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Macworld Expo San Francisco 2002 Superlatives

Although the pre-show hype always centers on Steve Jobs's keynote and Apple's announcements, Macworld Expo offers much more. We spend the rest of the week walking the show floor, talking to vendors and attendees, and generally keeping an eye out for what's exciting in the Mac world. Here's what we found this year.

Knob and a Button, Two Bits -- Everyone at Macworld Expo goes around asking others what they think is cool, and the award for the coolest product of the show has to go to the PowerMate, from Griffin Technologies. Also known as "that shiny knob," the $45 PowerMate is a round brushed aluminum USB device that you can turn (the knob part) and also press down (the button bit, just like a mouse button). What might you do with such a device? Just about anything you can imagine doing with a knob and a button, since you can configure them independently for different applications. In iTunes, for instance, you might turn the knob to adjust the volume and click the button to mute the sound when the phone rings. In iMovie, you could have the knob scrub the playhead left and right and have the button act like a normal mouse click. The PowerMate is just cool, and the coolness factor is enhanced by LEDs that make the base of the PowerMate glow blue. The software even has a checkbox to pulse the LEDs; when someone asked Griffin's Jason Litchford why it did that, he just grinned and said, "Because we could." (Also falling into the "Because we could" category was Griffin's bit of hacked hardware that plugged into an iPod's headphone jack and turned the iPod into an infrared remote control.) [ACE]

<http://www.griffintechnology.com/audio/ pwrmate.html>

Got Any Spare Charge? A constant undercurrent of every Macworld is power: who has it, who needs it, and where you can get it. I'm not talking about Steve Jobs's here, but the battery life of portable electronics. With the Palm charger forgotten at home and the phone's bulky brick back in my hotel room, I ended up purchasing a $25 combination from ND Dimension, Inc. that included a USB charging cable and interchangeable adapters to feed power to my two devices from my PowerBook's battery. In addition to being a handy thing to carry around, a USB charging cable dramatically cuts down on the bulk of transporting power bricks. [JLC]


AirPorts Without Security -- Kudos to the Macworld Expo conference organizers for making it easy to open an iBook or PowerBook in numerous locations and hop on a public wireless network with high speed Internet access. AirPort Base Stations have been present at Macworld Expos before, but never with the near ubiquity of this year. And with the light weight of Apple's current portables, carrying a laptop all day at the show isn't the shoulder-breaking task it once was. None of the wireless networks Jeff and I found from the hotel room allowed access (though one network was gleefully named "Bring beer to room 1162 for password"). Instead, being able to connect to Jeff's MobileStar account using the wireless Internet access at a nearby Starbucks came close to making up for the loss of Metricom's wireless Ricochet network, which we've used at previous shows but which hasn't yet been restarted by Aerie Networks. [ACE]


No Need for a Peeler -- Perhaps you really liked Apple's bright splashes of color from a few years back and bemoan the current graphite, snow, and silver cases. Well, if you're a Power Mac G3 (Blue & White) or G4 owner, you don't have to look any further than AppleSkinz, which are airbrushed (for now, silk screening coming in the future) plastic panels that fit over the sides of your Power Mac to give it back some color (there's also a clear skin you can paint yourself). Numerous designs are available for $50 until the end of January; $70 after that (prices also vary based on design). The AppleSkinz require no modification of your Power Mac or tape that will mark the original sides. The latch is covered, but it's easy to pull the AppleSkinz cover off to access it when necessary. [ACE]


It's Backup Time! This award goes jointly to Apple Computer and Dantz Development for finally making it possible to back up and restore a Mac running Mac OS X. Until Mac OS X 10.1.2 came out, a variety of bugs and limitations in Mac OS X prevented Dantz from releasing a version of Retrospect that could completely restore a Mac OS X-based Mac to a bootable state (the same was reportedly true of the other Mac OS X backup programs, but 10.1.2 made it possible for them to restore completely as well). Retrospect 5.0 Preview is required - previous versions of Retrospect will never work properly with Mac OS X - but you can download it for free (the final version will be a paid upgrade due by March). Although the Retrospect 5.0 Preview runs only on Mac OS X 10.1.2, the final version will also run under Mac OS 9, so you won't have to upgrade backup servers to Mac OS X. [ACE]


Quick, Easy Backup -- The main backup news of the show may have been Dantz's Retrospect 5.0 Preview, but the backup product that demoed best was the Automatic Backup System (ABS) from CMS Peripherals. ABS is a small piece of software that watches your Mac's FireWire bus for the connection of the ABS hardware - essentially a standard 3.5-inch FireWire hard disk. Once the drive is connected, the ABS software kicks in and copies files from the internal hard disk to the ABS drive. You specify which files should be copied, and ABS is smart about copying only changed files, so it runs quickly. Restoration (which is the point of backup, remember) must be done manually in the Finder, although if you're backing up from Mac OS 9, you can also boot from the ABS drive. Restoration in Mac OS X is trickier - user-created files restore fine, but you can't restore an entire Mac OS X hard disk to a bootable state. Our take is that the ABS (and the ABSplus, which uses a 2.5-inch laptop hard disk and thus doesn't need external power) would be great for making quick copies of important files on a number of Macs, but they're not really suitable for a complete backup strategy. Prices vary depending on the size of the hard disk you buy, and unfortunately, you can't use the ABS software separately from the ABS drive even though there's no technical reason such a requirement should exist. [ACE]

<http://www.cmsproducts.com/products/usb_abs_ notebook.htm>

Biggest Threat to Excel -- Mesa, from P & L Systems, is a $50 spreadsheet for Mac OS X, written in Cocoa. It's not a feature-complete clone of Excel, but it does imitate a good-sized chunk of Excel's core, and can import and export Excel documents; it even adds some formula functions that improve upon Excel. Now that Cocoa lets anyone write an application, perhaps we'll see a bit more competition for the ensconced industry behemoths. [MAN]


Is That a Mouse in Your Pocket? Although the trackpad on an iBook or PowerBook is perfectly adequate for manipulating your Mac, sometimes it's easier to use a mouse when you're on the go. For a while I toted Apple's thankfully banished puck-style mouse because it didn't take up much space in my bag. Now, however, I'm looking forward to carrying Kensington's Pocket Mouse Pro. It not only boasts a smaller overall size than most mice, it has two buttons, a scroll wheel, and optical tracking. I'd be happy with that combination, but a retractable USB cable (which fits inside the mouse body for storage) makes the Pocket Mouse Pro an essential addition to my PowerBook's carrying bag. [JLC]

<http://www.kensington.com/products/pro_mic_ d1453.html>

Best New Utility -- WorkStrip, from Softchaos, is a $40 Control Strip replacement. It's a hierarchical menu that lets you navigate your hard drive, and a launcher which, for any application, lets you access recently opened documents. You can also construct "workspaces," sets of applications and documents to be launched together. WorkStrip is reminiscent of Now Menus and Action Menus, and there's not much here that couldn't be done with OneClick, but WorkStrip will soon do something none of those can do - run on Mac OS X (a preview release is already available). I can't wait. [MAN]


iPods Galore -- When Apple first introduced the iPod, we wondered whether the $400 price tag would keep people away from the extremely cool MP3 player (see "iPod Makes Music More Attractive" in TidBITS-603). Apparently not. In addition to the company's announcement of 125,000 units sold in its first 60 days, iPods were in generous supply among attendees at the show. The identifiable white earbuds seemed to be everywhere, much the way PalmPilots seemed to appear all at once several years ago. Vendors were conscious of this fact too. XtremeMac, MCE, and Other World Computing all offered a variety of iPod cases and adapters. iPods were also being sold at the show, if you could find them. When I inquired at one of the few retail companies in attendance, Unitek, I was told that a shipment of 72 iPods was due any minute via FedEx - which apparently sold out within an hour or so. Perhaps creating the best device in its class really does make a difference. [JLC]

<http://www.xtrememac.com/products/ essentials.html>
<http://www.eunitek.com/apple/store/ipod.cfm? CFID=18999&CFTOKEN=7916245>

Most Brilliantly Sneaky Hack - Jim Rea of ProVUE was demonstrating the Panorama iPod Organizer, which lets you use your iPod as a sort of lightweight read-only PDA. It exports a Panorama database as MP3 files. These contain no music; what's important is their names and ID3 tag information. The result is that after you sync your iPod, your database entries show up organized hierarchically within the Artists folder (e.g. Artists -> Family -> Sister, and within that are the actual music files whose names are my sister's phone number and address). For $20, it's a cheap way to look cool and reduce the number of digital devices you carry. [MAN]


Before You Ask... Working a booth at Macworld Expo is a grueling haul, and is made worse when you're one of those folks who is asked the same question constantly. Joe Kissell of Kensington added some levity to his booth shift by taping a piece of paper to his back which read, "YES! We are working on Keystroke Emulation for Mac OS X." Below that, in smaller letters, read, "YES! I know I have a sign taped to my back," and at the bottom, "(Yes, I know it looks silly.)" [JLC]


Best Toy - Remember how the old SuperPaint let you paint with really weird brushes, such as bubbles? The $40 GroBoto, from Braid Media Arts, propels that idea into the third dimension. As you move the mouse, elaborate abstract 3D drawings spring up like tentacles and fill the screen. Unlike traditional 3D programs, GroBoto is neither difficult nor slow; you make freeform 3D drawings instantly. That's because GroBoto's objects are made of pre-rendered elements, so the computer's chief worry is merely what's in front of what. At a higher level, you can assemble variations of a number of built-in 3D objects, animate them, and even construct little games and simulations using a Logo-like programming language. Enchanting, intriguing, and educational for kids of all ages - you simply must give the demo a try. [MAN]



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