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

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 1: January 2006

Interesting & Peculiar Products

The Really Big Shew

I’m sure one or two C&I readers have true home theaters—rooms with proper acoustical treatment, carefully-chosen sound systems, 9 foot screens, controlled lighting and high-end ceiling-mounted front projectors. I’m guessing $100,000 as a reasonable price, although that may be on the low side. Dozens of you probably have big-screen TVs, at least 50" diagonal, combined with a good surround sound system to give that true cinema feel (without the sticky floors). After all, you can do that for $5 or $6 grand, maybe less.

What if you’re not ready to turn over that much cash and—perhaps equally important—don’t have that much dedicated space? PC World 23:10 (October 2005) offers one example of a solution: Optoma’s $1,499 MovieTime DV10. It’s a digital projector with 854x480 resolution, which isn’t high definition but should reproduce everything a DVD can deliver. What makes it interesting, though, is that it includes a DVD player and built-in speakers. It’s not as small as some business digital projectors, but it’s only 14.5x4.6x10.7" (and while weight isn’t given, I’d be surprised if it’s more than 10-15 pounds).

When it’s time for a movie, pull it out of the closet and set it up: At a seven-foot throw distance, you get a 74" diagonal 16x9 image. A white wall may do, although a good screen will provide a better picture. You’re not going to get theater-class sound, to be sure—but the image will be “movie-sized” without dominating your room when it’s not being used.

A Terabyte for Gaming?

According to the Editors’ Choice review in PC Magazine (October 4, 2005), the Dell Dimension XPS 600 is a great game machine—but it appears equally suitable for other top-of-the-line uses. It comes with 1GB SDRAM and two 256MB nVidia GeForce 7800 GTX graphics cards—but also two 500GB hard drives. (There’s also a dual-layer multiformat DVD burner, a DVD-ROM drive, top-of-the-line Sound Blaster Audigy sound card, and a solid 5.1-channel Logitech Z5500 speaker system.) The machine comes with Windows XP Media Center and two TV tuners (but only standard definition/NTSC), and the 24" widescreen LCD monitor may do pretty well as a TV. The price is $4,999, which may not be bad for this variety of übercomputer.

But How to Back it Up?

Internal hard disk storage may be absurdly cheap and capacious—but external storage isn’t doing badly either. PC Magazine (October 4, 2005) gives an Editors’ Choice to Seagate’s External Hard Drive—which costs $399 but has 400GB capacity. It includes BounceBack Express backup, allowing one-button backup of an internal hard drive to the Seagate (for $49, you can upgrade to BounceBack Professional, providing automated restore and other advanced and time-saving facilities). Sure, it’s a great way to do fast, capacious backup—but if you’re running out of space on a PC you otherwise like, and you’re nervous about installing another internal drive, it should take you some time to use up an extra 400GB.

Really Cheap DVD Players

Another in Jim Louderback’s stunning series of “really cheap component” columns in PC Magazine, this one (October 4, 2005) recounts his need to buy a cheap DVD player for the bedroom Toshiba TV—a TV he purchased with a built-in DVD player, which went south “barely minutes after the warranty expired.”

He set a $50 limit and wound up with units from four chain stores—including WalMart but (surprisingly) not including Target. All the players offer progressive scan, all play a variety of recordable DVD formats, MP3 CDs, and others, but they weren’t identical in performance. The no-name brand went bad quickly; the Polaroid delivered lousy progressive-scan output. The other three—from companies with some history in home electronics—did just fine. Best of the lot was the $50 Toshiba SD-K750. So he replaced a defective internal player with a new player from the same company, and probably made the right decision.

…and Printers

Jim Louderback’s November 8 column looks at ink jet printers that cost roughly the same as the ink cartridges themselves—truly the razor/blade model in action. Extreme cases ship with only a color cartridge and need another $22 black cartridge to work well. Lexmark’s Z611 costs $30 at Target, $24 at shop.pcmag; HP’s DeskJet 3740 costs $27 at shop.pcmag and $29 at CompUSA. Figure $23 for a Lexmark replacement color cartridge, $22 for the HP. While Canon’s Pixma iP1600 costs $45 to $50, that includes both black and color cartridges, which will set you back $45 to replace (for both). The Canon’s a better printer than the others. In all three cases, you’re basically getting the printer for free.

Framing Your Plasma

You bought a lovely plasma TV and you don’t mind the power bill (plasmas are power hogs). But that 50" display with the sleek silver or black surround doesn’t suit your traditional décor—particularly if you have antiques. Eli Wilner & Co. has a solution: A custom frame! Eli Wilner is an art gallery “that specializes in American and European frames from the 19th and early 20th centuries” and has “nearly 3,000 styles [of frame] available,” according to a blurb in Sound and Vision. Once you’ve paid for the frame, the plasma TV will seem like a bargain: Frames big enough for plasma TVs start at a cool $10,000.

Update on the Escient FireBall SE-80

I’ve mentioned Escient’s FireBall controllers previously, mostly as peculiar products: The DVDM-100, which cost $1,999 in July 2004 and mostly served as a controller for DVD/CD megachangers and streaming center, and the DVDM-300 (July 2005), which added a 300GB hard disk so you can rip the CDs—and cost $4,999. As I noted last July/August, “Man, that’s one expensive 300GB hard drive!”

The October 2005 Sound & Vision reports on a somewhat less ambitious device, the FireBall SE-80. It includes an 80GB hard disk, a CD-R drive, and various connectivity options. It’s for storing, organizing and streaming music, not movies, but the price is a little more rational: $999. On the other hand, even though it gets the magazine’s seal of approval, the reviewer’s aware of the reality: “Though $999 may still seem pricey for what amounts to a modest hard drive and the software to control it…” You think?

Update on Oakley Thump

There’s an error in the Midwinter 2005 snarky comment on this sunglass/MP3 player combo: “$495 ($256)” should say “$495 (256MB).” There’s another review, this time in the October 2005 Sound & Vision. The capacity has gone up: $495 now buys 512MB fhasl memory. The sound is apparently OK, and it’s certainly convenient to have earbuds connected to your sunglasses (if you don’t need prescription glasses) rather than dangling cords. Three buttons on the right frame control power, pause, and track change; volume controls are on the left.

That’s a pricey 512MB MP3 player—but that’s not really the issue. I guess style is an individual matter, and both reviews comment on how stylish the glasses are. I’m sure they’re somebody’s style, but the new picture still shows some of the ugliest sunglasses I’ve ever seen. Your taste may vary.

Readius: Back to the Scroll

If you want a true “pocket ebook”—one you can drop into any pocket—rollable displays may be key. Philips’ Concept Readius is a flexible display that rolls up to fit inside a tiny casing and unroll to be a 5" 320x240 display based on e-ink. The whole device is “a little bigger than two side-by-side packs of gum,” according to a November 8, 2005 PC Magazine writeup. The resolution of the prototype is nothing to write home about—figure 80 dpi, way too low for print-equivalent readability—but there’s presumably room for improvement.

The $100 Laptop

You’ve certainly heard about it—Nicholas Negroponte is nothing if not a master of publicity for his ideas. And, as an established prophet, he’s never wrong—no matter how much reality may differ from his previous inevitable futures. His big deal these days is the $100 laptop for third-world children: 500MHz processor, 1GB flash drive, WiFi, a modest screen, enough RAM to run Linux—and a hand crank for power. He says it’s ready to go as soon as governments order them in million-computer lots.

Cyrus Farivar says “Don’t hold your breath” in a November 29, 2005 Slate piece. Right now, one issue is the plausibility of the price. Negroponte claims the screen costs $35; Farivar estimates $70 for a 1GB flash drive, $25 for WiFi, $50 for RAM, and certainly something for the case, the crank, the battery, plus labor, distribution, and all that. He doesn’t see how it could be produced anywhere for much less than $300 at today’s prices—and, to be sure, even if it can, someone has to support the system.

Negroponte’s got a natural out: Only governments can order the machine, they have to order at least one million, and manufacturing begins when five to ten million machines have been ordered and paid for in advance. In other words, here’s MIT’s promise: “Front us a billion dollars for promises and a prototype, and we’ll give you cheap notebook computers.” As Farivar says, “Does the Thai Ministry of Education really have a couple hundred million dollars sitting around?” Will any government, particularly in countries where this could make a difference, kick in $100 million or more for unproven devices—machines that don’t exist except in prototype? If it fails, Negroponte wasn’t wrong; governments just weren’t courageous or farsighted enough.

As Farivar notes, this isn’t the first time a dirt-cheap computer has been marketed. Netpliance marketed the i-opener for $99—but you had to buy their internet service for $20 a month. The Simputer was introduced in India in 2001, planned to be a $200 computer for India’s rural poor. “But according to the Associated Press, the brains behind the Simputer have sold only 4,000 of an expected 50,000 units in 2004 and 2005. In addition, only about 10 percent of Simputer buyers live in rural areas. Why? Probably because they have more important things to do than write e-mail.” Farivar also wonders how much good built-in WiFi will do without WiFi access points, likely to be the case in most target markets.

Of course component costs will come down. One still has to wonder. If these laptops really made educational sense for the third world and could actually be produced at that price or anything close to it, there’s someone who could front a billion dollars and who obviously cares deeply about making life better in the third world, deeply enough to be spending quite literally billions of dollars.

Akimbo Video On Demand Player

Apparently, good Americans can never have enough TV. You’ve got your 80-channel expanded basic cable (“hah!” you scoff, “I’ve got 250 channels with digital and premium!”). You’ve got a TiVo or three so you can be seeking out programs while you’re asleep and watch them whenever you want. But, you know, that’s not enough—what if there was an hour when you didn’t have eye candy available and had to (gasp) read, or converse, or think (/gasp)?

Never fear! Akimbo’s here! For a mere $200 (plus $10 a month or $200 “lifetime”—presumably Akimbo’s lifetime or yours, whichever comes first), you get another set-top box with an 80GB hard disk and a LAN connection. What does it do? Download DRM-heavy Windows Media 9 files from Akimbo, giving you a “wide variety of content” that you can watch when you don’t have enough other TV. You can’t do anything with it except watch it—and of the four dozen “channels,” only about half are covered by that $10 a month. For others, you might pay an extra $5 a month or $1.99 per program (Turner Classic Movies, for example).

This isn’t high-def TV—in fact, the box doesn’t even have component or HDMI connections, only composite and S-Video. It’s plain old standard resolution (assuming the WM9 compression wasn’t pushed too hard) with stereo sound (no 5.1 here!).

According to the seemingly favorable review in Home Theater (December 2005), “The programming is more about eclecticism than, well, favoritism”—in other words, it’s a bunch of stuff that Akimbo could lay its hands on. The compression rate is indeed heavy, mostly 1.5 to 2 megabits per second. On a full screen, that’s likely to be, shall we say, somewhat less than DVD quality. Although you “could” download video in less than real time, that’s not what the reviewer found: A 12-minute cartoon took about an hour to download, and other downloads took about twice as long as the program itself. So it’s not really video on demand; it’s like TiVo but with a more obscure set of content choices, probably lower video quality—and did I mention that the DRM means some programs will simply disappear after 30 days?

The silliest part of the review: A comment in the “Value” portion of the summary ratings: “Heck, the hard drive alone is worth two bills.” The reviewer needs to get out more: it’s been quite a while since an internal 80GB hard disk was worth $200. (One computer chain hereabouts is selling 120GB Seagate drives for $40, with no rebate required. Even external drives don’t go for more than a buck a gig these days.)

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 1, Whole Issue 71, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services,

Hosting provided by Boise State University Libraries.

Opinions herein may not represent those of RLG, YBP Library Services, or Boise State University Libraries.

Comments should be sent to Comments specifically intended for publication should go to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2006 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.