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CES News March 2007
By Robert Sanborn


One of the neat packages that came out of the CES show was from Saitek. My Spkr A-100 is what they call a small speaker with a big attitude and they hit it right.  This little speaker is geared towards the mobile user and in fact, it comes with its own cloth carrying case.  You essentially pop 4 AAA batteries (preferably rechargeable) into the case, plug it into your choice of sound producer from an iPod to a notebook computer to an mp3 player and you are ready to go!

It is that easy, it comes with three plug in cables, one is the standard 3.5mm to 3.5mm audio cable for plugging your notebook into it. The second is a mini 2.5mm to 3.5mm audio cable for mp3 players and the like, and the third rather unique is an iPod connector to stand your iPod Nano on it.

As soon as you plug in the unit to your computer, iPod, or whatever, you see an LED light indicating that it is working. Green means that it is getting signal and ready to go. It is a very simple unit to use, just plug in and go. There are no volume controls on it and the only power comes from the batteries which if you leave it plugged in, will eventually run down. The booklet tells you that you have around 12 hours of music life in a set of 4 batteries so keep an extra bunch handy.  What turns on the speakers is when you plug in the cable so leave it out unless you are ready to use them. And I say them, there are two tiny speakers in the size of a nice smooth flat rock. It is stylish, easy to use, and the sound is pretty good, especially when you compare it to what you have available on your iPod or Notebook. For my testing, I plugged it into the notebook I have and the sound noticeably improved. Course you still canít beat a good set of headphones but if you want to listen to the mp3 player, you just plug it in directly. For around $50,

Want better punch out of your iPod or mp3 player. Then upgrade to Saitekís A-250 model speaker system. This is also an extremely cool looking speaker system that has some really good sounds coming out of it.  In my case, since I still donít have an iPod lurking around, I simply turn on my mp3 player, plug it in (though I had to use another cable as the mp3 player has a 2.5mm connector on one end and the A-250 speaker has a standard line input plug of 3.5mm which you find on most headphones and cables.  You do get a lot more speaker for your $130. As I said, it is truly cool looking, runs on both AC and 4 AA batteries so if you use an mp3 player like I do, all you need is just the one cable. What they do include in the box is extensive. It is set up for an iPod so it includes the iPod dock that can accommodate a wide variety of the little buggers. It also includes four additional holder connectors depending on your iPod flavor. The dock even comes with its own AC adapter for charging your iPod though I did notice that the AC adapter for the speaker is a different voltage so take care which goes with which. Also included are firewire and USB cables to connect it to your computer as well for synchronizing music.  Other cool features include being able to hit mute while playing,

For specifications, it contains Neodymium-Aluminium drivers through Tri-amped speakers with active crossover and a downward firing subwoofer with a tuned port. Whatever, it still sounds great to me. To make this an even better speaker, you can also with the wireless transmitter, use it wirelessly with your main computer or even better, use your iPod as a remote control unit for the speaker.

Mice and Other Rodents

I have discovered over the years of using mice and other pointing devices that for the most part, they work, donít get in the way, and you donít pay much attention to them. That thought started to change with the advent of the first Microsoft Explorer mouse that was actually contoured to your hand and actually felt easier to use and was comfortable. So for years I would stick with that style going from a nine pin serial plug in to a ps/2 type port to finally a USB connected mouse. But you know, there are zillions of them out there with a lot of wireless flavors to boot. Microsoft came out with the Bluetooth combination mouse and keyboard and I like the mouse, more of a rakish angle to it but still easy to use. Have used lots of different radio type mice as well and I really like the radio types better than the Bluetooth mostly because they are much easier to plug in and use. For the cordless of us around though, Bluetooth is still the only way to be truly cordless (assuming you have it built into your computer). The radio types plug into a USB port or the PS/2 mouse port and still have a cable with a transmitter attached to them.  The mouse might be cordless but you still  have a cord hanging around. Bluetooth on the other hand even if you donít have it built into your computer just requires a USB connector with no cables attached to work. The downside to them is that if the batteries need changing and they will sooner or later, you have to rediscover the darn thing and that gets to be a pain without a mouse working.  Keep a spare USB mouse handy just for that problem.  So I like the Microsoft Bluetooth model but donít like having to fight with Bluetooth to find it every couple of months. Enter another one to check out from Saitek. www.saitekusa.com. This is Obsidian. It is the wireless variety so it has a USB cable that plugs in with a cord and the transmitter but with a twist. The transmitter housing is truly stylish. It comes with two unique batteries that look like one inch curling stones and one fits in the base of the mouse. The other sits on a charger that is part of the transmitter so when the battery dies, just grab the other, pop it in, and you are ready to go.

But what about the mouse ?? I think for a gaming addict, it would be great as you have a lot of different buttons to hit and set, and it comes with a unique center touch pad that is a scroll wheel replacement that is touch sensitive and very easy to use. I like the feel because it is truly switchable between hands as I often use the mouse with either hand depending on how much space is available on the desktop.  

Car MD

If you have a car that is at least one year old, you will soon learn to hate the Check Engine light. Having owned a number of cars in my lifetime, I have seen that the light seems to have a life of its own unrelated to actually anything being seriously wrong in the car. So while out at the CES show, I happen across a company called CarMD, www.carmd.com who have a solution for us all.

They have an automotive diagnostic tool that plugs into the port of any post 1996 car, van, light truck, or SUV. With an easy to read display and better yet, a connection through the internet to their site, in mere minutes you can find out what your engine is keeping from you.  Sounded too good to be true so I had to have one and try it out.

Getting started is easy, the instructions are very clear and easy to follow. They also have a set of demo videos that you should watch before installing the program and device. The demos are well done and make it easy to understand what you need to do.  The package requires Microsoftís .Net framework to run but that is becoming more common these days with developers.  Open up the unit and plug in a couple of AAA batteries and you are nearly ready to go. One minor quibble is that it doesnít tell you which way to plug in the batteries but if you use the usual coil spring on the negative end, you usually are ok and in this case it worked.  After watching the video, install the software. When it finished it said it would check for updates but didnít do so. I also expected it to bring up the program I think all it does is install drivers.  So, back to the web, double check where my plug is, bring a flashlight, and head for the car.

Want to know where your connector is on your car, just log onto their website and find it. It tells you the exact location for your vehicles year and make. They have a ton of cars listed there but to my surprise, of the three cars I have, they only had one. The good news was that I was able to go to different years of my model and find the connector.

Fortunately, on my van, it was easy as the plug is behind a cover plate right on the dash. They didnít have my 1997 model on their website and if you look at the 1996, it tells you it is under the dash, look at the 1998, and it has it right. Plug it in, hear two beeps, turn the ignition switch on, hear four more beeps, and I am done with the car, it was that quick.  If you know what you are looking at, you can tell immediately what is up with the vehicle and in my case, I see the red ďXĒ telling me I am in trouble but that was ok, the ďCheck EngineĒ light was on anyways so that wasnít a big surprise.

Plug the CarMD unit into my computer by the USB Cable and it immediately launches my internet explorer to go to the web site and in my case, tells me I need to update my software. It also tells me I needed to update the firmware in the CarMD unit itself so it looks like these folks are really on top of things on that end.  You do need to set up an account on the web site and that is fine with me because I do what to know all the details about what they think is wrong with the van before I take it to the dealer the next day. In fact, one of the things you can do is to print out reports to take with you and that is cool. To register on the website you create a password but no account so I suspect is uses the email address. You also need the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) off of the car so get that first, otherwise, you make another trip to the car.  When you are done, just unplug the unit and the software interface goes away as well.  As to my van, it tells me I have two problems causing the red X and a number of other things that have gone wrong but havenít raised the red flag. One item was a Cylinder 2 misfire and a Cylinder 6 misfire. Things that tell the dealer to watch the plugs and the like. Very detailed and very informative and it will help me make a better decision when I talk to the dealer about what to do with the vehicle.  It also gives you an estimated cost to repair the car as well. Most garages use standard system costs for each repair so I suspect that you will find it nearly dead on when it comes time to take it to the dealer. That should be a real advantage when you take it in and they tell you it will cost three times as much as you expected.

My second car was tougher to connect. The website lists the 2001 version of the car but not my 2000. Good news is that the connector was close. Bad news is that remember I mentioned the flashlight. Well, bring that and a mirror to see what is where down there and if you happen to have a contortionist with you, that will also help. I have always marveled at how mechanics can get to every crook and cranny under there. Must be the special exercises that they do. For me, it is definitely not easy doing it and in fact, my car didnít like having it connected but on the third time, it worked just fine. Might be too many things connected and starting up at the same time and it also could be that doing things upside down I didnít have it in completely. But once I disconnected them, closed the door, and tried it again, it worked just fine and in fact, this car is in great shape.  Wish every car was as easy to get to as the Volkswagen van, next will be to tackle my wifeís car. 

The van is 11 years old now and come to find out, these connections were not mandated until after the 2005 model year so every car now sold in America has to have this connection.

I did discover that you can only have three cars registered to your account and I am not sure if you have to get rid of one before you can add the fourth. You also can only do six internet connected diagnostic sessions per month as well. Really should be enough for most families. If I decide to take this unit with me to test a used car for instance, it looks like you better write down the VIN as well in order to get a full diagnostic readout. Even so, the indicator lights give you a great starting point on determining the carís health.

The website has a lot of useful information. There is a buying a used car guide that you can download and tips for using the CarMD while at a dealer. Even if you canít plug it into a computer, you can still see the red/green/yellow indicators to see what is going on. The booklet even gives you a toll free number to ask a certified ASE technician. The website also has a section to ask a technician an automotive question.

I am impressed with the unit, it is small enough to easily carry around, very easy to use once you get to the connector, and the information on the web site and printed diagnostics are very good.  For my older cars, it is great to have, checked the car before a big trip, if something just doesnít sound right, give it a quick check and at least, you will be on the road to better piece of mind. For $90, well worth the price. www.carmd.com.


Robert Sanborn is a technology analyst for PC Lifeline. You can reach him through the net at robert@pcll.com



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