8 min read

Five must-have iPad gadgets for geeks

Custom-designed for technophiles who want their iPads to do more

To most users, the iPad is a sleek tablet for watching videos, nosing around the Web and reading the occasional e-book. But to tech enthusiasts, the iPad can also be a platform to satisfy their intense curiosity.

We’ve gathered a bunch of unique gizmos that have one thing in common: they can take the iPad into new — and often unexpected — directions.

Ranging from techno toy to digital tool, these devices include a mini joystick, a digital voltmeter, an oscilloscope that lets you peer inside an electronic circuit, an iPad-controlled telescope that helps you view the night sky and a fascinating robotic ball.

These gadgets and instruments work with all iOS-based devices, including the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. However, after using each, I’ve found that all work best with the big screen that the iPad offers.

In short, these iPad add-ons can turn an ordinary iPad into a tool for exploration and discovery.

Ten One Design
Price: US$19.95

Fun and games is what Ten One’s Fling is all about. This snap-on mini joystick can help gamers play more efficiently (and get to new game levels faster) — however, it only works with some of the iPad-ready games available.

Fling’s small, circular plastic frame has a central button surrounded by a flexible, plastic, spiral-shaped arm. It is held in place on the iPad’s screen by a pair of suction cups. At 3 in. wide, it’s a good size for the iPad’s 9.7-in. screen; Ten One makes a pair of smaller joysticks called Fling mini for iPhones (US$24.95).

The best part about Fling is that it is purely mechanical and doesn’t require any software to use. In the lower left corner of many iPad games is a circular control pad that looks like a compass; it lets you control the game by pressing with your finger. You just wait for your game to start and then press the cups into place right over the game’s controller spot. Serious gamers playing complex games can use two Flings at once.

I used it with an iPad to conquer new worlds (BattleNoidz HD), fend off alien attacks Heavy Gunner 3D) and drive a monster truck (4X4 Offroad Racing). Fling gave me more precise control over the action. It also allowed me to respond to on-screen events faster because I was able to keep my finger on the button rather than having to take it off the screen’s surface periodically. It works just as well with a thumb or forefinger on either hand, so lefties can use it too.

Currently, Fling works with only about 200 games (Ten One has an informal list); with luck, over time there will be more that are compatible.

Bottom line

At $20, the Fling (which comes with a microfiber pouch for storage) is a bargain that can make iPad gaming a lot more rewarding.

Redfish Instruments
Price: US$485

Redfish’s iDVM iPad-enabled digital multimeter can help you troubleshoot all sorts of electronics by probing voltage, current and resistance. At US$485, however, it is an expensive tool.

The iDVM connection box is a 4.6 x 2.8 x 1.1 in. device to which you attach the included electronic probes. It connects to the iPad via Wi-Fi; a blue LED light on the connection box shows that it’s connected. It weighs 5.6 oz., making it smaller and lighter than a standalone multimeter.

Unfortunately, no alligator clips are included for connecting to circuits in tough-to-reach places, but it’s easy to use your own.

To get started, you’ll need to download the free iDVM app from the App Store. The app resembles a cartoon version of a handheld multimeter. There’s a window for readings, a dial for choosing whether you want to measure voltage (from 0.4 to 300 volts), resistance (0 to 4 mega ohms) or current (0.1 milliamp to 4 amps). There’s also a handy continuity tester that measures whether the circuit has a break in it.

There are icons for holding the reading at any point, displaying the minimum and maximum as well as changing the range of the readings. At any time, you can grab a screenshot (but not a video).

The software works in portrait or landscape mode. The former adds a graph of the readings over time, while the latter has a list of the program’s saved files. At any time, you can set the iDVM to tell you the readings via audio, although the synthesized voice quickly gets annoying.

Once everything was set up, I attached the iDVM’s probes to a new 9-volt battery and verified its reading with a standalone Radio Shack multimeter; the two readings agreed perfectly. I found that the Wi-Fi connection had a range of 85 feet.

I used the iDVM to troubleshoot a car stereo that shuts itself off with no warning while driving. After connecting the iDVM probes to the stereo’s power cable, I drove around listening to the meter tell me the voltage readings until the stereo cut out; at the same time, the voltage reading dropped to zero. Sure enough, I found that the stereo’s power connector was loose, causing an intermittent fault.

The rechargeable device ran for nearly 11 hours before its battery ran down, easily outlasting the iPad’s battery. The iPad interface has a four-segment gauge that shows how much power remains in the iDVM’s battery.

Bottom line

All in all, the iDVM transforms an iPad into a capable multimeter for everything from checking batteries to sniffing out an electronic fault. However, it costs about 10 times what a good handheld meter will cost.

Mixed Signal Oscilloscope iMSO-104
Price: US$297.99

To my mind, the ultimate tech tool is the oscilloscope. It not only probes the inner workings of an electronic circuit but can be more interesting to watch than a TV. Oscium’s Mixed Signal Oscilloscope iMSO-104 turns an iPad into a go-anywhere oscilloscope with exceptional graphics.

The iMSO-104 consists of a small piece of hardware that plugs into the iOS device’s 30-pin dock connector. This connects to a variety of probes and cables; the cables are only about 14 in. long, which can be confining for a large project.

Before using the iMSO-104, you have to download Oscium’s free app. Once it’s set up, the iMSO-104 is capable of performing tasks that you’d expect from a much more expensive device.

For example, it can send complex signals into an electronic circuit and examine the signals that come out, a valuable technique in troubleshooting modern electronics or developing new circuits. It works in both analog and digital modes, has six measurement probes and can capture and display up to 12 million samples per second.

On top of measuring the frequency and period of the signal, the iMSO-104 can show the signal’s minimum, maximum and mean values as well as peak to peak, root mean square readings and even sophisticated and fast Fourier transform signals.

Because visualization is the iMSO-104’s forte, it works best on the iPad’s larger screen. Each probe wire is color-coded to what’s shown on the screen, and it can show everything from a simple sine wave to complicated mixed signals on one screen with a variety of colors. At any point, you can zoom in on any area of the graph with the two-finger pinching gesture. The app can save and email screenshots of your results.

I used the oscilloscope to troubleshoot a problem with a radio that produced lower volume in the right channel compared to the left one. Later, it helped me figure out that a network jumper cable wasn’t correctly wired at the factory.

It can’t do everything, however. The iMSO-104 tops out at 40 volts and has a threshold of 1.7 volts, which some will find constraining. Plus, its plug heats up while it’s in use. And I wish it had the ability to create a video of the on-screen action.

Bottom line

If you use an oscilloscope and own an iPad, this is a great way to get the job done using both technologies to support one another.

Orion StarSeeker 130mm GoTo Reflector Telescope
Orion Telescopes & Binoculars
Price: US$399.99
Works with: Orion StarSeeker Wi-Fi Telescope Control Module (US$159.99); Orion Star Seek 3 (US$9.99)

The Orion StarSeeker 130 GoTo Reflector Telescope is useful for both long-time star gazers and absolute beginners. All you have to do is pick what you want to see on your iPad, and the scope automatically orients itself to the correct position in the night sky.

However, you will first have to make a bit of an investment. The 130mm reflector telescope itself costs US$400. To get it to work with an iPad, you’ll also need the US$160 Orion StarSeek Wi-Fi Telescope Control Module, the US$10 Orion StarSeek 3 app and the time to set it all up. With all these accessories, the telescope is a power hog, requiring 12 AA batteries (8 for the scope and 4 for the Wi-Fi module); I found that this barely lasted for three hours of star gazing. Orion sells a US$20 AC adapter for the telescope, but there’s nothing for the Wi-Fi module. For field work, the US$100 Orion Dynamo Pro 12 Ah Rechargeable 12V DC Power Station can power the whole system.

After plugging the Wi-Fi module into the telescope and wirelessly connecting the iPad to it, you’ll need to configure an encrypted link between the module and the iPad. This is done via a Web page that the Wi-Fi module serves up.

After that, you align the telescope by aiming the scope at three different places in the sky with the interface’s four-way arrow control. At each point, the scope’s electronics analyze what it’s aimed at and figure out where the telescope is.

It’s a little time-consuming and complicated to put it all together — it took me over an hour. Unfortunately, there’s no single manual that deals with the entire process, and I found myself juggling different booklets to get it all to work together.

However, when I was finally ready to pick an object to view from the StarSeek 3 iPad app, the results were worth the effort. The scope’s motors whirred as the device’s optical tube moved to point directly at that object and stayed locked on it. All I had to do was focus the eyepiece.

The telescope is capable of moving at up to 4 degrees per second; it took about 45 seconds for the scope to home in on Venus, Polaris and other objects.

The beauty of the telescope and iPad combo is that it doesn’t require any knowledge of astronomy or the scientific names of the stars, asteroids and other celestial objects; the StarSeek 3 app has a database that provides access to more than 4,000 celestial items. I was able to easily locate and see stars and asteroids during three nights and an early morning of astronomical viewing.

StarSeek 3 also offers a wealth of astronomical information such as descriptions of astronomical objects, photos and coordinates. The app can be set to a red-tinted night mode so as not to diminish your night vision.

Bottom line

Orion’s StarSeeker is the perfect way to turn yourself into an astronomer.

Price: US$129.99 (due out in late 2011)

It may look like a lacrosse ball, but Orbotix’s 5.9-oz. Sphero has enough techno-cool to make a geek’s heart skip a beat. While most robotic devices have arms, legs or tank treads, Sphero is a ball — illuminated by a cool programmable LED light — that rolls around on the floor based on instructions relayed from your mobile device via Bluetooth.

Inside the ball is a sophisticated wheeled robot with an ARM3 processor, gyroscope, magnetometer and accelerometer. As the tiny robot rides up the side of the inside of the ball, the ball rolls in that direction. It’s powered by a pair of lithium ion batteries.

Orbotix offers control apps for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch, as well as Android phones and tablets. The most basic app, the Drive interface, is a large circular control pad that lets you aim the ball by tilting your device forward or back to make it go. This was the simplest app to operate; however, it took some practice until I was able to avoid chair legs and pillars.

Draw and Drive provides a blank screen for sketching a path for Sphero to follow; you shake your device to erase the path. I tried it by commanding the ball to first follow a square pattern and then a spiral — and the ball followed those commands exactly.

Those of us who aren’t afraid to code can make the Sphero do a lot more via powerful programming tools. First, the company’s macro builder lets you put together a series of text commands for the ball to carry out. By contrast, Blox is a visual programming tool that lets you drop pre-made code modules — in the form of icons that do specific activities, like go straight, turn right or stop — into the order you want.

Finally, the ball has open SDKs for iOS and Android, so third-party programmers can adapt or create Sphero games. According to Paul Berberian, CEO of Orbotix, some of the projects that are being worked on include tennis, Pong and freeze tag. In addition, Orbotix is working on a voice interface for Sphero.

While I tried Sphero with an iPad, iPhone and iPod touch, I preferred the iPad because I could customize the look and location of the control circle that sends commands to the device.

The robot’s response to my commands was quick with no visible delay. It worked fine on most floors (although it balked at heavy shag carpeting); if I got too fast on a slick floor, Sphero spun wildly before gaining traction. The robot’s range when controlled with the iPad was limited to about 50 feet; its battery lasted for an hour of continuous floor play.

Bottom line

Sphero is now available for pre-order; it is due to ship in “late 2011” (according to the website) and will include the robotic ball, an induction charger and free games and apps. I found it to be a lot of fun and one of the most addictive things you can do with an iPad.