While some people may be cutting back on lattes, an increasing number are spending more on a variety of wired (or unwired) high-tech gadgets. Last year, the Consumer Electronics Association trade group reports, Americans spent nearly $170 billion on electronics, ranging from laptop computers to smartphones. Although these electronic contraptions can become an overwhelming intrusion or distraction, that needn't be the case. The right gadgets—and the services they connect to—can actually free you from some of the quotidian chores of the past (like spending the whole evening balancing your checkbook), giving you more time to enjoy life. Here are 10 gadgets and services boomers may want to consider:
The iPad is a terrible e-reader and, in many respects, it is just a really big iPhone (without the phone). It's also heavy (1.5 pounds) and can't play most Web videos. Nevertheless, it may be the ideal living room computer, which is why within 80 days of its introduction, Apple sold 3 million of them. Sexier and sleeker than a laptop, the iPad ($499-$829) is designed to be shared. Think of it as a communal gateway to news, sports, and just about any information you can find online.
For example, you can check trivia during TV commercials, look up a pitcher's stats while watching a game, peruse an actor's bio online, or play an impromptu game of Scrabble. The Apple iPad is this generation's must-have digital coffee-table book, albeit an expensive one. To save yourself some money and avoid monthly charges, eschew the 3G models and stick with the Wi-Fi-only editions.
Distracted driving is a major problem, notes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which reported that nearly 6,000 people died and more than half a million were injured in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver. That's why eight states and the District of Columbia have already made it illegal to use a hand-held cell phone behind the wheel, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Drivers can buy a simple wireless earpiece for under $30 to stay in compliance with local laws. But there is a more comfortable in-car solution: a wireless Bluetooth speakerphone that clips onto your car's sun visor and lets you chat with both hands on the wheel.
Though you can find several similar models on the market, the BlueAnt S4 ($100) is unique in being truly hands-free. The device constantly listens for its master's voice. All one has to do is say, "BlueAnt speak to me," and it awakens, ready to react to oral instructions. To make a call, you can say "redial" or "call back" without reaching up and fumbling with buttons. And when you forget the correct commands, just ask, "What can I say?" and it will tell you what to do.
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Barnes & Noble Nook
Electronic books and electronic book readers are catching on fast because of their impressive capabilities. Digital texts can cost less than half the price of their hardcover cousins, a new book can be downloaded wirelessly in 30 seconds, and hand-held e-readers can replace walls of shelving by storing well over a thousand books. Of course, the question then becomes: What happens to your electronic library should your device die or you decide that you want to shop at another e-book store?
Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader ($149-$199) tries to alleviate these concerns by using an open e-book format called EPUB that allows you to lend electronic books to friends and is compatible with competing e-readers, such as those produced by Sony and the Kobo from Borders. So, should you break your Nook or simply want a different model in the future, your electronic library can come with you. (By contrast, Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad try to lock buyers into using their stores exclusively.) The EPUB format is also backed by the likes of Google, which is making more than a million public domain books available online. Lastly, if you don't have your Nook with you, Barnes & Noble has free apps for reading its e-books on an iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android-based smartphone.
Stand-alone portable navigation devices are rapidly giving way to smartphones that include free GPS-based mapping and navigation software. The problem with most of these smartphones, however, is that directions often cease when you lose the cellular connection. Also, the screens are illegible in sunlight and audio directions can be inaudible.