Best Travel Gadgets 2011
The year’s best travel gadgets deliver on the promise to revolutionize life on the road.
Let’s admit it: we rely on our phones so much that a low battery can set off sheer panic. Well, now there’s a travel gadget to the rescue: the Mophie Juice Pack Air, a slim iPhone case that also acts as a charger and can nearly double your phone’s battery life.
It’s just one of the winners of the Travel + Leisure Tech Awards, the result of a year’s worth of testing to determine which travel gadgets actually live up to the hype. We used them on planes, by the pool, and in corner bistros, from Canada to Cape Town. We stuffed as many as we could into carry-ons, all the while considering travel-related criteria like portability, versatility, and global compatibility.
If a tablet is one of the first travel gadgets you think to bring on a trip, you’re not alone. Tablets are going mainstream, with 1 in 5 U.S. households predicted to own one by 2014, and the recently upgraded iPad 2 leading the pack in terms of popularity. But two new options that run Android (Xoom) and BlackBerry (PlayBook) operating systems also earned a spot on our list for noteworthy features like speedy access to Flash-based sites. They’re likely to appeal to travelers who don’t want to follow the herd (or just happen to have Sprint).
The latest tablets and smartphones now have dual-lens cameras built in too-but don’t ditch your camera just yet. To capture a perfect, crisp image of that last candlelit dinner in Napa Valley, nothing beats the micro-four-thirds Olympus EPL-2, which has the versatility and speed of a full-fledged digital SLR at a fraction of the size.
Then there are the smaller innovations in travel gadgets that can still make or break any vacation, from the best multicontinent power adapter to an efficient rental car now available by the hour. We even pinpointed which GPS unit to take along-equipped with long battery life, unlimited roaming capabilities, and detailed maps that will get you to your hotel in the French countryside even after a long, rainy day on the road. One thing you won’t see on this year’s list? Apps, which will get their own ratings later in 2011. These great travel gadget choices are strictly of the hardware variety. Add them to your packing list!
Tablet: Motorola Xoom
Google’s Android platform is giving the iPad a run for its money, thanks in no small part to the 10.1-inch Motorola Xoom. Not only does it access Flash-based sites and videos (still inaccessible on the iPad), but it also loads Web pages in a second and offers glitch-free videoconferencing, courtesy of Verizon’s speedy LTE 4G network. $800; motorola.com.
Tablet: Apple iPad 2
If you’re interested in tablet apps, there’s still only one game in town. From GPS-enabled maps to translators, TV viewers, games, and (yes) magazines, more stellar apps (over 65,000) are available for the iPad than for any other competitor. And now, the lighter, thinner iPad 2’s new dual-camera setup means you can make video calls to iPhone 4 users back home via FaceTime. $499–$829; apple.com.
Tablet: BlackBerry PlayBook
Linking directly to BlackBerry handhelds, the PlayBook allows users to check e-mail, calendars, and to-do lists on a 7-inch touch screen. But until it gets its own built-in e-mail client—and a way to get online besides Wi-Fi—its appeal will mainly be limited to BlackBerry devotees. The company plans to fill in these blanks with future models, but the clock ticks fast in tech time. us.blackberry.com.
Camera: Olympus Pen E-PL2
The fourth-generation micro-four-thirds Pen marries the lens versatility of a professional-grade camera (great for shooting close-ups and low-light scenes) with a travel-friendly size. It also has easy-to-use 720p HD video capability and a detachable Penpal device that lets you send images to your phone wirelessly. $600; getolympus.com.
Camera: Nikon D3100
For safaris or soccer matches, nothing beats the speed of a digital SLR, and the up-to-three-frames-per-second capability of Nikon’s entry-level model ensures you won’t miss a thing. The list of manual options is endless, but we like the “Guide” mode, which delivers on-screen tips on how to handle everything from low-light close-ups to beachfront portraits. $700; nikonusa.com.
Camera: Casio EX-H20G
Casio’s pocket-size, 14.1-megapixel digicam offers the geotagging functionality of a cell-phone camera with all the quality of a great point-and-shoot (10x optical zoom; plenty of scene modes). Its GPS not only lets you tag the exact location of your shots (even indoors!), but also helps you track where you are with built-in maps. $299; di.casio.com.
Camera: Canon Powershot D10
This 12.1-megapixel point-and-shoot snaps crisp and colorful images both on the ground and undersea. Waterproof up to 33 feet, it can also withstand everything from shocks to freezing temperatures, making it great for pools, beaches, and even ski slopes. $300; shop.usa.canon.com.
Smartphone: BlackBerry Bold
The physical BlackBerry keyboard remains the best for meeting the serious correspondence needs of business travelers, and it’s easy to read and respond to e-mail even when there’s no reception. We prefer the Bold, which comes in world-phone versions for all major carriers. $70–$100 with contract; us.blackberry.com.
Smartphone: Apple iPhone 4
Take your pick of the world’s most popular smartphone: the AT&T version can roam across the globe, while the new Verizon model has better stateside service and can be used as a portable hot spot for $20 per month—which is less costly than a week of hotel Internet fees. $200–$300 with contract; apple.com.
Smartphone: Motorola Atrix 4G
It may look like a standard Android phone, but its computer-caliber dual-core processor and 4G capability make the Atrix faster than the competition. And, in a new twist for smartphones, it can even be used as a computer when connected to Motorola’s special HD monitor and Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. $200 with contract; att.com.
Bluetooth Headset: Jawbone Era
Using military-grade noise-canceling technology, the Era keeps conversations free of outside interference and has a surprisingly clear speaker. Meanwhile, custom apps let you use voice recognition to dictate and send e-mail and texts, and it has motion-sensitive controls (just tap the device to answer a call). $130; jawbone.com.
External Battery: Mophie Juice Pack Air
The elegant remedy to the iPhone’s short battery life? This slim case that doubles as a mobile charger. It’s essential for app-obsessed travelers who drain their handsets in less than a day. $80; mophie.com.
Laptop: Apple MacBook Air 11-Inch
It starts up in under 30 seconds, is just over half an inch thin, weighs only 2.3 pounds, and has a full-size keyboard. The unobtrusive, ultraportable 11-inch Air is hands down the best Mac laptop for travelers. Just make sure not to leave it in an airplane seat pocket, as we almost did on a recent trip. $999; apple.com.
Laptop: Panasonic S10
One of the few English-language laptops made in Japan, the 12.1-inch, 2.8-pound S10 runs up to 15 1/2 hours on a single charge and can handle 220 pounds of pressure on its sturdy, water-resistant case. Plus, it comes in six different colors. $2,999; dynamism.com.
Laptop: Samsung 9 Series
This half-inch-thick beauty has the curvy profile of a sports car, mirroring the speedy processor within. A 13-inch LED-backlit screen displays HD movies with utmost clarity, and the full-size keyboard is terrific. From $1,599; samsung.com.
Mouse: Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse
Most travel mice are too small to be used comfortably yet too big to fit into, say, a laptop sleeve. When turned on, the Arc Touch transforms into a curvy mouse with the requisite right and left buttons, but folds completely flat when switched off, making it a cinch to tuck into the smallest of spaces. $70; microsoft.com.
E-Reader: Amazon Kindle
Yes, there is still room in this tablet-filled world for a good old-fashioned e-reader, especially the lightweight, affordable Kindle, with its glare-free e-ink screen—ideal for both beach and bedtime reading. $139–$189; amazon.com.
GPS: Magellan eXplorist 710
This rugged, waterproof handheld GPS keeps hikers and bikers on track with topographical U.S. maps and keeps everyone else on course with road and city maps that span the globe. $550; magellangps.com.
Rental Car: Chevrolet Volt
The Volt can go about 45 miles on battery power alone and another 250 miles on gas, which makes it great for battling fuel-price hikes and emissions. Both Hertz and Enterprise carry it in their fleets, with the former also offering by-the-hour rentals via its Connect service. chevrolet.com.
Headphones: Able Planet Clear Harmony NC1100b
There are a lot of great noise-canceling headphones around, but Able Planet’s model trumps competitors when it comes to sound quality. And it also conveniently doubles as a phone headset. $350; ableplanet.com.
Headphones: V-Moda Vibrato
For stellar bass without sacrificing midrange clarity, these headphones edged out pricier rivals in our multi-music-genre trials. Plus, there’s a built-in mic so you can make and answer phone calls. $130; v-moda.com.
Video Camera: Flip MinoHD
Still the most user-friendly portable camcorder we’ve found, taking 720p HD videos that are crisp, clear, and always in focus. We also like the simple, physical record button and the built-in USB connector for charging and transferring up to two hours of video straight to your computer. $180–$230; theflip.com.
Note: Unfortunately, Flip’s parent company, Cisco, is discontinuing the Flip line, but we still put a ‘buy’ recommendation on it if you really want to catch precious, on-the-fly vacation video, which requires simplicity and speed, both of which the Flip has in abundance.
Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH27K Ideal for big group and panorama shots, this pocketable 16.1-megapixel point-and-shoot offers a superb (and usually pricey) 28 mm wide-angle Leica lens at an affordable price. $230; panasonic.com.
Smartphone: LG Revolution This is the year of 4G (devices that connect to these speedy data networks are popping up all over), but this Android phone takes it one step further by letting you share your superfast hot spot with up to eight devices. lg.com.
Laptop: HP Pavilion dm1z An 11.6-inch laptop that’s fast and full of functionality for less than $500? It’s the poor man’s MacBook Air. $450; hp.com.
E-Reader: Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color If you want to read magazines (Travel + Leisure included) along with your e-books, but don’t want to pony up for an iPad, the touch-screen Nook is the perfect fit. $249; barnesandnoble.com.
Video Camera: Kodak Playsport Video Camera 2x5 Water-, shock-, and dust-proof, it’s the ultimate camcorder for adventures. But even if you never take it outside, it still delivers with high-quality video and handy in-camera editing. $180; kodak.com.
On Our Radar
When it comes to portable speakers, it’s hard to beat the Philips Fidelio Docking Speaker DS 7550 ($130; philips.com), with its deep, expansive sound and a flat-panel form that slips easily into briefcases and laptop sleeves.
For kids (and kids at heart), the Nintendo 3DS ($250; nintendo3ds.com) puts a 3-D spin on the popular handheld gaming device—no glasses necessary.
Only 1.4 pounds and smaller than an iPad, the Powergorilla mobile charger works with smartphones, tablets, and even higher-voltage laptops. $250; stuffjunction.com.
Our favorite all-in-one worldwide adapter? The iPhone-compatible Kensington International Travel Plug Adapter with USB Charger ($30; us.kensington.com).
Stay hands-free in your next rental car with Ford Sync (syncmyride.com), which controls your MP3 player and mobile phone with voice commands.
Keep yourself connected when traveling domestically with a Clear Spot 4G+ personal hot spot ($64 a month; clear.com), which comes with a blazingly fast (and unlimited) 4G network.
Say adieu to data roaming and hotel Wi-Fi charges by renting an XCom Global International MiFi Hotspot (from $15 a day; xcomglobal.com), a high-speed mobile hot spot that works in 39 countries.