Gadgets, gadgets: 5.1 headphones, and a multitude of iPod docks and USB drives

It’s the time of year when hopeful gadget manufacturers lay out their shiny new wares in the hope of a bumper Christmas season; so this evening I attended a multi-vendor press event for that purpose.

What I found both interesting and disappointing was the lack of innovation in what is on offer. There was table after table of iPod docks and USB drives. On the iPod side, it shows I guess the extent to which Apple has taken over the home hi-fi market as well as the portable market. Although Apple does not make the docks, it gets a royalty for use of its proprietary connector, as well as enhancing the value of its iTunes/iPod/iPhone ecosystem.

It is not quite all iPod. I did have a lengthy discussion with the man from Arcam about its new rDAC digital audio converter. “Don’t all DACs sound the same?” I asked him, whereupon he drew diagrams to convince me that there are still challenges in making a high fidelity DAC, that CD-quality sounds better and high resolution 24/96 audio better still through an rDAC. I am hoping to get a review sample in order to test his claims.

Another item that caught my eye was the 5.1 headphone set from Roccat, a Hamburg-based company you most likely have not heard of. The headphones are called Kave, are aimed at gamers – though I imagine they should also be fun for movies – and are not too bulky considering their six drives. They also include a microphone for live gaming, though they cannot connect to an Xbox without an adapter. I will be reviewing these – if they work as advertised, it is rather a good idea. Roccat also offers a range of gaming mice with extra switches and customisable lighting effects (honest). If you have the patience to set up commands and macros for the additional button combinations that are available I guess these can be productive for a variety of computing tasks, not just for gaming. Sorry Mac people; this one is Windows only.

I am not sure what FileMaker was doing at a predominantly consumer event; but I was glad to catch up a little with this Mac database business (owned by Apple). With both the Mac and the iPad increasingly making their way into business computing, FileMaker has the opportunity to grow its market share a little. FileMaker 11 has been out since March, and in the summer the company released FileMaker Go for iPhone and iPad. FileMaker Go is a client for FileMaker applications, and one of the things that intrigues me is that it does apparently run scripts that are part of the application. Doesn’t this breach Apple’s guidelines which prohibit runtime interpreters? It is a moot point, and  I suppose you can argue that FileMaker scripts are so specific to FileMaker database applications that it does not count as general-purpose scripting. Still, it strikes me as a sign of flexibility in Apple’s restrictions – unless it is only because FileMaker is owned by Apple and gets a special pass, which the man from FileMaker denied.

I took a quick look at the latest SSD (solid state drive) drives from Kingston and Buffalo. I would like to fit one of these in my netbook, for improved speed and battery life, but for a typical netbook, installing a 128GB SSD will more than double the price, so they are still a little expensive.

So what about all the USB and network attached storage, is there anything to say about it? Some of the portable USB devices have built-in encryption, which may be handy for businesses. “Try 10 times with the wrong password and the data is wiped,” one vendor told me proudly; I’m afraid I immediately thought of the case when it is your data and you have that forgotten the password.

I did like the storage solutions that offer access to files over the internet. Pogoplug is one; just attach a drive to the Pogoplug, connect the Pogoplug to your router, and then you can access your stuff from anywhere via the company’s web site. The innovation this year is a wi-fi model that no longer has to sit next to your router. There is even an iOS app for mobile access. You can also give access to specified external users.

Another variation on this theme is Hitachi’s LifeStudio, which supports backup to cloud storage. You get 3GB cloud storage free, with an option to purchase additional space by subscription.

Nuance was showing its Mac speech input application called Dragon Dictate. I have been trying Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11, which is most impressive, and spoke to Nuance about the difference between the two. According to the folk at the event, the Windows version is still a little ahead technically, but it is getting close.

Finally, VMWare and Parallels were there showing their desktop emulation solutions for running Windows on the Mac. VMWare showed me its physical-to-virtual utility, which lets you migrate your old PC to a virtual machine on your Mac. It is an excellent solution if you need to run Windows apps on a Mac.

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