Every year, iLounge’s editors work extended hours—starting weeks before major trade shows—trying out new products that are debuting for Apple’s iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Mac. After visiting literally hundreds of booths at the 2011 International CES and surveying thousands of products, our editors discuss and debate the merits of new releases, selecting only the very best ones for our awards: full Best of Show Winners offer the rare combination of great design, features, and pricing, while Best of Show Finalists demonstrate excellence in two of those categories but fall a little short in the third.
Our 2011 Best of Show Awards are below, this year recognizing a total of 20 top products out of the thousands we’ve seen, with 9 full Winners and 11 Finalists. Congratulations to all of the companies whose products were selected below, and we strongly encourage readers who happen to be at CES to check them out for themselves.
Best of Show 2011 Winners
Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air: Cosmetically, this 2.1-channel all-in-one audio system looks very similar to its popular premium predecessor Zeppelin, which inaugurated the $600 iPod speaker category several years ago before receiving iPhone-compatible updates. But this time, Bowers & Wilkins has thoroughly reengineered its “oblong spheroid” system, with improved speakers, each with its own dedicated amplifier, and built-in support for Apple’s new AirPlay wireless streaming protocol—at the same price as before. The original Zeppelin sounded great; the new one’s wireless iPad and iTunes support only increases its value for the price.
Branex iTam Tam Cool: Prior editions of Branex Design’s Tam Tam and iTam Tam were cosmetically and sonically appealing at challenging price points. The company has finally created a mass-market version in iTam Tam Cool, a $229 2.1-channel speaker that preserves almost the exact same unique look while becoming wall power-tethered rather than rechargeable, cutting the color choices down to white, and reducing the sound power to levels that most users will still find more than reasonable. It took years, but iTam Tam is finally ready for prime time.
Griffin CarTrip: Of the three Griffin products receiving Best of Show Awards this year, the one that surprised us the most was CarTrip ($80), which connects to the on-board computers found in 1996-current cars, wirelessly providing diagnostic and fuel consumption information to an iOS application. Users who have previously been confounded by warning lights in their cars will be able to instantly know what errors have been detected for less than the cost of a typical auto shop visit, and CarTrip can either share information directly with the free application or continue to record it to its own built-in memory or an SD card. Typically smart, value-driven design from Griffin.
Griffin Crayola Stylus + App: Any iPad owner with kids has tried at least one of the now numerous drawing applications we’ve reviewed; Griffin and Crayola’s collaborative $30 battery-powered stylus and free application will redefine the category. Why do you need a battery-powered stylus to draw on the iPad? To avoid the accidental smudges that kids can get on the iPad’s screen when putting their fingers on it, only input from the Crayola stylus is recognized by the application, which provides access to a full collection of crayons, numerous animated scenes to color in, and a setting to let parents decide whether to restrict drawing to be within the lines. Fun, educational, and very well-implemented.
iHome iW1/iW2/iW3 AirPlay Speaker Lineup – General Award for Innovation: Unlike other companies that have shown AirPlay-compatible speakers this year, iHome is really actively pushing to bring Apple’s Wi-Fi streaming technology to products with streamlined designs and reasonable price points. The working demonstration sample of iHome’s $300 iW1 portable AirPlay unit features the most impressive implementation of a recharging base we’ve seen in years, making picking up and placement of the stylish speaker effortless. iW2 is a smaller wall-tethered version, and iW3 is tall with similar features, all sharing the same design language and forming interesting pairing combinations throughout a house or office; both are planned for sub-$200 price points, and all three have USB ports in the back for iPod/iPhone/iPad wired docking.
iSkin Q. West Range: While our attention was primarily focused on the Q. West Sling ($120), a very sleek, unisex carrying bag for the iPad or 11” MacBook Air, the entire line of glossy Q. West bags from long-time iPod and iPhone case developer iSkin show that the company is ready to move from its pocket-sized comfort zone into highly fashionable backpacks, purses, and sleeves. The puffy styled plastic exteriors are polarizing—some of us loved them, others didn’t—but we all agreed that the bag designs were smart. iPhone/mobile phone holders are built into their straps, too.
Just Mobile Slide: Of the two new Just Mobile iPad stands that debuted at CES this year, the highly portable Slide ($40) struck us as worthy of a full Best of Show Award. The beautifully shaped aluminum base is paired with a perfectly weighted metal and rubber core that is popped out to provide support to an iPad in your choice of orientations and angles, or reinserted into the stand for easy carrying in an included bag. This is just a highly elegant alternative to more mechanical and complex portable stands we’ve tested, and works with bare or encased iPads—as well as other devices.
LuxMobile Cases – General Award For Design: We are rarely impressed by entire lineups of products enough to recognize them in total, but the complete collection of LuxMobile Cases for iPhones and iPads really stood out to us at this year’s CES. By partnering with leading fashion brands and licensing celebrity likenesses and artwork from well-known names—Bruce Lee, M.C. Escher, and Marilyn Monroe amongst them—the company offers everything from budget soft-touch plastic shells with unusually nice artwork to high-gloss mirrored and crystallized cases, and then some of the very best Swarovski Crystal designs we’ve ever seen; an M.C. Escher iPad shell immediately caught our attention as a beautiful example of what’s possible when real artists are involved in crafting gemstone cases. While we would love to see the company produce even more protective products, it has such a wide range of impressive aesthetic approaches that fans of celebrity brands and culture can’t help but find something interesting and in their price range.
Speck A-Line 10 Tote: Though Speck had quite a few very cool cases at its booth this year, the one that impressed us the most was A-Line 10 ($60), a teardrop-shaped iPad bag for women that makes no effort whatsoever to go unisex or appeal to men. A-Line 10’s unapologetic purse-like design gives women the opportunity to carry their iPads without looking like techies, using smart compartments to provide plenty of organization, and multiple colors of soft fabric to provide fashionable options. As the company’s first “truly designed for women” case, it’s a real winner.
Best of Show 2011 Finalists
Dexim Visible G Charger: Though the price is a little high for a charger that doesn’t offer full-speed iPad refueling, the iPod/iPhone charger Visible G ($40) uses an illuminated cable that moves through at least three speeds of subtle pulsing to let you know instantly how much of your device has been recharged: maximum speed, medium speed, and trickle recharging near the end of the fueling cycle. A very neat concept.
Griffin Beacon: Co-developed with Dijit/Umee on the app side, Griffin’s newly-revealed Infrared blaster and universal remote control solution Beacon ($80) offers iOS users a dongle-free solution for managing television, A/V system, DVD/DVR/Blu-Ray devices, and more. You just place the Beacon unit in the center of a room, load up the free application when you want to control your devices using either individual or combined customized screens, and press the buttons on your iOS device. Beacon runs off of four AA batteries for two months—the latter a little on the short side for our liking—rather than requiring a power cable.
iHome iA91: Though iA91 is arguably just an iterative sequel to iHome’s venerable line of $100 alarm clock radios, this unit delivers the best overall value that the company—and arguably any company—has offered at that $100 price point, with a nice new enclosure. Combining elements of its past iA100 and iP90 designs into a sharp-looking case that now includes support for the company’s iHome + Sleep and other apps, the iA91 is a very solid mid-range alarm clock; it also features a brand new clock screen with noticeably improved contrast and darker blacks.
Just Mobile Encore: The second new iPad stand from Just Mobile is this beautiful little circle of metal with an adjustable arm to enable iPad use on your choice of angles. While it’s a little pricey at $60, Encore is so cleanly designed and useful with or without cases that it instantly earned a place on our desks—yet another great concept from Just Mobile’s design partners at Tools.
Mophie PowerStand: Yes, there are lots and lots of iPad stands out there, but very few of them have great looks and integrated charging capabilities. Mophie took on the task of doing everything correctly with this $129 PowerStand, a metal and fully adjustable iPad holder that has an integrated charging system, a tilting and rotating arm, and a little rubber lining that keeps the iPad padded inside. Though we’d have preferred PowerStand to ship with more case compatibility—it’s only able to work with thin snap-on shells—and be ready out of the box for the inevitable second-generation iPad, both factors that would make the price easier to swallow, Mophie did a nice job with this first version of the product.
Native Union MM03i: An evolution of the company’s MM03 Bluetooth handset—a beautiful-looking alternative to holding your iPhone up to your ear when you’re comfortable in your own home or at your desk—MM03i adds an integrated iPhone charging dock and improved Bluetooth 2.1 multi-point pairing so that it can be used simultaneously with your phone and with a computer running Skype. The wireless handset recharges easily on the glossy plastic base, which continues the high style curves of the $130 MM03 at a $20 additional premium.
Orbotix Sphero: Developed by Orbotix, this robotic toy ball is controlled by an iOS device; users maneuver the ball using touchscreen gestures and can control internal LED lights to illuminate it as it rolls around on the ground. The internal rechargeable battery inside runs for approximately one hour of continuous rolling on a single charge; you can easily refuel it using an included induction charger. $100 may be a little steep for what’s here, but if you have a cat, dog, or baby, you’ll know instantly why this is one of the coolest applications yet of iOS remote control technology.
Scosche MyTrek: Though the $150 price tag may scare some users away, we were extremely impressed by the application behind Scosche’s new fitness accessory MyTrek, which enables bicyclists, runners, and other athletes to track their heart rates using a Bluetooth connection to a wireless armband monitor. Audio prompting includes realtime male or female feedback, and Scosche plans to offer in-app purchases with additional features; the software has one of the nicest Apple-consistent/expanded UIs we’ve yet seen on the iPhone and iPod touch.
Speck CandyShell View: Speck’s CandyShell cases continue to evolve, and the company’s third iteration for the iPhone 4 is once again a step forward: a fully retractable stand pops out of the $40 CandyShell View’s back and enables you to stand the device up for FaceTime or rest it on its side for video playback as needed, sneaking back inwards as soon as it’s not needed. A smart little design with different implementation than earlier stand cases we’ve seen over the years.
Westone Westone 4: Though its primary appeal will be to seriously hard-core audiophiles, Westone’s $449 Westone 4 is a breakthrough new earphone in the sense that it includes four drivers per ear—more than any other universal fit consumer earphone—that are segregated into high, mid, and low frequency drivers, still squeezing into the same-sized earpiece as its three-driver predecessor. Rather than blasting bass through its four total dedicated low-end speakers, Westone 4 uses its speakers to provide smoother, cleaner representations of the entire range of frequencies, which serious listeners will appreciate and bass nuts may pooh-pooh. We’re in the “fans” category, and especially love the fact that Westone is pushing the price of four-driver earphones down from competitors’ $1150 price level to something more reasonable
Withings Smart Baby Monitor: We instantly fell in love with the feature set of this beautifully designed, fold-open cube, which enables parents of young children to monitor—and entertain—their kids. The Smart Baby Monitor opens into two halves, one with a wireless video camera and the other with a speaker and color-shifting light array that can provide music and colorful lighting for the baby if desired, all operated using a free application over a Wi-Fi network. Withings’ implementation is fundamentally different from prior baby monitors and cameras, which commonly use low-fidelity, grainy black and white video over shaky RF connections; this one lets iOS users enjoy superior quality and deliver a better experience for their kids, without the need to de-pair their iOS devices just to connect with the camera. Our only concern is the price, which the company has said only will be between $200 and $300; at the lower price, it would be an instant hit and a potential breakthrough for the baby monitor industry.
Congratulations to all of the Best of Show Winners and Finalists, and thanks to everyone in the Apple accessory and application industry for such a fantastic collection of new products this year!