Despite Macworld Expo's small number of exhibitors and reduced attendance, there was no lack of superlatives, both interesting products and notable observations.
Don't Try This While Driving -- Apple Specialist Tech Superpowers ended up with a bigger booth than they'd expected, so they decided to have some fun filling the space. They outfitted a four-door Lexus sedan with a complete Macintosh-based video editing hardware suite, complete with multiple monitors and control devices (for the passenger only!) hooked to a rack-mounted Xserve and Xserve RAID in the trunk. It was pure stunt, of course, but it was worth it to see people trying to figure out if the setup was meant to be serious.
Inconsistent Bus Drivers -- Taking the shuttle bus from the hotel to the show every day proved wildly variable. The bus was fine on the first day, but on the second day, our bus went around the back of the hotel, pulled up on the side, and after waiting for less than a minute, left before those of us staying dry in the lobby could dash out. Luckily, Tonya and I were able to grab a cab quickly, so I wasn't late for one of my talks, but everyone was flabbergasted that the driver would have been so inconsiderate. On the flip side, our driver the last day was not only amiable and helpful, he was a savvy Macintosh user who was jazzed when we were able to give him and his partner free passes to the exhibit floor.
No Catering Weasels at BCEC -- Macworld Expo was among the first trade shows in Boston's new Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC), and although aspects of the venue were clearly unfinished, the staff was less jaded than at other more established venues. Nowhere was that more notable than with the catering staff, which provided food for the speaker room that was unusual, tasty, and even healthy, such as a corn and feta salad one day and a shrimp salad another. It was a welcome change from the usual uninspired and overly sweetened food at other events.
Chairs to Die For -- Perhaps I over-enthuse, but the standard chairs at the BCEC were the most comfortable institutional chairs I've ever used. Being a runner, I'm not exactly well-padded, and sitting through a two-hour keynote address is usually an exercise in fidgeting followed by an extremely sore bum. BCEC's chairs used the same kind of black mesh that you'll find in expensive desk chairs like the Herman Miller Aeron, and they even had lumbar support for your lower back. Now I just have to find the manufacturer - I've been looking for classy folding chairs for dinner parties.
Put Your iPod On Stage -- You can hook your iPod to any speakers or audio gear that offers an audio-in port, but Harman Multimedia's JBL division has gone further with On Stage, a frisbee-sized ring that holds four small speakers and provides a docking port for any iPod or iPod mini. The sound seemed good, though it was impossible for me to tell for sure because of the overall noise level on the show floor. The iPod/On Stage combination would also make a great clock radio, thanks to the iPod's clock features. JBL was also showing On Tour, a portable speaker that can run for 24 hours on 4 AAA batteries (it also includes a universal power adapter). On Stage's price will reportedly be $200 when it ships in September; the On Tour will be available in August for $100.
iPod Goes Bluetooth -- I was sitting in the hallway, chatting with Irina Nazarova of the Ukrainian developer BeLight Software when this guy came over and asked us if we'd like to try a Bluetooth headphone for the iPod. I've always hated cords dangling from headphones, and although I fully admit that the iPod's white cables have become almost iconic, I still find them annoying, fussy, and constantly tangled. But the i-Phono Bluetooth dongle and headphone that Bluetake's Clement Wen showed us worked flawlessly and with decent sound. Apparently, the devices can pair with multiple Bluetooth devices, so if you have a Bluetooth cell phone, it automatically cuts the music and switches to the call (the headphone includes a built-in foldable microphone). It's not entirely clear if the i-Phono devices are shipping, or what they cost, and Clement said they are working on a dongle that fits on top of the iPod rather than connecting via a short cable. I'm eager to test a production unit in the real world.
PhoneValet Takes Messages -- I reviewed Parliant's PhoneValet in TidBITS-699, but since then Parliant has enhanced the product with answering machine (including multiple voice mailboxes) and call recording features. What's particularly cool is that AppleScript integration enables you to forward messages to your cell phone or via email. It looks like a great solution for small offices without a receptionist, since PhoneValet can verbally announce callers using Caller ID so everyone knows which calls to answer, and if the person who's being called isn't available, it can take a message and if necessary forward it appropriately. PhoneValet costs $200 per line, and it's also worth noting that it now works with Now Software's Now Up-to-Date & Contact to provide automatic call logging, a remote activity list, and (soon) automated dialing. Now Software also currently discounts PhoneValet for existing customers and those who want a bundle of their software with PhoneValet.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mac -- If you're in charge of Macs that are in constant use by the public, you know how people manage to fiddle with configurations, delete files, and install new software. With MacShield from Centurion Technologies, fixing each Mac manually becomes a task of the past. When the Mac reboots, MacShield eradicates all user changes and restores the Mac to the initial state you set. MacShield doesn't place any restrictions on what users do during a session, and it writes all user changes to a temporary buffer space, thus ensuring that the Mac's original files are never modified and eliminating the need for a lengthy restore process. Centurion Technologies doesn't publish a price, leading me to believe it's a sliding scale based on the number of licenses you want.
Photos on the iPod -- Belkin's Media Reader allows you to copy your camera's media card to your iPod, which reportedly works well for cards under 256 MB in size (large cards suffer from unusually long download times). Belkin has now expanded the product line with the Digital Camera Link, which enables you to download photos to your iPod by connecting your camera's USB cable to the Digital Camera Link, which then plugs into the iPod. According to Belkin, the Digital Camera Link is faster than the Media Reader. Like the Media Reader, the Digital Camera Link requires batteries, since Apple is adamant that these devices not rely on the iPod's internal battery. Unfortunately, neither is compatible with the iPod mini. At $90, the Digital Camera Link is $20 cheaper than the Media Reader, but check to make sure your camera is compatible before buying.
Rock On in High Def with Roku -- TiVo's Home Media Option (see Alex Hoffman's review in TidBITS-698; note that the Home Media Option is now free) gives you TV-based controls to play music from iTunes through your stereo and view photos from iPhoto on your television, but in an unfortunate lapse, it can't do both simultaneously so that your photos act as a screensaver while your music plays. You probably wouldn't buy a TiVo for the Home Media Option alone, but if music and photos is all you want, look instead at Roku's $300 HD1000 High-Def Digital Media Player. Like other digital media players, it streams MP3s from iTunes to your stereo, and it can also display images on a high-definition television screen at the same time. It can load images from a media card or from your computer over the network, though it doesn't integrate with iPhoto. By default it uses wired Ethernet, though a wireless adapter is an optional add-on. You're not limited to still images; the HD1000 can also display MPEG2 movies, and Roku says that third-party applications are available to support additional formats. And if you need images (still and moving) to display, Roku sells four different $70 high-definition image packs.
The Ultimate Picture Frame -- What if your TV isn't where you'd prefer to display your pictures? For the ultimate picture frame, check out PhotoVu's PV1910 Digital Picture Frame. It's a nicely framed, 19-inch LCD display with a wide viewing angle powered by embedded Linux and networked via wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi. It does integrate with iPhoto, although you can also load images by plugging in a USB drive (a popular option with stores that use them for display). You control what displays on the screen using a Web interface; options let you turn the display on and off at different times, pick which images to display, and more. My main disappointment was that it doesn't currently support the Ken Burns Effect that Apple uses with the Mac OS X screen saver; the PhotoVu guys said they're working on it. It's also worth noting that the PV1910 doesn't scale photos up: too-small photos will appear with borders. $1,200 might seem expensive for such a device, but it's actually not too bad once you consider the cost of a high-quality LCD monitor, a CPU running embedded Linux, wired and wireless network interfaces, a custom Web interface, and a real picture frame with heavy-duty hangers. You could (and I may still) hack something together for less using old Mac hardware, but it wouldn't be nearly as elegant.
Spymac Reinvents the Wheel -- The Macintosh site Spymac hasn't particularly appeared on my radar, so I was surprised to see them occupying a large, slick booth and showing off Wheel, a collection of Internet services designed to compete with Apple's .Mac. Wheel includes 3 GB of space for email (accessible via POP, IMAP, and the Web) and 250 MB of WebDAV and FTP-accessible drive space for Web page hosting, iCal sharing, and backup via a simple program (like Apple's Backup) called WheelGuard. Wheel costs $40 per year; an account that offers only 1 GB of email space and shows ads in Web mail is free. While talking with Spymac's amiable and enthusiastic staffers I had a major moment of dot-com deja vu; the network pipes and redundant servers that such a service entails don't come cheap, and it seems questionable that the combination of access fees, advertising, and sales of Spymac gear would be sufficient. Despite retaining its name, Spymac has reportedly pulled back from its origins as a rumor site to focus on news and community; Wheel is a major change in direction.
Best Freebie for Education -- Massachusetts-based iScienceProject came to Macworld Expo to spread the word about their HOBO data loggers, educator loaner program, and free access to over 100 developed labs. iScienceProject's battery-powered data loggers are about the size of a deck of cards, and they record data such as humidity, light, and temperature. To work with the data, students plug the devices into Macs running OS X (via USB) or PCs running Windows versions as old as Windows 98 (via serial or USB), download the data, and then use either Onset's software or a spreadsheet for analysis. Although a variety of HOBO loggers are for sale from iScienceProject's sponsoring company, Onset Computer Corporation, teachers in K-12 can borrow one for two months for free. Teachers who develop their own labs for use with the loggers can enter the labs in the HOBO Project Contest; iScienceProject plans to reward winning labs with more HOBO hardware. The loaner program and contest are available to U.S. customers only. [TJE]