Last-minute kids’ Christmas gadgets

Is Santa still looking for a few treats for the children/teens in your family?

Here are a few neat ideas that should put you in the favourite uncle/auntie category well into the New Year (which means you get first dibs on their Christmas sweet stash!)

ruckjack

If you’re buying for children aged around five to seven, and they have access to a computer, it’s very likely they will be Moshi Monster fans. In which case, this Ruckjack could be right up their street. Is it a rucksack, is it a jacket? It’s both – and they can even go online and create their own design, choosing colours and finishes. You don’t have to have the Moshi Monster lining of course, but what little Monster fan would deny themselves?  And if you have a child who hates wearing a coat, they can slip it off, turn it into a rucksack, and pop it onto their back while they scoot/cycle home.

The Ruckjack comes in sizes 3-12, costs £29.99 and can be ordered from www.miioon.com

Blue-Bird-Mini

Angry Birds fans can bring their favourite furious feathered friends from the screen to real life with one of these Angry Birds Speakers from Gear4.

The ever-raging Red Bird Space, Blue Bird, Black Bomber Bird, Red Bird and explosive Lazer Bird all work with any smartphone, music player, or tablet and have a 3.5mm headphone jack. The speakers feature expandable bass twist function for stronger audio quality and are able to link with multiple speakers, so you could have a string of your favourite birds blasting out your top tunes.

The lithium battery can be charged for two hours to give eight hours of playback.

Priced between £29.99 and £34.99 from www.gear4.com

Penguin-Speaker

More avian-themed speakers are available from Kitsound – this time in the shape of a less angry-looking penguin or cute owl speaker. These speakers will plug into a smartphone, MP3 player or tablet and come in a bundle of three products – headphone, phone sock and speaker for £14.95 from www.phones4u.co.uk

Need to make that homework more appealing? How about treating them to a fun coloured wireless mouse – just for them? Might be just the incentive they need to get down to work. The Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 comes in red, pink or blue as well as glossy black or white and the makers claim it will work on any surface – so the bedroom carpet should be fine! It is designed to be used by left- and right-handers and has rubber side grips for better handling. The mouse costs £29.99, for more details log on to www.microsoft.com/hardware.

Finally, we all know dogs are not just for Christmas, but here’s one pet that won’t need walking, feeding or taking to the vets.

Tech-Pet-Kids

Just put your iPhone or iPod touch into the TechPet body and watch it transform into a friendly pet dog robot! It will move just by hearing your voice or seeing your hand waving, you can play games and music on it and it will even play with other TechPets.

In sitting mode, the TechPet can be used as a music player; put it in trick mode to teach it new tricks, and you can even customize its face – use your own pictures as TechPet’s face via ‘Face Morph’ if you want!

The TechPet is £59.99 from Toys R Us, John Lewis, Argos, Amazon, and The Entertainer. For more details head to www.facebook.com/BandaiUK

Gear4: iOS docks of the future

Gear4, one of the leaders in the iPad dock market, invited us to have a play with some of their up and coming iOS accessories. The biggest challenge Gear4 see for the rest of the year is the increasing adoption of wireless audio protocols in docks – both Bluetooth and AirPlay.

Gear4

Gear4’s AirZone Series fully commits to Apple’s AirPlay standard with pretty much no other connectivity options – bar a line in port at the back. Aesthetically the results are very pleasing – it’s a very streamlined design with very few controls. They’ve put some thought into the set up too so you can be up and running with a simple button press – a welcome addition as this is been a minor headache with some of the other docks I’ve had to configure in my time. And beyond aesthetics it sounds pretty good too.

Bluetooth is still very much a player and there StreetParty Wireless is a very cool portable BlueTooth stereo speaker with a built-in speakerphone. In a similar fashion to the AirZone, controls are pretty minimal, with volume and mic control and little else, but I’m guessing Gear4 think (probably quite correctly) that your phone will be in your pocket anyway. You can get up to 8 hours out of the rechargeable lithium ion battery.

Staying put? The Xorb Wireless is a 2.1 30W stereo Bluetooth speaker with excellent bass and a great bowling ball-esque design.

The most interesting dock on display was the “appcessory” the Renew SleepClock – a non-contact sleep monitor and bedside speaker. Tracking your sleep cycle, the Renew SleepClock wakes you at *exactly* the right moment, theoretically leaving your refreshed and ready to tackle the day. It also monitors all your sleep patterns so you can see your “sleep efficency” (and if someone asks if you slept well you can give them exact measurements). It does all this though a built-in sensors so you don’t have to strap yourself into things before you sleep.

For more details head to www.gear4.com

Angry Birds Space cases and headphones are out of this world

Whoever came up with the idea of firing birds loaded in a catapult onto egg-stealing green pigs must be a genius. And a very rich genius at that. On paper, it sounds all a bit daft idea, but Angry Birds has proven itself to be one of the most addictive games ever, and the 700 million of units it has sold since 2009 stand testament to that fact.

Angry-Birds-Space

Angry Birds Space is the latest chapter in the game, and features a host of new features and levels, including the introduction of new birds and piggies to battle. This time around you will have to contend with various degrees of gravity as all the action takes place, yes you guessed it, in space itself. It’ll be a bit like Battlestar Galactica, but with more beaks.

To commemorate the games launch, Gear4 have come up with a set of cases and headphones for your iPhone, iPod and iPad. The accessories feature images of the new Angry Birds Space characters, which include Laser Bird, Ice Bird, Bomb Bird, super Red Bird and the evil King Pig.

There are five different iPhone and iPod cases, and four cases for the iPad, along with the trademark Super Red bird to chose between. Prices start at £24.99 each. There are also four different headphones with Angry Bird images on the ear-bud to wear whilst you play the game or listen to music, these are each available for £19.99. Wear your Angry Birds colours with pride!

For more information on the cases and headphones visit www.gear4.com. To download your own copy of the finger-flicking physics game, visit spaced.angrybirds.com. Angry Birds Space is available on iOS, Android, Mac, and PC.

Angry Birds BlackBird dock review

Not content with taking your phone, Angry Birds are taking over cartoons, plush toys, clothes, films and a soon-to be theme park attraction in Finland. Last year Gear4 released a set of three speaker docks based on Angry Birds that made me squeal with delight. I am a huge Angry Birds and can’t stop playing it to this day. So I saw the big bad Black Bird speaker dock and I had to get my mitts on it.

The Black Bird Speaker Dock is the only one in the range that can dock an iPad. The dock is standalone from the speaker. It is a fun, entry level iPad dock for fans of the Angry Birds series. It is easy to setup and I had it up and running in minutes. The 2.1 speakers and 30W amplifiers provide a decent sound for a casual listener. I found it was clear and I enjoyed the clarity. The sound is good for small rooms, however at higher volumes, you may hear some distortion.

The volume and bass buttons are at the back which are not convenient however the included remote makes it easy to control so no complaints here. I think a button integrated into his face would have been great. I would not suggest this is a portable dock or one to take on your holiday. This is a great addition to a kid’s room and will definitely be a talking point in any living room. If you do not have an iPhone, have no fear, you can connect your smartphone using a 3.5mm Aux jack at the back, cable included. It is available from Gear4 for £69.99 and Currys and PC World who currently have a good price, £34.97 but keep it our little secret. Back to getting some golden eggs on my iPhone.

Gear4 pocketloops: Portable music creation studio review

At the risk of repeating myself, I’m thrilled to live in the future. As someone who has been fiddling with electronic music since I was a teenage with a Atari 1040ST and Cubase, I’ve seen the world of “computer music” undergo sea change after sea change. It used to be pretty incredible that you could make cutting edge music on a laptop. Now it’s mind blowing that you can do it on a phone.

GEAR4-PocketLoops-Portable-Music-Creation-Studio

Gear4’s pocketloops is an interesting example of thinking outside the box in the potential race to the bottom that is app development. Pocketloops is a free app, but is also a dedicated hardware peripheral that has to be purchased separately for magic to happen.

As you can see from the image above, pocketloops is a keyboard with a little dock for an iPhone to the left-hand side. The unit it pretty light and compact so it’s very portable. My first impression when I got my hands on the unit at IFA was that the keys were a little bit square and flat, but this design makes more sense once you dive into the app.

It’s worth noting at this point that pocketloops isn’t really a keyboard peripheral – at least in the conventional sense- so if you were hoping to use it for jamming with other apps then prepare for disappointment. I’m not sure why pocketloops doesn’t play nicely with other apps – it would make it a great tool for travelling musicians as the flat, light design pops easily into most bags.

However, the flat keys are not the most fun to play musically – I wouldn’t want to do lots of scales or chords with them over and extended period of time, which perhaps was the thinking behind the external app-lockout. Once you fire up the free pocket loops app you get why the keys are the way they are. Rather than playing melodies conventionally, pocketloops is much more geared towards remixing and jamming with loops – with the keyboard keys more loop triggers than piano keys. Once you get into this mindset the design of pocketloops is fantastic.

The main app interface is a 4 x 4 grid where you lay down beats or melodic loops. Various instruments are provided including the wonderful Look Around You nod to Synthesiser Patel. Rather than resticting you creatively, the limited palate of tracks and instruments is actually quite liberating and you are innovating within parameters and are able to focus on doing fun things with what you have – rather than staring out at infinite potential. Sounds you play are recorded as loops and you can then switch back and forth DJ style between tracks, mixing and remixing dynamically. This has lots of interesting performance potential as you could build fun little tracks live on stage.

You can also vary your sounds (and have fun in a live environment) by using pocketloops’ built-in effects to tweak echo, chorus or distortion via the XY Filter Pad (remember when plain old ribbon controllers seemed amazing).

Once you’ve made your track, rather than hide it under a bushel (unless it’s awful), you can bake a remix on the spot and email it as an m4a file to all and sundry. Overall, pocketloops is a fast and incredibly fun way to create music on your iPhone and if you like what you see and are ok with using the loop based software it would be hard not to recommend it.

I should note that I struggled to get pocketloops to play nicely with iOS5 and had lots of problems switching instruments or with the app recognising the keyboard after a bout of multitasking or a trip to the notification centre. However I had an older iPhone lying around with a slightly older OS and everything went swimmingly when that was popped in. I expect an update to iOS 5 is around the corner.

Gear4 pocketloops: Portable music creation studio is available from vendors such as Amazon for £49.99

Latest Gadgets at IFA 2011: Best of the best part one

It’s that time of year again, when the biggest and best in the tech world cram themselves into the labyrinthine Berlin Messe and proudly display their latest and greatest products. There’s *a lot* on display here and we’ll be looking in depth at some of the releases over the next few weeks. But until then here’s a quick run down of some of the more eye catching releases.

Best-of-IFA

One of the heavy hitters of home entertainment, Epson as you’d expect unveiled a series of new projectors. More unexpected however, was their sudden embrace of 3D after their refusal to jump in last year – apparently now the time is right. Even more surprising was the pricing – full details will be unveiled on Monday but they are clearly hoping to win over hearts and minds with some wonderful aggressive pricing.

Also unexpected was the launch of the Epson MG-850HD, which features a little iDevice dock enabling you to project slideshows and movies or play music, which was a nice feature on a budget device.

iDevices are never far from sight at IFA (I’ve never seen so many iPads as I did on my press bus) and Gear4 went to town with a range of cool new iToys. My favourite was Pocket Loops a keyboard attachments that you can slot your iPhone directly into.

They also had a range of Angry Birds iPhone docks that looked amazing – if you like Angry Bird. The AirZone home stereo speaker featured AirPlay, which is clearly the future of iPod docks.

They were most excited about the Renew SleepClock that monitors your movements in bed using beams of some description and wakes you up at the optimal point in your sleep cycle. Whilst similar devices utilising this technology exist, most involve wearing some sort of strap or bracelet so this is a lot more natural. They refused to let me nap in the little bed to test it out however.

The Alesis IO dock was there for the serious iPad musician and slots the iPad into a host of MIDI and high-quality audio inputs and outputs. The limitations of the 30-pin connector however, means that you can’t record simultaneously, which is a shame but this minor grip notwithstanding you can get some serious music made using this dock.

I was quietly mixing up a storm with Numark’s iDJ iPad peripheral. The jog wheels and fader are not the world’s best but are more than adequate for rocking a small house party and crossfading your Jive Bunny megamixes. There is a USB version that looks identical bar the connectors, although frustratingly you don’t appear to be able to use them interchangeably. Rather than simply buying one device and having two cables, flitting from laptop to iPad as you see fit, you apparently need to buy a dedicated controller for each. Boo! Still it’s a great device.

If you want to hear all those great sounds TDK had some amazing headsets on offer. Leading on from the wonderful sounds of the ST800s that we recently tested, the also had the high-end inner ear BA100 and BA200s on show – with balanced armature and dual balanced armature engineering. The sound quality was, as you’d expect, superlative.

To be continued …

Gear 4 Unity remote for iPhone review

Part of the magic of smartphones, those tiny touchscreen computers that we carry around in our pockets, is their ability to extend so many experiences – be it running, cooking or selling old CDs. The smartphone-app landscape has brought simplicity where there once was chaos to many areas of modern life (although admittedly they are guilty of doing the reverse as well). And obviously one area of modern life that could do with some streamlining is the living room. As you would expect for a tech journalist and nerd, I have many many boxes in my living room all with new and exciting ways of piping season two of Louie to my TV. As you might not expect, I have at least 4 universal remote controls – none of which I actually use. As someone with a very low tolerance for fiddly remote control set ups (who will bizarrely however, happily spend hours tweaking sickbeard, plex and sabnzb to get everything *just* right) will the Gear4 Unity Remote for the iPhone be fiddle free enough to work its way into my everyday life?

Gear4-Unity-Remote

Set up is remarkably simple. Jam some batteries (provided) into the tiny puck-shaped unit, press the one button on the device and you should be able to pair with you iPhone or iPad. There’s a lovely little set up slideshow with a bowtie-wearing assistant if you need help with this. From here you need to fire up the app (bonus points for having an app configured for iPhone and iPad screens) select your remote and then add devices. This is another straightforward process where you place the Unity next to your device of choice and run through a few short tests. It’s a little bit of work, but little enough that I’m not overly annoyed by the process (my universal wand remote control will never be used due to how annoying the set up process is).

The best thing about the Unity Remote is the ability to configure actions. I have Blu-Ray player, AV Receiver and TV, all of which need to on and set to a certain channel before I can do a simple action such as watch a movie. With Unity you can configure actions such as these so they become one-button tasks – Watch a Movie would have all the steps needed configured – like a macro or AppleScript for real life – which is pretty cool and great incentive to actually use the device.

For more information head to Gear 4.

Rise and shine with the Gear4 Houseparty Rise

Sometimes I yearn for the good old days, when an alarm clock was just that – a clock with an alarm on the top – preferably one of the really old-fashioned ones with two metal bells and a clanger that oscillated between them in an – ahem – alarming manner.

GEAR4-HouseParty

But if that were the case, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. So, suppressing those Luddite tendencies, let me tell you about the HouseParty Rise from those accessories wizards at Gear4.

It’s a rather cool-looking device featuring an alarm clock, dock for an iPhone or iPod Touch – and most importantly for any alarm clock – a big snooze button!

The device can be controlled using Gear4’s SmartLink app – owners just need to download the app to their Apple device and they can use it to change MP3 tracks and turn the volume up and down, just by tapping the screen.

The clever thing about the app is that it also allows you to control your docked device using a second iPhone or iPod – priceless if you can’t be bothered to get out of bed or get out of a comfy position on the sofa to change tune, or indeed if you don’t want to disturb the cat sleeping on your lap – can you tell who rules in our household?

The screen can be easily dimmed with a swipe, so it won’t keep you awake if those kinds of things bother you at all – and that huge silver snooze button is hard to miss even if you are only barely awake. Plus, pre-set alarms on an iPhone or iPod touch auto-sync with the HouseParty Rise once docked, saving a bit more time.

The HouseParty Rise comes in at a quite pricey £99, but then you are getting a high quality speaker and an alarm clock for your money.

Find out more at www.Gear4.com