Dylan Tweney

12 Good Gadgets for Hard Times

An economic crisis changes the way you think about gadgets. Is a $400 game console bundle really what you want to be spending your hard-earned money on, considering that you could be out of a job in six months? Maybe not — though we’re sympathetic to the idea that the recently unemployed might need
Dylan Tweney 7 min read

An economic crisis changes the way you think about gadgets. Is a $400 game console bundle really what you want to be spending your hard-earned money on, considering that you could be out of a job in six months?

Maybe not — though we’re sympathetic to the idea that the recently unemployed might need to blow off steam with a few rounds of Wii Boxing. If you’re spending your gadget dollars cautiously, you’ll pick gadgets that:

  • don’t cost a huge amount,
  • have lasting utility,
  • aren’t likely to break or wear out quickly, and
  • will continue to be useful even when the infrastructure around them is crumbling.

With that in mind, here’s our list of gadgets that will be handy in case the economic recession becomes a full-blown depression and turns iPhone lines into bread lines.

The guidelines we used in assembling this list: These are tools that will be useful in the event of a major economic slump that puts a lot of people out of work and affects basic services — like road maintenance or the reliability of the electric power grid — without plunging the country into total civil chaos. If it’s the latter you’re planning for, check out our gallery of crazy survival gear for some inspiration, or read up on some more-practical survival skills and survival kits.

Also, we’ve limited ourselves to gadgets that have a substantially legal use (skipping, for instance, the Slim Jim for breaking into cars). We also haven’t recommended guns, since frankly we don’t know much about them, and there are plenty of other blogs where you can read about firearms.

Having never actually lived through a major economic depression, this list is our best guess at what will work. Got better ideas? Let us know in the comments.

Multi-Tool ($50)


If times get tough, you’re going to have to get used to fixing things on your own. A full set of tools is your best bet if you’ve got to do heavy construction or car maintenance, but for basic fix-it tasks, an ordinary multi-tool is a seriously handy gadget. It also comes in handy for opening cans and bottles, cutting things, prying open packages and a variety of other tasks. While Leatherman pioneered this type of tool, Victorinox makes multi-tools that are sturdier and longer-lasting; the Victorinox SwissTool is available for about $55 on Amazon.

Self-Powered Radio ($35)
If something happens to the electrical grid, you might have to go without power for several days. If things really get bad, you might see power rationing, where electric power is only available for certain hours of the day. A solar- and crank-powered radio is the best way to stay informed about what’s going on in that kind of situation. And if nothing’s going on, you’ll at least be able to tune in some radio shows to keep you entertained while you sit in the dark. Our pick: the $35 Freeplay Companion, which doubles as a flashlight and a cellphone charger and can be charged up by hand crank, solar power or standard USB cable.

OLPC XO ($400)


It’s lightweight, durable, runs for nearly a full day on a single charge, and can be recharged with a solar panel — the XO is the perfect laptop for the developing world, and might be an excellent choice in a developed world that’s fallen on hard times, too. Whether you’re sending out resumes from the public library’s free Wi-Fi network or setting up an ad hoc electronic bulletin board in a refugee camp, the XO has you covered. Currently the only way to get one is through One Laptop per Child’s "Give One, Get One" program.

GSM-Based Cellphone (prices vary)
Cellphones are not builtfor the ages. My first iPhone went on the fritz after just one year,and I’ve had just one phone that remained continuously operational formore than two years (a Nokia 3595). When your phone dies, the easiestand cheapest way to replace it — without signing up for another 2-yearcontract — is to buy a second-hand phone, then pop in the SIM cardfrom your busted handset. That kind of identity transplant is onlypossible with GSM phones; phones for use on Verizon or Sprint/Nextel’sCDMA networks require a trip to the store before you can start usingthem. Oh, and that Nokia 3595? You can get one for less than $10 oneBay. CORRECTION 12/30: Verizon customers can activate second-hand phones, assuming they meet Verizon’s criteria, without visiting the store, by using Verizon’s website: Activate Your Phone Online.

HDTV Antenna ($20-$50)


Cut the cable service: plenty of high-definition TV is available forfree, over the air. Any TV antenna will do, but one optimized forpulling in HDTV signals should help you get the appropriate frequenciesbetter. Don’t have an HDTV? Buy a digital TV converter box beforeFebruary 2009, when TV signals go all-digital, and don’t forget to takeadvantage of the U.S. government’s DTV coupon subsidy, which will cover up to $40 of the cost for you for up to two converter boxes. Thanks, Uncle Sam!

Voltaic Backpack ($250)
If you’re on the road, off the grid or just trying to power up your PSP when the power’s off, the Voltaic Backpack‘sembedded solar panels are your friend. They’ll generate up to 4 wattsof power in direct sunlight, and the pack includes almost a dozenadapters to accommodate a variety of electronic devices.

USB Thumb Drive ($10 and up)
A tiny USB thumb drive is probably the most practical infotech gadget you can own. It can help you download your contacts on the afternoon you get laid off, store your resume in between internet cafes, or even hold an entire mini-operating system so you can have your own desktop and applications on any borrowed computer you can lay your hands on. A larger external hard drive will store more data, but spinning-disk media is more vulnerable to damage from shock and vibration than flash memory is, so it’s not the best choice if your future includes traveling with a bindlestiff on your shoulder and a boxcar for your bed.

Pocket Camcorder ($180)


A video camera might not be any longer-lasting than the typical cellphone, but at least you’ll have something left when the camera goes kaput: Namely, all the videos you shot with it. And once the hard times are past, you’ll be looking with ever-rosier glasses back on these times, so it’ll be good to have some videos to remind you of how things really looked. Our pick: The Kodak Zi6, which is a bit clunkier and bigger than the more popular Flip Mino, but takes better video and costs less.

Multi-Fuel Camp Stove ($150)
If the gas and electricity get shut off, you’ll still need some way to cook the rice and beans you’ve hoarded, right? The best bet is a camp stove that accepts a variety of fuels, from kerosene to white gas. That way you’ll be cooking no matter what kind of flammable liquid you can lay your hands on. A good pick is the MSR XGK EX ($150), which can even burn unleaded gasoline.

Water Filter Bottle ($12-$35)


Finding clean water to drink can become a major problem in the event of a natural disaster — or a breakdown of the public water-processing system. A simple water filter can get rid of most of the nasty microbes — but not toxic chemicals that may be dissolved in the water. Bottles with built-in filters, like the Katadyn Micro Bottle, are the most convenient option.

Bicycle (prices vary)
There’s no better way than a bicycle for getting around without much money. Add a trailer or an Xtracycle conversion, and your bike can even transport furniture. Get a bike that’s sturdy, with fat tires (better for pothole-strewn roadways) and learn how to do basic maintenance on it. Although fancy bikes can cost $3,000 or more, you’ll do just fine with a $400 model from your local bike shop — or a used, $25 bike from your local thrift store.

Portable Musical Instrument (prices vary)


After your entertainment budget dries up and blows away, you’re going to be spending a lot more time at home. Don’t blow your savings by downloading tunes for $1 apiece on iTunes: Learn to make your own music. It’s cheap entertainment, and it’ll work even if the lights go off and stay off.

Thanks to Priya and Mat for helping compile this list.

Bread line photo, circa 1930-1934: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division,      FSA-OWI Collection, reproduction #LC-USZ62-91536 DLC.
Ukulele photo: midnightcomm/Flickr.

Link: 12 Good Gadgets for Hard Times

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