If I had infinite time, I would study every language ever -- I'm just that much of a geek. Having to work full-time puts a damper on my deca-lingual aspirations, so I've narrowed it down to Japanese, and Rosetta Stone's Level 1 CD-ROM program is easy enough to fit into my schedule.
Yes, you read that correctly: I went for the CD-ROM version, which happens to be the cheapest choice at $179 for one level. That's still not chump change, but Rosetta crams a ton of lessons into each of the three language levels. A digital download is available, so those of you who have long since renounced optical media will have no problem getting started.
Rosetta Stone teaches by immersion, gradually introducing you to new words and grammar. I learned Spanish and German in the traditional classroom setting, so this approach was new to me. I love it though; it's so satisfying to understand complete sentences within an hour of starting level 1 (if only because the photos provide you with context). And the program really drills words and phrases into your head, bringing them up in several different exercises before moving on to new material. Of course, the downside to this method is that you won't learn survival Japanese right off the bat: instead of "where's the subway?" it's all about "she is buying a hat" at the beginning.
Could I get by in Tokyo at this point? Not even close -- it's only been a month, after all. But my learning did come in handy on a recent trip to Japan. Asking for water and inquiring about a green Adidas sweater in the local tongue? Check and check.
-- Sarah Silbert
When it comes to flash wizardry, there's hardly a name bigger than PocketWizard. The company's growing line of accessories serve to give professional photographers oodles of flexibility, and in essence, make the most of their flash purchases. Recently, my wife -- who knows a thing or two about shooting a wedding -- began having a range issues with her dual Speedlight setup. Basically, the built-in Master / Slave arrangement is fairly poor in practice with Nikon flashes, as you'll lose communication between the flash atop a DSLR and the flash placed elsewhere if you're over about 15 feet away.
Clearly, she's not alone. PocketWizard offers a smattering of products designed specifically to overcome this nuisance. In short, you can attach a MiniTT1 into your DSLR's hotshoe, while attaching a FlexTT5 to the base of each flash. Essentially, this bypasses your camera's master / slave ideology altogether and uses its own wireless bands to communicate -- wireless bands, I might add, that over triple the range. She was able to sit two Speedlight flashes on two separate tripods at a wedding reception, each some 30 feet away from the other. A simple click of the shutter told the MiniTT1 to trigger both remote flashes, and it worked like a charm.
There's also the option of placing a FlexTT5 in the DSLR's hotshoe as well as a flash, and then switching to Master in order to fire one flash atop your camera and one remote flash. Frankly, the options are only limited by the amount of kit you're willing to buy from PocketWizard, and the thing's ability to communicate even through walls is a total godsend to frantic photogs. The most common bundle -- a single MiniTTI with two FlexTT5 units -- will cost Nikon and Canon shooters some $637. That's a huge sum of cash, but if you shoot dark and moody receptions for a living, it might just be worth the investment. At the very least, you can bank on it all working as advertised.
-- Darren Murph
Damnit, the last way that I wanted to start off my trip to the Oregon coast was by popping off about a piece of technology, but truth be told, my past nine months with the TomTom Via 1530 have been building to this point. Perhaps it's my fault for not reading reviews first, but I was standing in Costco one day and decided that I needed an honest-to-God navigation device. The price was right -- somewhere in the ballpark of $120 -- and the box said it included lifetime traffic updates. Combined with a 5-inch display, I figured I couldn't lose. Boy, was I wrong.
Here's the thing: when the device works, it's absolutely brilliant. The guidance is accurate, it offers pinpoint GPS precision -- so good that it'll tell me exactly when to exit a roundabout -- it alerts me when I'm speeding and the advanced lane guidance is perfect for keeping me on the right path. The problem is, I never know when the evil thing is going to work. Before setting out on this trip, I had to power cycle the device five times for it to grab a GPS lock. This is a persistent annoyance that software updates haven't been able to resolve, and I feel like I'm flying on a wing and a prayer every time I need driving directions.
I also don't trust (or like) its IQ Routes feature, which offers to re-route your journey when you hit slowdowns. The system uses historical data for streets where live traffic information isn't available, and the one time I used it, I was re-routed straight into an hour-long traffic jam. While traveling to the coast, I hit some minor construction on the interstate, and predictably, the system asked if I wanted to take a faster route. I verbally responded, "No," and it complied for about three minutes before it once again nagged me to take the alternate route. I went back and forth with the TomTom Via like this until I was out of the construction area. Lame.
I could go on about its rotten resistive touchscreen, but honestly, I'm willing to put up with it. After all, it's not like I spent a fortune on this thing. Still, the TomTom Via 1530 is the most loathsome piece of technology I've ever owned. Sure, I could probably take advantage of Costco's return policy, but I've come to accept this as my punishment for not reading the reviews -- if you Google the product name, you'll see that I'm not the only one who thinks it's a disaster. Honestly, I'm not even sure if this thing is going to work for my return trip. Fortunately, I brought the Lumia 810 as a backup. At least Nokia knows how to get a GPS lock.
-- Zach Lutz