All photos: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery
Curious about some of the gadgets that either recently arrived or will soon be lining store shelves -- if not necessarily flying off of them? You might have wanted to attend the Consumer Electronics Association's Line Shows conference in New York City. This two-day gathering and the surround events that make up "CE Week" function as a vastly condensed edition of the sprawling Consumer Electronics Show that the Arlington, Va., trade association runs each January. Here are some of the more interesting things I saw there. (Note that "interesting" is not always a compliment in this business).
Pioneer's AppRadio Even the most digital dashboard looks dumb compared to the average smartphone, but how are you going to get the phone's maps and directions into your car's navigation screen? Pioneer's new, $399 AppRadio aims to close that gap by plugging an iPhone or newer iPod touch into its cable, then running apps off the device on its in-dash screen. Well, some apps: Developers have to revise their software to work with this system. And so far, only four third-party programs work with it: navigation apps from MotionX and Inrix and Web-radio programs from Rdio and Pandora. The AppRadio also includes AM and FM, if you're into that sort of thing.
MakerBot's Thing-O-Matic If you don't like the gadgets on sale in stores, you could always try to make your own. MakerBot's exquisitely named Thing-O-Matic does just that: This computer-controlled machine prints in three dimensions, layering on quick-drying plastic to create small machines, objects and toys. This Brooklyn startup has been selling it in a do-it-yourself form for $1,299 (it estimates 12 hours of work to put it together, assuming you're handy with a soldering gun), but early in June, it began offering full assembled Thing-O-Matics for $2,500.
Barnes & Noble's Nook Plain old e-book readers looked a lot less stylish after the iPad upended the market, but they still beat tablets handily in terms of price and weight. Barnes & Noble's just-updated Nook could be the paperback of this category, selling for $139 and weighing a tossable 7.5 ounces. It only connects by Wi-Fi and uses a 6-inch, gray-scale, battery-saving e-ink screen that has less of a distracting delay when going from one page to the next. But it may need to drop below the psychologically significant $100 barrier to stay competitive in this market.
ETC's Evo 3D A lot of people aren't sold on 3D video on their HDTVs, so naturally the industry is doubling down on the concept by putting it in phones. Sprint recently began selling HTC's Evo 3D for $199.99; this Android phone uses two lenses to take three-dimensional pictures and can display them in 3D on its screen without your having to wear glasses. (LG will soon be joining this market with its Thrill 4G for AT&T.) From gawking at the Evo 3D, I can report that the 3D effect looks realistic -- but I still think I'd trade the second camera lens for a bigger battery.
Toshiba's Thrive Can anybody compete with the iPad in the high-end tablet market? Toshiba will be taking a stab at this difficult category with its Thrive in mid-July. Built around a 10.1-inch touchscreen, it offers a feature absent from most other tablets: a standard-sized SD Card slot, allowing for easy transfer of files from a camera, desktop or laptop. It will also sell for less than Apple's tablet, starting at $429 for a model with 8 gigabytes of storage. But it's substantially heavier than the iPad 2, and the Honeycomb edition of Google's Android operating system that it runs has been criticized as buggy.
Vizio's VIA Tablet HDTV vendor Vizio is taking a different strategy with its VIA tablet. Starting in July, it will sell this 8-inch Android tablet for a lot less than the iPad, starting at $349 for a 4 GB model. Vizio is also holding off on Honeycomb, instead shipping the VIA with the phone-oriented Gingerbread release until that newer version gets a little more stable. It's built one interesting extra into it: an infrared transmitter that, with an included app, lets the tablet serve as a universal remote control.
Westinghouse's 3D TV If nobody's willing to pay much -- or anything extra -- for a 3D HDTV, manufacturers will have to make 3D cheaper. Budget-minded manufacturer Westinghouse Digital will ship its first 3D TV in the fourth quarter of the year, with an estimated list price of $1,199.99. The interesting part of it is what's in focus in the photo: its cheap, light "passive" 3D glasses, which don't require any special circuitry to synchronize with the image on the screen. That just leaves the lack of 3D content to deal with... which is not something that most electronics manufacturers can do anything about.
Celestron's SkyProdigy Telescope Finding the moon with a telescope is easy. The planets and the bright stars take more work. Galaxies? Prepare to spend some time panning the scope clumsily around the sky. Some computer-aided telescopes will put an object in view for you, but you first have to tell the telescope where it is by pointing it at a brighter object. Celestron's SkyProdigy line of telescopes, starting at $699 and going on sale in July, use an internal camera to align themselves in about three minutes, the company says, then let you select objects off a small onscreen menu. Note, however, that the camera won't let you save any photos -- and you'll still be on your own if you want to keep the International Space Station in view.
Scosche's freeKEY Most smart phones and tablets will let you connect a wireless Bluetooth keyboard, but then you have yet another piece of fragile electronics to pack. Scosche's freeKEY looks like what you'd use to pack one of those peripherals; this $59.99 rubberized, waterproof keyboard easily rolls up when you're done. I could not test its typing on my Android phone -- for some weird reason, it only supports Honeycomb, not any phone flavor of Android -- but other reviewers have tested it and found it touch-typing compatible (while noting that cheaper takes on this concept are available).
HP's TouchSmart Desktop computers just aren't that exciting these days, but at least HP's TouchSmart 610 desktop looks different from the rest. This $899.99-and-up, all-in-one model includes a screen on a stand that pivots up and down; with the screen pulled up away from a desk, you can walk up to it and use it by touch. HP has provided a software front-end that allows you to navigate through some common functions with the same sort of simple gestures you'd use on a phone. The browser was a little jerky at resizing text, but the Twitter app made it a easier and a little more fun to wander through the Twitterverse.
The Sphero 2.0 is not the most self-evidently practical gadget ever. This new, $129.99 plastic ball hides a gyroscope, accelerometer and a set of motors that roll itself around under the control of a mobile app.
Oh, and it lights up in different colors.
But if this self-propelled cybernetic sphere from Boulder, Colo.-based Orbotix – a faster, brighter version of a model shipped in 2011 – doesn’t do anything particularly useful out of the box, it can certainly add a little robotic levity to your life.
First there’s the challenge of driving a Sphero. Trying to steer a device without an obvious front or back, and which can also spin freely through all its axes, is a recipe for disorientation.
I needed practice (read: time spent chuckling at my inability to keep a Sphero 2.0 from getting stuck in one corner or another) before I realized the importance of constantly checking its equivalent of a boat’s tiller. That’s the feature in Sphero-driving apps that illuminates its blue taillight and lets you spin it in place to the desired direction.
(I suppose that’s what it’s like to learn to drive a tank.)
Once you’ve ascertained the fore and aft ends of a Sphero, it’s not too hard to drive one around if you don’t stress about precise navigation. A Sphero 2.0 loaned by the company rolled smoothly over various flooring types without a problem, but getting over thresholds or onto thick rugs required a rolling start.
Its box included a couple of plastic ramps, but my errant aim meant the ball only caught some air maybe one time in four.
The Sphero charges cordlessly in a small plastic base, which loses points for requiring a proprietary adapter to plug into a wall instead of charging over any micro-USB cable. It pairs via Bluetooth wireless; the review model had trouble reconnecting to an iPad and an Android phone when woken up, requiring a trip to each device’s Bluetooth settings.
This gadget is much better with an audience — as Orbotix found when President Obama tried driving a first-generation Sphero during a campaign stop in Boulder. Our three-year-old was fascinated by the thing; she said “come back to me, robot ball!” before chasing it down to grab it. (The way the Sphero’s motors constantly vibrate as you hold it in your hand make it feel weirdly alive, as if it were a round, robotic baby bird.) But our neighbors’ cat was less enthused.
Among the growing variety of Sphero apps, the worst may be the eponymous, just-updated release on iOS and Android. The update takes away some useful control options and adds game mechanics, for instance, hitting too many walls damages your Sphero’s virtual shields to the point that you must stop driving so they can regenerate, that impede learning the finer points of Sphero steering.
Orbotix’s Sphero Drive apps for Android and iOS and Android provide a better introduction and allow you to drive it with either joystick-esque touchscreen controls or by tilting your mobile device left, right, forward and back.
You can try out a large selection of games afterwards. For instance, one lets you play a virtual game of golf with a Sphero. Other titles flip the script by employing a Sphero as an alternate input mechanism to control a phone or tablet. An Etch-O-Matic app challenges you to draw on the screen by turning a Sphero in your hand.
This selection offers a useful reminder of this robotic ball’s potential: For all its silliness, it is, in fact, a machine you can program like any other. And interesting things tend to arise from that scenario.
Credits: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery