Two Cool Gadgets that have Nothing to do with iPhone

Warning! This column is not about iPhone. You are about to enter an iPhone-free zone. Enter at your own risk.

Happily, iPhone is not the only cool gadget to appear in the past few months. In my role as a columnist, I am in the fortunate position of being able to test out and evaluate products that I might otherwise never purchase. Occasionally, I discover products that I believe are worthwhile enough to deserve your attention. Two such gadgets have recently come across my desk.

DYMO Desktop Mailing Solution. This all-in-one-package includes a DYMO LabelWriter Twin Turbo Label Printer, and DYMO 5 lb Scale, the DYMO Stamps software plus free blank labels and stamps. It lists for $239.99 (although you can get it for $212.99 from Amazon).

Especially for those of you who know little or nothing about DYMO labelers, I will go through the package one step at a time. Letis start with the Printer. Your first question may be "Why bother with a label printer at all? Canit I just get label sheets and feed them through my all-purpose printer as needed?" Yes, you can. And if thatis been working for you, fine. Bear in mind, however, that using label sheets can be a bit of a pain, especially if you are starting with a half-finished sheet and need to make sure the computer knows where on the sheet to begin. Next, while you can print labels from programs such as Microsoft Word, you will probably find it easier to use custom software; such software (especially a Mac version) often does not accompany label sheets. In any case, youill need to remember to insert the label paper when you need it and remove it when done.

Alternatively, you could get a DYMO printer and be done with it. After setting it up and connecting it to your Mac, it is always ready to print a label. Just launch the included DYMO Label software, enter the address (or click on one thatis already in the address book), click to print and your label appears about a second later. The printer uses no ink or toner, so it never needs refilling. Itis not an essential peripheral, but it is a very useful one if you want or need to print labels on a regular or even semi-regular basis.

I already owned a LabelWriter 400 Turbo before getting the Mailing Solution. The only difference between the Twin model in the Mailing Solution and the 400 Turbo is that the Twin model supports printing from two different rolls. This is convenient when working with postage, as it allows one roll for labels and another for postage, allowing you to print both without having to switch rolls between functions.

Next up is the DYMO Stamps software. You use this, rather than the Label software, to print postage. To get it to work, you first need to set up an account with Endicia. The DYMO Stamps software assists you in doing this. The account is free; you just put money into it to cover the cost of the stamps you print. Every time you print postage, the Stamps software logs into your account and deducts the appropriate amount. The cost of printing stamps is free as well (that is, to print a 41 cent stamp, only 41 cents gets deducted from your account). The only added cost in the entire process is for the rolls of stamp labels. A sample roll is included with the Mailing Solution package. After that, a roll of 200 labels costs $16.00 (that works out to 8 cents a stamp). That may not be cost effective when using it for a standard first class stamp (itis an almost 20% surcharge). Itis become a much better deal for packages or any other items that cost more than a minimum stamp (and is certainly a preferred alternative to renting a postage meter). In such cases, yet another convenience factor comes into play: the Scale. It may be the single best reason to get the Mailing Solution!

The scale works in conjunction with the DYMO Stamps software. The software is current with all the latest postal rates for the different sizes of mailing items. You just enter the weight of your item, check off which type of item it is, and the software tells you how much postage you need, printing out the needed stamp if requested. But what if you donit know what an item weighs? This is where the DYMO Scale comes in. It not only weighs the item, but it works in conjunction with the DYMO Stamps software. Just place the item on the scale, click the Weigh button from the Stamps window on your Mac and the correct postage appears, One more click and the stamp is printed. Done! This feature can save yourself a drive to the Post Office and a long wait in line. That alone can easily be worth the 8 cents per stamp. [Bonus: The scale is bus-powered when connected to a USB port, but it also works via batteries. This means it can serve double-duty as a kitchen scale when you donit need it for postage.]

In my brief testing, all went as smooth as promised, from weighing to printing postage plus an address label taking only a couple of seconds. I had only two relatively minor glitches. First, I had to delete and re-add the printer from Printer Setup Utility before I could get the Twin Turbo printer to work. Second, after trying to set up the Stamps software on a second computer connected to my local network, I lost all access to my postage account. I needed to reset my password for the account before it would work again.

One final note: You cannot customize the look of the stamps in any way. To do that, youill need Endiciais PictureItPostage. However, this is much more expensive and does not work with LabelWriters. Actually, it doesnit work with any printer. To use it, you place an order online and sheets of stamps get mailed to you.

Elgato Turbo.264 Video Encoder Hardware. You probably know that you can convert almost any video (from movies created in iMovie to TV shows recorded with devices such as Elgatois EyeTV to almost anything else that you can open in QuickTime Player) to the format needed to play on either an Apple TV or iPod. What is less known (until you try it) and often unspoken (by Apple anyway) is the enormous amount of time it can take to do this. To encode a feature length movie for viewing on Apple TV, for example, can take hours (several times the length of the movie itself).

To the rescue here is Elgato Systemis Turbo.264 Video Encoder Hardware ($99.95 retail; $89.99 at Amazon). It is a hardware peripheral that offloads the job of these video conversions from your computeris CPU to the Turbo.264 device. This saves time in two ways. First, it frees up your computeris CPU for other tasks, allowing you to perform those tasks faster while a video export is in progress. Second, and more important, it speeds up the conversion time itself.

The actual amount of time youill save varies with what Mac model you have (in general, the slower your Macis processor the greater the advantage to using the Turbo.264), the size of the exported files (youill save more minutes when exporting larger files even if the percentage saving is the same), and the type of export (again, because Apple TV files are generally larger than iPod ones, the Turbo.264 will be more effective for Apple TV users).

In my brief testing, converting a high-definition movie trailer to iPod format, the device reduced the export time in half, on both a Power Mac G5 and a Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro! I found similar savings when exporting to Apple TV format. Elgato claims time savings can be as great as 4X, but I never achieved that level. However, in checking over reader comments on Amazon, I found claims of 4X and even 5X savings (my Macs are probably already too fast to see that type of result). Still, even 2X is great, especially so if you have many large files that you wish to convert.

The Turbo.264 is a simple device that looks almost identical to a flash drive stick. To set it up, simply plug it into an available USB port and install the accompanying software. Thatis it. You donit even have to restart your Mac.

The Turbo.264

To use it, you have several options. The first is to use the Turbo.264 application. This is the best option if you want to convert a batch of movie files. To do so, just queue up the entire batch and let ier rip. Alternatively, if you have an EyeTV (Elgato Systemsi TV tuner/recorders), EyeTV software automatically recognizes the presence of a Turbo.264 and uses it when exporting files, without you having to make any specific request. Finally, when using software such as Appleis QuickTime Player or iMovie, Turbo.264 options appear in the Export menus.

I did notice some minor differences in the resulting files when exporting from QuickTime Player using the "Movie to iPod" vs. the "Movie to iPod (Elgato Turbo.264)" options. The former option resulted in an .m4v file and was several MB larger (29 vs. 21 MB) than the .mp4 formatted file obtained when using the Turbo. However, the resolution of both files was the same (640x272) and, when viewing the movies, I could not visually tell one from the other. Both of these types are MPEG-4 files and, as I understand it, the differences are trivial.

Bottom line: If you do more than an occasional export of video to an iPod or Apple TV, and find yourself frustrated by how long the conversions take, the Turbo.264 could be just the ticket. Itis pretty much a one-trick pony, but it does the trick well. On the downside, $100 is a fairly steep price for this one-trick. Only you can decide if the cost is worth it for you.