Things with moving parts

product imageA couple of nifty and decidedly analog gadgets showed up in the blogosphere recently. CrunchGear covers DiscEraser, which scars a CD or DVD surface so that it is unreadable by a drive. This should come in handy for the childless who needs to destroy discs. I probaby wouldn’t use it for NSA materials, but it should be good enough for most casual personal information. As CrunchGear notes, it’s small enough to fit in a desk drawer and results in no plastic shards, which is a good thing. It’s $13 and comes in a variety of pretty pastels colors ideal for dishing out is disc-destroying damage.

Over the weekend Gizmodo featured the Grip Bag Holder to help carry multiple plastic grocery bags. I can see its use but for neighborhood grocery shopping I recommend the Hook ‘n’ Go (pictured) offered by Hammacher Schlemmer for carrying up to eight bags without crushing the eggs.

Windows Vista SideShow: The second act

Ryan Block digs the digital jewel box concept and offers some good suggestions for improving it. The digital jewel box could easily be combined with a SideShow-enabled digital picture frame or other kinds of elaborate touch-screen controls. SideShow is one of the Vista’s most differentiating features. Unfortunately, the company that pioneered the idea doesn’t even have its hardware up to the expensive SideShow spec.

Speaking of (or rather linking to) Art Lebedev Studios, probably my favorite product is the company’s plush smileys. At least they’re shipping and affordable by mere mortals. I could also see them coming in useful if I had a mopey personal blog.

Apple TV and cable a la carte

I received a fair amount of feedback on my Apple TV vs. TiVo column from a few weeks ago, but none on the headline. Come on, people! Doesn’t anyone remember the famous New York Post headline? Anyway, some readers have suggested that Apple TV is really more competition for cable itself than simply TiVo. For that argument, I will consider cable as coming without DVR service, since cable DVRs are unavailable without cable, and we’ve already considered Apple TV vs. TiVo, which is one of the best retail options for those who would want DVR service without cable or satellite.

TiVo’s business model was initially designed to make it an attractive partner for cable, but such is not the case with Apple TV. Apple TV dips its toe into what some regulators have been asking for in “cable a la carte” but goes even further. Whereas cable a la carte advocates would like cable providers to offer only the channels they want, iTunes sells content by the series or even the episode.

Apple claims that it now offers 70 percent of the primetime offerings of major broadcast and popular cable networks such as Bravo. Of course, cable and satellite providers offer over 1,000 hours per week of programmed entertainment, even though we’ve all heard the complaints about there being “500 channels and nothing on.” When asked in an Engadget Mobile interview about broadcasting TV to cell phones a la MediaFLO, Helio CEO Sky Dayton  responds rhetorically, “When was the last time you watched linear programming?”

Nonetheless, there’s still a lot on broadcast and cable that isn’t on iTunes, or isn’t on iTunes until the followiong season. As was the case for TiVo, if your tastes don’t wander outside iTunes’ selection (which will certainly grow), buying your content from iTunes may make sense, but for now Apple TV can’t compete with the breadth of cable or satellite television that most consumers value.

SlingCatcher in the Rye

Erica Ogg at’s gadgets blog writes that Slingbox support of AppleTV would open the “intriguing new possibility” of streaming music from iTunes on your home computer to your cell phone. I’d recommend that she check out Avvenu’s smartphone client. I have used the desktop version of the Avvenu music service and think it’s the slickest remote PC music experience I’ve seen yet.

Nevertheless, Sling Media’s race to support AppleTV raises questions about how this support will differ from that of its own forthcoming hard drive-equipped television accessory, the SlingCatcher. SlingCatcher stands to be a triple-threat, capable of receiving content from a PC, Slingbox, or the Internet. It’s the third source that might benefit from having a Slingbox and SlingCatcher (or perhaps a future combination of them) connected to the same television.  And with an expected street price of $200, available for only two thirds of the price. Of course, Sling won’t have access to Apple’s advertising budget, so perhaps supporting AppleTV is the least they can do to thank Apple for resurrecting the digital media adapter category.

Scott Kelby’s The Digital Photography Book

If you already know the basics of exposure, white balance, aperture, shutter speed and the like, but want to glean some wonderful insights about becoming a better photographer and have about 90 minutes and $20 to spare, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more efficient way than reading Scott Kelby’s The Digital Photography Book published by Peachpi Press. Eileen picked this gem up for me at an Orlando Banes & Noble before CTIA and I finished it tonight.

Scott, who now is to Photoshop magazines what Leo Laporte is to podca– (sorry, Leo), netcasts, is a longtime Mac geek. Like others who gained fans writing for Mac publications such as David Pogue and Andy Inhatko, he imbues his tech writing with humor. He comes at the book from the angle that he and you are out on a shoot and he’s giving you advice as if you were any other friend.

I’m not sure if the book lives up to that level of familiarity, but the format is nonetheless refreshing and I commend Scott on selling Peachpit the concept. The book also reflects Scott’s finely honed aesthetics and, while he refers to many pros throughout the book, some of his own included photos are gorgeous.

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What a tangled Web

Enjoying The Hoax this afternoon reminded me of a couple of high-profile online April Fools’ jokes this year that have turned out to be real. One was ThinkGeek’s 8-bit tie that the company is already working on producing. An even more elaborate joke was Gmail Paper but, aside from the delivery aspect, it’s really not too conceptually different from what Presto is trying to do, is it?

Mobile video could use mobile Apple TV

At Autoblog, John Neff makes a strong case for Apple TV in the vehicle. John characterizes the AppleTV as a kind of iPod for the car and, indeed, Apple refers to both the iPod and Apple TV as “iTunes accessories.” However, a more accurate if perhaps less flattering analogy would be as a successor to the short-lived Rockford Fosgate OmniFi DMP1. Apple has identified the in-vehicle market as an important one for digital content, but the mobile specialist channel is a difficult one to crack; it doesn’t exactly jibe with Apple’s holism vs. horsepower image marketing. I just can’t picture Apple’s little white set-top box being groped by a bikini-clad model posing next to a pimped-out Scion xB against a lightning matte background.

So, Apple’s main thrust here has been to partner with the automakers themselves for iPod integration, leaving the current car deck market leaders such as Pioneer and Alpine to devise their own aftermarket iPod integration products. These have made good strides in the past two years. My own fringe adaptation for Apple TV may be easier to implement. Still, for the enterprising mobile specialist, Apple TV could make a very good — and when compared to the old OmniFi, inexpensive — Wi-Fi-enabled mobile media center.

Broken Jawbone

Ah, some headlines write themselves.

Industrial designers talk about “honest” materials. Alas, I felt deceived when I first felt the Bluetooth Aliph Jawbone. From the glamour shot on Aliph’s Web site, I thought its modern grated surface was metal, but it is plastic, and not especially smooth around the talk button.

Nonetheless, I’d been using it for the past few weeks and throughout CTIA where it performed really well. Today, though, I took it out of my pocket to discover the earpiece had separated from the rest of the unit. The cable is still attached, though, so maybe the folks at Aliph can help me out. I can’t blindly fault them for this as, when I first opened the product, I didn’t read the instructions on how to remove the rubber earpiece covering and heard a cracking sound as I did so I may have well loosened the connection. Otherwise, a Bluetooth headset — particularly one as pricey as the Jawbone — should be able to withstand living in a front pocket.

Update: I now see on Engadget Mobile’s hands-on review (with which I agree) that a commenter has had the same problem.

Banging on the DRM

I’ll have more to say on the Apple-EMI DRM announcement in an upcoming Portable Pundit column in LAPTOP (and perhaps elsewhere), but for now I’ve been a bit taken aback at the many jumps to conclusion I’ve seen around EMI “ditching” DRM. It has done no such thing. It has merely offered a non-DRM option, one that still penalizes consumers in terms of making them pay more for extra quality for which they may have no desire. Ryan has framed many of the variables in providing a realistic assessment of the announcement, breaking a bit from Engadget’s typically consumerist anti-DRM crusade.

Sure, EMI’s decision has been accurately touted as a significant first step. But what if it remains the only step? It’s far from a foregone conclusion that other majors will step in line, and so the value of having only some tracks available DRM-free diminsihes the value of having one’s music library DRM-free. In fact, I could argue that — for iPod users — it is easier to stay within the DRM usage constraints than try to keep track of what’s DRM-free and what’s not, particularly when accepting DRM is cheaper , works with what they have, and offers a gateway to the living room. Apple will be challenged in terms of how it presents the choice to consumers because it has, up to now, rightly hid DRM until it has reared its annoying head.

Apple and EMI could have made this a clear victory if they removed the DRM option, but it appears as if profits got ahead of promise. Consumers, not labels, will determine the success of DRM-free music.

Thrown off the DEC

This week’s Switched On, which should be posted later today, discusses HP’s discontinuation of its Digital Entertainment Center living room form factor PCs and Microsoft’s struggles to advance PC form factors. As far as I know, CEPro broke the story. Those who follow the convergence or PC retail space should read Julie Jacobson’s excellent series of articles about HP’s experience with the DEC in the custom installer channel. Part II looks at HP’s experience with the custom install channel earlier in the article, but the third part of the article, which I believe was posted today, delves deeper into why HP is leaning toward its MediaSmart TVs.

I akso had to chuckle as Julie found this way to sidestep an “off the record” comment:

Although HP spokesperson Pat Kinley did not want me to quote her as saying that the HP product and interface is simpler to use than the MCE solution, PC World did quote her: “We have other products on the market now and future products that I can’t talk about that perform essentially the same function in a way that’s easier for the consumer [to use].”

The article concludes with HP trying to position more as competition for AppleTV vs. Media Center Extenders, but you can’t compete with one without competing against the other, as Microsoft has been driving home with its comparisons between the Xbox 360 and AppleTV. In any case, building well-implemented DMR capabilities into the TV is a good differentiator for now, and most consumers would likely prefer no external box to even a small one like AppleTV, but with Pioneer, Sharp and surely others to follow, how long will it be before this falls too far below the consumer purchase criteria list to matter?