Shaper Image’s Christmas is Blindingly Silver

The Sharper Image “Holiday 2005” catalog arrived in the mail a few days ago. I was shocked at how little of the stuff I actually wanted. And how cheesy so much of it as become. Especially the stuff the company designs itself.There was a time, 20 years ago, when Sharper Image sold name-brand devices that were hard to find at retail. There was Panasonic, and Sony, and a fair number of things–like radios and sound equipment–that I really wanted. Or at least that’s how I remember it. This catalog, however, is filled with cheap-looking silver and off-white plastic (thanks Apple!) and includes a painful amount of “Invented Here” products that, as a group, strike me as being garbage.

Shaper Image's Christmas is Blindingly Silver

Lately, Sharper Image has built some sort of reputation–I hope it’s not a good one–selling “Invented Here” electrostatic air filters/purifiers. They cost as much as $550 and Consumer Reports regularly gives them mediocre reviews. Hint: If you want to filter the air in your house, but a whole house air filter. It does a lot more for not a lot more money. Or just check Consumer Reports at the library and get one of their recommended filters. Even a 3M replacement furnace filter does more than the Sharper Image products.Also in the expensive-but-doesn’t-review-well category is the $549 Dyson vacuum cleaner.

And there is a bewildering array of tacky iPod gadgets in the catalog, based around a universal connector system for power and sound. Nothing too special there.Did I mention the $59.95 battery-operated nose hair trimmer and the $49.95 power tail clipper and file? How about the $39.95 liquid soap dispenser “with no-drip technology and a muscial chime that’s fun for kids.” Gee, I sure with I’d invented these.As an aside, a vendor was in for a meeting last week and showed me a product–all silver plastic–that will be in Sharper Image stores before Christmas. The vendor admitted that some people might find the silver plastic a tad repulsive but that it did match what the stores were selling. My wife, meanwhile, looked at the Sharper Image catalog and wondered aloud if any of the store’s customers actually had girlfriends, since so many of the products had a “bachelor pad” look to them. My bet is women stay well away from this stuff. And the men who buy it.If, per chance, you’re in the market for this stuff, let me offer a word of advice to you: Brookstone, which I think is a much more interesting catalog.

Logitech Harmony 880 Remote

My ham radio buddy, John, really likes the Logitech Harmony 880 remote control that I sent home with him to test for me. The $250 device is designed to replace multiple remote controls and competes with other advanced remotes soLogitech Harmony 880 Remotemetimes costing three times as much. I gave the 880 to John because he comes closer to having “up to 15” devices to control than I do. He has an extensive home theater system and was pleasantly surprised that the Harmony remote could control all his equipment. This includes a component that comes with an RF-based remote control (which the Harmony doesn’t support) but apparently has an IR receiver as well. Since the Harmony is IR-only, this worked out just fine. The Harmony is configured using a web site, a PC, and a USB connection to the remote control. You select the devices you own on the site and the information is this loaded into the remote.

The unit is “activity based,” meaning it’s designed to send all the commands necessary for an activity all at once. If you want to watch TV, for example, the unit might send an “on” command to your receiver, select the proper input, turn on the cable converter, and turn on the TV set itself–all with the press of a single button. In that way, the Harmony can replace several remotes and a whole bunch of button pushing.The Harmony remove includes a color LCD display (left) from which you select the activity of your choice.

The unit also comes with a recharger, which John say he needs to use only every few days.One of the best features of the Harmony remote (shown right, click on the image for a full-sized and less-dithered view) is a “help” key that can solve programming problems. For example, after you hit the “off” key the screen asks if everything has really been turned off. If not, hitting the help key walks you through various fixes. If they work, the remote memorizes them and you never need to use help again. If only computers worked like this.The Harmony remote is an excellent product that requires a certain level of geekiness to configure. Plus $250, which isn’t so much if you’ve already dropped $6,000 or more on a home theater system. However, once programmed the LCD makes a home theater easy for even non-geeks (like spouses and children) to use and appreciate.

The Best Binocular Under $100

This is one of my best finds.Among my many interests is birding. I have more than 300 species, which ranks me a more than a novice and less than someone whose observation of something rare will be immediately accepted by his fellows. One of the ways birders impress one another is by purchasing high-end binoculars–say in the $1,300 to $1,500 range. If birding is your fowl obsession, this is a fine way to spend money, though not an entirely necessary investment. The best bins won’t make up for an inexperienced or sloppy birder. But, the do signal a serious intent. (One of the best birders I know, however, uses a decades old pair of $200 bins that are almost falling apart).Most birding binoculars start at $300-ish.

The Best Binocular Under $100But, what if you’re a new birder, a young person, or someone who just wants a nice pair of inexpensive bins for looking at clouds or watching the neighbors? Well, most low-end binoculars are pretty sad. Look through them long enough and blindness may not seem like such a bad alternative.So, I was very pleased when more than a year ago, Pete Dunne, the noted birding author, introduced me to these fine binoculars. The Nikon Action series takes advantage of inexpensive, but high-quality, Chinese optics and manufacturing.

The result? A very nice pair of 7×35 bins (Model 7215) that sells for as little as $49 online (do a search). The 7×50’s, heavier, larger, but better at dusk and dawn, sellfor a bit more.These are fine binoculars. They are what I keep under the front seat iof my car for unexpected sightings. They are what I loan to friends and recommend to new birders. When I let fellow birders look through them and ask them to guess how much I paid for them, the usual answer is $300 or more. Are they perfect bins? Of course not, but you would have to spend several times as much to get anything better and most people (who have never looked through really great binoculars) can’t tell the difference.Nikon also offers the somewhat more expensive Action EX series, which are waterproof and more rugged. Not that I have had any problems with the Actions I already own. I have not tested the EX series, so I can’t tell you if they produce images as good as the earlier models. I suspect they are fine. BTW, friends don’t let friends buy “zoom” binoculars because the optics are so lousy. And I wouldn’t even think of recommending the Action zoom models.

Polar Heart Rate Monitor Watches

If you are serious about aerobic exercise–whether it’s walking, hiking, running, cycling, field sports, skiing, or something else–you ought to have a heart rate monitor. And the best heart rate monitors are made in Finland by PolaPolar Heart Rate Monitor Watchesr. I bought my first one more than 20 years ago, and while I haven’t been seriously exercising all that time, when I am serious I’m never without a HRM. Why? Because in order to meet your fitness/weight loss goals you need to exercise at the proper intensity. Your heart rate is the best was to determine how are you are working. And a wireless heart rate monitor is the only way to continuously monitor your heart rate.Whole books have been written about heart rate training, so I won’t explain it in detail, except to say that staying in your “target zone” provides the greatest value for time spent training.

Polar has heart rate monitors for a variety of sports and starting at less than $60. Of course, the more you spend, the more features you get. My first monitor was $349 in 1985 dollars and had fewer features than today’s $100 monitor.This Christmas–having ruled out the Garmin Edge 305–what I’d like to find under the tree is a Polar S725 (right), a cycling-oriented HRM that also measures speed and pedal RPM, not to mention altitude, climbs, and temperature, all of which are stored for downloading and analysis.

Of course, this sophistication doesn’t come cheap: MSRP is $350.Or maybe I’d rather have the new CS200cad (left), part of a family of bike-mount HRMs that start at about $150. This is a very convenient device, but not as fully-featured as the S725.I’ve given Polar monitors in the past as gifts and in the past have tended to have an extra one around the house to loan friends. New users are always amazed that “how they feel” about their exertion level or how tired they feel, often doesn’t match what their heart rate tells them.You may be wondering how accurate these monitors are. Polar advertises them as ECG-accurate and, yes, I’ve tested them and have found Polar monitors to always be within a beat or two of the high-dollar medical gear.If you’re at all serious about fitness, a heart rate monitor should be your training partner. And Polar, in my experience, makes the best.

Garmin Edge 305 GPS-enabled Cycle Computer

Since Jen has started her Christmas list, I’ll start mine. But, since I am more chatty than Jen (yes, it’s true) I will present mine as individual items, separated into gifts I want and gifts I’m giving.I am not sure the Garmin Edge 305 ($379.95 ouch!) is tops on my “most wanted” list, but I’ve recently returned to bicycling and bike stuff has really caught my attention. Not surprisingly, the Edge 305 uses a GPS to provide cycling functions.

The 305 comes in two models, Garmin Edge 305 GPS-enabled Cycle Computerone that records heart rate and they other that records cadence (which for non-cyclists is pedal RPM). I am betting the Edge has only one receiver for outboard sensors, explaining why it’s an either/or choice. That is a significant limitation in a high-end–make that stratospheric–bike computer.Another apparent limitation is the lack of support for uploaded maps. That seems to be a severe limitation, at least compared to how useful it would be to have local street or topo maps loaded when you go out for a ride. This would seem to be especially important to mountain biker and long-distance riders. It would also allow a course to be pre-programmed, allowing the GPS to provide turn-by-turn directions. Having made a wrong turn during a century ride, I can assure you that having to backtrack is no fun at all.

The Edge 205 is a less-expensive version (no HR or cadence, using GPS instead of barometric altimeter) that sells for $269.95. Something I like about the Edge devices is the large, 1.17″W x 1.44″H display. Looks like it will be easy to read and, maybe, the backlight is powerful enough to make it useful at night. However, this big display and the need for an antenna mean the overall side of the unit is 1.75″W x 3.7″H x .9″D, which is positively huge for something that’s supposed to hang on the stem or handlebars.Come to thing of it, if I really need a GPS on a bike ride, I’d probably be better off carrying a standalone unit with a color screen and street maps loaded. The Garmin Edge 305 has once again proven to me that multi-function devices often make compromises I wish they wouldn’t. So, cross this off my list. But, I still need better bike lighting and a heart rate monitor. Guess, I’ll keep shopping.(Note: Runners, hikers, etc., should consider Garmin’s Forerunner products, which are much like the Edge products, but are intended for wrist mounting).