Essential Gear: 20 Best Travel Gadgets

When it comes to traveling you may still rely on tried and true packing lists, but it goes without saying that gadgets and tech, have become both welcome and obnoxious additions — so much for packing light. In this Essential Gear feature we bring you our list of travel-tech endorsements, field tested by the GP editors from our varying work and personal travel excursions. Some of these products may not necessarily be the “highest-rated” from their respective categories, but in the end they earned our stamp of approval for a combination of price, approachability, and something we like to call the U-factor: U for everyday usability.

So, hit the jump and get reading.

Best Tablet: iPad 2

One word: apps. The iPad 2 ($499+) is a technological marvel in of itself and like Apple’s latest commercial it touts a combination of features, usability and design that make it a daily delight. But, what makes the iPad truly standout is the veritable cornucopia of apps available for it turning it into the world’s best travel companion. With dual cameras, more RAM, and a lighter form factor the iPad 2’s U-factor gets cranked up to 11.

Buy Now: More Info | $499+

Best iPad Alternative: Blackberry PlayBook

If you’re still a Crackberry addict and shun the world of Apple, then the Playbook is RIM’s volley into the tablet world, and my oh my, it’s an impressive one. The 7″ touchscreen form factor, rubberized backing and lightweight body is fantastic to hold for extended periods of time. Movies play with high frame rates, filling the beautiful screen from corner to corner and hell, it even runs Flash if that’s your thing. The Blackberry tethering is a nice feature, but we’d love to see the Playbook stand stronger as its own device. The current app store offerings are a bit sad, but more are being added everyday and the OS, which is surprisingly elegant, continues to refine.

Buy Now: $499+ | More Info

Best E-Reader: Amazon Kindle 2

Here’s a quick challenge. Try reading a couple of chapters of your favorite novel on the Amazon Kindle and the iPad. We’re willing to bet money that you’ll walk away preferring the reading experience on the Kindle over the iPad every time. E-ink screens and a virtual absence of weight make the Kindle a rockstar reading gadget. Granted, reading is about the only thing you’ll enjoy on it — besides the price tag.

Buy Now: $139+ | More Info

Best Point & Shoot Camera: Canon PowerShot S95

If you shoot a DSLR, then you’re going to inevitably want a quality point & shoot camera for those times when a behemoth just isn’t appropriate. Look no further than the S95. Like its predecessor, the S90, the camera delivers incredible photographs, shot after shot, without any fuss or fiddling. It has one of the best picture priority and auto modes we’ve seen. HD video capture, manual function dial, an improved case material, and additional filter functions make this a first class compact shooter

Buy Now: $439 | More Info

Best DSLR Camera: Nikon D5100

Disclosure, we use several Canon 7D’s here at GP, but for a combination of portability, robustness, and features we’ve come to really be fond of the new D5100 even after just a couple of weeks worth of testing. The newer, younger sibling to the incredible Nikon D7000, the D5100 hits the right stride of features and offers a high-resolution tilt-swivel screen for low or elevated image and HD video capture angles without having to resort to embarrassing positions — something you’ll appreciate when you’re trying not to look like the tourist. It’s auto mode is a delight to use and maybe it’s just us but the satisfying clunk of a Nikon shutter never grows old. Tip: pass on the 18-55 lens kit and get yourself the Nikon 18-200mm lens. It’s the only travel-lens you’ll need.

Buy Now: $799 (body) | More Info

Best Underwater/Beach Camera: Canon Powershot D10

If someone asks you which camera you want for the beach or light-duty underwater shots, you need answer with only one response: the Powershot D10. It’s a bit fat around the waist, but for its girth it delivers over 30 feet in waterproof-ness and shock resistance. It’s kind of like the G-Shock of compact cameras and comes at a budget-friendly price.

Buy Now: $299 | More Info

Best Mirrorless Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2

The second generation to Panasonic’s game changing Lumix GF1, the GF2 puts pro quality RAW image capturing capabilities to the masses. Interchangeable lenses (albeit pricey ones), HD video capture, compact yet hardy design and ultra-fast performance make it a travel shooter that will have you wanting to leave both the DSLR and point & shoot camera at home.

Buy Now: $699 | More Info

Best Ultra Portable PC Laptop: Samsung Series 9 Notebook

We have to give credit to Samsung industrial designers. They know how to make a good-looking piece of technology and here Samsung Series 9 Notebook is a true model. Some might call it a MacBook Air wannabe, but if we weren’t already using bulky 15″ MacBook Pros and Apple-based software we’d be hard pressed not to want to pick up the Samsung 9 for our next laptop. If you’re a PC user, then the Samsung 9 and it’s ludicrously sharp 13″ screen will more than satisfy any lingering MacBook Air envy — as a matter of fact, we’re kind of feeling the other way around.

Buy Now: $1599 | More Info

Best Ultra Portable Apple Laptop: MacBook Air 11-Inch

The best way to describe the MacBook Air, is an iPad that went to college. It’s still ultralight, but offers a full-size keyboard, Mac OS X, and We wouldn’t recommend any extended Photoshop or Final Cut iMovie sessions on it, but this portable productivity workhose absolutely crushes when it comes to price to portability.

Buy Now: $1,599 | More Info

Best Portable Video Camera: Kodak Playsport Zx5

The Flip may have gone the way of the Dodo, but there’s still another great solution out there for compact, lightweight video capture. The Kodak Playsport offers adventure-proofing (e.g. water, shock) and excellent video capture for a price we can appreciate. The downsides are there’s no Mac software and no built-in USB connector, but we’ll still take it. High U-factor here.

Buy Now: $179 | More Info

Best Camcorder: Canon Vixia G10

Canon’s flagship Vixia G10 weighs just 1.2 lbs, but packs a flabergasting amount of technology with an easy-to-use interface. 32GB of built-in internal flash memory, dual SDXC card slots, and a trove of awesome filters and capabilities. Bridging a gap between pro and amateur, the G10 captures lifelike 1080P HD video, touts a highly sensitive CMOS sensor for great low-light capture and up-to 10x zoom. Its 8-blade iris also ensures creamy background blur and even has a dedicated manual focus ring. It also features native 24p recording for a cinema-like video and 5.1 surround sound capture. Disclosure: we’ve only tested this unit in sanctioned facilities (not on our own), but from our limited time, we’re putting our stamp of approval on the G10.

Buy Now: $1,499 | More Info

Best Noise Canceling Headphones: Bose QuietComfort 3

Que the inevitable discourse. Yes, we’re putting something from Bose on here but these headphones deserve their placement. The QuietComfort 3’s, perform like their bigger brother, the QuietComfort 15’s and offer not only impressive audio but strike perfect balance of noise cancelling, audio performance and comfort. You can wear these on non-stop flights from New York to Tokyo and forget they’re even there.

Buy Now: $349 | More Info

Best Earphones: Klipsch Image S5i Rugged

Here’s a pair of earphones that’ll want on your person at all times. Klipsch has endowed the Image S5i’s with a water-resistant design and buttons suitable for actual use when you’re wearing gloves (something you don’t appreciate until you’ve done it a few times). Like you’ve come to expect from Klipsch gear, these earphones perform sonically throughout the entire range. Further adding to their on-the-go functionality is the hard case, which features a built-in flashlight.

Buy Now: $125 | More Info

Best Ruggedized Portable Radio: Eton Raptor

Sometimes the going gets tough and you lack connectivity in every sense of the matter. That is, except AM/FM or wideband. The solar-powered Eton Raptor combines a radio, alarm clock, altimeter, barometer, LED Flashlight and a charger (USB) for your gadgets. It’s even waterproof, but most importantly, it includes a bottle opener.

Buy Now: $149 | More Info

Best CDMA Smartphone: Apple iPhone 4

Need we say more? It’s the iPhone 4 and you can get it on AT&T for globetrotting or Verizon for awesome domestic connectivity, though we’ve never had a problem with our AT&T unit. The addition of portable hot-spot functionality and access to the world’s best app store make the iPhone a gold medal earner.

Buy Now: $199+More Info

Best GSM Smartphone: BlackBerry Torch 9800

Blackberry and it’s parent RIM may be going through a PR nightmare, but to us the devices have continued to perform especially when it comes to correspondence. Email push services, built-in keyboards, and availability on all the networks make the Torch a great choice, especially in GSM form. We can’t help but think that with the ubiquity of the iPhone, is it once again cool to rock a berry?

Buy Now: $50-$99 with contract | More Info

Best 4G Smartphone: HTC Thunderbolt 4G

Ultra-fast 4G data speeds over Verizon’s LTE network make this Thunderbolt closer to its namesake than any Android phones out there. It boasts a 4.3″ touch-screen, simultaneous voice and data. It doesn’t feature great battery life due to the inability to switch between 3G and 4G, and lack of GSM but you may spend so little time waiting that it won’t matter. For a GSM/AT&T alternative, we recommend the Motorola Atrix ($199), which can double as a mini-computer when using a special dock.

Buy Now: $249 | More Info

Best Bluetooth Headset: Jawbone Era

When it came to testing out bluetooth headsets, we were hard pressed to find one that even remotely compared to the Jawbone era. Using military-grade noise-cancellation, the Era is a high-end performer that delivers amazing audio, elegant design, and a high usability factor that had us using it far more often than we’d like to admit (occasionally, even in public). At a pricetag exceeding $100, we wouldn’t call it the cheapest purchase, but for on-the-go reliability and performance, the price is worth every penny.

Buy Now: $130 | More Info

Best Portable Hotspot: Samsung 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot

When you’re on the run or traveling, looking for wi-fi is the last thing you want to be doing. MiFi devices have made personal hotspots attainable to road warriors, and this candy bar sized Samsung device delivers Verizon’s speedy 4G LTE network to your position without any hassle.

Buy Now: $99 | More Info

Best Gadget Packing Solution: Tumi Flat Pouch Cases

Stop chucking in all your gear into random suitcase pockets, or worse, between clothes. Ensure your tech and gadgets are stowed in organized cases. This set of three from Tumi brings Tumi quality, zip-top closures and the flat black look we love with our tech. Lower priced alternative: Muji Mesh Cushion Case ($8 each)

Buy Now: $65 | More Info

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Our thanks to Lexus and the all new CT 200h for helping make this month’s features possible. Welcome to the darker side of green.