iDesign: Belkin, On Recorders + Having the Inside Track

For an iPod accessory maker, it’s great to have superb industrial designers, on-site engineers, and a savvy marketing department, but there’s one advantage that really can’t be beat: support from Apple. We’re not talking about generic support, like being included on a huge, anonymous list of official iPod accessory companies, or having one of a thousand tiny spots in an Apple Retail Store; rather, this is the sort of support where Apple changes the iPod’s operating system for you, puts out a press release announcing your accessories, and then heavily recommends you to its customers. Only two iPod accessory companies have received this sort of royal treatment; Belkin was first.

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Based in Compton, California, Belkin is the only company selected for iDesign that we’ve previously profiled in an industrial design-centric article; the company in 2005 was just beginning to show off its recently formed Industrial Design Group, which was then in the process of creating many new iPod and multimedia accessories, as well as redesigning the company’s packaging, manuals, and other branding efforts to emphasize simplicity, getting away from confusing or kludgy PC-centric design traditions. This evolution, it said back then, was inspired by its work on products for Apple’s iPods and computers. Though the company has released many incredibly cool product designs since then, this edition of iDesign focuses narrowly on two sets of the company’s add-ons—its iPod audio recorders and photo transfer devices—which began life as collaborations with Apple.

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With the exception of Nike, no iPod accessory maker has received the sort of obvious Apple support that Belkin has enjoyed: the company’s first iPod voice recording and photo storage accessories were the primary subject of a 2003 Apple press release, as well as Version 2.1 of the iPod software, which required significant behind-the-scenes development work by Apple—efforts that the company has not extended to other third-party accessory developers. Similarly, Belkin was first out of the gate with an Apple-approved stereo voice recorder in 2006, even though competitors were itching to get their alternatives into stores first, and has since become more deeply invested in the iPod-as-recorder space than any other company. Over the past five years, Belkin has clearly led a charmed existence by the standards of most iPod accessory developers, and while support from Apple has been a major help, clean industrial design and engineering have certainly played big parts in its success as well. Our look at the recorders and media readers of Belkin begins here; we hope you enjoy.

Humble Beginnings: The Belkin Voice Recorder and Universal Microphone Adapter

Way back before the idea of an iPod or iPhone “software development kit”—in fact, at a time when the 2003, fully capacitive-controlled iPod was little more than a playback device for audio and text—it was obvious that Apple’s little white device would be able to do more, possibly much more, with additional software and hardware. Some companies, such as Griffin and remote control makers TEN Technology and Engineered Audio, came up with interesting workarounds to add wireless broadcasting and receiving features to the iPod, but Belkin did something different: instead of creating a workaround, it went straight to the source. Or perhaps, the source went straight to it.

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Known mostly for its beige commodity computer cables, adapters, and switchboxes, Belkin had a good relationship with Apple, as well as enough engineering and manufacturing talent to create iPod-specific add-ons if requested. Apparently, such a request was made: at that point, Apple was focused on major hardware and software development rather than tiny little accessories, and turned to Belkin to create small, iPod-matching add-ons of two types. The first was a low-fidelity but businessperson-ready voice recorder, which was named not with a catchy iName, but plainly, as the Belkin Voice Recorder for iPod. It sold for $50.

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Made mostly from white plastic, the Voice Recorder was cosmetically straightforward—so aesthetically intuitive to Apple-following developers that competitor Griffin later revealed that its own design for a similar accessory had to be scrapped when it saw how Belkin’s looked, and another competitor DLO found itself releasing a highly similar design nearly two years later. There was a port on the top for a microphone, and a circular dot array on the front for a tiny speaker, which collectively let Voice Recorder both create and instantly play back recordings that were saved to the iPod’s hard disk. That was it; the Voice Recorder plugged into the iPod’s top, and with one button press would start recording whatever was being said in its immediate vicinity.

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The “one button press” part was not a trivial feature. Apple had actually developed special software that enabled the iPod’s special 9-Pin extended headphone port to detect a voice recorder, switch immediately to a recording screen, and start recording with one button press, then stop and save with another. As straightforward as this all sounds, a third-party company couldn’t achieve the same functionality without Apple’s involvement; saving audio files to the iPod’s hard disk was just not something that was done before this point. Finding those files on the iPod, then playing them back through the headphone port or Voice Recorder speaker, also required Apple’s assistance. The new Voice Memo mode, and a subsequent update to iTunes that automatically transferred iPod recordings back to a computer, handled all this in a way that required very little user involvement—it was just elegant.

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There was another nice, small touch with the Voice Recorder design: Belkin considered how the accessory might safely be stored when it wasn’t attached to the iPod. The company’s packaging showed off a clear plastic travel cap, which protected the extended headphone plug connector in a bag, the sort of little extra attention to detail that the company would thoughtfully include in later products as well. Other iPod accessory makers followed suit.

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As good of a device as the Voice Recorder was, history would show that Belkin had missed a couple of big features. The device blocked the iPod’s headphone port but didn’t provide a pass-through for quiet previewing, nor did it include a port to let you connect a separate cabled microphone for times when you didn’t want to wave your iPod in someone’s face. It also lacked for gain control adjustments, making it better suited to close-distance recording than long-distance recording. So six months later, the company released a follow-up, the Universal Microphone Adapter, which added these features.

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Just like the Voice Recorder, the Universal Microphone Adapter was an iPod-matching stub that mounted on its top, replacing Voice Recorder’s front-facing speaker with a gain control switch, and its top-mounted microphone with two ports—one for headphones, one for a microphone. It was simple, used the iPod’s Voice Memo feature just like the Voice Recorder did, and sold for $40.

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There was only one problem: Griffin’s iTalk had come along and made both the Voice Recorder and Universal Microphone Adapter unnecessary. Though it had been forced to redesign iTalk from its Belkin-like prototype iRecord, Griffin had included both the microphone port and headphone port functionality, as well as automatic gain control adjustments, and a microphone and speaker, all in a nice-looking shell that sold for only $40. This was less than the Voice Recorder alone, and certainly less than both Belkin accessories put together, which you would have needed to buy to get similar functionality. The Voice Recorder did well for Belkin, especially with a six-month lead in the marketplace, but iTalk was a blockbuster for Griffin.

Voice Recording, Takes 2 and 3: TuneTalk and TuneTalk Stereo

Belkin wasn’t ready to give up on the voice recorder market quite yet. In mid-2005, it released TuneTalk, a budget-priced microphone add-on that struck us as a little weird at the time, but definitely offered a unique angle: the company upgraded the Voice Recorder’s microphone into a flexible stem that protruded inches from the top of the iPod, yanked the speaker functionality altogether, and cut the price from $50 down to $30.

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Other than the microphone, which could be bent slightly to the left, right, forwards or backwards depending on where the iPod was being placed or pointed, the only frill in this package was a foam windscreen. If you wanted to use TuneTalk outside, the windscreen would dampen rushing wind noises; if not, you could take it off to reveal a shiny silver microphone tip.

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Aside from its lack of a speaker for instant audio previewing, the major issue with TuneTalk was that it had hit a wall in the iPod’s recording performance—even if Belkin was using a better microphone, recordings wouldn’t be able to take real advantage of it. Despite possessing the hardware capability to do more than just low-fidelity monaural recording, Apple had not upgraded the iPod’s Voice Memo software more than cosmetically since the third-generation iPod received its update in 2003. Several new iPods had been released, but the feature had gone neglected, and Apple for some reason didn’t want to let its increasingly popular iPod minis record audio at all. People definitely wanted iPod voice recorders, but the Apple software was basically stagnant.

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Belkin’s work on TuneTalk didn’t go unnoticed, though. When Apple decided to release fifth-generation iPods with an upgraded, CD-quality stereo recording feature, XtremeMac took the original TuneTalk’s flexible microphone idea and added a speaker to it for the successful MicroMemo series of recorders. Surprisingly, Belkin decided to go in a completely different direction.

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TuneTalk Stereo was the first iPod voice recording accessory to include twin microphones—as well as the first to gain access to Apple’s “authentication chips,” which became necessary if companies wanted to develop accessories that could record in stereo. Designed to roughly match the width of the fifth-generation iPod, TuneTalk Stereo had tiny metal grilles on the front to protect its twin mics, a button on the side to initiate recording, and a switch on the bottom to toggle gain controls.

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It also featured a few interesting pack-ins—a USB cable could be connected to its bottom to let you record and power the iPod at the same time, while a passive plastic stand was included to let you prop the iPod up for recording, and a snap-off accessory adapter was attached to make TuneTalk Stereo work with or without an iPod case. Generally, the accessory was thoughtfully designed, and though Apple’s new Voice Memo software didn’t exactly glitz up for the fifth-generation model, recordings sounded substantially better. It also worked right, inverting its microphones to record left and right channel sound like a camcorder would, and looked right, so people who were looking for a new iPod recorder felt comfortable with its size and shape.

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TuneTalk Stereo’s only misses were obvious given the category’s past history. As with TuneTalk, Belkin again left out a previewing speaker, apparently lacking the ability to squeeze it into the accessory’s shell once two microphones and Apple’s new authentication chip were inside. Meanwhile, the TuneTalk Stereo’s price had soared to $70, and there was a question as to whether having two tiny microphones so close to one another really benefitted users. Our feeling was that two mics weren’t as valuable for most voice recording applications as one mic and a speaker, the combination in MicroMemo, but some users really liked TuneTalk Stereo, praising everything except for some unexpected, lingering recording bugs in Apple’s software.

Going in Another Direction: Photo Accessories

Throughout the iPod’s life span—most often during new iPod introductions—Apple has occasionally referenced its desire to give users additional features that they had requested. The company never shares its research data, and external surveys tend to yield marked differences with what the company ultimately offers, but in October 2003, Apple said that “iPod users’ two most requested features” were “digital voice recording and photo storage.” Thus, before the release of the color-screened, digital photo-displaying “iPod photo,” which ultimately had problems selling at its high price point, Apple and Belkin teamed up on two photo accessories for black-and-white screened iPods. These were the Belkin Media Reader, and the later Belkin Digital Camera Link. Both were designed to let you transfer photos off of a digital camera’s memory card and onto your iPod while on the road, then erase the card, freeing it to store additional photos.

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Initially sold for a whopping $100, but discounted by some stores, the Media Reader was the larger of the devices—bigger than an iPod, with a cable wound into its body, and a card reader hidden on its bottom within a slide-in plastic cover. Yet, like the Voice Recorder, it was extremely simple and sleek, with no buttons to push or indicators to master; a single light on its body indicated power status. The integrated cable connected to the iPod, and the card reader offered connectivity for CompactFlash Type I and II, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, MMC, and SD cards. Simply plugging the card in would launch the iPod’s Photo Import software, developed by Apple. iDesign: Belkin, On Recorders + Having the Inside Track 18
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This software, like the Voice Memo software, made it possible to record to the iPod’s hard drive with a single press of the Import button. Photos were transferred off one by one into “rolls” until the iPod’s hard drive was too full or its battery was too drained to continue.

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Once the transfer process was done, the software would let you erase or preserve the contents of the card. It was simple, if not extremely fast, but did have a major consequence: it required not only the iPod’s battery for power, but also a set of four AAA cells for its own card reader power. Between the iPod and the Media Reader, it was basically guaranteed that you were going to completely drain one unit’s battery down at some point during a photo transfer session, which could last for tens of minutes depending on the photos you had on your card.

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Belkin’s next iteration was released six months later, around the same time as the Universal Microphone Adapter. This, the Digital Camera Link, was an attempt to rethink the problems that the Media Reader might cause. Instead of using a bulky, format-limited card reader, it was smaller, and connected the iPod directly to your camera. In essence, the Digital Camera Link was a powered USB adapter for the iPod, with a button on the front to start transferring photos from your camera to the iPod, and a set of three lights that would flash to indicate transfer status.

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Unlike the Media Reader, the Digital Camera Link was radically overengineered. Selling for $80—less than the Media Reader but more than it should have—it required instructions to decode its three flashing lights for a process that was little more than moving files from one device to another.

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It also introduced another concern. Now three different devices all required their batteries to drain: the iPod, the twin AA-powered Digital Camera Link, and your camera. You needed to bring your own USB cable, too. Despite whatever involvement Apple may have had, it wasn’t an elegant solution.

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Apple’s response, one year later, was to release the iPod Camera Connector, which did away with all of the unnecessary parts of the Digital Camera Link in favor of something smaller and simpler. The Connector had a USB port at one end and an iPod Dock Connector plug at the other. You connected your camera with a self-supplied cable and started the transfer process using the iPod. No batteries besides the iPod’s and camera’s were required.

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The only compatibility difference: it was designed only to work with the color-screened iPod photo and certain subsequent iPods, and didn’t work with the older iPods supported by the Belkin peripherals. In an unusual move, Apple also redesigned the Photo Import feature somewhat in version 1.1 of the iPod photo firmware, adding a new thumbnail image preview window that only displayed when the Camera Connector or Media Reader were connected; thumbnails weren’t supported with the Digital Camera Link. Had something changed with the Apple/Belkin relationship, or was Apple just tired of trying to support an ever-growing number of accessories that differed in implementation too much to track?

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After the Camera Connector was released, Belkin never released a follow-up to its own accessories, and due to a number of issues—including the cheapening of memory cards and slower transfer speeds as digital cameras improved in pixel counts—neither did Apple. The accessory stopped being supported with the release of the sixth-generation iPod, better known as iPod classic, and photo transfer functionality has basically become a relic of the past.

The Once and Future Kings of iPod Audio Recorders: TuneStudio and Podcast Studio

Of all the accessories we have seen for the iPod over the past six years, there is no doubt that Belkin’s TuneStudio—a multi-channel mixer and recorder—is amongst the most ambitious. Once known for simple little plug-in recorders, Belkin used its significant industrial design prowess to create a lightweight, rugged input deck that would enable professional-grade audio recording and playback devices to connect to the iPod, utilizing the device’s late 2005-vintage CD-quality stereo recording mode for more than just a couple of too-close microphones and voice memos.

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Demonstrated at two successive annual trade shows before its release in early 2008, TuneStudio featured a bewildering array of 29 dials with levels and mixing for four separate audio channels, inputs for two XLR microphones, and outputs to either an iPod or a computer. Most unusual about TuneStudio is its styling, which looks amazingly chic for something as typically forgettable as a mixer, and its $400 pricing, which jumped so far beyond the company’s initially projected $250 tag that the accessory actually became more expensive than any of the iPods that worked with it.

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Price and limited market aside, TuneStudio wrestled with a couple of other hurdles. When it was originally under development, the biggest iPods were capable of recording stereo audio—the fifth-generation iPod and, a year later, the second-generation iPod nano both were supported. Today, the iPod classic and third-generation iPod nano also support stereo recording, but the iPod touch does not, and Apple has given no indications that subsequent iPods or iPhones will be able to record audio. Additionally, Apple has made changes to the ways recorders interact with iPods, such that a button on TuneStudio designed to automatically bring up the iPod’s recording menu only works on older models. Despite Belkin’s best efforts, it’s obvious that recording is no longer a priority for Apple, and that support for the feature varies too much from model to model for users—and most developers—to rely upon it.

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That hasn’t stopped Belkin from continuing to innovate in the iPod audio recording space. Debuted in early 2008, the $100 Podcast Studio transfers some of the best recording and mixing features from TuneStudio into a smaller, more portable shell that’s better sized for use anywhere. Powered by AA batteries, it includes its own microphone and speaker set rather than requiring you to carry separate ones, but also takes input from cabled microphones if you desire. Like TuneStudio, it only works with Apple’s stereo recording iPods, but at this price, it makes a lot more sense for typical users than TuneStudio does for $400.

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Though Belkin’s array of iPod and iPhone accessories has been incredible over the past four and a half years, and there are many other Belkin designs we could have selected for iDesign based on their cosmetics or pricing, our choice to focus on the company’s audio recorders and photo accessories was based on several key factors. These products most directly show how Apple’s involvement with certain types of development, and certain designers, can give one company a major lead or produce significant competitively-driven advancements across the board; they also show how Apple’s lack of interest, or desire to step in, can make a product category completely dry up. Clearly, Apple’s involvement can be a double-edged sword.

Finally, these Belkin products are great examples of how even a company with a track record of producing commodity goods—cables and switch boxes—can make a relatively rapid transformation by focusing on clean, elegant industrial design and the right partnerships. Even if Belkin is one of very few iPod accessory companies to have had Apple’s direct aid, it is also an iPod accessory maker that now stands on its own with everything from cases and car accessories to FM transmitters and audio recorders, each far above average in design and appeal. Even the original TuneTalk, a simple microphone, went on to inspire cloning efforts from competitors, and had the engineering been easier, its photo accessories most likely would have done the same. Sometimes, getting creative inspiration from the right source is even more important than making money from an exclusive business deal; as these accessories show, Belkin is the rare company that has done both.

[Editor’s Note: iDesign is produced by the Editors of iLounge without any involvement from developers or vendors of Apple products. Products are selected fully on merit, with nothing else as a consideration; the subjects of each article see and learn about their inclusion in iDesign for the first time only after the article is published. When possible, we publish a second part to each article, a follow-up interview with the people behind the design. Our goal is to honor impressive products and designers with honest, independent assessments of their best products, and inspire others to create similarly superb options. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]