Donald Borenstein

Up Next

Unplug the smart way for just $100: Best tech for a day in the sun

Have your cake and eat it too.

It’s almost spring, and the misery of winter is allegedly about to fade.

After months squirreled away by the heater to avoid the elements, you’re hesitantly ready to go outside. We tend to think of technology and outdoor recreation as separate spheres, save for the occasional FitBit, but there are plenty of ways you can get yourself out in the fresh air. Affordable tech can help you enjoy your days off, without missing a beat.

Today, our goal is more modest than past installments of Up Next. We've come up with some new ways to enjoy a visit to the park with a few pieces of tech that all clock in less than $100. Of course, there’s a good argument that a day spent lounging in the park needs no improvement, but sometimes it’s nice to have a little variety.

Tune in, drop out

VJJB Bone Conduction Bluetooth Headphones

Released: 2019

What is it? Headphones for your bones. No, really: They’re Bluetooth headphones that send sound waves as direct vibrations through the bones in your temple to your eardrum.

Why should I care? They're safe enough to hear the world around you while jogging, with a high enough quality to still provide an enjoyable music experience. It’s the closest you can get to feeling like you have your own soundtrack without either blocking out sound from the outside world or annoying everyone with your own personal boombox.

Now, while we all love to listen to music while out and about, listening with closed-ear headphones can make us miss out on some of the sounds of the outdoors. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but if you want to immerse yourself in nature, it might be a good weekend to try out bone conduction headphones. Bone conduction headphones work by placing small vibrating speakers directly on the temple so the vibrations go directly through the bones in the ear to the eardrum without interfering with what you hear through your ear canal. This means you can quietly listen to your music while enjoying a conversation or listening to the gentle sounds of a breezy afternoon.

Our pick for an affordable pair of bone conduction headphones are the highly rated VJJB Bone Conduction Bluetooth Headphones. VJJB's biggest selling point, aside from the typical openness that comes with bone conduction headphones, is their incredible battery life. VJJB claims 10 days of standby time, and user reviews are filled with people claiming this estimate is fairly accurate, a rarity for Bluetooth devices.

Further still, while the VJJB headphones suffer from common issues faced by bone conduction — namely, exceptionally noisy environments can be hard to hear in and the bass performance is weak — overall, they offer exceptionally clear sound and a lightweight feel. The most popular bone conduction brand, AfterShokz, offers similar performance, but for a substantially higher price point.

For rough drafts

Wacom Bamboo Spark Smart Pen + folio

Released: 2015

What is it? An older but affordably priced smart pen and notebook option, the Wacom Bamboo Spark lets you enjoy all the flexibility and clarity of handwriting with the security of a typed, digital backup.

Why should I care? While it isn’t perfect — the Wacom app can be occasionally buggy — the smart pen’s handwriting recognition is fantastic. It has pressure sensitivity and fairly high accuracy in converting handwritten text to transcribed typed text automatically, all for a fraction of the cost of newer smart pen options.

Alternate option:

  • The RocketBook Smart Reusable Notebook is what it looks like: a fairly basic notebook, but instead of using a smart pen, the RocketBook app pairs with the notebook’s custom designed paper for exceptionally accurate photo-based handwriting-to-text conversion, all at the astonishingly low price of $13.60.
  • It takes a different but almost equally effective approach to smart note-taking, with a totally analog pen and paper setup that works seamlessly with the RocketBook app and your phone camera to scan and convert your handwritten work into typed notes. It’s not as instantaneous or automatic as the Wacom Smart Pen, but it has a high degree of accuracy and, furthermore, it won’t be ruined if you get caught in the rain.

Inspiration often strikes us while we relax outside, or sometimes we want to just be able to draw or write away from the harsh glow of our computer monitor. The idea of being able to instantly convert handwriting into typed text feels ripped out of science fiction, but it actually has existed in the consumer market for well over a decade. Now it’s been around long enough that good options for it are finally affordable.

My favorite affordable option is the Wacom Bamboo Spark Smart Pen + Folio. Originally released in 2015 at a much higher price point, the Bamboo Spark still offers exceptionally accurate handwriting recognition that directly transcribes your writing to text in the Wacom Bamboo app. The app itself can be a little buggy, but the pen’s handwriting recognition accuracy is impressive, especially give you’ll only be paying $26 for it.

Any camera is an instant camera

Polaroid Mint Pocket Printer with ZINK Zero-Ink Technology

Released: 2018

What is it? A mobile, inkless printer that connects to your phone to print out any of your pictures on quick-developing instant film. There’s also a version for the same price that includes a built-in camera.

Why should I care? This lets you turn your cell phone photos of a nice day in the park with your friends into tangible, lifelong keepsakes. It also lets you print out dumb memes at will to stick to any surface with it’s adhesive-backed film. Add a 30 pack of ZINK photo paper for an additional $15 and you'll be good to go.

But let’s say you’re more of a visual learner, and you prefer to walk around and snap photos of what you see. It’s easy to take a bunch of photos on your cell phone and forget about nearly all of them except the one or two you post to Instagram. It’s incredible to have such a high-quality camera in your pocket, but it can sometimes feel less tangible.

Thankfully, Polaroid’s Mint Pocket Printer offers Bluetooth connectivity to turn any cell phone of yours into an instant camera. While the “ZINK” proprietary photo paper is a tad overpriced at $15 for 30 shots, the joy of being able to print out the photos you like and actually hold and share them is truly fantastic, and it still allows you to enjoy the superior quality of mobile phone cameras.

If you really want to disconnect, they also offer a model with a built-in camera for the same price, but you’re better off with your cell phone camera. The quality of the prints are good — not quite on the level of Fuji’s more expensive Instax instant cameras — but the lower price means more money for film. A small quality jump isn’t worth it if you can’t afford to use the printer or camera as much as you’d like to, especially considering that the great thing about instant printers and cameras is capturing something in the moment.

4 alternate options

Musical Flower pot and LED Grow light

What to know: If you’re more of a homebody, you might prefer a good afternoon spent on your porch or in the yard. If that’s more your style, a fun project might be growing some of your own potted plants. Paying attention to your plant is key to successfully keeping it alive, so how about giving yourself more of a reason to check it out every so often by getting this fun $15 Musical Flower Pot. With an integrated touchpad-based piano on the pot, you might not be able to compose any masterpieces on here, but you certainly can enjoy goofing off with it a bit. Be sure to pair it with an LED grow light for another $13 to help your plant flourish.

Bluetooth Speaker Frisbee

What to know: If you’re more of the sporting type, or looking for something to do with a group, this $15 Frisbee with a bluetooth speaker built in from Tucker International might just do the trick. Sure, it seems a bit goofy with its orange, kid-oriented color scheme, but it could make for a fun game of hot potato or ultimate while lounging about in the park.

Zhiyun Q Mobile Gimbal

What to know: If video is more your thing, it’s worth checking out the Zhiyun Q Mobile Gimbal. While not quite as compact and easy to use as the more expensive DJI Osmo Mobile 3, for $79 its a fantastic gimbal that turns your phone into a camera capable of capturing sweeping vistas and dynamic action shots — even more so if you use it with the phenomenal $10 FilmicPRO app that allows for manual video control.

Polaroid Cube Action Cam

What to know: If you want something smaller and cheap, the $20 Polaroid Cube Action Cam can be a little finicky and doesn’t offer the greatest video quality in the world. But its magnetic mount allows for a lot of flexible use. It’s also a lot of fun to play with, having owned a number of them myself in years past.

No matter how you want to spend your days off in the sun, there are plenty of options out there to make the most of them away from the computer screen, even if you’re not totally disconnected. Technology shouldn’t feel like something tethering us when it can do just as much to help us explore nature, the world around us, and our own ideas in ways we never could before.

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UP NEXT is an occasional series by Inverse. You have $100 each week to spend. Some weeks it's one thing. Some weeks it's 10 things. Written by Inverse's future-focused pros who are obsessed with emerging tech, this weekly buyer's guide makes recommendations about products that feel like they're from the future. From bags and shoes to wireless charging, RFID tech, and mobile gaming, to privacy and digital security, it's in UP NEXT.

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