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Top Mac Gear at Macworld Expo 2009

Evaluation software works well in this age of the Internet, but we haven’t yet figured out a way to download a free trial of a laptop case or webcam. It’s probably for the best – having a trial laptop case expire (and disintegrate) after 30 days could be troublesome. So until we have Star Trek-style replicators, Macworld Expo will remain an excellent place to examine all sorts of peripherals and accessories, even some that aren’t yet available for sale.

Greenest Black Cases — I’m always somewhat peeved when companies – including Apple, with their current San Francisco billboards crowing about the MacBook line – tout the environmental goodness of buying some new bit of gear. Sure, it might be better than a less-green competitor, but more environmental yet would be to avoid buying something that requires new raw materials. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

That’s why I so appreciated the tough rubber laptop and iPhone cases from Tread – not only do they consume little in the way of raw materials, but their manufacture also actually removes waste material from the environment (in this case, inner tubes from South America, where they’re still used for tires). Granted, the cases have a chunky, almost sticky feel from the hefty rubber, but they look well-padded and durable, as though they would shrug off the occasional rain with aplomb. [ACE]

Best Rethinking of the Webcam — Most Macs and Apple displays now have an iSight video camera built in, so whenever I see a separate webcam for the Mac, I always wonder what the point is. IPEVO, a company I hadn’t previously run into, was showing the $39.99 PoV USB Camera, a pen-shaped webcam that’s designed to show more than just your face in front of the Mac. Indeed, IPEVO’s Caroline Andreolle puckishly claimed that the impetus for the PoV was the company’s CEO wanting to see his 90-pound bulldog on video while travelling, but his 90-pound wife couldn’t keep the dog from slobbering on the laptop.

[Update: It turns out the USB camera I was shown at Macworld was a prototype of an upcoming Mac-compatible release, and the current version is only Windows-compatible. Sorry for the confusion! -Adam]

The company was also showing the Kaleido R7, a prototype of a wireless digital picture frame with great industrial design and connections to the Mac, to Flickr, and to RSS feeds. Keep an eye out for it in a few months. [ACE]

Standalone Laptop Battery Charging Returns — Once upon a time, companies made standalone chargers for Apple laptop batteries. Instead of swapping between batteries to charge them in the laptop, you could plug your spare into one of these devices and replenish the battery’s power separately. For some reason (perhaps because each laptop has its own shape) those chargers disappeared, leaving travelers and other people who frequently use multiple batteries without an easy way to charge their batteries simultaneously. Fastmac’s $79.95 U-Charge brings back that capability in an ingenious way. Although Apple’s batteries have changed shape over the years, they all share
the same connector, so the U-Charge is a cable that plugs into just the pins on the battery. The charger also features a row of LED lights to indicate a battery’s current power level. [JLC]

Better BookEndzBookEndz laptop docks have been around for a long time, extending a row of plugs into the various USB, Ethernet, and other ports along the laptop’s sides and offering a set of rear-mounted jacks into which you can leave your USB devices, Ethernet cable, and monitor plugged. The idea is that it’s easier to attach and detach the laptop from the BookEndz dock than to handle each cable individually. I tried the model designed for Apple’s previous white and black MacBook line, but it was a small device that required somewhat finicky alignment with the MacBook’s ports. It ended up making the process more work than attaching a few cables, especially
since the BookEndz can’t pass power through to the dock due to Apple’s stubborn reluctance to license the MagSafe technology.

That said, the prototype of the BookEndz dock for the current aluminum MacBook impressed me. It features a platform on which the MacBook sits, and although you must still attach the part that contains the row of plugs manually, alignment is easier, and there’s a lever in back that disconnects it quickly. (It looks a lot like the model for the 15-inch MacBook Pro.) Being a prototype, it had a slightly odd collection of ports in back, including Mini DisplayPort, DVI, and VGA, although I was told VGA might disappear in the finished product for space reasons. It also multiplied the MacBook’s two USB ports to provide five USB ports on different sides of the dock. Hopefully it will appear soon, since I’m trying to use this MacBook as my only
Mac, and fiddling with six cables every time I take it off my desk is tiresome. [ACE]

Project Your Best Image — Is the screen on your iPod or iPhone too small to really enjoy watching video? Or, perhaps, do you aspire to set up a functional drive-in theater for your Matchbox collection? One recent technology trend is the “pico projector,” a handheld device that projects video onto any surface. Typically, presentation projectors are large, heavy, expensive pieces of gear. Microvision was showing off a prototype of its Show WX projector, which measured barely larger than an iPhone but output impressive video from an iPod nano. Using lasers, it auto-focuses the image up to 100 inches wide. Microvision isn’t yet selling the Show WX (which is
itself a code name), but the device is expected to cost between $400 and $500 when it’s released. [JLC]

Custom Manufacturing Comes of Age — The fragmentation of popular culture continues apace, and the latest example I noticed is the customization of durable goods. Sure, we’re used to being able to choose from among numerous colors and styles when it comes to things like iPod cases, but Brenthaven and iFrogz have taken customization to a new level.

Brenthaven’s $129.95 Switch MB messenger bag features a flippable flap for which you can choose front and back designs from a selection on Brenthaven’s Web site. At the show, they had artists creating unique designs that could be ordered and, after a quick pass through an industrial-looking sewing machine, picked up later.

iFrogz couldn’t do on-the-spot customization, but they were showing how customers could choose different colors, finishes, and designs for the five major pieces of their line of horribly named EarPollution headphones. As much as the name bugs me (oh, I know, it’s ironic and hip), the custom headphones looked good – unfortunately, I couldn’t test the sound well on the show floor.

Custom manufacturing isn’t just an indulgence, since it enables companies to avoid guessing what customers might like when determining inventory levels. That’s good business sense, and, if it eliminates large orders for misconceived styles, also a nice way to avoid dumping unnecessary waste into the world. [ACE]

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