Hot summer days draw us to new adventures on the open road and in the great outdoors. While that's fun, it also presents new challenges to domestic tranquility: long days trapped in family cars, batteries that die miles from the nearest outlet, and damage to devices we drag to pools and woods.
Luckily, technology is rising to the occasion with answers to the unique tests of summer. Here are some gadgets that can help us, and themselves, survive the wilds of warm weather:
In-car salvation. Day-long drives can put asunder the happiest family amid complaints of "Are we there yet?" While nothing quiets the backseat revolt better than kids' movies spinning happily on a DVD player, few of us had the foresight and budget to buy the expensive systems installed at the factory. The good news is that cheaper portable sets do the job just as well. Many even come with multiple screens that conveniently strap to the back of a seat, putting them at just the right level for a child watching from a booster seat. Expect to pay about $150 for a model with two screens. And add a few dollars more for headphones.
Portable models can also go along on plane rides, in which tablet-style players fit best on a lap or an airplane's drop-down table. Be careful, though, as not all models come with a battery, or one that packs enough juice to last through a coast-to-coast flight. Most come with an adapter that can be plugged into a car's 12-volt outlet (where the cigarette lighter plugs in), which adds to the clutter that piles up on a long trip but can keep the player going indefinitely. Prices for single-screen models with a decent battery and power adapter start at about $100.
Dunkproof digital. Falling prices for good digital cameras mean increasingly affordable models that can endure a drop in the pool while adding fun with underwater snapshots. The pricetag usually reflects how deep the camera can go without damage. A variety of good cameras that can go 10 feet deep are made by major manufacturers.
Besides enduring a dunking, many of the waterproof cameras are also ruggedized to withstand a drop from young (or old) hands. How far they can fall without damage varies with price. A basic model that can sink 10 feet underwater might handle a 5-foot fall. A more expensive version might handle a 7-foot fall and 30 feet of water.
(Sometimes what you want is an instant photo, which suddenly are everywhere.)
Quieter cutting. One of the more unpleasant tasks of summer can be a little less painful with cordless lawnmowers. Their rechargeable batteries do away with the nasty fumes that accompany conventional gas-powered models. They are lighter to push and quieter on the ears, with engines that sound more like a loud fan than a car with a broken muffler. They also require less maintenance with no spark plugs and oil to change.
These mowers cost more, with pricetags that start at about $350, or about twice the cost of a comparable gas-powered model. They also are usually narrower than gas models, with a typical width of 19 inches, versus 22 inches. That may not sound like much, but it can make a difference on a big lawn. The cordless models are best for smaller yards: A single charge can usually groom about a third of an acre, or less if the grass is high or wet. Some manufacturers offer an optional spare battery that's easy to drop in for bigger jobs.
Geocache fun. While adults started the geocaching craze, in which trinkets and other booty lie hidden in boxes among rocks and bushes along trails and in parks, it's kids that have special enthusiasm for the treasure hunt. But entrusting them with Dad's GPS-capable smartphone or dashboard receiver is a high-risk endeavor. Luckily, toughened and inexpensive GPS devices—for $80 or less—are now on the market that can better survive the trek.
Some GPS trackers designed for young hands ease the chase with built-in software that makes it push-button simple to begin tracking thousands of nearby geocaches already loaded in the device's memory. The electronic trackers can also help young users find their way back to where they started. But the small gadgets aren't meant for navigating streets, and their tiny screens are best for young eyes.
[GPS capabilities are popping up in all sorts of devices that know where they are.]
Dunkable videocam. Small, simple-to-use videocameras have taken the market by storm, but most couldn't handle being in a storm. Now models are available that can even keep shooting underwater, perhaps as far as 10 feet down, where they can capture video at resolutions as high as an impressive 1080p. The camcorders also come with built-in USB connectors and software that make it easy to share the footage with friends and family over the Web at sites like YouTube and Facebook.
While less expensive, these video cameras don't come with zoom lenses or other features found on larger models. Some are less than $100, but waterproof models typically start at about $150. However, the extra cost not only buys added fun with underwater shots, it also offers insurance against the pain of a water-damaged gadgets.
Solar sounds. Slipping off to the beach means plenty of sun for summer fun, and for powering a growing selection of solar-energy speakers. Some models run for about $30 and can operate indefinitely off of their solar panels. They also connect via wires to the headphone jacks on media players and laptops. More expensive versions that start at about $100 might also stream the music wirelessly via a Bluetooth connection with a smartphone or media player.
Pricier models also come with built-in rechargeable batteries that can keep the music playing on a cloudy day. Their adapters will charge the batteries in an hour or two from a wall outlet, which can also be accomplished with a full-day's sun beaming onto their solar panels.