Backstage at iLounge is the combined blog of our editors, featuring casual and often only loosely iPod-, iPhone- or iPad-related discussions that our readers may enjoy. Founded in July, 2004, Backstage has served as a launching pad for stories that later appear on the main site, and as a place to discuss portable phones, games, computers, and accessories. Visit Backstage Archives for past stories, and bookmark backstage.ilounge.com for new ones.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.31.05 | 17 comments
If you’ve been following Backstage for any length of time, you already know that we’ve been fans of sunglass maker Oakley for years. We were already strong believers in the build and optical quality of the company’s products before we had a chance to visit its design and primary manufacturing center last year, but that experience took our appreciation level up three notches. We’ll explain why in a moment.
After months of teasing us about its secret new products, Oakley had us over for another peek behind its curtains, and what we can talk about is the start of a very exciting time for the company - certainly bigger than last year, when it released its first digital sunglasses, Thump. Since then, Oakley has been working to expand its electronics portfolio, collaborating with Motorola and making some very smart decisions about its own upcoming products in the process.
The company’s new RAZRWIRE Bluetooth Eyewear package ($295) incorporate two key components - metal-framed sunglasses and a detachable Bluetooth earpiece. As you’ve probably guessed from the name, the earpiece is Bluetooth-compatible (1.2 and 1.1), and most appropriately (but not exclusively) paired with Motorola’s RAZR. You know the RAZR. It’s the phone we recently reviewed; the one that everyone’s loving and two out of four key cell companies are selling - or at this point, almost giving away if you sign a cell contract. And the one that is going to continue to have sequels (RAZR V3x) and related products (Q/RAZRberry) for the foreseeable future.
So Razrwire (minus caps from here on out) is well-timed. It’s also a legitimately excellent product. Our full review continues when you click on Read More below.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.29.05 | 3 comments
It’s been one step shy of absurd for months now. Every two weeks, supposed details of a phone with iPod functionality leak out, sometimes from journalists, sometimes from analysts, and occasionally from Motorola product managers or executives. Sometimes the pictures are scary bad, or just boring. Occasionally a detail slips out and actually sounds tantalizing, like car Bluetooth synchronization, or removable flash memory cards. But supposed announcements and release dates come and go, and nothing ever really happens.
Then Apple announces that it will be attending a conference or holding an event, and the rumor bandwagon starts up again. Thus, this morning’s announcement of a September 7 “special event” was immediately followed by myriad claims from all corners as to what will supposedly be shown. Articles like this one from MacDailyNews do an excellent job of summing up all of the speculation (and, frequently, outright BS) that is now getting printed as newsworthy by leading news wires, newspapers, and web sites.
Well, here are a few more supposed details to add to the pile, and they’re the first really “fun” ones we’ve heard in months. Because they’re just rumblings and not quite worthy of being called “news,” they’re not on our front page, but we tend to believe these details more than the others. As always, nothing is certain until an actual unveiling, so take them with a handful of salt.
We hear that yes, the FCC-approved E790 will be an iTunes phone. But it’s not the only iTunes phone - it’s more like the iPod shuffle of iTunes phones. We’ve heard that the bigger deal iTunes phone will be based upon - we repeat that twice - based upon Motorola’s existing E680i phone, above. Running on Linux, the E680i includes MPEG4 video capture and playback features, integrated stereo speakers for MP3/AAC/etc audio, an FM radio and VGA camera, plus support for stereo Bluetooth wireless headphones. But it also has a touch-sensitive screen - there’s your scroll wheel - a MMC/SD card slot, and support for 3D games. Stores are selling the E680i now for $350-400 without a contract, so it would be a premium model by comparison with the low-end E790.
What does “based upon” really mean, though? We hear, and again, we’ll believe it when we see it, that this will be the “cool” iTunes phone. If you were unenthusiastic about the E790’s aesthetic, join the club. Supposedly, the exterior design of iTunes phone #2 is a mix of Apple and RAZR-era Motorola styling, the result being something that Apple fans will apparently really like. The shot below of the E680i’s rear is merely for illustration; Apple’s version could be entirely different. It could easily add features, lose features, and so on.
The next question is one we don’t have a good answer to: what about the interface? If you take a few glances at the E680i’s manual (http://www.motorola.com.hk/eng/motomobile/, pick E680i from the Select User Manual drop-down), you’ll see some good stuff - information on the phone-as-camcorder (it can record up to 2 hours of video continuously), browse the web, PDF and Microsoft documents - and some not-so-Apple stuff. Like RealPlayer. A very traditional interface. And so on.
Will the iTunes version of this phone be nearly identical in software, running Linux? Or will Apple go full-bore, creating its own mobile operating system, with a mobile QuickTime client for movies, iTunes client for audio, and so on? We’ll see. Suffice to say that it would be easy to use the existing software and just add iTunes to the phone, but Apple just might surprise everyone. It has a way of doing that.
The only not-so-cool thing we hear about the E680i is that it really sucks battery juice, a claim that we haven’t verified, and can only hope wouldn’t be an issue with an iTunes phone. We have opined for many moons that combining music playback with a cellular phone will be folly if the battery can’t keep up - people won’t readily compromise communication for entertainment.
Again, all of this will remain a big question mark until the actual event goes down in San Francisco, but we’re hoping that (the good parts, of course) pan out. Regardless, we do know that for the first time in months, after many stops and starts, we’re getting excited about the idea of actually carrying an iTunes phone. What about you?
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.23.05 | 57 comments
What should the iPod shuffle have looked like? Based on submissions to a contest we held last year, the answer would have been something much closer to Mobiblu’s Cube (DAH-1500i) MP3 player, a metal- and plastic-shelled device with a screen, a headphone port, and a loop for easy attachment to clothing. So when such a device emerged - not from Apple or Sony, but from Korea’s Hyunwon - we had to check it out, and came away suitably impressed.
We’re going to get four important points about the Cube out of the way up front. First, its controls aren’t as easy to use as the shuffle’s. Second, its screen isn’t as useful as most people would prefer. Third, its industrial design is a step (or two*) behind Apple’s. And fourth, if we were given the choice between the Cube or the iPod shuffle for the same price - and they do sell for the same price - we’d take the Cube. Any day.
Yes, point four might not initially make sense in light of the first three, but that’s why it’s worth reading the rest of our quick review of the Cube, which you’ll find by clicking on Read More below.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.16.05 | 3 comments
I took an unusual position a number of months ago regarding whether to purchase Sony’s PlayStation Portable or Nintendo’s DS. My statements at the time were - hold off. Both systems were too expensive, and the DS lacked for compelling games. Of the two, the PSP was far more exciting technologically and had a few really impressive titles, but things have changed. Quite a bit, actually.
After an initial dry spell, Nintendo has been on a sort of roll lately - at least, in Japan. Nintendogs has been a big cross-over hit for female casual players, but two other titles recently released over there have caught my attention. Unless you’re a Japanophile, you’re not going to initially get the appeal of the first and more amazing one, but bear with me for a moment - it’s worth it. Especially given today’s DS hardware price drop to $129.99, which puts it closer to the point where I’d recommend buying it for giggles. (The PSP is apparently not doing so well at retail these days, having never been the sell-out Sony forecast, and mine is only one of thousands collecting dust waiting for more good software.)
So there’s this game called Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!. You won’t recognize the company that made it (iNiS). And if someone describes it to you by saying things like, you’re the leader of a male cheerleading squad that does things like inspire racehorses to catch fleeing bandits, you’d probably say, “you’re out of your mind. Why are you wasting my time with this crap?” My answer is this: watch the movie. Now. There are also real screenshots on that site, but you’re not going to understand them unless you see the movie.
Yes. I know. It’s insane. But it’s the sort of good insane that separates great games from the totally forgettable ones. This is a music game where you’re actively cheering on average people, and watching as they succeed (or fail) in crazy, charming situations. Think of the male cheerleaders as the guys from the Starbucks commercials who inspire Hank (or whatever his name is) to go into that job interview and give it his best. Except the stories are interesting. A student dealing with an obnoxious, unsupportive family. A Romeo trying to woo Juliet from her possessive father. And yes, a horse trying to catch a guy who just broke into a safe.
Ouendan uses the DS’s two screens for a combination of anime-style cartoons and 3-D characters, plus the touch screen and stylus to have you tap along to the beat of licensed music. Good licensed music. Good licensed Japanese music, legitimately catchy stuff. Tap at the wrong time and the horse trips over a gate instead of jumping it, or Romeo screws up and makes the girl cry while her father laughs. It’s compelling, interactive, and so Japanese that there is no way in hell that it’s coming out here any time soon. It should. They should do a rough, fast translation and pack it in with every DS. It’s made me more excited about portable gaming - and the DS format - than I’ve been in a long while.
Then there’s the other biggie. Jump Super Stars also isn’t going to ring a bell for most people, but imagine if there was a fighting game combining all of the best characters from Marvel, DC, and several indie comic book companies. And the game was based loosely-ish on the gameplay mechanics from Nintendo’s popular Smash Bros. series, which previously put all of the company’s best characters into arenas and let them duke it out. That’s Jump Super Stars. See the movie here.
Except the characters are all Japanese comic book heroes - Dragonball Z, Naruto, Yu-gi-oh, and 24 other comics with around 150 characters, based on manga cartoons found in the popular magazine Shonen Jump (now also available in the United States). Some of the characters are only there as occasional support staff for the game’s main characters, though. To the Japanese, it’s like putting Superman in the same game with Captain America and Spawn, with Lois Lane popping in to help by tossing in a punch or two now and again. Four different people can play against each other wirelessly, or one person can battle solo against computer opponents.
Despite the fact that it’s selling really well in Japan, my enthusiasm for Jump is a bunch dimmer than for Ouendan. It’s not because of my lack of native appreciation for Jump’s characters - it’s just that the game’s adventure mode isn’t terribly exciting, and the Smash Bros. mechanics were cooler to watch in a dynamic 3-D world than in this entirely 2-D one. There are some seriously smart ideas in Jump - the touch screen is used to arrange comic book panels that trigger assistance from your assistants, for instance, and there are far more moves per character than you’d initially assume from such a large cast. There’s also a great video opening which starts the game out way, way strong. But so far, I’m not feeling it on quite the same level as Ouendan. Sadly, Jump is going to show up in the United States before Ouendan if history is any meter. At least I have my copy.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.15.05 | 3 comments
Now that The Free iPod Book is done - at least in its current form - I wanted to share a couple of behind-the-scenes thoughts with the few of you who might care to hear such things.
The first is “whew.” Have you seen that thing? Imagine working on it every day for a while, wanting to tell everyone about all of the cool stuff inside, and not being able to do so until it was all done. And also doing podcasts and working on the site full-time while it’s going on. Even by crazy month standards, it’s been a crazy month.
The second is “crunch.” If you’ve worked in an industry where crunch is part of the work cycle, you probably know how we’re feeling right now. For those unfamiliar, crunch is that time leading up to the close of a project where people work unusually long hours in order to bring everything to a close - if it’s started early enough, amongst other factors, the project finishes on time and everyone gets comped a few days or weeks of vacation to compensate. If it’s not, the project still winds up late and people either demand comp time or quit.
I have fought to prevent crunch time in organizations whenever possible - I’m a big, big fan of managing work and resources so that it’s not necessary. We’ve never missed a self-imposed deadline for one of our Guides, but we’ve always had a bit of crunch time near the end. This time, because we’ve learned from our previous efforts, the Book required the least crunch time of all of our publications, despite being 40% bigger and probably 60% more demanding than either of them.
Some seriously excellent work was done this time out, too. Larry & Bob’s iTunes tips are wonderful and light. Dennis’s visuals (and numerous other contributions) are sublime. And Jerrod + UK Bob’s Directory is great as well. Please check it all out if you haven’t already. And feel free to ask questions here. I’ll try to answer them - as soon as I wake up.
Edit 8/16/05: Forgot to mention this, but for frequent readers of Backstage, The Free iPod Book is the Delta Project I mentioned here many months ago, after finishing the first Buyers’ Guide. And it’s not finished yet.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.10.05 | 13 comments
A few weeks back, we posted some pictures and thoughts on Motorola’s upcoming RAZR V3x phone, which we think is going to be a really big deal when it releases late this year. Then we had the opportunity to play a bit more with the black current-generation RAZR V3, which has basically confirmed our earlier feelings: if Apple wants to win over phone customers, iTunes support for the RAZRs would be the way to do it.
Why? The reason’s obvious. Current-generation RAZRs are solid cellular phones, first and foremost. This simple fact is something that so many companies ignore when designing high-profile phones - all the time is spent on industrial design and “features,” but then you actually call someone and can’t have a conversation. Users in Europe don’t need to worry about this because of their cellular networks, but in the United States, the problem remains acute.
We’d call the RAZR V3 about an 8 of 10 on our reception scale, which isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good. Our testing in an area on the fine edge of reception showed performance comparable to one of our reception champs, Danger’s Sidekick II, and superior reception and “tough call” behavior to Motorola’s very recent V635. The V635 we tested abruptly dropped calls, and callers on the other end said that we didn’t sound too good. But on the V3, they said we sounded great, and even when we were in bad reception areas, they typically could hear us even when we couldn’t hear them.
And then there’s the styling, and those other features. We’ll mention some of them in Read More, below.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.05.05 | 3 comments
Yes, we love dogs - at least, most of us do. And this week was a big one for canines and electronics at iLounge: Tiger started out the week with i-Dog, an electronic toy that rocks out to iPod music, and then two cool, mostly unrelated items arrived here for us to check out.
Incase has developed this special edition Hachiko case to commemmorate the opening of the new Apple Store in Shibuya, Japan. The case, based on Incase’s standard full-sized iPod Pouch design, is brown with bright orange lettering, sides, and interior, and features the image of a faithful Akita - an interesting departure for Incase, given its music, dinosaur, and preppy cases we’ve looked at in the past. They’ll be giving some of the cases away to lucky people at Shibuya’s opening, then selling others for around $40 only at that location. It’s a super cool idea, and further proof that Incase is willing to go to unusual extremes to make the iPod case a hotter, boutique phenomenon.
Is Japan dog-crazy? The big thing over there right now - at least, for video gamers - is Nintendogs, which can best be described as a dramatic evolution of Tamagotchi. You choose your breed from around 18 different types - 6 breeds are found on each of 3 cartridge versions Nintendo sells - and then raise and train your dog. “Chihuahua and Friends” also includes German Shepherds, King Charles Spaniels, Yorkshire Terriers, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Boxers. “Miniature Dachshund and Friends” also has Beagles, Pugs, Shih Tzus, Golden Retrievers and Siberian Huskies. “Labrador Retriever and Friends” also has Miniature Schnauzers, Toy Poodles, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Shiba Inus, and Miniature Doberman Pinschers.
The twist here is that the Nintendo DS has a built-in microphone and, of course, its touch screen and stylus, which allow you to interact with the dog in ways those little egg-like Tamagotchi keychains could never have imagined. Your Nintendog learns his name, tricks, and other behaviors from your voice and touch interactions, and the DS’s realtime clock keeps track of how much attention he’s getting. Its release in Japan a few months ago gave the DS a major shot in the arm, particularly amongst females, and now Nintendo is hoping to replicate its success here. To that end, they even added a few popular breeds to the U.S. versions - thankfully including the Siberian Husky - though the Chihuahua & Friends cartridges I received sadly don’t have that breed. A wireless feature, however, lets me swap breeds with other people who have different cartridges. Now if I could only find someone else with a DS and the game - three weeks before its U.S. release.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.25.05 | 6 comments
Only a brief entry on this one, because the news stories today handled it pretty well: New York’s Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who ranks quite high on my list of do-gooders, has forced Sony to fess up that it had been bribing radio stations, orchestrating fake call-in campaigns to simulate listener demand, and setting up fake contest giveaways for listeners that actually went to station employees. MTV does a good job outlining the story here, but in three words, “big, big sigh.”
I say this, Sony, because I used to respect you so much, and because I keep on praying that Howard Stringer will listen: clean up this garbage already. How many divisions of your company need to be shamed by investigations and revelations like these before someone at the top decides that enough’s enough, the old tricks haven’t been working for a long time, and a return to your roots is now absolutely necessary?
Even after being ripped off by poorly-made PlayStations and misled by movie critics your company invented, your old customers still want their old Sony back. They want a Sony that cares again about making products that last. A Sony that gets public attention through innovation rather than graft or intimidation. The old Sony - the one everyone knew as a humble but consistently excellent Japanese giant, rather than a cesspool of two-bit hustlers willing to deceive and manipulate the media, customers, and anyone else for the sake of a few bucks. Clean it up. We’ll come back. Really.
And we’ll even help you sort out the organizational bad seeds who are making this sort of stuff happen. They’re well-known in media circles. Better people will make better decisions and ultimately a better Sony. Seize the opportunity. Please.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.19.05 | 31 comments
To get straight to the point, there were three reasons I wanted to check out Cowon’s iAudio X5 “color sound” portable meda device: first, I wanted to see how well a device the physical size of an iPod could handle video; second, I was intensely curious about its audio capabilities, which some people have recently been touting as iPod-rivalling; and third, I wondered whether the recent surge in hype for a relatively unknown Korean company was the work of genuinely enthuisastic fans, viral marketers, or both.
Now that I’ve played with the X5 for myself, I have a better idea of the answers to those questions. Click on Read More for the story and our thoughts on this interesting evolution of the pocket digital music player.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.17.05 | 6 comments
If we were betting, notes Larry, we would put a lot of money on this - the new Motorola RAZR V3x - to be one of the iPod/iTunes phones. Why? Other than one fact, it just makes sense.
Start with the core iPod-ready feature set: the great RAZR phone body most people dig, combined with what looks to be white glossy plastic and the latest in Motorola technology. There’s support for TransFlash/MicroSD memory cards (512MB - just enough for 100 iPod songs), wireless stereo Bluetooth sound (which in a perfect world would mean compatibility with Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, conveniently supported in new Macs), and playback of AAC+ and MP3 audio files.
Then there’s the other, non-iPod stuff people would want from a next-generation phone - a 2 megapixel camera, 3D gaming, realtime two-way video conferencing, MPEG4/movie/media support, and simple web browsing. It just all seems “right,” especially considering the oddball appearance of a RAZR-esque icon in iTunes 4.9 mentioned on the site some time ago.
The one fact that wouldn’t make sense, of course, is that there’s a photo and announcement of the phone on Motorola’s site already, and no announcement from Apple. If this was an iTunes phone, particularly a premium one, we’d have expected the cat to remain in the bag until… well, a week or day before the “expected to be available in Q4 2005” date. Larry’s guess: contrary to all the rumors out there, Apple is going to hold off on doing an iTunes phone until after the fifth-generation iPod launch, and then do this, because it’s “right.” Then all Motorola phones released thereafter will be iTunes-ready. Quite a guess, but here’s hoping. It would be a hell of a lot better than launching that atrocious Xbox phone. We’ll obviously have to just wait and see.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.14.05 | 28 comments
The write-up on Cowon’s iAudio X5 is coming later, but for now, I wanted to share a handful of interesting photographs with those of you who are interested in the iPod’s competitors, and the possible directions Apple could take with upcoming iPod technologies. People really seemed to like our look at Sony’s iPod shuffle challenger, which according to news reports today has apparently beaten the shuffle in Japanese sales - only one territory, but one where the iTunes Music Store has long been overdue.
This recently-released iPod competitor from Korea’s Cowon offers 20GB or 30GB of storage capacity, support for major music formats, and the ability to play back photos and MPEG4 movie clips on its color screen. It’s PC, Mac OS, and Linux compatible - the latter two only for data transfers, but that’s enough.
The screen looks pretty good, but varies based on viewing angle. Controls are situated on the unit’s front and right sides; the headphone port is on the left, with a USB -input- port. More on that point later.
It’s quite comparable in size to a 20GB iPod - thinner and thicker at points because of its curved casing and elevated joystick - but it does some seriously interesting things with its screen and firmware. Click on Read More for a few of the key features.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.07.05 | 4 comments
Since cell phones typically lack significant internal memory, most of the talk about iTunes-ready Motorola phones has focused upon TransFlash memory cards - a little-known flash format that now competes against established players such as CompactFlash, SD, and Sony’s Memory Stick (Pro Duo) as a storage medium. With these cards, you can store tens or hundreds of songs on something no bigger than a woman’s fingernail. Depicted here is a 32MB card, with enough space for around 10 songs. If you shop carefully, you can buy a 512MB card (100-120 songs) for $100.
More information on TransFlash is available at Read More, below. Updated July 14: TransFlash has just been renamed “MicroSD.”
By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.06.05 | 7 comments
You can sum up the single biggest difference between video game consoles and today’s portable media devices in one word: “software.” While iTunes is a great piece of software, its absence wouldn’t stop someone from buying an iPod competitor that was really well-designed - in fact, some people would be thrilled to drag-and-drop in Windows/Mac OS instead of needing any special program. But in the video game world, great software is the content that drives console sales, and is one of several truly critical factors separating successful platforms from failures.
Up until now, the Nintendo DS has not had a genuinely great piece of software. That’s not to say Nintendo hasn’t tried - it ported Super Mario 64, which was an A+ game eight-plus years ago. But the tweaked DS version of that game just didn’t cut it for me, mostly because of its odd and frustrating touch-screen controls. It felt like a hasty port job that lacked the controller necessary to let average people enjoy the experience.
But with the release of Kirby’s Canvas Curse, the DS not only has a great original game, but one that fully justifies the Nintendo’s touch screen. It took a bit more than six months, but Nintendo (and developer HAL Laboratories) have found the character and game design that make the DS’s stylus controller really fun to use. Click on Read More for the details.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.01.05 | 78 comments
Even as an iPod shuffle owner, I’ll be the first to say two things: first, Sony got the aesthetic design of the shuffle’s latest competitor - the new NW-E505 Network Walkman ($149.95) - almost entirely right, especially the screen. The 3-line OLED display isn’t quite as useful as it could be, but it’s bright, attractive, and does let you see up to three songs or menu choices at a time.
But in even more important ways, the company got it almost entirely wrong. In a Marvel Comics-style “What If?” world where the 505 was $50 cheaper, we might be looking at a serious challenger to the low-end of the iPod family. But would anyone seriously shell out $150 for a 512MB flash player when there’s a 4GB iPod mini for $199? Is the average person even willing to spend $150 for half a gig of music storage? And what’s up with the five buttons and twisting, three-position control knob?
Our brief look at the NW-E505, with plenty of pictures, continues inside. Click on Read More for the details.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 06.30.05 | 20 comments
[Editor’s Note: Following publication of this Backstage entry earlier today, iLounge’s editors received confirmation from Apple Computer that the new color-screened iPod is officially considered part of the fourth-generation iPod family, rather than the fifth. We thank Apple for this clarification, and now anxiously await versions 5 of both iTunes and the iPod. The article below has been modestly edited to reflect the new information.]
It’s the unfortunate result of preserving a single product name across five different products: controversy over how to differentiate one “iPod” from another. For years, iLounge has been labeling iPods by “generation,” starting with the second-generation (2G) iPod released in 2002. On visual inspection, the only things that changed from the first iPods to the second were a non-moving Scroll Wheel controller and a different top surface, featuring a built-in cover for the unit’s FireWire port. But as a differentiator between functionally separate iPod models, the naming convention stuck, and became widespread.
Click on Read More for the rest of the entry, including pictures of the iPod family.