Friday, January 9, 2009

Macworld Expo: What I did and didn't see

Last of my posts on Macworld Expo 2009

As I remarked on last year’s Macworld Expo, the show seems to have migrated into being a show for schlocky iPod speakers from Taiwan. (When I ran into Rob Pegoraro of the Washington Post researching his own story on Macworld, he said that such products will occupy an entire wing of CES later this week.)

This year, there seemed fewer speakers (literally) but many many iPod, iPhone and MacBook cases. To me, this suggests that for plastic or nylon cases, the gross margins are so high — and the entry barriers so low— as to invite excess entry.

Ironically, the only thing I bought at Macworld was an iPod speaker. I was looking for small, portable, self-powered (or battery-powered) speakers that either I could use in a hotel room, or for my daughter’s iPod Shuffle. I found three products from two Taiwanese manufacturers

  • What I really liked was the Pocket Hi-Fi in Bass speakers (about $100) from Digifocus — a built-in iPod connector, tiny with amazing room-filling sound. (Get the two-AA battery model CLSS-M, not the one-AA model which has less bass). I didn’t buy them because I only had a want, not a need. However, if I’d realized that they’re not available from the company website (and Amazon only has the lower-end model) I would have just bit the bullet and bought them.
  • Until I heard the Pocket Hi-Fi, I really liked the Tweakers from Grandmax (about $40), a pair of golf-ball sized omindirectional speakers that can be separated to improve stereo separation. The sound isn’t quite as good (although it’s amazingly good), but they are very convenient to carry and use: the speakers have a minijack for input, and run off a rechargeable battery charged via a USB port.
  • Grandmax also sells a single-speaker version, the Tweakers Teeny, at half the price. This is what I bought for my daughter, and she loves it. Supposedly one or both of the Tweakers models will be available at Office Depot next month
I also had an immediate buying interest in two other audio product categories. One was in headphones. Sennheiser had a booth, and I’m very loyal because I bought a pair of headphones 30 years ago (the HD424, then the best-sounding open air headphones made) and they still sound great.

I am very picky about iPod headphones. Most headphone makers have been emphasizing earbud headphones, but I hate the feel. I have some large noise-cancelling headphones but rarely carry them except for international flights. Instead, I always use clip-on type headphones, which I first discovered in Japan a decade ago before they were available here. The Sennheiser OMX 80 clip-on headphones seemed to provide better sound quality than my existing pair, so I’d like to do a side-by-side comparison before spending the $60.

On the other end of the sound chain, I liked two microphone products, mainly for VoIP or videoconferencing. The one I really wanted was from Marshall Electronics, the music amplification company that now makes a family of USB microphones. The product that I tried was the MXL AC-404 — a USB microphone designed for Skype users that looks (and sounds) like the auxiliary mike for a mid-range Polycom speakerphone. I would have bought it on the spot, but right now I do most of my Skype calls at home and I don’t have a place to put it on my desk.

The mike that I wanted to try — but the booth was too busy — was the Snowflake USB microphone from Blue Microphones. It’s also selling to the Skype audience, but this is a portable product designed to take with your laptop (or even hang on top of the lid).

Another mike that I really liked was the external mike for the iPod Touch 2G sold by Truphone (which doesn’t appear to be mentioned on their website). Although I didn’t see it on the show floor, there is a comparable product (SmartTalk) available from Griffin Technology, which provides an iPhone (or iPod Touch) microphone that you use with your existing audio headsets.

Another cool thing I saw was videoconferencing for the iPhone (which might also run on an iPod Touch). The most press attention came to WebEx, the 800 pound gorilla now owned by Cisco. However, I also saw two other iPhone solutions: Fuze from CallWave and TouchMeeting from Persony. The latter seemed to be living what they preach — i.e. virtual distributed collaboration — as their CEO is in Los Gatos, their President in Santa Barbara and their sales director in Vermont (near the ski slopes).

At least as interesting is what I didn’t see. Like many other users, I was disappointed that the rumored announcements were so wrong. The new Mac Mini is long over due. It’s also odd that Apple hasn’t released more LED-powered LCD screens since the Apple LED Cinema Display 24-Inch released last year; since making a new LCD screen isn’t that hard to do, perhaps they are waiting to fix problems with this one, or timing the introduction to match the (also overdue) update to the Mac Pro.

Also what is disappointing is the lack of a Bluetooth keyboard for the iPod Touch or iPhone. Nokia has had something (the SU-8W) for its smartphones for four years, and there are third party solutions for the Blackberry.

The iPhone has a Bluetooth radio but Apple does not allow it to be used with keyboards. For now, it’s possible to get it to work using an external Bluetooth adaptor. My guess is that Apple has disabled this feature until it sells its own external keyboard, or (less likely) because it plans to release a phone with a built-in keyboard.


aaron said...
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aaron said...

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