Want a free pass to Macworld Expo San Francisco? Read on, but you can cross the just-cancelled Macworld Tokyo off your calendar. Recent product releases include PGP 8.0, Default Folder X 1.6.4, and a slew of updates from Apple. But the bulk of this week’s issue goes to product comparisons with Dan Frakes’s look at 30 different worthwhile headphone models and Adam’s review of three elegant laptop stands that improve ergonomics and save valuable desk space.
A Hearty Mac OS X Welcome to PGP 8.0 — The recently formed PGP Corporation, which acquired the encryption utility PGP from Network Associates earlier this year, has now migrated the product to Mac OS X (10.2.1 or later). Basic configurations include PGP 8.0 Personal ($40) and PGP 8.0 Freeware (free, and a 5.2 MB download). The latter, which is what we tried, lacks PGP Disk functionality for creating and working with encrypted disk images, but Apple’s Disk Copy can fill in some of those gaps. Also missing is plug-in integration with mail clients, but this too will hardly be missed, because PGP’s functionality is so readily available at the system level. You can encrypt text via the Services menu (in those applications where the Services menu is active) and through the PGP application’s Dock menu when the PGP application is running. You can also encrypt files directly in the Finder via a contextual menu command. Existing Mac OS 9 keyring files are recognized and used directly. Encryption algorithms include powerful modern standards such as Rijndael and CAST. The interface, which you access through a single application, is intuitive and Mac OS X-like, except that encryption of files and the clipboard is mysteriously accessed through the Mail menu and the PGPmail window, even though these actions aren’t inherently related to mail. The documentation is generally good. Overall, PGP 8.0 is a delightfully clean and pleasant implementation of an essential utility for those wishing to protect their files and communications from prying eyes. [MAN]
Default Folder X 1.6.4 Released — St. Clair Software has updated its utility for intelligently improving Open and Save dialogs under Mac OS X. Default Folder X 1.6.4 adds an optional icon to the Dock that can be used to access files or folders anywhere on your computer by Control-clicking it. Default Folder now includes an option to disable it in certain programs, works within Java applications, and includes a number of performance enhancements and bug fixes. The update is free to registered users, and is a 2.6 MB download. Registration costs $35, or $20 if you’re upgrading from Default Folder 3.x for Mac OS 9. A competitive upgrade for owners of Power On Software’s Action Files (which is not available under Mac OS X) costs $25. [JLC]
A Few Updates from Apple — During our brief break, Apple released a number of small but potentially important updates, all of which should show up in Software Update.
Mac OS 9 versions of the iMac (2.3 MB) and Power Mac (2.5 MB) SuperDrive Update appeared, providing necessary compatibility with new 4x DVD-R and 2x DVD-RW media. If you have a SuperDrive, make sure you have the appropriate updates.
Also released was the Power Mac G4 Firmware Update 4.4.8 for the Power G4 (Mirrored Drive Doors). It improves fan control behavior and reduces high-speed fan cycling under Mac OS 9. Most notable about this firmware update, though, is that you can install it under Mac OS X, something which hasn’t previously been possible and which played a role in the shoddy engineering that resulted in some iMacs being rendered inoperable by the Jaguar installer. It’s a 1.2 MB download.
Lastly, Security Update 2002-11-21 fixes some potential vulnerabilities in BIND, the domain name server that’s included with, but not turned on in, Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server. If you’re not using BIND (or don’t know what it is), this 4.7 MB security update isn’t particularly important, but there’s no harm in installing it. [ACE]
Free Macworld Expo Passes — TidBITS readers interested in attending the upcoming Macworld Expo in San Francisco from 07-Jan-03 through 10-Jan-03 can get free exhibits-only passes (normally $15 to $35) from our friends at Peachpit Press. To request passes (you’ll receive two per request, so bring a friend), send an email message to <[email protected]> with your name and postal address. The passes are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and Peachpit must receive all requests by 20-Dec-02. And hey, if you take advantage of this offer, stop by the Peachpit booth to thank them, check out their books, and chat with authors like Adam Engst, Jeff Carlson, and Glenn Fleishman. [ACE]
Macworld Expo Tokyo 2003 Cancelled — Following the recent dustup between Apple and IDG World Expo over the East Coast Macworld Expo, MacUser UK is now reporting that IDG World Expo has cancelled Macworld Expo Tokyo in 2003. Apparently, Apple was the first to pull out, but was soon followed by industry heavyweights Adobe, Macromedia, and Microsoft. IDG World Expo said the decision applies only to the 2003 show, and no decisions have been made regarding future shows. This move lends credence to the theory that Apple is downplaying expensive trade shows in favor of its retail network of 50 Apple Stores. Some people have also advanced the thought that perhaps Apple is disentangling itself from Macworld Expo in favor of a series of Apple Expo trade shows that it could control, such as Apple Expo in Paris, the next instance of which is still scheduled for September 2003. Our question: Just how important are trade shows to the sense of community that pervades the Macintosh world? Even though only a small percentage of Mac users ever attend a Macworld Expo, the shows provide important milestones for businesses and individuals alike, not to mention essential personal networking opportunities. Apple should tread carefully. [ACE]
For many people, the attraction of Apple’s Titanium PowerBook G4 is that it almost entirely eliminates the compromises like performance and screen size that seem endemic to laptop computers. Even the iBook works fine as a primary computer for many people.
However, both of these computers, like almost all laptops, fall down in one area: ergonomics. They’re great for using on the couch, in a coffeehouse, or on an airplane, but when the laptop is sitting on a desk, the screen simply isn’t at the correct height. The problem is obvious – laptops combine keyboards and screens, but proper ergonomics demands that the keyboard be on the desk in front of you, whereas the monitor should be positioned so your arm, held horizontally straight in front of you, points at the center of your monitor.
(For more information on the ergonomics of laptops, read the Cornell University Ergonomics Web page, "5 Tips for Using a Laptop Computer," and their more general computer workstation ergonomic guidelines.)
If the problem is obvious, so too is the solution: elevate the laptop and use an external keyboard and mouse. You could plop your iBook or PowerBook on a box or a stack of books to raise it to the right height, but that’s a clumsy way to support such an elegant computer and may not provide adequate cooling. If you work in close quarters and need your desk space for other work, you’ll also want somewhere to stash your keyboard and mouse.
Three companies have looked at how to elevate a laptop to proper ergonomic height and have come up with remarkably different answers. Griffin Technologies opted for the minimalist look with the sleekly designed iCurve. The Plasticsmith took their design cues for the Lapvantage Dome from the flat-panel iMac. And for the Dexia Rack, Dexia Design used aircraft-grade aluminum to create a stand that looks like the cross between a TV dinner tray and mountain climbing gear. But the three laptop stands don’t just look different, they offer surprisingly different functionality as well.
I tested these stands in another capacity as well – holding laptops higher than normal desk height for use while standing up. Perhaps we’re unusual, but we use older laptops in fixed positions. Tonya’s blueberry iBook sends MP3s to our stereo and provides access to the Web and our Now Up-to-Date & Contact calendar and contact databases when we’re not in our offices. And my old PowerBook G3 is our main external server and routes the long-range wireless Internet connection to the rest of the house. We use both of these laptops standing up, but the shelves they’re on are too low for easy access (particularly for me, since I’m a good bit taller than Tonya).
iCurve — The most visually striking of the three stands to my mind is the iCurve from Griffin Technologies. It’s made of a single 1.5 inch (3.8 cm) thick piece of clear, molded plastic with a curved base and a pair of forward slanting arms for holding your laptop. Slightly sticky friction pads are inset in the arms to ensure that your laptop doesn’t slide off. The iCurve is exactly the width of the iBook; the wider Titanium PowerBook G4 would extend over the arms by a few inches. The front of the iCurve is about 4 inches (10.2 cm) high, and the back is 6 inches (15.2 cm) high. With my iBook, that means the top of the screen is at 15.5 inches (39.4 cm) high, or almost exactly the height of the Apple 17-inch Studio Display’s active area.
The clear plastic, cantilevered design, and narrow width of the iCurve make it almost invisible in a sort of modernist way, which is particularly attractive if you don’t have much space on your desk. You can easily store your keyboard well out of the way under your laptop when you’re not using it. The base is smooth, so it slides easily on your desk surface. Although I worried a little about it being too easily slid off the desk, I did appreciate the ease with which I could adjust the angle or position of the entire stand with a mere touch.
The iCurve’s slanted arms worked particularly well for our fixed position laptops, because it put the laptop’s keyboard and trackpad at a more accessible angle. On the downside, the prototype unit I tested proved a bit bouncy, so typing made the entire laptop jiggle up and down. Luckily, we seldom type more than a few words at a time on these machines, and Andrew Green at Griffin said the production units used somewhat stiffer plastic to ameliorate this minor irritation.
The iCurve costs $40 and is available directly from Griffin Technologies and at Apple Stores.
Lapvantage Dome — Take a flat-panel iMac base, give it a short aluminum arm, and replace the screen with a flat plastic tray, and you have the Lapvantage Dome. The Lapvantage Dome Deluxe, which I tested, improves on the standard model by making the arm (and thus the height of the laptop) adjustable from 4.75 inches (12.1 cm) to 6.5 inches (16.5 cm); the standard model is fixed at 5.5 inches high (14.0 cm). Either one should bring your screen close to an ideal height. The base of the Dome Deluxe also swivels 360 degrees (the standard model is fixed), and its platform is made of polished clear acrylic supported by another, smaller piece of opaque plastic, rather than just the plastic piece for the standard model.
The Lapvantage Dome feels like the most massive of the three stands, due to its 10 inch (25.4 cm) diameter hemispheric base, and a tray that’s 13.5 inches (34.3 cm) wide and 11.25 inches (28.6 cm) deep. Although the tray is notably larger than my diminutive iBook, which is only 11.25 inches (28.6 cm) wide, the iBook covers the lower opaque plastic piece perfectly, simulating the look of the flat-panel iMac’s screen, with its clear acrylic edge. A Titanium PowerBook G4 would cover much more of the surface. The Dome isn’t heavy, but its rubber-footed base provides solid support – it feels the least wobbly of the three stands. Unfortunately, the base also prevents you from sliding your keyboard as far under the platform as with the other two.
I appreciated adjustable height, although the 1.75 inch (4.5 cm) range isn’t all that much. I also liked the way I could rotate the base easily for someone else to see without having to slide the entire stand; with laptop LCD screens, being able to view the screen straight on is important.
The Lapvantage Dome costs $50, and the Dome Deluxe runs $80. Both models are available in either white or black, and you can order them directly from The Plasticsmith.
Dexia Rack — Both the iCurve and the Dome were designed purely with the desktop in mind. Dexia Design considered the desktop while designing the Dexia Rack, but didn’t stop there, creating a stand that’s as at home on a couch as on your desk.
To hold your laptop, the Dexia Rack uses an aluminum 14-inch by 11-inch (35.6 cm by 27.9 cm) tray, the middle third of which is open to provide cooling and reduce weight. A pair of sculpted aluminum legs fold out from the bottom of the tray to provide support. When extended, the legs are 20 inches wide (50.8 cm), offering sufficient space either for stashing your keyboard, should you be working at a desk, or to span the legs of most people, should you be sitting in a chair, couch, or bed. They raise the tray to a height of 7 inches (17.8 cm), which puts the top of my iBook’s screen at about 16 inches (40.6 cm) again, a generally reasonable viewing height. Two thin metal cables crisscross underneath the tray to prevent the legs from folding too far out. When closed and locked, which they do with a satisfying snap, the legs fit neatly under the tray, making for a neat and easily portable package that’s only .75 inch (1.9 cm) thick and weighs less than 1.5 pounds (.68 kg).
The width of the Dexia Rack, which is necessary to accommodate a full-sized keyboard or your legs, results in the tray being more appropriately sized for the Titanium PowerBook G4 than the iBook. The Dexia Rack also requires a wider surface area than either of the other two stands, although its actual footprint is tiny. The tray has indentations on either side that reduce the chance of laptops without rubber feet from sliding off, but adding rubber feet (try Radio Shack) would decrease the chance of accident. The Dexia Rack also lacks rubber bumpers on its smooth aluminum feet, which makes it slide on your desk well and prevents it from catching on loose couch or bed surfaces.
Although I enjoy the warmth of my iBook during this cold time of year, in the heat of the summer, I hate the hot iBook making my legs sweat. I also find the weight of the iBook becomes uncomfortable during long writing sessions. The Dexia Rack neatly solves this problem by supporting the laptop well above your legs, while still keeping it low enough for comfortable typing. Keeping in mind that everyone’s proportions are different, I found the Dexia Rack most comfortable when I was sitting straight up. The more I reclined (as I’m wont to do in bed, particularly), the harder it was to align my arms flat with the keyboard without bending my wrists. I have a long torso and arms, so it’s possible others wouldn’t encounter this problem as much.
I haven’t had the Dexia Rack long enough to try it on a trip, but I do intend to take it with me on Christmas vacation or to Macworld Expo in January. I’m looking forward to trying it while on the road, since I often find myself working on couches and in hotel room beds (hotel room desks, when present, are often at a terrible height for my wrists).
The Dexia Rack costs $45 and is sold mostly through college bookstores and computer stores, although you can also order directly from Dexia Design via email or phone.
TidBITS Buying Advice — All three stands elevate your laptop and provide a place to stash your keyboard. None of them obstruct your access to side- or rear-mounted ports, and all are priced between $40 and $80. With the possible exception of the Lapvantage Dome Deluxe, they’re also somewhat at the mercy of your work surface. Many tables and desks (such as my dining room table) are too high for comfortable typing, and when I instead used my properly adjusted desk as my work surface, the screen height dropped a bit below ideal.
Despite their commonalities, each of these laptop stands worked well and will appeal to a different type of user. The $40 iCurve is the least flexible of the three, but it’s stunningly elegant for those who appreciate sleek design, and its minimalist approach worked particularly well with our fixed position laptops. The Plasticsmith’s sturdy Lapvantage Dome Deluxe looks a bit bulky and costs the most at $80, but it alone lets you adjust the height of your screen and it’s the sturdiest of the three. And whereas the iCurve and the Dome will never leave the desk, the foldable Dexia Rack fits into your laptop bag for travel and can support your laptop over your lap on a couch or in a hotel bed, providing particularly welcome spacing between the toasty laptop and your legs in hot weather.
You won’t go wrong with any of these stands, I’m happy to say, making them an excellent alternative to suffering with poor laptop ergonomics or haphazardly stacking your laptop on a teetering pile of books.
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As I wrote at around this time last year (see "Miscellaneous Gift Ideas" in TidBITS-609), headphones are some of the most common computer-related accessories. Earbuds come with the iPod, and many people use headphones for watching DVDs, playing games, or listening to tunes while they work or play. I always carry a pair with my iBook, and I have friends whose PowerBook G4 headphone jacks are always driving a pair.
The problem – which hasn’t changed since a year ago and probably won’t any time soon – is that most headphones stink. That’s especially true of those that come with portable audio devices and even many of those you buy yourself in electronics stores. Even the updated iPod earbuds, though an improvement, are nothing to write home about.
Since my article last year, some of the headphones I recommended have been discontinued, and impressive new models have been released (bumping some previous recommendations off the list). Below, listed by portability, are my updated recommendations. If there’s someone in your life who uses headphones, get them a pair that do their music/movies/games justice.
(As I mentioned last year, there are definitely headphones available that are "better" than those listed below. However, few of those will actually sound better without a separate headphone amplifier. The models listed below are my recommendations that will work well directly out of an iPod or the headphone jack on your PowerBook or desktop Mac.
[Editor’s note: As we were putting this article together, we found to our dismay that many headphone manufacturers share a tendency to obfuscate the Web locations of their products, either using framed pages or long, nearly human-unreadable, database-derived URLs. Where possible, we’ve included specific URLs; otherwise, you can find certain models by going to the companies’ main Web sites. -Jeff]
Earbuds — These models sit in your ear, like the iPod earbuds.
Sennheiser MX 500 ($17): Still considered the best all-around traditional earbud, and one of the least expensive to boot.
Sony MDR-E888 ($70): Sony’s best earbuds; not quite as balanced as the MX 500, but still pretty good. Unfortunately, they’re almost four times the price.
In-Ear-Canal Headphones — These "seal" in your ear canal to block out external sound, and are great for traveling. Be sure to read the included instructions on how to get the right fit.
Etymotic ER-4P ($260): The best earbud/canal ‘phones on the planet by leaps and bounds, and one of the best headphones in the world, period. The ER-4P actually fit inside the ear canal and provide far more isolation (-28 dB) and better sound than any noise-cancelling headphone on the market, making them the ultimate travel headphones. The main drawback (besides the price) is that some people don’t like sticking things inside their ears… way inside.
Etymotic ER-6 ($130): The "budget" version of the ER-4P. These don’t sound quite as good (most notably in the bass), and don’t provide as much isolation (-20 dB), but they’re still excellent and are half the price.
Sony MDR-EX70 ($60): I’m not a big fan of these headphones – their sound isn’t on par with most of the other headphones here – but they’re the only "inexpensive" in-ear-canal alternative to the Etymotics I can recommend. Plus, if you like a lot of extra bass, these will please.
Earclips — Instead of using a headband like traditional headphones, the drivers on these headphones hang on each ear. Earclips tend to be comfortable, and won’t mess up your hair.
Koss KSC-35 ($30): The KSC-35 are officially discontinued, but they’re such a great buy that I feel obligated to mention them – you can still find them at stores like Circuit City and on the Web. Small, lightweight, and comfortable, they offer some of the best sound under $100. Definitely the best headphone available for exercise and active use, and one of the best bargains in headphones. Worth tracking down if you are looking for this style of headphones.
Koss KSC-50 ($20): The new version of the KSC-35, they’re still very good, but not quite on par with the original. Still, hard to beat for $20.
Audio-Technica ATH-EM7 ($75): These new earclips are all the rage among the "image" crowd – not for their sound, but for their looks, which are admittedly cool. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t sound bad; they just don’t give you the bang for the buck. If you want earphones with a high-tech look for your iPod, these are the ticket.
Lightweight Headphones — These are traditional over-the-head headphones using a metal or plastic headband. Koss is still the king here, as they have an entire line of portable headphones using a driver that is much better than anything else on the market. However, Sennheiser has just released a new line of lightweight/portable headphones that are excellent and finally give the Koss models some competition.
Koss PortaPro ($40): Traditional headband with adjustable grip for comfort.
Koss KSC-55 ($15-$20): "Streetstyle" headband that rests behind the head/neck.
Koss SportaPro ($20): Adjustable headband that can be worn over the head or behind the neck.
Koss KTXPRO1 ($19): It had to happen eventually – "iMac" fruit-colored headphones.
Sennheiser PX 100 ($50): A cool portable headphone that folds up like a pair of glasses.
Sennheiser PX 200 ($60): The "closed" version of the PX 100 – meaning it seals around each ear to block out some degree of external noise.
Sealed, Full-Size — These headphones fit over or around the ears and block out some degree of external noise; they’re good for travel or use in noisier environments (the isolation also saves others from having to listen to your music).
Beyerdynamic DT250-80 ($150): Probably the best traditional sealed headphone that can be powered by a portable device; they’re comfortable and have great sound.
Sony MDR-V6 ($70). Quite comfortable, foldable for travel, and built like a tank, the V6 are studio monitor headphones, which means you get sound that is quite analytical (lots of detail, but some people find the sound fatiguing after a while). The V6 are identical to the "pro" line MDR-7506 that sell for $40-$50 more, but very different from the MDR-V600, which are nowhere near as good.
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro ($100): Like the Sony MDR-V6, these are studio monitor headphones that fold up for travel. They don’t have the impressive bass response of the V6, but the 280 Pro offer the most isolation of any headphones save the Etymotics mentioned above.
Sennheiser HD 212 Pro ($50): Sennheiser clearly didn’t spend their money on build quality for these headphones, but they sound good, especially for the money. Also a great choice if you like bass.
Beyerdynamic DT231 ($90): Another good, closed headphone that probably falls between the two Sennheiser models.
Open, Full-Size — These models don’t seal out noise, and tend to be bulkier than the lightweight models above, but they’re great for listening at home.
Grado SR-60 ($70) or SR-80 ($90): Not the most comfortable headphones out-of-the-box, but great sounding for the money – the SR-80 is a major bargain in high-end headphones, and the SR-60 isn’t far behind. (Grado also makes a $40 model, the SR-40, but the SR-60 is well worth the extra $20.)
Sennheiser HD 497 ($60): Last year I recommended the HD 495, but cautioned that they needed a dedicated amp; since then Sennheiser has released the excellent HD 497, which sound great directly out of an iPod or computer. Like the 212 Pro above, Sennheiser won’t win any awards for build quality, but you get a great sounding headphone that’s also fairly comfortable.
Noise-Cancelling — These gadgets have a processor that "cancels" out external noise in a limited frequency range. Until this year I really couldn’t recommend any headphones in this category because noise-cancelling technology is still no match for good old isolation (see the Etymotics above), and almost every model on the market sacrificed audio quality for noise-cancelling circuitry, leaving you with fairly poor sound. This year there is finally a pair of noise-cancelling headphones worth mentioning, and they’re half the price of the disappointing-but-expensive Bose offering that seems to be advertised in every magazine in America.
Sennheiser PXC 250 ($150): Virtually the same headphones as the PX 200 above, but with noise-cancelling circuitry. Lightweight, comfortable, and a good travel solution if you don’t like in-ear-canal models.
Wireless — For use at home, wireless systems let you move around without being tethered to your computer or audio source by cables. Like noise-cancelling headphones, it used to be difficult to recommend a wireless headphone system because they simply sounded lousy compared to even cheap wired headphones. However, a couple of impressive systems have surfaced that make wireless a viable, if not perfect, option for those who value good sound.
Amphony H1000 ($130, uses digital radio frequency technology). One of the least expensive wireless systems on the market, but also one of the best sounding because it uses a new technology that combines digital and RF technology. They’re also quite comfortable. One caveat for wireless network users: the Amphony system uses a set of frequencies very close to those of the 2.4 GHz 802.11b (AirPort) wireless protocol, and the two do not co-exist well. Amphony is supposedly working on a new version that avoids this problem.
Freespan xdream ($200, uses infrared technology). Another great sounding, and comfortable, wireless system, the xdream uses infrared technology rather than RF. The downside is that you need to have line of sight between yourself and the transmitter; the upside is that there is no RF interference (a major problem in most homes nowadays).
Where To Buy? In the United States, most of the headphones mentioned can be found at a good headphone-only retailer like HeadRoom or GoodCans, and a few of the Koss and Sennheiser models can be found at the big electronics chain stores. The Sony V6 headphones are quite hard to find; DJ Mart is one of the few places that still carry them.
If sound quality isn’t your primary goal, and you’re instead looking for the latest in headphone chic, Audio Cubes and MiniDisco both carry a wide variety of style-over-sound models (the ATH-EM7 mentioned above is available from Audio Cubes).
Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about, or just talking about, good headphone audio, check out Head-Fi and HeadWize.