Fran Molloy

Jan 102010

Only in America. You’ve got your spouse a new iPhone, the kids all have a mobile phone, including the toddler’s specially designed emergency phone for the under-fives, your parents each have one – you’ve got everyone covered except the family dog.

Until now. (I’m sure I am not the only gadget reviewer who predicted this would happen.)

A company called Petsmobility, based in Scottsdale Arizona, has come up with a device called the PetsCELL – the first-ever voice-enabled, waterproof (read dog-slobber-proof), GPS-enabled mobile phone, specially developed for animals. (Mostly dogs, but hey, if you want to put one on your lizard, whose gonna stop you?)

Rover gets his own number, and the dorky-looking mobile phone is attached to his collar. Owners can program a special ‘restricted zone’ into the company’s website; satellite tracking will then text you whenever Rover leaves the zone, and you can dial him up and say ‘Bad dog!’ without leaving the comfort of your desk.

Does your Red Setter run off whenever his leash is removed? No problem, you’ll be able to track him down once you’ve programmed his details into your own GPS phone.

Since dogs are not all that great at dialling, the phone is voice-activated and operates more like a two-way radio.  Though unless you speak fluent Dog, I suspect there’s not a lot the two-way technology can do to make it less of a one-way conversation.

Future models may well come up with a revolutionary translation program that will convert Woofs into English. (Or not.)

Till then, if you’re that much of a dog-person that you want to call him when you’re not there – well, we (almost) have the technology. (I can hear Alexander Graham Bell rolling in his grave from here!)

Though the device was slated for release in 2008, it’s not yet available – but you can put your name on the list to be advised when it’s ready to buy.

Bottom line: Now you can get on the dog-and-bone to man’s best friend
How much : Unknown

Dec 202009

As any parent of a pre-schooler knows, young children are very, very cunning; they are born with an innate ability to sense the slightest moment of adult weakness; then their inbuilt instincts kick in, allowing them to take maximum advantage.

It’s very easy to make a major childrearing mistake in a matter of seconds. One day, in a moment of desperation, you hand your mobile phone over to your beloved offspring to keep them quiet at a critical moment – and, to put it bluntly, dear reader – you’re stuffed.

No matter how many Dora or Wiggles plastic substitutes you now try and fob off on your child, they’ve tried the real thing – and few substitutes will suffice.

Some parents have, in desperation, bought a Nintendo DS, just to regain control over their phone. But that’s just being a bad parent, because they’re not really educational. (Though when your child is naughty, you can confiscate it and play with it yourself!)

But now – yay – there is an Educational Alternative – you can be a Good Parent, and still have your own phone.

The clever clogs at Leapfrog have come up with a series of gadgets (beyond toys, really!)  that are all about education. They all feature an animated dog called ‘Scout,’ complete with BBC accent.

The Scribble & Write is my favourite of the bunch of toys (which include a mobile phone, called the Text and Learn, which has simulated text messaging!)

A cross between an etch-a-sketch and a kiddy-friendly chunky plastic PDA, the writing tablet part of the gadget lights up a series of dots for a series of shapes and then for each letter of the alphabet. Kids trace over the lit-up dots to form shapes and then upper- and lowercase letters.

Combining high-tech speech and animation with low-tech writing tablet is inspired, and really encourages active learning.  This cynical reviewer is a total convert!

It’s great for the car. My preschooler loves it – and at just three, she’s getting quite reasonable with pen control and letter recognition.  (Plus I’ve got my mobile back!)

Bottom line: Great little pre-schooler gadget that’s fun and educational
How much : Au $ 43

Dec 162009

Someone who has lived with schizophrenia for many years told me recently that mobile phones are the best-ever technology for people living with mental illness.

These days, he can walk down the middle of the street anywhere having a full-pelt argument with his ‘voices,’ and as long as he’s got a mobile phone next to his ear, everyone thinks he’s as normal as the next guy.

Well, life for my schizophrenic friend is getting better all the time; wearable bluetooth headsets have meant more and more people are pacing the streets, ranting into thin air, without a visible phone anywhere near them.

And now, in a great new development – the ORB (Orbital Ring Bluetooth Headset) is about to bring Bluetooth headset technology to the design-conscious masses.

The ORB is, indeed, one ring to rule them all. You wear it as a ring, you know, on your finger – and some ring models include an LED screen displaying caller-ID and calendar reminders.

When you want to make or take a call, you simply take the ring off your finger, give it a cunning twist and – voila! You have a Bluetooth earpiece.

The wonders of ‘bone conducting technology’ mean you put the ring around the outside of your ear, avoiding any gross-out earwax issues.

(Though I do admit to mild concerns about attaching a mini-microwave to my bones because of a little earwax squeamishness.)

Whether you’re genuinely mad, permanently hooked up to your cellphone, or you just think gadgets like these are ‘mad’ (as my teens would say) – this is one nifty little ring that will have loads of appeal for young, old and in-between. (Are you listening, Santa?)

Bottom line: Bluetooth headset converts to funky LED ring – to be released early in 2010
How much : US $129 without display, US $175 with display

Dec 022009

Before waxing lyrical on the joys of this particular gadget, I’d better start by outing myself as a recovering arachnophobic.

Actually, the word ‘recovering’ right there is possibly a bit of an exaggeration. Let me tell you, spiders and me just do not work together. NOT a fan.

So, for some sick reason, I get to be the one who is sent to review this Gravity Defying Gizmo in the form of an infra-red remote controlled spider which can climb walls and ceilings, just like a real one.

The rather creepy spider has an inbuilt fan system that creates enough suction to defy gravity while its tracks keep it moving along the walls. Or if you prefer (hey, I prefer, alright?!) you can flick a switch that turns the fan off, so the spider stays on the floor.

This – thing – requires six, count ‘em, AA batteries and measures a completely over-the-top 13 x 11 x 3.3 cm, which is seriously way too big for any spider-shaped object.

Still, not quite big enough to rival the world’s largest spider, the Goliath Birdeating spider which lives in the Amazon and has been known to grow to 30cm and live for 14 years, though I do need to point out that no birdeating spider living in my suburb would get the opportunity to grow anywhere near that big or live for .. well, live.

If you’re into remote control and you’re into spiders, this could be an absolute beauty. I would imagine there are many arachnophiles who would be hugely appreciative should they find it under their Christmas tree.

But should a Gravity Defying Spider of this size appear unannounced under the tree of an arachnophobic, recovering or not, I fear it risks total annihilation with a large blunt object.

Bottom line: Not happy, Tim
How much : £29.99

Oct 262009

To date, I’ve never seen a real, live Kindle – the ebook reader flogged by book-flogging Amazon empire that is bringing tears to the eyes of print publishers the world over.

For those of us clinging precariously to the underbelly of the planet down here in Australia, unless you had a kind friend in the US or get in touch with the fabulous people at PriceUSA ( – you can’t get hold of the much-hyped Amazon Kindle, for unclear reasons possibly related to copyright or market share or just plain obdurateness on behalf of Amazon.

We do have options; Dymocks launched the iLiad book reader two years ago to much fanfare; but I can’t tell you any more than you might google up yourself, because the $900 device (overpriced is an understatement!) was restricted to a one-only demonstration device in their city store.

Any interested gadget reviewer had to make an appointment and arrive on bended knee bearing frankincense and myrrh just to view the darned thing.

The iLiad was something of a flop  – and all was quiet on the eBook front for a while until this year, when library supplier Central Book Services came out with the EcoReader.

The EcoReader website features an extremely irritating You-Tube demo complete with bad elevator music; however the real thing is far less annoying.

The reader is the size of a light paperback (A5-ish, 220g) and sports a faux-leather black case. It doesn’t do much – just stores and displays pages, and plays MP3 files (huh? why bother!).

The big sell – particularly for anyone who has ever tried to read an ebook on nearly any portable device, including the iPod – is the screen. The ECO Reader has a 6-inch flat-matte screen using a special film with no backlighting and it’s quite easy to read. (But not as easy as a book.)

The numbered control buttons are somewhat counter-intuitive though, and when I canvassed the opinion of my assistant reviewers of the YouTube generation, the Reader was heartily dissed as follows: “Boring.”  “How do you know how much you have left to read?”  “What happens if you drop it in the bath?”  And it’s still overpriced.

Bottom line: If you’re after an eReader, this might do the trick; I suspect it’s an acquired taste
How much : $449

Oct 012009

I’ve never really seen the appeal of robots – I’ve got enough kids and pets to look after, without having to manage the time of some electronic bubble-headed booby as well.

The RoboMop


But I am now a convert. This little robot is the best gadget I have seen in years. Come Christmas, this blog post will be printed out and stuck not-so-subtly to the fridge with a large post-it saying, “Mum’s Chrissie Present!”

Get this: the RoboMop will run across your floor, and clean a 60 square metre surface with 98% accuracy in one hour. And – it sells for thirty quid – that’s about Au $70.

RoboMop is the ultimate robot. Just 8.5 centimetres tall, it will scoot under chairs, beds,  tables etc, happily cleaning away.

Just plug in the Robomop and fit the special electrostatic cleaning pad on the base. When it’s fully charged, set the timer, set the Robomop down – and off it scoots.

Sadly, the Robomop won’t work on carpet, but all low flat hard flooring – tiles, laminate, floorboards etc) is fair game.

There’s now a new model, the Black Robomop, which has a soft base to make corner cleaning easier and has a more powerful motor – and costs £45 (around Au$105)

Robomop comes with five cleaning pads, but an extra 24 pads can be bought for six quid (about Au $14).

This fabulous little device is patented – it was invented by Norwegian Torbjørn Aasen, who was fed up with cleaning his floor. Give the man a Nobel Prize in something, anything.  What a great idea.

RRP: Au $70

Sep 272009

Easy-bloom Plant Sensor

I love gardening but unfortunately, gardening doesn’t love me. Any plants left in my sole care generally have very short and unhealthy lives. It’s not because I dislike them or neglect them or have any ill-intent; I’m just a bad plant mother.

However, to make up for this defect, I’ve very sensibly married a man with some kind of instinctive plant-ESP. He plants, prunes, re-pot, fertilises, waters and harvests without inflicting mass-planticide, so I’m blessed with a lovely garden way beyond my just desserts. (I get to do weeding and pest control – I’m good at the death stuff.)

Matthew Glenn is an American technology product developer suffering from a similar plant-disability to mine, who realised that millions of unintentional plant-murders like us desperately need help – and came up with just the gadget.

The EasyBloom Plant Sensor is a white plastic gadget resembling an electric toothbrush body topped with green plastic flower petals. Switching it into either ‘recommend’ or ‘monitor’ mode, you plant the sensor into a particular garden location where you’d like to grow a plant (or next to a plant you’re currently killing) and leave it there for 24 hours to gather information on things like temperature, light, humidity and soil moisture.

Then you plug the sensor into your computer (do I really need to tell you to wipe the dirt off first?)
Some computer magic happens, somehow all the environmental information is applied to algorithms gathered from botanists (what?!) and the Plant Sense software will either recommend plants that will suit the location – or diagnose what’s wrong with your ailing plant and tell you how to fix it.

There’s even a web-based app that keeps track of all the plants in your garden. (Do they publish lists of mass-plant-murderers, I wonder?)  Unfortunately, at this stage, the gadget only works within the USA; but hopefully the makers will aim for world garden domination soon.

Bottom line: Turn your brown thumb green
How much : US $ 60

Sep 232009

Paper Water Bottle

Wherever you go these days, the horrendously overpriced single-use disposable plastic water bottle has become quite the trendy accessory, with an estimated 22 billion of them ending up in landfill each year.

The global bottled water market is expected to be worth US$ 86 billion in 2011. Most  bottled water is now supplied in plastic PET bottles, made from petrochemicals.

The first PET bottles (polyethylene terephthalate) appeared in 1975, ironically at the height of the OPEC world oil crisis.

Within a decade, the recyclable glass bottle was a rarity. Greenpeace estimates that 10 percent of the world’s plastic now ends up in the ocean, much of it in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an oceanic desert twice the size of Texas that supports very little life and is filled with exceptionally high concentrations of suspended plastic debris.

The disposable plastic water bottle has quickly become one of the world’s great environmental threats.

Not only do we waste hundreds of millions of dollars on something that is freely available to most of Australia’s population, but in Australia alone, a year’s supply of bottled water costs the planet over 300,000 barrels of oil a year.

That’s how much of one of the world’s most precious resources it takes to package, ship and refrigerate a product that is already piped to every single suburban premises for next to nothing, according to Sunday Age calculations.

This is why the 360 Paper Bottle is so astoundingly cool. It’s the first totally recyclable paper container,  made from renewable bamboo stock with micro-PLA film.

Developed by a US branding agency, it’s still in early product distribution stage. Let’s hope it catches on.

Bottom line: An alternative to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
How much : Still in concept stage

Sep 222009

Despite our over-the-top consumption of fizzy drink, double caramel macchiato soy lattes and alcopops, it seems that plain old H2O still plays a fairly important part in the average human diet.

Until recently, however, water had fallen from grace in our consumption-driven society; possibly because marketing-types were focused on water-with-added-value, not imagining that people who lived in a society rich enough to have clean drinking water literally on tap would be silly enough to part with good money to buy it.

Well, we live in a society that is indeed astoundingly, unbelievably silly, to the tune of about $ 400 million spent on bottled water in Australia alone (and more on the evils of the disposable plastic bottle in tomorrow’s post.)

Meanwhile – we have the Swiggy. These reusable plastic water bottles attach to each wrist and hold up to 5.5 ounces (that’s around 160 mL) of water, although there’s no reason they couldn’t hold an equal quantity of vodka, gin or both.

The Swiggie was invented by a Texan woman who collapsed from dehydration while running on a hot day.

Clearly running on a hot day in Texas without water is somewhat foolish; however despite its silly name and that loud yelling video that launches the instant you click on the website, there’s something kind of cool about Swiggies.

In fact, for extra cool, the Swiggies people suggest you can even pop your swiggies in the freezer before you go out jogging. (Though that sounds like a bad idea to me; wouldn’t they become really heavy and uncomfortable and freeze your wrists?)

Bottom line: Break the drought and accessorise with water
How much : US $ 12.95 for a set of two,  plus postage

Sep 082009

I know from personal (albeit long-ago) experience just how hard it is to kick the smoking habit.

It’s a disgusting habit, true; but smoking is not just a chemical habit, it is a physical one.

Nicotine patches just don’t cut it with the desperate wannabe ex-smoker; our fingers tremble, our lips purse, we crave that long, deep sucked-in mouthful of toxic gases, that slow, dirty, sighed-out exhalation of cancerous smoke, the smell of the 4000 carcinogenic chemicals burning into our lungs.
And don’t forget the social side of smoking; non-smokers see only the ostracism and don’t realise that there is a dark underbelly of smoker camaraderie, impervious to race, gender, class and job description.

Giving up smoking means giving up the long trip down in the elevator to the windy exile of the grotty smoker’s corner outside the marble foyer; the thrill of joining the ragged assortment of outcasts desperate for their fix; the secret membership of the stinky club that crosses the corporate boundaries, the excuse to ditch the office when the going gets tough.

Here is a gadget as dodgy as the willing market it is bound to find. Egar is a rechargeable electronic cigarette containing no tobacco. Instead, you buy cartridges containing water, propylene glycol, nicotine and a ‘scent that emulates a tobacco flavour.’

“There is no visible flame, no smell and you can beat the smoking ban and smoke indoors in public places. Egar gives you the same satisfaction and taste of a real cigarette – without the negative side-effects.”

It even releases a ‘vapour mist’ that looks – but doesn’t smell – like cigarette smoke.

Sounds deeply unsatisfying, but if you’re addicted to the coffin nails and the patches just don’t do it for you, this may be your only hope!

Bottom line: Quit smoking and still visit the outdoor ashtray with Cheryl from Accounts
How much : Starter kit is Au $ 75, then $5 per cartridge