10 great Wi-Fi gadgets for work and play
- 25 September, 2008 10:16
You've done the hard work of optimizing your Wi-Fi network, and it reliably beams high-speed data to every nook and cranny of your home or office. Now, it's time to take it to the next level by connecting more than just computers.
There's a whole world of gadgets out there that can help you get work done and entertain you -- all without wires. From wireless print servers and security cameras to Internet radios and VoIP phones, the variety of Wi-Fi appliances available is astounding. There's even a Whirlpool refrigerator equipped with interchangeable wireless modules to serve up recipes, digital photos and Web sites. (Personally, I can't imagine stopping to check the weather when what I really want is a cold beer.)
But let's stick with more practical devices. Any of the 10 Wi-Fi gadgets in our list can liberate you from the tyranny of cables by wirelessly printing, phoning, moving photos, playing music and more.
It's easy to get started, but a word of warning: Time and again, the hardest part of setting up these wireless wonders was entering the Wi-Fi network's encryption codes with clunky on-screen keypads rather than a standard keyboard. Still, it's the best way to cut the cord and stay connected.
Wireless printing: Two-way data street
Linksys WPSM54G print server
One of the best things a wireless network can do is print without cables. It may seem like magic, but the latest print servers, like Linksys' WPSM54G (US$90), can also send scans from any recent multifunction printer (MFP) to a computer. It all works well, but my advice is not to be in a hurry.
After plugging the WPSM54G into my Canon Pixma MP780 MFP, it took 5 minutes to load the software, enter the security codes via my PC's keyboard and configure the print server. Capable of linking to 802.11b/g/n networks, the server is small (about 5 by 1 by 4 inches) and works with Windows 2000/XP/Vista systems, but not Macs or Linux machines. It has a range of 95 feet and demands to be the system's default printer.
Unfortunately, speed is not of the essence with the Linksys print server. It printed a two-page color Adobe Acrobat document in one minute 51 seconds and scanned an 8-by-11-in. color magazine cover in 6 minutes 30 seconds, or about half as fast as with a USB cable.
Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet J4680 multifunction printer
I also tested HP's OfficeJet J4680 (US$130), an MFP with a built-in wireless print server that works with both Windows and Mac computers. The device has a range of 90 feet. After an agonizingly slow 30-minute software installation, it took me another couple of minutes to correctly enter the network's encryption code with the printer's clunky phone-like keypad. The device works with 802.11b/g networks only.
Once set up, however, the OfficeJet zoomed along. In contrast to the Linksys print server, the OfficeJet J4680 printed the same file in 37 seconds and scanned the document in 47 seconds, making it a wireless speed demon. For my money, I'd opt for the printer with wireless built in because I hate to wait.
VoIP phone: Wi-Fi calls for less
Panasonic KX-WP1050 Wi-Fi phone for Skype
By combining Skype's inexpensive Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone service with Panasonic's wireless KX-WP1050 phone, calling anywhere in the world just got a lot cheaper.
Everything you'll need comes with the KX-WP1050, including the 3-oz. handset, access point (the handset has to use its own) and cables. Setting it all up took me about 10 minutes. Although I was able to quickly type the network connection information with my computer's keyboard, I had lots of trouble entering my Skype username and password with the handset's awkward alphanumeric keypad.
Happily, you only need to do this once. After that, calls connect as fast as with a cell phone, are about as reliable and sound surprisingly good. The phone's 60-ft. range is a bit skimpy and the phone can use only an 802.11b/g network, but the handset's battery was good for four hours 30 minutes of talk time; it's recharged with a mini-USB cable from the access point.
At US$400 MSRP (you can probably find it for US$300 if you shop around), the KX-WP1050 is expensive. On the other hand, once you've got it, the costs are low: Skype charges US$3 a month for unlimited calling in the US and Canada, and you'll need to rent a local phone number for US$6 a month. All told, that's about one-third the price of Vonage and other VoIP phone services, proving that talk really is cheap.
Wi-Fi Web radio: Tune in the world
Grace Digital ITC-IR1000B Web radio
The ITC-IR1000B Web radio] from Grace Digital not only lets you listen to Internet radio shows from anywhere in your Wi-Fi zone, but it can also tap into RSS feeds, podcasts and music on your PC. At US$200, it's a bargain.
Housed in a sophisticated black case, it's slightly smaller than Sangean's more expensive WFR-20, yet has scrolling and volume knobs, along with five presets for favorite stations. The blue LCD screen shows the time, the site it's connected to and the audio stream's data rate.
Setup took me about 5 minutes, of which about half was spent entering the network's encryption key with the scroll knob and screen. The radio has an antenna that swivels to get the best connection on 802.11 b/g networks; its range is 95 feet.
It takes about 15 seconds to connect to any of the radio's 13,000 stations, nearly twice the number available to other Internet radios. They're organized in 68 categories from Adult to World Tropical, and you can even listen to the BBC in Arabic or Mandarin.
The audio is surprisingly rich and clear, considering the radio's single speaker. Its built-in alarm clock can be a career-saver for those who have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, but like its peers, the ITC-IR1000B doesn't have an FM radio. On top of Internet radio stations, RSS audio feeds and podcasts, the radio can lift music stored on your PC as well as the Pandora music service , enlarging the radio's repertoire manyfold and making it truly capable of tuning in the world.
Wi-Fi SD card and camera: Beam up your snapshots
Eye-Fi Share card
Nobody likes wasting time fumbling with flash cards or cables to get photos out of a camera and onto a PC or online photo-sharing service. It's hard to believe, but a Wi-Fi network can help you put your pictures exactly where you want them.
The US$100 Eye-Fi Share card squeezes a Wi-Fi radio and 2GB of flash memory into a tiny Secure Digital (SD) card. Basically, it works with any camera that has an SD card slot and supports 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi equipment. After loading the software on my computer and entering my network's security code with my PC's keyboard, the card quickly connected with my Wi-Fi network; in all, it took 2 minutes.
Now, whenever I bring my Nikon D50 within 75 feet of my router, the photos are automatically transferred to either my PC or an online picture service -- or both. Eye-Fi's Manager software can forward the photos to any of two dozen online photo services, from Blue String to Web Shots. It takes about 7.5 seconds to move a 1.5MB photo. If I'm out of range, the Share card holds up to a thousand top-quality photos until it's close enough to transfer them.
If you're not interested in uploading photos to an online service, consider the Eye-Fi Home card, which costs US$80 and sends the images to a computer only.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ50S camera
If you're in the market for a new camera, Panasonic's US$400 Lumix DMC-TZ50S has it all. It's a capable camera that bypasses the PC and beams its photos over an 802.11b or g network, but rather than the choice of several online photo sites, it works only with Google's Picasa service.
The camera has a Leica 10X zoom lens, excellent automatic exposure and a 3-in. viewscreen. It can upload snapshots from a home or office router or a T-Mobile hot spot. (For the sake of security and battery life, I'd recommend turning off the Wi-Fi radio on the camera when you're not using it to send photos.)
Setting it up is more time consuming than with the Eye-Fi card because you'll need to enter your Wi-Fi network information, plus your Google Gmail account name and password with the camera's clumsy screen entry system; figure on spending a total of 20 minutes. Once set up, the camera moved a 1.5MB image to my Picasa Web photo album in 27 seconds.
Wireless projector: Beaming the big image
NEC NP905 wireless projector
Digital video projectors are great for everything from work presentations to Super Bowl parties, but connecting one up can be a hassle. NEC's NP905 wireless projector replaces the clumsy cables with a reliable Wi-Fi link.
The 8-lb. NP905 is rated at 3,000 lumens and creates a vibrant 1,024-by-768 image on the screen. Along with a multitude of wired connection possibilities, the projector has a built-in 802.11b/g radio. (The wireless connection requires Windows.) Best of all, the projector has a USB port that works with an off-the-shelf keyboard to make quick work of entering the Wi-Fi codes and passwords.
After loading the needed applications on my PC, I configured the Wi-Fi link and had it all working in 10 minutes. NEC's Image Express program sends whatever is on the screen of my PC to the projector. Unfortunately, there's an annoying control panel at the bottom of the screen, the image is slightly delayed, and occasionally the video stutters, particularly as you get close to its 70-ft. range.
At US$2,000, the NP905 costs a couple of hundred dollars more than traditional video projectors, but the freedom of motion that it creates is well worth it.
Wi-Fi photo frame: Bottomless pit of snapshots
PF Digital eStarling WPF-388B digital photo frame
If you're like me, you have thousands of digital photos just sitting around on your computer. That's where PF Digital's US$250 eStarling WPF-388B digital photo frame comes in, setting them free so they can be viewed in any room you want via an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi link.
Although the original eStarling frame released in 2006 had some infamous defects , the current model has ironed out the kinks. Built around a black plastic frame with clear edges, the eStarling's 8-in. LCD seems to float in air as it displays up to 256MB worth of pictures. The 800-by-600 resolution is a little skimpy, particularly for 8- and 10-megapixel images, but the device downsizes the images to fit. Downsized images look excellent, with no jaggies, snow or artifacts.
The frame comes with a tiny remote control that lets you adjust the timing of the slide show and choose from six transitions, including a dissolve and various wipes.
After plugging in the frame, I connected it to my PC with the included USB cable so that I didn't have to use the frame's screen and buttons for entering my network's security key. It was all connected in about 5 minutes. The frame has a range of 100 feet from the router, but annoyingly takes a couple of minutes to start displaying the images.
Rather than lifting the photos from your PC, the frame works with PF Digital's SeeFrame online picture service , which provides unlimited free storage. You can e-mail shots one at a time or upload them in groups directly to the site. The frame also works with nine other online photo services, including Flickr and Picasa, as well as RSS image feeds. All told, it's a great way to get photos out of your PC and into your living space.
Wi-Fi security camera: Something to watch over me
Linksys Wireless-G PTZ Internet Camera
A wireless network offers a great opportunity to set up surveillance cameras that watch over your home or office without the hassle and expense of running video cables throughout the building. The US$250 Linksys Wireless-G PTZ Internet Camera goes a step further than static cameras by letting you pan and zoom it remotely.
Setting it up took about 10 minutes. I started by plugging the camera into my router with an Ethernet cable and running the included CD on my computer. After that, a wizard took over and found the camera on the third try. I had to enter the camera's IP address on my computer to access the camera's setup screens and enter the network's encryption code. Finally, I disconnected the Ethernet cable and the camera was on its own; it connected with my Wi-Fi network on the first try.
The interface, which works with PCs only, can handle four separate video feeds over an 802.11b/g link. With it, I can remotely watch the scene, pan the camera side-to-side and up-and-down, and zoom in on a detail. There's an annoying one- or two-second delay between clicking on an action and the camera carrying it out, and you can hear the device's servo motors positioning the camera. The 640-by-480 video stream is surprisingly clear and detailed, although the video gets choppy when the camera gets about 90 feet away from the router.
I really like that the PTZ Internet Camera has a removable antenna that can be swapped for a more powerful one, potentially extending its range. After sensing motion in its field of view, the camera can take a snapshot, record video and then alert me via an e-mail, making it a burglar alarm that can capture evidence at the scene of the crime.
Wi-Fi Media Center extender: HDTV everywhere
HP MediaSmart Connect x280n
Here's my digital dilemma: My Windows Media Center PC is in the office, but the family's HDTV is at the other end of the house. So I used HP's MediaSmart Connect x280n to bring the two together. Now I can surf the Web, watch online videos and listen to Internet radio on my TV. At US$350, the x280n can inexpensively transform a TV into an online powerhouse.
Although the device works with 802.11a/b/g/n networks, HP suggests that only dual-band 802.11n routers have the throughput to reliably send high-definition video over a wireless link. My elderly 802.11g router obviously wasn't up to the task, so I swapped in a Linksys WRT600N 802.11n router.
Be prepared to set aside a couple of hours from start to finish, and be ready to go back and forth between the Media Center PC and TV several times to configure them. After going upstairs to connect the media extender to my Westinghouse 1080p TV and enter the network's encryption codes with the remote control, I went back downstairs to my HP HDX 9000 Media Center PC and installed the needed software, then back upstairs to make a few clicks and write down a special code. Finally, I went back downstairs to finish up by entering the TV's code on the PC.
Happily, this is a one-time setup chore, and the media extender's remote control allows efficient entry for the network's encryption codes. Once it was all connected and online, I watched movies on Cinema Now and Vongo, viewed pictures from the PC and watched shows I recorded on the Media Center PC -- all of which came through surprisingly well, with no jerkiness, delays or hiccups.