XtremeMac shows FM who’s InCharge

I’ve had mostly good experiences with products from XtremeMac (even though none of them have ever actually been used with a Mac). The first iPod case I bought from them was great, ditto for their HDMI switcher. I also liked the design and features of the Luna Voyager alarm clock dock, but had found it difficult to get certain devices to fit in their dock adapters and the dock adapters themselves very difficult to remove. Plus, I had to jump through hoops to get a digital copy of the manual. (When repeated e-mail exchanges proved fruitless, I picked up the phone and talked to a person who resolved it within five minutes.)

Those who have an older car or one without a Bluetooth, though, may want to take a gander at their recently announced InCharge Auto BT. (The company also produces a version for the home using standard AC outlets.) While there have been countless products over the years to send music from a cell phone (or just about anything else) via local FM transmission, the result is often terrible in cities with many FM broadcasters. In contrast, the clever XTremeMac approach acts like a standard USB charge for a  smartphone, but integrates Bluetooth reception and a cable to connect to any car head unit that has an aux jack.

I suppose this begs the question, “Why do you need Bluetooth?” You could just charge the phone and run a cable from its headphone jack to the AUX jack. For one, this approach should prove a little neater with a shorter cable and provide for more flexibility in terms of where the phone is placed in the vehicle. On the other hand, if you’re not above doing a little installation work in your dashboard (or paying for it) you might just want to start anew with a car stereo that has built-in Bluetooth.

Accessory Sunday: AVIIQ Portable Quick Stand

Apple has not been shy about promoting its Smart Covers as a key accessory for the iPad 2. A reengineering of the functional but uninspiring rubbery folio case for the original iPad, the colorful covers can be folded into a triangle to prop up the iPad to a comfortable angle for viewing or typing. But Apple isn’t the only company looking to bring iPad-inspired design back to computers. Accessory-maker AVIIQ has released a few pricey flat-folding laptop stands. The least expensive of these is the $40 Portable Quick Stand (PQS), which dispenses with the extended surface of the pricier models.

The PQS does not create a confidence- inspiring presence out of the box; in fact, it easily tips over without some weight atop it steadying it. This became a practical issue as I’d often have to reorient it if I needed to remove it to reposition it. However, with its rubbery cladding on either side, the stand stays put underneath a laptop. My main concern with the product was whether the gap in its folding angles would pinch fingers as they got caught manipulating it, but the “give” in the product’s sides prevents any discomfort. I also found the angle a bit extreme; unfortunately it is not adjustable.

The shiny plastic PQS is easy to slip into a laptop case. However, having seen many clever devices to prop up a handset or tablet, I think there’s room for improvement — something with a mire rigid form  and more flexible angle.

Windows Dead Messenger

Like many, including Bill Gates, I think Microsoft’s purchase of Skype  will be a boon for the company’s presence in the wireless and home video chat space. But, of course, the company isn’t exactly a newcomer in the instant messaging and video chat space. It was early to market with NetMeeting, and for the past few years has been pushing forward on Windows Live – nee MSN — Messenger, now part of Windows Live Essentials, which Microsoft positioned as the rapidly evolving part of Windows before Microsoft it mandated that Windows itself needed to evolve much more rapidly. (I suppose Windows Live Essentials will now be the part of Windows that most now evolve at ludicrous speed.)

Windows Live Messenger has attracted a large audience itself. On the software’s tenth anniversary in 2009, Microsoft shared that Windows Live Messenger it had 330 million active users per month.. We haven’t, however, seen a lot of detail on what will happen to Windows Live Messenger after the Skype acquisition. Steve Ballmer didn’t mention the offering once during the press conference although it did appear on a slide. There was also a reference to providing Skype additional talent resources. Clearly the Live Messenger team would be prime for picking there.

The Windows Live Messenger installed base may add significantly to Skype’s already massive installed user footprint. Ultimately, however, and putting aside infrastructure, Skype’s superior cross-platform progress is critical for any cross-platform chat and collaboration platform. Microsoft’s MacBU had created a wisely renamed version of Messenger for the Mac, but now Microsoft will be able to tap into a wider array of handsets and put more pressure on Apple to bring FaceTime outside of Apple’s own devices.

PlayBook marks an auspicious platform birth

Most of the reviews of the BlackBerry PlayBook remind me a lot of the first reviews of Motorola Xoom. “It’s no iPad.” Yes, we know, and so do RIM and Motorola and Google. You don’t need to turn on either device to know there would be a significant app and feature gap deficiency versus Apple’s pioneering slate that has since had a year to mature. Yes, the PlayBook lacks e-mail and calendaring for the moment. Oh, by the way, the Xoom and PlayBook both multitask out of the box. Did the first iPad? No, buyers had to wait half a year for that feature.

But the PlayBook is far more significant for RIM than the Xoom was for Google. Honeycomb is a major new release of Android, no doubt. But while the user experience of Android had room to improve (and still does), it didn’t have nearly as far to go to become a satisfying user experience as the BlackBerry OS does. That’s more on the scale of the leap that Microsoft took from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone 7.

And, based on that burden, it seems that RIM has nailed the basics, taking some of the UI concepts in BlackBerry 6 and making refining them while adding the visual thumbnails from webOS. The user experience of the BlackBerry Tablet OS (OK, still some refining left to do on the naming) is as slick, simple, responsive and engaging as anything on the market. Bezel gestures strike me as far more intuitive than webOS’s gesture bar. And despite RIM’s decision to go with the BlackBerry Bridge option before developing native PIM apps, the OS itself is more feature-complete than, say, the first version of Windows Phone 7.

I’m not sure how well it will all translate to handsets, but it is exactly what the BlackBerry needs to stem the tide of its user exodus. If RIM can execute on that fusion, it is back in the game.

RIM’s also done a solid job with the PlayBook hardware. I prefer the vertical orientation of the iPad and Galaxy Tab, and (of course) Nook. The PlayBook, though – and most of the bigger Android tablets — seem to be going for a horizontal orientation by default. Of course, this is more of a curiosity than anything else. Yes, the on button is a little hard to press, but even with the paucity of apps, RIM has the best 7” tablet on the market right now.

K-x marked my spots

I’ve had limited opportunity to try some of the mirrorless hybrids on the market (although have high hopes for something a bit more robust from Sony in the NEX line), so I tried something new on a recent vacation, carrying around a relatively compact (and thus relatively entry-level) DSLR. After reading pretty positive reviews on the Pentax K-x (which has been on the market for a while), the company was kind enough to loan me one for my experiment with the default 18-55mm kit lens and and a telephoto 55-300mm zoom. The K-x has image stabilization built into its body.

Pentax offers the K-x in a puzzling variety of colors and I was game to to try about any Skittles shade they would offer. The result was a white body with black trim, leading to one Force-ful comment that it was “the Stormtrooper’s camera” (although, were that true, the camera would invariably get shot before it could shoot). I loaded it and the long zoom lens into an old but compact blue LowePro bag that’s nearly as cheesy, and put that inside a carry-on backpack.

The point-and-shoot I usually carry is a pretty respectable Canon S90, but there’s just no comparison. The K-x was fast and effortless in nearly all settings, often snapping great shots one-handed while barely slowing from my pace, produced some close-ups with some nice bokeh effects, and did a great job at ISO 1600 on some night street scenes. Having previously shot with entry-level and midrange Nikon DSLRs, I like the way Pentax has implemented access to most controls in more of a point-and-shoot style, although its multi-tabbed settings can be a bit daunting. The HDR feature is pretty cool, too.

The K-x did hit its limits inside a dark restaurant without the flash, and there were a few times when the autofocus couldn’t lock. In all but two or three cases (out of a total of well over 400 photos shot over the course of the trip), I resolved this by stepping back or picking a different autofocus point. The camera also struggled to autofocus in LiveView. Impressively, though (compared to other low-end DSLRs I’ve used), it never autofocused on the wrong thing (although maybe I’m just becoming a better photographer).

Alas, while I tried to bring the K-x everywhere, there were a few instances such as breakfast in the hotel where the bag just seemed too much to drag around and I didn’t want to have even its relatively light weight around my neck, so I my point-and-shoot still saw a little action. For any future family vacations, though, I’m definitely making room on my carry-on to bring a camera with a nice big sensor. The results are worth it.

XCom Global an international lifesaver

International roaming is expensive, pre-ordered SIMs don’t make sense unless you will be making at least $30 worth of cellular calls, and buying prepaid SIMs can be a hassle. So, during a recent international trip to Europe, I checked out XCom Global’s MiFi rental service in part due to the stellar Engadget review. Longtime Switched On readers know that I’ve long admired the Novatel portable hotspot, and it performed incredibly well on HSPA+, holding up through long days of use both in hotel rooms and used on the go for smartphone-based walking navigation.

Standard definition streaming sometimes buffered and I had at least one Skype call where the other party gave up, but several others where the other party heard me perfectly. XCom Global ships you the MiFi in a nice carrying case with a few different country adapters, an extra battery, and a FedEx return envelope for when you arrive back home. They support many different countries and will will definitely be on my to do list the next time I go abroad for any extended stay.

The service is about $18 per day – cheaper than what many hotels charge for Wi-Fi you can’t take out of the building – and you can also save a few bucks by renting only a USB  modem for $15 per day.. My one complaint is that XCOM Global starts the clock the day of your departure, even if you won’t arrive at your destination country until the next day. Even with amortizing that day over the rest of a trip, though, it’s still a good value.

Pogoplug 3.0 is killer, just not a Dropbox killer

I’ve liked the direction of the Pogoplug hardware and Dropbox service for some time, so I was curious what would happen when the former got into the turf of the latter in the converging fields of personal clouds. That’s what happened with Pogolug 3.0, which enables you to turn a PC into the equivalent of a Pogoplug for free. A few years ago, a startup called Avvenu did something quite similar. It was scooped up by Nokia, renamed Ovi Files, and ultimately discontinued. Pogoplug competitor TonidoPlug has offered a software implementation for some time. And then there’s Weezo, which looks pretty impressive, but I’ve had issues with it traversing certain firewalls. And there are lots of other approaches out there as well.

So I will be using the Pogoplug 3.0 software for a number of things, including using certain PCs as ad hoc servers for when I quickly need to share a file. But at least until Cloud Engines implements true true two-way sync – the magic behind the Dropbox and Evernote clients – I’ll be sticking to Dropbox’s 2 GB limit for a number of sharing tasks. Pogoplug may have a harder time implementing sync because it potentially has to do multipoint sync across multiple servers and perhaps move massive amounts of data around (like SugarSync), but it clearly has to be on the roadmap for the company.

ThinkGeek April Fools’ store spans pop culture, popsicles

As usual, the gang at ThinkGeek did a great job with this year’s selection of mock geek products (although nothing as brilliant as last year’s iCade). The retailer seemed to know it had a winner with the Playmobil Apple Store Play Set, for which it made its own Apple product introduction parody video showcasing the “optional line pack” that depicts the iconic Playmobil people waiting in line for the hot new iDevice..

But if I had to pick the product most likely to actual become available for sale, it would have to be the Star Wars Lightsaber popsicles. The price tag of $35 may be a bit high for four molds, but ThinkGeek is already wise to the fees required to create a Lucasfilm-licensed product.

“Out of Office” is out of date

I’ve long felt that the “out of office” message is ambiguous. Does it signify that someone is physically not present or does it mean that they are on vacation or have time off for some other reason. For example, I know some diligent folks who update their voice mail message every day, but I’ve never seen anyone who updates an e-mail autoresponder with a daily expectation of response time to e-mail or who activates their “out of office” on the weekends. Furthermore, I bet I’m not the only one who has received an “Out of Office” message from recipients saying they are unavailable only to get a follow-up e-mail shortly thereafter from that person. Truth be told, I’ve been guilty of such mixed messaging myself.

In an age of mobile communications, the “out of office” e-mail has often become an anachronism. This became clear during CTIA when I e-mailed several people who had the autoresponders on but were at the show fully equipped with the most capable mobile e-mail clients to date. That doesn’t mean that mobile handsets are as well-suited to composing the kinds of replies that one would compose on a PC and there may well be situations such as international flights, sky-high data roaming charges, and travel to remote regions  that genuinely preclude response. However,I think the expectation has changed to a shorter or more variable delay more driven by choice as the technological barriers fade.

A more complex Time Warner Cable recalls a simpler time

When I wrote about the short-lived FLO TV, I was struck by the juxtaposition between the selection of “cable” channels that did not exist decades ago and the ease of navigation that recalled a simpler time devoid of electronic programming guides (even though the MediaFLO service did indeed have a basic one). Having checked out the Time Warner Cable iPad app, I’m struck with what Yogi Berra would describe as déjà vu all over again.

The app’s access to 30 basic cable programs delivers some of the same but a greater selection of channels than was available on MediaFLO, However, the app doesn’t even have an electronic programming guide, just a simple column of program listings, each with a smaller bit of text describing what’s on next. I’m sure the Time Warner Cable app will expand to offer, at minimum, better integration with its DVRs, but for now the experience is providing some amusing nostalgia.