TechBite: CES Wows and Duds


By Steve Bass

The CES Extravaganza

The Consumer Electronics Show is a behemoth, with vendors hawking hundreds of iPad holders and trays, and millions of iPhone cases and protective films; there were just as many oh-look-at-me-too tablets (thanks, Apple, for creating this new industry). And, of course, there’s lots of noise, more booth babes than last year, and people tethered to their smart phones, tweeting their every movement.

I found a handful, maybe a dozen, innovative and smart products in out-of-the-way booths, and a few “oh, wow, I gotta have that” gems. I’ve got a few to tell you about this week — like the gizmos that help you save energy at home and earbuds that’ll knock your sox off.

In upcoming newsletters I’ve got hardware that brings TV and the Internet closer together, software that blocks cell-phone telemarketers, and a tool to recover my stolen notebook — or pay me a grand if it doesn’t.

Nimble Thumbs for Your iPhone

At CES, I watched a 20-year-old whip out what looked like an error-free message on his iPhone in nothing flat. Me, I have the toughest time keeping my thumbs on my iPod's keypad. Solving the problem is 4iThumbs2, a rubbery, plastic overlay. It has little bumps above where the letters are, giving a lovely, tactile feel when typing. It comes in two versions — landscape and portrait.

Perfect if you have big thumbs.

This Bud's for You

I tried in-ear headphones from two companies. They both beat the pants off any of the seemingly dozens of earbuds I stuck in my ears, especially the buds that come standard with any of the MP3 players I've owned.

Etymotic Research hf ($130) and mc5 ($79) series headphones are terrific — whatever type of music I listened to was sharp, crisp, and realistic. The one-size-fits-all soft foam tips fit into my ears comfortably; they were snug enough that they didn't fall out; and they did a good job blocking external sounds.

My love, though, went to Sonomax's Sculpted eers. (My copy editor wasn't happy with "eers." I don't blame her.) For about $200, the company supplies a kit that manufactures custom-fitted earbuds. Slap some silicone on the buds, put the headband on and insert the buds in your ears. In 4 minutes the gadget creates soft earbuds that are an amazingly perfect fit.

Besides the comfort, no other earbuds blocked sound as well as the Sculpted eers. And the sounds were as good as those I heard even using Etymotic's high-end earbuds; with a tighter seal, I could play the music at a lower volume than usual, too.

The product was confusing when I first saw it. They sell you the fitting gizmo as well as two unformed earbuds (duh, one for each ear); buy more unformed earbuds and use the fitting device again (and again) for members of your family. Heck, you might even go into business with this thing, manufacturing earbuds for friends and neighbors. I'll kindly take 5 percent for the idea. Watch videos from Dave Graveline and Consumer Reports.

Use this to create custom-fitted earbuds.

Move Over X10–ZigBee's Here

For over 20 years, I've used — and complained about — X10 home automation products. (The X10 site alone is enough to drive you away.) The concept's simple: Plug an X10 device into a power outlet, plug a lamp or other appliance into the X10, and turn the appliance on or off using an X-10 remote control. Signals are sent through power lines and you can schedule multiple X10 modules using their software.

X10 never worked well for me. The modules were often flaky (a power surge would destroy them) and the circuitry in my home's power grid often wouldn't sense the on and off signals.

The latest in home automation comes from the ZigBee Alliance, a somewhat new name — and protocol — in home automation. And it's a big deal.

A few ZigBee devices caught my eye at CES.

Plug a Thinkeco module into a wall outlet and, say, your printer into the module. The software on your PC monitors the printer, determines usage patterns, and powers it down when it's not in use. The module connects wirelessly to a Wi-Fi USB key. Modules are expensive at $45 each (but one module can handle two devices) and the software is $50. I spotted a power strip that's about to be released; no price is available.

Whirlpool has a washing machine with a built-in ZigBee module that watches kilowatt prices by monitoring the power meter; when rates drop, it starts the wash.

More than one company uses ZigBee technology and has ways to control house lighting, electronic equipment, including TVs, either from a remote control they sell or directly from a smartphone.

ZigBee's success is guaranteed because of the companies involved. General Electric, Whirlpool, Sharp, Samsung, Intel, Cisco, Logitech, and Sony are among the 60 familiar names with ZigBee-compliant products. (Coincidently, Bill Pytlovany, from WinPatrol, also noticed ZigBee. Read his take in What Everyone Missed at CES 2011.)

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