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

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 12: October 2006

Interesting & Peculiar Products

Perpendicular Drives

Sure it’s jargon, but it’s also a growing trend in hard disks that’s now reaching the marketplace. Perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR), that is: A change from the longitudinal recording used until now. PMR packs more data into each square inch of hard disk surface (higher “areal density”), thus more data per disk for a given size.

Early examples include 40GB and 80GB 1.8" drives (the kind used in MP3 players) produced by Toshiba for use in its own Megabeat players. A product review in the May 2006 PC World introduces Seagate’s 160GB Momentus 5400.3 drive, a 2.5" unit (designed for notebooks); it’s the largest notebook drive available as of May. Test results were good: Considerably faster copying than the same-speed Seagate 120GB Momentus drive (with longitudinal recording) and slightly faster searching. As with most notebook drives and most-current-technology drives, these come at a premium: About $2 per gigabyte, absurdly cheap by historic standards but pricey for today’s disks. The new drive also uses less energy and gives off less heat than the 120GB predecessor.

The first PMR disks in ready supply are particularly meaningful because they show that ever-increasing disk capacity continues as a remarkable phenomenon. These models run 133 gigabits per square inch, only a slight increase over the biggest desktop (3.5") drives (500GB drives with 125gbpsi in May)—but Seagate’s not blowing smoke when they predict a fourfold increase in capacity over the next few years. That means two terabyte single-platter desktop drives, 1TB laptops, and 50GB drives in the tiniest MP3 players (using 1" drives) before too long. (Sure, you can get more capacity by using more platters, but that means greater thickness and increased complexity.)

The July 2006 PC World includes a full-page review of the Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 internal (desktop) drive: 750GB for $590, with “class-leading performance.” You can bet that $590 will go down rapidly (that Seagate is available for less than $400 in mid-September 2006).

Portable Video and Enforced Contemplation

Just about the most negative review I’ve seen recently in PC Magazine appears in the May 9, 2006 issue and targets the $220 Iomega ScreenPlay—a little box (5.2” largest dimension) with a 60GB hard disk and a little remote control, designed to play video, photos and music on a TV: Basically, a portable media server.

It supports most MPEG flavors (but not, apparently, all); it lacks support for QuickTime, Real, and Windows Media video, as well as WMA and MP4 audio. There are no playlists; you scroll through all your stuff to find what you want.

That’s not why I included it. What’s great about this product, and doubtless yields the one-dot rating, is that it encourages you to slow down, relax, contemplate a little instead of rushing into your video. “It took me 14 minutes to boot up to a navigational screen on my TV, and then, once I got there, clicking on any of the icons resulted in a 5-minute—or longer—wait.” You can do a lot of thinking in 19 minutes. Of course, your primary thought may be “Why did I buy this piece of junk?” but I encourage something closer to Zen.

Inexpensive Keyboards

I originally wrote “cheap keyboards” there, but “cheap” may be wrong. This is another in Jim Louderback’s expanded “real-world” roundups of bottom-priced peripherals. For most typists who don’t need something like the Microsoft Natural, a high-end ergonomic keyboard or a wireless unit, there are two obvious choices here. If you love surprises or think you pay lots extra for brand names, you’ll be disappointed: The two best keyboards both cost $20 minus a single coin ($19.99 and $19.95) and come from the two biggest names in keyboards: Microsoft and Logitech. They’re both “media keyboards” with lots of special keys and they both work well. Logitech’s Media Keyboard accepts light keystrokes and offers good tactile feedback (but “it’s a tad mushy”), and the special keys don’t require a custom driver—although provided software does let you customize buttons. Microsoft’s Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000 offers some of the ergonomic qualities of the Natural (the keyboard’s curved in a broad arc, but not split); frequent typists might find it helpful. (The MS keyboard uses a USB port; the others use the PS/2 port.)

Holographic Storage

Here’s another one of those “real soon now” technologies that’s been real soon now for quite a few years. In the March 2001 C&I I suggested that we’ve been hearing the promise for a decade or so. According to PC Magazine (May 23, 2006), it’s “growing up”—just as we’ve also heard time and time again. InPhase Technologies demonstrated a holographic device storing 515 gigabits of data per square inch—which doesn’t mean as much as their planned disc capacity: 300GB “later this year” on a 12cm (CD-size) disc, with plans for 800GB to 1.6TB storage later.

2006 is claimed as a firm date: “We will ship such a holographic drive to manufacturers before the end of this year” says Liz Murphy of InPhase. End user price: Around $15,000. “So it’s not cheap, but it’s getting there.” They call the design Tapestry.

Flashback: In June 2002, PC Magazine reported that InPhase Technologies was demonstrating Tapestry, with a product assured in 2004. The report said DVD was “at the end of its life” with holographic storage replacing “just about every application that uses other existing technologies” by 2012 to 2017. PC was impressed enough to illustrate the item with a tombstone inscribed “DVD…we hardly knew thee.”

Will holographic storage reach the consumer market? Probably, eventually, maybe. Does it doom other recording technologies? Think about “rust on a spinning platter,” that absurd old technology that’s been in commercial use for sixty years now. Talk about obsolete!

Cheap Steganography

Nine bucks—that’s pretty good. Storm Pro costs almost nothing and uses possibly the most effective method of hiding in plain sight: steganography. Go look it up (Wikipedia has a good article); briefly, it means conveying a secret message in such a way that nobody but the recipient recognizes that a message exists—which is different from cryptography.

Here’s a simple example: Take a picture in TIFF form. Set the least significant bit of the first byte so that it matches the first bit in the first byte of your message—at worst, you’ll introduce a nearly-invisible shift in color in one pixel of the image. Do the same thing with every other byte, until you’ve communicated the message. A 10,000-character message will fit in an 80KB image, and nobody will have a clue that there’s an embedded message.

Storm Pro uses more sophisticated methods (I suspect) and allows password encryption. You can hide data files in any media file format that maps out its data in its headers, including MP3s and JPEGs. In Storm Pro’s case the file gets a lot bigger (apparently).

Better Batteries?

The new “lifestyle” PC Magazine still does some things well—especially the “Real-World Testing” articles. This one (May 23, 2006) is on long-life batteries “tailor-made for electronics”: Duracell Ultra, Energizer e2 Lithium, Panasonic Oxyride. Troy Dreier picked up regular alkaline AA cells—Duracell CopperTop, Energizer Max, RadioShack Enercell, IKEA store brand—and the new ones. The IKEAs don’t fit in the control group, as they’re store-brand cheapos ($2.99 for 10) where the others are fairly high-end alkalines. Dreier ran three tests: powering a digital camera, running a portable TV, and running a heavy-duty flashlight.

He paid $0.60 for two Ikea batteries, $1.50 for two RadioShack, $2 for two Energizer Max or Duracell CopperTop. Two Duracell Ultra or Panasonic Oxyride weren’t much higher at $2.50—but a pair of Energizer e2 Lithium cost $5.

How did they do? In cameras, there’s no question: The lithium batteries lasted for 2,676 shots, as compared to 989 for the Oxyride, 522 for the Ultra—and between 309 and 374 for the high-end alkalines. (The IKEAs pooped out at 209 pictures). That makes the most expensive batteries a bargain at 5.4 pictures per penny, with the Oxyride second at 4.0 “pix per penny” and, oddly, the IKEA third at 3.5 (but you’ll change batteries a lot more often, which is not environmentally sound).

Don’t use lithium batteries in a portable TV, though. Sure, they last longer (6 hours 15 minutes, compared to a low of 3:40 for the Oxyride), but that still makes them more than twice as expensive per hour as even the Duracell Ultra, and ten times as expensive per hour as the IKEA (which did well in this test). And don’t waste high-end batteries on a flashlight: Not only is it wasteful, but in this test they burned the bulb out (apparently they’re slightly high voltage?). So, where the IKEAs lasted 4:04 hours ($0.15 per hour) and the CopperTops lasted 5:45 ($0.36 per hour), the Duracell Ultras only lasted eight minutes before blowing the bulb.

“The lesson is simple: Buy the right battery for the job.” Special long-life batteries are great for cameras but wrong for some other uses.

Worst Tech Products

In conjunction with this year’s “world class” winners, PC World editors chose the “25 worst tech products” since PC World began (24 years ago). These are all products that made it to market; as Dan Tynan’s writeup (you can find it at notes, “most truly awful ideas never make it out of somebody’s garage.”

In first place, with that ranking emphasized by this year’s confidentiality bomb, is AOL.—for a whole range of reasons discussed in the writeup. I don’t know enough about RealNetworks’ RealPlayer to comment on its #2 rating, but Syncronys SoftRAM surely deserves its spot among the top five—a $30 piece of software that didn’t do much of anything. Rounding out the top or bottom five: Windows ME and Sony BMG’s pseudo-CDs.

I won’t list all 25, supplemented by ten (dis)honorable mentions. Some personal favorites include PointCast. CueCat, OQO Model 1, DigiScents iSmell, and of course Circuit City’s DivX disposable DVDs. The biggies don’t escape unscathed. In addition to Windows ME, Microsoft gets nicked for Bob, IE6 and WebTV; Apple earns reverse kudos for the Pippin @World, the 1989 Macintosh “portable” (16 pounds), the Puck Mouse, and the 20th Anniversary Macintosh; and don’t forget IBM’s PCjr (“an orphan almost from the start”).”

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 12, Whole Issue 82, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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