Thursday, 28 July 2016

Device Label Broad Blast (aka Blaster)

Music Label and Device Label were two very short-lived offshoots from the TransFormers brand, created by Takara Tomy, which featured functional memory sticks (2Gb - paltry by today's standards) and optical mice which transformed into robots. They were so short-lived, in fact, that they seem in retrospect to have been created to facilitate one particular model in each case (Soundwave, under the Music Label banner, for example).

The last two releases in the Device Label line were a third repaint of the memory stick (as Cheetor, supposedly, Takara Tomy having used the same mold first as Ravage, then as Tigatron) and a the only model never to be repurposed: a functioning 4-port USB hub made to look like a Toshiba laptop. How does Blaster fare with such a strange alternate mode? Let's find out...

Alternate Mode:
Aside from a couple of obvious quirks (the prominent seams in the laptop's casing and monitor, the overall thickness of the device) this is a surprisingly good rendition of a miniature laptop... then again, there's really not much to the average laptop these days - all their cases have become surprisingly homogenous - so it's not exactly much of an achievement. The additional depth of the unit accommodates the four A-type USB ports on the front, with its single Mini B-type port at the front of the left side to allow it to connect to a computer. I gather the boxed version was packaged with such a cable but, having picked this up loose and bagged at Roll Out Roll Call for a mere £25, it included the instruction booklet, but was otherwise without accessories. That worked out OK for me because it cost me less than half it's current average eBay price, I hardly have a shortage of spare USB cables, and it saves me agonising about whether or not to keep yet another box.

As with most laptops these days, the outer casing treats its lack of molded detail as a virtue, but the gunmetal colouring and the Toshiba brand logo seem pretty authentic. The keyboard is nicely detailed but, sadly, the keys are fixed in place. What strikes me as odd is that the keys themselves are molded with a very subtle texture, but the trackpad isn't, so it looks far less authentic. I also notice that the spacebar is somewhat recessed versus the other keys, which is unusual. The frame of the keyboard area has a coating of quite coarse silver paint, which also covers the three 'mouse' buttons and a strange dial (possibly a volume control?) on the left side. It seems a little strange - but only a little - that, having clearly gone to a lot of effort to replicate the details of this laptop, they didn't add any labelling to the keys.

The laptop screen is a set of three stickers depicting a more-or-less blank red screen - it features horizontal lines in a darker shade and a large Autobot insignia picked out with a fuzzy shadow. Early publicity shots showed it with a Windows-style interface, but that may have been replaced for copyright reasons, or just for simplicity. It's a decent image, but leaves him looking as though he's crashed on startup.

A quick look at the underside basically reveals how this thing transforms, and it's very simplistic - not least, Blaster's head can easily be seen 'concealed' within  his tape deck chest. There's a lot of paint down there, particularly the yellow on the tape door, so I'd be a little concerned about it getting scuffed through use as a USB hub, but it's a cute little unit, and I find it amusing that one can have a computer attached to a miniature laptop which functions as a USB hub.

Robot Mode:
Unsurprisingly, given that his alternate mode is basically a box, Blaster ends up looking very boxy in robot mode - and not just from the front. His arms, legs and body are each made up of very squared-off sections of various sizes. I'm especially not keen on the large upper arms extending so high above the shoulder and, while the shoulder joints themselves are on hinges, they can't go much lower without closing up into their alternate mode configuration. The forearms, meanwhile, look very stubby as they're comparatively short, and the hands are positively miniscule. It's interesting to note that, while no weapons were included in this set, Blaster has standard 5mm holes through his hands, so he could wield his G1 weapon... if you happen to have one lying around.

Virtually his entire torso is taken up with the cassette door - which can accommodate a single G1-style microcassette minion now that it doesn't conceal his noggin - with the groin/hips section being tiny by comparison. The thighs are very slender and stick-like, but his lower legs are more in keeping with the look of the arms. The biggest problem with his overall look, unsurprisingly, is the three slabs of laptop monitor that just end up hanging off his shoulders and back, like a particularly elaborate cape. Literally nothing happens to these parts, other that separating to allow the arms to move and, while they're not overly noticeable from the front, they're pretty much unmissable from any other angle.

Much of the molded detail on the arms and legs is designed to resemble details of the G1 original, but the lack of painted detail - or stickers - means that, much like Music Label Soundwave, he looks pretty plain despite a bright and vibrant colourscheme. There is a Reprolabels set available for him (including labelling for the keys, though they way they've been done would make them a complete dust-trap), which I may well invest in at some point.

The head sculpt, again similar to Music Label Soundwave, modelled heavily on the character's appearance in the cartoon rather than the original toy. I've never been a fan of that approach, and I really like Blaster's toy head (despite it technically only being the front half of a head), so this interpretation seems bland and somewhat puffy. He's basically expressionless, and it seems strange - given that this is primarily a G1 cartoon homage - that his light piping is yellow (matching the toy) rather than the standard Autobot blue.

Blaster's transformation is incredibly simple, at least in part to facilitate the USB hub functionality. A cable runs between the two ports on each shin, and I gather the hip area had been redesigned after the earliest publicity shots due to the ports ceasing to function in robot mode. The only problem with transformation, really, is the way the legs collapse in over the groin - the plastic of the heels rubs over the red paint, and some wear is evident on the corners. I'm not a great fan of the way the head reveal is dealt with, nor the hands and wrists. They're not floppy, as such, but they are the weakest aspects of his construction, and the bulk of the forearms - when rotated 90° as they're supposed to be - would tend to get in the way of anything getting plugged into his hands.

Despite his boxy appearance and integrated electronics, Blaster is as well-articulated as many contemporary Classics figures, with ball-jointed shoulders and elbows (though it almost seems as though the ball joints are intended for transformation rather than articulation, as they're very floppy on mine!) as well as excellent range on the hips (including upper thigh swivel) and knees. The feet offer a fairly stable base in most poses, but he can be tricky to balance on his long, thin, 'toe' piece without any fold-out support at the heel. The head is only able to swivel, but a certain amount of tilt can be cheated by sliding the head forward on its flip-around platform.

The fact that the chest is little more than a large chasm into which his head stows in his laptop form shows that more - or something else entirely - could have been done with it, but the fact that he can stash a G1 (or Masterpiece) cassette in there is a neat little nod to the fans. I rather wish they'd included a 'hidden' fifth USB port in there, specifically for robot mode, and created some G1 cassette-sized memory stick to plug in there, or perhaps a plug-in card-reader, like ML Soundwave's MiniSD port, to give him a bit of extra functionality. Then again, Soundwave had no USB port, so his MiniSD card had to be removed to be written to - evidently Takara Tomy had a very narrow view of what their Music/Device Label products should do. That said, as a USB hub, he does work well... but even at only £25, he's a bit expensive for function alone.

If Music Label was a dangerous folly, Device Label was just plain nuts. As niche products go, computer hardware that transforms into robots has to be a pretty small niche, and a fairly expensive one, at that. While I suspect that Blaster is more generally useful than either of the optical mice (which looked horribly uncomfortable and liable to collect even more dirt that a standard mouse due to all the ridges) or the paltry 2Gb memory stick/cat-bots, he's a more interesting curiosity in either mode. Even a more G1 toy-like head would have improved him, but the boxy construction and weird proportions mean he's always going to look odd. That being said, and even with his great, flappy, three-part cape, I prefer this interpretation of Blaster to the silly Titans Return version... but neither are a patch on the G1 original.

I must confess that I don't understand why Blaster wasn't in the Music Label lineup as a small, functioning boombox (perhaps with DAB radio as well as MP3 functionality?), or even in the Device Label set as a USB hub that looked like a boombox... but this is a curious mixture of licensed product and functional computer hardware under the TransFormers banner, so perhaps wanting it to make some kind of sense is just asking too much.

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