Dec. 29, 2008 -- Whether your New Year's resolution is to keep a cleaner house or stay better connected to family and friends, hi-tech helpers will make sure you stay on track.
From providing extra help around the house to more affordable entertainment, these gadgets promise to get your new year off to a good start:
Plant Doctor Helps Your Garden Grow
Who says you need a green thumb to make your garden grow? The Easy Bloom Plant Sensor takes the guesswork out of planning and maintaining a perfect garden.
The device, which looks like a tall, thin plastic flower, can also help diagnose why a plant is not doing well or how much water is needed in a certain area. So if your roses suffer from root rot or your Christmas cactus isn't blooming in that kitchen window, you'll soon find out why.
You plant the sensor anywhere in your yard where you would like to grow a plant, and let it soak up the environmental data -- soil moisture, sunlight, drainage -- over a 24-hour period. Then pull it apart and plug the USB end into your computer's USB port (I'd probably clean it off first) where the sensor data is uploaded to the EasyBloom Web site.
Soon, a list of potential flowers, shrubs and trees blossoms before your eyes. You can narrow the list by specifying plant height, desired bloom season and other features.
If you set the sensor to "monitor" mode and leave it near a troubled plant, it will make recommendations for what might be wrong with the plant and ways to fix it. Water mode tells you if a location is getting the right amount of water, or needs more, for happier plants.
The EasyBloom Web site currently has a database of 5,000 plants and is compatible with Windows Vista/XP and Mac OS 10.5 (effective Jan. 9).
Your Picture Frame Is Ringing!
For nontech savvy relatives who are just aching to see up-to-date pictures of the family, consider buying them the T-Mobile Cameo digital picture frame.
The frame itself is a 7-inch 720×480 LCD display made by Parrot. It has all the usual trappings of a digital picture frame, including an SD memory card slot and a mini-USB port, and it can also receive MMS messages. That means you can e-mail or text message photos captured on a mobile phone directly to the frame because it has its own cell phone number. Frames are available at T-Mobile stores for $99.
The service, also provided by T-Mobile, will cost $10 per month for unlimited messaging. Anyone from anywhere on any cell phone plan can send pictures to the phone number of the Cameo frame.
The important thing is to make sure the T-Mobile service works well in the area of the person who will be using the frame. The best way to do this, if the person isn't already using T-Mobile cell service, is to buy the frame and try out the service. Of course, if you decide to cancel the monthly plan, you can still put images onto the frame using the memory card or via USB.
Bonding With the 'Bot
About the size of a serving platter, the Roomba by iRobot is a self-propelled, computer-controlled vacuum cleaner. It is as helpful a household robot as the Jetson's Rosie, with none of the snarky back talk.
After a 2002 product launch, the third-generation models on the market this year not only clean a room on their own but can also be told which rooms not to clean.
When finished cleaning and in need of a charge, the new models find their way home to a docking station, where they no doubt dream of electric dust bunnies.
With the touch of a single button the Roomba begins what the included corporate literature describes as a complicated waltz of computer-calculated algorithms. What it looks like is a lot of spinning around and bumping into walls.
The bumping into walls is kind of the point and is actually part of that complicated algorithm. The Roomba follows walls and bumps into things, which forces it to change direction, and spins in circles, a method apparently inspired by the way insects respond to their environments.
The Roomba can also be penned into a small area or single room by setting up two infrared beacons that serve as "virtual walls." It runs for 35 minutes before returning to its home base for a charge.
The robot will often go over the same area more than once. In a setting larger than my small and spartan studio apartment, that might mean the same area is cleaned multiple times at the expense of another swath of floor. But in a smaller room (like my crummy flat), any area the robot can get to, including under most furniture, gets cleaned.
A spinning brush at the front of the Roomba is there to knock dirt into the mouth of its vacuum mechanism, but when I tested it, it sometimes produced the opposite effect, flinging dirt away from the device rather than into it.
I tested the Roomba 510, a mid-series model, on hardwood floors, tile and a small area rug. In each case it pulled up a fair amount of dust and a total of 21 cents in change.
The 510 retails through the company's Web site for $279.
Streaming Video to Your TV
Hailed as "revolutionary" by some, Roku's Netflix Player makes it easy and affordable ($100 down and $0 a month), in addition to a Netflix subscription plan, to watch movies and television episodes over the Internet.
As long as you have a television and an Internet connection, you can instantly and conveniently watch your favorite programs, including options in HD and new releases.
And choosing the content is done on your computer, using the Netflix interface with which millions are already familiar.
Speaker phones for the Car
We've gotten so used to speaker phones in the office and our homes, it may not come as a surprise to see them making the move to the car.
For those of you who tired of walking around with a headset dangling from your ear, the Parrot MINIKIT CHIC answers the call. It's a portable Bluetooth hands-free kit you can take from car to car, or even to your office or home.
Once paired with your Bluetooth-enabled phone, it automatically uploads all your cell phone contacts and announces who's calling when the phone rings. The text-to-speech function also allows you to call from your contact list by simply stating the person's name -- no need to train the phone. The MINIKIT can pair with and recognize up to five cell phones, so the whole family can use it.
As car kits go, this one doesn't just phone it in. It's a stylish design -- thin and sleek with silver flowers etched onto a black curvy base, which attaches neatly to your car's sun visor. You're talking in style here.
One thing I don't much like about speaker phones in cars is that I can usually hear myself talking, in echo. Parrot uses noise cancellation and echo reduction technology to cut down on the echo factor, and does a pretty good job of it on the MINIKIT.
The MINIKIT comes with a USB car charger and a USB cable that lets you upload any firmware updates, but no AC adapter.