John R. Quain

While some people may be cutting back on lattes, an increasing number are spending more on a variety of wired (or unwired) high-tech gadgets. Last year, the Consumer Electronics Association trade group reports, Americans spent nearly $170 billion on electronics, ranging from laptop computers to smartphones. Although these electronic contraptions can become an overwhelming intrusion or distraction, that needn't be the case. The right gadgets--and the services they connect to--can actually free you from some of the quotidian chores of the past (like spending the whole evening balancing your checkbook), giving you more time to enjoy life. Here are 10 gadgets and services boomers may want to consider:

Apple iPad

The iPad is a terrible e-reader and, in many respects, it is just a really big iPhone (without the phone). It's also heavy (1.5 pounds) and can't play most Web videos. Nevertheless, it may be the ideal living room computer, which is why within 80 days of its introduction, Apple sold 3 million of them. Sexier and sleeker than a laptop, the iPad ($499-$829) is designed to be shared. Think of it as a communal gateway to news, sports, and just about any information you can find online.

For example, you can check trivia during TV commercials, look up a pitcher's stats while watching a game, peruse an actor's bio online, or play an impromptu game of Scrabble. The Apple iPad is this generation's must-have digital coffee-table book, albeit an expensive one. To save yourself some money and avoid monthly charges, eschew the 3G models and stick with the Wi-Fi-only editions.

BlueAnt S4

Distracted driving is a major problem, notes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which reported that nearly 6,000 people died and more than half a million were injured in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver. That's why eight states and the District of Columbia have already made it illegal to use a hand-held cell phone behind the wheel, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Drivers can buy a simple wireless earpiece for under $30 to stay in compliance with local laws. But there is a more comfortable in-car solution: a wireless Bluetooth speakerphone that clips onto your car's sun visor and lets you chat with both hands on the wheel.

Though you can find several similar models on the market, the BlueAnt S4 ($100) is unique in being truly hands-free. The device constantly listens for its master's voice. All one has to do is say, "BlueAnt speak to me," and it awakens, ready to react to oral instructions. To make a call, you can say "redial" or "call back" without reaching up and fumbling with buttons. And when you forget the correct commands, just ask, "What can I say?" and it will tell you what to do.

Barnes & Noble Nook

Electronic books and electronic book readers are catching on fast because of their impressive capabilities. Digital texts can cost less than half the price of their hardcover cousins, a new book can be downloaded wirelessly in 30 seconds, and hand-held e-readers can replace walls of shelving by storing well over a thousand books. Of course, the question then becomes: What happens to your electronic library should your device die or you decide that you want to shop at another e-book store?

Barnes & Noble'sNook e-reader ($149-$199) tries to alleviate these concerns by using an open e-book format called EPUB that allows you to lend electronic books to friends and is compatible with competing e-readers, such as those produced by Sony and the Kobo from Borders. So, should you break your Nook or simply want a different model in the future, your electronic library can come with you. (By contrast, Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad try to lock buyers into using their stores exclusively.) The EPUB format is also backed by the likes of Google, which is making more than a million public domain books available online. Lastly, if you don't have your Nook with you, Barnes & Noble has free apps for reading its e-books on an iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android-based smartphone.


Stand-alone portable navigation devices are rapidly giving way to smartphones that include free GPS-based mapping and navigation software. The problem with most of these smartphones, however, is that directions often cease when you lose the cellular connection. Also, the screens are illegible in sunlight and audio directions can be inaudible.

T-Mobile's Garminfone ($130 with a two-year contract) solves all of these problems with a slick, touch-screen Android phone that has all of its street maps preloaded. This means its turn-by-turn directions will never abandon you, even if you lose your cell signal. The Garminfone also comes with free live traffic reports and includes information usually neglected on other navigation programs, such as your current speed and estimated time of arrival. Another attractive feature: Once you detach the device from its excellent car cradle, the GPS automatically marks the spot in case you forget where you parked your wheels.


Originally created for the college crowd in 2004, Facebook has ballooned to become the sine qua nonof social networking for all ages, attracting over 500 million active users. The site offers easy ways to share updates, photos, videos, and just about anything else in more than 70 languages with hundreds of friends and family members.

Facebook has also matured into a medium for promoting businesses. For example, Bruce and Marge Brown of Leland, N.C., have used the site to attract new customers to their two-year-old consultancy, Quantum Results Coaching, which advises entrepreneurs nationwide on how to grow their businesses. By using Facebook's tagging, blogging, and video link features, the couple have attracted new clients, found business partners, and gotten important feedback. Many other Facebook members are similarly promoting their businesses, including major clothing companies and food brands.

Signing up and sticking to the basics is free, but if you're not careful about who accesses your personal information, you could end up paying dearly in terms of lost privacy. Recommendations: Keep business and personal accounts separate, lock down all the privacy settings (such as allowing only your friends to see your comments), and regularly check for changes in Facebook policies, which can happen at any time.

Mobile Banking

Just as many can't imagine how they once managed without Quicken, others may soon wonder what life was like without mobile banking services. Using a smartphone, such as a BlackBerry or iPhone, you can now transfer money, check balances, and even pay bills. Connecting to the bank in this way can help peripatetic boomers ensure they never miss a bill (or forget to pay one).

Most financial institutions, such as Bank of America, offer their own mobile apps with security features, which generally makes the process safer than using an ATM. Now JPMorgan Chase has launched a new iPhone app that lets customers make electronic deposits using the device's built-in camera. One simply photographs the front and back of the check and then sends the images to the bank. (JPMorgan Chase recommends saving the check until it clears and then destroying it.) Other banks will likely offer similar services shortly.

Google Voice

Wouldn't you like to give out just one phone number so people could ring you whether you were at home, at the office, or on your cell? Google Voice can do that by providing (for free) a single number that can reach all of your phones simultaneously--or only the ones you select. For example, during the day, you might want your work and house phones to ring, but not the phone at your summer cottage.

The service, which was first offered to the public in June, is simple to set up online. It includes Web-based voicemail that can be forwarded to your e-mail inbox with audio recordings and written transcripts of voice messages (although don't expect them to be terribly accurate). Google Voice also lets you record customized greetings for different callers ("Thanks for calling, hon.") and you can send and receive unlimited text messages. In short, it's a phone and messaging concierge that lets you control how and where people can reach you.

Xbox 360

A video game machine for the generation that fondly remembers Pong? Just as the Nintendo Wii made video games appealing to adults, the Microsoft Xbox console promises to take gaming one step further with its Kinect add-on ($150), which debuts in November. Rather than a hand-held motion controller, the Kinect has a sensor bar that tracks all of your movements and gestures, turning your body into one big game controller.

So instead of just flicking your wrist--as with the Wii--you can get your whole body in the game. The Kinect can even recognize your face and scan your body shape. Dance and exercise games will never be the same. So why order the Xbox ($300 bundled with Kinect) now? To beat the holiday rush and to enjoy its other entertaining features, including being able to stream movies directly from your Netflix account to your TV.

Smart Power Strips

Most electronics still sap power when they are turned off. Utilities call this the "phantom load" on the power grid. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, this wasted power accounts for 5 to 10 percent of the nation's total electricity use. To eliminate this problem, you can manually unplug each gadget--a back-straining annoyance for most people--or you can save your back and your money by having a smart power strip do it for you.

These devices, like the APC Power-Saving Surge Protector P7GB ($25), look like a regular power strip but include a control plug. By simply turning off the device plugged into the control plug (like a TV), you will cut the power to other outlets on the strip (where a DVD player or other TV-dependent item may be plugged in). The APC bar also has three "always on" plugs so that a connected DVR or cable box can remain powered up. Expect this simple but smart gadget to pay for itself in electricity savings within a year.

Logitech Alert 750i Master System

Just because you're away from home or the office doesn't mean you can't keep an eye on things. Internet-connected video cameras are a good DIY way of monitoring a house, small business, or vacation home via the Web. One of the easiest to install is the new Logitech Alert 750i Master System ($300). It uses household electrical circuits to connect to a home network, so all you have to do is plug the camera into a wall outlet. Up to six cameras (additional ones are $230 each) can be set up for a single location, providing near professional surveillance that can be viewed on a PC or Mac as well as an Android, BlackBerry, or Apple smartphone (by downloading a free app).

You also don't need to leave a connected computer on to view the live video. The camera comes with a built-in video recorder that can be triggered whenever motion is detected within the field of view, and the high-definition images make it easier to identify the faces of intruders--or pets.