Over the past two weeks, I’ve been on an office clutter reduction drive—gone is the 4×4 cube shelf system that once held iPods, speakers, awards and the like, and away went most of the things that have been stealing space from my desk, off into storage. The goal has been a more minimalist, zen working space that looks and feels less like an Apple Store than it has for the last few years. So when I say that I’ve decided to add a new item to my desk, hopefully you’ll get the sense that the phrase actually means something.
The new item is a Blue Microphones Snowflake ($79, Amazon price $59/Dr. Bott price $59), which is described as a “portable professional USB mic,” but thanks to a great design is a lot more than those words would typically lead you to believe. Larger than a full-sized iPod but still easy to toss into a bag, the Snowflake consists of four parts: a globe-shaped microphone, a USB cable, and a two-piece base. Blue’s microphone and main base are permanently connected to one another, but the globe can be spun 360 degrees around, pivoted to your choice of angles, or even recessed back into the base, which has enough room inside to store the USB cable. You can also separate the base into two halves, which enables the microphone to be mounted on some monitors.
Why would I care about a USB microphone? Two words: voice chat. My MacBook Pro spends most of its day folded up and tethered to an Apple Cinema Display, which has been awaiting an iSight- and mic-based upgrade for two years now. Try to have a voice chat with the microphone built into the closed MacBook Pro, especially with the internal fans running from whatever has been going on lately with Leopard, and callers will tell you that you’re difficult to hear. They’ll say almost the same thing even if the MacBook Pro has been opened up, and even if the fan’s off, they’ll still prefer the sound of an external microphone. At least, they do with Snowflake.
The mark of a great accessory design is that you’d still want to keep it around even if you stopped having an immediate use for it. Griffin’s PowerMate is one of those accessories—it’s just a cool-looking metal knob with a glowing blue light at its base, and despite its limited applications remains on my desk (and desks of many other users) to this day. Snowflake is equally attractive. It’s done in high-class silver polished metal, with a mix of silver aluminum and white plastic for the base, striking just the right visual balance with the other Apple gear on my desk. By computer microphone standards, it’s large, with a nicer mic inside than the pinhole-sized ones that are commonly tossed into web cameras, and that’s likely a good part of why people think it sounds so good. People on the other end have described it as “very good” and “quite good overall,” with our U.K. editor Bob Levens calling the sound “1000 times better” than the MacBook Pro’s built-in mic. I didn’t realize that it was possible to make such an improvement, and that may be a little generous, but I’m glad to hear that I’m sounding so good now on the other end of chats.
Could Snowflake be any better? Ideally, the metal part could fit on my Cinema Display, but it can’t, as the Display’s too thick and Snowflake’s body would need to really bulk up to accommodate it. Thinner monitors—and certain laptop screens—will be a better match, which is fine considering that Snowflake works with Windows PCs and all the USB Macs that lack integrated mics or would benefit from superior external ones. And yeah, it would be great if Blue went beyond the mic and offered a full iSight-style video camera, which would be especially appreciated given that Apple hasn’t offered an iChat-ready solution for Cinema Display users for some time now. But Blue is a microphone company with a huge stable of cool and differently purposed microphones, not a general purpose accessory designer, so it’s not surprising that what Snowflake does, it does very well, without trying to reach beyond the company’s core competency. With design and performance like this, however, I hope they’ll consider giving other genres a try.