Aliph Jawbone Icon, a new kind of headset

If you had to pick a technology, excluding software, that has caused the biggest transformation of personal productivity, what would you select?

Microsoft Office? Nope, I said not software … come on people!

Laptops? Possibly. Definitely a leading transformer for freeing us from being desk-bound, but the leading one? I think not.

OK, how about GPS? Nope, definitely huge but not the biggest. Pad- or tablet-style computers? Too soon to tell.

It would have to be the cell phone. Sorry, it is kind of prosaic, but given how much we expect to stay in touch wherever we are and how much business we do through and because of cell phones, this is perhaps the one and only truly indispensable high-tech tool.

Now, the one accessory to the cell phone that you need if you are going to make and receive calls while driving (which is definitely not recommended by me or, for that matter, by Oprah, is a headset. And what is the coolest headset? Bluetooth, of course.

Actually, Bluetooth headsets are only cool if you are in the car or on your bike. The problem is that if you go out shopping or to lunch wearing a Bluetooth headset with that flashing light stuck in your ear you're making a huge fashion faux pas; you are, in effect, announcing "I am a complete nerd," or maybe, "I wish I were on 'Star Trek'." Whatever it is you're saying, it's certain that your street cred will fall to zero.

<digression>We're in the process of selling our house. It was early evening and the light was fading and a realtor was showing a couple around. We all got talking and I realized that hidden under the realtor's hairdo was a Bluetooth headset because every few seconds, the hair on the right side of her head flared orange like a small fire was starting. The problem was that no one else could see it and I had to force myself not to start laughing because I starting wondering if someone with bad eyesight might assume she was actually on fire and whip out a fire extinguisher.</digression>

Anyway, over the last few years Bluetooth headsets have become progressively more sophisticated. Here in Gearhead I've covered a few products in the Bluetooth headset category, and the product line that has most impressed me comes from Aliph.

What makes the Aliph Jawbone devices outstanding is the company's noise suppression feature called "Noise Assassin". It works by placing a microscopic accelerometer on your cheek (it is part of the headset) to detect when you're talking. That allows the headset to measure and reduce ambient noise when you're speaking and mute the microphone while you're listening. The results are pretty impressive.

I previously reviewed two Jawbone models, the original Jawbone and the Jawbone 2 and I liked both of them, the latter being distinguished by its much smaller size.

So, what could Aliph do to beat its own success? Well, it released a new line, the Prime & EarCandy last year, which I didn't test, and then in January released the Jawbone Icon, which I've been testing for a couple of weeks.

The Icon seems slightly larger than the Jawbone 2 because, despite being shorter (45 mm compared to 51mm), it is also wider (18.25mm compared to 12.7mm). But crucially, it is lighter (the Icon weighs only 8.2 grams compared to the Jawbone 2's 10 grams).

What's very different about the Icon is the way that it attaches to your ear: As with the previous models, an over-the-ear loop is included, but this version also provides a new ear mount, something Aliph calls "earbuds."

Earbuds are springy, figure-eight-shaped, rubbery things. One loop fits over the earphone part of the Icon while the other nestles inside the fold of your outer ear. And it works! This is the most comfortable Bluetooth headset I have ever tested.

Other difference between the Icon and the older Jawbone models: the Icon is considerably less expensive at $99 (the Jawbone 2 was $129); and there are major changes in the user controls.

The Icon has done away with the press and hold to switch on and off and instead has a tiny power switch -- a much better arrangement. There's also now only a single control button on the top of the headset and the volume control has been done away with; volume is set using the handset controls and the Icon remembers the last setting and restores it when re-connected.

The control button now answers and terminates calls using a short press, and if you're not on a call, that same action also announces remaining talk time. A long press invokes the loaded "Dial App," a feature we'll get to in a moment, or, when you’re on a call, disables the Noise Assassin feature so you can show your friends just how cool the Icon is. (As with wearing a Bluetooth headset in public, demonstrating this feature at, for example, a party will cause most normal people to humor you and then drift away quickly.)

So, what of the technology in this cool package? Well, Aliph claims to have improved the noise reduction and sound quality, and I'll have to accept that for three reasons.

First, the Icon sounds just as good as its predecessors. Second, I'd need serious test gear to confirm the claims and a lot of knowledge about acoustic measurements and instrumentation, which I don’t have. Third and last, almost all of my recent cell calls have been so loaded with warbles, interference and other audible junk that no matter how good the Icon, there's nothing that can be improved. That said, the junk does sound like it is in high fidelity.

Thus it is that the Icon's sound quality is at least as good as its predecessors. But that's not all the tech in this product.

The Icon also features MyTALK, which allows you to configure two of the headset's subystems: Audio Apps and Dial Apps.

Audio Apps are collections of sound samples that can replace the default announcements made by the Icon. For example, the normal start-up sound is a cool sci-fi noise, but load the Aliph configuration application on your computer (Windows and Mac are both supported and the software uses the browser as its user interface) and plug the Icon in via the USB cable and you can change this to, for example, a nerdy sounding female voice.

These Audio Apps also change the voice used for the talk time announcement, the battery low warning, incoming call number announcement, call declined confirmation and redial confirmation.

The current Audio App choices are rather silly and include "Be Sexy -- The Bombshell", "Be Fierce -- The Rogue", and so on. On the other hand, given a big enough market, you can see the potential for voice samples from pop Icons (I might actually like to hear Austin Powers say "Yeah, baby, yeah" on start-up), or the desire to create your own, but alas, no SDK is available yet.

The other configurable subsystem is Dial Apps, which is invoked by a long press on the control button. Dial Apps can apparently (there's no documentation on this yet) do two things: The first is invoke an advanced phone function. This is  limited to support for the voice dialing feature of certain phones although how this might work with my test cell phone, the excellent Verizon Droid, is a complete mystery; the MyTalk Web site is in beta and missing a lot of detail.

The other thing a MyTALK Dial App can do is simply dial numbers -- actually a very clever idea. The currently available Dial Apps can dial your carrier's 411 service or, more interestingly, call 1800FREE411, Dial2Do or Jott.

I decided to try out the Jott Dial App because I love Jott -- a service that answers your cell or regular telephone, recognizes you from your caller ID, translates your speech into text and routes the result to lists you create. That makes it possible to update your calendar or send updates to one or more of your social network accounts. You might think of Jott as a digital personal assistant. I first used the service when it was in beta and reviewed it in my Network World Web Applications Alert newsletter.

I set up a new Jott account for testing with the Icon and linked Jott to Ping.fm, a service that routes your updates to one or more social network services. I then did a long press on the control button and voilà! I was connected and said "ping f m". This recorded my voice and sent it via Ping.fm to Twitter, Plurk, and a few other microblogging sites. But if you follow me on Twitter (@quistuipater), you might have noticed the end result was the rather odd tweet, "Who is using my myTalk with the Joe Brown Icon? Let me know." ("Joe Brown" should, of course, have been "Jawbone").

Again, as of writing, there is no SDK for Dial Apps but when it is available I can imagine some cool mashups using Jott's ability to interface with Web services.

It would make it possible, for example, to create a Jott service that sends speech to text data to a Yahoo Pipes application. By only allowing certain keywords to be recognized you could have the output trigger a limited range of Web services to start and stop applications, run processes … pretty much anything you can think of.

When SDKs for both Voice Apps and Dial Apps come out it will be interesting to see just how much both in-house and third-party developers get involved. You can imagine hearing your company catch phrase or advertising jingle at start-up. Or maybe you'd rather not.

Anyway, bottom line: The Aliph Jawbone Icon is excellent. It is not only good value, but also breaks new ground in customizability. In fact, it is probably a sign of things to come as it is certain that more devices, particularly high-tech consumer products, will start to add this kind of personalization.

I'm going to have to give the Aliph Jawbone Icon a rating of 5 out of 5 -- it's that good.

Gibbs hears it all in Ventura, Calif. Connect to gearhead@gibbs.com.

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This story, "Aliph Jawbone Icon, a new kind of headset" was originally published by Network World.

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