Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 10, Number 1: January 2010

Interesting & Peculiar Products

Choosing the Right Laptop

The August 2009 PC World has an interesting feature, “The Laptop Compatibility Quiz: Find your perfect portable.” It breaks users down into personas: average Joe, corporate raider, jet-setter, student, and gamer. For each persona, the article recommends appropriate criteria and offers a few recommendations. Briefly:

·         Average Joe: Any Core 2 Duo or Turion X2 Ultra Dual-core CPU should do, along with 3 GB RAM, 13 to 16 inch display, a DVD burner—but they also recommend either discrete graphics or at least a slot for a separate processor. (Really? Am I missing out?) Picks: Gateway UC7807u (under $800), with the $800 HP Pavilion dv3 as an alternative.

·         Corporate Raider: Same CPU recommendations, but they say get 4GB RAM and 64-bit Vista (this was August, remember), a screen with 1366x768 resolution but no need for discrete graphics—and weight between 4 and 5 pounds. They suggest The $1,400 Lenovo ThinkPad T400.

·         Jet-Setter: An ultraportable, of course, and once again they say 4GB instead of 3GB. Since it’s an ultraportable, you’re probably not going to see more than a 13.3” 1280x800 pixel screen. It should weigh less than 4 pounds. Recommended: The $2,057 Lenovo ThinkPad X300.

·         Student: A netbook, which generally means the Intel Atom with 1GB RAM, barely passable integrated graphics, usually a 1024x600 pixel screen and less than three pounds. Picks: the Asus Eee PC1000HE or 1008HA (around $400) or, if you have more money, the $749 HP Pavilion dv2.

·         Gamer: Xenon Quad Core or maybe the fastest Core 2 Duo around; 4GB or more; discrete graphics with at least 512MB of display memory, maybe a double graphics card; ideally a 1920x1200 pixel 17 or 18.4” screen, a Blu-ray drive—and about 15 pounds weight. They suggest the $4,500 Eurocom D901C Phantom-X or Asus’ $2,200 W90.

Fixing the Ratings

I probably need to find some general-interest PC magazines in addition to PC World (sorry, but I can’t be bothered with the digital remnants of PC Magazine) or drop most of this section entirely—but meanwhile, PC World has fixed one of the ratings issues that used to drive me crazy. To wit, price is no longer a factor in calculating PCW Ratings for products. Those ratings will depend on performance, design and features.

That should mean that we won’t get photo printers offering “good” output coming out higher than ones offering “superior” output, just because they’re cheaper. As the editor notes, buyers take price into account already; factoring it into the ratings number gives it too much importance.

They’ve also abandoned the “exactly one Best Buy logo per roundup” approach. Now, they’ll put the logo on any product that appears to be a bargain—which could mean none (as in the all-in-one roundup noted elsewhere in this section) or several.

One Terabyte, No Spin

One terabyte hard disks are old news; you can buy them for less than $100 (at least on Black Friday) and you can buy 2TB disks these days. But these are old technology—electromechanical devices with spinning disks and read-write heads: Pretty much like a 78RPM turntable from the turn of the century, albeit a little more modern.

As we all know (based on industry gurus), hard disks disappeared years ago, replaced by solid-state memory. And, according to PC World October 2009, you should be able to buy a serious solid-state drive right about now, the OCZ 1TB Colossus SSD Drive. It weighs less than a pound (14oz.) and fits into a standard 3.5” drive bay. It should have read speeds up to 250MB/s (that’s megabytes) and write speeds of 220MB/s. The writeup doesn’t say much about total cycles, a bane of solid-state drives used for long periods of time as actual hard disk replacement. There’s one other little issue: It should go for $2,200. (An even smaller and even faster 1TB solid-state drive goes for $3,000.)

The Real Cost of Smartphones

Mark Sullivan has an interesting Consumer Watch article in the October 2009 PC World: “How Much Does a Smartphone Really Cost?” The magazine tried to figure out total cost of ownership over a two-year contract, including the kind of unlimited talk, text and data plans you’d almost certainly want.

For an iPhone 3GS 16GB, necessarily on AT&T, the two-year total would be $3,836, or about $160 per month. Turns out that, for any typical BlackBerry model or a Nokia E71x, the total’s also right around $3,800 (e.g., $3,764.75 for the BlackBerry Tour 9630 on Verizon, or $157 a month). But there are lower-priced options: the Palm Pre on Sprint comes out at $2,635.75 ($110/month), largely because Sprint’s Simply Everything plan is considerably cheaper than Verizon’s and AT&T’s unlimited plans.

The Range of Audiophile Equipment

I kvetch about claims for absurdly expensive audio equipment fairly often in My Back Pages—complaining not because the prices are so high (what someone else wants to pay for exclusivity, artistic design or just to flaunt their wealth is their business) but because of claims that the prices are justified by actual audible performance differences—and sometimes that anything beneath a certain very high threshold really isn’t audiophile quality.

That makes The Abso!ute Sound’s Editors’ Choice Awards issues somewhat refreshing (even though the magazine’s disdain for any instrument testing is an ongoing annoyance). The magazine doesn’t categorize items in various grades, except for a special super-expensive subcategory; instead, everything must meet one criterion: “Would one of [the full-time editorial staff] buy the product with our own money or recommend that product to a close friend or relative?”

So it’s interesting to see the range of prices for gear considered high-end. The most recent Awards roundup was September 2009. Let’s see what you can put together:

·         Budget System: PSB Alpha B1 speakers, $279/pair. (Want more bass? Add a PSB SubSeries 5i for $549.) Oppo DV-980H CD/DVD/DVD-Audio/SACD player, $169. (Want LPs? Add the Pro-Ject Debut III for $349, cartridge included.) NAD C315BEE integrated amplifier, $349. (For LP, you might need to add a Parasound Zphono phonostage, $150.) Cables (assuming good-quality “no-name” cables won’t work): Transparent Audio The Link interconnect, $85 for one meter, and Paul Speltz “Anti-Cable” Speaker Cable, $160 for two 8’ cables. Total: $1,042 for CD/SACD/DVD playback with no subwoofer (add $230 for Blu-ray playback) or $2,290 with turntable and subwoofer (and bumping receiver to a more powerful unit that’s $100 more).

·         Expensive System: MBL 101 X-tremes, $250,000/pair. Solution 740 CD player, $60,000. Clearaudio Statement turntable & arm, $150,000, plus Clearaudio Goldfinger V2 cartridge, $10,000. Krell Evolution Two preamp, $50,000. (Unclear whether you’d also want an Audio Tekne TEA-2000 phonostage, $12,000.) Solution 700 amplifiers, $115,000 each (monoblocks: two required). Cables: TARA Labs Zero Gold interconnect, $14,900 for one meter, and MIT Oracle MA Speaker Cable, $49,800 for two 8’ cables. Total: I can’t imagine anyone at this price level who isn’t also in love with vinyl, but a CD-only system (note: SACD and DVD-Audio playback not supported) would be a mere $654,700. Adding LP playback brings that up to $826,700.

I am absolutely certain that the $654,700 system will sound better than the $1,042 system, to almost anyone who listens to music seriously. If you add the subwoofer to the budget system and maybe notch it up to the more powerful NAD C325BEE ($449 instead of $349), bringing the non-LP total up to $1,691, I suspect a serious music listener could still easily tell the difference—but I’m less certain most of us would be terribly concerned about it. Is the high-end system worth 387 times as much (without vinyl) or 361 times as much (with vinyl and, for the cheap system, subwoofer)? Certainly for those who choose it—but it’s less clear that, speakers possibly excepted, sound quality could be the primary reason. And, for those of us here on earth, even in the Bay Area you can buy a pretty nice house for the difference. (Admission: My current music system is a $50 MP3 player and $40 Sennheiser headphones—which I might upgrade to $80 Grado SR60i headphones, also in the Editors’ Choice Awards).

Editors’ Choices and Group Reviews

PC World tests point-and-shoot digital cameras in the $200 range in the July 2009 issue—but “$200 range” is a broad description. The Best Buy is the $250 Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS25, a 12-megapixel camera with 5x optical zoom and very good image quality. Second place—also with very good image quality, but shorter battery life—is the Nikon Coolpix L20 at $130. It offers a mere 10 megapixels (more than enough for most photographers) and 3.6x optical zoom. You can, to be sure, buy two Nikons for the price of one Panasonic (plus $10). Realistically, this review covers three price ranges: $120-$130 (four cameras), $180-$200 (five cameras), and $250 (one outlier). (The Nikon sold for $130 in July; in December 2009, it’s going for $100.)

The August 2009 PC World rounds up security suites and comes up with an unexpected Best Buy: G Data Internet Security 2010, cheap ($30 and $30 per year), great detection rate, good behavioral detection, fast and eking out a slight lead over Norton Internet Security 2009.

Want freebies? The October 2009 PC World evaluates nine free security programs. Avira AntiVir Personal and Alwil Avast Antivirus Home Edition both come out with “Superior” performance scores, with the Avira edging out the Alwil. You might also look for Microsoft Security Essentials when it emerges from beta—it was slow but well-designed and effective.

Looking at all-in-one PCs (yes, there are a lot of those these days), the September 2009 PC World gives the $1,149 Lenovo IdeaCentre A600 its top score for units with screens 20 inches or larger; it comes with a 21.5” screen, a 2.13GHz Core 2 Dup CPU, 4GB RAM, one terabyte of storage, a Blu-ray drive and such extras as an HDTV tuner and 2megapixel webcam—but it’s a crappy gaming machine. For smaller-screen units, the highest rating goes to Dell’s $944 Studio One 19, with an 18.5” touchscreen, 2.5GHz Pentium dual-core (a step down from Core 2 Duo), 4GB RAM, 320GB storage and dual-format DVD burner—“better than a budget all-in-one but not quite high-end either.”

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 10, Number X, Whole Issue 124, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Editorial Director of the Library Leadership Network.

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