I’ve spent all summer telling myself that, as the season shifts, I’ll finally be able to spend a little less time in my car. Now, this was never anything more than wishful thinking on my part, but it’s the kind of lie we parents often tell ourselves to help us get by – soon things will be less hectic and more structured. The truth? Right now it’s nearly a week into the school year, and I’ve spent just as much time (if not more) chauffeuring my children around and completing those dreaded daily errands.
Still, as the warm months begin to wane, I can look back and realize that over the summer I at least managed to amass a collection of useful gadgets that serve to make all these continued road miles a bit more bearable. Here are three of my favorites that have made my family’s iOS (and even Android) devices more fun and functional as we frantically scurry across the highways and byways of the American southeast.
The Kingston Wi-Drive is tiny device – it’s actually smaller than my iPhone – that comes with 16, 32 or 64GB of onboard flash storage and solves the very big problem of iPad capacity. Simply connect the Wi-Drive to your PC or Mac via the included USB cable and drag-and-drop your favorite media directly to it. When powered on the Wi-Drive then creates its own special 802.11g/n network, and, once your phone or tablet is wirelessly connected, you can use a specialized app to stream all this content. By simply dumping a bunch of videos en masse onto the Wi-Drive, I’ve managed to avoid a lot of prep time wasted removing and re-syncing to ensure that my kids could enjoy the cartoon du jour during serious drive time.
The Wi-Drive can stream to three separate devices simultaneously, which handily settles the “she picked last time” argument typically associated with a single dedicated media player. Its four hour battery life makes it suitable for most road trips, but longer affairs requiring recharging. Plugging it in generally suppresses the Wi-Drive’s ability to project its wireless signal, but there’s an easy work-around; if you establish all your wireless connections and begin streaming before charging, the Wi-Drive easily handles both tasks.
There are a few shortcomings, but its positive points make these pretty fair trade-offs. Sure, there are larger and more cost-effective mobile wireless storage and streaming solutions, but the Wi-Drive’s pocketable size makes it a more elegant choice. The system’s Wi-Fi past-through option, which allows you to connect the Wi-Drive itself to an external internet hotspot, also suffers from some lag. Of course, if you’re planning to use it primarily while blazing down the interstate this is likely less of a drawback.
The Kingston Wi-Drive only supports a limited number of file formats, but the recent addition of an Android app means that you can enjoy its output on both the dominant mobile operating systems. In my case, I used HandBrake (and occasionally WinFF) to convert our video collection to MP4s/M4Vs, which worked perfectly on both the iPad and Kindle Fire. Thanks to this flexibility, its uniquely portable design and its overall ease of use, the Wi-Drive has been an ideal solution for my family’s mobile entertainment needs.
Satechi Adjustable Headrest Tablet Mount
Another item that’s also proven itself invaluable for in-car movie-watching is Satechi’s adjustable headrest mount. Designed for 7″ to 10″ tablets, its attaches effortlessly onto the front seat headrest rods via a simple but sturdy clip, and a slider lets you to tweak the mount’s height for shorter geeklings. A rotating ball socket allows viewers to adjust the angle and easily flip between vertical and horizontal orientation.
Rubber grips hold your tablet firmly in place, and, just as important, you can quickly and easily remove your device of choice with a firm flick of the wrist. It’s a versatile and well-constructed option for mobile viewing that only suffers slightly with regard to build quality – its central plastic ball joint is a little sticky at times. While it offers an excellent range of movement, it doesn’t always do so with silky smoothness. Still, it is an easy-to-install mount that can be transferred between vehicles with no hassle.
Yet there is another noticeable caveat; the “lock in” point for smaller tablets takes some noodling to find. This is especially problematic with devices like the Kindle Fire that have external, bottom-mounted power buttons and headphones jacks that can be easily bump or obscured as you try and jostle them into the proper position. It’s not perfect, but if you’re looking for a mount that can accommodate a large number of different size and style tablets this Satechi solution is a solid choice.
Find My Car Smarter
While both the previous are great items for those sittin’ in the back seat – apologies for the dreadfully dated Rebecca Black reference – this final entry is a stress-buster for those of us up front. Car locator apps aren’t exactly a rarity in the iOS store, but the Kickstarter-funded Find My Car Smarter has devised a system that actually lives up to its name.
Sure, any iPhone user can simply drop a pin in the integrated Maps app each time he parks, but in a crowded mall parking structure with a ravenous, food court-bound family that’s easier said than done. The genius of Find My Car Smarter is that it doesn’t require you to do… anything at all. Well, after a super simple initial setup, at least.
This is a two-part system that consists of an app and a Bluetooth dongle. Simply pair the Find My Car Smarter application with the Bluetooth and you’re good to go. Each time you turn your car on the device senses the signal, and, when you park and turn off the vehicle, it notes the broken connection and uses the iPhone’s GPS functionality to automatically place a pin on your parking spot. That’s it!
There are some additional options such as a parking log, Geofences that increase accuracy in frequently parked locations, support to multiple vehicles and location sharing options via Dropbox syncing. You can also manually set parking meter and street sweeper notifications within the app itself.
I was a little concerned that the automatic Bluetooth stereo syncing I already had set up in my new car would interfere with the service, but I’m happy to say that Find My Car Smarter has worked flawlessly alongside it for the better part of a month. At $25 ($30 with the USB car adaptor) it’s a solid, affordable parking solution, and the only real knock against it is that its iPhone 4S only.