03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Writers Workbench: Holiday Gift Edition

As visions of a Chicago Cubs World Series dance through your head (what can I say, I have my priorities), 'tis the season for giving. Therefore, I thought it might be appropriate for a TWW first: single out some of my favorite items that these halls have reviewed during the past 12 months. Capsule overviews for all the products are below, but if you're interested in the original, detailed reviews, links for those are included to jump you directly to their page.

One thing to keep in mind: a year is a very long time in the tech world, therefore many -- if not all -- of these items have subsequently now have updated versions. (But then, remember, too, that an earlier version might still fit your needs, and could even cost quite a bit less.) Check first and look both directions before crossing.

To be clear, these aren't necessarily The Best Whizbangs out on the market. They're just products that for any number of reasons stood out for me during the past year -- and are well-made, useful and often quite innovative.

"The Writers Workbench" appears monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, with complete product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here


Most households have stacks of old VHS tapes sitting around in the bottom of bins gathering dust. Unviewed, unloved. However, what this intriguing product from Honestech does is give them a second chance at life, converting cassettes to DVDs. Moreover, it can also convert them to iPod format, as well, for watching on your handheld device.

The main product is a small converter box, about the size of a thick cigarette pack, that you connect between your computer and a VHS player. (If your player has long since gone south, very basic and inexpensive ones can be found on the Internet. Keep in mind that you don't need bells and whistles. You'll just be using it for playing the tapes.)

Running the included software gives you all the recording and formatting options you need. There's an "Easy Mode" -- which is easy -- though it may have more limitations that some people care for, so "Advanced Mode" will likely more often be the way to go. The process isn't brain-dead easy, but overall it's not a big challenge (though you can get very fancy and convoluted if you want). The biggest quibble is that the manual has some problems, which is a shame because "VHS to DVD" is pretty easy but the manual doesn't help enough to get you there. But that's not remotely a deal breaker. In the end, this is a wonderful way to save old cassettes (particularly those with home videos on them) that might otherwise be lost forever. It retails for $60, but is available on Amazon for $50.


Running a home theater these days almost requires training for the circus first, as you learn how to juggle up to a half dozen remotes. As a result, the market for all-in-one remotes has blossomed, combining functions in a single unit, but the Universal Remote Digital R50 does an especially good job of mixing simplicity, high capability and reasonable cost. (To be clear, the R50 is not inexpensive, but high end universal remotes can empty your wallet. While this retails for $170, it's currently available on Amazon for $90.00.)

The R50 is very solidly made and has a handy feature that keeps the remote up to date, no matter if you add new components years later that it doesn't support by default -- it can "learn" the controls of any remote device. Also, you can program everything directly through the remote control itself, with no need to hook it up to a computer. (It should be noted that some people prefer a computer-based set up, since it allows for even more flexibility.) All in all, the R50 is an excellent solution to remote overload.



It is unthinkable to not have a backup plan for one's computer, most especially writers whose documents are their livelihood. And their legacy. The problem is that backing up is often a chore - not only to do, but to remember to do. Most external drives include backup software, but while easy it's still far too much of a challenge for many. That's where Clickfree and Rebit come in.

Backing up don't get any more braindead easy than these two options - similar in the concept of simplicity, though slightly different in operation. To use the Rebit, you do nothing more than plug the portable hard drive into a USB port and then...well, there's no "and then." That's it. It automatically starts backing up your entire hard drive (this process takes a while) and from then on, whenever you make a change -- edit a file, add a new one -- it immediately backs it up. There's nothing more to it.

The Clickfree is a cousin to this. Actually, for the sake of accuracy, the product referenced here is the "Clickfree Transformer," a plug that converts any external hard disk drive into a Clickfree drive. The difference is that a "real" Clickfree drive has the software built in, whereas the Transformer has the software built into the converter cord. But the operation and end result is the same. All you do is plug the Clickfree into a USB port of your home computer, and it searches for over 400 known document types and backs up whatever it finds. And if you have a unique, proprietary file type, you can manually add it.

The two backup devices operate slightly differently, and it's personal choice which someone might prefer. (The Rebit basically uses a "mirror" system, while the Clickfree is native format. See the original review for an explanation.) But with both these devices so profoundly easy, there is no excuse not to backup. They are data lifesavers, and border on obligatory if you're a technophobe. The Clickfree Transformer is available on Amazon for around $40. The prices for a Clickfree drive or Rebit drive vary based on capacity. (Generally between $75-125 on Amazon.)


As technolife become relentlessly portable -- particularly between cell phones, MP3's and digital cameras -- the issue of running out of battery power has grown exponentially. To meet this demand, the market has also grown for portable power. There are basically two types -- those for the iPod, which have iPod connectors built in, and those for everything else. These require add-on plugs designed for specific brands.

One of the most unique portable power packs comes from Griffin, in its PowerDuo Reserve. It's very cleverly design, made for iPods. A very small power unit snaps into a charger, which has fold-up AC-adapter prongs to charge it in the wall. (There is also a slot for a USB cable to charge in your computer). You just lift the tiny power unit out, stick it in your pocket, and it's available to connect to your iPod when needed. But what makes this so special, is that it also comes with a car charger that works in an auto's cigarette lighter. You can snap the tiny power unit into this as well, so if you're on the road and the power unit drains out -- just put it in the car adapter, and recharge it that way. Very clever, very handy. It retails at $49.



One of my very favorite types of tech products is the USB Flash drive. Though these have become quite common, for writers they should almost be a necessity. Stick one on your key chain, and have all of your important documents backed up and with you at all times -- not only in case you need it, but if your computer is broken into or destroyed for any reason. The material is simply far too important. (Note: You shouldn't make a flash drive your primary backup. They're not stable enough for that.)

USB Flash drives today are very low price, so even the most basic should suffice, even if slow. Two drives, however, stood out slightly from the pack, if you're willing to pay slightly more than bargain basement prices.

The OCS Rally2 Turbo is one of the fastest I've come across at a reasonable price, and it's small and light. The only notable negative is that its cap has the potential to fall off.

The Super Talent Pico-E Slide isn't one of the fastest -- in fact, it has just moderate speed. But it's bizarrely small, about the side of two quarters laid on top of each other, so if having some teensy is important to you, this are hard to top. It also has a slide cover, so there's nothing to lose.

One other note: if you get a USB Flash drive (or already have one), but sure to read the TWW Notes at the bottom of the column linked above for Flash drives. There is a discussion of Portable Apps, which are free and amazing. The short version is that these free applications store on your Flash drive and virtually give you a portable computer in your pocket.


This requires a massive disclaimer right at the start. The world of digital cameras is explosive, and new models with remarkable, improved features crop up like weeds. The Casio EX-S10 wasn't new when reviewed a year ago -- and that's ancient in techieworld. Casio itself has superseded the model several times. And the EX-S10 might even be difficult to find, even refurbished. But -- I love the camera. It does so many things well and some things better than others that came after. Besides, many of the bells-and whistles you get with a digital camera you will never use.

The EX-S10 is especially small, has a huge and very clear viewing screen, its video recording is perhaps the easiest to use of all cameras, it's 10 megapixels (much more than enough), has a remarkable "buffer" feature that lets you capture video even if you're not shooting at the moment (!), and best of all, it records video in a format that is configured for iTunes.

Again, to be clear, there are newer digital cameras that have better features. And the optics of the S10, while quite good, aren't the sharpest on the block. But for all the things it does do so well, it remains my favorite, despite being an older model. It's not easy to find, and may -- even at its age -- cost more than many. But I think that price is a testament to how good it is. If you can find a good, trust refurbished unit, it's worth considering.

To see this column with complete product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," visit the WGA website.