Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Maximum Overdrive (Belated Gadget Reviews)

My friend EK was in town a couple of months ago and stayed with us for a night. "This place is like the Jetsons house," he commented, and while that's a bit of an exaggeration, it's true that Boy and I have acquired quite a few gadgets and even one very special robot since moving in together. This is not the least bit surprising to anyone who knows us, as we're both big nerds and tend to be early adopters and easily distracted by shiny things. But on the other hand it was just over a year ago that we were afraid of the DVR, and it's been less than a year since we were attacked by a litter box, so the fact that we've allowed machines that move and get very very hot to invade the home is at least a little bit of an about-face.

I've put off reviewing the Roomba because I got all ambitious and wanted to throw together a little video of the robot in action for y'all in iMovie (a project that apparently turns me Southern), but that still hasn't happened and it's clear I need to get over it. Someday I'll post it, I swear.

The good folks at iRobot claim that "At the point of contact on the floor, Roomba has as much suction as a standard upright," and frankly I have a hard time believing that just based on what little I know about how vacuum cleaners work. Usually there's some sort of exhaust fan and a way to make a, y'know, vacuum. But anyway, in addition to whatever magical suction is going on, there's a rather intricate system of brushes under its little crab-like body, including my favorite, which spins out from the side to get things along baseboards.

Some more things you should know about our friend the Roomba: The Roomba is not quiet. Yes, in the commercials they'd have you believe that you can put your feet up on the couch and watch TV while your army of robots cleans the house for you, but in fact, you won't be able to hear much of anything because the little fucker is loud.

The Roomba will not clean your house for you. Though I believe there are some models that can be set on a timer (and if not, it's only a matter of time), the Roomba is really a maintenance tool, and is not a substitute for real cleaning.

The Roomba requires care. There are places Roomba cannot and should not go. There are surfaces the Roomba cannot handle. Changes in surface seem to be especially tricky for it (for instance, there's one rug in our living room it can't climb up on at all because the rug is too thick, and another it can handle just fine, but whenever it gets down off the thinner rug, it drops some dirt from its little belly). Fortunately, the Roomba comes with "virtual wall units," little pods that emit infrared beams the Roomba can sense – creating a barrier the Roomba won't cross, so you can keep it out of areas it shouldn't go. The manual is worded (with adorable illustrations) in a way that makes us feel like it is our duty to protect the Roomba from things that might harm it (fringe is especially dangerous). It is at once creepy and endearing.

Now, all of that said, we love our Roomba! I mostly love the way it gets under shelves and the bed and the sofa, so we can hopefully avoid using the cat as a broom. And it really does do an awfully good job, as long as you pick up any large obstacles and place the virtual walls around things that might trip it up. Truth be told, it takes the Roomba much longer to sweep a room than it would take me with a broom – and that's not even counting getting the room ready for the Roomba. But I don't care, because I hate sweeping. More importantly, I love multitasking. I can turn the Roomba on and go do the dishes or something. It's two chores in one!

Rather than running and hissing like we expected, Radish generally follows the Roomba around, maintaining a healthy distance. We're not sure if he's trying to make friends or protecting his territory. Sometimes the Roomba will make a sudden turn and send Radish hiding under furniture, but they generally coexist peacefully. I'm waiting for the day Radish tries to pounce on the Roomba and loses. That'll be fun.

Boy got some good kitchen stuff for Chrismukah. I'm not much of a coffee drinker, but I'm a big fan of the Melitta One:One Coffee Maker, which uses little "JavaPods" to make individual cups of coffee or tea. This plays into both the "cool" factor and the lazy factor. There's not really any cleanup involved, you just dump the little pod. No filters, no grounds, no waste. Rinse the spout every once in a while and you're all set. On the cool side, it's just fun to push two buttons and have coffee. Curiously, Radish seems more frightened of this than the Roomba. It's a little noisy while brewing, and he runs from the room every time.

We also got The Next Grilleration George Foreman Grill. Boy had an old Foreman in his old apartment and it always kind of skeeved me out. There didn't seem to be any good way to clean it, and I have a weird phobia about submerging electrical appliances even if they're unplugged. Boy cooked for me on it a few times, and the results were always tasty, but I never got the hang of it myself and never quite trusted it.

So right off the bat I was a fan of the ridiculously named Next Grilleration because the grill plates are removable, and can therefore be thrown in the sink and properly washed. Our model is also big enough for two. We have a shiny new stove with a terrific broiler, but I've found I prefer the NG for things like burgers and chicken breasts. It's faster, and cooks a little more evenly. I tried steak in it once and it was dry and bland, so that still gets cooked with real fire, as does fish. But it's true, quite a bit of fat and grease really does run right off the thing and into the little tray. Fun! One piece of advice: Never ever start cooking and forget to put the little tray in. That is very very bad.

Moving away from the kitchen, I got the lovely Altec Lansing inMotion 3 for the bedroom. Calm down, they're just speakers. From a design standpoint, this is my favorite iPod accessory. The speakers sound great, and can be used with the iPod's dock connector or through a 1/8 inch input jack on the back (so you can plug in pretty much any other device too). If the iPod is docked and the unit is plugged in (it can also run off batteries), the iPod charges rapidly. You can also attach a dock cable and sync with your computer. Best of all, the whole thing folds flat to about the size of 3 iPods and comes with a spiffy carrying case. Open, he iM3 looks very similar to its predecessor, but the mechanics of folding it up are much simpler now, the power adapter is sleek and portable, and it comes with a remote that controls volume and, if the iPod is docked, can play, pause, skip and reverse. The remote is adorably tiny, and fits into a slot on the main unit for transport. It's all rather ingenious. Very sleek and space-age. Though I wish someone would incorporate an AM radio into one of these things so I could listen to the news in the morning without getting out of bed, this pretty much eliminates the need for a stereo in the bedroom.

Finally, there's the very shiny Palm Pilot T3. Over the last year or so, I found myself doing more and more with my old Palm m130, trying to really get the most out of what it could do. Unfortunately, it couldn't do much due to its tiny memory and slow processor speed. When the screen started to fade, I decided it was time to move on to bigger and better things. I'd started using Documents to Go a lot to get work done on the train or just to have things handy for reference, or read articles I'd downloaded from the web, so the stretchy screen was a big draw. Unlike on older Palms, the writing area is generated on the screen, not printed on, so you can make it go away for maximum viewing real estate. You can also tilt it on its side for viewing, say, a spreadsheet that's wider than it is tall. And because the whole unit expands, it's not any bigger in your pocket, or if you just don't need it to be. The T3 also has a crapload of memory (I've got everything from my old Palm and expansion card and then some on it and I've still got about 50% free) and it's wicked fast. It has a voice recorder built in, and can play MP3s and videos. I've been using it much more than I used the old one, and not just for Scrabble. Wow, actual productivity from one of my toys! As always, it's the little design things that get me, so the expanding stylus makes me stupidly happy. It's held into its slot by a magnet, and when you push on the back it extends so the tip pops up and you can easily pull it out for use. Click it again to compress it and put it away. I protect the whole thing with a very sexy RhinoSkin case, and I feel very Sydney Bristow. I do kind of wish I'd held out for the new T5, since as neat as the expandability is, I worry about the mechanism holding up over time. But I'll jump off that bridge when I come to it.

So yup, a whole Jetson House full of gadgets and not a LitterMaid in the bunch! Shocking! Now if the Roomba people could just invent something to clean the bathroom, we'd be all set.

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