After seeing literally hundreds of new iPod accessories on the show floors at both CES and Macworld Expo in the last week, the Editors of iLounge have selected thirteen new products for its 2006 “Best of Show” Awards. The products we picked are representative of an increasingly wide variety of worthwhile new iPod toys and tools, but also stand out from a recently cluttered and familiar pack. Congratulations to the companies and teams that developed these products.
Altec Lansing inMotion iM9 Speakers ($200): We were impressed by the overall package offered by this new all-in-one iPod docking speaker system, which packs solid sound performance into a truly portable, splash- and shock-resistant enclosure. Available in black, inMotion iM9 includes a backpack for travel, and can be connected to a home AV system as well. (Gotchas: No remote control, otherwise nifty iPod cradle has no part-time splashguard.)
Apple Computer GarageBand 3 with Podcast Studio ($79/part of iLife ‘06): The newest version of Apple’s iLife audio tool continues to enable average people (well, you and us) to sound like seasoned broadcast professionals. GarageBand 3’s amazing Podcast Studio makes it easy to create better-than-radio-quality audio programs, complete with auto audio level changes (“ducking”) and image embedding. (Gotchas: None, except you’ll need a Mac to use it.)
Apple Computer iPod Radio Remote ($49): Combined with a new iPod software interface, the latest wired remote control from Apple provides the easiest FM tuning experience yet (on iPod screen) with the simple remote control button layout of an iPod shuffle. You can even view live RDS text (artist/title) on the iPod’s screen if a radio station supports it. You can attach the remote to your shirt with a brushed metal clip, and use an included pair of Apple earbuds (with an appropriate cable length) or your own. (Gotchas: No recording functionality, unlike Griffin’s original iFM. Radio only works on 5G iPods and nanos.)
Belkin TuneTalk Stereo ($50): Having evolved considerably since its earliest concept renderings, Belkin’s new TuneTalk Stereo audio recorder for 5G iPods was a working prototype, and created the highest-quality recordings we’ve yet heard on any iPod. A simple and compact physical design makes it easy to record anything you want while on the go, including through a bottom-mounted line-in port for superior-quality wired recording. (Gotchas: Stereo separation with internal microphones can be limited; gain control is still user-adjustable rather than automatic.)
Better Energy Systems Tread Case for iPod nano ($25): First seen – but not released – in 2005, the recycled rubber tire Tread case has been retooled for 2006 to fit the iPod nano. Not only are each of the cases physically unique from one another, but they’re reasonably priced and environmentally friendly. Two versions are available, one with a flip-closed front, and the other with an open iPod face. Each includes an integrated cord manager, plus an earbud protector that promises to actually clean your Apple earbuds while docked inside. (Gotchas: Protection in each case isn’t overwhelming.) BES also has a series of superb custom-made laptop cases made from the same material, which the company notes can only be ordered from its 1-800 number (653-4099).
Contour Design Showcase 5G ($30): The latest iteration of Contour’s hard plastic Showcase looks even better than its predecessors, thanks to tighter double-injection molding and a double side switch. It earns its name, beautifully displaying the front and back of any fifth-generation iPod. White- and black-edged versions are available, each with a matching detachable and reversible belt clip. (Gotchas: Initial version’s headphone port isn’t friendly to oversized headphone connectors; less than comprehensive top and bottom protection.)
Elgato EyeTV 2 Television Recorder with Export to iPod ($49): This easy-to-use software package from Elgato provides the key feature missing from Apple’s own digital video solutions – a way to convert current television shows into iPod-ready movie files. Use the built-in program guide to schedule TiVo-like recordings, and check a box for automatic iPod-formatted video exports. Already-recorded TV can be converted to iPod ready format with a single button press, and EyeTV 2 supports the burning of properly-formatted CDs or DVDs of your movies with similarly simple controls. It works with an increasing number of hardware encoders to connect your Mac to either standard- or high-definition cabling for recording. (Gotchas: Mac-only, and iPod encoding requires considerable time.)
Griffin TuneCenter Interactive Dock for iPod ($100): Previously announced as TuneView, Griffin’s TuneCenter offers the best combination of features and pricing we’ve seen in any iPod video dock. Each unit includes an iPod docking station and a 14-button remote control, enabling you to charge and output both audio and video from your iPod to a connected AV system. But there are major twists here: Griffin has come up with an interface that lets you access all of your iPod’s music, photos, and videos via attractive on-screen menus from a distance. You navigate on screen just as you would with the iPod’s own menus. Then there’s both an Ethernet-in port and 802.11b wireless support for Internet Radio streaming directly to the dock. Given the now numerous collection of $100 (and up) iPod docks, this one is hard to beat. (Gotchas: March release date may be overly optimistic – a recent Griffin concern.)
JBL On Time Speakers and Clock Radio ($300): Premium speaker systems, take note – JBL’s On Time has just shown you up on style. Available in equally stunning white and black versions with metal grilles, On Time’s sophisticated clock, radio, and alarm system is almost secondary in appeal to its audio horsepower and beauty. You dock any iPod save the shuffle inside with an Apple Universal Dock-compatible well, and a glowing blue dome light illuminates the unit’s interior. This is the ultimate evolution of JBL’s sci-fi design philosophy; once you see one in person, the only question you’ll have to answer is whether to put one next to your bed, or in the middle of a living room: it’s too cool to hide away. (Gotchas: Price, and no remote control.)
Mophie Relo Case Series for iPod nano and 5G ($15-40): The staleness of silicone rubber cases is occasionally interrupted by innovation, and this was Mophie’s year to shine. Relo cases for iPod nano and 5G start with a simple rubber core shell, then expand with matching rubber-encased electronic and other attachments. Want to relocate the iPod nano’s headphone port? Try Relo 2. Want an FM transmitter? Use Relo Radio. Need a battery? Relo Recharge. The prices are reasonable, and the add-ons interesting. A smart new approach to the well-established problem of proper case and accessory integration. (Gotchas: Will the final versions of the electronics live up to the promise of their features?)
Scosche Bluetooth Blue Life System for iPod ($180 and up): iLounge’s editors have been less than fully thrilled with most of the car audio integration solutions we’ve seen, mostly because of their lack of universal compatibility and expense. Scosche has taken a new direction with in-car integration, using Bluetooth modules to let your iPod travel wirelessly from in-home use to in-car use. Add one of the company’s Bluetooth receivers to your car – installation required – then attach the transmitter to your iPod, and add another receiver to your home stereo. Your iPod will automatically connect with your car’s stereo when outdoors, home stereo when indoors, with full control available from its screen. A soon-to-be-released cell phone-ready version will automatically interrupt your iPod music for phone calls, as well. Though pricey, this is the rare product set that capitalizes on the promise of Bluetooth. (Gotchas: Factory car stereos will likely require an extra $100 connector box. iPod Bluetooth transmitter is large, owing to its inclusion of a 15-hour battery.)
Shure E500 Earphones ($500): All of iLounge’s editors agreed: Shure’s new top-of-the-line E500s are dynamite. Despite possessing three audio drivers each – the least expensive canal phones we’ve seen to do so – the earpieces are small and sleek enough to fit comfortably in various sized ears. And they sound great, with enough bass to satisfy even demanding users, and the detail we’d expect from top-flight premium earphones. The included Push-to-Hear microphone, which interrupts your music to let you clearly hear your surroundings, is just gravy in an already attractive package. (Gotchas: Pricey, not available until May.)
XtremeMac Iconz Sport – NBA Series for iPod nano and 5G ($25): Introduced late last year, the Iconz cases from XtremeMac were a classically great idea, giving fans of movies and baseball teams the chance to deck out their iPods with familiar art and logos. The latest NBA Basketball Series of Iconz – now also available for the 5G iPod and nano – continues this trend with the league’s top teams. And better yet, the two iPods get different-looking cases. A great idea that we expect to get even better throughout 2006. (Gotchas: Not comprehensively protective on top and bottom.)
Again, our congratulations to all of the winners!