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The great (digital) outdoors

Sooner or later, every digital devotee or couch potato must heed the call of springtime and venture outdoors, if only to convince others that you really have a life. But there’s no reason that you can’t take a full set of technologic wonders along with you.
The Vantage Pro 2 allows you to seriously watch the weather digitally -- for a price.
The Vantage Pro 2 allows you to seriously watch the weather digitally -- for a
/ Source: Special to

Sooner or later, every digital devotee or couch potato must heed the call of springtime and venture outdoors, if only to convince others that you really have a life. But there’s no reason that you can’t take a full set of technologic wonders along with you. 

Before you head outdoors, however, you may want to check the weather.  For that you need a digital thermometer with a wireless outdoor sensor.  Both Oregon Scientific and La Crosse make a multitude of models between them (make sure that you get one that reads outdoor humidity as well as temperature).  Oregon Scientific even offers the ultra-stylish Starck Collection Full Weather Station, designed by Philippe himself.  But if you’re a serious weather watcher, you may want to graduate to the Davis Vantage Pro2 — a pricey but professional-quality wireless system that measures barometric pressure, temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind speed and direction, as well as delivering a detailed weather forecast. 

If you’re planning an outdoor workout, how about a new sports watch?  The formidable Garmin Forerunner 301 not only displays time and heart-rate, but features a complete satellite navigation system built into the 2 ¾ ounce watch (the GPS is intended primarily to chart your speed and distance, but you can also use it when you’re lost).  The Forerunner continuously records your heart rate, speed, distance, pace and calories burned, so when you get home you can download and analyze each workout on your computer, as well as keeping a running record of how you’ve performed in the past.  It works for running or biking and—just in case you’re a triathlete—it’s waterproof as well.

And speaking of waterproof, if your backyard includes a swimming pool, you might want to think about the bright yellow Uniden WX1377 waterproof telephone, a full-featured cordless model with Caller ID that not only meets marine waterproofing standards—thirty minutes in the water at a depth of three feet—but actually floats.  It even includes rubber side grips for wet hands.  Just imagine your friends’ surprise as you announce, “Phone’s for you,” and pitch the receiver into the center of the pool.

Getting sun and sound
One of the biggest issues that faces the backyard dweller is how to get the music out there.  Let’s assume for starters that you’ve actually had the foresight to run wires out to your backyard, pool or patio.  For speakers, you could look to Bose, who have been building outdoor speakers for years and whose 251 Environmental Speakers provide an unusually wide and accurate sound field as well as resistance to everything from rain, sun, and fog to heat, cold and even salt air. 

The Bose speakers have nice-looking black enclosures, but they’re clearly speakers.  If you’d rather hide the evidence, take a look at the California home automation giant Smarthome’s outdoor speakers that look like rocks, in finishes ranging from canyon stone to river rock.  They even offer a fully waterproof 250 watt subwoofer that begins to look more like a small boulder.  Make sure you buy burial-grade speaker wire to hook them up, and try to resist all jokes about rock and roll.  (And if there are no rocks in your backyard check out the Smarthome outdoor speaker that looks like a terracotta patio planter.)

If you haven’t run speaker wires out to the backyard, you need wireless alternatives.  Sony’s SRS-RF90RK 900 MHz RF Wireless Speaker System has to be one of the coolest looking of the bunch—a single elegant silver cylinder that produces two channels of stereo distributed by transparent reflectors.  It will run for three or more hours on a single charge, or you can plug it into AC.  But don’t leave it out overnight: this baby’s too cool to be waterproof.  If you want water-resistant, try the Advent ADV-W801, which looks a bit like a big green mushroom but will withstand moisture.

Don't forget the TV
For all-out wireless outdoor media, there’s the Sharp Aquos LC-15L1U-S—a 15” television, less than 3 inches thick, that will also wirelessly pull a signal from your cable, satellite or DVD box.  But make sure that you’ve got a shady spot for viewing; LCDs tend to wash out in sunlight.  But maybe you just want a nice radio.  In that case, this year’s best option is the trim Tivoli PAL AM-FM radio, in a rubberized cabinet with built-in nickel metal hydride batteries. The PAL—for Portable Audio Laboratory—has classic Henry Kloss audio quality along with an extremely precise tuner.  It comes in eight colors ranging from Sunset Red to Electric Blue—or if you want, in white and chrome to match your iPod. 

Finally, if your idea of media includes the Internet, then here’s the perfect device for outdoor browsing: the Fujitsu Stylistic ST5021 Tablet PC.  It’s a thin, light slate model, with full wireless capability and a long-life battery.  But what sets it apart is the unique front-lit LCD screen—which gives you full brightness both indoors and in sunlight. Laptop in the backyard: pitiful workaholic.  Wireless tablet: cool Internet dude.

One regular but not necessarily desirable outdoor activity is lawn mowing, and that’s where the RoboMower RL-1000 comes in: a battery-powered robotic wonder that’s equivalent to a traditional 5.5 horsepower version with 21” cutting blades—only, of course, you don’t have to push it yourself.  While there have been several robot lawnmowers on the market, this $1,700 version is the first with a docking station for automatic battery recharging.  What that means is that you can program it once and then not have to think about it again for the rest of the summer. Each week it will automatically depart from the charging station at your appointed time to mow the lawn—even in the middle of the night (the electric motor is very quiet).  Probotics, one of the distributors of the RoboMower, also offers robot pool cleaners if you’d like to offload that chore as well.

Mosquitoes are another undesirable aspect of outdoor life, and here the technologists have been hard at work. Unfortunately, whether you zap them or trap them, there’s no infallible way to remove mosquitoes from your backyard and there’s still controversy over how well any method really works.  But the trapping technique, which burns propane gas to mimic a warm mammal’s carbon dioxide, has a high-tech incarnation in the new American Biophysics Mosquito Magnet Pro. For $1195 you get not only the CO2, but an additional pheromone-based attractant, rechargeable NiMH batteries plus an industrial strength solar panel.  If that doesn’t attract your mosquitoes, then they just don’t appreciate technology.

Barbecue grills, the most primal of outdoor gadgets, are a matter of such religious fervor that one’s choice is probably best left to personal preference: gas, coals or electric, free-standing or built-in, moderately-priced or the cost of a small import automobile.  Even at stratospheric prices, however, the industry hasn’t so far seen fit to add many digital frills.  But the one device that no griller can be without—the barbecue thermometer—has definitely gone high tech.  Weber’s Barbecue Beeper Digital Thermometer is a two-piece wireless set: you stick the probe into your meat of choice and set the exact degree of doneness you desire.  Then you clip the remote readout to your belt and wander amidst your guests; a beep signals when it’s time to serve.  And while we’re shopping Weber, we should also mention their unique Chill Indoor/Outdoor Refrigerator: an elegant silver cylinder a bit over three feet tall, with a lift-off lid, that will keep a dozen six-packs as frosty as you’d like.

When night finally falls on your outdoor frolics, switch on the Essential Gear 12 LED Lantern—tomorrow’s light source today, it’s bright, dimmable and cool (no insects attracted), as well as able to run for twelve full days on a single set of D cells. But before you flick on those LEDs, here’s one final gadget: the Excalibur Electronics Night Navigator.  It’s a 10 by 13 inch tablet device with a back-lit LCD screen and a built-in electromagnetic compass.  Program in the time, date and location, aim it at the night sky and it will show you a map with all the major stars identified (as long as you’re somewhere in North America).  Even better, you can dial in a constellation you want to find, aim the device at the sky and it will beep when you’re pointing at the target.  And if you see a shooting star, go ahead: make a wish for your own RoboMower.