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Top iPhone and iPod Gear at Macworld Expo 2009

Macworld may have Mac in its name, but it had the iPhone and iPod in its tap shoes, as Apple’s handheld devices provided much of the energy at the show. Apps and gear for the iPhone and iPod ranged from inventive and extraordinary to mundane, but it was clear that at its best the iPhone has become an extension of your Mac, contextualizing and enhancing the environment around you. The iPhone has also become a recorder, keeping track of where you were and what you did, so that you can keep that data handy, share it with others, or send it back to your Mac later. Of course, the show was also a great place to see the latest accessories that make using an iPhone or iPod just a little bit nicer.

Ocarina Over the Top — The folks working the Smule booth were having a hoot of a time demoing the $0.99 Ocarina, which was easily the most out-of-the-box iPhone app at Macworld Expo. Ocarina lets you, well, play the ocarina on your iPhone. You simply blow into the microphone while touching the appropriate buttons on the screen, and ethereal flute sounds come out.

But wait, that’s not all! Your Ocarina tune can also go up to the Internet cloud and from there other people can listen to (and “heart”) it. And, you can email tunes to people. Conversely, you can view a map of the world within Ocarina, tap that map, see where in the world other people are playing Ocarina, and then tap to listen. [TJE]

Best On-the-Spot Connection — While wandering the show floor, I ran into Alan Oppenheimer of Open Door Networks, who was showing off his latest iPhone application for exchanging virtual business cards. MyCard is one of the better business-card exchange tools I’ve seen. Rather than having to connect over the same wireless network, two people can quickly and easily exchange cards even over AT&T’s cell data network. All you do is download the application (free for now), select your default card, and either “beam” it or email it to another user. When you hit the “Beam myCard”
button you’re given a code you exchange with the other user, who taps the receive button on their end and enters the code. For non-iPhone users you have the option of just emailing them a standard vCard file, which nearly any contact application can import.

As you would expect from a tool made by a company that started in security, the application uses encrypted connections for beaming and lets you select which contact fields you want to share. I was able to download and install the application in less than a minute on the show floor, and Alan and I would have exchanged cards if a few thousand iPhone users hadn’t plugged up the network before I could finish my beam. MyCard is small enough to download, and fast enough to configure, that it takes just a minute in the real world to swap contact information, even if neither person has yet installed it. [RM]

Charge without that Syncing Feeling — This being my first trip with an iPhone, I was struck by how irritated I became with iTunes’s automatic launching and syncing when I plugged the iPhone into my MacBook for some juice at the end of a very long day when all I wanted to do was fall into bed. “Just charge, dammit!” I’d swear, albeit quietly, so as not to disturb Tonya, who had already collapsed from exhaustion.

I’m thus eagerly anticipating the forthcoming Tune Blocker from Matias, a USB cable for charging and syncing an iPod or iPhone that includes a little switch that lets you choose whether your connected device will charge and sync, or just charge. When I questioned Vesna Vojnic of Matias about the package’s “The safest way to charge & sync” claim, she gave me an embarrassed smile and admitted it was “just marketing.”

But I think she demurs too much – I may succumb to inadvisable actions when faced with an automatic sync that’s keeping me from my bed after midnight. Look for it in a few months for $24.95 or $29.95, depending on cable length. [ACE]

Just in Case — If you wanted to find the perfect case or holder for your iPhone or iPod, Macworld Expo offered about 7 million choices, and there were more practical options than ever before. One of my favorite entries here was ProClip’s car mounts. These mounts are particular to your handheld model and car, and support the iPhone (or other device, like a Blackberry or GPS) from the grill vents or the dash.

Another attachment product that I liked was the $14.95 Hangman from Neat Products. It helps you avoid carrying an iPhone in your hands or fumbling for it in a bag. It attaches into the dock connector port on an iPhone or iPod, lets you wrap up any attached headphone cord, and clips onto a belt loop or necklace. Jim Rea of ProVUE Development enthused about the Hangman, telling me that he has two of them with different sets of cables for wearing his iPhone on a lanyard.

For attractive, non-bulky protection and personalization, I liked GelaSkins, which cover the back of an iPhone, iPod, or laptop with an artist-designed image and provide a custom wallpaper for the screen to match (prices vary by device). They also sell the GelaScreen clear protector for the screen. [TJE]

Passive Aggressive iPhone Speakers — The iPhone and second-generation iPod touch offer – I won’t say “boast” – external speakers, but they’re pretty weak. There’s no shame in that, and Apple doesn’t tout them as being appropriate for more than speakerphone calls and listening to YouTube videos. But if you want to increase sound output by up to 10 decibels without YAWW (Yet Another Wall Wart), I saw three devices that qualify.

The SoundClip ($7.95) from Ten One Design is a tiny bit of plastic that snaps onto the dock connector and boosts sound largely by routing it perpendicularly to the iPhone, rather than out the bottom edge.

Griffin Technology’s AirCurve (19.95) is a stylish piece of clear plastic on which the iPhone sits and that increases volume by sending the sound waves through carefully constructed spiral channels.

Lastly, the ungainly AmpLi-Phone ($29.95) looks a bit like an old-time loudspeaker, but also provides a decibel lift.

I was able to test only the AirCurve in a quiet room, and it performed adequately. Just don’t expect it to sound like a real external speaker. If you’re interested in one of these, I notice that Rik Myslewski has compared the three in more detail at The Register. [ACE]

Cutest Speakers — There were oodles of real speakers at Macworld Expo as well, but the ones that caught my eye as I walked by were the Tweakers from Grandmax ($39.95). Powered via a rechargeable battery, they snapped apart to provide left and right speakers; the battery can be recharged via USB. The sound seemed good, considering their size, and I liked the industrial design that gave them a sleek profile in your laptop bag while still concealing not just the speaker innards and battery, but also retractable USB and headphone cables. [ACE]

I Like Mikey — The clever designers and engineers at Blue Microphones who came up with the Snowball microphone and its smaller sibling, the portable Snowflake (which I far prefer to my MacBook’s internal speaker for iChat and Skype audio) have now created a new microphone for the iPod. Dubbed Mikey, the hinged mic snaps onto the dock connector and lets you prop your iPod on a table for recording interviews or lectures. Three settings control its sensitivity, depending on how far away from the source you are.

Mikey isn’t out yet, but I’m looking forward to trying it when it does arrive in a few months. Although it worked with my iPhone in testing, the Blue Microphones folks are working out some kinks in getting the iPhone to recognize it properly; until then they don’t seem to be claiming iPhone compatibility. [ACE]

Sweatiest iPhone App — I spend a fair amount of time riding a bicycle, but I can honestly say it’s not something I’ve ever done in the middle of a conference expo floor. That’s exactly what I saw at the MapMyRide/SMHeart Link booth that featured a “spinner” showing off the latest iPhone fitness application. iSpinning uses a small hardware adapter attached to your iPhone to connect with standard wireless fitness sensors, such as the Polar series, and monitor your heart rate, speed, and other statistics. During a training session it presents you with a dashboard of your workout, including heart rate, calories burned,
speed, distance, and power so you know exactly how out of shape you are.

For those of us who like to bike outside the confines of the gym, we can always use iMapMyRide (or a similar application, like Trailguru) to track our workouts with the GPS in the iPhone for full maps and workout summaries (minus the heart rate monitor). Be aware that the iPhone must be on and running the iMapMyRide app the entire time, so you have only a couple of hours of battery life. The company is working on a handlebar mount with an integrated battery for longer rides. [RM]

Making iPhones Social in the Real World? — I worried that all these iPhone apps would cause people to disappear into their tiny handhelds, emerging only for food and bathroom breaks. For example, the ECOcal iPhone app, which is meant to show a calendar not as a series of like-sized squares but instead as a more flowing sense of time moving through the seasons in nature, had a daytime view that removed me from reality and from socializing with others by drawing me into the display. However, its nighttime view seemed likely to provide useful context to the outside world, with its information about constellations
overhead (in the northern hemisphere).

I saw a great many iPhones being used at the show and for the most part people seemed to know how to use (or refrain from using) the iPhone while being sociable. Google enhanced the iPhone craze and iPhone-related sociability even more with a much-appreciated iPhone charging station. At this station, a dozen or so iPhones could be charged at once, giving power-hungry geeks another excuse to stand around and chat. [TJE]

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