Once you get past Apple's new hardware and software, the next question at Macworld Expo becomes, "What's cool?" Here are several things that caught our eyes, tickled our fancies, or otherwise made us go back for a second look.
Get Stuck on Gooball -- I've been known to get lost in a good video game from time to time, particularly first-person shooters that allow me to become fully immersed in the game's environment. However, that immersion can carry a cost: I'm not wild about going to bed and dreaming of storming the beaches of Normandy, for example. That's probably why I was particularly drawn to Ambrosia Software's Gooball, a game where you control the movements of a multi-eyed, limb-less alien (Goober) within a translucent sphere of goo.
The Goober can roll, jump, and stick to surfaces. The goal in Gooball is to get from one end of a level to another in order to advance to different worlds, accumulating gems on the way. You don't shoot anything, and nothing is trying to kill you. If you wanted to get esoteric, you could consider Gooball to be a comment on how one deals with one's unintentionally hostile environment, but really, you'll be having too much fun rolling and bouncing through Gooball's truly beautiful and brilliantly rendered worlds. (The images at the first URL are screen captures from earlier in the game's development; see the second URL for an example of how the game appeared at Macworld Expo.) Gooball is expected to ship within the next few weeks, according to representatives at the booth; a price has not been announced. [JLC]
SmartDeck: Cassette Adapter Done Right -- Several new methods of getting audio from your iPod to your car stereo were on display at Macworld Expo, several of which were accompanied by the cars themselves (people were probably more attracted to the two Mercedes models on display than the integrated audio feature). Our favorite, however, looked - on the outside, anyway - decidedly low-tech. Griffin Technology demonstrated SmartDeck, a cassette adapter that plugs into the iPod to deliver sound via a car's built-in tape player.
I've found cassette adapters to be the most reliable way of listening to my iPod in the car; the FM transmitters I've tried add too much static to the signal, and it can sometimes be hard to locate an open radio frequency. But cassette adapters are usually cheaply made and act only as dumb conduits for audio. The SmartDeck adds interactivity: pressing the car stereo's rewind or fast-forward controls switches between songs on the iPod, and turning off the stereo pauses the iPod's playback. According to the representative I talked to at the Griffin booth, the SmartDeck also automatically adjusts the volume on the iPod when it detects audio clipping to even out the stereo's volume level. The SmartDeck costs $25, but is not due to ship until the second quarter of 2005, according to Griffin's Web site. [JLC]
Doctor Mac Direct -- Now here's a good idea. Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus, one of the best-known Macintosh authors, has started Doctor Mac Direct, a service for remote troubleshooting, technical support, and training on Mac OS X and Mac OS 9 software (but not hardware; he's leaving that to Apple). Let's say you have a problem. You describe your problem on the Doctor Mac Direct Web site (or to a phone receptionist, if you can't or don't want to use the Web), and one of Doctor Mac Direct's experts, hand-picked by troubleshooting legend and MacFixIt founder Ted Landau, gives you a binding estimate of how long it will take to solve your issue. If the $120 per hour rate, billed in 15 minute increments of $30, is acceptable, the expert then calls you and, using Timbuktu-like screen sharing that works via a Web browser plug-in, solves your problem. You do need a broadband Internet connection for the screen sharing; it reportedly works over a modem, but is annoyingly slow (and thus expensive) for everyone. Resolution is guaranteed, so even if it takes longer than estimated to fix the problem, you pay no more than the estimate. The service should be opening in a few weeks, so check it out the next time you were wishing you knew a doctor who made mouse calls. [ACE]
Music Here, Music There, Music Everywhere -- It seems that you can never get speakers where you want them in a room without running unsightly cables across the floor, and the problem becomes worse when you want your music in multiple rooms. Since it's difficult to rewire a house, I was particularly intrigued by the Sonos Digital Music System, which comprises a $400 Sonos Controller and one or more $500 Sonos ZonePlayers. The Sonos Controller provides a small color LCD and an iPod-like scroll wheel controller for navigating through your digital music collection (read from iTunes), and music is played through the Sonos ZonePlayers, which are component-quality, 50-watt amplifiers that receive music via Ethernet or wirelessly (using a peer-to-peer wireless mesh network) and connect to a pair of normal speakers for output. You can easily play the same song via multiple ZonePlayers, or you can set each ZonePlayer to play different songs. Although Sonos currently has a bundle of the controller and two ZonePlayers for $1,200 ($200 off), there's no question the system isn't cheap... at least until you compare it with the cost of installing an in-wall system that wouldn't have as good an interface or be as flexible. The Sonos Digital Music System can't yet handle protected music, such as from the iTunes Music Store, but it's not difficult to convert such tracks to an unprotected format. [ACE]
Pan and Zoom Photos Better -- iMovie's Ken Burns Effect offers the capability to bestow motion on a still image by simulating the camera zooming and moving across the picture's surface. Photo to Movie, from LQ Graphics, zooms past the iMovie simulacrum of Ken Burns, enabling you to set multiple keyframes to control the camera along curved paths, specify parameters using specific values, and adjust the speed of easing into and out of the motion. The resulting QuickTime movie can be imported back into iMovie or iDVD, or you can just stick with Photo to Movie - the current version adds the capability to add titles and soundtracks, making it easy to create slideshows of multiple pictures that all contain motion. Photo to Movie costs $50; a free demo is available as a 2.3 MB download. [JLC]
High Density Video -- Open Door Networks managed to shoehorn a tremendous number of video presentation devices, ranging from a tiny iPod photo all the way up to a large, flat-screen television, into their minuscule Macworld booth. All the screens were showing pictures from Envision 1.1, the company's software for downloading and displaying images from Web sites - it's essentially a graphics-only Web browser for populating a digital picture frame. Envision 1.1 adds a neat montage mode for displaying multiple images on the screen at once, can save downloaded images to the Pictures folder for use with digital media center device, and has the capability of searching Google for images. It's $40 through the end of the month; you can try the demo version for free. [ACE]
Feed Your Obsessive-Compulsive Urges -- Who knew there were so many obsessive-compulsive computer users? Delicious Monster's utility Delicious Library taps into your need to know exactly what's on your bookshelf, and whether you've loaned titles out to your friends. Delicious Library stores books, music, movies, and games in one central database, wrapped in attractive wood-lined bookshelf visuals. In fact, Delicious Library was probably the nicest-looking application at the show. More impressive, however, is its capability to use an iSight as a barcode scanner to read the barcodes from your collection (you can also buy an optional $175 Bluetooth scanner). Adding a title to your library grabs its information from Amazon.com, including cover artwork, current pricing, and value information (for collectors). [JLC]
Tracking the Wine -- I've followed the various bar code scanning products from Intelli Innovations and Delicious Monster with some interest, but also some confusion. I can, of course, see uses for the products, ranging from tracking for insurance purposes to maintaining a small lending library. But the thought of scanning my hundreds of books and CDs strikes me as excessive. I remember what books I own, and simply alphabetizing them on the shelf helps me find them. And CDs are merely archival now that I rip everything to MP3. But Intelli Innovations has come up with a product that helps me track what I do, not just what I own - Wine Collector. Tonya and I enjoy drinking wine, but it's often difficult to remember which wines we've liked and which we haven't, and to translate that into appropriate buying habits. So although we don't have the contents of a wine cellar (or a cellar at all, for that matter) to track, being able to add a bottle of wine to a database by scanning its bar code, add tasting notes, and then take a printout to the store would be a great memory aid. Wine Collector costs $180 with a USB bar code scanner, or $280 with a Bluetooth wireless scanner; also available is the IntelliScanner Express bundle of Wine Collector, Auction Automator (for helping populate eBay auctions with bar code scanned data), and Media Collector (for tracking books, CDs, DVDs, and more) for $230 with the USB scanner or $330 with the Bluetooth scanner. [ACE]
Enigmatic Pressure Drop -- There's nothing quite like an AirPort Extreme base station mounted high on what looks like a lighted Space Needle to draw people to one's booth - especially when the device in question doesn't even do anything yet. Pressure Drop caught people's eyes with its intriguing industrial design that adds art to functional items, and functionality to what was once mundane.
Pressure Drop showed off two products at the show, both of them FireWire/USB hubs. The TrestleHub is a swooping shelving structure to hold your digital devices and minimize cable clutter; it includes four FireWire 400 ports, four USB 2.0/1.1 ports, and is made of aluminum and glass. The PaperHub, by contrast, is a simple two-level paper tray that also includes 4 FireWire 400 ports and four USB 2.0/1.1 ports.
And the Space Needle-looking thing? Pressure Drop was soliciting ideas for what one would do with it. Adam's first suggestion was to make sure the LEDs ringing the base of the AirPort Extreme are individually addressable so that programmers can control them, but I'd rather see some flames jet out the bottom somehow and get that little white UFO into orbit! At least once, anyway. [JLC]
SecuriKey for the Rest of Us -- Many people travel with sensitive information on laptops, and I certainly hope such travellers take reasonable precautions in terms of using a secure password and requiring it at login and when coming out of sleep or the screensaver. But merely rebooting into FireWire Target Disk mode avoids the need for a password, and unless you've used FileVault, secure disk images, or PGP Personal, your data will be open for the taking. There's another option that provides "two-factor security," which relies on not just a password, but also a USB key that must be connected to your Mac before you can use the computer. It's truly simple. If the USB key is connected and you enter your login password, you can use the Mac. Without both the key and the password, you can't. And if you remove the key from the Mac (to go to lunch, say), it locks instantly. SecuriKey provides a pair of keys, so you can keep one in a safe place as a backup, and if you were to lose both, you can order more. In short, if your job would be on the line if your laptop was stolen, I'd recommend that you seriously consider using a SecuriKey. It costs $130 and you can buy additional keys for $50. Unfortunately, the keys don't double as USB flash drives; the guy at Macworld said they were looking into it, but it wasn't quite as simple as it seemed, given that the Mac would have to deal with the same USB device in two very different ways. [ACE]
Better Wireless Security for Small Offices -- Speaking of security, many people are concerned about the security of wireless networks, even with the industrial-strength WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) replacing the easily broken WEP. But WPA still has some downsides: everyone shares the same key, increasing the chance that the key could be stolen in a non-technical fashion, and creating secure keys requires long, difficult-to-type passwords. Corriente Networks aims to solve both problems with Elektron, a Mac OS X (and Windows) program that enables you to require users to provide their individual user names and passwords to access the network, in the process generating separate WPA encryption keys for each user. That way, even authorized users can't sniff each other's traffic. Elektron can use your users' existing Mac OS X login information, or you can set up separate network authentication credentials (Elektron has its own built-in user database you can turn to instead of Mac OS X accounts for each user). It supports all WPA Enterprise-compatible access points, including the Apple AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express, and gear from Linksys, D-Link, and Buffalo. Elektron costs $300; if you're concerned about the security of your small business network (it's overkill for a home network), check out the free 30-day demo. [ACE]
Best Booth Design -- The majority of booths at the show are more functional than innovative, possibly because the costs of securing a booth are probably high enough that most companies don't want to add the expense of designing something inventive. The folks at Crumpler Bags, however, managed to come up with an imaginative booth that doesn't appear to have cost much. With corners made out of brightly colored 55-gallon drums and walls made of chalkboard material, the booth not only invited people to come in and check out the assortment of laptop bags, but encouraged them to pick up chalk and add their own graffiti. [JLC]
One More Thing... TextWrangler 2.0 Is Free -- Bare Bones Software has just raised the bar for text editors with the release of TextWrangler 2.0, which brings the program into parity with BBEdit 8.0, the most recent release of the muscular text, HTML, and programmer's editor. TextWrangler 2.0 picks up numerous features from BBEdit, including an optional tabbed interface for editing multiple files, support for searching an arbitrary set of files, multi-threaded searches, SFTP support, and support for the Mac OS X system-level spell checker (though not with inline marking of misspelled words). Although TextWrangler 2.0 lacks BBEdit's HTML editing tools, it retains syntax coloring for HTML and other files. Plus, TextWrangler can execute Text Factories (collections of actions to be performed on a file or set of files) created in BBEdit 8.0. Although TextWrangler's improved features stand on their own, Bare Bones has taken the gutsy move of making the program entirely free, making it both the bar which any competing text editor must surpass and a reference platform upon which the community can depend (imagine distributing a BBEdit-generated Text Factory for removing unnecessary headers from messages in a Unix mailbox file exported from Eudora). For those who purchased an earlier version of TextWrangler, Bare Bones has distributed coupons for your purchase price off any other Bare Bones product (so contact them if you haven't received your coupon via email). Anyone who wishes to acquire a Bare Bones product can use coupon code MW20perc to save 20 percent through 21-Jan-05. [ACE]