Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Discovery Tornado Lab Saved Me Hours of Unnecessary Crafting

For the past few months my nine-year-old had been bugging me to make her a toy she saw at a birthday party awhile back. It consisted of two, 2-liter soda bottles joined together at their necks and containing colored water, and when the bottles were flipped one way or another the liquid would create a tornado effect. The ones she had seen were joined by a plastic sleeve made especially for this purpose, but she had been told (by a very "helpful" parent at the party) that the same thing could be achieved by using duct tape to join the two bottles. So go home, he told her, go home and tell your mom to get cracking on that craft in all that free time of hers.

This particular project posed a few problems. For one thing, we never buy soda in liter bottles. I may drink coffee by the liter, but never soda. If that contraption could have been made by joining two Starbucks cups, well we would have had ourselves a house full of tornado toys. Another thing is, I don't trust the combination of large amounts of water, duct tape, and the willy-nilly arms of a nine-year old. I just knew that the toy would work fine for a few minutes, and then I'd spend the rest of the day cleaning up blue-tinged water off my couch and off the walls.

And most importantly, I don't consider myself a "crafty" person. You may not consider taping two pieces of plastic together a craft, but for me it may as well be needlepointing an entire set of living room chairs.

So imagine the screams of joy and the clapping of hands when The Parent Bloggers Network sent me the Discovery Tornado Lab to try out. My kids were pretty excited, too. Not only is it a hundred times more attractive than two Sprite bottles taped together, but at the touch of a button it makes tornado noises and has different speeds to simulate five different tornado strengths. The kids were a little disappointed we didn't have all that soda to finish off, though, so I gave them a bowl of candy to eat while we played with our new toy.

We live in California and have never experienced a tornado first hand, but we've seen them on TV and felt Dorothy's pain when she got sucked up into one in The Wizard of Oz. But luckily the Discovery Tornado Lab comes with a DVD that has some pretty breathtaking footage of actual tornadoes touching down, and also some sound bytes from people who have lived through them. The DVD is well made and worth watching - a really nice extra that makes the toy even more interesting.

Besides inserting batteries, there really isn't any setup, which is great (no duct tape!) Simply fill with water, turn the knob to your desired tornado strength, and push the button for sound effects. It comes with some small objects to drop in to the water to see how they react to the vortex effect, but my kids filled it with everything - small sticks, a little bit of dirt, some leaves. At one point I even saw a Polly Pocket purse and a small rubber wig twirling around in there - I guess they were trying to simulate what would happen if a tornado touched down on Polly Pocket's Ultimate Stylin' Boutique.

It's not every day that I enthuse about an instruction manual, but the Discovery Tornado Lab comes with such an unusual one that I think it's worth pointing out here. The actual setup and instructions take up only half a page, but the other 23 pages are filled with tornado facts and maps. It even has several experiments that you can do, and poses questions relating to the outcomes of those experiments. When was the last time you saw a thoughtful, educational instruction manual with that Bratz Limo your kid got, or with that pack of Pokémon cards?

My daughter will be entering fifth grade next year, and one of the things they'll be studying are different types of weather patterns and occurrences. I'm already planning on lending the Discovery Tornado Lab to her teacher, along with printouts of the instruction manual and the DVD. Come to think of it, this would make a great teacher gift, one I'm sure they would appreciate much more than that Santa mug or the pencil holder carved to look like an apple.

This isn't the first Discovery toy I've owned, and it won't be the last. I've always found them to be well made, and above all, educational. And thanks to the Discovery Tornado Lab, I won't be laboring over soda bottles and duct tape any time soon.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

The HP Photosmart Portable Printer Just Might Be My Favorite Gadget Ever.

I'm the gadget nut in this family. While my husband would be content to use a rotary-dial phone and a TV that needs to be hand-cranked, I have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning unless I know that there is some electronic device waiting to be purchased that will make my day more exciting. I've got my eyes set on a one-cup coffeemaker (even though we already have a grind-and-brew and an espresso machine fighting for space on our counter) and my husband has noticed that I make odd slurping noises whenever an iPhone commercial flashes on the TV screen.

So when The Parent Bloggers Network sent me an HP Photosmart photo printer to test out, I was ecstatic. Never mind that we have two working printers in our house already - one in my office and one in the kitchen for the kids to use - I'd seen these in action before and I couldn't wait to try one out. Plus I knew it would come in especially handy for printing out a detailed photo-wish-list of all the other gadgets I wanted for Christmas.

First off, this printer solved the number one problem I have with digital photography: the fact that I can take a gazillion photos of say, my daughters birthday party or the neighbor's annual Nude Barbecue, but none of those pictures ever see the light of day. Before, with traditional film cameras, I'd rush to get my film developed and then could share those photos with family and friends. Grandma could feel like she was actually at my daughter's Hello Kitty party, and my husband could hang those barbecue photos right up in his office.

But unless I emailed them out, I would never share my digital photos because printing them out was such a laborious process. Open the photos in Photoshop! Resize them! Arrange them on a page! Add to that the fact that both my husband and I are designers and will analyze and correct color for days on end, and you can see why those photos of my daughter's birthday party in April have never made it into an album. That would be April 1999.

The Photosmart solves that problem, and then some. I have to stress here how unbelievably easy to set up and use this device is. I'm not big on reading manuals, so I was relieved to see it came with a 'cheat sheet,' one of those posters that has basic instructions (and diagrams) for doing a quick set-up on a product. I timed myself, and it took me exactly eight minutes to set up the Photosmart and print my first photo. Not bad, considering it took me five hours just to figure out how to install the tape cartridge into the video camera we bought a few months ago.

The touch-screen on the Photosmart works beautifully, and except for the fact that it just amped up my longing for an iPhone, I have to say it's one of my favorite features. It makes navigating through the thumbnails of your images incredibly easy, and gives my hands a nice break from using a mouse or a keyboard.

I first used the printer without hooking it up to my computer. For me, this is the way to go, as it makes the printer truly portable as a stand-alone device. You simply pop the memory card from your camera into the designated slot (to accommodate various types of media from compact flash cards to memory sticks to MultiMedia cards) and your photos appear on the touch-screen in thumbnail format. Touch any photo to enlarge, or touch the arrows to scroll through your images. Seriously, you could use this printer while driving a car, drinking a mocha and talking on your cell phone, although I would never endorse such ridiculous behavior to my readers. I would urge you to forgo the sugar in the mocha in favor of a double cappuccino.

Once you've picked a picture to print (or you could go ahead and 'print all' if you're that type of devil-may-care reckless personality) you can either do a straight print or customize with any of the many tricks the Photosmsart has up its sleeve. You can put a variety of borders on your photo (the Summer border with Naked Barbecue kills) or place icon 'stickers' on your image (useful for putting a pacifier over the beer can in that photo of your drunk uncle.) Get the handy stylus out of it's smartly-designed nook on the printer and draw on your image using a couple of different brush widths and a variety of colors. Or, use the onscreen keyboard to type in a caption in one of five different fonts and several different colors. You'll never have to scrawl "Loser" with a Sharpie over your ex-boyfriend's picture again!

(Their red-eye feature works great - my results were just as good as those I get in iPhoto.)

I did try using the printer in tandem with my computer, but I have to say that for me it defeated the whole purpose of having a photo printer. It took the novelty and fun out of being able to point and print out an image directly from my memory card, and I found the program a little cumbersome. The USB cable (which usually need to be purchased separately but was provided to me by HP) just seemed like yet another cord to deal with. I'm going to unplug it and use it to tie back the curtains in my bedroom.

I was also sent a set of HP Photobooks to test out, and it made me marvel at how ingenious the whole HP photo system is. I started off with the smaller, 5 x 7 sized book and was able to print out my photos with my Photosmart and place them right into the album (the pages snap right in with their ingeniously-designed snap-spines.) Unfortunately I wasn't able to use the software included becuse it isn't Mac compatible, but apparently you can use it to create different layouts with different themes and add text and desig elements to the page. I'm hooked!

My two daughters, ages 9 and 11 couldn't get enough of the Photosmart and turned into photo-printing maniacs; I had to put my foot down when I realized they were going through all of my paper printing pictures of my daughter's stuffed rabbit in various forms of inebriation while holding a wine bottle Christmas tree ornament. I'm considering purchasing them a Photosmart of their very own; besides wanting to keep mine all to myself, I could see the touch screen taking a beating at the hands of overzealous tween girls, and I don't see the stylus hanging around too long before it's lost in the seat cushions of the couch.

Lastly, as if the Photosmart weren't awesome enough on it's own, I'm thinking of ordering this cool carrying case so that I can take my nifty printer with me wherever I go. Look for me - I'll be the one printing photos while in line at Trader Joes. Of course, I'll be on my iPhone at the same time.

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*Wanna put those photos of yours into an album as a present for Grandma? Click here to get 20% off Photo Books at the HP store.

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