Backstage | iLounge

Backstage

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.

Backstage: iLounge’s new grading system

By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.13.04 | 6 comments

Over more than a dozen years of professionally reviewing (and twenty years of reading about) consumer electronics products, I think I’ve seen just about every type of rating system ever devised. The most common involve four or five stars, icons, or key phrases, while others prefer 10-point scales, 100-point scales, or something in-between (such as 10-point scales with single-digit decimals).

Each system has its problems. What does a 73 out of 100 (or a 7.3 out of 10) really tell you about a product? Would your answer to that question change if the publication never awarded scores below, say, 50 (or 5.0)? And what is a 3.5-star product? Numerically, that’s the equivalent of a 70% rating… if you’re using a 5-star scale. On a 4-star scale, that’s an 87.5% rating. What does –that- mean when the only higher score you can get is 100%?

And I won’t even get into some of the cool but decidedly non-mainstream Asian rating systems I’ve seen – multi-factoral graphs with scores that visually resemble starbursts. There are unquestionably lots of ways to review products. The question is: which is best? My answer, and an early explanation of our new rating system, follow in the “Read More” box below.

Read more »

Backstage: Griffin’s secret iPod products

By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.12.04 | 6 comments

picSecrets. I love them when I know them, hate them when I don’t. If you attended iLounge’s monthly User Group meeting on Tuesday, you already know that Griffin Technology had four secret products in the bag, two of which the company says aren’t revolutionary, but two of which are. I can’t say much yet, but we’re currently testing two of them, one of which was announced today (the RoadTrip, right, as re-assembled by me into a mighty robot). More to come soon.

Speck Products also used the User Group meeting to announce four secret new products - 4G iPod-compatible versions of its Skin Tight, FlipStand, iStyle and Armband cases. We’re looking forward to seeing these, too.

Backstage: The U.S. arrival of Power Support

By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.10.04 | 4 comments

Some people like Japanese products just because they’re Japanese. As a former exchange student and visitor to Japan, I’ve had thirteen or more years to get past that mindset. Today, the Japanese products I like are those that embody the best traits of Japanese design: elegance and an unusually high degree of attention to detail, texture, fit, and form. For these reasons, the soft launch of Power Support’s English-language, U.S.-based website is nothing short of an exciting event for me. And if you appreciate excellent design work, you’ll want to check it out immediately.

The oddly-named company has been selling awesome, decidedly Japanese accessories for iPods (and computers) through a Japan-only website for some time. Dennis and I have been hoping for many months that Power Support would export their catalog to customers outside of Japan, and finally, they have.

picThe company’s U.S. arm, Power Support USA, now has a bunch of new iPod accessories available for U.S. customers:

iPod Silicone Jacket set* (includes Crystal and Wheel Film)
iPod Crystal Film* (screen protector)
iPod Wheel Film* (protective donuts for the iPod wheel)
iPod Stand* (renamed iPod Mobile Stand for U.S., includes free Jacket and Film)
iPod Simple Stand* (likely includes free Jacket and Film)
iPod Flex Stand* (renamed iPod Swivel Fix Stand for U.S., includes free Jacket and Film)
The iPod mini gets all of the * accessories too, plus an exclusive case called the Crystal Jacket.

Japanese consumers can also buy an iPod Power Adapter, plus two other stands called the iPod Stand Universal, and iPod Flex Stand Universal, each designed to hold encased iPods. And the Japanese site supports 1G/2G iPods with a number of items, as well. If you’re a Mac lover, check out the G5 Skate and Rooftop accessories. My personal wish list includes an Ergo PowerBook stand and those PowerBook air vents. The stuff is just too cool.

Reviews of the aforementioned items (except the Simple Stand) are forthcoming, as is a review of Tunewear’s new Prie case, another cool release from the land of the rising sun. This is a great, great time to be an iPod owner.

Backstage: Yes, the iPod is THAT important to Apple

By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.09.04 | 3 comments

picThis isn’t an Abe Hirschfeld caricature (or a Highlights for Children Hidden Pictures game for that matter), but if you had to guess how many iPods were in this window of a bricks-and-mortar Apple Store, what number would you guess? Between 1 and 3? How about 5? Maybe 8? Ten?

picIf you answered 11, you’re mostly correct. As it turns out, Apple’s new rotating store displays include 5 new 4G iPods on one side, then flip to reveal 5 iPod minis on the other. The most interesting part: a reference to “collect all five” on the iPod mini side, the first suggestion from Apple to date that one person (other than Karl Lagerfeld) might want to own multiple iPods.

And then there’s the sign, which makes 11. But behind the display sits a row of Macintosh computers, each with its own docked iPod. Then there’s the other window, which features yet another collection of iPods, and the store’s entryway, which has one more stand-up sign touting the iPod. Yes, the iPod’s here to stay. And it seems like Apple wants to make sure we don’t forget it.

Backstage: Keeping busy during site outages

By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.07.04 | 2 comments

picThe good news: iLounge made the transition to new servers a couple of weeks ago, solving the crashes and problems brought on by overwhelming (but much appreciated) site usage. The bad news: there’s a little bit of tweaking underway to add additional network functionality to the site, so there will be some disruptions over the next couple of days. Keep checking back; the worst part is likely over.

In the meanwhile, if you want to see what the parents of tomorrow will be blaming for their kids’ problems, you can do what I’m doing this weekend: playing Doom 3. If you haven’t heard, it’s the original Doom game mixed with radical audiovisual improvements and the best elements from The Shining, Alien 3, and Total Recall. It’s also the first good reason I’ve had in three months to turn on my Windows PC, and runs surprisingly well given that I don’t have the latest and greatest anything inside that machine (my dollars now go strictly into my Mac). Big kudos to id Software for supporting video cards and CPUs released two or more years ago, while offering premium visuals for those with more recent harwdare.

Backstage: A more colorful iPod future

By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.05.04 | 4 comments

picIf I had one of Apple’s “new product suggestions? boxes sitting right here, I know just what I’d be submitting. And given that I’m a hardware/specs buff, it wouldn’t be the suggestion most people would expect me to make.

One of Apple’s smartest products ever was the original iMac, which wisely borrowed from Nintendo’s bag of tricks by introducing a cool product (in Nintendo’s case, the original Game Boy) and then selling versions with different colored cases. The iMac’s three-year history began with one colored case, Bondi Blue, then switched six months later to a five-color selection (Blueberry, Grape, Strawberry, Lime, and Tangerine). Nine months later, Apple added a Graphite model, then switched to Indigo, Ruby, Sage, and Snow, eventually discontinuing Ruby and adding the oddball Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power colors in February 2001.

picFor consumers, the problem was getting the color you wanted. Early allocations of iMacs sold out in certain colors and had overstocks of others. Later iMacs were to some extent color-coded by price point, so you had to cough up extra cash to get a Graphite case, though if you wanted an Indigo case, almost every other price level of iMac could be had with one.

But a couple of major factors have changed since then. Apple now controls a substantial fraction of direct sales of their products, and ships many of them direct from manufacturing plants overseas. At those plants, the company is already engraving iPods – another of the company’s smartest innovations ever, this one all but preventing the resale of outdated products. Given the company’s strengths and history, the next logical step would be to offer a really broad range of customer-selectable iPod cases, as well. Only through the Apple Store.

I’m personally in the camp opposing color-cased full-sized iPods: for a higher-end luxury product, white or black’s the way to go. But releasing the cheaper, less powerful iPod mini in multiple colors at the very start was a really smart strategy, and letting customers direct order anodized aluminum cases in their choice of, say, 15 colors, would be a really wise move. New colors could come out every six months. Hopefully a transparent plastic casing would be in there somewhere. Blending the concept with free engraving would seal the deal: every iPod mini is custom-made for you, and once you get it, you’re keeping it ‘til one of you dies.

Yeah, it’s not as exciting as a color-screened $499 60GB iPod that plays movies, but Apple would sell two million of these even if it kept the price at $249. Just ask Nintendo. (I’d still either increase the HD space or drop the price just to be safe, but that’s just me.)

Backstage: Sneak preview of iPod 4G “secrets”

By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.30.04 | 0 comments

Well, it’s Friday, so that means it’s time to test a possible new use of the Backstage portion of iLounge: advance looks at iLounge stories in progress. Today’s sneak peek: a new feature that will appear a few days from now (maybe sooner) on the main iLounge site, likely edited a bit. You’ll need to click on “Read More” below for the full story, tentatively titled iPod 4G “Secrets”: Familiar and New.

(Edit 2 - 8/4/04: The feature’s now live on the main page. For the curious, the final article went through an additional edit, and added more details and photographs to address the “color screen” rumors.)

Backstage: New iPod 4G diagnostics

By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.29.04 | 13 comments

pic“Kick, punch, it’s all in the mind! If you wanna test me, I’m sure you’ll find…”

Hold [center button + menu button]. It resets. Then hold [center button + reverse button].

Hmmmm. Looks like the new iPod can spit out its serial number on command (nothing new, except to this menu). And wow, amazing how hot that hard disk can get; the mini runs so much cooler at peak. Then there’s that status test. On the mini, it says “WINTKLCD,” and on the 4G, it says “OPTRXLCD.” Component sources for the screens, or something else? The other stuff on the screens means headphones (yes/no), with or without FireWire Power charging, and with or without USB Power charging. Interesting, it seems to think that an optical TOSLINK cable counts as headphones, but there might just be a physical sensor in there.

(Update: Wintk = Wintek, Optrx = Optrex. They’re component sources.)

Backstage: Leander on iSkin v. Lajo

By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.28.04 | 12 comments

picEvery once in a long time, this subject comes up only obliquely in a silicone case review. This isn’t because I don’t know the story well enough to tell it more fully; it’s part of iLounge’s history, but something Dennis prefers not to discuss on the main site. It’s one of two or three rare subjects that will instantly make his blood boil. He’s fiercely protective of the site, hates spam in the forums, and is entirely justified in feeling that the situation got way out of hand before. The last thing he wants is a repeat occurrence.

Anyway, it’s nice to see the story get a more public airing. As a fan of both companies’ products, and a fan of (fair) competition in general, I’d personally like to see the dispute resolved on all sides. This particular past situation has inhibited iLounge’s collective willingness to take some bold and positive actions that would benefit all iPod accessory makers, and since I remain optimistic that such actions are still possible, I’m holding my breath for a mutually satisfactory, meaningful resolution.

Backstage: On RealNetworks and the iPod

By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.27.04 | 19 comments

picOver the last few days, I’ve been enjoying the diversity of press reaction to RealNetworks’ announcement of Harmony, the wittily-named new application that enables companies other than Apple to create digitally protected music for the iPod. A few articles have made positive comments. Most reports have taken a wait and see approach. And then we have something as remarkably strange as BusinessWeek opining that “it’s in Apple’s best interest” to “loudly inform iPod owners that Apple will no longer honor their warranty if they buy songs from Real or other rival online music stores.” (When I was a kid, business magazines used to espouse a little something called laissez faire economics, didn’t they?)

The impetus for all of this clamor is RealNetworks, which despite (or perhaps because of) a very public one finger salute from Apple some months ago, still managed to roll out an iPod-compatible online music store with 500,000 songs. But that’s not the real story. The 99 cent songs are encoded at a higher bitrate than Apple’s versions - 192K - and apparently in AAC format, at least for iPod use. Early reports suggest that each core downloaded and copy-protected music file is subsequently converted into formats compatible with different players, which would be an impressive feat if it’s legally accomplished. One song could play on any device.

For consumers, especially iPod users, alternative sources and increased quality would be good news. RealNetworks’ offering would mark the first legally downloadable competition on a quality basis (rather than just price) for Apple’s 128Kbps-encoded AAC tracks from the iTunes Music Store, and would add to the variety of legal music downloading choices already available. It might even compel Apple to stop using low bitrate compression for its own files. But as of now, the Harmony download pages appear to be down, indicating that the beta software either had fatal bugs, or that a certain company received a cease-and-desist letter written in blood and smelling vaguely of rotting fruit. Something tells me that we’ll hear more on that subject later today…

(Update: Looks like the download page re-routes Mac users, but lets PC users get the Harmony-enabled version 10.5 of RealPlayer.)

Backstage: iLounge on new servers

By Dennis Lloyd | 07.26.04 | 11 comments

Whoa. I hope the site is faster for eveyone. After some technical difficulties with the new server transfer, it looks as though everything is in working order. iLounge is now sitting on three new servers featuring dual Xeon 2.8 Ghz processors with load balancing hardware delegating the heavy traffic. If anybody sees anything strange or is having slow load times, please let me know and I’ll look into to it right away. We hope you enjoy the speed and please accept our apologies for all that slowness. We’ve got lots of new content and features coming up, so the new servers arrived just in time.

Backstage: Buried under an iPile

By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.23.04 | 7 comments

picIt was either Uncle Ben Parker from the Spider-Man movies or Steve Jobs who once said, “With great iPods, comes great responsibility.” And with the testing of two new fourth-generation iPods underway for the last few days, I’ve sure felt that way. The initial period after any new iPod’s release is the same way: spend several days doing hard core testing and barely enjoy using our new toys, and then, when the reviews are all done, settle back in a chair, relax, and just listen. For fun, even. There’s a temptation to slack on the reviews - or even not write two versions, because it takes so much more time - but I’m not going to do that. So the first of the two reviews will be up within the next few hours, and the second will follow thereafter. Thanks for all your comments and requests on what should be covered; I’ve been reading them all.

I’m glad the new iPods didn’t come out in August, as some were predicting. They turned out to be a nice early birthday present, if not quite the Swiss Army Knife Pods that would have dropped jaws worldwide. And they’re just in time for print magazines’ Holiday Buyers Guides, which are probably being written… well, this past Monday, knowing how slow the print world is.

Other items currently in the review queue: Speck’s new iPod mini Flipstand (good!) and mini Armband (good! - review finished and ready to go up), plus a new collection of photo-customizable leather cases from iLeath, which I’ve barely had time to look over.

Backstage: Early iPod 4G review comments

By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.22.04 | 36 comments

picAfter some testing, it’s clear that a one-size-fits-all review of the new fourth-generation iPod would not be appropriate. Even more than our prior reviews of the iPod mini, the 4G iPod demands a separate “new iPod user’s” review and a “Power User’s” review, and quite likely even different iLounge ratings for these two audiences. Of course, there’s much more to come on this topic in the near future. We’ll take (some) requests if you guys have issues you’d like to see addressed in one of the reviews - just bear in mind that we can’t cover -everything.-

Backstage: iPods taking slow boat from China

By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.21.04 | 13 comments

Reference number       M9268LL/A
Tracking number   65758xxxxxxx
Ship date       Jul 20, 2004
Estimated delivery date   Jul 23, 2004 by 10:30 am

Jul 20, 2004 10:18 pm Left FedEx Origin Location SHANGHAI CN
Jul 21, 2004 9:42 pm   Left FedEx Ramp           SHANGHAI CN

So much for overnight delivery from the Apple Store online. And yes, this order was placed before 8am on July 19. Not impressive.

Read more »

Backstage: iPod, iPod, iPod, iRiver

By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.20.04 | 16 comments

picEven though the site is named iLounge (hint: the slogan’s “All things iPod”), I try to write a feature story at least once a month dealing with new and potentially competing technology developed by Apple’s competitors. Having owned a handful of iPod competitors and quasi-competitors, and as someone who has used both PCs and Macs over the past 20 years, I still take great interest in what’s going on outside Apple’s fishbowl, and have no hesitation to discuss good new ideas regardless of who is responsible for them.

More than a few comment threads and reader e-mails have posed a good question to me personally: “what do you think about iRiver?” For those unfamiliar, iRiver’s a Korean electronics manufacturer that offers MP3-compatible devices with good looks, features, and value for the dollar. And to answer the question squarely, I like iRiver’s products. The lower-end ones are cheap, small, and pretty functional, while the higher-end ones are made to appeal to people like me: people who like digital music, digital photography, tons of menu options and music encoding standards, plus frills like color screens and the occasional built-in camera feature - in other words, new technology for the sake of new technology. In my opinion, given their embrace of cool ideas and open standards, they’re a far better music competitor to Apple (and others) these days than Sony, a company that gets way too much credit from casual journalists.

As I’ve said to people before, I’ve purchased iRiver products and even mentioned them in a few iLounge pieces where relevant. But unlike 99% of the companies (their competitors) we’ve contacted, their U.S. arm hasn’t responded to product-related inquiries. A British journalist recently opined to me that iRiver’s U.S. operation may not be as responsive as their European arm, and mentioned that “their products would do very well if only they were better promoted and supported.” I completely agree. “If only.” So until they respond, I won’t have much more to say about iRiver, but at least you’ll know that I’ve been trying to get them to play ball here.

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