We’re always looking for solutions to common Mac problems: the old “laptop that’s too hot to keep on your lap” issue has been around for a while, as has the “Cinema Display without camera or mic” problem. Thankfully, the latest unibody 13” MacBook is the coolest-running notebook we’ve tested from Apple in years, and the new LED Cinema Display finally adds a camera and mic to Apple’s long-running series of flat panels, but what if you don’t want to shell out a ton of cash for new hardware? Updated February 2, 2009: Originally posted January 20, we’ve updated this article with final testing comments; click on the title to see them.
Two answers have just arrived. The 15.4” HeatShift Cooling Pad from ThermaPAK ($30/Dr. Bott) is a unique soft cooling pad that feels a bit like a chair topper with soft fabric on one side and vinyl on the other. What’s novel here is that there are cooling crystals inside that absorb heat, transforming from a solid into a liquid inside the pad, dissipating the warmth over time. When you’re done using the laptop, the liquid resolidifies into crystals, ready to be used again. ThermaPAK pitches it as a light and thin, comfortable alternative to carrying around a plastic fan solution, lacking any wires or need to drain power for cooling purposes. We’ll be testing it to see how it actually performs with our prior-gen 15” MacBook Pro. There are different sizes (13/15.4/17”) and colors of the pads, including pink, aluminum, and black, with the smaller ones selling for $28 and the larger ones for $35.
The other interesting item is Blue’s Eyeball ($100/Dr. Bott), sequel to the Snowflake microphone we tested and really liked last year. Eyeball preserves the same styling and housing, save for its dark gray boy coloration and a chrome pop-out 1.3-Megapixel “Super HD video” lens that emerges from the left side of the large, “HD-quality” microphone. Once again, it comes with a USB cable and a housing that can be used on a desktop or on top of a monitor; Blue now includes a rubber piece to keep it stable on Cinema Displays and similarly large monitors.
Eyeball’s pitch is that it gives you high-quality audio and video conferencing capabilities—both superior to what you’d get in an old iSight, or even in the new integrated cameras and mics found in Apple’s laptop and desktop machines. Thus far, the video image appears to be better than what Apple offers, but not up to the standards of Logitech’s 2-Megapixel QuickCam Vision Pro, which we continue to think is awesome; its colors are a bit more natural and the camera’s angle is wider. We’ll be doing audio tests and more video tests to see how they compare.
Notably, both of these items work as well on PCs as they do with Macs. More pictures can be seen from the Read More link here, and we’ll update this article with final testing results soon. We’ve also updated our recent look at NLU Products’ BodyGuardz for MacBook with final impressions, as well.
The story with Eyeball is semi-positive. In the “good news” department, Eyeball does represent a noticeable step up from Apple’s original standalone iSight cameras in terms of video and audio quality—and thanks to its USB connectivity, it works on both Macs and PCs. Though its sensor is similar in raw megapixels to the ones seen in current-generation MacBooks and MacBook Pros, as well as in iMacs, Eyeball’s video imagery isn’t as grainy, and the microphone inside is the same—says Blue—as the one found in the Snowflake mic we’ve previously covered. In other words, it’s a solid mic and solid camera in one package.
In the “bad news” department, Eyeball isn’t quite as smart a pick on performance as the Logitech QuickCam Vision Pro. Logitech’s image sensor and lens combine to create videos that are wider in angle, more accurate in color, and more detailed; the Eyeball’s colors tend to be a little off—not as bad as the iSight’s—and something akin to chromatic aberration takes place on the edges of subjects. From an audio standpoint, as crazy as it sounds, the QuickCam produced better results. We’ve tried multiple comparison tests between these cameras and microphones, and even with their input volumes set to identical levels in either iChat or GarageBand, Logitech’s settings just work better.
Initially, we noted that there was a difference—actually, a positive one for video chat purposes—between the Snowflake’s and Eyeball’s gain levels, such that the Eyeball’s gain was higher and voices were louder. We contacted Blue to figure out whether the mics were in fact the same, and were told that the company had changed the firmware of the Eyeball after its initial release to update the gain to bring it into parity with the Snowball. The result was that the Eyeball’s volume level for chat fell lower than before, and became markedly weak by comparison to the Logitech. It may be a tradeoff in quality versus volume, but for video chat, it seems like Blue still has some tweaking to do to get the audio levels right.
Another issue is the Eyeball’s mounting system. Previously, Snowflake was designed to mount as an external mic on certain notebook monitors, but its shell proved a little too thin for many desktop displays—notably including Apple’s Cinema Displays and many competitors. Blue has quick-fixed that with the aforementioned rubber piece, which does mount the Eyeball on your monitor assuming that you don’t want to shoot upwards from a desktop position to your chin. It’s not the greatest solution, and we prefer the Logitech and old Apple designs, but it could be worse. This really does feel like a desktop mic that was retrofitted after the fact to be a camera, as well.
Overall, Blue’s Eyeball is a good camera and microphone combination, but not a fantastic one. The results that it delivers are markedly better than an old iSight, slightly better than a new one, and not quite up to par with the more expensive QuickCam Vision Pro. We’d shop around or pop for the difference to get the Logitech camera, but if you’re on more of a budget and want something that represents a step up from Apple’s prior-generation parts, this is a fine choice.
ThermaPAK’s HeatShift Cooling Pad
There’s not as much to say about HeatShift: simply put, it’s not stylish—a point that some users will mind—but it works.
Using this pad is initially an unusual experience. The plastic top surface has a hard texture that holds the crystals in one-inch diagonal stripes, while the bottom fabric is soft enough to lay on your legs. Put your computer down on top of it and it doesn’t quite settle in; rather, it rests on top. At least, that’s what it does until the computer heats up and the crystals start to liquify. Then, the pad becomes softer, the heat continues to dissipate, and so on. Remove the machine from the pad and it hardens again, ready for its next use.
Our experiences with lap-mounted cooling solutions have been a real mixed bag to date, and given the options—metal, plastic, or wood frames with heatsinks or fans inside—this one strikes us as a comparatively nice, thin alternative that is easy enough to tote around and use wherever you may be. It’s not a complete solution to the inherent issue of out-of-control processor heat, but it certainly does a good job of cutting that heat down while rendering hot computers more lap-worthy. If you take the plunge, we’d recommend going with a color other than black, as it tends to show hair and not really look so hot next to most of Apple’s notebooks; we’d be inclined to opt for the aluminum-colored version instead.