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Frank Catalano

Makers of tech products are often told to “eat their own dog food” – actually use what they tout in their real-world lives. The same should apply to reviewers of tech products.

Regular use can be a far more reliable indicator than a quick evaluation of whether apps or devices actually deliver on their promise and move from short-term cool to long-term useful. Even more telling? When a tech columnist actually decides to buy, with his/her own Bitcoin, the new stuff.

It’s not something I’ve done lightly. I’ve reviewed hundreds of products. One of the early ones I actually purchased afterwards was a first-generation TiVo, made by Philips, with an impressive 14 hours of video storage. At standard def.

This year, I bought several bright-shiny tech products. I’ve written about a couple (notably Google Chromecast and Kindle Fire HDX). But there are purchases that don’t rise to the level of full column, yet are worth sharing.

So here, in descending order, are three of my 2013 favorite tech things.

Sonos ($199-699)

Sonos Play: Betcha can't buy just one
Sonos Play: Betcha can’t buy just one

What it is: An audio system of intelligent, independent, wireless “speakers” (called Play units), each with integrated amplifiers, all controlled by apps for Windows, iOS and Android.

Why I bought it: A four-level townhouse in which I live, work, and listen to music. But radios on each floor gave me no whole-house enjoyment of other audio sources (streaming Internet radio, purchased iTunes tracks, even old-style compact discs) and a skeptical spousal unit gave me no indication she had faith in my ability to drill holes and run wiring without destroying … something.

Pros: Intensely simple set-up. I downloaded the Sonos controller app to my smartphone, plugged in the Play “speaker,” pressed a button on both the speaker and app, and was done. The app comes pre-loaded with the free TuneIn service for thousands of radio stations (including HD radio channels), and supports my Amazon Cloud Player, Slacker and Rhapsody subscriptions for great variety. It’s flexible: I can choose to have the same audio play in one room, several rooms, or all rooms, or play different sources in different rooms simultaneously. Finally, the sound quality is incredible for a wireless system, largely because each Play unit has multiple speakers and amps.

Cons: Rare instances of WiFi interference. While Sonos creates its own WiFi mesh network on a different channel than your WiFi router, I live near clusters of apartments and townhouses. Occasionally some Sonos units will get overwhelmed by other signals and start dropping out (when this happens, I quickly change Sonos’ WiFi channel assignment from the controller app and it smoothly recovers). Every Play unit needs to be near an electrical outlet.

The author, defined
The author, defined

The biggest drawback? Sonos Play units have a lot in common with Lays potato chips: You won’t be satisfied with just one, and the cost adds up. I have a Playbar television sound bar ($699), two Play:5 units ($399 apiece), one Play:3 ($299) and one Play:1 ($199), each in different rooms. It can become an investment, and I only started with a single Play:3 and Playbar. Then again, maybe that’s an endorsement coming from someone whose Alaska Airlines confirmation code once read CHEAPO.

What I’d do differently: Also buy a device to measure which WiFi channels are congested without having to open a command prompt in Windows.

Fitbit Zip ($59)

Fitbit Zip: Tiny but mighty
Fitbit Zip: Tiny but mighty

What it is: A small, wireless “activity tracker” (with an LCD display, like a non-nerd’s pedometer) that stores and updates your activity via Bluetooth 4.0 to your computer, displaying results on a personal web dashboard.

Why I bought it: I’d successfully lost 25 pounds earlier this year (with the useful calorie-and-fitness tracking app MyFitnessPal) and wanted a device to help me make sure I maintained my level of activity. Well, and I didn’t actually buy it. My son gave it to me for my birthday. Hint taken.

Pros: Very small and light. While there are more sexy versions (like the Fitbit Flex and Force wristbands), the Zip is the smallest, fitting easily in a jeans coin pocket or clipping to workout waistbands. The website for viewing status and progress allows customizing the dashboard modules (like Calories, Steps, Very Active Minutes and Distance). Fast, automatic data syncing.

Cons: When the battery dies, it dies with little warning and stops tracking steps (my first battery lasted 3 months, a bit less than the claimed 4-6 month life).  It’s easy to forget it’s in your pants, so to speak, but I haven’t accidentally washed mine yet.

What I’d do differently: Hire a Fitbit interpreter to help me understand the different facial expressions that appear on the Zip. Yes. Facial expressions.

Google Nexus 5 ($349, sort of)

Nexus 5: Light, fast, Androidaful
Nexus 5: Light, fast, Androidaful

What it is: The latest Google-brand Android smartphone not actually made by Google’s Motorola Mobility unit, but by LG.

Why I bought it: Two reasons. First, I had a two-year-old HTC Droid Incredible 2 that was having charging port issues (apparently not uncommon). Second, I was annoyed with Verizon Wireless for no longer offering unlimited data plans, even to loyal customers of more than a dozen years, so I would need a new phone when I switched to T-Mobile.

Pros: Great, large display. Sure, the “5” doesn’t stand for “5 inches” (it’s only 4.95”), but damn, the 445 ppi impresses. It has a fast processor, dual-band WiFi, NFC and Bluetooth 4.0. It’s not cluttered with non-removable crapware apps (Verizon, this non-sports fan really did not need NFL Mobile) or another phone manufacturer’s interface layer between me and pure Android. And, surprisingly, at 4.59 ounces it is lighter than my 4.76 ounce Droid Incredible 2, even though it’s larger.

Cons: The camera images, while remarkably sharp, occasionally had poor colors but that may have been addressed in the recent update to Android 4.4.2. Non-removable battery. And a full purchase price, at $449, higher than Google’s list $349 for the 16GB version (shame on you, T-Mobile).

What I’d do differently: Since I bought it less than a week after it was released, wait until demand and pricing equalized.

Bottom line, I am nothing if not a practical nerd. And these three purchases, made with my own money, (along with the Chromecast and Fire HDX) are cheerfully integrated into my practical, everyday life.

As are a half-dozen Belkin SurgeCubes. But I’ll spare you that review.

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