To date, Altec Lansing's little portable Orbit speaker have come in a few different colors and designs. The latest offering, the Orbit USB, offers USB connectivity so you can conveniently plug it into your laptop.
In going to USB, the overall design of the speaker hasn't really changed (though we do prefer the black finish), but Altec has added a flip-out kickstand to the bottom of the unit, so you can prop it up at a 45-degree angle. Previously, the speaker fired upward or you could stand it up on its side, though not an angle. The kickstand is definitely a nice bonus and it appears to slightly improve the sound quality by having the speaker fire in a more optimal direction.
Earlier Orbits were battery powered, but the iML237 has no battery option; you must plug the USB cable into a computer for power. It's also worth noting that with other Orbits you had the option of using the integrated 3.5 millimeter plug to connect to a computer's speaker port or directly to an MP3 player or other device with an audio output. However, this model, as we said, is only designed for computer use.
While not minuscule, the speaker is fairly small: it measures 3.4 inches in diameter, is 2 inches deep, and weighs 5.76 ounces. Like the silver iM237, this model comes with a neoprene carrying case (it looks better in black, too) that should protect the speaker from short falls or sharp objects in your laptop bag.
As one might expect from a speaker this small, it doesn't sound all that good. But it also doesn't sound terrible and manages to belt out tunes with unexpected gusto, though--not surprisingly--it does better with lighter fare and less bass-heavy material.
We ran some Kings of Leon tunes through the Orbit and it did OK. As we said in our earlier review of the Orbit iM237, while there isn't much bass, it isn't completely absent, which is all you can ask. It also sounds fine with movies (we streamed some stuff from Hulu).
Altec recommends that you adjust the volume on the source device from 85 percent to 90 percent of maximum and turn off any bass enhancement or EQ settings. We'd disagree on the first part, and suggest that the key thing is not to crank the volume too much or you'll be greeted with some distortion. (Volume settings are strictly at the source; the Orbit itself has no built-in volume control.)
It's worth noting that the sound does seem slightly better with this model. Maybe it's the straight digital connection via USB or the way you can angle the speaker with the kickstand, but things sounded slightly improved versus earlier models. Of course, the key is that it produces better--and louder--sound than what most built-in laptop speakers can deliver.
While we like this new model and can recommend it to laptop users who want a compact travel speaker that outperforms their internal laptop speakers, we think it's a tad pricey at $50. Altec Lansing's iM237 Orbit MP3 speaker initially had a list price of $40, but that product can be found for less than $30 online. Hopefully, with time, the price of the Orbit USB iML237 will also drift down, making it even easier to endorse.