The home entertainment category in our Cool Yule Tools holiday guide used to be a part of the “After Hours” section, but with the explosion of high-tech features in the consumer electronics space, there’s a multitude of devices that will keep you entertained after a long day of work. Here are our picks for gift ideas that can keep you entertained and connected when you’re home:
Products reviewed in this categoryRoku 2 XS streaming media player, by RokuPlay:3 wireless music system, by SonosSound Step Recharge stereo speaker system, by Sound FreaqRoku 2 XD streaming media player, by RokuDiamond V-Stream Full 1080P HD Wireless PC to TVFanny Wang On-Ear headphones, by Fanny WangEarPollution Throwbax headphones, by iFrogzEarPollution CS40S headphones, by iFrogzMegaPlex MG-850HD projector, by EpsonVulkano Flow, by Monsoon MultimediaiA17WZC App-enhanced color changing stereo FM Alarm Clock Radio for iPhone/iPod, by iHomeEmbrace stereo headphones, by BlueAnt WirelessSuperBeam Phones (SB-405W) USB stereo headset, by Andrea ElectronicsAeroBeam WHD6215 Wireless HDMI Kit, by ZyxelNTV200 NeoTV Streaming Player, by NetgearMohu Leaf Indoor HDTV Antenna, by MohuiKurv docking station, by SpeakalPeel TV remote and iPhone app, by Peel TechnologiesJBL OnBeat loudspeaker dock by Harman
Roku 2 XS streaming media player, by RokuI've enjoyed the Roku Internet TV set-top box for several years now, each version the company creates adds new features that make it a more valuable piece of your networked home entertainment system year after year. The latest high-end version of the products is the Roku 2 XS, which adds the ability to play games on your TV with a gesture-based controller. The system includes the popular game Angry Birds, which should appeal to the younger members of your family (it doesn't take long to figure out how to use the remote control to fling back the slingshot and fire the birds at those dastardly pigs).
Like other Roku units, the system connects easily to your TV via the included AV cable, or you can purchase a separate HDMI cable for connecting to a high-definition TV (recommended). To connect to the Internet, the system includes an Ethernet port or built-in wireless (802.11-based networks). Configuration is handled through the remote control, and it doesn't take too long to get up and running.
The high point of the Internet TV services that the box supports are Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon instant video, which are all subscription-based services, so you will need to pay extra to access these services. However, Roku also does a good job at providing access to free content, including access to Facebook photos, flickr, Pandora and others. In fact, it's very entertaining seeing some of the free services available, there's some really obscure content out there on the Internet that you can access. Roku also does a very good job at creating licensing deals with new content providers, it recently announced deals with Sony's Crackle service, for example. Keep checking and you'll find new content on a regular basis. A USB port on the device also lets you attach an external USB drive or hard drive so you can watch movies or photos from that device.
The box itself also got smaller in its latest iteration, it's now smaller than an Apple TV box, if you place it on a cabinet next to or under your TV you may soon forget it's there if you start placing other items next to it or on top of it (such as game boxes, DVDs, etc.).
If you want to buy a great gift that only will keep getting better year after year, be sure to pick up a Roku 2 XS. If you don't want the high-end version, Roku also makes two other versions that are less expensive yet still provide the same content (except for the Angry Birds).
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $99.95Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Play:3 wireless music system, by SonosAn upgrade to its S5 system, the Play:3 from Sonos is an all-in-one wireless music system with speakers that can be easily connected to a home network (either connected directly via Ethernet to a router, or wirelessly with the purchase of a $49 bridge). Once connected, the Play:3 will stream music stored on a PC, Mac or network-attached storage device, or it can access several music services or Internet radio stations (more than 100,000, according to Sonos).
The wireless mesh nature of the Sonos system (each unit becomes a node in the proprietary Sonos wireless network) also means you can create a multi-room system – the same song can be played simultaneously in different rooms of your house, or you can stream different songs to the other rooms. The more you add to the system, the cooler it becomes. Songs and stations can be controlled with an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad or Android smartphones (via free app download).
The entire unit is smaller than the previous version (the S5), so it can fit in tighter spots than ever before. In addition, you can rotate the Play:3 vertically to place on a bookshelf (the unit knows what position it’s in), or you can put two units within a room and assign each one as a left or right speaker. The lower price (it’s about $100 less than before) means that more people can experience the Sonos universe without breaking the bank. As an added bonus, the Ethernet port on the back of the Play:3 can be used to connect a PC/notebook, letting you piggyback the Sonos wireless mesh in case you have a dead spot in your regular 802.11 network.
Keep in mind that some music services require additional fees/subscriptions in order to play through the Sonos (Spotify, in particular, required a premium account).
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $300Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Sound Step Recharge stereo speaker system, by Sound FreaqThis stereo speaker system offers users four ways to play their music. First, you can stream tunes wirelessly from your device over Bluetooth – the system has a Pair button that makes it easy to connect with a smartphone or iPad or other Bluetooth device. Second, you can dock an iPhone, iPod or even an iPad through the Apple universal connector. A cool bonus – your i-device will recharge while it’s in the dock and playing the music (or videos if you prefer). Third, you can connect to an AUX input from any device that has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Finally, through the Soundfreaq Remote app (a free download) you can listen to FM radio.
Sound quality from the speakers is excellent – in addition to normal listening mode, you can activate the speakers’ “U-Cubed” sound effect technology – Sound Freaq says this creates a wide stereo sound field in stereo music systems. Using this button did create a fuller sound from my digital music player. The sound is large enough to fill up a room with great sound – I’d highly recommend this for use at parties and the like.
My only complaint is the device’s inability to support an iPad or iPhone in horizontal/landscape mode, optimal for viewing movies and hearing the sound. In theory you could place the iPad next to the speakers and stream via Bluetooth, but then you’d lose the ability to recharge the iPad. But it’s a minor quibble – the main purpose of this is to produce great sound from the speakers, and it succeeds here.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $149.60 (Amazon)Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Roku 2 XD streaming media player, by RokuSince I started using the latest Apple TV (very favorably reviewed in last year’s gift guide), I’ve become fascinated with the concept of Internet-based media entertainment. Apple TV is easy to use and produces excellent image quality, but it has a rather limited selection of streaming services to choose from. Thus, the next step was to try the new Roku 2 products. There are three: the low-end HD version lacks 1080p support, and the high-end XS is oriented to gamers (with an accelerometer- and gyro-equipped remote; think Angry Birds – see other review here). I went with the XD, which is tiny (smaller than the current Apple TV), and which offers 1080p and 802.11n. It’s easy to set up – plug in power and HDMI, configure Wi-Fi, set up a Roku account (done through a PC or similar device), log into the services you use (this also requires a PC), and you’re off.
I tried the XD with both Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. The picture quality was excellent, and the Roku was as easy to use as Apple TV – simple. There are many more channels available (again, the prime reason to go this route), way more than Apple TV offers. Channels include Hulu+, HBO Go, and Pandora, to name some of the more popular services. The Roku interface is very easy to use – even your less-than-technically-literate Aunt Rita, who still hasn’t received that PC you promised her, by the way, is going to love this one. She will likely forget about the PC – it’s that good. OK, Apple has iTunes and AirPlay, and I’m not saying the Roku obsoletes Apple TV. But let’s just say my Apple TV isn’t getting all that much use these days.
It’s probably still a bit too early to think about dumping the DVD or Blu-Ray player (the streaming services haven’t cracked the new releases market just yet), but the future is clearly online. For a very reasonable price, your giftee will have one of the best platforms for streaming media available.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $79.99Reviewed by C.J. Mathias
Diamond V-Stream Full 1080P HD Wireless PC to TVOf all the products I’ve tested for the gift guide this year, this one is my favorite. The concept of the V-Stream is that you plug a small transmitter into your computer’s USB port, and then you plug the receiver into your TV via the HDMI input port (and into a regular power outlet). Instantly, your TV becomes a projector for your computer.
Now you can watch Internet TV on your computer. I love it! This will be great for anyone who may not want to pay for cable and just enjoys watching a few shows that can be accessed online. It’s also really sweet for someone who travels a lot and spends most of their time in hotels. Instead of being stuck watching whatever is on in the hotel, our traveler can watch their favorite shows on the hotel TV instead of their computer screen.
The TV will actually show everything that’s on your screen. Other uses, besides watching TV shows, would be to use your TV as a projector. Having a home/hotel meeting and want to share your screen? Use the Diamond V-Stream. Want to show friends and family photos from a trip, use the V-Stream and project the photos onto your TV.
Showing everything that’s on your computer screen can be a downside, however. If you’re watching a movie or TV show in full screen, you can’t multitask on your computer, unless you also want to see yourself checking your email on the TV. Also, the streaming isn’t quite perfect – the V-Stream doesn’t seem to send every frame – while it’s not a large problem for most shows, I certainly wouldn’t watch a sporting event via this method.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $106.99 (Amazon)Reviewed by Jennifer Finn
Fanny Wang On-Ear Luxury headphones, by Fanny WangFanny Wang is not an actual person, in case you were wondering. The name, however, will make the 7th grader inside you giggle for a bit, though – the company says that “Fanny Wang is an iconic representation of the merging of technology and fashion… she’s best thought of as a sexy Betty Crocker.” Umm, OK. The company is building on the trend of high-fashion headphones, as seen by Dr. Dre and his beats line of headphones, creating a set of headphones that provide forceful bass sound without losing clarity in the headphones. The headphones include 40mm titanium-placed drivers to add to the bass line without losing muffling sound, the company says.
The 1001 line of headphones come in four colors (we tried the bright red), and feature a tight, yet not too uncomfortable fit over the head. The removable cable also comes with a duo jack, which lets you attach another headphone cable to the first cable, allowing for “social listening” – basically, two people can listen to the same music together. The aluminum hinges are also very solid, and the headphones fold up to make it easy for packing into the laptop bag – even better, it comes with a handy pouch/bag made of soft terry cloth.
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: Between $115 and $170Reviewed by Keith Shaw
EarPollution Throwbax headphones, by iFrogzBack in the day, headphones were giant, over-the-head monstrosities that allowed you to listen to your “record albums” without having outside distractions. As music and the ways people listen to it changed (Walkman, MP3 players, etc.), so did the headphones – they got smaller to the point where all you need to do is stick a little piece of rubber in your ear.
If you long for the retro days of the ‘50s (or for me, the ‘70s), the Throwbax headphones from iFrogz could do the trick, yet still give you today’s modern sound technologies. The Throwbax feature extra-large speaker drivers that include deep bass as well as clear vocals. A faux-leather headband and metal frame supports the earphones. Fortunately, these are also pretty light, so you can pop them in your travel bag easily (although I wouldn’t recommend running or working out with them). The price is also very nice, it’s almost like paying 1970s prices for these.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $29.99Reviewed by Keith Shaw
EarPollution CS40S headphones, by iFrogzSome may think that an over-the-head headphone style is too bulky, or they might look uncool wearing a pair this big, but you should banish those thoughts because these headphones are so amazingly comfortable. The company says its AeroFoam ear cushions are the reason for the comfort, I’m just thrilled with how long I could wear these without getting the normal “ear fatigue” that other headphones provide. In addition, the headphones include a 40mm driver for bass and “smooth undertones” – not sure exactly what that provides but it produced great sounding music when listening on my iPod. The headphones can fold up to place easily into a travel bag, and you get a choice of nine color/style combinations. It’s really hard to beat this level of comfort, sound and price with other headphones out there.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $39.99Reviewed by Keith Shaw
MegaPlex MG-850HD projector, by EpsonInstead of going the traditional route of buying a HD TV to display your multimedia content (movies, TV shows, photos, music, etc.), many people are looking into buying projectors aimed at the home theater audience with the same functionality that they get from their business projector at work. Such is the case with the Epson MegaPlex, which can certainly display business content (aka presentations) from a connected PC, but also adds the nice touch of an iPod/iPad docking station. This inclusion lets users project their purchased movies, TV shows and music (as well as photos via slideshow) onto a wall or screen in their own home.
The MG-850 supports 720p resolution and brightness up to 2,800 lumens (Epson also makes the $600 MegaPlex MG-50, which supports 540p resolution and up to 2,200 lumens). Other devices (including video game consoles, DVD players and PCs) can also connect to the projector, as it supports HDMI, and VGA inputs. A USB port also lets you connect an external hard drive or thumb drive to play videos or photo slideshows through the projector. A microphone input allows for external microphone input, so you can do things like narrate a slideshow or sing along with your music. Speaking of music, sound comes out of the system through two built-in 10-watt stereo speakers.
In our tests, I could project some apps on the iPad through the projector as well. For example, I could watch YouTube videos and stream Netflix content from the iPad app to the projector. I could also display Keynote presentations through the projector. Unfortunately, not all apps allowed for external projection – my ABC Player app (which streams ABC television content) couldn’t project, so it’s possible that some apps will only display through the iPod/iPad’s display rather than the projector.
Picture quality from the projector was very good, and it was easy to adjust the focus, zoom and keystone settings on the projector. The unit cooled down pretty quickly as well, allowing for quick setup and packing up for travelers (there’s a nice handle for carrying the unit, although may be a bit too large for some people who prefer to travel lightly).
Some other cool features to note – the docking station recharges your i-device while it’s docked; and if you don’t want to use the projector, you can still use the device as a speaker system for songs and displaying photos and movies on the iPad’s display.
Some downsides - the on-screen menu for playing movies, TV shows and music was a bit primitive, and the system only recognized content that was synchronized through iTunes. For other content on the device, we had to switch control back to the i-device and then try to display it through that.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $799Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Vulkano Flow, by Monsoon Multimedia I’ve been a big fan of video place-shifting for many years, but my only choice for equipment has been the various editions of the Slingbox. Innovation at Sling seems to have slowed in recent years, which is why I’m glad Monsoon Multimedia has introduced a line of place-shifting products with meaningful improvements over the Slingbox. Most importantly, the Vulkano Flow model I tested includes built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi, but there’s also Gigabit Ethernet if that’s your preference. Clients for Windows and the Mac are free, and clients for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry are provided at around $10 each.
So, how does it work? Unfortunately, and like the Slingbox, this is a component-video-only product – no HDMI ports. Other than that it’s just a matter of connecting to the unit via Ethernet, doing an initial configuration (mostly Wi-Fi setup), then connecting the video cables, connecting the provided IR blaster to control your set-top box or DVR, installing the client application, and you’re off.
Video quality is excellent, and there are many options, including all manner of tweaking and viewing over cellular networks. Here we have hours of good, clean fun that any techie will enjoy, and at a bargain price. Highly recommended!
Now - there are three big brothers (Lava, Blast, and Deluxe Pro) to this product that include varying degrees of local storage, and even an HDMI output (but not input). But the Flow should fit most needs just fine, especially if you already have a DVR and just need remote access to it.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $99.99 (list)Reviewed by C.J. Mathias
iKurv docking station, by SpeakalAre you looking for a relatively inexpensive docking station/charger for your iPhone or iPod that also lets you crank up the tunes? Speakal's iKurv might just suit your needs – as long as you don't expect its two small speakers to be real powerhouses when you play your music. The iKurv, like many other docking stations, lets you play music from your i-device simply by plugging it into the base in front of the curved speaker housing (that's where the iKurv name comes from).
Like many modern-day electronic gadgets, the iKurv comes in one color: black. But it also sports a light ring in front of the speakers that glows a bluish-purple when the iKurv is on – perfect for a dimly lit party room if you're playing DJ. (You can adjust the brightness if you want extra dim vibes.) The speakers do a decent job with music, though you don't hear a lot of bass (which is not unusual with small speakers.) Still, my dance tunes sounded clean and distortion free when I used the iKurv with my iPhone 4.
In addition to the iKurv itself, you get a remote that can control the device from across the room (such as turning it on or off and cycling through songs). And it has a headphone jack and a composite video out port for connecting to other devices. Although the sound is decent, and the design unobtrusively modern, the plastic material undercut the overall value for me.
Cool Yule rating: 3Price: $89.95Reviewed by: Ken Mingis
iA17WZC App-enhanced color changing stereo FM Alarm Clock Radio for iPhone/iPod, by iHomeThe iHome ColorTunes stereo system features Reson8 speakers, an alarm clock radio, an iPod/iPhone charger dock, and five LED color changing modes. The elegant bowl shaped device displays 20 colors and brings life to any kind of music.
As a teen-ager, I sometimes have difficulty waking up at 6:30 a.m. to catch my school bus. The iHome begins to display a spectrum of soothing colors five minutes before the alarm goes off, which really helps to slowly rouse me instead of jolting me awake like other alarm clocks. This also works with the iHome+Sleep free app for i-devices, which gives you the ability to create custom alarm sounds.
The only problem I found is that the buttons are just raised curves that barely protrude from the platform. When it’s dark in the morning, I have difficulty finding the off button for the alarm. Overall, I found the iHome to be a fun and useful gadget.
Cool Yule Rating: 4 starsPrice: $99.99Reviewed by Abigail Weinberg
RDP-X500iP Premium Speaker Dock, by SonyI’ve tried a bunch of iPod and iPhone players for this gift guide over the years, and this one, so far, is by far my favorite. It has the best quality, was the easiest to use, and felt the most portable. It’s sleek and modern looking, if you care about style and design.
The speakers include a built-in subwoofer, Clear Phase DSP and damperless speakers. While this may sound just like marketing to many, for others, it’s awesome. What I know is that these speakers make your music sound perfect. You can hear all of the elements of each song, without having to blast it, although trust me, you can blast the music. Holy house party, Batman!
I also liked the unit’s portability – if you split time between your home and a vacation home, or just like to go away with friends to cabins or other places that might not have its own speaker system, this is perfect. It’s even good if you like to move your speaker system from one room to another in your house. The tray that holds the iPod, iPhone, or iPad pops into the speaker system, so there are no pieces sticking out (if you don’t count the detachable power cord). Once the tray is in, it’s just one contained piece that only weighs six pounds. It’s practically asking to be moved around.
Setup was a breeze: take out of box, plug into the wall, pop tray out of device, put your iPod onto the tray, and hit play. So simple! It also comes with a remote control. I found the remote worked from all over the room, even when it wasn’t pointing perfectly at the dock.
Let’s be honest though, if you’re going to pay $268 for a docking station, you care most about the sound quality, not the remote, right? You won’t go wrong with Sony’s speaker dock. The music is crystal clear either when soft or powerfully loud.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $268Reviewed by Jennifer Finn
WD TV Live Hub, by Western DigitalWe are getting so so so close to a single device that can not only play entertainment from Internet services, but one that can also stream a user's existing media that they've collected throughout the years. The WD TV Live Hub aims to do this, and it sort of succeeds, but with a lot of rough edges.
The device takes an external storage drive (this unit has 1TB) and then offers connections to a HD TV (we used an HDMI cable, but composite and component cables, all sold separately, are supported). Internet connectivity is supported through an Ethernet port -- Wi-Fi is not built-in, but it is supported through a separate USB Wi-Fi adapter if you want. The company recommends not using Wi-Fi anyway, as it has concerns about streaming latency and reliability - it also recommends powerline adapters if you don't have a direct Ethernet hookup to your router. In my case, I connected to my network via existing powerline adapters.
After updating the firmware, the system is up and running - it can access Internet media services, and includes an impressive lineup of content partners, including Netflix, BlockBuster On Demand, CinemaNow, Dailymotion, Facebook (for viewing photos), Flickr (ditto), Hulu Plus, Live365, MediaFly, Pandora and Picasa. There's even a Spotify app and YouTube videos app - if you can remember all of your passwords for these services, there's a lot of potential content you can access. We'll see how much WD goes after other content services as they are introduced or launched, especially as this competes with Roku and Apple in this space.
What was disappointing for me was the second half of this puzzle - accessing my existing photos, music and video. Accessing content over a Windows network, the system recommends using a Windows-based Discovery Tool that you download from its web site. For Macintosh owners, you have to try and manually connect your system to the network share that the LiveHub creates and try and drag-and-drop the content through this connection. In my attempts, this failed miserably, and I didn't have enough time or patience to figure out if it was my MacBook Pro or the LiveHub that was at fault here. Come on, WD, just make a Mac app that grabs the content much easier! And while we're at it, put a better user manual in the package - downloading a PDF user manual is annoying. The only other way to attempt to get media content onto the device (I mean, come on, the 1TB is screaming for content!) is through a direct USB connection - if you have an external USB hard drive, you can plug it in and copy the content to the Live Hub.
There were some other glitches that doused my enthusiasm for this device - the remote control was slow to respond several times, and it had a cheap feel to it (unlike the far superior Roku remotes). In addition, during my Netflix streaming, the system would freeze at the end of a movie or show, preventing me from getting back to the home menu or even the Netflix home menu. Again, this could be a Netflix issue - I sometimes have similar issues when streaming Netflix on my Xbox 360 or PS3 (but again, not via any of the Roku systems I've tried).
If WD can improve its software offerings for getting personal media onto the device and smoothed some of the rougher edges, I'd be honored to have this on my network. As it stands, I can still get most of these Internet streaming services (although, I do enjoy the Spotify partnership here) elsewhere.
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $199.99Reviewed by Keith Shaw
Embrace stereo headphones, by BlueAnt WirelessThe weirdest part about these headphones is that they’re not wireless, which is odd because the company that made these has the word Wireless in their name. The Embrace stereo headphones are a regular pair of headphones that connect with this odd little thing called a stereo cable. In fact, they give you two cables in the box, one that includes volume control and a microphone in case you want to answer a call on your phone while listening to music.
Once you get the idea that these aren’t wireless out of your head, you can appreciate the sound quality of the headphones. The system includes frequency range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, maximum power of 15mW, and 40mm drivers, for those who care about tech specs. Music played through these headphones came in very clear, you could hear the highs and lows very well.
The leather cushioned ear pads are designed to block outside noise, and they were very comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. The headphones also folded up nicely for travel, and the package comes with a very nice leather carrying case that can also store your cables (the cable detaches from the headphones).
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $199.99 (list price)Reviewed by Keith Shaw
SuperBeam Phones (SB-405W) USB stereo headset, by Andrea ElectronicsThis pair of headphones aims to be an all-in-one solution for your sound listening and sound recording needs, especially on the PC. The headphones connect via USB with an adapter, but there’s also a Y adapter available to take the headphone and mic jacks and allow them for use on a smartphone or iPad for listening purposes. But for the most part, it’s a USB headset that can be used to listen to music, chat on VoIP calls, use with video conferencing or play computer games.
Free AudioCommander software is also available, which helps control the SuperBeam headsets’ beam forming, noise cancellation, speaker equalization and audio recorder features, particularly useful if you want to record voices or singing with these headphones. The ability to record sound or your voice via the headphones (the microphones come out of the ear phones) without a boom mic or separate microphone is a unique concept, especially when you add the 3D recording functionality with the headphones and software. If recording audio is your main objective, then these headphones are worth a look.
Unfortunately, the headphones fall short in other areas. The earpads are not very comfortable for long periods of time, which dampens enthusiasm for watching movies, listening to music or even gaming for long stretches. The ear pads seemed to be much smaller than I prefer, they didn’t even cover my entire ears like other, more comfortable headphones did. Sound quality was very off – most of my music sounded muted and not clear at all, as if the singers were performing in a separate room. Listening to music via the AudioCommander software on the PC, where you could make equalizer adjustments, helped improve the sound, but I wouldn’t use these headphones beyond the computer.
Cool Yule rating: 4 stars (if using for recording and PC audio only); 3 stars (if using for mobile music player listening)Price: $138.98 (Amazon)Reviewed by Keith Shaw
AeroBeam WHD6215 Wireless HDMI Kit, by ZyxelWireless HDMI is becoming a very popular solution to that eternal home-theater challenge – video source in one place, display in another, and no easy way to run wire between the two. What the world needs is a high-performance wireless HDMI solution, and there are in fact several of these on the market.
Zyxel’s Aerobeam product uses spectrum at 60 GHz, and is based on the WirelessHD specification. The 60 GHz frequency offers a lot of unlicensed spectrum, but the direction of signals at those frequencies represents a major engineering challenge. Nonetheless, the Aerobeam offers uncompressed 1.4a 1080p (including support for 3D) resolution and 7.1 channel audio, and also features four HDMI ports (with a wireless remote) on the transmitter, making it easy to hook up multiple devices should the need arise. Connection and setup are easy, involving little more than plugging in the transmitter and receiver and powering them up.
I’ve found that 60 GHz solutions are best applied in line-of-sight situations within a single room. The specifications for AeroBeam suggest up to 30 feet; I set up a straight, unobstructed shot of about four meters for my test. Video and audio quality was flawless at 1080p. A caution – the documentation is quite rudimentary, so I’d suggest this as a gift only for the technically literate.
I also tried placing the transmitter and receiver so that intervening walls were a factor, and, well, not so much. Video reception initially suffered from dropouts and then went dark altogether. Nonetheless, for its intended application, the Zyxel AeroBeam WHD6215 Wireless HDMI link works as advertised, and may be just the HDMI cable replacement required to make the holidays complete. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but, seriously, it works!
Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $199.99 (Buy.com)Reviewed by C.J. Mathias
NTV200 NeoTV Streaming Player, by Netgear There’s a good chance that no one on your holiday gift list is going to get a new flat-screen TV with all those cools services like Netflix, Pandora, Vudu, Napster, and YouTube built in, but anyone who already has a TV can simply add the Netgear NTV200 and end up with the same result – an assortment of entertainment and information available with a click of the included remote control.
Like the Apple TV (reviewed last year) and Roku (reviewed elsewhere this year), the NeoTV is 300Mbps wireless 802.11n on one side (although wired Ethernet is also available), and HDMI on the other. Plug it in, turn it on, do a little configuration, and that’s it. The NeoTV puts out 1080p if you want it, and also has 5.1-channel sound. You’ll need another device like a notebook or tablet to complete the setup, but your giftee does have one of those already, right (first things first, after all)?
How does it work? Well, fine. Setup is truly a breeze. There’s Netflix, of course, and a lot of other channels, but I didn’t find many of these to be of interest. There’s also an irritating and tacky “Fueled by Flingo” message that spends a lot of time on the screen while waiting for channels and their data to load. I find this kind of commercial for internal technology to be, well, tacky and irritating.
Both Roku and Apple TV offer more satisfying user experiences. The Netgear NTV200 NeoTV isn’t hopeless, but one can do better in this space.
Cool Yule rating: 3 starsPrice: $74.14 (Amazon)Reviewed by C.J. Mathias
Mohu Leaf IndoorHDTV AntennaI know, I know; in this modern era of 500-channel cable systems, why would anyone need a TV antenna to receive, gulp, broadcast stations? Because, for many, the broadcast channels are all they need and all that recurring monthly expense is reduced to, um, zero. The problem, though, has been finding an indoor TV antenna that works. Outdoor antennas are great, but expensive, especially to install and align, and the aesthetics are retro 1950s at best. Indoor antennas, though, have historically been serious underperformers, and, well, are also ugly if not obtrusive.
Enter the Mohu Leaf – and watch it disappear. The Mohu Leaf is a flat (and very flat at that) high-performance omnidirectional HD broadcast antenna. Flat-panel antennas aren’t new, but the technology is complex (the Leaf is in fact a direct descendent of antennas designed for military applications), and the idea here is to bring in as many signals as possible without moving the antenna. It’s black on one side and white on the other for purely aesthetic reasons, and it’s important to mount it away from electronics like TVs. But, really, just get it up on the wall, connect the coax cable to the TV, initiate a channel scan on your TV, and you’re good to go.
How does it work? I’m pretty far from any broadcast TV transmitters and over-the-air TV reception has always been a problem here. With the Mohu Leaf, I got 20 channels, including some that are very far away (about 100 kilometers). To be fair, some futzing with the position of the antenna may be required in some cases, but relatively close stations look as good as cable, and, again, without the cable bills. If you have someone on your list who lives in an urban area and is looking for basic TV services, the Mohu Leaf is definitely a gift to consider.
Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: $44.99 (direct)Reviewed by C.J. Mathias
Peel TV remote and iPhone app, by Peel TechnologiesIt's rare when I find a product where I prefer the software over the hardware. Let's start with the software - the Peel TV app is a free TV program guide for your iOS device (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) that gives you personal recommendations of what's on TV with colorful images (the shows look like mini-movie posters) and an easy-to-use interface. After answering a few questions about the types of shows I like, plus some optional demographic information, as well as preference rankings (for example, I like comedies more than dramas), the system comes up with its recommendations. Normally I'm skeptical about the recommendations (a lot of times, these types of engines just recommend another show without really thinking about what it's recommending), but in this case, the app did a great job at letting me know about some shows that I didn't know were on at the time. In my test, it was able to tell me about a kid's show that my son was bugging me to record on the DVR, but that I had forgotten was on.
The hardware side is where Peel falls a little bit short. The Peel remote comes with two pieces of hardware - one pear-shaped device that sits in front of your TV, and a second device that plugs into an Ethernet port on your router and plugs in to a power outlet. The pear device communicates with both the TV and the router remote, and with some configuration the unit can be used like a universal remote control, changing channels on your cable box, adjusting volume controls, etc. (you use the iPhone app to make the actual adjustments).
In my tests, however, there were a bunch of issues. First, the company recommends that the pear-shaped device not be more than 25 feet away from the device that connects to the router - the pear-thing also needs to be no more than 15 feet away from your TV (and within line-of-sight of the TV's remote control sensor, too). In my case, my router is located in the basement, much, much more than 25 feet away from the TV. This caused some difficulties in getting the channels to switch or make volume adjustments. If your router and TV are located in the same room, then this won't be as much of a problem for you.
Fortunately, I enjoy the app enough to keep it on my iPhone, and I'm smart enough to use my other TV and cable box remotes to change the channel if I find something I want to watch. My advice - just grab the free app.
Cool yule rating: software (5 stars); hardware (2 stars)Price: Free app, Peel hardware costs $99Reviewed by Keith Shaw
JBL OnBeat loudspeaker dock by HarmanIf you know audio, you know the name JBL. OnBeat is JBL’s latest crack at the i-device market, and it does a semi -decent job when it comes to delivering sound on such a small device. I expected big things, but was somewhat disappointed in the design and quality of the unit.
The system includes the base unit, AC wall adapter, infrared remote and both iPhone and iPad docking brackets. I liked how the base unit could plug into a Mac or PC from the back, making it useful to stream iTunes to the speakers, or syncing your devices while docked.
The sound quality was rather lacking, despite directional stereo separation from the two built-in drivers, both apt at delivering a rich array of tones at low volume ranges from a wide variety of music. However, if you decide to blast your tunes, distortion becomes an issue, mostly due to the inability of the hardware (subwoofer) to handle bass ranges that would really drive home depth and even out the clutter. The mid-ranges also seemed dulled and hollow due to this same issue. All this makes the OnBeat a good candidate for light low volume listening – for example, in a home office or kitchen.
The OnBeat also suffers from several design flaws. First and foremost, the docking brackets for the iPad do a subpar job of holding the device in place, in portrait view this was not a huge deal, but in landscape view my iPad was hanging on by the dock connector port, causing a strain on the device’s only physical connection to my computer. If you are into watching movies, over time this could become a large repair issue. The rotation function is locked in by a pin, which proved to be rather difficult to disengage to move from the vertical to horizontal orientation. In addition, the OnBeat’s docking arm is fixed at a preconfigured tilt, without any way to adjust the viewing angle. None of these issues applied when using the iPhone, but really, who is going to watch a movie on their iPhone?
The OnBeat’s pricing is not in line with the quality and feature set that you are paying for. There are far better and cheaper alternatives. I truly expected better from a product bearing the JBL name.
Cool Yule rating: 2 starsPrice $149.00Reviewed by Armen Brown
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