Despite the low attendance, both on the part of exhibitors and attendees, Macworld Expo didn't disappoint in the slightest when it came to new and interesting products and events. Here are my picks of the show.
Best Non-Apple iApp -- Greg Scown of Smile Software, undeterred by Apple's inclusion of fax capabilities in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, isn't resting on the laurels of his well-reviewed fax utility PageSender. With designer Philip Goward of OnMyMac, LLC, he has created Disclabel, an elegant application for Mac OS X that helps you design and print labels (along with jewel case inserts) for CDs and DVDs. Using an iApp-style interface, Disclabel integrates with iTunes to extract track information from playlists and with iPhoto to use your photos as background art. Disclabel even supports AppleScript for completely automated disc label generation. It supports oodles of templates for all the common disc label stock you can buy, and it works with the Epson printers that can print directly on CDs and DVDs. If you put effort into making CDs and DVDs, you owe it to yourself to try Disclabel. Disclabel costs $30 and is a 2.9 MB download for a demo that puts watermarks on printed labels and can't share or download new templates.
If you like the idea of Disclabel, you should also take a look at Business Card Composer from BeLight Software, a new Ukrainian company from some of the people who created ConceptDraw. Like Disclabel, Business Card Composer provides a clean interface to designing and printing business cards. Even I, with my minimal design skills, was able to use it to make attractive business cards in a matter of moments. Business Card Composer requires Mac OS X, costs $40, and is a 6.2 MB download.
Most Wired Receptionist -- Can't afford your own personal assistant to answer your telephone? Neither can we, but Parliant's PhoneValet will do most of the work for far less. A combination hardware and software product, PhoneValet is a USB device that plugs connects your Mac to a phone line, and once set up, uses caller ID with special Mac OS X software to announce who's calling, log incoming and outgoing calls for reporting and billing purposes, and initiate calls for you via voice commands from your Mac. It's even scriptable, so you can have incoming calls trigger custom actions. PhoneValet works with standard analog phone lines (it supports multiple lines) and costs $130 for one line, with the hardware for each additional line you want to support adding $90.
Toothiest USB Radio -- Though it's not yet shipping, Griffin Technology's RadioSHARK grabbed my attention right away. It's a shark fin-shaped AM/FM radio that connects via (and is powered by) USB, playing the received signal through your Mac's speakers and optionally saving the audio to your hard disk. But what's cool is that it's controlled entirely through software, so you'll be able to set it to record radio shows at specific times - we're talking TiVo for radio here! (Actually, it's more like El Gato's EyeTV for radio, and there's of course no program guide information for local radio, so you have to program it the way you program a VCR.) RadioSHARK will also support capturing Internet streaming audio, so you'll have a complete solution for moving radio to your iPod for on-demand listening no matter where you are. You can pre-order the RadioSHARK for $50; Griffin says it will ship within a few months.
Pivot This! So ATI comes up with a hot new video card, the Radeon 9800 Pro, with video specs out the wazoo. Parallel pipelines, 32-bit per channel rendering, dual integrated 10-bit per channel DACs, and so on. But what's unique about this video card is that it can rotate what's on screen by 90 degrees in either direction, or, for those times when you simply must browse the Web while standing on your head, 180 degrees. But 90 degree rotation is neat - all of Apple's monitors are great for wide-screen video, but what if you want long-screen video for some reason? Pop this video card in your Mac, attach your Apple Studio or Cinema Display to a StudioLift or CinemaLift monitor arm from Innovative Office Products, and you can rotate both the physical monitor and your virtual desktop. The Radeon 9800 Pro, which costs $400 or $500, works with Mac OS X's Quartz display technology to do all the transformations on the fly, and the Mac simply believes it has a 1200 by 1600 monitor, for instance, rather than a 1600 by 1200 monitor.
Most Harmonized Remote Control -- If you're anything like me, you have remote controls for the television, the TiVo, the VCR, the cable box, and goodness knows what else. They all claim to control other devices, but my experience is that each one has at least one unique function, forcing you to keep all of them handy. Worse than the clutter is the confusion of trying to explain to all members of the household how to perform particular audio-visual maneuvers: "To play a videotape, just change the channel on the TV to 4 on this remote, switch to Line 1 input, and use the VCR remote as you would normally. Got that?" Intrigue Technologies has come to the rescue with a remote control that's not only truly universal, but meets the exacting needs and desires of the computer-savvy user. That's because the Harmony SST-768 remote is programmable, in the sense that you can teach it a set of actions necessary to accomplish a certain task. We're talking about macros for your home theater.
A small LCD and roller wheel provide the main interface, augmented by the standard complement of buttons. But how does it know how to control the many different devices out there? A USB jack connects to the Mac, where you use special software to download remote definitions and even television program guide information. At $300, the Harmony SST-768 isn't cheap (a show special of $135 made it one of the most popular buys at Macworld), but it very well might be worthwhile for restoring marital harmony. A version with fewer buttons - the Harmony SST-748 - costs only $200; I can't tell if the lack of buttons would be problematic in normal use.
Hardest Act to Follow -- Man, you have to feel for the guy. Greg "Joz" Joswiak, Apple's VP of Hardware Product Marketing, must have picked the short straw of standing in for Steve Jobs for the Macworld Expo keynote. Despite a clever set of slides early on where Joz admitted that he was indeed the love child of Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Jobs + Wozniak = Joswiak), Joz didn't have the material Jobs normally marshals for a big keynote. Nevertheless, Apple's announcement of a free upgrade to Final Cut Express for now-orphaned Adobe Premiere users was extremely well-received, as was the announcement that Soundtrack, previously available only with Final Cut Pro, would now also be a stand-alone product for $300. Joz's best moment came when showing the power of the Power Mac G5 and the Xserve RAID to do live compositing of video footage (overlaying a scene of him hamming for the camera on top of a London street scene).
A Cheaper Alternative -- Soundtrack too expensive for you at $300? It's not completely comparable of course, but if you just need to record and edit some sounds in Mac OS X (there's an older version for Mac OS 9), Felt Tip Software's $50 Sound Studio is worth a look. It supports 24-bit/96 kHz audio in either stereo or mono, copy-and-paste editing, a variety of effects and transformations you can apply to sounds, AppleScript support for recording and playback, and much more. My favorite feature, though, is the automatic starting and stopping of recording based on timers or user-configurable audio levels. It can save in AIFF, WAVE, System 7 sound, and Sound Designer II formats, and it can import anything QuickTime can play, such as MP3 and AAC and audio CD tracks. The free trial version works for 14 days (that's 14 independent days that you use it, not 14 contiguous days, interestingly), plenty of time to see if it's what you need.
Cutest Graphics Tablet -- Always thought that graphics tablets were too expensive to get if you didn't have a serious use for them? Me too, until I saw Macally's iceCad, a $50 tablet with a pressure-sensitive pen. It's not big, of course, with an active area of 2.85 inches (7.24 cm) by 2.14 inches (5.44 cm), but it worked fine at the Macally booth for me. The pen has two barrel buttons and another button in the tip for the 1,024-level pressure sensitivity. The pen's AAAA battery should last about six months if you used it eight hours a day, since it turns off automatically three minutes after you used it last. It works with the Inkwell handwriting recognition built into Mac OS X, along with a variety of graphics applications. Macally was also showing a slew of other neat devices and accessories, such as retractable cables for FireWire, USB, Ethernet, and telephone - ideal for reducing the clutter in your laptop bag.
Squishiest PDF Compressor -- Leonard Rosenthol of PDF Sages may no longer be working on StuffIt, but compression is clearly in his blood, as evidenced by PDF Enhancer, his utility for compressing and optimizing PDF files. It was amazing to see the level to which PDF Enhancer could compress bloated PDF files, particularly if the highest image quality wasn't necessary. I tried it on the Keynote-based iPhoto 2 presentation I gave at the show (my presentation has a bunch of full-size photos dragged from iPhoto into Keynote). After exporting my presentation to PDF in Keynote, I was left with a 17.7 MB file, but when I asked PDF Enhancer to shrink it for screen presentation (which left the images a bit jagged, but completely recognizable), the resulting file was 520K, a savings of 97.2 percent. PDF Enhancer isn't cheap at $180, but if you work with beefy PDF files regularly (as many of the creative professional types at Macworld do), it's worth trying out the fully functional but time-limited demo.
Tackiest Training -- Ever seen Mac luminaries like Andy Ihnatko, Bob LeVitus, Shawn King, or John Welch at a user group meeting or Macworld Expo presentation? They're a hoot to watch, and now you can learn about the basics of Mac OS X from them in the comfort of your own living room or office, thanks to the just-released TackyShirt training DVD, "Mac OS X Disc 1: The Basics". Actually, short of their Hawaiian shirts, the backgrounds, and some transitions, there isn't much tacky about this DVD at all, and it's a lot of fun. I particularly enjoyed the extensive post-production TackyShirt did for the DVD - it's hilarious seeing Shawn and John talk about Mac OS X's folder structure as document icons peek over the back of the couch they're sitting on. TackyShirt's first disc of Mac OS X training costs $40; you can pre-order the full four-disc set for $150 and receive the first disc now.
If you decide you like DVD-based training, check out Avondale Media's line of similar, though less wacky, DVDs. Avondale Media is Steve Broback, Jim Heid, and Toby Malina, and they also do a good job of explaining how various programs work. Look for training on Word X, Entourage X, Excel X, Adobe Photoshop, and digital photography. Prices range from $20 to $50, and the running time of different DVDs goes from 17 to 94 minutes. And of course, there are always the training CD-ROMs from occasional TidBITS sponsor MacAcademy for an even wider range of topics.
The League of Extraordinary Robots -- Forget the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie that's in the theaters right now. For something neat that doesn't require special effects, check out the Web site of the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, or LEMUR. LEMUR is a Brooklyn, NY-based group of artists and technologists developing robotic musical instruments that play themselves - the robots are the instruments. At Macworld, LEMUR was showing GuitarBot, which has four independently controllable stringed units that can pick and slide extremely rapidly. You can hear (and see) the GuitarBot in action in QuickTime videos on the LEMUR Web site; it was extremely neat to see it playing at the show, though it was hard to hear anything clearly among the trade show floor din.
Latest Competition for FontBook -- Mac OS X 10.3 Panther hasn't even shipped yet, but companies are queuing up for potshots at FontBook, the font-management utility in Panther. The latest entrant is Alsoft, makers of that excellent disk repair tool DiskWarrior, with version 3.0 of their venerable MasterJuggler utility, now for Mac OS X. First Extensis claimed they're not worried about FontBook competing with Suitcase (or their just-purchased FontReserve), and now Alsoft is saying basically the same thing. Honestly, I don't do enough with fonts to know how MasterJuggler compares to Suitcase or the upcoming FontBook, but if you're a font maven, give it a look. MasterJuggler 3.0 costs $90; upgrades from previous versions are $58.
Cleanest Screen -- That's my iBook screen, thanks to RadTech, which was showing off the versatility of their ScreensavRz, an ultra-microfiber cloth that protects your laptop screen from the oil left on the keys and can also be used with alcohol wipes (included) to clean your screen. I'd never used one of those screen protectors, so my iBook's screen featured a nasty set of key imprints, but between the alcohol wipe and careful scrubbing, RadTech's CEO managed to restore my screen to a pristine state. (Gotta love a company whose CEO spends hours at Macworld cleaning the screens of all comers.) It's worth poking around at other stuff on their site as well, they have Ice Creme for eliminating scratches from the acrylic surface of an iBook, tools for adjusting your screen hinge tightness, and more.
Coolest Apple Store -- I realize I'm going out on a limb here, since I've been to only three of the Apple Stores around the country, but after Saturday's experience at the Soho store, I'm giving it the nod. During the week, my iBook's Delete key broke such that if I tapped it on the left side, the key popped off, forcing me to stop writing and press it back on carefully. Hitting the Delete key only on the right side proved impossible for me, so I took the key off entirely and wrote most of this issue with just the nub underneath. Since I was planning to be in Soho on Saturday morning to check out the street artists, I brought my Delete key into the Apple Store there to see if they could do anything for me.
Growing bored with waiting for the guy in front me, I moved over to watch the woman at the Genius Bar helping him. He was having problems with moving Now Contact files from a somewhat battered Titanium PowerBook G4 over to a new 17-inch PowerBook; since the woman wasn't familiar with Now Contact, it was clearly going to take her a while. When I suggested that I might be able to help, having used Now Contact for many years, she gratefully let me take over. After a bit of investigation I was well on my way to solving the problem, so I passed her my broken Delete key and asked if she could help. She disappeared into the back room, and as the man was giving me his business card so I could email him details of my iPhoto book, she returned with a brand new Delete key. My errand a complete success, I was even more amused to see that the man I'd been helping was a Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations. Clearly I'll have to introduce him to TidBITS.
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