Positives: an innovative solution to a long-standing problem.
Negatives: in real-world testing it failed to deliver.
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The endless battle between laptop manufacturers to differentiate their machine from the next silver-grey clamshell has been great news for consumers. Even budget machines now sport high-definition displays and high-resolution webcams to match.
Sound output is a major selling point with top manufacturers attempting to woo customers with built-in, co-branded speakers from the likes of Harman Kardon or hip-hop artist Dr Dre.
But the one area that is neglected is sound input for services such as Skype chat. Every laptop sports a built-in mic, but they are universally awful – tinny, muffled and overwhelmed by ambient noise rather than the operator's voice. The key problem is placement – while a webcam is ideally positioned in a laptop bezel, a microphone would ideally be placed next to the speaker's mouth like a telephone.
Call centre-style headsets provide a good quality, cheap and simple solution to the problem but they are neither fashionable nor comfortable for extended periods. Wireless Bluetooth headsets are another good option but they have the same problems.
California-based Blue Microphones has developed a novel solution which aims to deliver excellent sound quality while leaving the user unencumbered by headsets or earpieces. The solution, named Tiki, is a snail-shaped USB stick with two large microphones facing in opposite directions.
The principle is simple – by analysing the differences in sound coming from each mic, the Tiki is able to distinguish the speaker's voice from unwanted background sounds such as keyboard clicks and general office chatter.
Automatic features such as voice isolation and intelligent mute aim to strip away all the unwanted sounds to leave you with a clear voice recording.
Unfortunately, in my testing, the reality just didn't live up to the hype. Plugged into my laptop the voice isolation technology didn't work well – keyboard clicks seemed more pronounced than with my built-in mic and the intelligent mute feature clicked on randomly, resulting in random 2-3 second breaks in the conversation.
I reviewed the Blue Yeti, the company's flagship mic, in January and was impressed. Excellent sound paired with a tank-like build quality earned it a rare five-star rating.
The Tiki also has clever technology in a beautifully designed, solidly-built package. Tiki's only flaw is that it doesn't capture sound well.
If you're in the market for a Skype microphone, my top recommendation is still the Native Union Pop, reviewed here last November. It's comfortable, reasonably cheap – and it works.
Update (29 October 2012): Following my original review Blue suggested there may be a fault with my Tiki mic. They sent a replacement which does work considerably better - the 'intelligent mute' feature clicked in at broadly the right times, allowing me to talk uninterrupted while cutting out through most of the background chatter. However, it was still slow to respond, often missing the first word of whatever I said. The workaround was to introduce a brief cough each time I wanted to speak. Better, yes, but still not a patch on headset, handset or in-line mics.