Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Travel Gear Review 2016

travel gear 2016

Hello everyone. It's been quite a while since I've gone over my set of electronic travel gear. This past year has seen a lot of change in that department for a few reasons. I'll go over these as well as my selections for what I now regard as my equipment choices. Students and other readers have enjoyed this sort of review collective in the past. For those hoping for life news, wait a while longer. Winter can be a slow time of year especially right after the holiday season.

What has driven me from my comfortable laptop and accompanying equipment? For one thing, size. I have sleep apnea and need to bring my CPAP machine wherever I go. The machine isn't heavy or large but is thick and takes up pack space with the hose and power supply. You never want to put too much pressure on the hose. Another thing I've noted during my last few outings was that the laptop took up too much pack space along with other necessities and had to be carried separately. This meant I had two packs to potentially deal with while getting on and off busses and such. The other major change has been hearing aids. This makes wearing earpods uncomfortable while using hearing aids although they still are best for audio gaming and night time listening when I don't wear hearing aids. Hearing loss also makes carrying around various speakers and large headphones less attractive.. At a volume level where I would enjoy hearing music or other audio, other people would find it intrusively loud. Also, when I'm out and about, I like to have situational awareness. I don't want to be isolated from people or events happening near me even if I am doing my own thing. That happens a lot particularly when sports are being watched. Nothing other than fashion bores me more. In such circumstances, it's nice to have unobtrusive entertainment of one's own choosing to hand.

Thanks to a warranty and a battery bulge of epic proportions, my trusty 32-gb iPHONE 5S has gone to iPHONE Heaven. I now carry an iPHONE 6 with 64 gb of memory. This affords me enough space for quite a lot. Compared to the 16-gb iPHONE 4 I started with around five years ago, it's positively luxurious. The speed and responsiveness has reached a point where switching between tasks and having things happen in the background is easy and smooth. In effect, my smart phone has become my laptop. This means my trusty laptop of many years is now my home base and desktop computer.

Having one's smartphone as a travel computer requires you to have some accessories on hand. I carry everything in a small carry-all bag I purchased from Mountain Equipment Co-op. It can be slung over a shoulder or carried in hand. I used it back when I had a netbook and it now comes into its own all these years later. It's sturdy, has several zippered compartments, is rugged and water resistant. I can't remember what its name was for the life of me but Mountain Equipment Co-op has many suitable bags. Visit them at:

While the ability to dictate is helpful, you really need a proper keyboard for any sort of sustained comfortable rapid writing. To that end, I have chosen the Microsoft Universal Mobile keyboard. It works very well with my iPHONE. I can type quite quickly on it. The dimensions are 27.2 x 13.8 x 3.4 cm and its weight is around 12.875 OZ or 365 G. I find the keyboard's heft a good thing. It combines nicely with a couple of thin rubber strips on the bottom to keep it sturdy and still while you type. Key travel is very good especially when you consider how thin the keyboard is. There's a nice tactile response. I tend to do mostly typing with the keyboard and use the iPHONE to control Voiceover and do other things. Voiceover features many keyboard commands but I'm not quite as good at mastering a bunch of new key commands as I once was. The touchscreen is so intuitive that there really isn't any great need for me to do so.

Provided I plug the keyboard in every so often for a couple of hours, I need never worry about it lacking power. The battery can apparently last up to six months of average use. Tactile switches and buttons make controlling it easy. The keyboard is sturdy enough for use on one's lap. The hard keyboard cover provides space to lay an iPHONE flat and has ridges to let you stand a tablet at an angle provided it isn't in a thick case. This creates a small basic two-piece laptop. The top detaches which can be useful in tighter circumstances. It is magnetically held on and will turn off the keyboard automatically when folded shut. The top and keyboard are sturdy enough to withstand bumps and other mishaps. I paid under $80 for the keyboard in July of 2015 and doubt I'll need to replace it any time soon. There are switches and buttons controlling volume, music playback, muting, and more. I don't use all of the switches mainly because things are so easy to do on the iPHONE itself. You can acquire  this and many other accessories at:

For listening privately to what comes out of my iPHONE, I now use the Aftershokz Trekz Titanium headset. This headset is light and is warn hung over the ears with the headband extending down behind the neck. Transducers rest in front of each ear sending sound through the cheekbones and skull. The transducers are about as big as an average thumb. In total, the headset weighs 1.45 OZ or 41 G. This leaves one's ears free for hearing what's happening around you. Also, you can wear the Trekz Titaniums without interfering with hearing aids. The hearing aid receivers and band of the Trekz Titaniums can both fit comfortably behind ones ears. I've found it more comfortable to wear the hearing aids on the outside and the Titaniums next to the skull.

In general, there doesn't seem to be any lag. I can touch my phone and get immediate audio feedback. The Trekz Titaniums use version 4 of Bluetooth and support many different profiles. The only fly in the ointment is that sometimes, calls aren't routed to the headset for a while. You can always answer them using the iPHONE itself provided you can reach it. This only happens once in a while. The battery life of the Trekz Titaniums is said to be six hours of constant playback. They have up to ten days of standby time. I've gotten whole days of heavy use with the battery still in the high or medium range. They require two hours for a full charge. Unlike other headsets, the Trekz Titaniums have built-in speech and can tell you their battery level. You can also check this right in the status line or battery section of your notification centre on iOS devices.

The controls are quite simple. A button on the left transducer lets you use smartphone features like SIRI plus has some added functionality. I found this out when I held it in too long and it called the last number I had phoned. Buttons on the right part of the ban will adjust the volume, turn the headset on or off, and holding both of them in for a second will toggle between two different equalization settings. The button which doubles as a power and volume up button has a slightly raised dot on it and is closest to the right transducer while wearing the headset. Pressing one of the buttons while no sound is playing will inform you of the battery level. A very well considered control setup.

The sound quality depends on one's bone structure. For me, it isn't as full as standard earpods or over-ear headphones. However, the sacrifice in richness is minimal for casual listening. The trade-off is easily worth having situational awareness. Music sounds more than adequate. Stereo positioning does happen but it's less refined than you'd experience with more traditional headphones. I don't recommend these for audio gaming where spacial position of sound is critical. For working or general listening, however, the experience is quite good provided you're not an audiophile and have expectations fitting the technology. Compared to earlier models, the Trekz Titaniums offer markedly superior sound and much less leakage. I can walk outdoors hearing directions from GPS software in my iPHONE while still hearing what's around me. I don't recommend listening to music while navigating via sound. It still distracts even though it comes in via the skull. Hearing rich sound such as music from the Trekz Titaniums as well as sound in your environment does take some getting used to. The mind just doesn't expect to be able to hear both music and surroundings well at the same time when wearing a headset.

For recording, I can't recommend using the microphones in the Trekz Titaniums. While good enough for phone calls, the noise cancellation robs recordings of sharpness. The microphone built into your i device is far better for recording. SIRI understands me quite well if I invoke it while wearing the Trekz Titaniums. It's nice to be able to hold in a button on the side of your head and command the phone in your pocket to do things. Moving around with phone in pocket and no wire dangling down in front of you is absolutely splendid. The other great thing about the Trekz Titaniums is, quite simply, the titanium. The headset flexes comfortably while you wear it and curls up when you take them off. Being a memory metal, you don't have to worry about them losing their shape even if you really scrunched them. They come in a nice travel case which easily fits in the pocket along with your phone. However, I don't often think to bring the case and simply stuff the headset into my pocket when not needed. It does sometimes become uncomfortable after long periods of use depending on how the ban moves. The headset is so light that I have often forgotten that I'm wearing it. In order to fund the creation of these headphones, Aftershokz Held an Indiegogo campaign. I backed the project in time to get in on early bird pricing. The current price for the Trekz Titaniums is $129.00 US. You can order directly from:

I resisted the whole Bluetooth movement chiefly due to the extra battery drain one incurs when using it. Why have devices which not only require their own batteries but take power from your computer's battery? Hearing aids were what has finally forced my hand. That and having more than one cord snag and break out of my former wired headgear. Now, I can work completely wirelessly. It still feels a bit strange as well as liberating. Since my computer lacks bluetooth drivers, I wear regular headphones overtop of my hearing aids and Trekz Titaniums while working at home. The Trekz Titaniums are capable of accepting input from more than one device at a time. They call it multipoint functionality. I look forward to using that whenever I get around to upgrading my laptop.

For those occasions where one wants to share audio, I currently lack an adequate bluetooth speaker. My UE Boom is using and outdated version of bluetooth. This imparts a quite noticeable lag to proceedings while navigating with Voiceover. You'll tap or Flick and then wait half a second for a response. There are doubtless plenty of better options out there. However, given my hearing loss, I no longer feel as well equipped to advise people in this area. Finding something at a reasonable price which exhibits no lag yet still sounds good is best left to others to find at this stage.

My iPHONE6 is serving me quite well. It's noticeably faster than the 5S and I get better results when doing OCR or having objects recognized via the camera. I keep it in an Otterbox Defender case. It includes a built-in screen protector and feels comfortable in the hand. The feel and construction are a definite improvement over the Defender model for the 5S. I like the rubbery feel of the case's outer shell. At the moment, I have enough on-board storage for current needs as well as some lavish extras. Sixty-four gb is enough for over a thousand tracks of music, over 100 audio books plus something near 1000 ebooks, a 90hour fully dramatized version of the Bible, an off-line reference containing the most popular 250000 articles from Wikipedia, eleven pages of apps plus associated data, and more. I still have room to spare. Should the need arise, there are now external storage drives for iOs devices. When making the shift from use as a phone to use as a laptop replacement, even thirty-two gb was tight but serviceable. I wouldn't recommend trying it with sixteen gb.

Keeping all your devices charged is the last order of business. Bluetooth does exact a toll on your smartphone or tablet's battery. This hasn't been as severe as I had presumed prior to recent experience. iOS9 is doing quite well at managing power. I recently invested in an
Anker Astro E7 Ultra-High Capacity 26800mAh  3-Port 4A Compact Portable Charger External Battery Power Bank with PowerIQ technology. This is enough to fully charge my iPHONE ten times if necessary. This isn't a pocket-sized battery mainly due to length and weight. It weighs in at 490 G, just short of half a kilogram. Its dimensions are 16.6 x 8 x 2 cm. In a bag with other gear, it doesn't take up much room at all. It is quite rugged and sleek coming with a softer protective pouch. Three USB ports are available to charge multiple devices at once. The ports are intelligent and detect how much charge to give items plugged into them. An 18-month warranty is provided should anything go wrong. It comes with a built-in LED flashlight which is useless to me. I've used a light detector app on my phone to make certain that it hasn't accidentally activated.  As a blind user, there's no way to check how much power the battery has remaining. This would have been nice. However, with so much spare capacity, I don't expect this will be a problem provided I charge it fully every month. When my iPHONE is plugged into it, IOS states that the phone is on AC power. The recharge rate is very fast compared to other external batteries I've used. When the battery itself is charging either via a USB port or wall adaptor like the Apple power brick which came with my iPHONE, the batter warms up. It's smart enough to stop charging when full and will cool quickly when this happens. There's one button on the side of the battery which activates the display. Holding that button in or double-tapping it will turn on the flashlight.

A smartphone is never going to give you quite as much power or storage as a laptop. I'm currently blessed to have both options. Given my current requirements while away from home, this more portable setup works very well. There are some tradeoffs. The bulk of my audio drama collection is for all practical purposes off limits. I shudder to think how much it would cost to store my full collection of audio in the cloud. And then, there's being able to get at it without going over your monthly data plan. That's where an external drive would come in handy provided you could access content without the need for Internet use.

I don't always need to type lengthy emails or documents but can when I wish. I can even set the typing feedback so that it's silent while using a bluetooth keyboard and doesn't cause voiceover's audio ducking to disturb the music I listen to while writing. When using the touchscreen keyboard, typing feedback is there where I need it. The keyboard is somewhat smaller than a normal one. Just large enough not to seriously cramp the hands but you do lose a bit of speed and comfort. When I'm in different places and need to charge up my stuff, I can do so without needing to inconvenience anybody. The only time cables need to be in evidence is when things are plugged in. Otherwise, nothing can get snagged, impede packing up or get lost. Even when I eventually track down a suitable speaker, I doubt my bag of tricks will exceed two kilos unless I add snacks and a bottle of water for an extended trip.

The piper always has to be paid somehow. The price for such convenience is that good devices are held hostage to the capacity of their batteries to hold a charge. When that is no longer possible, the device is useless unless the battery can be replaced. We'll just have to see ultimately how long the batteries maintain the ability to hold a charge. On the bright side, having each component a separate thing makes replacement more manageable. These devices seem to come with 18-month or 2-year-warrantees. Changing to a new iPHONE won't require me to discard bluetooth devices like the keyboard and headset. Provided I don't opt for something lighter, my external battery should serve me for a good many years.

The portability of an accessibility solution centred on my iPHONE is absolutely mind-blowing. My desk used to have an OCR scanner taking up a good part of its surface. That scanner has been gone for over a year now. An app called KNFBReader has let my iPHONE replace it. Most of the time, it does a far faster and better job despite the camera being operated by a blind man assisted by artificial intelligence. You can easily carry all the computing power you need for normal day-to-day tasks in a pocket. Has someone suggested this would be the case even as little as five years ago, I would have laughed openly. All the accessories fit in a small light bag and merely enhance various aspects of the user experience. These accessories can be taken, left and upgraded as required.

I'm glad the iPHONE6 wasn't much larger than the 5S I treasured. A larger screen does nothing for me. This iPHONE6 was an unexpected but very pleasant step in my journey through the Apple ecosystem. Combined with my chosen accessories, it has afforded me the ability to travel a whole lot lighter than I would have thought possible.