Category: Gizmos

By on January 20, 2012

Don’t you sometimes want more attention? Aching to simply blow people away? The people at Banshee Horn LLC might just have the thing for people who want to be noticed. It is called the Banshee Horn, and it does what the name says. The folks promise in an email to TTAC that the gadget helps you “warn motorists up to 3 blocks away” with a pain-inducing 139 decibel horn. Read More >

By on October 8, 2009

(courtesy blueunplugged.com)

The latest advancements in communication imply a great future for the automobile. And yet, like my former manager in Corporate America once said, “I can’t wait to go to a place where my BlackBerry doesn’t work.”  Like most BlackBerry addicts, I doubt she really meant it. Mostly because these handheld email magnets are legalized crack, for better or worse. Now BlackBerry makes a self-branded, visor mount speakerphone: traffic jams en route to work and business travel in sub-par rental cars shall never be the same. And its name is the VM-605.

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By on July 28, 2009

Rear view cameras are becoming commonplace on SUVs, CUVs and luxury cars but only as part of very expensive option packages. If you prefer spending your money on things like groceries and house payments, or have an older vehicle, you’re pretty much out of luck. But not entirely. Peak (yes, the antifreeze people) offer the Peak Wireless Back-up Camera System. To see if it passes muster, I installed one on my 1999 Chevrolet Tahoe.

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By on June 22, 2009

The Microsoft Zune prides itself in being the only significant alternative to Apple’s wildly popular iPod and iTunes duo. But there’s a problem: Zune distances itself from the industry standard software and hardware systems. Considering Microsoft’s dominance stemming from the personal computer revolution, the Zune’s unique value proposition is less like the corporate mothership and more like the original Apple Macintosh: isolating and challenging. Which, considering their fashionably late entrance, makes the Microsoft Zune a tough sell.

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Product Review: Microsoft Zune Product Review Rating

By on May 13, 2009

Ford seems to be the only part of the big 3/2.5/1.8 that’s embracing technology as a way to win customers. Their SYNC system got massive airplay in the Blue Oval’s ads. Down at the dealer level, FoMoCo’s been pushing SYNC like crazy. Strange, then, that I’ve noticed a distinct lack of reviews on the SYNC. So I hopped into a Ford Fusion for a week to answer a simple question: it is any good?

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By on April 9, 2009

One of my long-standing disagreements with the editor: the Porsche Cayenne is a dangerous diffusion of the Porsche brand. I never believed that. I’d call Robert up and tell him— if I could dial this new Porsche Design P’9522 phone with its razor thin buttons. Or use it stateside for that matter. Perhaps I’ll e-mail my review. Nope. The gorgeous new touch screen gizmo lacks that feature. It does have a 911 GT3 ring tone, though.

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By on November 2, 2008

When my esteemed editor suggested I review the RallyCam, I envisioned a simple one camera with a small recording device. Instead. the edgecameras.com people sent me their RallyCam 3000, a three-camera system with a sophisticated control unit integrated with a multi-use video recording device. The devices came packed tightly in their container. I was quickly overwhelmed by cables, clamps, remotes and plastic bags. The numerous instruction sheets were not very helpful. But TTAC’s Best and Brightest are persistent bastards, as are their legally-trained representatives. So away we go…

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Product Review: RallyCam 3000 Product Review Rating

By on January 11, 2008

0071412993911_500×5002222.jpgLooking at last year’s Black Friday ads made it clear that a portable GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) satellite navigation device was the season’s most popular loss leader. Even department stores like Macys were offering a GPS device on the cheap. This strategy continues; last week our local Walgreen’s had a Nextar GPS device at the front counter for under $200, right there next to mints and quit smoking gum. I wanted to see if a cheap GPS unit could compete with the big boys. So I contacted Nextar, and they provided us with a Snap3. 

On paper, the Snap3 sat nav looks like a winner. It comes complete with a 3.5” touch screen, Navteq on Board® maps, super-slim design, mp3 player, photo viewer and mini-SD memory slot. In person, the packaging is very professional, especially for a GPS product sitting on the lowest wrung of the consumer ladder. Included in the deal: the unit, a USB/DC charger, car mount, detailed manuals and a carry bag. The Snap3 is very small, measuring three by four and less than an inch thick. The front is all screen all the time, with all the necessary buttons positioned on the sides and bottom.

I always measure a gizmo’s user friendliness with a simple test: try and use without reading the manual. (Let’s face it, the vast majority of consumers at the bottom end of the market won’t read any user’s manual, ever, and the rest probably can’t.) The Snap3 flunked. The unit has to be booted before the main power switch can be used. Granted this requires about ten seconds; less time than it takes to call India– I mean, customer service. But who knew?

Once booted, you’re looking a main screen with choices of navigation, photo, mp3, Bluetooth, calculator and settings.

Selecting navigation takes you to the main map screen. Accessing the Navteq supplied software and maps is no different than most other GPS devices. I’ve had nothing but good experiences with this mapping software. The Snap3 offered more of the same– at least initially. And right from the git-go, at the main screen, you have to sit and wait while the Snap3 tries to acquire a signal. The search took all of 45 seconds, which indicates an older GPS chipset. 

On the road, the Snap3 failed to update our ETA (estimate time of arrival) as we drove. It clung to original estimate like grim death, despite the fact that we eventually arrived an hour earlier than the machine’s ETA. On the positive side, our car’s onboard sat nav system frequently lost the satellite signal in the mountains, while the Snap3 maintained a lock at all times– after the painfully slow signal acquisition.

We also took the unit hiking in the Carolina Mountains (better than going with some guides I know). In this application, the Snap3’s size is a definite plus, easily fitting in a pocket.

The Snap3 is touted as a multi-function device. However, once in the navigation mode, you can only access the other features by rebooting the device to go back to the main screen. The other functions are crude and basic. The mp3 player was too quiet even with the volume turned all the way up (fixed by going to settings, turning-up the volume and returning to the mp3 player). The photo viewer displayed jpegs but was slow and awkward.

The Bluetooth function never worked; my iPhone could not discover the Snap3. This may have been an iPhone issue, but my test Magellan sat nav device always paired quickly with the iPhone.

By the same token, the Windows CE spinning beach ball of death was a frequent sight. This means that the Snap3 is running some form of the embedded Windows Mobile software. This also means that the device should easily connect to a PC to allow data uploads for new maps and firmware. No such software was included with the Snap3, and nothing in the supplied box shows this capability. When I connected the Snap3 to my PC, the device was never found (even though the Snap3 was powered over a standard USB cable).

The Snap3 has sixty-four megs of internal RAM and one gigabyte flash RAM for map storage. Without the ability to connect to a PC, it can’t be upgraded; it’s only a matter of time before the maps will become “stale.” The inability to update the firmware is more worrying. In the settings menu, I noted that the system software was version 0.97. This indicates that I tested a pre-production version, so this capability could well be on its way.

After several days of use, one lock-up and several reboots, the Snap3’s mapping function eventually died, displaying a “can’t find navigation software” warning. It was a fitting end to an inexpensive device that proves that “value” and “price” are not always synonymous. 

[NEXTAR provided the unit tested.] 

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NEXTAR Snap3 3.5″ Navigation System Review Product Review Rating

By on January 8, 2008

l10464664.jpgI know it's not PC to say so, but I hate a lot of things. For example, I hate people walking around with those stupid cell phone earpieces looking like Lt. Uhura from Star Trek. They wear them like some sort of fashion jewelry, even when they're not asking John to phone Sally to tell Jorge he needs to phone Mary. For my sake, they should put their headsets away when not in use. Meanwhile, to find out what these people see in these devices and whether they have any practical use, I tested the suddenly very cheap Motorola HS820, a small Bluetooth, wireless headset.

The HS820 comes in one of those plastic containers that are NASA sealed for your protection. After repeated attempts to chew the package open, I got the scissors out and proceeded to cut my finger on the razor sharp plastic. Once open, I extricated the headset, charger and folded eight language manual. [NB: Yes, I’ve seen the TV ads for the Pyranna plastic cutter, but that’s not a car-related accessory.]

Stylistically, the HS820 is reasonably attractive, at least compared to some of the larger, uglier headsets adorning large swathes of the mobile generation. Motorola claims the HS820 possesses a “Funky surfboard design.” If true, it may be way too LA for many users. While the HS is smaller than your average ear thingie, and therefore less obtrusive, its small size may also affect battery life (discussed below). 

I plugged the HS820 into my car’s 12-volt socket (a.k.a. cigarette lighter) and waited two hours for a full charge. I then switched my IPhone into Bluetooth discovery mode and hoped for the best. The telephonic apple of Steve Job’s eye quickly discovered the HS820, illuminating its blue bluetooth indicator light. That's a lot more exciting than it sounds; I’ve had Bluetooth recognition issues before. I was relieved to see the two devices make nice so quickly.

I tried to make a call. Nothing. There was no sound in the HS820's earpiece. The IPhone said paired, but I despaired. So I used another phone to call someone to tell them to call me. When the call came through, I pressed the big ‘phone’ button to answer. Still nothing. So I unpaired and paired again (like the shampoo instructions say, lather, wash, rinse and repeat).

Second go. This time, when I went to phone a friend, the IPhone offered me a choice of phone, speakerphone, HS820 or ask the audience. Kidding. When I selected the HS820, I heard a beep in my ear. And then, finally, the earpiece went to work.

Calls were audible enough for rock and roll. All the people I annoyed on your behalf stated that my mellifluous tones were clear on the receiving end, and swore I didn’t sound as if I was calling from an undersea Plexiglas bubble.  No one complained of an echo, which was a real problem with the Bluetooth speaker in the previously tested Magellan 4040. Comfort was not an issue; at just 17 grams (about half an ounce to the metrically challenged), the headset’s weight didn't once threaten to deform my cranium.

The HS820’s range was within the Bluetooth specs of about 30 feet. The sound quality, such as it was, wasn't affected by a ten foot stroll away from the iPhone. Beyond ten feet, the caller’s voice warbled but remained audible, with no complaints about my voice on the receiving end. In-car use uncovered no range issues whatsoever. I suspect most users will stick to the mobile mobile environment– especially with the increasing number of states where operating a cell phone illegal without a hands-free device can land you in the hoosegow.

Motorola claims the HS820’s battery is good for six hours of talk time and 120 hours of waiting for somebody to call time. In the real world, even I can’t talk that long, so I have no idea if the six hours time limit is even remotely realistic. However, I do know that if I didn’t use the HS820 for several days, it was always DOA. So the promised five-day schmooze fest seems a tad optimistic.

When the HS820 first hit the market, it was priced at $99. I’m sure your friendly Verizon store still sells it for that price. You can now find the HS820 for significantly less. Amazon will sell you an HS820 for $31.95, and best-digital's giving them away at $19.99. At that price, it’s a no-brainer.

But if ultimate quality, sound and battery life matter to you, look for a newer Bluetooth 2.0 device. (The HS820 is 1.2 technology.) With fair sound quality, small size, okay battery life and a whole lot of cheapness, the HS820 is a decent choice for a wireless cell phone headset.

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Motorola HS820 Bluetooth Headset Product Review Rating

By on January 3, 2008

02871222000.jpgLike most middle aged men, I had a car crisis. So, after convincing my wife that an Imola Red BMW M Roadster isn’t “chick magnet red,” I bought my dream car. Of course, the dream is never the reality. I rarely drove the M. Summers were too wet and hot (real men don’t drive a convertible with the top up and the a/c on). Fall was too wet. Ah, winter in Florida! It’s the best ‘vert weather but… I just got a new daily driver. So Emily became a garage queen. And died.

Yesterday, I went out to drive her for the first time in two weeks. Unlike The Grand National, she’s never failed to start. But this time, key in, quick turn and nada. The dash lights were on but she didn’t even bother emitting the dreaded click click click sound. A dead battery was the blindingly obvious call. So I rolled her out of the garage, grabbed the jumper cables, opened the trunk, removed the battery cover and– remembered that jump starting a car is generally a bad idea.

Jump starting a modern car is two kinds of dumb. First, we’re talking dumb and dumberer, or, if you prefer, the Darwin factor. That’s when you accidentally reverse the cables and/or cause so much sparking that the battery blows. Second, there’s the small matter of an overly sensitive $1k electronic control unit that can up and die from a spike in the voltage transmitted from the running car to the dead car via Old Sparky– I mean jumper cables.

Some jumper cables now include a special resistor to reduce voltage spike. Some manufacturers also include a jumping block off the battery, which should help prevent battery explosions. But, as you’ve read here, no one reads the owner’s manual anymore. And I’m a lawyer; I don’t trust anyone, with anything, ever.

As an alternative, Sears sells several battery chargers. I reckon they’re a must for any vehicle driven less than once a week. So I tested the Sears DieHard 10/2/50 amp Automatic Battery Charger. The unit MSRPs at $64.99, but way-hey! As of December 23, 2007, it was on sale for a bargain price of only $39.99.

The Diehard charger is your basic, garden variety metal box with one analog battery charging gauge, two leads (for power on and full charge) and a three-way switch. It has two plugs, a 110 amp wall plug (not grounded) and two small jumper cable style wires with a red and black clamp. The Diehard does so with a vengeance; the heavy and sturdy block weighs in at eleven pounds.

So, connect the Diehard to your Diehard battery (or similar), red to red, black to black (or brown, as apparently some car companies didn’t get that memo regarding the international colors for positive and negative). Select the style of charge, plug in the device and wait. The Diehard offers spark proof protection in automatic mode, and even includes a Darwin feature for fashion victims who insist on hooking up red to black and black to red because it’s more aesthetically pleasing.

The Diehard Charger offers three settings depending on your needs. The 50 amp setting is similar to a jump from another car and should allow most cars to start up right away (though I would still give it a minute or two, and keep in mind the warning above, though the voltage from the Diehard is delivered spike free according to Sears).

If you’re not planning on driving the vehicle straight away, set the Diehard in the ten amp mode and wait about two hours. A blinking light will advise you when the battery is fully charged. WARNING: the Diehard doesn’t have an automatic shutoff; leaving the charger in ten amp mode for extended periods can damage your car’s battery. How lame is that?

I used ten amp mode for my M. A couple of hours later the car started like a dream, and ran the rest of the day without battery troubles.

There’s also a two amp trickle charger mode. This is the mode I SHOULD have been using for my M before I let her die. A trickle charge feeds just enough juice to keep the battery charged and the electrical system refreshed without overcharging the battery. Since most cars continue to draw power when off, a trickle charger also prevents damage to electrical components that seem to freak at low voltage.

I recently sampled a rarely driven loaner 2006 M5. When I picked her up after a short lay-up, the dash was lit up like a Christmas tree with dreaded engine damage warnings. A flat bed to the dealer later, I learned that the low voltage had falsely triggered the warnings. If only I’d learned to live free and Diehard.

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Sears DieHard 10/2/50 amp Automatic Battery Charger Review Product Review Rating

By on December 5, 2007

zr3pkg.jpgIt’s a never-ending battle between speeders and the police. Since the e-wars began, the police have moved from simple X-Band radar-based speed detectors to sophisticated KA-band radar guns, radar detector detectors (no really) and laser speed detection devices (with charming names like Stalker LZ-1). While the best consumer radar detectors can sniff out X and KA-band signals from a long way off—before the signal can bounce back to Officer Not So Friendly—if your laser beam detector goes off, tag, you’re it. If you’re speeding (which you probably do as you’re reading a laser jammer review), you’ve been nabbed.

FYI, police speed detection lasers or LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) fires light pulses at an object at about 984 million feet per second or roughly 1 foot per nanosecond. The pulses bounce off the (theoretically) offending vehicle and return to the laser device. Its optical sensors receive the returning photons or waves (let’s not get into THAT debate), compares outgoing and returning light (in about a third of a second) and calculates the object’s speed.

“Normal” radar guns send out a relatively wide beam of radio waves and use Christian Doppler’s observed effect to ascertain the fastest vehicle within that beam. Laser guns are far more accurate; at a thousand feet, the laser “cone” is roughly 3 feet in diameter.

Luckily (for you), laser guns have drawbacks. First, they’re a fair weather device; laser beams abhor a rainstorm. Second, unlike KA-Band radar, a laser gun must be stationary and aimed directly at the [theoretical] speeder. This eliminates in-car mobile use. On the positive side (for them), laser is ideal for roadside speed detection. The tickets practically write themselves.

Other than buying a low-slung black car and covering it with high tech non-reflective materials, there’s only way to defeat a laser speed detector: active jamming. We’re talking about a device that reacts to a police laser beam by sending out its own laser beam, shifting the spectrum of the returning light, rendering it unrecognizable to the laser gun’s optical sensors. Yes, it’s a high tech shoot-out at the photon coral.

A quick note about legality . . .

The Federal Communications Commission prohibits civilian use of police frequencies; sending out a signal on these frequencies to mess with a police radar gun is a HUGE no-no. Banning civilians from using a part of God’s own light spectrum is a lot more problematic. That said, the Food and Drug Administration regulates laser devices—from a personal safety rather than a road safety perspective. Nebraska, Minnesota, Utah, California, Oklahoma, Virginia, Colorado, Illinois and Washington DC are the only states/district that bans the use of radar detectors AND laser jammers for “interfering with police business.”

I tested the Escort Laser Shifter ZR3, an active laser jammer that can be used as a standalone solution or in conjunction with Escort’s high end 8500 and 9500 radar/laser detectors. The Laser Shifter ZR3 comes complete with a comprehensive owner’s manual, installation instructions, two front laser transceivers, one rear laser transceiver, in-car display controller, remote mute button, 12-volt interface with modular connections, complete wiring harnesses, mounting hardware and a link cable for connecting to the Passport 8500, 7500S and SR7, and the Solo2.

The kit requires lots of wiring and drilling; professional installation is a must. The test car spent the entire day at a local installer, who hid the front transceivers in the front grill, and the rear transceiver on the top of the license plate frame. The finished job cost $250.

I coupled the Escort ZR3 with an Escort 8500i and ran a few real world tests at known speed traps.

On each pass, the Passport 8500’s laser detector noted the laser presence and instantly activated the jammer. The confused look on the officer’s face as I drove by [probably] confirmed that the laser jammer [probably] prevented his laser gun from registering our speed, which may have been approximately 15mph over the 35mph limit.

The results lend credence to the video hosted on youtube. This test shows the ZR3’s jamming capability against a Prolaser II Police Lidar Gun, from the police perspective trials at radartest.com who found that the Escort ZR3 was nearly perfect—providing a 99% efficiency rating. The ZR3 an excellent investment to reduce exposure from laser based tickets. Coupled with an Escort radar detector, a user will have a one device system covering all potential radar detection systems.

The Escort ZR3 costs $499. Given the cost of speeding tickets, points and insurance increases, anyone with a lead foot whose local police use laser guns will find it a worthwhile investment. That said, the new and [thankfully] rare Laser Atlanta Type S in [thankfully rarely used] Stealth Mode defeats the Escort ZR3. Yes, the battle between poachers and the gamekeeper continues.

[Note: TTAC does not condone dangerous or irresponsible driving.]
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Escort Laser Shifter ZR3 Review Product Review Rating

By on October 20, 2007

b000nmkhw6_update-1-lg.jpgGiven the changing pace of technology, the price of factory-fitted satellite navigation and the itinerant traveler's tendency to rent their chariot, a portable GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) navigation system is the ideal solution. When choosing an electronic pathfinder, map quality makes all the difference. Magellan (like Garmin) uses the premier map data supplier Navteq. The Magellan Maestro Series offers three models with a "just right" screen size (4.3"). The 4000 ($399) is the base model. The 4040 ($499) adds Canada (the maps, not the country) and Bluetooth, which lets you access addresses lurking inside your phone/palmtop. Although you can upgrade the 4040 to real-time traffic data for another hundred bucks, that same Franklin buys you the 4050 ($599) with a built-in traffic jam info receiver. On the road, the Magellan's 4040's geek fabulous 20-channel sirfsStarIII chipset instantly locked onto a GPS signal and updated quickly. The maps are pellucid, the voice prompts clear and the touch screen ergonomically sound. On the downside, the map disappears during recalculation and full-on sunlight is still a bugbear (a built-in visor would help). While RV-ing seniors might appreciate the AAA's TourBook info and roadside assistance (trip A members only), it would be nice to be able to choose a more (ahem) upmarket guide. Overall, the 4040 is a decent but not outstanding GPS device– at $499. But Costco's got 'em for $349 (in store price, call ahead). For that money, you're good to go.

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Magellan Maestro 4040 GPS Review Product Review Rating

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