Category: Peripherals

Review: Toshiba Canvio AeroMobile Wireless SSD

toshiba-canvio-aeromobile-wireless-ssd

We’ve clearly hit a point in our technological evolution where we have begun to see the presence of wired connections (whether for data or for power) as an annoyance and not as a critical component of our gadgets.

We crave a life where all of our tech toys can talk to each other wirelessly and – dare we dream – charge themselves wirelessly too.

And while the wireless charging scenario is still a few years from becoming mainstream, wireless data is here and it is rapidly gaining a foothold amongst most of our devices.

Our smartphones, our tablets, our laptops and even the speakers we use to listen to music both at home and on-the-go are all equipped with Bluetooth and/or Wi-fi capability, so why not our hard drives?

Toshiba is tackling this question with their Canvio AeroMobile Wireless SSD ($179). It’s a 128 GB solid-state wireless hard drive that can accept up to 8 simultaneous client connections via Wi-Fi e.g. smartphones, tablets, laptops etc. But it also contains a built-in battery and an SD card reader, which makes the Canvio AeroMobile a nearly perfect wireless data companion.

Continue reading the full review on CanadianReviewer.com

Living life in 4K: ASUS PB287Q hands-on review

ASUS-PB287Q-4K-monitor-review

Over the years, we’ve seen a whole lot of innovation in computing. Faster processors, smaller form factors, touch-screen inputs and wireless data. All of these have had a profound impact on how and where we use technology. And as important as all of these advances have been, nothing has changed our fundamental relationship to these devices as much as improvements to their displays.

Displays are at the heart of how we perceive–and ultimately use—all of our computers, be it the biggest, most powerful desktop or the smallest of smartwatches. It’s the reason that new display technology always leaves me saying “wow.” That was my reaction when I saw my first high-res graphics monitor, when I saw my first colour LCD display and most recently, when I looked upon Apple’s Retina-equipped iPad. These technologies really enhance our use and enjoyment of computers.

So when I was offered the chance to try out ASUS’s PB287Q, one of the first reasonably priced 4K displays on the market, I jumped at the chance.

Continue reading the full review on Canadian Reviewer

Review: The Braven 600 wireless Bluetooth speaker

Braven 600 Wireless SpeakerIf there’s one thing that nearly every smartphone and tablet has in common, it’s this: dreadful sound quality from the built-in speakers.

Yes, I know some possess stereo speakers, and there’s certainly a case to be made that when privately watching a video on an iPad in a quiet room, the sound is sufficient enough to be enjoyed.

But the bottom line for speakers is similar to the bottom line for car engines: there’s just no substitute for cubic inches (er, centimetres).

So it’s no wonder that in recent months a whole new category of products has emerged to help consumers with their tiny (and tinny) device speakers. We are now living in the age of Bluetooth Hi-Fi and there are several ways you can use this wireless technology to amp up the performance of your favourite media gadget.

The first is by using a Bluetooth gateway device like the BlackBerry Music Gateway – a diminutive black box that simply relays the audio signal from your phone or tablet to the system of your choice. It’s simple, cheap ($49) and effective. But it’s not portable (you’ll still need to plug it in) and it’s a one-trick pony. Streaming audio is all it does.

The second option is one of the large Bluetooth-capable speaker systems like the Parrot Zikmu. It’s gorgeous, and likely has sound that compares to many high end speakers, but again portability is not really a strength and they don’t come cheap – a pair will run you $1599.

Finally, there are the truly portable, battery powered units that are small enough to fit in nearly any travel bag, yet big enough to deliver much better sound than your built-in speakers.

The Braven 600 is one of these products, and at $149 it’s the perfect compromise between the trio of considerations: price/performance/portability.

The iconic desk speaker from Charlie's Angels

The first thing the Braven 600 reminded me of (and I’m dating myself here) is the speaker in Bosley’s office that Charlie used to speak with his Angels in the hit 70s TV show, Charlie’s Angels. The Braven’s all-aluminum wrap-around body is perforated by small holes on both sides, much like the speaker Charlie Townsend’s voice emanated from.

The similarity might not be entirely in the mind of this writer – the Braven 600 is in fact a speaker phone as well as being a wireless stereo speaker. The elegant design lends itself just as well to a boardroom table as it does to a living room, or anywhere else for that matter.

Braven claims that the 600’s battery life is good for about 12 hours of streaming which should be more than enough for times when you’ll need it to be fully unplugged. The battery life is so good, the Braven can also be used as an auxiliary power source for your phone, or any other gadget that be recharged via conventional USB. The company suggests that an average smartphone could get back up to about 70% from empty. Not a bad trick.

Braven 600 side ports

Side views of the Braven 600. Note the presence of a full-size USB port and an audio out mini-jack.

As if that weren’t enough, the Braven has one more trick up its sleeve. Remember how the BlackBerry Music Gateway can let you stream music from your device to any piece of audio equipment you own?  Surprise: the Braven 600 can do that too, thanks to its audio output jack – a feature that may well be unique in this category.

So how does it sounds? Well, I’m not gonna lie – it’s not going to replace your home theatre system. But it does sound very good for such a small speaker. My experience was that it favoured “brightness” and clarity over low-end bass, but not to a degree that it sounded flat or tinny. Interestingly, vocals seemed to be it’s strong suit, again perhaps not a surprise given its second life as a speaker phone.

But what good is listening to a speaker like the Braven 600 without a point of comparison? Sadly, I didn’t have the Braven’s closest competitor, the Jawbone JamBox to do a side-by-side comparison. So I did the next best thing and hit up YouTube. Sure enough, I found this video from Gear Diary which, while not the ideal way to audition speakers, at least gives one the rough idea. Clearly the Braven more than holds its own when put up against the more expensive and less fully-featured JamBox.

The Braven comes packaged in large, clear acrylic display case which is not recyclable (not cool Braven), but includes an AC-to-USB power block (which looks like a black version of the one that comes with iPhones) plus a USB cable and a short stereo audio cable for 3.5mm jacks. They even throw in a small cloth carrying case.

The Braven isn’t exactly a bargain; I know that for some folks the idea of spending $150 on a wireless speaker still seems like too much. Plus you could probably cobble together a decent sounding system using other components for less. But when you factor in all of the Braven’s capabilities, you’d be hard-pressed to find its equivalent at any price.

If you’re interested in a Braven speaker (they make two others in the series) you won’t be able to find them in any Canadian retailers yet, but you can buy them direct from Braven and they will ship to Canadian addresses.

Apple's Lightning to 30-pin adapter is here, but do you want it?

When Apple debuted the iPhone 5 way back in September, it confirmed several rumours at once:

  • The new iPhone was thinner, lighter and had a bigger screen than previous models
  • It would be the first iPhone with 4G/LTE connectivity
  • Google Maps would be replaced with Apple’s home-brew Maps App
  • And, the 30-pin dock connector that had been the de-facto connection for nearly all of Apple’s portable devices for a decade, was no more. In it’s place, a new, smaller connector known as Lightning.

The Lightning connector was pitched as having two big up-sides for consumers:

1) It’s smaller, and though Apple never said so, it’s more durable

2) Because the connector is identical on both sides, you can’t insert it incorrectly.

Ironically, it was probably this last point that earned the Lightning it’s name, despite the obvious connotation of faster connection speeds. Just ask Marc Saltzman what he thinks of that little piece of labelling from Cupertino!

Needless to say, there was a fair amount of hand-wringing after the announcement: “What am I going to do with all of my existing dock accessories now?”

Apple’s reply was a calming reassurance that there would be Lightning-to-Dock adapters available soon after the iPhone’s launch, and that this would be an adequate solution.

So far, so good. Except that “soon” turned out to mean “well over a month” and as far as it being an adequate solution (my words, not Apple’s), the jury is still out.

To be clear, Apple doesn’t just make one Lightning adapter accessory; they make several. The Lightning-to-30-pin adapter comes in two flavours: A cable-based version ($45) that gives you some flexibility in placement of your Lightning-based iDevice, and a small, stubby “ultracompact” unit ($35) that is presumably intended for dock-wielding gadgets like charging stations, alarm clocks and speaker docks.

It’s the latter version that I finally got my hands on last Friday, in eager anticipation of being able to once again charge my iPhone without cables running all over my bedside table.

Alas, when I tried it out, I discovered that one of the Lightning connector’s strengths is now its greatest annoyance, for me at least.

The Lightning connector is actually amazingly well-engineered. The size, shape and design make it unique amongst the world’s growing digital connection universe. One the best parts is the way the male end is designed to snap-in to the female receptacle. It does so with authority, making it the Mercedes car door of the connector world. Once seated, it stays put, requiring a healthy – but not difficult – amount of force to dislodge it. Lightning manages to walk that remarkably thin line in consumer electronics between ease of use and sturdiness of design.

Aye, but there’s the rub: the new Lightning connector is so good, it overpowers the older 30-pin connection. In practice this means that seating the adapter in your dock, then sitting your iPhone 5 onto the adapter results in a stronger bond between the iPhone and the the adapter than between the adapter and the dock.

Oh look, there it is, my faithful Panasonic RC-DC1. It's a terrible alarm clock, but it looks nice and it has a charging dock so my wife doesn't complain about all of my cables.

And here comes Apple's Lightning-to-30-pin dock adapter to the rescue so I can dock my brand-new iPhone 5. Yay!

It really is a cute little thing isn't it? And so easy to slip on top of the Panasonic's existing 30-pin connector.

Hey, will you lookit that? The iPhone 5 just snaps right on! Hmm. Seems to look a little top-heavy. Oh well, I guess as long as I don't bump it when I reach for that superbly placed snooze button, I should be ok. Right?

Good morning world! Good morning fully charged iPhone 5! Come here, let me embrace your svelte body that I might better enjoy reading my emails from the previous 7 hours. Wait, what's this? An unsightly plastic growth seems to have appeared overnight... Doh!

So now, every time I reach for my iPhone 5, I must yank the adapter free from the base of the iPhone, in order to re-seat it on the dock. Every. Single. Time.Could this scenario I have just described be unique to my particular dock-adapter-iPhone combination? I doubt it. As I said, it’s a by-product of how wonderfully sturdy the new Lightning connector is. Unfortunately, consumers won’t see this as an all-round positive until we’ve replaced our existing 30-pin dock accessories with Lightning-based ones.

And at the rate 3rd-party Lightning-based accessories are appearing on the market (hint: you can’t find any yet), we might be waiting a long time.

Related: Check out Wired Magazine’s feature on accessory makers that have had their product plans (nearly) sidelined by Apple’s Lightning.

Can Sony's new Xperia Tablet S succeed where the Tablet S failed?

You have to give Sony credit. Last year, the company debuted their first effort at creating a consumer tablet, hoping not so much to rival the iPad (something they sensibly realized wasn’t going to happen) but to establish themselves as the definitive #2 player in the space. To say they missed that target is an understatement.

While reviewers had kind things to say about the Tablet S’s physical design such as the innovative wedge shape that made it more comfortable to hold sideways, there was far more in the minus column, thanks mostly to some poorly executed and/or missing features.

The bottom line was that if you’re going to charge the same price as an iPad, you had better give users a compelling reason to pick your tablet. Apparently most consumers felt that had not happened and sales figures for the Tablet S barely registered on global tablet purchases.

That was then. Today, Sony comes back to the tablet table, this time with a new brand (their tablet is now part of the Xperia family of products which includes Sony’s Xperia smartphones) a new look (thinner, lighter) and has addressed at least some of the shortcomings of the Tablet S.

The Xperia Tablet S as the new model is called, comes in 16 and 32GB flavours, sells for $399 and $499 respectively and runs the more modern Android 4.0 operating system from Google.

The new form factor is mostly the same as the original. Screen size and resolution are unchanged at 9.4″ and 1280×800. But this time around Sony has reduced the “curled” portion of the tablet wedge to just the upper (or side) third of the case instead of the previous design’s nearly constant taper from one edge to the other. The overall effect is to make the new Tablet S appear thinner, though the official measurements seem to indicate this is mostly an optical illusion.

Sony has also made the Tablet S more robust. It now sports a splash-proof coating which Sony claims makes the tablet resistant to all kinds of splashes, from any direction, so long as the port covers remain securely in place. This is a very good idea given how many tablets end up in the kitchen as they serve the double-duty of internet appliance and digital cookbook.

Internally, the Xperia tablet gets a speed boost from the latest Quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, plus the cameras get a spec bump too going from 0.3 megapixels in the front and 5MP in the rear to 1MP up front and 8MP in the rear, which is pretty much standard on all smartphones, and much better than average for tablets.

The last of the (major) physical changes is the presence of a “multiport.”  This replaces the micro-USB port from the first version and gives the Xperia Tablet S a critical  feature: USB and HDMI-out via an adapter cable. The first Tablet S could only send video wirelessly to compatible displays like Sony TVs, lacking a physical way to do so. This is an improvement to be sure, but I’m not a fan of proprietary connections and accessories. Apple forces iPad owners down this road by only offering HDMI via a 30-pin cable and I’m really disappointed that Sony chose to follow them.

But on to better things!

One of the ways that Sony sought to differentiate their first tablet was the inclusion of an IR transmitter capable of controlling all of your living room devices via a bundled remote control app. It was a great idea, but for some unknown reason, Sony left out the ability to program “macros” – the powerful feature which gives a product like the Logitech Harmony line of universal remotes their broad appeal. Without macros, you’re forced to jump between remote “modes” as you operate each device in your home theatre separately. It’s the tablet equivalent of having all of your physical remotes sitting on your coffee table in front of you. In other words, it doesn’t solve any of the problems associated with owning multiple devices.

The Xperia Tablet S finally addresses this gap by introducing programmable macros such as “Watch TV” which will then automatically send the necessary IR commands to your various pieces of equipment. How intuitive this macro feature is to use is unknown right now. Let’s hope Sony took a page from Logitech’s playbook.

Finally, the one feature which I think proves that Sony is finally “thinking different,” to borrow Apple’s now defunct slogan, is the ability to create a “Guest Mode” account on the Xperia Tablet S. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the BlackBerry PlayBook’s best features is something called BlackBerry Balance, which lets you create a virtual wall between your work-related activities and your personal ones. Sony’s Guest Mode does the same thing by creating profiles for different users, much like you can do on Windows and Mac computers. Using Guest Mode, you can set access permissions for apps, widgets and even desktop wallpapers, for each user account.

This is a tremendously useful innovation which Sony claims is exclusive to the Xperia Tablet S. I can easily see parents justifying the purchase of this product based solely on the strength of Guest Mode alone. I’ve long believed that tablets, unlike smartphones, are communal devices that end up being used by everyone in the household. With Guest Mode, there is finally a way to hand over the tablet without handing over control of personal and/or sensitive information.

Oh, one more thing.

Sony has spared no expense in creating a dedicated line-up of accessories for the Xperia Tablet S ranging from dedicated chargers, desktop stands and covers that include built-in keyboards.

Of course, we’ll really only know how good the Xperia Tablet S is once we get our hands on one, hopefully very soon.

The new tablet goes on sale September 7, but you can pre-order online today.

Do you still use a mouse pad?

It's a well-used and well-loved mouse pad with a comfy wrist-rest and I can't bring myself to give it up.

Even though my title here at Sympatico.ca is Tech Editor, I sometimes get these brutal reminders that my computing habits have not kept pace with the times.

Mostly it comes in the form of thinly-veiled contempt: “You still use an email client? Why not just use Gmail?” or “Of course I upload all of my photos to Facebook… why? Where do you put yours? … Flickr???”

My usual response is to sigh and hang my head a little lower while I perform a gesture with my arms that is half way between an admission of guilt and a defensive “How was I supposed to know?”

Today however, I was shocked to realize – as I wandered from one end of our offices to the other – that very few of my colleagues use mouse pads.

“Well, DUH” you might be thinking. Or, as I thought to myself, “Really? How is that possible? Can they really be satisfied using their regular working surface?”

I have always thought of a mouse pad as an essential item for comfy computing. Mind you, that’s an attitude I developed over 20 years ago when I rolled the mouse of my Macintosh II for the first time. You know, back when all mice used little balls and rollers that would need to be cleaned weekly with alcohol and Q-Tips. Back then, a mouse pad was the only way to ensure that the ball would have enough grip to roll reliably. Optical mice, which have all but forced their ball-encumbered brethren into extinction, aren’t nearly as fussy about what kind of surface you plant them on, so long as there is an absence of colour uniformity (optical mice need to be able to “see” where they are by comparing their current position to their prior positions – a calculation they can’t perform if the two positions look visibly identical).

And even though I haven’t used a ball-mouse in over 5 years, I can’t bring myself to part with my mouse pad (see above).

But my curiosity had been piqued so naturally it was time to conduct a scientific survey. Out went the poll to my co-workers (yes, via an email client): “Do you use a mouse pad?”

The verdict: Out of 24 respondents, only 6 people said yes. Or in other words, roughly 76% are not mouse pad users. Yup, once again, I seem to have fallen behind.

But is our little office microcosm representative of the internet world at large?

Glad you asked! Take our poll below to see which camp you belong to. Are you a devil-may-care pad-less mouser? Or a fastidious type who likes a clearly defined area for your cursor clicking?

Do you use a mouse pad?survey software

Just in time for Easter: Chocolate USB flash drives

Today we realized – somewhat belatedly – that we were missing several key ingredients required for making Easter eggs. Specifically: eggs and dye. And since most of the shops are closed, our local Shoppers Drug Mart became the beneficiary of our poor planning.

We found both eggs and a dyeing kit so catastrophe was averted. But as luck would have it, I also stumbled upon another Easter-themed item. There, amidst the $10 DVDs and the wall of i-device accessories, hung a rack of Maxell-branded “AromaDrives.

Turns out innovation in the USB flash-drive space isn’t dead yet. Thanks to Maxell, you can now count smell, er, aroma amongst the many questionable attributes that manufacturers have added to these ubiquitous gadgets in the hopes of driving sales.

When I first realized what I was looking at, I hoped that the chocolate scent would be generated by plugging the drive into a USB socket. You know – like one of those Glade Plug-in capsules – so as it gradually heated up from the tiny 5 volt current, it would release increasing amounts of chocolatey goodness into the atmosphere. Sadly, it seems Maxell has simply impregnated the shell of the drive with the artificial chocolate scent and any increase in aroma you get after plugging it in is purely unintentional.

If this sounds like something that belongs in your Easter basket this weekend, hop on over to your nearest Shoppers and be prepared to shell out $24.99 + taxes for a 4GB model.

Tell them the Easter Bunny sent you.

Sony Dash vs. Chumby One: Battle of the "internet viewers"

Sony's Dash (left) and Chumby Industries' Chumby One (right)

Sony's Dash (left) and Chumby Industries' Chumby One (right)

Some of you might recall a few years ago, a little device made its way onto the gadget scene that let you wirelessly connect to the web so that you could see stuff. All kinds of stuff. It had a touch screen and even a “squeeze sensor.” It was called the Chumby. It was 2008, the iPad was still 2 years away and the Chumby was a bizarre but charming hybrid between an iPod Touch and a beanbag.

Based on open-source software with an embedded version of Adobe’s Flash, the Chumby runs apps that appear on its diminutive screen in a never-ending slideshow of information. If you’ve ever looked up at one of those elevator screens that show you headlines, weather etc., you’ll get the concept. I was immediately taken by the idea and hounded the folks at Chumby to send me one. Sadly, they wouldn’t do it since the Chumby wasn’t eligible for sale outside of the U.S. In the end, I gave up on ever getting my hands on a Chumby and moved on to other things.

It’s now 2010 and here’s what’s been going on with the Chumby in the intervening years…
It seems I wasn’t the only one who saw lots of potential in the cuddly little web-viewer. It ended up being named by Wired Magazine as a top gadget for 2008. In 2009 Chumby Industries created the Chumby One – a cheaper version of the original Chumby encased in hard white plastic instead of the Italian-leather exterior of its older brother. The Chumby One lacks the original’s squeezable form factor but introduces a large volume knob on the side and an FM radio. But perhaps more interestingly, Sony took notice of the Chumby platform and began development of their own internet appliance, the HID-C10, otherwise known as the Sony Dash, which they debuted at this year’s CES show in January. If the Chumby One is retro-looking clock-radio with a touch-screen, the Dash is a thoroughly modern wide-screen HDTV. Yet both devices run the Chumby widget platform, and now – for the first time – both devices are available to Canadians which means the time is ripe for a comparison.

Before we dive in though, here’s how the Chumby/Dash devices work, in case everything I’ve written to this point has left you wondering what I’m rambling on about. Feel free to skip to the specs if you’ve heard this before…

Sony's Dash has a modern, monolithic shape compared to the Chumby One's toy-like appearance

Sony's Dash has a modern, monolithic shape compared to the Chumby One's toy-like appearance

Chumbys and Dashs use your Wi-Fi network to connect to the web. After some minor configurations steps on the devices themselves, you use your PC or Mac to customize the content that the gadgets display through a dedicated website. The site lets you choose from amongst the 1000+ Chumby apps that are freely available, which you can then organize into “channels”. Think of Chumby/Dash channels as TV channels – you choose the kind of programming you want on each channel. Once set, you can “change channel” anytime from the device itself. Most folks will likely stick to a single channel, but having the choice to view others is handy.

Each app comes with its own set of customizable features. The Picasa widget lets you choose a URL with your photos, while the Weather Channel lets you choose your city and preferred temperature display (Celsius or Fahrenheit), and the Facebook Newsfeed app lets you “like” or comment on your friends’ updates – the latter via an on-screen keyboard. Others only let you choose how long they will remain on the screen.

App content runs the gamut from News to Travel and everything in between, but some categories are more populated than others. “Clocks” for instance has over 200 apps, which I suppose isn’t surprising given that these devices are primarily intended as desktop or bedside table companions. There are even some games you can play using the touch-screen such as “Reversi” or “Pinball” but frankly neither the Dash nor the Chumby One are especially good gaming gadgets.

Personally, I’ve gotten the most out of a combination of news, Facebook updates & photos, and humour. That’s the channel I keep running during the day. But I’ve also got a channel that runs a single app: Flickr. It runs continuously and turns the Chumby into an ever-changing digital photo frame. It’s also a great way to discover new photos as the app lets you see public photos by keyword – my suggestion: use seasonal terms like “autumn.”

Okay now that you know a bit more about how these Chumby-driven devices work, let’s get back to the comparison with a look at the specs…

  Sony Dash  Chumby One 
Price   $229 CDN  $119 USD
 Screen size  7″  3.5″
 Screen resolution  800×480  320×240
 Wi-Fi  b/g  b/g
 Video Playback  Windows® Media Video 9 (up to MP@HL 1080p)
Microsoft VC-1 (up to AP@L3 720p)
MPEG 4.10/H.264 (up to MP@L4.0 1080p)
 FLV
H.264
 Audio Playback  MP3, AAC, WMA  MP3, OGG, WAV, FLAC and M4A
 Audio-in  Microphone  Microphone
 Audio-out  Headphone jack  Headphone jack
 Speakers  Stereo, 1W+1W  Mono, 2W
 Power  A/C adapter  A/C Adapter with travel plugs or optional Li-ion rechargeable battery
 USB  1 USB 2.0 port  1 USB 2.0 port
 Accelerometer  Yes  Yes
 FM Tuner  No  Yes
 Ethernet over USB  No  Yes

A few things jump out at you when you look at this list.

First, the Dash is twice the price of the Chumby One. Actually it’s a little less than that since the Chumby One is priced in US$ and you’ll have to pay for shipping and possibly duties, whereas you can drop by your local Sony Store and buy the Dash – or via SonyStyle.ca. The Chumby One can only be bought online through their web store.

This price difference brings us to the other big difference: the screens. The Dash’s screen is likely the biggest reason for the extra bucks. It’s nearly twice the diagonal size and more than double the resolution. And though Sony doesn’t publish the details on its processor, I’m guessing it’s more powerful than the Chumby’s. That said, it is a very nice screen. Not razor-sharp like you’d find on an iPad or a laptop but still very good to look at.

Why the larger, wider screen on the Dash? In a word: video. Although Sony has chosen to “wrap” the Chumby experience in its own themed dashboards, the main reason the screen has 16×9 ratio is to facilitate video playback, something the Dash does much better than the Chumby. Most of the video-watching options are via a menu of streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix, but the unit can also play compatible video (and audio) files off of an attached USB key – at least that’s the plan. Currently the video portion of this feature is listed as “coming soon” when you try to use it. To be fair, Sony doesn’t promote this aspect of the Dash on their website but it’s tormenting to be offered the menu item and then not be able to take advantage The video quality is surprisingly good and while I didn’t try streaming full movies on the Dash (not quite sure why you’d want to) I did watch several of the movie trailers, some of which were in HD, from Flixster and the stream quality was rock-solid. Sound from the Dash’s internal stereo speakers is, as you’d expect from such a small device, on the tinny side but the volume is enough for the 2-3 feet experience.

The other video options on the Dash include: FIFA World Cup, blip.tv, Wired, Syle.com. FordModels, DailyMotion and many others. But the big omission from this list is Sony’s own Crackle.com free movie service, which launched in Canada earlier this year.

The Chumby One won't win any beauty contests but it sure is cute

The Chumby One won't win any beauty contests but it sure is cute

Video playback isn’t Chumby’s strong suit, but that’s not a deal-breaker and given the smaller size of the Chumby One’s screen, you probably won’t find yourself wishing it could handle more video.

Instead, the Chumby focuses on audio. The audio options include playback of several audio formats (see list above) from a connected USB storage device, various streaming services such as ShoutCast, podcasts from NYT, Mediafly and CBS, the ability to playback content from an attached iPod, or a collection of internet streams known as “Sleep Sounds” (rain falling, white noise, waves crashing etc.) – kind makes sense for a bedside gadget right? Makes you wonder why the Dash doesn’t have it. But the Dash does have native support for Slacker Radio, which for those who subscribe to the streaming service, will be a big plus.

While it’s true that the Chumby One only produces monophonic sound from its internal speaker, don’t let the cheap-looking plastic exterior fool you. Much like the Tivoli Model One – a mono desktop radio with a huge cult following – the Chumby One manages to pump out surprisingly rich sound. You can’t crank the volume very high, but it doesn’t matter; the sound that you do get is great.

The ironic thing here is that the Dash is arguably the natural heir to the Radio-Alarm-clock experience given Sony’s age-old domination of the category via their omnipresent Dream Machine product line. And yet the Dash lacks a built-in radio which has been a mainstay of the alarm clock for decades. The Chumby One on the other hand, has an FM tuner complete with an external wire antenna that tucks into the battery compartment when not in use. Speaking of batteries, shouldn’t all modern alarm clocks contain at least a back-up battery? The Dash has one that keeps the clock time from needing to be reset, but you’re still without functionality in the event of a power-outage. The Chumby One doesn’t have a backup battery but you can add one yourself and it not only helps in the event of a power failure, it lets the Chumby One operate completely cord-free for up to an hour.

Another great feature on the Chumby One is the ability to assign a timer to your audio playback. You can choose from 5 to 240 minutes in 5-minute increments before the timer shuts off the sound – great for people who like to fall asleep to music but who don’t want their dreams to have a soundtrack.

By now, some of you have noticed that the microphone – a feature of both devices – doesn’t appear to have a purpose. You’re right. So far, none of the Chumby apps or the Dash’s proprietary functions make use of the mic. I’m probably not alone in hoping that a Skype app will surface sooner rather than later… how cool would it be to chat via one of these gadgets from the comfort of your bed without needing a PC or smartphone?

Alright, it’s bottom-line time. Which of these devices should you buy?

My overall recommendation goes to the Chumby One. The cheaper price, great sound, uncluttered interface and retro-appeal make the Chumby One a very attractive choice. The more expensive Sony Dash doesn’t offer enough extra features in my opinion, to justify the extra dollars. That said, there are bound to be some who feel the premium is worth it in order to get the Sony brand name and reputation, the sophisticated dark-wedge design, the superior video playback and the larger, wider screen. If, for instance, you need a device like this for the kitchen, the Dash’s larger display would be a distinct benefit. Likewise, if you plan on using either of these gadgets as a serious digital photo frame replacement, the Dash wins again. However, after having used both devices – and given the plethora of options I have at the home and office for watching video and looking at photos, I feel the Dash’s extras are nice-to-haves but certainly not need-to-haves.

Which apps would you like to see on the iPad?

Image courtesy of ThinkFlood

Image courtesy of ThinkFlood

Okay, so the iPad wasn’t quite what people were hoping to see when Steve Jobs took the stage last month to unveil Apple’s latest gadget. But let’s not dwell on the past. Instead, given what we know of the iPad’s specs, how can app developers take an overgrown iPod Touch and turn it into a device that we can’t imagine living without?
Here are two activities that would make the iPad worth the price of admission for me…

1. The best darn universal remote – Period.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Logitech’s Harmony universal remotes. They combine ease-of-use, no-hassle programming and fairly intuitive help feature when things go awry. But their touchscreen edition – the Harmony 1100 –  is $399 U.S., only $100 less than a base iPad.

Why not use the iPad instead? I’m not the first person to think of this. Add-on and app developer ThinkFlood, which has already created a universal remote solution for the iPhone/iPod Touch, known as RedEye, is now working on their next iteration for the iPad. ThinkFlood uses Wi-Fi to communicate with their infrared transmitters which means walls and other objects aren’t an issue. It’s superior to other solutions that use BlueTooth.

ThinkFlood transmitters aren’t a bargain at $188 U.S., but their app is free as are all updates that they release.

2. Appliance/electricity monitoring

Helping people make more efficient use of their electricity and other energy sources is something that a number of the big tech companies are working on. Google’s home-grown PowerMeter initiative gathers data from the smart meter on your house and displays the stats on your iGoogle homepage.

Intel's Home Energy Dashboard proof of concept

Intel's Home Energy Dashboard proof of concept

Intel has created a proof-of-concept called the Home Energy Dashboard, an OLED touchscreen panel that is intended to display the vital stats of your home’s energy consumption. Using a new wireless technology known as ZigBee (a wireless protocol similar to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi intended for tiny, power-sipping sensors and other home appliances), the panel can also gather consumption information directly from individual appliance from around your home. Similar to PowerMeter, the idea is that by simply seeing your energy use in real-time, you are more likely to engage in conservation. Unfortunately, Intel’s concept is just that – a concept, with no pricing or availability dates.

 A similar execution by SilverPac, will cost $600 and is scheduled for a Fall 2010 release.

But why buy a dedicated device when the iPad could easily fill this role? It only lacks ZigBee communication but I’m sure a small ZigBee dongle could be fitted to the iPad’s dock connector, or better yet, someone could build a ZigBee-WiFi bridge that would facilitate communication between the two protocols.

The app could be created by Google, which would make sense if it displayed PowerMeter data, or by individual utilities. Here in Ontario, home owners who have a Toronto Hydro Smart Meter can already access their energy consumption online. A recent Toronto Hydro program called PeakSaver, gave away free iPod Shuffles and a $25 rebate check to customers who agreed to let the utility take control of their AC systems during high-demand periods. Giving away free iPads would make an even smarter (if more expensive) incentive for reducing electricity needs during peak times.

So there you have it – a Universal remote and a home energy monitor. Two potential uses for the iPad that go outside the traditional spheres of web surfing and media consumption. What else would you like to see the iPad do?

Update Feb 18, 4:25 PM

If you’re still doubting the case for an iPad as an uber-remote control and/or energy monitor, check out what the President of Savant AV, Jim Carroll, has to say about the release of the device. He’s very impressed by the iPad, and that means something. Savant is the creator of a whole-home automation system based entirely on Apple technology. I recently had a chance to see the Savant system in action and was amazed by the way everything in your home could be controlled from a touch-screen interface. Savant’s control scheme not only looks a LOT like the iPhone interface, they’ve created an app that can run the whole system from an iPhone or iPod Touch. Clearly a specialized version of this app for the iPad’s larger screen is the next move for Savant. I have no doubt the combination of Savant’s automation technology and the iPad will be positively drool-worthy!

OWLE's Bubo turns your iPhone into a full-on camcorder

The OWLE Bubo as seen from the front. The iPhone snaps into a space on the back of the frame.

The OWLE Bubo as seen from the front. The iPhone snaps into a space on the back of the frame.

I’m not sure what’s more impressive: the fact that this iPhone accessory takes a humble cellphone and turns it into tripod-mountable camcorder, or the fact that the team behind it went from concept to fully-finished and available for shipping product in a little over 4 months.

The Bubo is deceptively simple. It’s basically a smooth piece of anodized aluminum that serves as a video platform for an iPhone. iPhones already have a built-in camera and mic, but what they lack is a way to comfortably hold them while you’re shooting, and there’s no way to add things like lens adapters, external mics or lighting units. The Bubo adds all of these features, plus several tripod mounting points.

When the Bubo goes on sale for pre-order on October 27th, The initial price will be $99 … fairly reasonable for what you get: Included with the OWLE Bubo will be a 37mm .45X wide angle lens, a high quality Vericorder boom microphone, and a silicon iPhone case. The price goes up to $129 after the initial launch.

Interested? Check out their light-hearted but informative video here:

and visit them online: http://www.wantowle.com/

Here’s a view of the back of the Bubo:

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