Cool Tools

4) Revisiting Our Question, “Which Camcorder Is Best”?

camcorderA lot has changed since our July 2006 item trying to determine which camcorder is best for missions travel and promotion. Mark, a regular Brigada reader, asked if we could refresh the review. (Thanks for asking, Mark!) 

  • One factor we keep observing is the convergence of high-end pro-sumer digital SLRs and medium-duty camcorders. In other words, it’s gotten to the point that your still camera can take your high-def videos. One factor: the on-camera microphones on those SLRs is sometimes of lesser quality than the mics on dedicated camcorders. I think manufacturers believe they’ll only be used to annotate stills.
  • Then there’s convergence from the other side. Some of the camcorders are now making still images at 3 megapixels and up. Of course, you have to check to make sure that options like optical image stabilization are also online when taking stills (not just when doing video).
  • Since 2006, we’ve seen the blossoming of the entire market of camcorders using hard drives. They’ve dropped from $1600 down to $500 in just 3 years.
  • Then you have this whole new crop of miniature high-def camcorders that capture movies to flash cards (as opposed to mini-DV, DVDs, or hard-drives). For sure, one gives up some things on those $100 models, not the least of which is lense quality and CCD image clarity.

So what’s a body to do? Maybe the best recommendation is to fit the need. (In fact, maybe you’ve decided to stop doing video all together in favor of just doing slide shows with stills.) In the comment box below, please describe your own specific case and explain why you chose what you did — and whether or not you’re happy with your choice. There’s no one-size-fits all solution. Please make your case. :-)

10) Get Your Item Published *Now*

Our queue is lots longer than the number of items we can publish weekly. We do eventually publish all items, regardless of sponsorship. However, those who pitch in to help cover Brigada’s expenses are treated with special www-smoke-signalsdignity — because they’re helping pay the bills. We bump them directly to the head of the line. All of which means… if it’s Friday and you send in an item with a gift, there’s a good chance your item might be featured as quickly as 48 hours later (the following Sunday). Just follow the instructions for submitting an item (at our website,, by reading the guidelines when you select “Submit an item”), then click on one of the “Donor” links at the top of this page. Both are safe, the one with PayPal and the other with one of the most well-known “real” online merchants on the web. Neither requires you to open an account with anyone … and neither ever spams you. Or, if you prefer, just send an old-fashioned check payable to Team Expansion to: Team Expansion (Brigada), 13711 Willow Reed Dr., Louisville, KY 40299. (Team Expansion is a 501(c)3 incorporation so for USA citizens, your checks made out to Team Expansion are tax-deductible.) How much should you give? We’ll leave that up to you. Basically, any amount gets you bumped to the front of the line. Obviously, the more you give, the more thankful we are. And thank you in advance for helping.

11) The Backpage: Will You End Up Buying An Amazon ‘kindle’?

Check it out. Just head on over to Amazon at:

The lead item will probably be about the Kindle. There’s a 6″ diagonal screen and a 9.7″ screen — and either one will cause your eyes to pop. Keep in mind that these screens aren’t your typical backlit computer LCD. They use a completely different technology that is more like electronic ink (thus the name of the vendor that sells the kindleDXscreens to Amazon, “e-ink.” Regardless of the unit you pick (whether you want to accommodate 1500 books in a smaller package or 3000 books in a not-quite-as-small-but-still-amazing package, it really doesn’t matter. Both devices represent a new segment of the electronics market that is quite remarkable. Slim, lightweight, and wireless while you’re in the USA on home service or visiting. No monthly fees. And order & receive a book in under 60 seconds. Most books are $10 or less, too. Be kinder to the environment, enjoy all your books in your briefcase (instead of at home on the shelf) and, get this — it even reads aloud to you. (Although ours is comical when it tries to read the Bible. You can hear the voice mixing the verse numbers in with the text of the verses themselves! :-) ) Some 300,000 books have been prepared in this format — ready to download in one minute.

Disclaimers, they’re expensive — but so is/was your library. They run on electric (but they last for like 4 days of full-time reading). And more importantly, you won’t be able to hold the page in your hand. Also, if somebody steals your Kindle, they’re stealing your whole library. Finally, be careful what PDFs you put on it. There’s no password-protection, let alone encryption, of any kind. (There isn’t even a log-on password.) This last item is the thing that made our I.T. guy’s hair stand on end. Greg took a while to warm up to it. I think, in the end, it kind of grew on him though. He just helped us resolve to not put anything sensitive on it.

So check it out. It just might be your library of the future — in your briefcase.


Without a doubt, the Brigada story that seemed to garner the most interest was the series we did on “Cool Tools” for traveling missionaries. See the refreshed version, which we’ll try to keep up to date in the future, by clicking to:

The “Cool Tools” that seemed to draw the most attention were the item on jet lag, the one on “herding kids”, and the most recent one on which browser to use for travel & mission.

6) Missionary-Types Love Their Tools

Some 200 items dealing with technology (VPNs, for example), Facebook, webinars, another couple of hundred on training, dozens more on software, … the list goes on. The missionary enterprise (and Brigada in particular) seem keen on “gearing up” for missions. In the end, however, we realize the entire process is a work of the Spirit. We just enjoy keeping in touch while He helps us carry it out.

7) The Great Browser Bash: Which Do You Prefer?

OK… here’s your chance to vote: Which browser are you preferring for general missions use and why? How do you use some special feature… one that perhaps nobody else has thought about? For example, I recently tried out FireFox again and, for a fleeting moment, I thought I’d like the tags. So… vogue. Somehow I managed to shake off the temptation though… and now I’m back to Internet Explorer. I know, I know — somebody’s going to say that FireFox is more secure, right? (I thought that too ’til last week, Firefox picked up a drive-by-download that, in my own testing, Internet Explorer easily ignored.) Perhaps you’re *way* out there on the edge — and you like Opera better? Or something else? (There’s got to be a MAC version someone likes: Safari???) Just click comment on the web version of this item and sound off. (Thanks for helping me think this through, Greg — our I.T. guy at Team Expansion.)

2) "Spot" Satellite Locator Device Is Spot On

Lately, I’ve been testing a new 7-ounce device called “Spot Messenger”. Watch the Guided Tour at…

Now let me first clarify — there’s no “affiliate” tag on the end of that URL. (The people who make these devices don’t even know I’m writing this.) So note that there’s no kickback in the works here. I’m referring you to this device as “one beggar telling another where to find bread.” What I *can* tell you is that, with very few downsides, this device is a hit. Exactly what does it do? Using GPS satellite technology, it first pinpoints your location to an accuracy of 20′, almost anywhere on the earth. Next, using GlobalStar’s Low Earth Orbit satphone network, Spot sends the equivalent of a text message back to its home base in Milpitas, CA, where the tech guys there have created sophisticated software that plots your location on a GoogleEarth map, then relays carbon copy messages to the people you’ve chosen to notify in your Spot online web account. You can designate cell phones to receive text messages or email accounts — Spot doesn’t mind either way.

3) Does Spot Messenger Really Work?

In a word, yes. Of course, there are the normal limitations associated with any GPS/satphone device. Namely, you have to be outside with a clear view of the sky. What’s more, as with any of these class of 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacons, the communication is one-way only. Your friends are going to know exactly where you are… and that you’re ok… but they’re not going to be able to send you a message that says, “Honey I miss you.” As for dependability, the device has a lot going for it. This same network (GlobalStar’s simplex network, that is) is currently handling ship locator beacons and lots of other tracking devices to the tune of some 6 million messages per month with a reliability rate said to be close to 95%. Just in case, any message you queue up on your Spot Messenger is automatically re-sent 2 extra times for a total of 3 instances (the duplicates are dropped in Milptas if the original got through ok). So… barring any financial difficulties at GlobalStar (Hey, even Iridium had trouble staying afloat), the device should be good to go for years. There are still other caveats, however. Because it’s relying on the GlobalStar satphone simplex network, there are some limitations as to location. For example, forget the southern half of Africa, much of India, regions to the north of India, and even northern Alaska [updated: See “comment” below for more on this]. So if you’re heading to one of those locations, you definitely need to get this device in hand and try it there prior to depending on it for a life or death situation. (If it doesn’t work for your geographic area, my guess is they’d refund your money.)

4) See Spot Run: How Fast Can It Find You?

It takes Spot about 1′ or less to pin down your location. (Tests show about 46 seconds, actually.) That’s assuming you have clear sky though. Inside, I found it to be rather unreliable. In a car, just velcro it to the dashboard in view of the windshield and you’ll be good to go. In one setting, you can configure Spot to send an update on your location once every 10′. Talk about phoning home. The kids will think they’re watching Bond. James Bond.

5) What Will Spot Do?

There are four simple buttons and four distince modes:
*** Alert 9-1-1, a distress alert with location that goes to a emergency control center
*** Help, which sends a text message and/or email to up to four individuals to let them know you’re ready for pick-up or whatever you’ve prearranged
*** SPOTchecking, which notifies pre-set friends as to your location and that you’re ok.
*** SPOTcasting, same as SPOTchecking, except it’s automatically updated every 10′.

The batteries last for about a year if you have it turned on. That’s awesome battery life. If you someday have to use the 911 service, your emergency message will go directly to the “GEOS Global Command and Control Center” in Houston, Texas, operated by SPOT’s partner, GEOS Alliance Travel Safety Group. They’ll try to call up your contact numbers to confirm that it’s not a false alert… but if they can’t reach you, they act. I mean… they send in hum-vees or choppers or snow shoes or skis… whatever it takes. In fact, if you pay an extra $8, they’ll basically come get you *wherever* you are in the world. Bail you out. It’s kind of like having your own CTU and you’re Jack Bauer. :-) If something changes and the guys stop shooting at you, you can always use the 911-cancel feature to let them know you’re ok. They’ll call back the cavalry. If you don’t cancel, it keeps sending an alert every 5 minutes until the batteries go dead — about 7 days later. Spotcasting mode sends an “I’m ok” update and location every 10′ for 14 days. You can send about 1900 Spotchecking messages before the batteries go down.

6) How Much Will Spot Set You Back?

All these services are subscription-based. Currently you’ll pay $99 for standard service plus an additional $49 per year for SPOTcasting. And … don’t forget to throw in the $8 extra for the helicopter extraction. :-) Oh … and you have to buy the unit itself for about $150 or so. Find it at Amazon or your favorite online retailer. The best price I’ve found is Amazon for $123.08. OK… if it’s all the same to you and it makes no difference where you buy, and if you decide to buy it, you might as well use this link which means that Amazon will send a very small gift to Brigada (like $2 or so?)

But remember — you don’t have to use this link or even Amazon. The point is — this product is a hit.

7) Who Will Want To Use Spot Messenger?

The perfect scenario would be a worker who regularly travels out to a remote mission location… say a village or a jungle area, where cell towers are spotty and dangers are many. Turn on your Spot Messenger, velcro it to the dashboard, and watch the wife and kids relax, knowing they will have 10-minute by 10-minute updates on your location. If you’re driving home from the village at 1am and you come upon a downed tree across the road, then see 5 guys come out with guns, before they roust you out of the car, just quietly reach up on the dash and push the 911 button. Suddenly, you’ll thank Brigada for putting you on toward the best $123 insurance device you ever bought. You’ll only have to use the device *once* in your life to pay it off. This past week, we prayed in our office for a young missionary in West Africa who had been traveling alone on a bike from one city to another. No one heard from him for 11 days. We had just learned that he had been hit by a car… and now, days later, no one was even sure what had become of his body. Certainly, if he had been wearing a Spot Messenger, the accident might have knocked him unconscious and even disabled the device. But if he were traveling in Spotcasting mode, some family member somewhere would have noted that his 10-minute updates abruptly stopped at such-and-such a time. The great thing about the Spot Messenger is that they would have known the very street corner where they stopped! From anywhere in the world.

So basically… anyone who travels to remote places and can step outside or place the device in a windshield is a great candidate for Spot.

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