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Author Archive for Claire Strodtbeck

VillageTronics ViBook DisplayLink USB Video Card Review

I am a master of multiple monitors. At my last job, I wrangled my way into having a total of four LCDs connected to my workstation, which was pretty fantastic for multitasking. The downside was that such a configuration requires more than one video card (usually).

Your run-of-the-mill video card has either one or two video outputs. If you want to add extra monitors, you need to get another video card. Not only can this be costly, it’s completely unfeasible if you’re working with a laptop or an all-in-one machine like an Apple iMac. This is where DisplayLink technology comes into play. DisplayLink is a new hardware standard that allows passing a video signal over USB instead of more typical connections like DVI and VGA. One such manufacturer of DisplayLink products is VillageTronics, who sent me their ViBook adapter to test and review. We’ll see how it compares to the more traditional method of adding an extra internal video card to your computer. Read More →

A Kitty Commode?!: The CatGenie 120 Review

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I will be the first to admit that I’m a crazy cat lady. Between my partner and I, we have three furry feline “kids” – Princess is around ten years old, Sumi is roughly four, and Ninja is the kitten at a year-ish. Yes, I have a kitten named Ninja. And she lives up to her moniker, let me tell you.

Anyhow, three cats means lots of…presents. Constantly. So when Julie offered to let me review the upgraded model of her CatGenie, the CatGenie 120, I jumped right on it. What could be better than a gadget that keeps me from ever, ever, ever having to scoop my kitties’ “gifts” again?

This review is going to deal with the kinda-maybe-sorta delicate topic of feline bodily functions. If that makes you squeamish, you may want to pass. Otherwise, let’s see if the CatGenie gets its money’s worth. Read More →

Adesso Wireless Mini Trackball Keyboard: your HTPC’s new best friend

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Like most hardcore computer geeks, I own eleventy thousand computers – including an Acer L310 HTPC I bought on impulse one afternoon on eBay. I love my little HTPC. I can play old-school Nintendo ROMs on it, Windows Media Center looks beautiful on my 40″ LCD TV, and I can browse the Internet from the comfort of my couch (without a laptop, that is).

There was just one small problem – the only wireless keyboard and mouse I had handy was my old Logitech Elite Cordless Duo I bought way back in 2003. It’s a great set, but (a) there’s minimal Vista support from Logitech for this particular set, and (b) the keyboard is enormous. It’s not exactly the kind of setup you want for a media center PC. Julie mentioned the Adesso Wireless Mini Trackball Keyboard to me, and it sounded perfect. We’ll see if it made the cut… Read More →

G-Cube Wireless Keyboard and Mouse Set Review

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I have a lot of computers. Part of the problem with having so many computers is having enough keyboards and mice for all of them – and having small keyboards is a plus when you have so many machines. When Julie sent me some information about G-Cube, I was pretty interested in their keyboards – they’re wireless, small, and super cute. I picked one in a very girly shade of pearlescent pink, complete with a matching mouse. Read More →

The best iPhone case ever (almost)

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Several months ago, Julie sent me a couple leather iPhone cases to review. After playing around with both of them and using them on a daily basis, I decided I really wanted a silicone case, so I bought a couple online. When all was said and done, I’d used four different cases with my iPhone – and one came out the clear winner. Read More →

Livio Pandora Internet Radio Review

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A few months ago, Julie mentioned the Livio Pandora Internet Radio in her Spotlight Gadget feature. My boyfriend had recently introduced me to Pandora, and I just knew he and I had to check this little device out. Several weeks later, Livio had shipped me the LV001 Pandora Radio. Read More →

Freestyle Audio SoundWave Waterproof MP3 Player Review

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My name is Claire, and I have a problem. With digital audio player addiction. I swear, I have like forty of the things. I don’t use many of them…just my iPhone, and my old 60GB fourth-generation iPod jolts me awake to the melodious sound of DragonForce every morning. That doesn’t stop me from collecting more and more players, though…so when Julie offered me the FreeStyle Audio SoundWave waterproof MP3 player, how could I resist?

Turns out that resisting would have been pretty easy, had I known what I was in for.

Read More →

Texting Troubles – What’s a parent to do?

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I’m an avid reader of the Consumerist. I also talk to Julie online a lot, which means that I’m frequently sending her links during the day to interesting articles I find. We got into a discussion about texting, after I sent her an article on a girl in Colorado who racked up a $4,756.25 Verizon bill from texting one month. She sent roughly 10,000 messages…and received just as many! That’s a lot of texting, even for a teenager. Last month, I also saw an article on the Consumerist about a California teenager who managed to send and receive over 14,000 text messages one month on an AT&T plan. Fortunately, her parents had an unlimited messaging plan on her phone.

But when you don’t want to pay for unlimited messaging, what can you do about a kid whose thumbs move faster than Road Runner’s mad dash away from Wile E. Coyote? Read More →

Netbook Face-Off: Acer Aspire One versus HP Mini 1000

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I was excited when Julie told her main article contributors that she was sending us HP Mini 1000 netbooks in December, but for an entirely different reason.

See, I’d already purchased an Acer Aspire One only a few months earlier, and I was quite interested in seeing how the HP Mini stood up against the stiff competition of the netbook I’d grown to love so much. And when I say “love”, I really mean “love”. My AAO has a 160GB hard drive, 1.5GB RAM (I went ahead and upgraded), a long-lasting six-cell battery, and all the standard fare for a netbook – 8.9″ 1024×600 display, 0.3MP webcam, USB 2.0 ports, integrated SD/MemoryStick reader, and the requisite 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor. Read More →

iVoice Baby-ai Bluetooth Headset

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iVoice sent a Baby-ai headset along with their R1 car kit. I’ve used a couple of different bluetooth headsets in the past and haven’t been too impressed with them. I have small ears and wear glasses, so I’ve had a hard time finding a headset that would stay on my ear securely while walking around and driving and whatnot. We’ll see if the Baby-ai makes the cut. Read More →

iVoice R1 Bluetooth Car Kit Review

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Despite my extra geekiness and my affinity for electronic gadgets and toys, I only very recently acquired a cell phone with bluetooth. I’d been using a Motorola V325 with Verizon for three years (try this – they’ll start begging you to upgrade to a new phone a few months after your “New every two” date), and it was bluetooth-free. Then I upgraded to an iPhone, which got me a little more interested in the world of bluetooth devices. Read More →

BBP Expand-It Laptop Messenger Bag

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I’m pretty particular about what I want in a laptop bag. I tend to prefer backpacks because of the more even weight distribution, but I’ve recently been using messenger bags again. My current favorite is the Ice Red Drift. When Julie sent me the Expand-It from BBP bags, I thought it looked interesting – but I wasn’t convinced at first look if it could compete with my current preferred bag. We’ll see if it matched up. Read More →

Merconnet Car Message Sign Review

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I don’t know about you, but I’m…shall we say…a bit of an aggressive driver. Sometimes. My last car was a Pontiac Grand Prix GT in “arrest me” red, which didn’t remotely help with my penchant for speed on the interstate. I’m sure you all have had one or two experiences with rude gestures or people yelling at you (or you doing the gesturing and yelling). We’ve all had our moments of indiscretion in our early years of driving, no? Read More →

D-Link DSM-330 DivX-Connected HD Media Player Review

With the massive influx of digital media in the past decade or so, consumers have become aware of the need for some way to use
their media somewhere other than a computer. More specifically, we want to be able to play our music and movies and view our
digital pictures from the comfort of the couch, and with the high definition glory of a 72″ plasma television. Apple, of course,
released the Apple TV. However, other electronics companies have tried to come up with good home media center solutions that
don’t require a full computer running Windows XP Media Center Edition, or Windows Vista Premium or Ultimate.

Being a pretty hardcore computer geek, I like the idea of a fully outfitted computer in my living room, but desktops use a lot
of electricity, and sometimes you just want something that’s easy to set up and simple to use. The D-Link DSM-330 attempts to fill
this kind of need.

Julie passed on her Unicorn Mvix 760HD
after she upgraded to an Apple TV, and it’s had a happy home in my living room for the past eight months or so. I love my Mvix,
so I knew that any similar product was going to face some serious competition. What I like about the Mvix is that it is extremely
flexible. It’s compatible with a huge range of file formats (even VOB files ripped directly from DVDs), it can hold an IDE hard
drive, and the latest firmware update significantly increased its general stability. So, does the DSM-330 compare?

Sadly, no. There is a lot wrong with this device, and with an MSRP of nearly $400, you’re much better off looking for other
solutions.

The meaning behind “DivX-Connected™”

When D-Link originally released the DSM-330, they also released a new online service that allowed streaming DRM-protected HD
video, complete with menus, in the DivX format. It was a good idea, but it didn’t last long. The service was prohibitively
expensive to keep up and running, and it was shut down only a few years after its inception. This was supposed to be one of the
main drivers behind the DSM-330 – you could upload video and stream HD video directly from the Internet to your television. Once
the service was terminated, the DSM-330’s functionality became a bit more limited.

Aside from the now-defunct Stage6 streaming service, the DSM-330 works with the DivX-Connected server software. This is a
Windows-only application that allows the DSM-330 to connect to your network and stream music, video, and digital pictures. There
are also plugins available that enable you to access video services on the Internet, like Hulu and YouTube.

I was originally pretty jazzed when I found out about the Hulu support, but it turns out that it’s not so great – we’ll get to
that in a minute.

What’s in the box

One bright spot in this product is that the DSM-330 includes a full range of cables, so you don’t need to worry about buying
anything extra to get started.

  • DSM-330 device
  • Remote control with batteries
  • Screw-on wireless antenna
  • SCART to Component cable
  • HDMI cable
  • Composite A/V cable
  • Power adapter
  • Ethernet cable
  • DivX-Connected installation CD
  • Product documentation

The tech specs

  • Video outputs:

    • HDMI
    • Component
    • SCART
    • S-Video
    • Composite
  • Audio outputs:

    • RCA stereo
    • S/PDIF
    • Optical
  • Connectivity:

    • 802.11b/g wireless (WPA and WEP)
    • 10/100 fast Ethernet
  • Supported video formats:

    • DivX
    • XviD
    • Windows Media 9 Video
  • Supported audio formats:

    • MP3
    • WMA
    • M3U, M3U8, and PLS playlists
  • Supported image formats:

    • JPEG
    • BMP

It’s worth noting that the DSM-330 is quite limited in its support of various digital media formats. It doesn’t even support AAC
(.m4a files), which is nearly as ubiquitous as MP3, thanks to the popularity of iTunes. Video support is also very limited, with
no compatibility with QuickTime or MPEG-4 formats. Images are limited to JPEG and BMP, so there’s no PNG support. Other file formats
can be enabled through third-party hacks and plugins, but out-of-the-box the player is pretty crippled.

At the very least, the remote control is pretty well laid out and easy to use. The buttons aren’t too stiff or too mushy, and the
DSM-330 seems to have a pretty good field of vision for the remote’s IR transmitter.

Using the device

Initial setup allows you to configure your network settings (enter any WEP or WPA keys for your WiFi network, etc.) and connect to
a DivX-Connected server. The server software requires at least Windows XP. The software is unremarkable but adequate. You can add
directories to the server software for videos, music, and photos. You can also use the server software to add plugins for support
for online streaming services like YouTube.

I’m not all that happy that server software is required to use the device. There’s a USB port on the front, but it’s unsupported
and officially “for service use only”. Even streaming Internet video requires that the DivX-Connected software be up and running.
Without a server to connect to, the DSM-330 won’t even start up past the basic setup screen. This is in stark contrast to the
Mvix 760HD, with its internal hard drive and two USB ports for connecting thumb drives and external hard drives. In my
opinion, if I’m going to have a computer on in order to play media on my television, I might as well have a full-fledged home
theatre PC in my living room.

Once you have your DivX-Connected server up and running and the DSM-330 connected, you can browse through an animated interface
to access your files. The interface is well thought out, but it’s slow and unresponsive. It seemed to hang for me a lot, which
got pretty frustrating. The little animations and effects seem to slow down the interface.

One of the supposed cool features of this device is its extensibility via plugins. I downloaded and installed the Hulu plugin, and
was sorely disappointed. TV shows are limited to 480i only (even though many shows on Hulu are available in 480p), and the player
doesn’t actually stretch the video to the dimensions of the screen, leaving you with a large black frame around the video area.

This brings me to what is probably my biggest complaint about the DSM-330. If you’ve ever hooked up a computer to a CRT television,
you’ll probably notice that the image doesn’t necessarily fully fit the dimensions of the television’s screen. It seems as though
the DSM-330 is designed in this same way. The screen doesn’t fit correctly to my television, so there is a black frame around
anything displayed by the DSM-330. This may not be a problem on LCD or plasma televisions, but I’d say it’s pretty inexcusable on
a device this expensive.

The bottom line

Unfortunately, I can’t really recommend the DSM-330 for anyone. If you want something with minimal setup, you can try the Apple TV,
but overall I’d highly recommend the Mvix 780HD (the replacement for the 760HD) over the D-Link DSM-330 for your media streaming
needs. The DSM-330 is underpowered and too limited for its high price. It can be found online for about $250, but even that seems a
little pricey for something with a slow user interface, complete dependency on a server machine, and very limited file format

support.

Mobile Edge Women’s Express Laptop Backpack Review

I mentioned to Julie a few weeks ago that I’ve been looking for the perfect laptop backpack. Since I started my new job, I’ve been
using the Ice Red Drift messenger bag. Even though it’s
not a laptop bag, it worked pretty well, seeing as my Dell XPS M1330 came with a very nice sleeve. I also really liked this bag. Its
one major problem is that it’s a messenger bag. I sometimes have to make the mile and half trek home from work by foot (mostly when
I lose track of time and miss my last bus home), and a shoulder bag eventually starts to hurt my back and shoulder from the
unbalanced weight. I already have a couple laptop backpacks, but neither were exactly what I want.

I used the Targus Groove during much of my college years –
it’s got a large capacity, which is pretty handy when you’re carrying three classes’ worth of books and papers around all day.
But at over three pounds empty, it’s too big and too heavy to use on a daily basis for work. My discontinued Samsonite
laptop backpack was much smaller, but I didn’t like its shape very much, or the fact that the side pockets were made of mesh.

MobileEdge is a company that designs and manufactures laptop bags, many specifically geared toward women. I wasn’t too thrilled
with most of their choices, but the Express model seemed to be one to consider for my needs. We’ll see if it hits the mark.

For reference, here’s what I generally carry in my backpack every day:

I carry a number of little things, and I have things that I need quick access to, like my wallet, keys, and cell phone. I don’t
carry a purse to work, so I need my laptop bag to do double-duty as a business bag and a purse during the day.

The bag itself is pretty nice-looking. The women’s version of the Express has two fabric options – pink and brown polka dots or a
pink and black ribbon design. I do have a little criticism for this – I’m all about bags that look a little out of the ordinary,
and I’m disappointed that the only color options for this backpack are pink-centric. I would have liked to see a spectrum of color
options – maybe some green or blue designs. The design itself, however, is pretty decent.

The patterned design on the front of the bag is, unfortunately, normal cotton (or cotton-blend) fabric. I don’t think this is a
particularly good idea for a backpack. I carry my backpack on a dirty bus every day, and I sometimes have to expose it to rain or
snow. I want a bag that can be wiped off or cleaned up easily. A polyester or nylon blend fabric would have been a better choice,
especially considering that it covers most of the front of the bag. The grab handle at the top of the bag is pretty standard – it
has a thick rubber grip on it, and it feels quite sturdy.

The back of the bag is pretty nice. The straps are well-placed, which can be a problem for me, since I’m pretty small at 5’5″ and
around 105 lbs. These are spaced nicely, and fit to my body well. The padded area around the bottom half of the bag was a little
rough and stiff at first, but it softened up quickly and provides a nice cushion on my lower back (excellent when the bag is
bouncing around as I’m walking downhill). The left strap has a small mesh pocket. Seems useful, except that the opening is
very small (about 2″ wide), and I don’t have anything that actually fits in it. If I take my 8GB Zune out of its case, it fits, but
it’s very snug. I would have liked to see a pocket big enough to hold a cell phone. Another downside is that the mesh of this
pocket is a little rough – it’s scratchy on my upper arm when I’m only wearing a sleeveless shirt.

There is only one main interior compartment, with several pockets and a padded laptop section. The two pockets near the top are
big enough to hold my pillbox and the case I use to hold my thumb drives, and the mesh pocket has enough give to store small
items. The laptop sleeve is quite large (my XPS M1330 is on the small end of current laptop designs), so my notebook isn’t too
tight in it. I would have preferred to see the securing strap made of a wide elastic band instead of nylon, so that it could be
stretched to more securely hold whatever size laptop is in the sleeve. As it is, the velcro patch on the strap is just big enough
to secure my laptop, because it’s not very wide.

One thing I really like about this bag is how roomy it is. I’d like a stiff divider inside, so I can keep my documents separate
from the rest of the bag’s contents, but overall I like the interior a lot. There’s space above where the opening is, so additional
items can fit up in there. I have plenty of room for my laptop, random accessories, a jacket or sweater, an umbrella, and all my
document portfolios for my different projects. The weight stays evenly balanced across my back, making a full bag quite
comfortable to wear over somewhat long distances.

Opposite the main compartment, on the inside of the flap that zips open, are a series of pockets. The mesh pocket at the top is
roomy, but the flat angled pockets below it are too tight to be very useful for anything. They could hold documents or mail, but
that’s probably it. The pen loops are fine for your run-of-the-mill pens, but my Papermate
PhD Multi
pen is too thick. It’s definitely something to consider if you prefer larger writing utensils.

There’s a fairly roomy secondary pocket near the top of the bag. Surprisingly, it doesn’t make the zip-open flap too top-heavy.
It has plenty of room, along with a rubber-covered opening for a pair of earphones. I’ve found it handy for my rather large set
of keys and other small things I want to keep accessible.

The front of this pocket has a very large MobileEdge logo below the headphone port. This is slightly annoying, especially given
that they’ve plastered their logo all over this bag. It’s not like I’m trying to show off a designer brand (most of Chanel’s
flagship purse line has a giant Chanel logo on the side, so that everyone knows you can afford a Chanel bag) or anything!

The side pockets are pretty roomy, as well. The right pocket has an additional smaller outer pocket, with a mesh pocket inside
that. It’s big enough to hold my Zune and earphones, which keeps them from getting tangled up in anything else.

The larger side pocket is still big enough to hold my sunglasses case and my Nintendo DSLite. Like the main compartment, there is
space on both sides of the zipper, so the pocket is a little bigger than it looks. The rivets along the pink mesh are actual holes,
so you’ll want to make sure you don’t put anything in there that can’t be exposed to any moisture at all.

The side pocket on the left side of the bag is a little bigger – the area where where the smaller pocket would be is part of the
large pocket, so it adds some extra room. It’s big enough to hold my checkbook-size wallet and my cell phone.

I really like the side pockets. They’re very roomy, and the fabric is sturdy enough that they don’t bulge out a lot when they’re
stuffed with goodies. I’m not really a fan of the large MobileEdge logo on both pockets, though. One thing I really like about the
design is that they’re easy to reach while wearing the backpack straight on your back. I can reach around and get to my phone or
my DSLite without having to take the bag off.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with this bag. It’s comfortable and fits my small frame very well. It seems to be pretty high-quality
construction, and the padding on the back of the bag makes it easy to wear.

There are a few things I think could be better, but it has a lot of the features I look for in a good laptop bag. The one feature
of my Ice Red Drift bag that I miss is the tarpaulin bottom. It makes for a very durable, waterproof coating, which is excellent
when I have to put my bag on the dirty floor of the bus.

My only major complaint about this bag is the fabric used for the design panels on the front. I just don’t know that it’s going to
hold up to heavy, long-term use. Otherwise, I like the aesthetics of the bag. I hope MobileEdge will come out with some different
color and design options in the future, to add a little more variety to their women’s collection.

I can certainly recommend this bag, if you’re willing to pony up the $60 for one. I have yet to find a laptop bag that doesn’t come
with a high price tag, so I’d say that the Women’s Express is about in line with the competition on the market.

Mio DigiWalker C230 GPS Review

Last year, I found the Mio DigiWalker C220 on Black Friday for only $100. I really love it, so I was certainly
game to review its upgraded replacement, the C230. This is more or less Mio’s lowest-end GPS unit.

The Hardware

What’s in the box:

  • Drivers and user manual CD-ROM
  • Getting started guide
  • DC car power adapter
  • Suction-cup windshield mount
  • Adhesive mat for dashboard mounting
  • C230 GPS unit

The GPS itself is fairly compact. It snaps in and out of the mounting bracket very easily (it’s a much better design
than the C220, for sure).

The rear of the device has a power switch and a small hole to attach to the windshield mount. The power switch is handy
if you plan on leaving the GPS unused for an extended period of time – it shuts it down completely to save battery.
The downside is that you’ll have to recalibrate the touchscreen when you boot it back up.

The top of the unit just has a power button. The left side (when looking at the screen) has a small rubber flap that
covers a connector for an external antenna. I thus far have found no need for this, though – its reception seems just
fine with its own antenna.

The bottom houses the mini-USB connector for charging and data transfer, as well as an auxiliary SD slot for adding
storage as needed. The C230 has 1GB internal storage, however, which is enough to hold a number of maps.

Overall, the hardware is really very nice. The touch screen is quite responsive and doesn’t smudge too easily. The unit
feels sturdy. The battery lasts around four hours, and takes awhile to charge if it’s powered up and running while
charging. However, I imagine the battery life is similar for any GPS – having to maintain a constant satellite connection
uses a lot of power, no matter what you do. I really like that it charges via USB (most brands of GPSes I’ve seen do), since
it means that it can be hooked up to a computer without any special cables.

The Software

The C230 comes with a range of POIs (points-of-interest) for each US state map. Unfortunately, the C230’s POI
database is extremely limited. I was fortunate enough to find an updated set of maps with far more POIs. You’ll have
to search around for them, but it’s technically legitimate, as the maps are digitally signed to work with the C230’s
version of the MioMap GPS software.

That being said, the interface for looking up POIs and addresses is very intuitive. I really like that it grays out letters
when typing in street names, to guide you in spelling the street correctly.

The MioMap software has a main screen that allows setting configuration options, favorite locations, and the two views –
Cockpit and Map. The Map view is required to add new addresses to the custom POI database (more on that in a minute), but
the Cockpit view is more useful when actually using the GPS to follow directions.

The cockpit view, seen below, provides a small console to the left of the screen. This shows the distance to the next
instruction (turn, exit, etc.), are the three boxes can be configured to display different data. I’ve configured mine
to display my speed, the time to my destination, and the distance to my destination.

In addition, the Cockpit and Map views both have three viewpoints – the standard map that turns as you turn, an
always-North view that only turns the little green arrow (your car) along the map, and a flyover view that shows the entire
calculated route. Routes can be configured with different options – economical, fastest and shortest distance.

One of the C230’s big upgrades over the C220 is its text-to-speech functionality. When using the woman’s US English voice,
the GPS can speak street names. Some people prefer this, but I find it to be grating. I don’t really like the robotic sound
of the woman’s voice as she attempts to pronounce street names, so I ended up changing the voice back to the US English
male voice that was used on my C220. However, if you prefer or need text-to-speech, the C230 will accomodate this need
adequately.

I’ve used other GPSes from Sanyo and Garmin. Thus far, I personally much prefer Mio’s MioMap software to the competitors.
It’s very intuitive. It has nice features like auto night mode, which switches the map to a black background (much easier
on the eyes in the dark!). It doesn’t require an annual subscription like Garmin, although you’ll have to find and
download the maps yourself to update it. Personally, I prefer this to paying every year for map updates.

Overall, I love my C230. It’s a fairly small upgrade from my C220. The software is identical on both, and I already
loved my C220 before I started using the C230. If you’re looking for an inexpensive, basic GPS (who needs a GPS to play
videos and MP3s, anyhow?) unit that’s easy to use, I can definitely recommend the C230. It’s exceeded all my exepectations
for a low-end unit.

Brando IP Security Camera Review

I’m a big fan of webcams. Once I figured out how to broadcast a webcam stream on a webpage,
I started broadcasting from work so that my mom and friends could see me. One idea I had related to this was setting up a little home
surveillance system with my two Logitech QuickCams and my eeePC 701’s integrated webcam. I’m mostly just curious to see what my cats do
all day while I’m at work. While setting up such a stream is pretty easy, it requires running a computer 24/7 and can be a little power and
bandwidth hungry.

For those really interested in setting up home surveillance, a networked video camera system can be a better solution. The Security Network
Control IP Camera from Brando is one such device.

Unlike a regular webcam, Brando’s camera is designed to be connected directly to a network. It has a fast Ethernet (10/100) NIC built in,
and it supports DHCP and static IP addresses. The general premise of this camera is to hook it up to your home network, and access it by
IP and port (or via a service like dyndns.com) through your browser. You can remotely control the camera’s position through the browser
interface. It seems like a pretty good idea. The question is, does it cut the mustard for being a $130 camera? Let’s find out…

What’s in the box

  • VGA (640×480)b IP Security Camera
  • Power adapter
  • Plug adapter for U.S. outlets
  • 3′ ethernet cable
  • 3′ crossover ethernet cable
  • A/V cable (3.5mm minijack to RCA)
  • User’s guide
  • Drivers CD

The hardware

The camera itself is surprisingly large. The base holds an SD card reader, an on/off switch, an ethernet port, and a 3.5mm A/V port. This is
part of this camera’s feature set. The web browser interface allows setting the camera to use two motion detectors to take still snapshots
whenever motion is detected. These snapshots can be uploaded via three methods – to the FTP server of your choice, to a temporary folder on
your local machine, or to an SD card.

The front of the camera holds – shocker – the lens itself, along with two motion sensors (indicated by dim LEDs that glow when the camera is
on) and a microphone.

I like the SD card idea – rather than relying on a network connection (which might fail while you’re gone),
you can be sure to capture any detected motion directly to the card. The user’s guide recommends at least a 2GB card, considering that you
might end up with many pictures (particularly if you leave the motion detector enabled while you’re at home, or if you have pets).

The A/V output allows you to connect the camera to a television for a sort of closed-circuit security system. I don’t have a TV in my office
(which is where I’ve put the camera), so this feature isn’t particularly useful to me. However, it could be pretty handy if you want to
put the camera in the baby’s room and have a reliable connection to it that doesn’t rely on a network.

The main method of connectivity is, of course, the ethernet port. This allows you to connect the camera directly to your home network.
The web interface allows you to configure what port to use, so that you can access the camera remotely. The user manual is sparse and doesn’t
actually explain why the crossover cable is included. I can only assume that it’s to setup a crossover connection directly with a computer,
which would allow you to use the camera without the need of a television or a home network.

The camera’s image quality is far from good. However, being a security camera, I don’t know that high resolution is absolutely necessary,
but this camera is quite poor. The image sensor is VGA (640×480 or 0.3MP), but it’s much lower quality than a regular VGA webcam, as you
can see from this sample image:

The Software

This camera is entirely controlled through a built in web interface that only works with Microsoft Internet Explorer. I’m not a big fan
of the software. Instead of using Java or Flash to display the video image in the browser window, the interface relies on a cabinet file
that is a bit difficult to install – I ended up having to turn off all the security in IE just to get it to install the file.

The web interface allows you to move the camera around remotely, take still shots with it, enable the motion sensors, and manage the
camera’s image and configuration settings. It has built-in support for dyndns addresses, so you can set it to a text address rather than
relying on the IP for remote access.

The web interface is good in theory, but very bad in implementation. It’s slow, unstable, and requiring a CAB file (with no digital
certificate, mind you) to use the camera seems pretty unnecessary. Not only that, but I’ve since discovered that IE 7 in Windows Vista
SP1 crashes whenever I try to use the web interface.

Conclusion

All in all, this camera is a good idea. It’s pretty easy to setup, although the instructions were no help (Chinese-to-English never works
very well, it seems). The web interface is pretty crucial to using the camera, and it’s just a total flop in my book. For that reason,
I’d personally recommend looking at other products for your home surveillance needs.

IPEVO PoV Webcam Review

I’m a bit of a webcam aficionado. I have several – my Dell XPS M1330 and eeePC 701 have integrated webcams, plus I have an older
VGA Logitech QuickCam and a new 2MP QuickCam Orbit AF. Video chatting can be a lot of fun when your friends live out-of-state – or on the
other side of the globe. Julie sent over a couple webcams for me to review – the
IPEVO PoV and a networked security camera from Brando.

The PoV is a different take on video chatting – rather than a camera that sits on your desk, it’s designed to be picked up and
pointed at things (hence the PoV, or point-of-view, brand name). It has a manual focus ring and a shutter button on the camera
itself, so you can take photographs to send to your friends. It’s definitely not your typical webcam.

IPEVO is big on the Skype market. They have created a number of products specifically designed to work well with Skype, including
USB phones and other webcams. I’ve done a lot of video chatting and personally perfer to use Windows Live Messenger. I find Skype
uses far too much memory and processing power. At any rate, we’ll see if this camera is a worthy competitor to my Logitech Orbit AF.

Right off, IPEVO’s packaging is very slick. Included are some cards with line drawings illustrating suggested uses, along with a
drivers and software CD-ROM and the camera itself. The camera is nestled securely in thick foam blocks.

In the box is everything you need to get going:

  • VGA (640×480) web camera with attached USB cable
  • Clip to attach camera to laptop or desktop display
  • Desktop stand to position camera on a flat surface
  • Drivers/software CD-ROM
  • Instruction manual
  • Suggestion cards

The camera itself is extremely easy to use. The included software worked perfectly in Windows XP SP2 and Vista SP1. I used it
with both Skype and Windows Live Messenger without any problems.

From the side, you can see that the camera is well-shaped to accomodate even large, adult hands. You can hold like a pen or a
remote control to point it at various objects.

The top of the camera has a large shutter button for taking still images, a “send-out” button (more on that in a moment), and a
convenient on/off switch. The front has a green power indicator LED and a red recording indicator LED.

Because you might want to use this as a regular webcam once in awhile, IPEVO includes two different mounting options – a tabletop
stand and a spring-loaded clip to attach the camera to a display. The stand actually attaches to this clip, as shown below.

The monitor clip is pretty cool. It’s designed to be mounted on a regular CRT or LCD desktop display, or a thin laptop display. It
has a spring-loaded piece that can be pulled out to accomodate different display sizes. It attached securely to both my
desktop’s LCD and my eeePC’s display:

This camera does not have autofocus, so you must use the thumb ring around the lens to adjust the focus manually. The ring moves
smoothly without being too loose, and it has a wide focus range – you can zoom in on objects as close as 4cm (about 1.5″). Even at
its low VGA resolution, close-ups are pretty sharp, as you can see here:


Click thumbnail for fullsize image

Image quality from some distance isn’t spectacular, but it’s pretty on par for any VGA camera. The default settings are a little on
the blue side, but the software provides image adjustment options to correct this as necessary. I wouldn’t use this camera in lieu of a
regular camera for face shots, but it’s pretty good for quick macros of text and small objects. Here’s a sample regular image in
medium lighting:


Click thumbnail for fullsize image

As you can see, my cat is thrilled to be an Internet celebrity. Hah!

The software is really designed to work in tandem with Skype. The “send-out” button I mentioned earlier will, when running the included
software and logged into Skype, immediately take and send a picture to the selected Skype contact. Given that I know a grand total of one
person who ever uses Skype, this feature is pretty useless to me. Without Skype, it functions as a normal webcam. The software is still
usable for tweaking the camera’s image quality, as well as taking still images with the shutter button (or the software shutter button,
if you prefer).

Overall, this is a pretty decent webcam for the price, given its added point-and-shoot and macro features. If you’re a heavy Skype user,
it might be just the thing for you. I like that it’s compact and very portable, and the display mounting clip is really ingenious. It works
just fine as a standard webcam, and the ability to use it as a point-and-shoot camera might come in handy.

ASUS Eee PC 4G (701) Review

Last year, Asus rocked the UMPC world with their announcement of a small, ultra-portable laptop – for only $200. Several
revisions, image leaks, speculative reports, and price increases later, the eeePC line was officially released – with
$200 added to price tag and 512MB RAM pulled from the default specs. I’ve had the flagship 701 model with 4GB of
solid-state disk space and a 0.3MP (300,000 pixel) webcam. Other model options include the 2G ($300) and 4G ($350)
Surfs with 2GB and 4GB SSD and no webcam, as well as the 8GB SSD/1GB RAM 8G at $500.

Since the initial eeePC release, Asus has upped the specs and released the 900 and 901 models. Additionally, Everex, Dell, HP, and MSI have announced and/or released hardware competitors to the eeePC. The eeePC appears to have introduced a previously-ignored hardware niche: cheap, portable laptops. Historically, the cheaper the laptop, the heavier the hardware. My Dell XPS M1330 weighs less than four pounds, with an $1800 price tag – an Inspiron 1420 with relatively similar specs weighs upwards of six, but costs about $700 less. The eeePC weighs less than 1kg (about two pounds), costs $400, and has quite low specs for a machine manufactured in 2007.

My stock eeePC 701 came with the following:

  • 900MHz Intel ULV processor (underclocked to 600MHz)
  • 4GB solid-state disk (SSD)
  • 512MB DDR RAM (single DIMM slot)
  • 7″ 800×480 WVGA LCD
  • 802.11b/g wireless card
  • Three USB 2.0 ports
  • SDHC slot
  • 0.3MP integrated webcam
  • Integrated 10/100 NIC
  • VGA out

Accessories included a polyester/nylon sleeve, a compact power adapter, and a reinstallation CD.

The Hardware

You know, I’ve been using this thing fairly regularly for the last month and a half, and I can’t really say that I’d
recommend this model to anyone. Given that 9″ models are coming out with 1024×600 displays, the paltry 800×480 WVGA
on the eee looks even more cramped than usual. You will barely be able to browse on this thing, let alone do any
basic computing tasks, like word processing, chatting, and email.

The keyboard is small. I mean, it’s *really* small. I have very tiny hands – adult gloves don’t fit me – and this thing
is cramped to me. I make a lot of typos. The more I use it, the more I can adapt to it, but it’s definitely not
something I could use regularly. Not only that, but as an aside, the right shift key is to the right of the up arrow
on the inverted-T directional keypad. This is backward from any standard desktop or laptop keyboard, and I frequently
find myself hitting Up instead of Shift when I’m typing. The punctuation keys along the right side of the keyboard
are smaller than the other keys (which are already quite small), and I’ve just about quit using periods and
apostrophes when I chat.

Here’s a comparison between the eeePC 701, the Dell XPS M1330, and an old 12″ Apple iBook G3:

The 900MHz processor has been underclocked to 600MHz, and there’s no apparent way to clock it up in the BIOS. 512MB
RAM is enough to run the preinstalled custom Xandros installation, but I would have been happier had Asus gone with
the 1GB announced for the original model.

The 4GB SSD is enough for the OS and some applications (Xandros takes a gig, and the restore partition takes
another gig), but the SDHC slot is a blessing when you quickly need to add more space.

My eeePC is one of the later revisions of the 701 – early models had the Mini-PCIe riser, allowing the addition
of bluetooth or extra storage. There was also a standard modem connector on the underside of the board. Both of these
have been removed in later revisions – the Mini-PCIe slot is present in the 8G model, as the 8GB of storage is
comprised of 4GB soldered onto the motherboard and a 4GB Mini-PCIe card.

Battery life is, in a word, appalling. For having a tiny, low-powered screen, an underclocked processor, and no
moving parts, this thing only gets around two and half hours on the battery with the wireless on and screen
brightness turned down. I believe that part of this is due to how Linux handles power management compared to
Windows. Additionally, faulty BIOS code can cause power management issues at the basic hardware level. One can
only hope that Asus releases a BIOS update to improve battery life, at least a bit.

For all these bad points, there are some good points. The integrated webcam is good if you like video chatting with
friends (although there is extremely limited support in Xandros – apparently only the latest Linux beta of Skype will
work at this point). The VGA output on the right side of the machine could be extremely handy if going to a meeting
where you’ll need to hook up to a projector. More than anything, of course, is the size. This thing is tiny.
I’ve taken it with me to work (before I got my XPS M1330), and I never cease to be amazed at how minute the eeePC
is for only $400.

The included sleeve is actually fairly nice – it’s stretchy with a velcro closure. The eeePC is obviously far too small
to require a normal laptop bag, so the sleeve protects it and allows you to toss it into anything. The included
power adapter is compact, and has a nice velcro strip attached to it to keep the cord wrapped up. The prongs of the
adapter fold into the side, so it’s well protected from any kind of damage.

The build of the machine itself is surprisingly sturdy. The hinge is strong, and there’s no latch to keep the LCD closed –
it uses a spring mechanism, which I’ve noticed has become more popular lately in notebook computer design. The screen is
usably bright, although it’s definitely not as nice as the LED-backlit display on my M1330. There is virtually no flex
in the plastic of the lid, which is very nice. The battery latches in securely, and SD cards don’t stick out at all when
inserted. The keyboard feels a little cheap, particularly due to the fact that it flexes up a bit on the left side of
the spacebar. The trackpad feels good and is very responsive – I suspect it’s from Synaptics. The single mouse button,
which rocks in either direction for left or right click, feels all right, although the chrome finish is too fingerprinty
for my preference. The SSD is certainly fast, but there is that caveat about limited read/write cycles on flash storage.
At some point, the eeePC will just quit working because of this – if you install Windows, make sure to disable virtual
memory, as this will eventally significantly reduce the lifespan of the internal storage.

Overall, I tend to give the hardware about a 5/10. It’s not unbearably bad, but it’s not good enough to make this a
primary machine. I mostly use mine for playing around, or when I don’t want to pull out my XPS M1330 or my old
clamshell iBook.

The Software

The eeePC comes preloaded with a custom build of Xandros Linux. It’s very simple, with large single-click icons and a
tabbed menu interface. It’s backed by a full installation of KDE, which can be enabled through system hacks. However,
I’ve found that the eeePC default interface works pretty well for what the eeePC can really be used for. The stock
interface is a modified copy of IceWM, which can be customized to add a few features, like a Start button.

Startup is extremely fast. It takes a few seconds from hitting the power button to seeing the main OS interface. When
you power the eeePC on for the first time, your user account defaults to logging in automatically, which helps speed
up login time.

One interesting thing of note is the recovery partition on the eeePC. Most home computers have this, but restoring
several gigs of software and Windows is pretty slow. The eee’s OS image is only a gig total (including software), so
restoring the image takes only a few seconds. While you do lose a quarter of the internal storage to the recovery
partition, I’d highly recommend keeping it around – the only other way to restore your eeePC is with the included DVD,
which requires a Windows machine to use. If you start playing with the system configuration to increase performance or
make the most of the UI on such a small screen, you’re likely to eventually break something – I know I did! It’s
very, very handy to be able to reboot, hit F9, select restore, and be back to a working machine. With the SDHC slot,
you can invest $30 in a 2GB or 4GB SD card, and keep your files and settings on that – then, restoring will barely be
painful.

Now. Onto the interface. The main menu screens can be manually customized, to add your own wallpaper and icons. Additionally,
it’s possible to customize the IceWM interface to remove some of the less important buttons from the taskbar.

This is what the stock interface looks like:

This is what it looked like after I tweaked IceWM, added an icon for DOSBox, and made some custom wallpaper:

I might be a tiny bit of a Harry Potter fan. Ahem. Moving on.

Most applications are preconfigured to sort of optimize the UI to the small display, but even regular toolbars take up
a large amount of screen real estate. Menus scroll off the screen in many cases, which can make navigation difficult.
For instance, the default configuration for OpenOffice.org Calc is rather unusable:

Removing the toolbars and relying on keyboard shortcuts and menus helps, but it’s still not an optimal situation. You’ll
also notice that the eeePC comes default with a Windows XP Luna-esque theme. This is a little annoying – not only is
Clearlook for Gnome far more asthetically pleasing, but there are plenty of Linux GUI themes out there that use less
vertical pixels for the main application title bars.

Fortunately, some of the applications use GTK+ to render interface elements. You can create a custom .gtk-rc file to
use 8pt fonts in application menus and interfaces, which significantly improves the screen situation. Take, for instance,
the difference between the stock GTK+ settings and custom settings when using Pidgin:


Firefox can be customized similarly, using the chrome UI settings within the application.

The stock configuration:

A customized configuration with a smaller text size, theme, and toolbar placement:

Other fairly useful pieces, like the file explorer and network connection utilities, are fairly easy to use. The
file manager looks a lot like Windows Explorer, with a tree view to the left and the ability to view files as icons,
thumbnails, or in a detailed view.

Wireless and other network setup is fairly easy. One major caveat, however – the eeePC does not natively have support
for newer networking standards, like L2TP IPSec VPN and WPA2 wireless encryption, which is a problem for me, since my
employer (Purdue University) has minimal support for PPTP VPN.

There’s a simple wireless configuration window, like most laptops have these days – you can hit Fn+F2 and quickly see
a list of available networks (including networks with no broadcast SSID, if you’ve already setup profiles for them) and
connect to them.

There’s also a more advanced networking configuration utility, which lets you manage the wireless, internal NIC, and
any VPN connections you might want.

Shutting down, rebooting, and putting the machine to sleep is very easy – hitting the power button brings up a
simple, large window with several buttons:

The eeePC also comes preinstalled with a number of apps, including OpenOffice.org, some games, and some various
control panels for managing mouse options, power management, etc. In addition, you can download more apps from
Asus’ eeePC-specific repositories. If you want to grab anything else, you’ll have edit your config files to include
unsupported repositories.

Overall, I give the UI a 7/10. It’s definitely well-thought-out to accommodate the tiny screen, but certain things
are a little rough around the edges – I’d rather see GTK preconfigured with a smaller font. In general, though, the UI
has a very low learning curve and is quite easy to use.

Real-world Applications

I’ve found the eeePC useful for several things. When I moved 70 miles to a new town in April, I was able to keep
connected to my friends and email without needing to leave my desktop unpacked. I also find my eeePC quite useful in
the mornings. These days, it lives in my kitchen on my breakfast bar, and I use it in the morning to check weather,
email, and where the bus is on its morning route.

Theoretically, the eeePC could make a pretty stellar DOSBox rig – the low-resolution screen is better in this case,
because most DOS games are only CGA (320×200) or VGA (800×600). Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a good DOSBox config
that doesn’t cause the sound to skip, pop, and eventually get stuck on the same tone.

The interface is quite well-thought-out. Everything you need to get started is already installed. However, it’s
definitely still Linux. For instance, I was getting no sound in Pidgin, because it was set to use a GTK+ call to the
audio hardware that IceWM and KDE don’t support – a quick Google search found the solution, but not everyone would be
able to get even that far.

When you insert an SD card, the UI pops up a Windows-like screen that lets you import pictures or music, or open up
the file manager to the card. Removing the card is similar to Windows – you right-click the icon and select “Safely
Remove”, which unmounts it in Linux.

The default terminal is extremely limited xterm. However, a configuration change will allow you to bring up KDE’s
Konsole app instead, which is much more familiar to Linux users.

I’ll give the overall usability of the eeePC another 7/10. It’s got some room for improvement, but for what it is,
it’s quite good. It’s certainly the most dumbed-down Linux distro I’ve ever used – Ubuntu seems overly advanced compared
to this. I could see use as a quickie webserver with LAMPP. It’d make a nice little box to show Grandma your digital
pictures, since the screen is certainly bigger than the little 2″ one found on most digital cameras. It would
definitely make a good little machine to take on vacation or long car trips for the kids to use. You’ll need to get a
DC-to-AC converter, since the battery won’t last too long, but the portability and simplicity make it very kid-friendly.

Final Conclusion

The eeePC is an excellent effort. It’s the first of its kind on the market, and I think it’ll always be a little special
as a result. I’m quite interested in the MSI Wind at this point – the screen on the eeePC makes it almost unusable, and
there are too many quirks about the keyboard for a fast typer like myself to adjust easily. The Wind has a better keyboard
layout, a 9″ 1024×600 display, and a pretty attractive price tag – and pretty colors. It’s tempting, to say the least.

Most importantly, the eeePC has opened up an entire new market of compact, low-end, and extremely affordable laptop
computers. HP’s already released theirs (and sent it to Julie to review!), and Dell’s announced theirs (which I am
also extremely interested in – I have been very happy with my XPS M1330). Asus themselves have released better models
since the initial eeePC launch. I do think, though, that I’ll be installing Windows on mine. I need support for things
like L2TP VPN and good video chat, and I have too many Windows apps I really depend on to be productive.

As an aside, if you do plan on installing Windows XP on your eeePC, there’s one thing I found out the hard way – you must delete the four partitions on the eeePC completely in order to install on the internal memory. There are plenty of tutorials on installing to an SDHC card, so you could do that as well – just remember to disable the paging file (virtual memory), as the constant read/write cycles will significantly decrease the life of the internal SSD or an SDHC card.

Arriva Shuffle Headphones Review

A few months ago or so, Arriva created a new listening device for Apple’s second and third generation iPod shuffle – the “clip”
model. Rather than dealing with a cord that can get tangled up while you’re working out or cleaning house, Arriva’s given us a
pair of wraparound-style headphones that attach directly to the shuffle.

Arriva sent me two pairs of the “regular” style, in both iPod white and basic black.

The idea behind this is that you just clip your shuffle on, wrap the earphones around your ears, and go. If only it were that easy…

Perhaps it’s just the model I received from Arriva, but my shuffle does not attach very well to either pair of earphones. The clip
is stuck in a partially open position, which I highly doubt is very good for the kind of spring clip that the shuffle has.

I’m pretty small, so the circumference of my head isn’t overly large, but I’m not exactly a pinhead, either. Either way, Arriva’s
white earphones are noticeably uncomfortable. You can bend the wires a bit to conform to the shape of your head, but this has thus
far been unsuccessful for me. The black pair is much more comfortable for me.

A friend of mine was nice enough to model both pairs for me. The white pair seemed to fit him much better, so it could just be a
personal preference sort of thing.

These earphones actually don’t look to silly when you’re wearing them, either. They’re almost invisible from the front, and the shuffle
hides behind my ponytail nicely. For the women in the audience here, don’t bother trying to put these on before putting your hair up –
it’s nearly impossible to get the earphones situated with your hair in the way. If you’re a guy, others might notice them a little more,
but it’s nothing completely weird-looking or anything.

I think the real problem with the white pair is that they try to emulate the original iPod earphones…that shape, however. is not
meant to be worn upside-down, so they don’t fit quite right.

The black pair is a standard in-ear style with soft rubber ear cups. This was much more comfortable for me.

Of course, the other important part about choosing your earphones is the audio quality. The Arrivas are nothing special, to be sure.
I’m definitely not an audio snob – these sounded about the same as the stock earbuds that came with my Zune. The black pair with its
rubber ear cups has a more muffled sound, because of how the phones fit in your ear canals. The white pair don’t sit as snugly in my
ears, and the sound is a little different as a result.

I’ve used the black pair to listen to music while cleaning my apartment. They’re comfortable, lightweight, and don’t move around
at all. It’s definitely a better alternative to getting my headphones cord caught on stuff while I’m doing the dishes or
vacuuming. The white pair doesn’t fit as well, and I wouldn’t want to wear them while working out or doing anything that involved a
lot of jostling about – they’re just too loose.

At just under $40 MSRP, I wouldn’t recommend these if you just want a new toy for your shuffle. They’re good if you run, bike,
or otherwise engage in some sort of physical activity where you’d want some tunes to keep you company. The quality doesn’t really seem
to fit the price, though. The white pair was too uncomfortable, and the fact that the shuffle’s clip wasn’t fully closed on either
pair bothered me. Once my shuffle’s clip gets worn out, that’s really going to impact the usability of it, so I’m hesitant to use
these earphones too much. There’s nothing else like this on the market, so if you’re active and want something for your shuffle other
than a standard pair of earphones, this is more or less your only choice. I can’t say I’d really recommend these, but it just
depends on your listening needs.

PDair Leather Case for Zune 4GB and 8GB Review

Since getting my Zune 8GB, it has become a full-time replacement for my old 40GB iPod Photo. As such, I was in need of a case for it.
I have a fairly nice pink leather InCase for my iPod, and I wanted something similar for my Zune. However, seeing as my Zune is such a
pretty red color, I didn’t want to completely cover it with something. The search began.

Not surprisingly, there are very few Zune accessories on the market, especially relative to the kind of designer swag you can find
for the iPod line these days. No highfalutin $200 leather cases for me! After searching around for awhile, the situation was starting to
look a little bleak – my personal favorites, Griffin and InCase, had next to nothing available for my poor, underappreciated Zune. Julie
snagged me a case from PDair.com, and seems to be serving my needs nicely.

One of the things I love about my Zune is the size. It’s almost identical in dimensions to the first and second generation iPod Nanos, so
it fits pretty much anywhere – I usually end up slipping it into my back pocket when I’m waiting to take the bus to and from work. One of my
top requirements for a case is that it has to be as unobtrusive as possible. I didn’t want any bulk from belt clips, flip-top covers, or
anything else. I just wanted to keep my Zune from getting too scuffed up from everyday wear and tear.

PDair’s leather case fits my needs perfectly. The case itself is pretty basic – black leather with white contrast stitching on all sides. A
small flap at the bottom snaps closed to hold the Zune in place. The snap isn’t too stiff or loose, and the leather flap is flexible and
easy to move. The inside of the case is lined with soft suede, and the back is reinforced to provide a stiff backing for the Zune. The
entire case is fairly rigid – unlike my InCase, which is flexible and has elastic on the sides. The screen is protected with a flexible
piece of clear vinyl. This particular case comes with a removable 360° belt clip.

The belt clip adds considerable bulk to the case, and gravity makes the Zune swivel until it’s upside-down on your belt. I never use the
clip – in fact, I had to find it just to photograph it for this review. The clip is pretty mid-grade quality, and I would have liked to
see a ratcheting type of swivel mechanism. My cell phone’s Verizon-branded case has such a clip, and it’s much more useful than a
free-spinning 360° type of belt clip.

As you can see from the shots below, this case really adds almost no bulk to the Zune. My ex’s leather Belkin case for his Sansa e200
adds considerable bulk on all sides to the device – I’m glad that isn’t the case with PDair’s product.

The only annoyance with this case is the flap that keeps the Zune securely inside – the flap has to be opened to attach a Zune cable.
It’s a small issue, though, and it certainly isn’t a deal-breaker for me. The case is fairly tight around the Zune, but the player is
still easy to remove by just pushing on the top of the Zune. I’ve been using this case for several months now, and I carry my Zune with
me everywhere. It’s held up nicely. A few bits of the stitching have frayed a little, but the leather has stayed in good condition, and
the case itself is still structurally sound. Judging from the few other Zune cases I’ve seen online for the 4 and 8 GB models, the PDair
case is likely the best of the bunch, at least for now.

Epson Stylus Photo RX595 Printer

I’ve never quite seen the purpose behind owning a photo printer. These days, you can print 4×6 copies of your digital pictures for around twelve cents a picture, by way of online services like Snapfish and Wal-Mart Online. However, for some people, the immediate satisfaction of printing photos at home is entirely worth the added expense of ink cartridges and high-quality photo printer paper. One of Epson’s latest all-in-one photo printer offerings, the RX595, should satisfy even the most particular of these print-at-home types.

This printer is advanced and full-featured, so I’ve split this review into sections covering each of the RX595’s major functions. Below is a table of contents, so you can jump to whatever interests you most about this model.

What’s in the box

Epson RX595

Epson sent us a retail box containing the RX595 and all its accoutrements, as well as an extra set of high-capacity ink cartridges (a whopping $90 value) and some various Epson-branded photo and document paper types for sampling. They also sent…printable CD-Rs. One of the coolest things about this printer is its ability to print directly on compatible CDs and DVDs. More on that in a bit.

The retail package itself contains:

  • The printer itself
  • Standard power cable (the kind that comes with a TiVo, VCR, DVD player, etc.)
  • CD/DVD print tray
  • Six standard-capacity ink cartridges (black, magenta, light magenta, cyan, light cyan, and yellow)
  • Printed materials (user manual, warnings, warranty card, etc.)
  • Drivers CD-ROM
  • Sample print materials – 8.5×11″ glossy photo paper and one Memorex printable CD-R
  • Coupons for rebates on Epson printer papers and optical discs

There are a few things worth noting here about the box contents. First off, Epson actually included a drivers CD! This is rare these days – peripheral manufacturers tend to just require users to download updated drivers off the Internet. It’s nice to be immediately ready to go, right out of the box, with no Internet connection necessary. This printer, like every other printer on the market today, does not include a USB cable. This drives me crazy. It costs pennies to manufacture a standard A-B USB cable. Why in the world has it become the de facto standard to not include basic connectivity in the box? I mean, at least a DVD player comes with cheap a cheap composite A/V cable. Would it have killed Epson to include a USB cable in the box? Not only that, but USB cables at retail stores are unbelievably expensive – a coworker was lamenting to me the other day about discovering that Circuit City’s USB cables started at thirty dollars for a 3′ cable.

I also mentioned that this printer comes with some coupons. This seems great at first – lots of $4.00 rebates on Epson photo paper, document paper, and printable CD-Rs and DVD-Rs. Reading the fine print, however, reveals that the user is entitled to use one coupon. Submitting a coupon requires the original box UPC, a copy of the purchase receipt, and the coupon form. This is unfortunate – I’d be far more apt to buy expensive Epson paper for my new Epson printer if I could use all the coupons, rather than being forced to choose one.

The inclusion of some photo paper and the CD-R is nice – this way, I can at least try printing some photos before heading out to buy more paper.

The tech specs

Without even opening the box, the specs show that this thing really packs a punch. It’s an all-in-one inkjet system, which means that on top of printing photos, it can also scan and copy documents, as well as print and copy photos directly from memory cards (with MMC/SD, MemoryStick, xD, and CompactFlash support) and PictBridge-compatible digital cameras.

The physical printer isn’t as big as I expected it to be. It’s definitely bigger than your run-of-the-mill inkjet printer,
but it’s not overbearing in its size. The buttons are well laid out and require no manual to get the gist of the interface. Everything closes up nice and tidy when the printer isn’t in use – the paper entry point has a lid that flips shut, and the space under the scanner bed where your photos and documents appear closes up as well. The scanner lid is highly-polished piano black. While this looks nice and all, it’s a magnet for three things – fingerprints, dust, and scratches. The bookshelf on which the RX595 now resides is directly beneath a window in my apartment, so my cat uses the printer as a launchpad to get up into that window. I’ve already found a few hairline scratches on the lid of the scanner bed, and now keep a dish towel over the thing when I’m not using it. The cat doesn’t seem to mind. She’s now claimed the RX595 as her resting place while watching me work on my home computer.

Epson RX595

The printer feature itself is quite high-tech. It uses a “high-definition” ink cartridge system with six cartridges. Rather than stop with your typical black, cyan, magenta, and yellow inks, the RX595 adds light magenta and light cyan into the mix. I don’t know enough about printing and imaging to know why exactly this is so great, so I’ll just have to take Epson’s word for it. It does, however, mean that ink is expensive. A pack of standard-capacity cartridges will set you back $65, while a pack of the high-capacity cartridges brings that price up to $90. I’ve already found generic cartridges online for a fraction of this price, which is good news for those of you who print photos frequently.

The scanner is pretty standard – it’s capable of up to 1200dpi native, and 9600dpi interpolated. I don’t really pay attention to anything that involves interpolation with images – this means that the hardware or software tries to intelligently upscale an image, and it never looks as good as the original. Although my old Visioneer OneTouch 8900 is capable of 2400×4800 scans, I generally scan stuff in at around 300dpi, which the RX595 does quite easily.

Along with scanning images directly to your computer (into photo editing software, for example), the RX595 also has a photocopying feature. This allows you to print up to 100 copies of a scanned document without a computer. This could be handy for someone needing to quickly make a hardcopy duplicate of something, without having to deal with scanning in an image and saving it to PDF or an image format. You can also copy images directly onto printable CDs and DVDs.

The RX595 also has some basic onboard photo editing features, including cropping, color correction, and red-eye reduction. This is great if you just want to toss in a memory card and print off a photo with minimal fuss.

Getting setup

Getting the printer up and running is a fairly painless task – install the software, connect a USB cable between the printer and your computer, turn the printer on, and let Windows do its automatic hardware detection and installation dog and pony show. The “turn the printer on” part has a tiny caveat – this thing takes a few minutes to power on. It has to turn on and charge the ink before it’s ready to print, which is kind of annoying. I tend to turn off all my computer stuff when I’m not using it, in order to conserve electricity. My HP LaserJet 2100tn is considerably faster from hitting the power button to being ready to print, so the delay is taking some getting used to.

The printer’s physical layout is actually pretty handy – the power cable actually connects inside a cavity at the rear of the printer, so it doesn’t stick out at all from the back of the printer. The USB cable plugs in underneath the scanner bed – again, this prevents any wasted space behind the printer due to cables sticking out.

Epson RX595

Epson RX595

Installing the printer cartridges is also relatively painless. You have to go through the menus on the RX595’s 2″ LCD, and tell it that you want to change the cartridges.

Epson RX595

It takes a few seconds for the cartridge bay to slide out, ready to be opened up for installation. It’s difficult to mess up the cartridge installation – the bays are color-coded, and you can feel and hear each cartridge snap securely into its bay.

Epson RX595

Once you’ve installed the replacement cartridges, the printer has to charge the new cartriges, which takes a few moments. The RX595’s display keeps you posted on what’s going on, so you know when it’s ready for printing again.

Epson RX595

Personally, I’m rather partial to the display on this printer. The RX595 is complex enough that it’s really helpful to know what it’s doing, and switching modes to copy or scan is a lot easier with a display, rather than just pressing buttons and hoping for the best.

Printing

Your main reason for buying something like this is probably for printing photos. The RX595 performs beautifully in this area. I’ve had experience with my ex’s Epson photo printer and, while the quality was quite good, it was s-l-o-w. Printing high-resolution digital pictures as 4×6 standard quality borderless prints is unbelievably fast – in a matter of seconds, you have in your hands a great-looking picture, ready for framing or sharing. The prints themselves look beautiful and dry instantly – no smudging here! I can definitely attest that Epson’s photo papers are worth the premium price. I’ve used photo papers from other manufacturers, including Staples and Kodak, and Epson’s premium glossy photo paper trumps everything else I’ve tried. Borderless prints are truly borderless and look completely professional.

So far, I’ve done my photo printing from Google’s digital picture application, Picasa. I’m a huge fan of the application, and only deal with pictures in Photoshop if I need to actually edit them or otherwise manipulate them. Printing in Picasa is very easy. After clicking the “Print Photos” button in the application, you’re able to select what size photos you want to print.

Epson RX595

If you’re printing a 4×6 photo on 4×6 borderless paper, selecting the options to do so is a simple task. Epson even includes the ability to select which Epson-brand photo paper you’re using, so it can adjust itself accordingly for glossy vs. matte, etc.

Epson RX595

You can also configure advanced settings directly from the Epson software, including automatic color correction. There’s also a very handy print preview option so you can see the color correction before actually printing a photo. In this particular case, I’m printing a photo on one of the sample Epson Glossy Photo 8.5×11″ sheets that were included with the printer.

Epson RX595

I really like the preview option for printing photos. Both ink and paper for this printer add up fast, so it’s really nice to be able to make explicitly certain I’m ready to print before I waste any materials on mistakes. Overall, printing photos is fast, easy, and a completely painless experience.

In addition to its superb printing abilities, the RX595 is also handy for printing documents. I wouldn’t personally use it for such a purpose, since I have the aforementioned LaserJet 2100tn, which is much faster (and considerably cheaper!) for printing black and white documents. However, for testing purposes, I checked out three different papers – the Epson Premium Bright White sample that was sent with the RX595, a sheet of standard Boise X-9 multipurpose copier paper ganked from my office, and a sheet of Office Depot multipurpose copier/laser printer paper.

The Epson Premium paper doesn’t seem to be worth the extra cost. In fact, careful examination of the printouts and the high-res scans of the samples showed that text on the Epson paper feathered a bit. Overall, the RX595’s document printing abilities are perfectly fine, but I’m rather spoiled from my LaserJet. There is just no denying that text looks better from a laser printer. Fortunately, the RX595 is first and foremost a photo printer – and it accomplishes that purpose beautifully.

For your perusal, I’ve scanned in some sample text from all three paper samples, as well as a scan from the LaserJet for comparison. Click the image to see a high-resolution version of the sample.

Epson RX595

Epson also included samples of its Premium Matte Presentation paper, which is apparently good for “non-glare photos, craft projects, and signage” – at least, that’s what Epson’s product page says. So, I fired up Microsoft Publisher 2003 and threw together a quad-fold greeting card with a photo, some text, and a logo-type image I found via Google Images. Printed with the “text and images” preset in the Epson software, the result was mediocre. Text looked good, but the photo I used didn’t look too swell. There was no feathering around the text that I saw with printing a plain document, but I doubt you’ll be buying this specialty paper unless you have a real need for it.

Now we get to the fun part – printing CDs and DVDs. The RX595 includes a nifty little tray that slides into the paper output area below the scanner bed. Pop in a printable CD or DVD, slide the tray in, and go to town. I found it best to create my labels in Photoshop (I scanned in a CD and used that as my template) and print them using the included software. The end result looks fantastic – extremely crisp, clear, and professional. The Memorex printable CD-Rs that Epson sent have a nice, finished feel to the label surface – smooth and matte (not glossy), and not at all like paper.

I’m a bit of a Harry Potter fan, and recently got the soundtracks to the five movies that have already been released. My car has an MP3-CD player, so I made a nice MP3 CD of the soundtracks and created a label in Photoshop. It’s not my best graphic design work…I just made it to print a test CD for this review.

Epson RX595

This is by far the coolest feature of this printer. When I was in high school, I used to make CD mixes for my friends as gifts, with songs that had some significance to our friendship. I always drew pictures on my CD-Rs with Sharpies,
but this is a much more high-tech way of making a custom, personal gift for someone. Epson recommends burning data before printing the label, but I had no issues printing the CD before putting any data on it.

Epson continues to achieve high marks in their inkjet photo printing technology. They provide high quality inks and
papers for maximum print quality. If you’re looking for a full-size home photo printer, Epson is definitely the way to go. I know that Canon and HP have some good offerings, but I’ve had great success with Epson’s printers, inks, and papers in the past, and the RX595 is proving to follow that reputation quite nicely. This isn’t the best printer for plain text documents, but I’ve yet to see an inkjet printer that performs as well at document printing as laser technology.

Scanning

I found a Visioneer OneTouch 8900USB scanner at Big Lots for $50 in 2003, and have been using it since. I find scanners to be pretty handy at home. My main bank doesn’t have any physical branch locations, so I like being able to scan and archive checks before mailing them. I’m a big fan of mail-in rebates, and it’s great to be able to keep copies of receipts, rebate forms, and UPCs in case my rebates get lost in the mail. I was interested to see how the RX595’s scanner would compare to my 8900, which I have found to be very high quality.

Epson certainly didn’t let me down. The scanner has a 1200dpi optical resolution with the ability to scan at 48-bit color depth. If those terms mean nothing to you, it translates into this: this thing will suit nicely for scanning photos, documents, your kid’s drawings on the back of paper restaurant placemats, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Compared to my Visioneer 8900, the RX595 is fantastic to use. The motor that moves the scanner lamp is very quiet, and there is no delay for the bulb to warm up or the scanner to “stabilize” before actually scanning an image or object.

I do all my scanning directly into Photoshop – I like having control over my scans once they’re on my computer. The Epson scan software can be accessed externally (via the Start Menu or a desktop shortcut), or it can be launched from within a photo application with the installed TWAIN driver, which will allow you to scan directly into your chosen application as a new image.

Epson’s software provides three modes of operation – Full Auto, Home, and Professional. Full Auto allows for worry-free, idiot-proof scanning. Just drop your document on the scanner bed, close the lid, and click the Scan button. The RX595 can intelligently determine what you’re scanning and automatically adjust its settings accordingly. I found this to work pretty well. Even in the Full Auto mode, you can specify a few things about how it saves images to your computer – file names, locations, and image formats. You can even save directly to PDF without needing to have Adobe Acrobat installed.

The Home software mode provides some more options for more adventurous users. You can select a document type, change the DPI of the scan, and enable a few automatic photo adjustments (color balance, dust removal, etc.) This mode also allows you to preview your scan before you actually scan your document or image, so you can make sure it’s exactly what you want. The Professional mode has yet more options, but overall I don’t think they’re particularly useful in most cases – I’d rather do all my color and image manipulation within an application, rather than on the image itself as it’s being scanned in.

Overall, I’m pretty impressed with the RX595’s scanning capabilities. It’s easily replaced my old 8900. There aren’t any features of my old scanner that are missing on the RX595, so it’s a win in my book.

Copying

Along with scanning, the RX595 can make up to 100 copies of an image or document without any computer intervention. The printer powers on directly to Copy mode, so copying is as easy as a real commercial photocopier – put a document on the scanner bed, close the lid, and press the big green Start button. If you want to get fancy, you can specify what kind of document you’re copying (document, graphic, or photo), how many copies you want, and whether you want black-and-white or color copies.

Epson RX595

In fact, copying a photo provides many of the same options as printing a photo in Windows. You can select paper size, border and copy options (e.g. if you want to print a page of wallet-size copies of a photo), and what type of Epson photo paper you’re printing on.

Epson RX595

I can actually see where this might be handy. It’s a bit of a waste of the expensive ink to make hard copies of documents frequently, but I’ve found myself in a few situations where it would have been nice to be near a photocopier. Not only that, but the ability to copy without a computer makes this feature that much faster and convenient.

Special Functions

Amazingly enough, printing, scanning and copying aren’t the only things the RX595 can do. It’s got a few more tricks up its sleeves, by way of the integrated memory card reader. When you insert a memory card, the printer automatically switches into Memory Card mode, which provides some handy on-screen functions for working with photos on a camera’s card. You can print all the photos on the card right to 4×6 prints, print photos from a certian date…you can even have the RX595 print an index sheet of the photos on a memory card, so you know which ones you want to print.

Not only that, but you scan images directly to a memory card! This is another feature that can be handy when you have someone over and need to copy something on-the-fly. Just stick a memory card in the RX595’s reader, and scan away. It can save scans as PDFs or JPGs, and automatically alter the compression based on the document type.

Epson RX595

Again, the RX595 is nice enough to tell you what it’s doing, so you don’t accidentally interrupt it in the middle of something important, like contemplating the meaning of life or trying to translate Russian.

Epson RX595

This printer also provides some other specialty features, like onboard photo color restoration and printing a photo directly onto a printable CD or DVD without computer intervention. However, these are the kinds of things I prefer to have granular control over in Photoshop.

Conclusion

All in all, the Epson RX595 Ultra High-Definition All-In-One Photo Printer (try saying that five times fast!) is an impressive piece of equipment. It makes a great all-purpose print center for crafts, photos, documents, and all things graphical. The ability to print on CDs and DVDs is ingenious and truly fantastic, if you ask me. The onboard LCD makes configuration a breeze, and the included software is intuitive and easy-to-use.

I do wish that the scanner lid wasn’t that trendy, ultra-glossy piano black. It picks up fingerprints and cat-scratches too easily, and it’s an unnecessary finishing touch on the printer – this thing isn’t an iPod or a cell phone! My only real complaint, though, is the obvious one – the ink cartridges are ridiculously expensive. You can buy each color individually, but you save money buy buying the entire six-pack at once. Even then, $65 just for ink is a little high. I’ve read in some online reviews that turning the printer on wastes a decent amount of ink, but there’s not really a way to measure or confirm that claim. Regardless, the high cost of ink makes this something that I’ll use for special occasions and times when I really want to print a CD or DVD, but I’ll still be doing all my document printing on my LaserJet 2100tn.

Zune 8GB

A week with the 8GB Microsoft Zune

Introduction

I got into the MP3 player market a little late. I was in high school during the early years of the digital music revolution, so I couldn’t really afford the players of the time. My very first foray into MP3 hardware was with a very, very poorly made RCA MP3-CD player. I upgraded from that to a Creative Muvo2 with the microdrive ripped out and a 512MB CompactFlash card installed. I never used it much, because the interface was clunky and annoying to use.

Then I got my first iPod. It was like a whole new world had been opened up to me. As unwilling as I am to accept much good coming from our friends in Cupertino, the iPod revolutionized the portable music industry, and I’ll be the first to admit it. I’ve been an iPod owner since September 2004, thanks to freeipods.com sending me a 20GB fourth generation model. I upgraded to a 60GB iPod Photo only six months later and have been using it ever since. Of course, this means that I’m rather tied to the whole iPod dock connector situation, seeing as I own a Sedio car dock, an iLuv i177, two Apple docks, and a plethora of cables.

Microsoft tried (albeit poorly) to get into the disk-based PMP market with their Zune, which turned out to be a bit of a flop. Then they revamped the line, added some flash-based iPod Nano competition, and included a touch interface for navigation and selection.

Does it match up? Can Microsoft convert this die-hard iPod owner to a Zune-carrying audiophile?

To be fair, this answer requires more than a few hours of test time and use. So let’s see what happens if I give this thing a robust seven days of solid use, and leave my iPod alone in its iLuv home.

This is a rather long review. To get to the final conclusion, you can skip all the meat and just read this: Microsoft’s second attempt at an iPod killer comes really, really close, but they committed a few too many fatal mistakes in the development process. If they can work out the kinks with the third generation of this thing (rumored to be coming out relatively soon), it could (ironically) become the OS X of the digital audio player world. It’s pretty much been established that the iPod+iTunes offering from Apple is, indeed, the de facto industry standard in the DAP market. It’s like trying to compete with Windows – you can find a niche and stick with it, and it will get you loyal customers (but not a real leg up in the market as a whole). Hopefully, the Zune will truly accomplish this. It’s getting there, but the software is going to need a complete overhaul before this product makes any real headway.

Now. Onto the details. Another would-be “iPod killer” I’ve had some experience with is the Sansa e200 player, so I’ve added a few comparisons with that, as well.

Where the Zune fits in the market

The Zune truly is a full-fledged competitor to the iPod. For the average user who isn’t particularly tech savvy, the iPod provides an all-in-one solution: hardware, software, and proprietary DRM. A user can be up and running right out of the box, buying music, ripping music, and dumping it onto their new player with minimal effort and fuss. There are plenty of other DAPs on the market, but until the Zune, they were all the same – MTP and MSC support, and Windows Media DRM compatibility.

The Zune line is much like the iPod – there is software for the hardware and, like iTunes, the Zune software will only sync with Zune hardware. Unlike the iPod (and this is where the tiny market share is a disadvantage), the Zune has no real software alternatives. So, since use of the software is inevitable with the purchase of a Zune, I’ll be covering that, as well.

One reason that the iPod immediately became a smash success was due to its excellent firmware (device software). Other DAPs at the time had terrible, clunky, unintuitive interfaces. The iPod showed up and showed us that it was possible to carry around 1,000 songs without spending 1,000 hours trying to figure out how to play them. True to its iPod-killing goal, the Zune’s got pretty slick firmware. And, since the firmware is critical to the usability of the hardware, we’ll be covering that, too.

And, third, the other important component of the Zune solution – the hardware itself. So, let’s get started!

The hardware

The Zune ships with earbuds, foam pads for the earbuds (in pink, orange, and black), a USB sync cable, a very short manual on how to get started (along with all the appropriate FCC-mandated warnings and information bits), and the Zune itself. No software CD is included. This annoys me a bit – hardware manufacturers are increasingly making a habit of excluding any software with a device or peripheral. While in the case of drivers, you generally want to get the most updated software online, it’s kind of silly that they can’t be bothered to put something in the box. Not only that, but there’s no real help documentation – again, it’s all online now. This is great for most people, but it’s bad for people like my mother, who only got high-speed internet for the first time this past year.

The player itself is slick-looking. It’s not quite as slim as the second-gen iPod Nano, but it comes pretty close. Both are considerably smaller than the Sansa e200, which I’ve pictured for comparison. The backplate is made of a seemingly indestructible brushed aluminum, which is a welcome change from the scratch-prone, mirror finish of the iPod’s backplate. The Zune logo and the player’s storage capacity are engraved on the back, along with basic device information, including the serial number and device FCC ID.

The front is also very attractive. The flash-based Zune (available in 4 and 8 GB capacities) comes in four colors – red, black, olive green, and pink. I’ve seen the green and red models up close, and I now have an 8GB red model. The green faceplate is actually different in tactile feel and appearance compared to the red. My red Zune has a highly polished surface that, while picking up fingerprints and smudges pretty much nonstop, appears to be quite durable. I’ve been carrying this thing with me everywhere for the past week, and there’s not a mark on any part of it.

One slightly odd quirk about the hardware – the LCD itself isn’t exactly straight in the device. It angles a little bit – the green one I had (before I exchanged it for the red model) was even more angled. I’m really OCD about such things, so I noticed it right away. I’ve shown others, though, and they think I’m nuts to notice something so inconsequential.

The button interface is a bit different from the iPod’s. Front and center is a well proportioned, four-way D-pad that has button and touch functionality. This is a nice feature – you can disable the touch sensitivity entirely, and the pad still works by clicks rather than finger swipes (slide left and right to scroll items left and right; slide up and down to scroll items up and down; click in the middle to select). On either side of the touchpad are buttons – to the left is the back button; to the right is the play/pause button. The back button more or less functions like the menu button on an iPod – it will take you backwards through the menu structure, and eventually bring you back to the main menu from wherever you are in the interface. The touchpad is very easy to use and has a low learning curve – I was up and running with it after only a few minutes of use. It works through Ziploc bags and thin fabric, but both swipes and button presses are futile when I’m wearing thick knit gloves. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a bit annoying.

The top of the player gives us the hold switch and a little plastic loop for attaching (I’m assuming) a neck or wrist strap. I find this amusing – I personally would not risk attaching a $175 device to my wrist – it’s too easy to steal or lose…and I’m pretty sure I’d look ridiculous wearing something like this around my neck. However, to each his own, so you can attach a strap if you want.

The bottom holds the 3.5mm audio output jack (no video out on the flash-based models!), as well as the proprietary data/sync/power connector. I go back and forth on the viability of these proprietary connections – Sandisk’s Sansa e-series uses one, and of course the iPod has its dock connector. If you want to hook your player up to a car integration system, or an alarm clock, or something else that requires more than just audio, video, and power (e.g. you need data signals as well), then I suppose the dock connector is necessary. The downside is that it locks you into device-specific accessories. I’d love to see an adapter that lets me use my Zune with my iPod hardware, but I doubt it will ever come to fruition. In the meantime, I’ll now be buying Zune docks and cables, along with my collection of iPod-specific accessories.

The other angle that I flip-flop on is the placement of that 3.5mm jack. Apple seems to have started the audio-on-the-bottom trend with the first Nano, and it’s influenced the Zune’s hardware. This annoys me a bit. With the audio connection on the top, you have the option of, say, connecting a player to a car dock and still being able to attach a line out or a remote
control receiver to the top jack. When every connection is moved to the bottom, it makes things a bit less flexible. It’s marginally faster to drop my Zune upside-down into my back pocket, but I don’t think that’s good enough reason to put the audio output next to the dock connector on this thing.

What about the inside hardware specs? Overall, they’re pretty impressive. The Zune is equipped with a 1.8″ 240×320 QVGA display, 8GB (or 4GB for the cheaper model) of flash storage space, USB 2.0 (of course), and… 802.11g wireless. Why, might you ask, would one put wifi in an MP3 player? Microsoft has a few things up its sleeves – you can transfer music wirelessly to other Zunes (although the recipient can only play a song three times before it disappears), you can transfer video and pictures, and you can sync wirelessly instead of via USB. We’ll get to that in a minute. The Zune also has a weak FM radio. I’ve never really figured out why someone would want an FM radio in a digital music player. If I’m carrying around several hundred (or thousand) songs, why in the world would I want do deal with the poor audio quality of radio – or the obnoxious commercials? Needless to say, I don’t use this feature much at all.

Like the Nano (and unlike the Sansa), the battery is not user-serviceable. I used to think “oh crap, this is ridiculous, how will we manage with built-in batteries?!”, but the prices have come down so much on flash-based players that you’re more likely to just buy a new player before buying a replacement battery on eBay (which is likely to explode anyhow!). I haven’t
tested the battery to its limits. Rated battery life is at 24 hours, and other reviews have reported about 20 hours of solid use. I left mine uncharged and used it for several days, and it was still going strong. I tend to put my devices on their chargers when I’m not using them, so the battery in my Zune is nearly always charged and ready to go.

The earbuds sound like your standard stock earbuds. I’ve used them some, but I’m rather partial to my Sennhesier MX500s, so I’ve mostly been using those with my Zune. The sync cable comes with snap-on neon pink covers for both ends, which is nice. The 3.5mm jack and the dock port on the Zune were really tight when I first got it, but the dock port seems to have loosened up a bit since I’ve been using it more. One minor annoyance – you have to unplug your headphones before you can pop off the sync cable – they’re too close together on the bottom of the Zune.

For comparison, here’s how the dimensions of the Zune and its screen match up to the competition – a second-gen iPod Nano and a SanDisk Sansa e200:

The verdict? I give it an 8/10. I wish that I could use the buttons with my gloves on (particularly when I’m using it in my car), but it looks sexy, it’s pretty much indestructible (although I did put a screen protector on the LCD), and it’s very easy to use. I love the color, and the screen is beautiful – QVGA resolution on a screen this small means that the individual pixels are tiny, tiny, tiny – so the photographs I use for the menu background look fantastic. When I go back to the low-resolution display on my iPod Photo, I’m starting to realize how obsolete it’s become. However, considering how media-centric this device is (it’s not just for music) I’m really disappointed that there’s no video output on it. I can put movies and digital pictures on it, but I’m limited to the 1.8″ screen – it seems silly to put videos on a device that doesn’t have video output, and adding that functionality would have cost pennies more in the manfuacturing process, I’m sure.

The firmware

Overall, the Zune’s interface is very easy to use. It’s designed around a combination of horizontal and vertical menus. The main menu is a vertical list of options, allowing you to access your media (music, pictures, videos, FM radio, and podcasts), change settings, and read messages from other Zune users (sent via the Zune’s Windows software component). Text in the main menu is large and clear, making it easy to find what you want.

Scrolling through lists throughout the interface is actually kind of fun – if you choose to go the touch (swipe) route, you can coast through lists very quickly. One swipe downward will actually coast for a few seconds after you lift your finger from the touchpad. If you quickly swipe several times in succession, the list coasts faster, with a nice muted clicking noise in the background. Not only that, but an unobtrusive letter appears to the left of a list, showing you where you are alphabetically. This is really handy for very long lists of data. Just touching the touchpad will immediately stop coasting through a list. You can also click up and down for more precise selection – this method will not coast through a list, but the longer you hold down the up or down button, the faster the list scrolls (also handy for flipping through a long list of songs). The whole interface can be managed with one hand quite easily.

Music

This is the main function of the Zune – playing your tunes. When you select the Music menu item, you’re taken a sort of combination interface that uses a row of selections along the top, as well as a vertical list. This sounds funny, but it turns out to be a pretty great interface. With the iPod, you have to select how you want to view your music (album, artist, playlist, etc), and then look at a list of items in that view. This results in going back and forth between menu levels. The Zune’s firmware combines these two levels of the menu into one neat package – across the top, you can click or swipe left and right to select between Artist, Playlist, Song, Genre, and Album views. You don’t have to click the select button (the middle of the touchpad) to switch views – just scrolling left and right will switch for you. Then, you can swipe or click up and down through the list displayed by your selected view, and click the select button to go deeper. At the top of every view is a “shuffle all” selection, if you don’t feel like deciding what to listen to. I never use the shuffle feature – I tend to play music strictly by album – but it’s very easy to access (compared to the iPod’s firmware) if you want it.

Once you select a view for your music, you can scroll down and select a list item. This will bring you to the next menu level – and, again, the previous level (now your list of albums, artists, etc.) will be available in a row across the top. This makes for extremely fast navigation, particularly in the album view. Instead of displaying album names, the row across the top displays the art image for each album.

On that note, the Zune’s music selection interface is very album-centric, in my opinion. Having album art for each album is pretty much mandatory – it makes it much easier to identify albums in a list, and is the only way to quickly identify albums when they are displayed in a row at the top of the screen. Album art can be updated through the Zune software. It can actually be fairly handy – I have all seven Anabolic Frolic Happy 2B Hardcore albums, and the album titles are identical in the list view – the screen’s not wide enough to display more than “Happy 2B Hardcore”. Since each volume of this set has a different-colored album cover, it’s easier to see which album I want to get to when I’m scrolling through the list. In any situation where the data is too wide for the screen, scrolling to that item will cause the data to scroll horizontally (similar to how the iPod manages long names and titles).

In most views, when you select an item in a list (e.g. an album or an artist or a playlist), you will be presented with the appropriate information, along with some extra options at the top – “Play All” is available in all views except genre. This allows you quickly hit select twice in succession and start playing all the tracks in the selected item. Viewing a playlist, album, or song also gives you the option to wirelessly send it to another Zune. All views also include an “Add to quick list” option. This is a bit like an on-the-go playlist on an iPod…except that you can’t save a quick list on the Zune itself. You can save it once you connect to the Zune software in Windows, but that isn’t as convenient as creating playlists and saving them from the device itself.

Unlike in the iPod’s firmware, clicking a song with the select button will not start playing it – instead, it will show you the same options – play, send, or add to quick list. You can either hit the select button twice in succession to play a song, or hit the play/pause button. If another song is playing, you’ll have to hit that one twice, too – this has taken a little getting used to compared to the iPod, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. This is one of the small quirks you’ll find in the Zune’s firmware. If you’re like me and you’ve been exclusively using iPods for several years, you’ll have some habits to break when you encounter the Zune’s firmware.

The biggest missing feature of the Zune is the “View all songs” feature that is present on iPods. I make heavy use of this feature on my iPod Photo, so I notice its absence frequently. When viewing a list of albums under a selected artist, you can select to play all, but there is no quick way to view a list of all the tracks for that artist before selecting a song to play. Once a song is playing (and you’re looking at the Now Playing view), you can click the select button to see a list of options – including “show song list”. This is, however, a rather backward way of doing things. Since my Zune is only 8GB, I’ve instead resorted to making playlists to compensate for this missing feature. However, if this was an 80GB model, I’d have all 800 artists loaded onto the thing – and making 800 playlists just to replace a feature that should already be there is a bit overkill, if you ask me. This is only really an issue for artists that have more than one album – if an artist only has one album, you can just select that album and see the track listing before selecting a song.

The other glaring flaw in the music part of the Zune’s firmware is the absence of gapless playback. My iPod doesn’t support this either, and according to zuneinsider.com, it’s difficult to implement. I find this at least slightly hard to believe, since the open-source Rockbox effort has supported gapless playback with MP3s from the start. Microsoft is planning on including gapless later down the line, but it’s not out yet. Hopefully, if this feature is included with the next hardware revision, it will also be included in a firmware update for older Zunes. This is usually not very noticeable, but it’s extremely annoying in both the aforementioned Anabolic Frolic albums (which are nonstop DJ mixes, so gaps are very obvious), and Hello Nasty by the Beastie Boys, where each song mixes into the next for a second or two.

A slightly less significant issue is that there’s no indicator as to what song is currently playing (when you’re browsing your music). With the iPod, you can navigate back to the currently playing song, click the select button, and go back to the Now Playing view. On the Zune, the only way to get to the Now Playing view is to wait a few seconds for it to pop up, or to hit the back button until you get all the way back to the main menu – hitting Back once more will take you to the Now Playing view.

The Now Playing view is a little different from the iPod – instead of showing the album name, the screen is dominated by the album art image. If no album art is available, the menu background is displayed instead. The bottom 20% or so of the screen has a black bar containing the time lapsed/remaining, song title, artist, and icons for battery life, repeat, shuffle, wireless, play/pause, and lock (if the hold switch is enabled). Fortunately, since the screen is such high-resolution (for the physical dimensions), album art looks beautiful. You’ll want to make sure you use high-resolution album art (at least 240×240 pixels). Low-resolution images will be interpolated up to 240×240, and thus look fuzzy and pixelated.

My overall judgement on the music interface is another 8/10. The lack of gapless playback is frustrating, and the fact that I can’t easily view a list of all songs for an artist is annoying. Overall, though, the interface is extremely easy to use, and I’m starting to prefer it to the iPod’s menus. The combination of horizontal and vertical navigation on just about any screen makes flipping through music very fast and efficient. The rest of the interface is a little less critical, in my opinion, so we’ll cover that part a little more succinctly.

Video

The flash-based Zune lineup does support AVI and WMA video playback…but with a 4:3 screen and no video out, I’m not sure how useful it will be. I copied over a DivX-encoded episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was filmed in 4:3. It was a bit of a novelty to be able to watch a TV show on such a tiny device, but its use is limited. 16:9 (or, heaven forbid, 2.39:1 widescreen!) would be impossibly tiny on a 320 pixel-wide display. However, videos from my Canon digital camera copied over without needing conversion, and looked good. This could be handy for showing friends short movie clips (or YouTube videos – I believe there are freeware apps out there for converting FLV to a Zune-compatible format), but overall the video capability is severely crippled by the lack of video out on the hardware itself.

Pictures

Photos (and videos) always display in landscape mode. Pictures can be added through the Zune software, and manging them is a little better than with my iPod photo – you can select specific photos or directories to sync to the Zune. In the Zune firmware, pictures are organized by the same directory names on your computer. You can view photos by their folders or by date added (which would be handy if you stored a lot of images on your Zune). I, for one, have never found much purpose in storing images on a music device. I share my photos through Flickr, and I’ve never been in a situation where I needed to show someone a photo immediately (and not had access to the Internet to do so).

However, one really nice feature of the Zune is the option to customize the background image that displays in every menu screen of the Zune’s firmware. Images look great on the Zune’s screen, so I’ve started keeping a directory of Zune wallpaper synced to my Zune (which at the moment is mostly Harry Potter publicity shots from the fifth movie, plus some of my own graphic work). Other than wallpaper images, though, I’ve not found much use for the Zune’s photo storage capability. It would be nice to see an option in the future to connect to Flickr via the built-in wireless, and view photos directly from the Internet. Now, that would be something worth using.

Podcasts

There’s one tiny problem with me reviewing the podcast abilities of a digital music player – I don’t use podcasts. At all. I’ve yet to find a purpose for them in my life (I prefer reading to listening, personally), so the podcast feature of the Zune sits unused.

“The Social”

The Zune attempts to bring social networking to hardware. You can sign up for a free Zune account online, and send messages to other Zune owners. You can even sync your Zune inbox, so you can read your messages on your Zune. I’m not really sure why I’d want to do this – especially since so few people own Zunes (I only know one person who has one). There is one neat thing that the Zune Social provides – if you register online and sign into your Zune account from the Zune software, the software will report your play habits from both the software and the Zune itself. You can then embed your “Zune card” in your Myspace profile or blog, so others can see a cute little flash animation of what kind of music you like. Zuneinsider.com reported today that a Facebook application is now available to embed your Zune card in your Facebook profile. Joy.

There was something a little more interesting posed by zuneinsider.com the other day – people have found themselves altering their listening habits because the Zune social aspect makes it so public. I used to be in this crowd – listening to whatever was popular with my social group(s). Now, though, I like to think of my Zune card as a little digital bit of me that allows me to try and evangelize others to my awesome music collection. I’m not sure it’s working.

The Zune social aspect is an interesting idea – and it’s certainly one that hasn’t been investigated by Apple for the iPod – but I’m not sure how effective it is. I’m not sure what could make it better or more functional, either. Being able to zip music over to other Zune owners is a good idea, but the jokes about it are founded in truth – if nobody else around you owns a Zune, what’s the point? With Nintendo’s Wii, it’s been so explosively popular that they’ve added social features to it (the survey and mii-voting channels, for instance). With the Zune, unfortunately…not so much.

Firmware Settings

The Zune’s settings are fairly sparse – you can change the FM radio to work in Europe, Japan or the United States. You can toggle shuffling for music and picture playback, and repeat for music. There are options to disable touch navigation, view stats on how much storage space is used and free (and how many songs, pictures, and videos are uploaded), and reset the menu wallpaper to the default. There is no graphic equalizer.

One setting that the Zune (and the Sansa) has that is missing from the iPod is the ability to change the backlight brightness level. I like this option – turning down the backlight saves battery power (and is handy in low-light situations).

On the wireless front, you can turn the wireless on and off, as well as manually sync – when the Zune is plugged into a power source and wireless is enabled, it will auto-sync with the software. When it’s running on battery, you can manually turn on syncing through the Settings menu. You setup syncing through the Zune software – you can only use one wireless profile at a time with the Zune, which is unfortunate – it would be pretty neat to be able to do other things with the wireless at, say, free hotspots. However, for what it does, it’s pretty great. Wireless syncing seems like a one-trick pony at first, but it’s actually pretty dang useful. I can leave my only USB cable in my work bag and just use wireless syncing at home. It’s slower (54Mb/s compared to 480), but it’s been more reliable for me – the Zune disconnects a lot when I’m trying to sync lots of files at once.

The verdict? I give it an 8/10. Again. Things like gapless playback and an “all songs” view for an artist are missing. There’s no graphic equalizer, although I never use the one on my iPod Photo. There are also no additional features – no games, calendar, or clock – which means no sleep or alarm clock functions. Overall, the Zune’s firmware is one of the best I’ve seen in comparison to the iPod’s. It’s easy to learn and easy to use, and the combination horizontal-and-vertical menu interface is pretty great once you realize how useful it is.

The Software

Oh, Microsoft. What in the world were you thinking when you created the Zune software? It’s so, so, so bad. I mean, it’s terrible. I actually dread going back to add more content to my Zune. Once the songs are loaded, the experience is great. Trying to get the songs loaded, on the other hand, is like trying to give a cat a bath – which I’ve done, and it wasn’t pleasant.

Let’s start from the top, shall we?

Windows Media Player 11 is great. I love it. I use it all the time to manage my music (for reference, I have over 8500 MP3s in my collection so far). It’s great for organizing and finding stuff quickly. I still prefer foobar2000 for fast and slick music playback, but WMP11 is pretty great. It’s got an intuitive, fast interface that takes little learning to use.

The Zune software, on the other hand…why Microsoft didn’t just integrate Zune support into a WMP update is beyond me. The software has singlehandedly killed the Zune’s ability to even come close to competing with the iPod. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I hate iTunes. But, since the iPod is so popular, there are lots of alternatives to iTunes. I personally use Red Chair Software’s Anapod Explorer, and I love it. With the Zune, however, the only alternative is a sort of hack to make the Zune work with other software (WMP included), but it’s annoying to use (you have to hack the Zune every time you want to use WMP).

You’re probably starting to think to yourself, What’s so bad about this software? Right from the start, it’s bad. The Zune software requires all the latest Windows updates. This means that I can’t even use it with my work computer, which is managed by corporate IT and doesn’t have all the latest patches. Once you get your machine patched and updated, it takes a little while to actually install the software – it took about ten minutes from start to finish, which seems a little long for a music management application.

Then, when you actually open up the software…it tries – badly – to imitate the horizontal column view of iTunes that I hate so much. Tons of space is wasted on the pretty interface, leaving very little room to display actual music. Microsoft’s gone the way of Apple here and even used embedded text to display everything (unlike WMP11, which uses standard old MS Sans Serif). You’re limited to the three-column display, which shows a list of artists, followed by thumbnail images of each album’s cover, with the list of tracks on the far right. There’s a list view option, but I didn’t like it much – you can’t view just some of the songs in list view; you can only view everything at once.

Then, when it comes to actual music organization…

WMP11 is very drag-and-drop friendly. You can drag an image from Amazon directly onto an album to set album art. If a stray MP3 has the wrong tag(s), you can drag it from one album or artist onto another, and it will set the tags for you. It makes organizing music a snap. You can edit all the standard IDv1/v2 tags quite easily.

Unfortunately, the Zune software does pretty much nothing with drag-and-drop. You can drag an artist, album, or song down to the little Zune icon (if the Zune is connected) to sync it, but that’s it. Setting album art is the biggest annoyance – you have to save the album art to your local machine, right-click on an album in the Zune software, click “set album art”, navigate to the image you saved, and select it. I much prefer the extremely fast drag-and-drop method provided by Amazon. Changing album titles is laborious – instead of dragging several songs onto an album at once, I have to edit each one manually.

Dealing with playlists is sort of easy, but sort of a pain. It’s quick to add files to a playlist (either existing lists or through creating a new one), but here’s the kicker – deleting a playlist doesn’t actually delete the playlist file from your computer. I created a playlist of all my Badly Drawn Boy albums (to remedy the aforementioned missing “All songs” option in the firmware), and it didn’t put the songs in the right order. Trying to sort the playlist was proving impossible, so I decided to just delete it and start over. When I went to create a new playlist called “Badly Drawn Boy”, I was told that it already existed. After posting a Zune forum, it turns out the files are still there – you have to manually delete them. Who’s bright idea was that?

Not only that, but when viewing all the tracks for an artist, it doesn’t sort them by album and track number – it just sorts them alphabetically. So, if you want to create a playlist of all the albums for a particular artist, you have to add each album one at a time. You can’t just right-click on the artist and hit “create playlist”. It’s yet another little “quirk” about the Zune software that has proven to be a huge pain in the tushie.

The software’s interface in general seems to put form over function. It’s pretty and there are slick animations and transitions, but it’s slow and hangs frequently on my computer (2.8GHz P4 with 2GB DDR RAM). There is no mini-mode…whereas WMP has three options – skins, compact mode, and the option that minimizes it to a little taskbar application. I haven’t looked at the marketplace at all – the RIAA has done enough to its consumers that I don’t bother buying music anymore, and I refuse to pay for DRMed files, so I haven’t had any experience with the Zune marketplace.

The software is necessary for initial setup, wireless setup, firmware updates, and other settings. Unless you want to hack your Zune every time you sync it in order to use Winamp, MediaMonkey, WMP11, or other software that supports MTP, you also have to use the software to transfer files…which is just really unfortunate. I really, really wish Microsoft would
include Zune support with Windows Media Player, but I’m doubting that’ll ever happen. In the meantime, hopefully Red Chair Software will come out with a Zune software alternative soon.

If you’re interested in buying a Zune, I’d highly recommend downloading the software first and playing around with it. If you own a Zune and are feeling adventurous, you can try zAlternator, along with zAuto Unlocker, which will allow you to transfer media using whatever media software you prefer (including iTunes).

The verdict? I give it a 1/10. Syncing music to the Zune is pretty easy. That’s the only redeeming feature of this software. For actually managing your music, it’s worse than Winamp 3. You’ll probably find yourself using other software to actually manage your music, since the Zune software is more or less only good for getting stuff onto your Zune. One major advantage to the Zune over the iPod in this area, though – you can transfer files off your Zune!! This includes music. Maybe this will be enough to prompt Apple to finally allow iTunes to transfer music off an iPod. Additionally, the Zune software does not default to syncing a connected device with the Zune library (I’ve accidentally cleaned off iPods before due to this obnoxious default in iTunes), and you can manually sync a Zune with the software. However, these small nice bits don’t compensate for the overall utter lack of usability across the entire application.

Conclusion

I like my Zune. A lot. I didn’t think I would, but it’s a pleasure to use. The firmware interface is slick and intuitive, and the hardware is really pretty great. Mine has more or less replaced my iPod for taking my music with me – if I can find a car dock for it that includes an RF remote control, I’ll definitely be getting one. There aren’t many cases or other accessories available for the Zune line, because it’s just not as popular as the iPod. Hopefully this will change with time.

The software is utterly atrocious. I hope that Microsoft realizes that they have something great going with Windows Media Player, and will allow Zune users to use that instead of the crappy software that is currently the only real option. In the meantime, I’m managing all right. Two of my real complaints about the hardware can be fixed with firmware updates – the “All songs” view for an artist, and gapless playback. The lack of video output on the device itself, however, is inexcusable – especially since the flash-based Zunes can play video files.

Overall, this second generation of Microsoft’s digital audio player is a noble and worthy effort. It’s a great device, and I would actually recommend it as a viable alternative to the Apple iPod line.

iLuv i177 iPod Clock Radio

I work with Julie, and one afternoon we were talking about various iPod accessories. She’s never used anything
from the iLuv line of iPod accessories, so I volunteered to write a review. This is a review of the iLuv i177BLK.
This clock is also available in white.

I’ve had my 60GB iPod Photo for around five years. The battery is showing a little wear, and the built-in alarm clock
feature doesn’t work at all (mystery!), but it’s going strong. I like to refer to my iPod as my “$500 alarm clock” – for
the last two years, it has almost exclusively lived in my iLuv i177. I got my iLuv as a Christmas
present in 2006 from my ex, who had an iHome H5. Mike liked his iHome all right, but it didn’t come with a remote and
it wasn’t all that aesthetically pleasing to look at. He saw the iLuv at Fry’s for $89.99 and decided it would make
a good present for his awesome girlfriend. Luckily for him, iLuv my iLuv.

…come on. You have to have seen that horrible, horrible pun coming from five miles away. Anyhow.

Action Shots

Package contents:

  • The radio itself
  • Standard brick-style power transformer
  • Small IR remote control
  • AM antenna and accompanying stand
  • A/V cable
  • Dock adapters for different sizes of iPods

When my iLuv was
shipped, the new, thinner 30GB iPod Videos had just been released, so a dock adapter was not included. Instead, the
friendly iLuv people included a set of rubber pads to convert the 20GB 4G/Photo adapter for a 30GB iPod Video. The
adapters are extremely easy to swap, if you happen to use multiple iPods with one of these clocks.

The iLuv with the 40GB/60GB 4G iPod adapter and the compact remote control.

The rear of the iLuv has four ports and a built-in FM antenna. To the left of the FM antenna is a 3.5mm input jack
to connect non-iPod audio players. To the far left of this, you’ll find the male plug for the power adapter, and a
3.5mm jack for the included A/V cable. Unfortunately, as my iLuv is a little more than a year old, I have no idea
where my own A/V cable currently is hiding. I can, however, tell you that it has three male RCA plugs on one end
and a male 3.5mm plug on the other. If you have a TV near your iLuv, you can also use it as a dock with an iPod Photo
or Video. Yay! At the bottom center of the back is the two-prong plug for the included external AM antenna.

The iLuv’s buttons are well-organized and easy to hit. I’ve found them easier to press than the slightly recessed
rectangular buttons of the iHome H5. The buttons glow orange when the iLuv is turned on. The gianormous
Snooze/Dimmer button is positioned directly below the main button set and is large enough that it’s impossible to miss
on those mornings when you really, really feel like calling in “sick” to work.

Speaking of dimmers…the iLuv has the same backlight-dimming feature of the iHome H5. You can select between three
levels of backlight brightness for both the LCD and the buttons, or turn off the LCD and button backlights entirely.
The display has some helpful information at your fingertips:

  • What alarm(s) are set, if any…as well as what audio option you’ve selected (iPod, radio, or buzzer).
  • What’s turned on at the moment.
  • The time! (along with a PM indicator)
  • The date. You can also set the year when you set the date and time, although it doesn’t display.

I was fortunate enough to catch an iLuv in the wild. This one was found peacefully contemplating the finer points
of the Katamari Damacy soundtracks.

Enough! What does this thing DO?

The iLuv is equipped with some handy features:

  • First generation iPod Shuffle support. There’s a USB port behind the dock connector on the top surface of the iLuv.
    Unfortunately, I don’t own a 1G shuffle – mine is a second generation clip style one, and I can confirm that it
    doesn’t work with the iLuv, either as an alarm or just to play music.
  • Two alarms. I find this extremely handy. Since I’m not interested in waking up at 6:45 on the weekend, I can
    leave Alarm 1 set to that time and set Alarm 2 to whatever suits me at the moment. You know, like…noon.
  • Sleep. This acts like the sleep feature on any alarm clock, allowing you to fall asleep to music. My theory is
    that I should be able to set my iPod’s built-in alarm to start a playlist when the iLuv’s alarm goes off, but since my
    own iPod’s alarm clock doesn’t work, I can’t test this. Theoretically, though, it should work – which would allow you
    to fall asleep to Mozart and awaken to Motörhead.
  • Set the time, date, and alarms very easily. Unlike the iHome, the iLuv’s clock set button is very easy to access.
    Setting the time and date (or an alarm) is very easy, as you just spin the righthand dial until you hit the time or date
    you want.

  • Specific alarm volumes. The iLuv allows you to set a volume for an alarm, in single increments from 1 to 40. I
    tend to keep it turned all the way to 40, but I’m going deaf from all that rock and roll I listen to on my iPod. I do,
    however, find this to be a nice touch, since waking up at a set time on the weekend isn’t that important (and
    therefore doesn’t require full-blast music to convince me to get out of bed).
  • Backup alarm. If you fall into bed at 2:00 in the morning and forget to dock your iPod, never fear – the iLuv
    is here to save the day! An extremely annoying buzzer will go off in place of the iPod. I personally prefer to wake up
    to the melodical sounds of Dragonforce or Quarashi or something, but that’s just me.
  • Backup battery. Like the H5, the iLuv has a 9-volt backup battery to retain the date and time information in
    the event that you lose power – or you just want to unplug and move it. Unlike the iHome, however, the alarm will not
    go off if power is cut to the iLuv.
  • Aux input. While you can’t use the aux audio input as an alarm clock, it’s a nice feature, especially if the
    iLuv is the only stereo in your bedroom.
  • Remote control. As previously mentioned, my ex’s iHome H5 didn’t come with a remote, so that was a welcome
    addition with the iLuv. I’m really partial to turning off the alarm clock from under the covers. There is one caveat
    about the remote, though – it uses IR (as opposed to RF) technology, and its field of vision appears to be pretty small.
    I’ve found that I have to point the remote almost directly at the thing to get it to register. My iLuv sits on a chest of
    drawers in my bedroom, and angling the remote up toward the iLuv (from, say, in bed) doesn’t really work – I have to hold
    it up in the air. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it was a little annoying to get used to.

Sound quality on the iLuv is surprisingly good. I listen to a wide range of music, from girlpop to really bass-heavy music,
like The Beastie Boys and Quarashi. The iLuv handles most music quite well, although extremely low-frequencey bass lines tend
to get fuzzed out by the small speakers. However, for a system with no separate subwoofer, the iLuv performs admirably.
Having been able to compare it directly to the iHome H2, I personally find the iLuv’s sound quality to be superior.

Unlike the H5, the dock adapters for the iLuv have a fairly high support extension along the back, making it impossible to
knock an iPod backwards off the dock connector – my cat accidentally did this to Mike’s H5, and it did something to the dock
connector. We started hearing slightly distorted sound unless the iPod was positioned just so…this isn’t a risk with the iLuv,
which is good for a $90 alarm clock. I do wish that the remote control had a wider field of vision, but that’s really my only
complaint.

Overall, I am extremely happy with my iLuv i177. It sounds great, and it looks great – I was never partial to the iHome H5’s
hard-edged boxy design. The smooth curves and circles of the iLuv are just much more visually attractive. I use my iLuv every
morning, and I have yet to regret getting it.