iLounge’s 2014 CES Best of Show Awards: iPad, iPhone, iPod + Mac
Since 2005, iLounge’s editors have selected each year’s best upcoming Apple accessories from an ever-increasing pool of products debuted in January. Our Best of Show Awards remain the Apple accessory industry’s most difficult to earn, as they are based exclusively on merit, extremely limited in number, and cannot be bought in any way. Unlike other publications, iLounge has never charged for either award submissions or usage rights. Best of Show Awards always focus on the rare combination of great design, features, and pricing; Best of Show Finalists demonstrate excellence in two of those categories but fall a little short in the third.
We are both confident and proud of the Awards we are presenting today at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. Despite our pre-show concerns as to the innovation and quality we might see across hundreds of Apple-focused exhibitors, this year’s collection of accessories include some really exciting and polished new options. Following an extended advance submission process, our team of editors followed up by actively seeking out excellence on CES’s official show floors, selecting only the best products for Best of Show and Best of Show Finalist Awards. Congratulations to all of the winners and finalists—we also thank the many companies that participated in the process.
Best of Show Awards
Overall Best of Show: ZeroChroma Folio Slide for iPad mini. Our editors agreed that the single best Apple accessory we saw at CES was ZeroChroma’s latest and greatest iPad mini case, Folio Slide ($70 and up). Simply put, it’s as close to the perfect iPad case as we’ve ever seen, and we’ve tested hundreds of iPad cases. Capable of serving as a playthrough case or folio, it features ZeroChroma’s new Flux-Stand, a slim, hugely adjustable pop-out rear stand with nearly infinite rotation and angle options, as well as detachable, replaceable magnetic lids for people who want them. This is the iPad case we’ve all been waiting for.
Best of Show Award: Idapt Modulo M1 Stackable Batteries. Barcelona-based accessory maker Idapt delivers superb value and modularity with its new M1 series of stackable batteries, which start at $35 for one 2000mAh cell and sell in three-packs for $90. iPhone users will be able to make due with one for most occasions, but can double up to two if needed, with iPad users benefitting from two or three — M1 delivers 2.1-Amp output when two or three cells are connected. Need solar power on occasion? Just slide a $20 panel accessory onto any of the batteries. This is a smart, value- and space-conscious power solution.
Best of Show Award: iHome iBN6 Waterproof Speaker. The best product we spotted in iHome’s always-overwhelming lineup is this $100 ruggedized waterproof speaker, which combines appealingly modern design with very good sound quality and a nice form factor. There are many Bluetooth speakers out there, so the ones that stand out meet real-world needs with nice designs at respectable price points. iBN6 does all that without mimicking the aesthetics of existing products.
Best of Show Award: Incipio/Braven BRV-X. Braven’s original BRV-1 had all the looks and on-paper features we hoped for in a water-resistant, ruggedized Bluetooth speaker, but the sound and battery were compromised by its small size. The $230 BRV-X is a no-compromises sequel designed to be used anywhere, as it’s bundled with a strap and alloy loops for mounting even on the exterior of an off-road vehicle; it’s also packed with superior speaker drivers and a larger battery than its predecessor. It helps that it looks stunning by ruggedized speaker standards, with two color options available.
Best of Show Award: Lenmar ChugPlug. External battery packs for Macs are nearly non-existent, thanks to Apple’s patented MagSafe connector acting as a bar to competitive charging solutions. Lenmar figured out a workaround with the $160 ChugPlug, which connects to a MagSafe power adapter and supplies 11” and 13” MacBooks with enough extra juice to run for three to four hours. The price isn’t crazy for users who need more power on the road, and the form factor works given the challenges Apple has created for spare battery developers.
Best of Show Award: Lepow Smart Pack. We’ve seen hundreds of laptop and tablet bags since Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, but very few have magically redefined the bag to the degree Apple redefined the products inside. Hong Kong design house Lepow came up with a seriously impressive transforming messenger bag/backpack that can be unfolded to change orientations, as well as expanding in space as needed to accommodate a MacBook, iPad, and accessories. Made from genuine leather, the Smart Pack has a Bluetooth-based vibration actuator in its strap that pairs with your phone to alert you physically to notifications. It’s planned for April availability with a $150-$170 price tag.
Best of Show Award: Orbotix Sphero 2B. So impressively executed that it was neck-and-neck for our Overall Best of Show Award, Sphero 2B is the $100 version of the iOS-controlled toy ball Sphero we’ve wanted for two years. Re-engineered into a tube shape with treads, faster speeds, and Bluetooth 4, the beautiful-looking 2B model will come in black or white versions with different colored treads when it’s available in the fall. Infrared is being added for multiplayer and interactive games, which will build upon the increasingly impressive library of titles we’ve already seen for the original Sphero. As iOS toys go, Sphero 2B will be hard to beat at its more mainstream price point later this year.
Best of Show Award: uNu UltraPak. Battery packs for Apple’s devices are a dime a dozen, but uNu has made an obvious commitment to rethinking the underlying technologies behind device charging. The $70 (3000mAh) and $110 (10,000mAh) UltraPak addresses several of the key problems facing high-capacity, iPhone- or iPad-ready batteries, including a screen for granular remaining power indication, a super-fast recharging system capable of simultaneously refueling the UltraPak’s internal cells, and a wall adapter to maximize performance. uNu’s industrial design is very clean, and although we’d prefer the higher-capacity iPad version at the higher price, the lower-capacity model discounts the same features for iPhone and iPod users.
Special Award For Innovation: Incipio’s Braven Lineup. After acquiring Bluetooth speaker maker Braven, Incipio and the Braven team went into overdrive for one of the most impressive audio product lineups we’ve seen at CES. Vibe, a Bluetooth/Wi-Fi distributed audio system with speakers at various price points, impressed with both sonic quality and industrial design. The new BRV-X continued and enhanced Braven’s lineage as a ruggedized speaker maker, while new battery packs, Wi-Fi hotspot batteries, and the Mira shower-ready (but not shower-exclusive) speaker all hit squarely on their intended notes. No company is making as much of a technology push in 2014 as Incipio, and nowhere is that technology as diversely and practically demonstrated as in the Braven product line.
Best Booth of Show: MarBlue. Once again, the best booth we found within the gigantic CES iLounge Pavilion wasn’t the largest, but rather one that made creative use of the space it had. MarBlue charmingly presented its products within a seaside-themed outdoor setting complete with a little house, tables, and umbrellas. The home is repurposed from a shipping container, sitting alongside a grassy carpet. It’s true to the nautically-themed MarBlue brand.
Best of Show Finalists
Best of Show Finalist: Belkin WeMo LED Lighting Starter Set. Building an entire ecosystem of related home automation products isn’t an easy or quick process, so Belkin has been adding new accessories to its WeMo system intermittently, each time increasing the ecosystem’s appeal. Rather than competing with Philips’ Hue system on color-shifting, this $130 LED light bulb set ties into the WeMo system, letting users enjoy iOS-controlled dimming and on/off features, motion sensitivity, and Internet-based conditional IFTTT triggering. Additional bulbs can be added for $39 each.
Best of Show Finalist: Griffin StudioConnect HD. Long known for its commitments to amateur and professional musicians, Griffin built the $200 StudioConnect HD as a more sophisticated iPad- and Mac-compatible sequel to its earlier iPad-ready StudioConnect recording interface accessories. In addition to 24-bit/96k recording for microphones, keyboards, guitars and basses, it has two XLR/instrument preamps, MIDI in/out, and balanced 1/4” outputs in one clean, portable, and iPad stand-equipped housing.
Best of Show Finalist: iBattz Mobile Battstation Optimus. Loaded with a gigantic 20,400mAh cell — enough to refuel most iPads more than once - this surprisingly affordable $130 battery includes 1-Amp and 2.1-Amp outputs. It’s hard to imagine needing more power than this on the road, and the design is quite nice given the capacity iBattz is providing.
Best of Show Finalist: Incipio/Braven Mira. Sold for only $100 and initially designed for Bluetooth use in a shower, the Braven-developed, waterproof Mira speaker is shaped like an oversized hockey puck and has a hook on the back for easy hanging on a shower head. Very good sound quality from three speakers enables it to be used anywhere you might want, and stainless steel accents are easy to clean off after normal use.
Best of Show Finalist: Incipio Steno for iPad Air. This $100 iPad Air keyboard case superficially looks like hundreds of others that have been released for full-sized iPads, yet benefits from a variety of small tweaks that improve the typing and usage experience. The slide-out keyboard has nearly uncompromised, hugely usable keys, with the ability to accommodate multiple iPad viewing angles, while the shell looks very professional due to a mix of glossy and matte textures. It’s not the most innovative product of its kind, but it’s uncommonly polished.
Best of Show Finalist: Just Mobile AluPen Digital. Although several other developers introduced nearly identical styluses at the same time, Just Mobile’s AluPen Digital ($50) hits the right price point for a nice-looking iPad writing tool capable of unusually precise writing. The fine tip and shirt clip make it just like using a standard pen, powered by a single AAAA battery for months. There’s no need for Bluetooth, reducing the price and increasing app compatibility; your on-screen writing is certainly going to improve over rubber-domed styluses.
Best of Show Finalist: Just Mobile Lounge Ice. This whimsical $30 iPhone 5c dock is designed to visually transform the plastic iPhone into a popsicle, using a wooden popsicle stick housing to hold a self-supplied Lightning cable. Offered in 5c-matching colors, it’s fun and functional at the same time. It’s simple, but appropriate to its target audience.
Best of Show Finalist: Mophie Space Pack. A first-of-kind combination of additional flash memory with a 1700mAh iPhone 5/5s battery case, the Space Pack enables users to add 16GB ($150) or 32GB ($180) of additional storage that’s accessible with an included app. Offered in white or black versions, the case is roughly the same size as a Mophie Juice Pack, including button protection and the pass-through audio features you’d expect. The hefty initial price tags will scare many people away, but there’s undeniable utility in blending together these features in a single accessory.
Best of Show Finalist: myCharge XTFlash. We’ve always thought that adding tiny flashlights to battery packs was sort of ridiculous, but adding a capacious USB battery pack to a real flashlight definitely will make sense for some people. This weather-resistant $80 Maglite-like flash light has a 100-Lumens bulb and a 6000mAh battery inside, capable of recharging an iPhone two or more times as needed. The industrial design is quite nice, and although we’d like an even more powerful lightbulb, many users will find this to be sufficient for their needs.
Best of Show Finalist: MyKronoz ZeBracelet 2. Swiss smartwatch maker MyKronoz is showing a bunch of new notification-ready timepieces, but the one that really caught our attention wasn’t the most powerful or flashy — rather, it was the $79 ZeBracelet 2, which could pass for a fashionable woman’s bracelet when the OLED screen is turned off. A Bluetooth 4 chip and roughly five-day battery enable the blue display to show you incoming call and notification data, as well as serving as a timepiece. It’s one of the very rare smartwatches that doesn’t look like it was made for “technology enthusiasts,” though it’s up in the air as to whether its female target audience will want on-wrist notifications enough to consider it.
Best of Show Finalist: Scosche MagicMounts. Magnets aren’t exactly high-tech, but they do work like magic, particularly when they’re properly hidden inside of other objects. Scosche relies upon a thin but powerful magnet to instantly attach your encased iPhone to various types of mounts ($15-$30), including nicely minimalist desktop, window, wall, and car mounts; you simply slip the adhesive flat magnet inside your favorite case and watch as the case seamlessly attaches to the mount of your choice. It works so flawlessly for mounting that you’re sure to be amazed — you just have to give up iOS compass reliability, and allow GPS apps a bit of time to gather motion data to compensate for the orientation inaccuracy the magnet causes.
Best of Show Finalist: Soundfreaq Sound Rise. Redesigned from a same-named late 2012 model that sold for $100, this small and beautiful alarm clock has dropped in price to $70 thanks to a reduction in size, internal audio driver performance, and the removal of a 30-pin iPod/iPhone dock in favor of pure Bluetooth 4 audio streaming. You can charge your device using a rear-mounted USB port, and set twin alarms with all sorts of thoughtful user interface improvements. It’s not going to stun anyone sonically, but it’s a highly capable and very affordable alarm clock with a tiny footprint.
Best of Show Finalist: Thinium Technologies Thinium Charge. Shockingly small for a complete iPhone wall charging (and mounting) solution, this compact accessory has a business card-like footprint, popping out a Lightning connector from the front and wall blades from the back. Although the $50 Lightning version’s price tag is regrettably high, the convenience of the super-small form factor may well appeal to travelers. We’re also looking forward to seeing ReCharge, a larger version with a 2100mAh battery, when it’s released later this year.
Best of Show Finalist: Tylt Energi 2K + 3K Travel Chargers. Sold for $30 and $60 respectively, these 2000mAh and 3000mAh battery packs have fold-in wall prongs so that they’re easy to recharge anywhere. Priced right for their features and nicely designed, the 2K version has a USB port, so you supply your own cable, while the 3K version has a Lightning cable built in.
A handful or two of additional products with tremendous potential regrettably were ineligible for Award consideration due to the lack of firm pricing or release date commitments. Congratulations again to this year’s winners and finalists!
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