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Cool Products at Macworld | iWorld 2012

by Adam C. Engst

It’s easy to say that Macworld | iWorld is far smaller than the Consumer Electronics Show, but for those of us who actually talk to the exhibitors and look for interesting products, a couple of days are still necessary to visit each of the 270-plus booths. We found oodles of neat products, and here are our picks for the most notable things we just can’t resist sharing.

Most Welcome iPad Port -- We’re big fans of PDFpen for the Mac, so we were jazzed to see that Smile has now brought the program to the iPad, where it can read and edit PDFs in seemingly all the ways we’re used to on the Mac. That includes adding text, images, and signatures; editing text; adding notes, comments, and scribbles; filling out PDF forms; moving, resizing, copying, and deleting images; drawing lines, arrows, rectangles, ellipses, and polygons, marking up documents with highlights, underscores, and strikethroughs, and more. PDFpen for iPad [1] can retrieve and save PDFs directly with Dropbox, Evernote, and Google Docs; share PDFs with a computer via Wi-Fi; and transfer files using iTunes, FTP, WebDAV, and iDisk. But what I haven’t yet seen in another major program (other than Apple’s iWork) is that PDFpen for iPad can store documents in iCloud for sharing between devices. PDFpen for iPad costs only $9.99 from the App Store [2].

Create Your Own Cloud -- Long gone are the days when there would be many hard drive vendors at Macworld Expo, but two storage-related products jumped out at me. Seagate’s GoFlex Satellite [3] is a portable Wi-Fi-enabled file server; think of it as a battery-powered 802.11n hot spot with a 2.5-inch 500 MB hard drive. The idea is that you load media and documents via USB 2.0 (actually USB 3.0, which is backward compatible; FireWire 800 and powered eSATA GoFlex interfaces are sold separately) and then stream media via Wi-Fi to up to three connected devices, either via a Web browser or to a free iOS or Android app. Wall and car chargers are included; Seagate claims up to 5 hours per charge. It lists for $199 and is available on Amazon [4] for $178.

Less portable, but more capacious, is the Western Digital My Book Live [5], which is essentially an Ethernet-connected hard drive with a proprietary operating system and file server software running on an 800 MHz CPU. You can access files on the My Book Live over your network or over the Internet as though they were on a local drive, and free WD Photos and WD 2go apps let you access photos and documents on iOS devices. It can also stream video to any DLNA-savvy device like an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Blu-ray disc player, or smart TV, and stream music to iTunes. Prices vary with size, but the 3 TB model is available on Amazon for $220. [ACE]

Best Controller for a TV-connected Mac mini -- You’ve connected a Mac mini to your TV for playing video and browsing the Web from your armchair. But even the Apple Wireless Keyboard and Magic Mouse are clumsy chair controllers, tipping on your knees and getting lost in the cushions. Instead, check out SMK Link’s $69.99 Wireless Ultra-mini Touchpad Keyboard for Mac [6], a game controller-sized device that shoehorns a full chiclet-style QWERTY keyboard, trackpad, dual navigation controls, and left and right buttons into a svelte package. It communicates with a driver-free USB dongle on the Mac wirelessly in the 2.4 GHz band — line-of-sight isn’t required, but stay within 33 feet (10.1 m). The trackpad is a bit small, and thumb-typing is essential, but it’s the smallest complete controller I’ve seen for a Mac-based home theater system. [ACE]

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iDrink Different -- How far the iPhone has come, or, depending on your perspective and preferred beverage, fallen! There were not one, but two booths showing iPhone cases that doubled as bottle openers (and someone said there was a third that I never found). The AUD$39.95 Opena Case [8] features a slide-out bottle opener, but I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to chit-chat with the booth babes to give it a try or learn if there’s anything more to it. More amusing was the $25 Intoxicase [9], which builds the bottle opener into the back of the case (there’s also the $35 Intoxicase Plus, which has a flip-out opener), and includes a free iOS app [10] that tracks usage, lets you post your hoppy activity to Twitter and Facebook, warns of high blood alcohol levels, and can find local taxi services. Silly, but props to Intoxicase for extending the joke to the logical extreme. And for those who prefer the pleasures of the grape, yes, the Intoxicase folks are trying to develop a version that can uncork wine bottles. [ACE]

First Step Toward Data Goggles -- Audio-only for now, but I was quite impressed with the Q-i-wear Stereo Bluetooth Eyewear [11] from Qmadix. They’re basically high-end sport sunglasses that provide both audio out via attached earbuds and audio in via a pair of frame-mounted noise-canceling microphones — and yes, they’re water resistant. The earbuds come with a collection of tips, including noise reducing eartips that provide up to 42 dB of noise reduction. Three different lenses (clear, yellow, and dark gray) are included, along with a prescription lens holder for those who wear glasses normally. The batteries last for 6 hours of continuous talking, 8 hours of music playing, and a week on standby; they recharge in about 2 hours via a micro-USB cable. At 52 grams, they’re on the heavy side for glasses (and a little large for Tonya’s face, as you can see), but were pretty comfortable for me. Such specs don’t come cheap though — they run $299. If only they did video too. [ACE]

[image link] [12]

Compost Your Cables -- Much as the Qmadix sunglasses were impressive, the guy at the booth was even more interested in me writing about the company’s Ecoustic line of, get this, biodegradable cables. It sounds silly, but I have to imagine that there are billions of cables out there that will eventually make their way to landfills, where the plastic will sit for centuries. In partnership with Samsin USA, Qmadix is going to start selling a line of cables whose hard and soft plastic parts are made from an environmentally friendly plant polymer that maintains durability in normal usage, but which will biodegrade in a number of years when in contact with earth. The metal parts will remain, of course, but reducing the amount of plastics in landfills is a good start. The Qmadix rep said the new plant polymer wasn’t any more expensive than traditional plastics, so perhaps we’ll see a significant replacement over time. The first item in the Ecoustic line, a micro-USB cable [13], is due to ship 2 April 2012. [ACE]

Nearest Wormhole -- Switching back and forth between computers is a pain, and various screen sharing and KVM (keyboard-video-mouse) switchers have been around for ages. The latest entry is j5create’s $99.99 Wormhole Station [14], a port-filled tube that enables keyboard and mouse sharing between two connected Macs, two Windows-based PCs, or a Mac and a Windows PC. When you move the cursor to the specified side of the screen, the included software detects the “pressure” of the cursor and transfers keyboard and mouse control over to the other computer. Files can also be copied back and forth, there is a built-in memory card reader, and you can prop a laptop up on the device for additional cooling. Though I didn’t see this demoed, the product’s heavily accented Engrish description claims it can also allow a Mac’s keyboard to type on an iPad. [ACE]

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Easier Than Becoming an International Art Thief -- You can use Art Authority [16] on the Mac, iPad, and iPhone to view and learn about 55,000 pieces of classic art, and the latest neat feature is the capability to search for similar artworks. (It uses a database of metadata about each artwork for the searching, with human-generated tags for things like the topic of the painting and machine-generated tags for things like primary color.) But if you really like something you see, you can (for only 10 artworks [17] while the feature is being tested, and only on the iPad version for now) buy a print from the Bridgeman Art Library [18] directly within the software. Prices vary by size, medium (paper or canvas), and framing, but alas, there’s no option yet to submit a bid for the original. [ACE]

Press On, Press Off -- No, I wasn’t trying out fake fingernails at Macworld | iWorld, but I was interested to see a number of booths selling removable Mac and iOS device skins in different materials, including leather and vinyl. I suspect they’re all using the same 3M Scotchcal or Controltac film that sticks without an adhesive and can be peeled on and off repeatedly (just don’t get the sticky side dusty or oily). These are largely fashion accessories, since they won’t protect the device from anything but scuffs and scratches, and only the large flat surfaces at that, but they don’t get in the way as a full case can. SlickWraps offered both vinyl and leather skins for a variety of electronic devices; the leather skins were extremely attractive and the vinyl skins provided a number of interesting looks, including faux woodgrain. Snaptotes [19] focused on printing your pictures on a wide variety of skins, sleeves, and bags. [ACE]

[image link] [20]

Best New Ways to Run Windows on Your Mac -- Everyone knows about VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop, but I ran across two new ways to run Windows on a Mac (and in one case, even on an iPad). For the home or small business user who needs only occasional access to Windows and especially those who don’t want to purchase expensive copies of software like Microsoft Office or AutoCAD, Nivio’s nDesktop [21] service lets you connect to and use a cloud-hosted copy of Windows, renting the necessary software by the month from nApps [22]. It works on Macs and iPads, though of course it’s a little clunky to control the mouse-based Windows from a touch-based iPad. Fast Internet access is necessary, and you save files in Nivio’s Dropbox-like nDrive [23] service. Prices vary with service and usage, but range from $2 to $15 per month.

On the other end of the spectrum is Moka5’s MokaFive [24] software, which gives you a local Windows image running in a virtual machine; what separates it from VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop is that it’s aimed at businesses that are largely Windows shops, but where executives or certain departments may prefer to use Macintosh hardware. So the MokaFive images are initially loaded from a network server, and while they’re fully functional offline, they can be updated automatically when they reconnect to the server. There are also various enterprise-level features, such as remote kill for stolen laptops, single-image management across platforms, and user self-recovery from malware. I suspect pricing depends on the number of seats you need; there is a free trial [25]. [ACE]

Solutions for Tight Jeans -- Not to be a prude here, but many women’s jeans are just too tight. Too tight, that is, to hold an iPhone, and even when they’re sufficiently loose, the pockets often aren’t deep enough. Two solutions presented themselves at Macworld | iWorld: Cellphone Armor’s BodyDock Magnetic Docking System [26], and the simpler iKeep from Poldera. The $79.95 BodyDock system comprises a magnetic-backed iPhone case that connects to a two-piece magnetic holder that grips your clothing by sandwiching it between the two pieces. The rare-earth magnets are strong but easily separated when you want to remove the iPhone, and a belt-loop clip with a retractable cord that connects to the case provides protection against accidental removal. Tonya deemed it way too clunky and instead purchased the $19.99 iKeep [27], which is just a belt-loop clip with a retractable cord that connects to the iPhone’s dock connector. The bulkier iKeep Charger [28] ($49.99) can plug into the wall and charge the iPhone too; like the BodyDock, it didn’t pass Tonya’s fashion muster. [ACE]

[image link] [29]

That Tiny Sucking Sound… -- Here’s something I hadn’t thought of before — the use of suction cups to hold portable electronics. I saw not one, not two, but three companies showing iPad and iPhone holders that relied on suction. Most amusing was Octa’s WhaleTail with Vacuum Dock [30], which suctions onto the back of any smooth tablet and then provides a whale-like tail to make it easier to hold onto your iPad or Kindle. Similarly, SeaSucker [31] has a number of suction cup-based stands that can hold an iPad or Kindle. And on the other end of the spectrum, Insanely Great Products is selling a variety of suction cup-based stands and holders for holding an iPhone on a desk or in the car. The larger two have integrated pumps to create the suction; Insanely Great Products’ standard suction cups work purely on pressure at application. [ACE]

Most Expensive Speakers -- Taking the win in ostentation was a speaker system from All Jack [32], which, as far as I can tell, is a Taiwanese design and manufacturing company. There’s no question the speakers were eye-catching, with a wineglass shape and all sorts of glitter that turned out to be polished aluminum, gold plating, red leather, and, to top it all off, Russian diamonds. I assume they sound good, for a claimed $68,000 price tag, but I never heard them actually playing and it wasn’t entirely clear that they could be purchased should you have that kind of money burning a hole in your pocket. Far more reasonable at only $999 was the Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 8 [33], which features an integrated dock connector for an iOS device. B&O was also showing the $799 portable Beolit 12 [34], an AirPlay-enabled, lunchbox-like speaker with 8 hours of wired battery life or 4 hours when used with AirPlay. [ACE]

[image link] [35]

Least Obtrusive iPad Keyboard -- If you want to type on an iPad, but don’t want the bulk and extra fuss of a Bluetooth keyboard, look no further than the $35 iKeyboard [36]. It’s merely the skeleton of a keyboard, with clear blobs of plastic where the keys should be. You simply affix it to the iPad over the on-screen keyboard (it has that neat non-adhesive sticky coating that’s also used by the iPhone and iPad skin manufacturers) and it provides roughly the tactile sensation of typing on a physical keyboard. It’s still pretty small for my hands, and I had trouble typing on it at first, but like all keyboards, I suspect you’d get used to it quickly. When you’re done typing, just peel it off and store it away for the next use. [ACE]

Inductive Reasoning -- There were two companies showing wireless chargers for the iPhone, which seems like a good idea that’s not quite ready for prime time. The idea is that you put your iPhone in a special case that contains the inductive charging circuitry necessary to recharge the iPhone’s battery; it’s activated when you set the encased iPhone on a special charging pad. The problem is that the inductive charging is a minor win for requiring a specific case, and setting the iPhone on the special charging pad doesn’t feel significantly easier than plugging it into a charging cable in the same location. But maybe that’s just me — check out the Kudos Tech and Wisepower [37] (watch the second video) options if you want to keep an eye on this upcoming technology. [ACE]

Simplest Tablet Protection -- For kids, or anyone who’s accident prone, some sort of protection is important for an iPad, Kindle, or similar device. Sure, you could envelope it in some bulky case, but for a cheap and simple solution, check out the $19.95 iBallz [38]. They’re just four high density foam balls that slip over the corners of the tablet and are held on by an elastic cord that runs around the edge. They protect against drops that hit any corner, of course, and they hold the tablet enough off the surface to protect against face- or back-first drops onto a table or floor as well. (You’re still hosed if you drop the tablet face first onto a protuberant object.) I particularly liked the iBallz demo — a hand-built rotating plastic box that continually knocked an iBallz-protected Kindle Fire around. [ACE]

[image link] [39]

Best Addition to Your Paperless Office -- As an increasing number of statements move online, it has become difficult to find the proverbial needle in a haystack of accounts. That’s the goal of FileThis Fetch [40], an online service that logs into your many online accounts, downloads all available statements, and then saves them as searchable PDFs to your Mac, Evernote, or Dropbox (with other destinations coming soon). You can then search the documents with any appropriate application, such as DEVONthink, Yojimbo, or EagleFiler. FileThis Fetch continues to retrieve new statements as long as you pay for the service, which costs $2 per month, $20 per year, or $50 for 3 years (there’s also a 30-day free trial). If you discontinue the service, you keep everything you’ve downloaded, of course. The service is in beta right now, and FileThis needs to publish a page listing all the supported institutions — currently there are over 50, including Wells Fargo Bank, Bank of America, American Express, Charles Schwab, Fidelity Investments, AT&T, Comcast, Allstate, and Aetna, with more being added all the time. [ACE]

iKlik, You Click -- A desktop or dashboard stand for the iPhone 4 and 4S, the iKlik [41] is one of those simple devices that showcases excellent design chops. Created by HammerStone Products and funded through a Kickstarter campaign [42], the iKlik provides a solid base with rubberized feet (the better to hold on a car dashboard in particular), and a slot into which you can insert the iPhone — sans case — in landscape orientation. The slot rotates to a few different angles, and it’s easy to insert and remove the iPhone. It can also hold it in portrait orientation, but that felt less stable. [ACE]

[image link] [43]

Building a Better Address Book -- After I watched the tail end of a demo of Cobook [44], I asked developer Kaspars Dancis, “Do you mean this will make it so I never have to interact with Address Book again?” He grinned broadly and said, “Yes!” Although the contacts database that underlies Mac OS X is invaluable, the Address Book application that accesses it is terrible. Like iCal, it seems to have gotten worse with each new revision. Cobook bypasses Apple’s Address Book by focusing on how people use contact information, not how they might expect it to resemble a real-life object that few people under 30 have even seen. Instead of a standard application window, Cobook exists as a menu bar item that can be invoked with a keyboard shortcut (similar to Flexibits’ iCal front end Fantastical [45]). Your contacts appear in a drop-down list, with a search field at the top to drill down to the person or company you want. You can assign tags to contacts to simplify pulling up related contacts (tags are actually just Address Book groups). Cobook can also tie into Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and access up-to-date information about your contacts automatically. Cobook is currently available as a free public beta (6 MB download); Dancis told me he expects the release version will be ready in one to two months. [JLC]

Most Energetic Demonstration -- In a field as competitive as headphones for mobile devices, it can be hard to garner attention. Polk Audio opted to jump up and down — literally, 20 feet in the air — by outfitting Olympic-class athletes with the company’s Ultra Fit Sports Headphones [46] and setting them loose to tumble and spin above a large trampoline. Strapped to skis or snowboards, or just performing acrobatics, the athletes clearly demonstrated the headphones’ main feature in an impressive and entertaining way. [JLC]

Electrifying USB -- Many of us now have devices, from cell phones to iPads to gaming systems, that can charge their batteries via USB. But it’s all too easy to lose their now-tiny AC adapters. Why not have USB plugs right next to AC outlets in your home or office? We saw two such products [47] demonstrated on the show floor from Current Werks. The firm offers the USB Outlet Duo, a 16W, two-port USB in-wall replacement outlet ($24.98, more for office-grade circuits) that also includes two three-prong AC jacks, and the USB Outlet Quattro, a 22W, four-port outlet ($39.98) without AC jacks. Both will ship in a few weeks, pending an Underwriters Laboratories listing, which is a certification for compliance with various electrical safety provisions. Competitors for Current Werks’ outlets include NewerTech’s 10W, two-port, two-socket Power2U [48] outlet ($25), which is UL listed, and FastMac’s UL-pending two-port U-Socket [49] outlet ($24.95). All support USB 2 and USB 3 products. [GF]