $39.99

Hue Bulb Starter Kit

A bit more complicated than the WeMo suggestion above, but far more sophisticated, is the Hue Bulb Starter Kit. Unlike the WeMo, that will convert a normal lamp and bulb into a smart device, the Hue Bulb Starter Kit uses smart bulbs that screw into existing lamps. Connect the hub to your home router to connect the Hue devices to a home network. Because this system uses bulbs, rather than outlet adapters, it’s a more streamline solution. Hue provides white bulbs as well as bulbs that can change color (a whole lot of fun during the holidays).

Get the Hue Bulb Starter Kit

If you own a Philips Hue system, save money and purchase the GE Smart White LED Bulbs. They are compatible with the Philips Hue system and will save you a bundle if you want to add white lights to your home automation system.

Get the GE Link Smart LED Light Bulb - $20.00

Accessories

Any respectable gadget geek will tell you that it’s all about the accessories. Below is a list of accessories that were necessities in 2016.

Anker Anker PowerCore 10000

If you have a mobile device, you need an external battery in case of emergencies or after a long day of picture taking and tweeting. Once again, Anker comes to the rescue with their affordable and powerful PowerCore 10000 with high speed charging. The PowerCore will charge most smartphones three times before its needs a recharge.

Get the Anker Anker PowerCore 10000 - $23.99

Anker 24W Dual USB Car Charger

This 2 port car charger by Anker is the best “cigarette lighter” adapter I’ve used. With 2.4 amps of power it can easily charge a power hungry smartphone in no time, or charge two devices simultaneously. The charger is compact and I keep it and appropriate cables (it comes with one micro USB cable) in my travel bag at all times.

Get the Anker Car Charger - $11.99

Logitech K400 Keyboard

The inexpensive Logitech K400 Keyboard is a wireless keyboard that includes an integrated track pad. It is the perfect keyboard for the C.H.I.P., Raspberry Pi or home media device. Also make a great backup or presentation keyboard.

Get the Logitech K400 Keyboard - $19.99

IKEA STORHÖGEN Battery Charger with Storage

During a 2016 stop to IKEA, and there were many last year due to a kitchen remodel, I purchased this battery charger. I was intrigued with the charger because it was relatively inexpensive, compatible with all rechargeable battery types, includes an LCD screen that displays charge status, and stores 16 batteries (AA, AAA or combination) at at a time. The included wall mount ensures rechargeable batteries are ready to go when you need them.

Get the IKEA STORHÖGEN Battery Charger - $34.99

There you have it; my favorite gadgets of 2016. There were many gadgets released this past year, but these are the gadgets that caught my eye and the ones I use on a regular basis. Have a recommendation? Drop a comment below.

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