Appearances, as the saying goes, can be deceiving. That’s certainly been the case with technology this year. While few breakout products have emerged over the past 12 months, R&D departments have hardly been idle. What we’ve seen, instead, are low-key but high-value improvements to technologies already important in our professional and personal lives (and often both simultaneously). For lawyers, this is particularly good news, as many of the most significant upgrades have been for gear they’ve grown to embrace and rely on. The following products may have appeared on the scene quietly, but make no mistake: They warrant the spotlight.
• QuietComfort 20/20i Noise-Canceling Headphones (Bose, $299). Two things identify a seasoned flyer: liquids in a Ziploc and noise-canceling headphones. Bose has long made what has arguably been the premier noise-canceling gear, and there’s nothing quite like flipping a switch and experiencing the magic disappearance of engine noise (the technology dramatically reduces steady sounds like the humming of machinery, but is less effective on voices). Wearing a pair of these headphones can mean the difference between sleeping on a flight or staring at the seatback for six hours.
But the best noise-canceling headphones have never been particularly svelte, going against the road warrior’s maxim that less is more. While there have been attempts to build the technology into more portable in-ear headphones, the results haven’t been amazing. At least, until now.
Bose’s new in-ear model—the QuietComfort 20i (for iPhone and iPad) and the QuietComfort 20 (for Android, BlackBerry, and Windows devices)—is a revelation. Its noise-canceling ability ranks up there with, and perhaps surpasses, anything Bose has done before. I spent a good half hour simply flipping the switch on and off because I couldn’t believe how effectively, and instantly, it muted engine noise. The effect can be a bit jarring. You may wonder if maybe the engines have, in fact, stopped running.
At $299, these are pricey traveling companions, and while sound reproduction was excellent, it didn’t quite measure up to similarly priced non-noise-canceling in-ear models from the likes of Shure and Sennheiser (the QuietComfort headphones are also heftier, since they require additional circuitry, which is housed in a slender box attached to the cord). Note, too, that the included travel pouch is a bit barebones, and because the noise canceling relies on a built-in battery, you’ll want to charge the unit before getting on a plane (expect about 15 to 16 hours of use). But with their portability and performance, the QuietComfort 20/20i will likely—and deservedly—become standard gear for road warriors, for many flights to come.
• iCarrier IMP120D external battery (New Trent; $40). There is nothing sexy about this product: It’s a 10-ounce block of plastic you carry around with you. But when the juice in your mobile device runs out, the iCarrier is more than a lifesaver—it’s a repeat lifesaver. The huge capacity of this battery—12,000 milliampere-hour (mAh)—means that you can charge multiple devices (or one device multiple times) before its own power runs down. On one of my recent trips the iCarrier fully charged two iPod Touches and a Kindle Fire and took a dead iPad to 40 percent before running dry (iPads have large batteries, so even a fully-charged iCarrier will get it only to about 75 or 80 percent).
The iCarrier has two output ports, one for tablets and the other for smartphones, and you can use both simultaneously. Just remember to carry any proprietary charging cables you might need, like Apple’s dock connector. Fortunately, many de­vices—including Kindles, Android tablets, and most cameras—use a standard micro–USB charging cable, which New Trent includes with the iCarrier.
One warning, though: The iCarrier does not include an AC adapter, and charging its enormous power pack via your computer’s USB port is a slow process. Figure on a good 12 hours to get the job done. But you’ll get those hours back in all the extra productivity the iCarrier’s backup juice makes possible.
• Kindle Paperwhite, 2013 version (Amazon.com; $119). When I looked at the original Kindle Paperwhite last year, I called it the best e-reader on the market ["Two-for-One Specials," December 2012]. Now it has been dethroned—by itself. The Paperwhite’s trump card—a user-adjustable lighted display—has been noticeably improved, boasting higher contrast and a more evenly distributed light (the small but annoying dark patch at the bottom of the display in the original version is gone).
One of the slickest improvements, however, is a software feature called “Page Flip.” As handy as e-readers have been, they’ve always lagged behind traditional books in one respect: Unless you frequently set bookmarks, or didn’t mind hitting the back button a few dozen times, you couldn’t easily browse a book, page by page, without losing your place. The Page Flip feature is an ingenious solution to this problem. It opens a window on top of the current page. There you can scroll through pages, and when you’re finished, simply close the box. You then continue reading in the main window, right where you left off.
The new Paperwhite retains the old version’s pricing, starting at $119 for the “special offers” version. Special offer is Amazon’s code for ads—coupons for items the retailer sells and screensavers that feature product placements. While this might sound a bit shady, it’s done in a surprisingly nonintrusive way, so there’s really no reason to spend another $20 for the non–special offer version. There’s also a $179 3G version, which gives you access to Amazon’s Kindle store and resources like Wikipedia when there’s no Wi-Fi available.
• Cyber-shot RX-100 and RX-100 II digital cameras (Sony; $650–$750). These cameras are breakthrough products, though they certainly don’t look the part. Even on close inspection, both versions of the RX-100 look like ordinary, if sturdily built, point-and-shoot digital cameras. But Sony has managed to fit a large 1-inch image sensor into a pocket-size chassis—a truly impressive design feat. As a result, both models deliver performance that previously was only found on far larger digital SLR cameras. This is great news for travelers and anyone else looking to lighten their load without sacrificing photo quality.
And the quality here is pretty terrific. Photos taken by the 20.2 megapixel RX-100 and RX-100 II—both of which feature a Carl Zeiss lens—are stunningly sharp, and even indoor flash photos look great. No other compact camera comes close. Both models have the advanced features you’d expect on a serious photo-taking device, too, like the ability to capture images in RAW format and shoot full HD (1080p) video. The 3-inch display is big and bright, though as is the case with many high-end cameras, mastering all the menus and controls requires a bit of a learning curve.
These are both pricey cameras, but not equally pricey. The RX-100 II, which was released in just the past few months, retails for $750 and is rarely discounted. The older RX-100 retails for $650 but can often be found for less. While the newer model offers some nice upgrades—including onboard Wi-Fi to share photos with tablets and smartphones and the ability to focus faster in low-light situations—you can’t go wrong with either.
• Nexus 7 tablet, 2013 version (Google; $229–$349, depending on capacity). Google’s hit tablet from 2012 has been transformed into a vastly superior device for 2013, thanks to some pitch-perfect upgrades. While this iteration—which starts at $229 for the 16-gigabyte version and progresses to $349 for a 32-gigabyte model with 4G LTE network compatibility—is thinner and lighter than the original, the real star of this makeover is the screen. It’s dazzling: bright and vivid, and razor-sharp with a 1,920 x 1,200 resolution.
Now built around a quad-core CPU—Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro—the new Nexus 7 is faster than its predecessor in every way. Pages load quicker, swiping and pinch-zooming are more responsive, and apps run faster. There’s a new 5-megapixel rear-facing camera as well (like the older model, this one is manufactured for Google by Asus).
Of course, going with a Nexus 7 means going with Android, which still doesn’t boast nearly as rich an app ecosystem as iOS. But the gap has closed in the past year. For lawyers, there are plenty of PDF readers and note-taking apps, and most of the top entertainment apps, like Netflix and Amazon’s Kindle reader, are available, too. Combine all of these improvements with a wallet-friendly price, and the Nexus 7 isn’t just a better tablet than before—it’s a better deal, too.
• SanDisk Connect Wireless Media Drive (SanDisk; $80–$100, depending on capacity). Own a 16-gigabyte iPad? Pick up a $100, 64-gigabyte SanDisk Connect Wireless Media Drive and now you’ve got a 80-gigabyte iPad. This is an ingenious little device (emphasis on little: it’s about 2.5 inches square). It doesn’t just hold all the movies, TV shows, and music you couldn’t fit on your mobile device. It shares them—en masse.
When turned on, the SanDisk Connect creates its own Wi-Fi network, enabling eight separate devices to link to it and access content (a built-in battery provides about eight hours of power per charge). There’s no need for an Internet connection—everything connects through the unit’s onboard Wi-Fi (you just need to download SanDisk’s app, available free for both iOS and Android platforms). It gets better: The drive can stream high-definition video to five devices simultaneously—and it doesn’t have to be the same video, either.
What this means is that on your next family vacation, you can stream “Doc McStuffins” episodes to one kid, “Hannah Montana” videos to another, and “Breaking Bad” episodes to your spouse—all without having to load anything on anyone’s device. That will save you storage space and time, which you can use to buy your noise-canceling headphones.
Contributing editor Alan Cohen writes about law firms and technology.