IRL: AirPort Express, Jabra Freeway and rooting the Nook Color

Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.

Now that we've gotten all the dirty details on the new iPhone, we Engadget editors have a few precious days to kick back, unwind and futz around on our aging gadgets before Google and Samsung team up to announce a certain something something next week. Until then, Darren's traveling from Japan to San Francisco and back -- most likely with his AirPort Express in tow, Joseph is rooting the snot out of his Nook Color and Brad's just trying to keep up on podcasts while driving the kiddies around.

Just a guy and his AirPort

Tim already covered one of my favorite travel accessories in a prior IRL, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to gush about my second must-have item when it comes time to scurry about. It's Apple's AirPort Express, and even if it were made by Sanrio, I'd still have to have it. Why? Simple. Most European and Asian hotels that I've been to like to charge you per connection, and it's usually some insane rate. A pair of laptops, two or three phones and a tablet -- it adds up. With this, I just plug a hardwired connection into the AE, pay once, and get all of my devices online. I know, it's hardly Houdini-ish, but it can save a road warrior quite a bit of cash in the long run. To boot, many hotels offer gratis Ethernet connections but charge for WiFi -- with this, you circumvent the issue. There are plenty of reasons to keep a portable router on your person, but for heavy travelers, I see it more as a requirement than anything else. Just don't leave it plugged into the wall socket when you check out; it's easier to do than you think.

-- Darren Murph

On the road with the Jabra Freeway

Bluetooth speakerphones carry their weight in gold. As a family man who drives the kids around regularly, I find ample time to listen to podcasts, music and catch up on the latest Twilight audiobook, but my stylish seven-year-old minivan doesn't have the modern connectivity options we'd take for granted if we had one of them 2011 models. What's a tech-savvy geek individual to do? Wireless, of course! Most current smartphones offer the ability to stream audio over Bluetooth, so a speakerphone that can easily clip to the visor in your car can come in very handy -- and a healthy portion of them are available for under $100.

Recently, I've been using the Jabra Freeway, a speakerphone with three speakers, Virtual Surround sound, voice recognition and an FM transmitter. I wouldn't even consider using it without the last two features. Going hands-free on the asphalt is an absolute must-have -- not to mention a requirement in many states -- which the Freeway does well, offering a litany of voice commands, announcing the name of the incoming caller and prompting you to accept or reject the call. I also enjoy using the built-in FM transmitter because I can finally blare my Taylor Swift beats over the car stereo system. If you drive through an area with a lot of interference, you can change the transmitting frequency. Sure, it isn't perfect; the audio quality is inferior to a CD player or any direct plugin method, and the transmitter can easily be overpowered by nearby devices, so you may be out of luck if you live in a heavily populated area that doesn't have any unused FM frequencies. Cue the sad trombone because it's a struggle that'll occur with a lot of transmitters, but the Freeway excels in every other way -- it picks up my voice easily, connects to my phone within two or three seconds of turning it on and doesn't have a problem pairing with multiple devices. And because the speaker's still considerably louder than most of the competition, I've used it to listen to music outside (and in the house) on more than one occasion. So if you've been looking for a safe way to listen to the Engadget Podcast in your daily commute -- podcast responsibly, friends -- the Jabra Freeway's worth a mull-over.

-- Brad Molen

A new lease on life

Last time I left off, I came clean about my secret life as a ROM flasher. Now, as part of my recovery process, I'm here to pull the curtains back on the newest object of my affection -- a refurbished Nook Color. Yes, Barnes & Noble's sleeper hit had been on my forum radar for some time, and I knew exactly what hackery I could get up to with that discounted 7-inch slab in my grips. So, I did what any frugal, hopelessly devoted tech geek would do: I ordered it (ground shipping, of course).

A few sacrificial microSD cards and bootloops of CyanogenMod later, and my Yves Behar-designed tablet had frankenformed into just that -- a tablet. So, how does it fare in its new life as a slate? Surprisingly well, although a heavy amount of interweb sleuthing was required to get Flash, YouTube and full access to the Market up and running -- fixes that involved either sideloading of renegade .apks, or a rejiggering of the preset pixel density. Naturally, the experience is not without hiccups, as there's the occasional force close and touchscreen dead zone to contend with. Typing on the deceptively heavy device, even with an alternative thumb keyboard enabled, is at best cumbersome. At worst, well, let's just say for the sake of efficiency I've relegated all email- and chat-related correspondence to the physical keys of this very laptop.

Despite my sworn allegiance to E Ink displays, I've found the multi-tasking abilities of my modded Nook Color to be a convenience I'm not prepared to relinquish. Switching between Amazon's Kindle app (the irony) to the native web browser, to Twitter and back is not only seamless, but it also feels natural, as if this is how our ADD-trained constitutions were meant to consume technology. It's no wonder B&N's dark horse has lit a Fire under Bezo's derriere.

-- Joseph Volpe