Getting small: Tiny microphones, PCs and speakers

This week's column was totally unintentional - at first it was just three separate roundups of some of the latest devices I've found interesting. But after I completed the reviews, I realized a common thread between all of them - these devices are really small (in fact, the M39p even has "Tiny" as part of its name). While some things in the world are getting larger (displays, smartphones, TVs, etc.), there's still room in the world for smaller gadgets that provide big performance.

The scoop: iRig MIC Cast and iRig Mic, by IK Multimedia, about $40 (MIC Cast) and $60 (Mic)

What are they: These two devices are microphones (the iRig Mic is clearly a stick-style mic, the MIC Cast is tinier) that plug into the headphone jack on your phone or tablet (iOS and Android devices supported) to give you a better microphone experience than with the built-in microphones on those devices. Both devices include a few different volume settings to record audio either close up or from far away, and they each include an additional headphone jack that lets you listen with headphones (or, in the case of the iRig Mic, you can plug into an amplifier or mixer) while recording.

Why it's cool: Recording audio and/or the audio portion of video with a smartphone or tablet can be troublesome with the built-in microphone, especially if you're in a noisy (any more than one person, basically) environment. The tiny MIC Cast is very portable and produces much better sound than the built-in microphone on our test iPhone 5 unit. The larger iRig Mic includes a longer cord (as well as a mic stand adapter) and would likely be used for musicians or if you had a reporter doing an interview. Another nice touch with the MIC Cast device is a very handy stand that you can place your phone/tablet on, which makes it good for FaceTime or other video chats.

Some caveats: It takes a bit of time to find the proper audio setting to use on the microphone to find one that doesn't give you silent audio or way-too-loud audio; practice makes perfect in this case. The Free apps provided by IK Multimedia aren't as useful as free apps; in order to get any good functionality (such as emailing/exporting audio recordings), you have to pony up some cash. You can use these devices with other apps (such as the iPhone's Voice Memo or SoundCloud, for example), but you have to test the settings again with that app in terms of finding the right audio levels.

Grade: 4 stars (each)

The scoop: ThinkCentre M93p (aka "Tiny"), by Lenovo, starting at $650.

What is it? Looking more like a wireless router or desktop storage drive than a full computer, the ThinkCentre M93p is designed for office/cube workers who want to save a lot of space in their work areas without a classic-looking tower computer. The M93p weighs less than 3 pounds, and measures 1.35 inches thick. The latest version of the Tiny has a 4th-generation Intel Core processor (it can go up to the i7 model), as well as Intel 4600 graphics. Lenovo offers customers the ability to choose different ports and connectors for the device - for example, you can add an HDMI port if you want to connect the M93p to an HDMI monitor (instead of traditional VGA or DVI monitors). The unit we tested included five USB 3.0 ports (two on the front, three on the back), a DisplayPort, VGA output, Ethernet and Wi-Fi antenna. Other features include Windows 7 Pro 64-bit (upgradeable to Windows 8 Pro 64-bit), a 500GB hard drive (7200 RPM), 4GB of RAM (upgradeable to 16GB) and 802.11n wireless (Intel Centrino Wireless N-105).

Why it's cool: During the time I had the PC on the desk, everyone who walked by was amazed that this was a PC and not a router or other storage device. "That's a PC?" was a common question I heard from others. The addition of performance in such a small package should be appealing to workers looking to clear up their work areas or maximize the space they have, especially if they have issues with current desktop systems overheating because they're placed in compact spaces.

Some caveats: The smaller chassis means that there's no optical drive on the unit - you have to add that as a separate option.

Grade: 4.5 stars

The scoop: CERA wireless portable speaker, by Tego Audio, about $90

What is it? This device is a very small portable speaker that connects wirelessly via Bluetooth to your mobile phone, tablet or even your PC to provide mobile audio beyond the speakers inside your devices/computer. The spherical speaker has a pop-up top that opens up the 360-degree speaker (think of it like a hidden canister that pops up out of a counter/desktop like in a science fiction movie). The top also includes a touch interface that provides inputs for volume control and next/previous track for music. Opening the top also initiates Bluetooth pairing mode, making it relatively easy to pair/re-pair/connect with your devices. The system includes an audio cable for direct-device attachment, a USB charging cable and a daisy-chain cable that lets you connect a second speaker (one side into the USB charging port, the second side into the second speaker's audio line-in port).

Why it's cool: The small size and spherical design make it stylish and portable - I could see people using this speaker more for audio on their phones and tablets as opposed to a laptop or desktop computer. The ease of use in connecting to devices and the 360-degree audio also make it more useful in quick setup and party situations (for example, place the speaker on a kitchen counter or a conference room to let everyone sitting around the table/counter hear).

Some caveats: Because of its size, the speaker isn't as powerful as other wireless systems, and it was unclear whether connecting two of them via the daisy-chain cable would produce stereo sound or just boost the audio (we only had one unit to test). In addition, at $90 (I did see this available for $70 via Amazon Prime, however), the price is a bit higher than similar style speakers (for example, a portable Bluetooth speaker from iHome sells for about $25 on Amazon).

Grade: 3.5 stars

Shaw can be reached at kshaw@nww.com. Follow him on Twitter: @shawkeith

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