What I liked about the Playaway all in one audiobook player

Article and photos by Gary Cox

 The Playaway audiobook

The Playaway audiobook player (headphone jack along the bottom)

For many years, I have enjoyed listening to audiobooks. They fill the hours on long flights and often go with me while I'm doing routine chores and running errands. Audiobooks bring the text to life, with a good narrator strengthening the performance with different voices and proper emotional emphasis. It is easy to imagine the appeal of radio programs before television made visual entertainment the dominant force that it is today.

The process of downloading audiobooks involves multiple steps and the menus in my favorite player require extensive navigation to play a book. I have gotten used to it because I enjoy the medium, but I suspect that less technologically inclined people might not survive the effort.

The case and the player

The case and the player

I recently had the chance to try out the Playaway all in one audiobook player assembled in Ohio. It is an audiobook with a dedicated player bundled in a convenient plastic case. The case and player I received mimic a book cover, with a typical summary description of the story and credits. The case held the two ounce player and a single AAA battery (for longer term storage to avoid any chance of corroding the player). The player fits comfortably in my shirt pocket. The top of the player is heavier with the battery and slides into a pocket naturally. The standard headphone jack in the bottom (headphones not included) of the player faces the top of the pocket so that my headphones remains untangled.

The case holds the player and the battery

The case holds the player and the battery

The player controls are standard, allowing me to navigate the contents of the single audiobook, with a back lit LCD display clearly showing the current position and messages during startup and shutdown. The layout of the flexible rubber buttons allows space for large fingers. The buttons respond to comfortable pressure, and the power button toggles a lock to prevent accidental pushes when in a pocket. The player features a speed button, allowing five different playback speeds.

The player displays the book cover

The player displays the book cover

The main target audience for these audio books is lending libraries and facilities where multiple people can borrow the books to listen and return them when they are finished. There are thousands of titles offered on the site in various genres. According to the seller, the audio players are well suited for children, seniors and visually impaired individuals, as well as avid readers like me. My personal experience of using the Playaway audiobook has been positive. 

The battery compartment is on the end the player

The battery compartment is on the top of the player

In our house, we read many paperback books. Once finished, they go to a local charity or recycling bin depending on their condition. We keep several bookshelves of fiction too good to part with after the first reading. These consist of hard to get, no longer in print, or favorite authors we expect to take out again. It is easy to imagine using the Playaway books to build a library of audiobook favorites. In summary, the Playaway all in one audiobook offered me the convenience and simplicity of function in an attractive portable package. Findaway World, 31999 Aurora Road Solon, Ohio 44139, 1-877-893-0808, www.my.playaway.com, jbelardo@findawayworld.com

Silk scarf brightens my travel wardrobe

By Laura Scheiber
Photos by Matthew Harris

silk scarf

I love scarves. As a native Arizonian living in New York City, I find they help keep me warm during the long winter months (which is how I justify owning at least 20 of them). Always on the hunt for a scarf with a unique design, I was pleased to discover the Camilla Olson Chiffon Scarf in marigold which has become my new favorite formal accessory.

I first wore the Camilla Olson scarf to dinner at an upscale restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. I purposely wore an outfit I typically might bring while traveling to see if I should add the scarf to my fundamental travel wardrobe. As someone who prefers to pack light, I usually bring neutral color clothes that can easily be mixed and matched. This is particularly true for a trip that demands active wear during the day, and dressier outfits at night.

Close Up Scarf

The problem is that my travel clothes tend to be rather dull. On my night out in Brooklyn, the vibrant marigold scarf added pizazz to my ordinarily simple black top, skirt and tights. The golden orange color, reminiscent of a Hawaiian sunset sky, had flecks of burnt orange scattered throughout, which gave the scarf a sophisticated look. 

Testing out the scarf in a different context, I wore it to work. Though light in weight, the 100 percent silk material kept my neck warm and protected against the bitter cold during my walk to the subway station. Shortly after arriving at my office, a colleague gushed, “What a beautiful scarf!” Not 10 minutes later another colleague asked where I had gotten such a gorgeous scarf. 

Criss Cross Scarf

With over six feet of material, the scarf is long enough to be worn in a variety of ways. Throughout the day, I enjoyed experimenting with different styles, including a loosely draped shawl, a long flowing stole, and a scarf wrapped snugly around my neck. The soft sheer chiffon material gave my outfit a flirtatious and feminine look.

I aim to be a conscientious consumer, so I was happy to learn that the design process included recycled materials and that 15 percent of online sales were earmarked for a college scholarship fund to support entrepreneurial women. Thanks to the hand printed process, I was also pleased to learn that no other scarf in the world has the exact same pattern. 

Wearing Chiffon Scarf

What I like most about my Camilla Olson (Camilla Olson, 805 Melville Avenue, Palo Alto, California 94301, +1 (650) 255-4518, http://camillaolson.com/, info@camillaolson.com) chiffon scarf is that it transforms my otherwise dull outfits, giving them a sophisticated look. The silk is light in weight, which makes it ideal for traveling. Knowing that my scarf has a unique design makes it extra special. I look forward to spicing up future outfits with my marigold scarf. 

Hotspot mobile device worthy addition to Paris trip

Article and photos by Gary Cox

Walking is the best way to see Paris

Walking is the best way to see Paris

We recently spent some time in Paris during which we had a chance to try out the Flat Rate aXcess Plan from XCom Global, a MiFi service with a daily flat rate fee which provided us Internet mobile connectivity for up to five devices in France. The aXcess MiFi Mobile Hotspot box which provided the service fit in my pocket and gave us mobile data access wherever we traveled in the city. While service above ground was superior it also worked in the underground subway. Most of our handheld devices support wireless access, but for this trip the star was our Samsung Galaxy tablet.

When connected to the MiFi, the tablet’s map application found our position, including the street and direction. In the same way as a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit in a car, the tablet program offered verbal and text walking directions on the map as we explored the city on foot. This feature alone made having the MiFi along worthwhile. Also, having Internet access came in handy to compare prices online when shopping and to discover the right bus or subway to take on the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens or Autonomous Operator of Parisian Transports) website. The MiFi service heightened our touring experience significantly.

Paris streets are challenging even with a map

Paris streets are challenging even with a map

Although we own a MiFi unit that we use at home in the United States to use the service outside the country we have to register for a plan with a limited amount of bandwidth. Because none of our vendor plans allows unlimited data even a small overage can cost hundreds of dollars. At the same time, connectivity is uncertain. For example, the first time we contacted our vendor, even after multiple calls, the unit never connected on a trip to Asia. We were unable to find out if the issue was frequency compatibility, roaming arrangement or something else. On the second try, we had a good experience in the Caribbean (see ATT Elevate 4G portable hot spot on the road).

The XCom service allowed us to bypass the geographic uncertainty since the service we had was specifically for France, and the bandwidth overage concerns. As long as we made reasonable use of the connection overage was not a concern. The company’s Fair Use Policy stated, “Our standardized FUP policy: if you reached 400 MB within a 3 days period, the service might get suspended or get slower.”

The XCom Global MiFi aXcess Mobile Hotspot kit

The XCom Global MiFi aXcess Mobile Hotspot kit

XCom Global service filled a niche, allowing us to plan the exact cost for unlimited use (within reason) of a MiFi with the correct mix of frequencies and data plans to roam in our destination country. Fair use policies in some countries limit bandwidth daily, but the data plan had no overage fees. The Flat Rate aXcess Plan MiFi device used the 3G network, not the fastest option, but widely available.

The kit included two batteries, a charger with multiple plugs, instruction manual and a case. XCom Global shipped the package to arrive the day before our departure to France and included a return mailer for its return the day after our arrival home. The insurance seemed wise considering the high cost to replace the unit if lost or stolen ($800). I would consider using the Flat Rate aXcess Plan from XCom Global, Inc. (5910 Pacific Center Blvd, Suite 320 San Diego, CA 92121, +1 858.222.8242, +1 858.222.8243, info@xcomglobal.com, http://www.xcomglobal.com/) in the future.

FatCat offered lightweight power insurance for travel

Article and photos by Gary Cox

The FatCat mPower PowerBar 4200

The FatCat mPower PowerBar 4200

The FatCat mPower PowerBar 4200, a battery charger for small devices, packs a lot of power into a small convenient package. With a lithium polymer battery that holds about twice the power of a smart phone (4200 mAh) and special circuitry designed to protect the devices it charges, this sleek 4 ounce package can keep the movies and music playing on a long flight, or keep a phone going at that critical moment. For day to day use, we find it much handier than keeping all the various wall chargers on hand when going out with phones, iPad and MiFi unit. It is comforting to know that even if the phone gets a lot of use, or does not get charged the night before, the PowerBar is there to make up the difference. Smaller than a deck of playing cards, the PowerBar 4200 has earned a slot in our laptop and tablet bags.

The PowerBar, priced at $69.95,  arrived with a partial charge I was able to top up in four to seven hours plugged into a standard USB port. According to the manufacturer, the battery is good for 500 charge/discharge cycles with recommended topping of the charge at least every three months. The smooth case feels solid and there is a charge indicator on the front that shows a light for each 25 percent of charge the device is holding. We tested a black one on domestic travel. As of this writing the PowerBar is offered in five colors adding blue, red, orange and silver to the front of the case.

The accessory tips and cable came with a cloth bag

The accessory tips and cable came with a cloth bag

The package included a cloth drawstring pouch to hold the selection of tips and the cables. The tips included micro USB, mini USB, male and female USB, iPhone and DC 3.5×1.3. The website indicated less frequently used tips may be available. Most devices that will work with this charger will have a USB cable supplied that can be inserted into the female USB tip. So far all our USB devices have been compatible with the FatCat and the tips that were included. Made by Infora, the FatCat was designed in Sweden and manufactured in China. The company (Infora, 44 Amity Rd, Warwick, NY 10990, +1-845-258-9027, http://www.fatcatgear.com,cs@fatcatgear.com) website lists a two year warranty.

On domestic, international flights new carry on bag performed well

The Rick Steve rolling bag

The Rick Steves rolling bag

In these days of airline luggage fees light weight high performance bags are more important than ever. We set out to test a light weight rolling carry on bag. We meant to order a regular Rick Steves carry on bag and instead ordered the new lighter weight Rolling Backpack that retails for $160. By the time we discovered the error it was too late for the first trip to Europe and we decided to try the bag since although we were not looking for a backpack it was light weight and small.

The handle goes smoothly into the recess

The telescoping handle enters smoothly into the recess

We were looking for a light weight carry on with wheels for an itinerary in Europe that involved multiple transfers in trains, planes and automobiles and later for a short domestic itinerary in which the carry on would be the primary luggage piece. This case with two wide-tracking wheels, 1,960 cubic-inch main compartment, telescoping handle and two outer zipper pockets was just the right size for our needs. It also had an air mesh on the back of the bag, a clip-in document pouch and zippered mesh lid compartment the length of the bag.

One side had a handle and the other a mesh pouch

One side has a handle and the other a mesh pouch

At first it looked like the backpack bag would not remain upright but that issue disappeared once we packed some contents into it. Although we never made use of the backpack function (two straps were tucked handily in the back of the bag) the carry on case performed well on both trips. At 5.5 pounds it was light weight, easy to maneuver around train stations and airports and lift onto the carry on compartments on the planes. The 7 inch by 20 inch by 14 inch case fit easily in all travel spaces.

Backpack straps came out of a pocket in the back

The backpack straps tuck into a pocket in the back

The recycled high density polyester fabric survived both trips without scratches or stains although it sat in the high speed train (TGV) luggage rack twice and in the airplane overhead compartments on six flights. It also got wet on several occasions and none of the contents including electronics like cameras and iPad became wet or suffered any ill effects.

The foot in the bottom doubles as a handle

The foot in the bottom doubles as a handle

In both itineraries we were pleased with the bag. We will take it again on short domestic and longer itineraries in which traveling light of weight is a priority.

Following renovation historic Paris hotel recycled tarpaulin into fashion accessories

The entrance was only partially covered during the renovation

The tarpaulin above the entrance while the Hotel de Crillion was renovated

The last time one of our teams visited the Hotel de Crillon the icon property in the Golden Triangle of Paris, France was shielded by a large tarpaulin while renovations to the historic building took place. Following a year of meticulous renovations under the supervision of Etienne Poncelet, lead architect and head inspector of Historic Monuments, the luxury property designed originally by Ange-Jacques Gabriel emerged at the end of 2011.

Once the work was completed what was the hotel to do with the 1,300 square meters of tarpaulin that covered the scaffolding during the many months of renovations? Instead of tossing the material the Hotel de Crillon teamed up with Bilum to create Recycled Bags from the Hotel de Crillon, an exclusive line of 450 made in France bags and accessories that recently became available for purchase. The line includes three designs: Pouch for 25 euros, Clouch for 35 euros and Shopping Bag for 65 euros each (plus shipping for mail orders).

The bag is unique and functional

Our Shopping Bag, made in France with the discarded tarpaulin

Our Shopping Bag, 12 inches wide by 14 inches tall, has plastic reinforced corners at the bottom, two Crillon/Bilum tags, and a sales tag that identifies the bag as an original. The tag also says the bag was made in 2011 in a studio, “specialized in bagagerie and saddlery,” close to Paris.

The preparation work, carried out in Choisy-le-Roi, focused on the artistic and graphic aspects of sizing the tarpaulin into pieces fit for the line. The actual crafting of the bags and accessories took place at three specialized workshops in the Greater Paris region and the south of France. The project’s recycling, fashioning and finishing phases included the participation of a social integration and outreach program in the Greater Paris region.

The one-of-a-kind items, sold exclusively at the hotel gift shop (http://www.crillon.com/#atyourservice/theboutique, +33 44 71 1592, boutique@crillon.com), allow hotel guests and fans of the historic building to take home a piece of the Hotel de Crillon’s former tarpaulin facade while contributing 3 euros per item to the National Museum of Natural History association, which strives to preserve plant and animal biodiversity. Kudos to the hotel for its recycling efforts supported by local manufacturing and design.

The tag explains the origin of the bag

A tag explains the origin of the bag