Gadgets on the piste

Warning: The following is by no means an in-depth review or related to PC hardware. I used a recent ski trip as an opportunity to try out some of the latest hi-tech sports/skiing gear, and I wanted to share a cursory overview of my experience with some bonus photos. If you want to listen to this roundup (and avoid my atrocious writing), check out the latest episode of the TR Podcast.

When I was 11, the number-one item on my birthday wish list was a handheld GPS. This was back when geo-location was only available in the form of dash-mounted navigation units and handheld devices from Magellan and Garmin. The idea of being able to know my exact latitude and longitude while on family hikes, camping trips, and miscellaneous outdoor adventures resonated strongly with my inner geek. The marriage of technology and the great outdoors was, at the time, new and exciting.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to escape the concrete jungle of NYC and enjoy a short winter vacation at the Keystone Ski Resort in Colorado. In the 11 years since I began lusting after a GPS, the world of outdoor tech gear has changed considerably. I used my ski trip as an opportunity to see what the latest generation of products has to offer. On my trip, I traveled with review units of Monster's iSport Intensity In-Ear Headphones, Aether's Altitude Jacket with Apex Snow Pants, and Recon Instrument's MOD Live HUD with UVEX Goggles.

Before starting, I should note that, if you ever get a chance to visit any of the ski resorts in Colorado, do it. My overall experience was nothing short of incredible, and I'm already planning to return next winter. The breathtaking Colorado Rockies, the nested mountain towns, the massive groomed ski slopes, and the unruly powder all made a big impact on me.

Monster iSport Intensity Earbuds
Price: $73.55

If you listen to the TR Podcast, you may know that I'm something of an earbud connoisseur. During my daily commute to Manhattan, I've developed a penchant for certain features: in-line music controls, noise isolation, durability, and comfort. Going from a subway commute to a ski slope, however, I found my preferences changed somewhat.

Monster's iSport Intensity earbuds are designed to accommodate the specific requirements of action sports like running, skiing, and biking. They feature a ribbon cable construction (a common feature these days), an oversized in-line control panel usable with gloves, and a waterproof/sweat-proof design. (You can wash them in the sink. Seriously, I tested it.) Most importantly, these earbuds only partially block out surrounding noise. Attempting to ski, run, or bike while deaf to your surroundings isn't very smart.

After my first run breaking in the iSports with Bangarang (don't hate; it's a great skiing song), I was seriously impressed. Obviously, when you're zipping down a slope, adding fast-paced music enhances the experience. Beyond that augmentation, the iSports are easy to control with gloves and easy to fit into my ears (they have multiple tip sizes), and they let in enough sound that I didn't have to worry about being clipped by an unseen skier. My only complaint is that, after a long afternoon of use, my ears started to hurt—mostly, I think, because of the prolonged pressure from my beanie against my earbud-equipped ears. That annoyance aside, and considering the asking price, these are a no-brainer.

Bottom line: Skiing is awesome. Skiing with your favorite music, and doing it safely with well-designed earbuds, is even more awesome. Thumbs up for the Monster iSports.

Aether Altitude Jacket with Apex Snow Pants
Price: $675 (Jacket) - $375 (Pants)

Developed by Swiss fabric company Schoeller, C_Change smart fabric can adjust its level of heat retention and breathability dynamically. If you start to work up a sweat, the fabric adjusts to allow increased heat dissipation. If you're cooling down on the chairlift back up to the top, the fabric membrane adjusts to retain heat and keep you warm. The Aether Altitude jacket I tested is made entirely of this savvy fabric. Aether also sent me a pair of their matching Apex Ski Pants to complement the jacket.

For the most part, the Altitude Jacket measured up to its promise of keeping me warm when needed and cool when preferred. During powder runs and corduroy wipeouts, the Apex Snow pants kept me warm, dry, and very happy. However, during my trip's coldest moments (temperatures hovered around 20° with 30-MPH gusts one morning), I was disappointed to feel the bite of the wind more than I expected from a garment of this tier. That was despite wearing a fleece mid-layer and Under Armour cold gear as a base.

Other problems frustrated me, as well. The armpit vents (a standard ski jacket feature) don't include mesh webbing to prevent snow from entering. The part of the jacket collar that touches your chin and mouth when completely zipped up isn't padded very softly, either, and it starts to chafe as the day wears on. The overall cut of the jacket is slim-fitting, which I quite like—but parts of the jacket fit like a glove, while the snow skirt was entirely too tight, and I wasn't able to snap it closed. Many ski jackets feature wrist/thumb loops that help keep snow out of your gloves, but the Altitude jacket does not.

Those annoyances may be small, but considering the Aether Altitude jacket is priced at a hefty $675, I found them hard to ignore. Overall, I was disappointed.

Bottom line: The Altitude Jacket is too smart for its own good. Technology-infused fabric doesn't make up for bare-minimum features and primo price tag.

Recon Instruments MOD Live Heads Up Display
Price: $353 (not including goggles) - $549 (as tested with UVEX goggles)

A spiritual successor to my first handheld GPS, the Recon Instruments MOD Live HUD is an in-goggle GPS/accelerometer that provides real-time information via a small display visible at the lower-right corner of the user's field of view. The device is controlled by a wrist-mounted remote, and it reports ground speed, altitude, jump distance, and airtime, among other data points. The MOD Live can also help you navigate slopes with built-in resort maps. Priced anywhere from $353-$599 (depending on the paired goggles), Recon's offering is compatible with goggles from companies like Oakley and Scott. I borrowed a friend's UVEX G.GL9 goggles, which retail about $550, for my testing.

The heads-up display isn't quite what you'd expect. If you're imagining a Call of Duty-style holographic data overlay, you're off the mark. Rather, the display is designed to appear as if you're looking at a 14" screen from five feet away. The HUD is actually quite usable in practice. When you're on the slope, it's small enough not to be distracting. However, it's in just the right place for you to glance down and check your speed quickly. When back on the chairlift, you can give the HUD more attention and navigate its UI with the paired wrist remote.

I should note that there are a few other features I didn't completely test. Recon offers iPhone and Android apps that let you interface with the HUD. This smartphone paring allows for in-HUD music control and SMS message reading. There's also a buddy-tracking feature, if you're lucky enough to have more than one gadget-savvy and/or rich friend.

At first, knowing your current ground speed is a unique addition to the skiing experience. It's perhaps even a little dangerous, because the goggles remind you of your record speed, and I kept trying to beat that figure. (In case you're wondering, my final record was 46 MPH. I was quickly bested by a snowboarding friend who tore up the slope at 56 MPH. He later hit his head on a tree branch and suffered a small concussion, though, so we're even. But I digress.)

While using the HUD—tracking my speed, using the built-in map, and tweaking the customizable UI, which lets you adjust what information is visible—I kept wondering if this gadget, which I admittedly was trying for free, was really worth the asking price. Is this a must-have piece of gear or just a fun and pricey toy? My opinion wavered for the first two days, but my mind was made up the second I plugged the device into my computer.

In addition to displaying real-time information, the MOD Live keeps a log of recorded data. When you upload this data to the online Recon Engage portal, the day's adventures are brought to life. Each run is shown with real-time speed and altitude information, and you can scroll along your course chronologically via a top-down map to see exactly where you hit your top speed, your highest jump distance, your longest air time, etc. Since Recon has a map of each ski resort, you're even reminded the name of each slope. Cooler still, this data can be exported to Google Earth.

Bottom line: The MOD Live brings in-depth data to action sports. If you're like me, that can be a very addictive concept. Now that my three-day trip is over, I'd be inclined to say $350-600 is still too much of a premium—but I'm already trying to see how I could afford the device for my next excursion to the Rockies. It's that good.

P.S. Recon makes a very pared-down version of the MOD that retails for slightly less ($225, not including goggles).

I have no doubt that, without any of the aforementioned gadgets (particularly the HUD and the earbuds), I still would've had an incredible trip. Skiing in the Rockies is fun no matter how many tunes you can crank out or how many speed records you break. However, these devices made the experience even more enjoyable. In the case of the MOD Live, they may have helped create more vivid memories, as well.

Next year, I'll try to get my hands on this puppy.

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