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


Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 4: March 2006


PC Progress, October 2005-February 2006

Backup Devices

This roundup covers three classes of backup device with a sidebar for backup software [W 23:9]. Best Buy among external drives for single-PC backup is the $280 Western Digital Dual-option Media Center, which includes a 320GB hard disk and comes with Retrospect Express 6.5. (Retrospect Professional 7, $95 from EMC Dantz, gets the Best Buy for software.) The pick for network drives—which operate a lot more slowly but can back up several computers—is the $350 Maxtor Shared Storage Drive, 300GB (no software). Finally, if you have the kind of setup where direct-attached storage makes sense, there’s no Best Buy. The $2,200 Silicon Image SV2000 (800GB storage) gets the best rating—but it’s “too pricey to get our Best Buy.”

A similar roundup [P24:15] breaks things down differently: “traditional backup” (where you explicitly choose to back up once in a while), continuous backup, imaging software, backup for home networks, and online backup services—with sidebars about hardware devices. There’s one similarity: Retrospect 7 for Windows Professional is Editors’ Choice for traditional backup. Norton GoBack 4.0 ($50) gets the nod among continuous-backup choices; Norton Ghost 9.0 ($70) is the choice for imaging software; there is no Editors’ Choice for home networks; and Connected DataProtector ($15/month for 2GB) gets the award for online backup.

Desktop Computers

This “first look” roundup covers “back to school” computers—five notebooks costing around $1,100 and five desktops costing $1,000 or less with monitor[P24:14]. Editors’ Choice among the notebooks is the Gateway M250XL, $1,170 with a 1.86GHz Pentium M750, 512MB SDRAM, 60GB hard disk, 14.1" widescreen display, multiformat DVD burner, fairly good battery life (3 hours 16 minutes), fastest peformance in the group, and reasonable weight (5.1lb.) For desktops, the award goes to the $999 Dell Dimension 5100 with 3GHz Pentium 4 531, 512MB SDRAM, 160GB hard disk, 128MB ATI Radeon X300 SE graphics (driving a 15" LCD display), dual-layer multiformat DVD burner, and solid performance.

What do you get from dual-core computers—that is, chips with two CPUs on board? This roundup covers five systems using either the Athlon 64 X2 or the Pentium D 840 or EE 840, all of which are dual-core chips [P24:15]. The short answer is that dual-core CPUs should be better for true multitasking and some applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Premiere, coded to take advantage of multiple CPUs, should run substantially faster. Editors’ Choice among the five systems: the $5,375 Velocity Micro Vision 64 X2. It’s loaded: 1GB SDRAM, two 74GB 10,000RPM disks in RAID 0 and a 250GB 7,200RPM disk for real storage, two 256MB nVidia GeForce 7800GTX graphics cards, a 19” LCD display, dual-layer multiformat DVD burner and separate DVD-ROM drive, and so on. It’s overclocked: The AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ isn’t specified as a 2.6GHz part, but that’s how it’s running.

Another odd segment: “digital content creation desktops” [P24:18]. Mostly dual-core, with at least 1GB RAM but a mere half-terabyte of storage or less. Editors’ Choice among “value” systems: HP Media Center 7160n Photosmart PC, $1,529. That buys a 2.8GHz Pentium, 1GB SDRAM, 250GB hard drive (which seems small for creating digital content), integrated graphics, dual-layer multiformat DVD burner and DVD-ROM, 19" LCD. For another kilobuck or so, the high-end Editors’ Choice is Sony’s $2,800 VAIO VGC-RA842G: also 1GB RAM, but a 3.0GHz dual-core CPU, two 250GB drives, 256MB nVidia Geforce 6600 graphics, similar optical drives, and a 20.1" LCD—or skip the LCD and pay around $1,900. The Sony uses liquid cooling, making it quiet.

The hottest PCs—literally and figuratively—are gaming systems. This roundup includes “eight screaming high-end systems” costing $3,259 to $6,023 [P24:22]. Two Editors’ Choices emerge, both expensive: the $5,671 Falcon Northwest X2-4800 SLI (2.4GHz Athlon-64 X2 4800+, overclocked to 2.7GHz; 1GB SDRAM, two 300GB hard disks; two 256MB nVidia graphics cards; dual-layer multiformat DVD burner; Creative X-Fi sound card; Klipsch Ultra surround speakers) and the $6,023 Voodoo Omen a121 (2.8GHz Athlon-64 FX-57 overclocked to 3GHz; 1GB SDRAM, two 500GB hard disks; two 256MB nVidia graphics ards; dual-layer multiformat DVD burner; integrated sound; Logitech surround speakers). Both use liquid cooling systems. Those prices don’t include displays, apparently. Hey, what do you expect for a mere $6 grand?

This big roundup [P24:22] covers “desktops & notebooks for every budget.” There’s an amusing typo in the first sentence, where we learn that you can buy “a PC with a 17-inch monitor, a 2.93-GHz Celeron processor, and a 160MB hard drive for $300.” I’m guessing that no manufacturer has made 160MB hard drives for several years now; it would be hard to sell them against $20 flash drives with 50% more storage space! That goof aside (copyeditors cost money), the review comes up with one Editors’ Choice desktop and notebook in each of three price categories. Winner for an entry-level desktop is the $499 Compaq Presario SR1620NX: 1.8GHz Sempron 3400+, 512MB RAM, 160GB drive, integrated graphics, dual-layer multiformat DVD burner, speakers. Dell’s $969 Inspiron 6000 (Media Center) gets the nod as a cheap notebook: Pentium M 725 (1.6GHz), 512MB RAM, 80GB drive, integrated graphics, 15.4" 1280x800 widescreen display, wireless, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo. If you can afford a little more, the $1,299 Dell Dimension E510 is the desktop of choice (Pentium 4 630 at 3GHz, 512MB RAM, 160GB drive, 256MB ATI Radeon graphics, dual-layer multiformat DVD burner, 17" LCD, Creative Audigy 2 ZS sound card and Dell speakers). For a notebook, the honor goes to HP’s Pavilion dv4000; $1,627 buys a Pentium-M 770 (2.3GHz) and essentially the same configuration as the Dell Inspiron, except that you get a multiformat DVD LightScribe burner. If money’s not much of an object, consider the $2,799 Dell XPS 400 desktop (Pentium D 840 at 3.2GHz, 1GB RAM, two 160GB drives, 256MB nVidia graphics, dual-layer multiformat DVD burner, 20" widescreen LCD, Creative X-Fi sound card, 5.1-channel speaker system) or the Toshiba Qosmio G25-AV513 notebook ($2,899, Pentium M 760, 1GB RAM, two 60GB drives, nVidia graphics, 17" 1440x900 LCD, wireless, dual-layer multiformat DVD burner).

This quick roundup [W24:1] covers four Media Center PCs (and has a sidebar review of a higher-end multimedia system). While two of the four have cases designed to suit a living room, the Best Buy is a traditional tower: HP’s Media Center m7260n Photosmart PC. It costs $1,700, including 300GB hard disk, a DVD burner with HP’s “label burning” LightScribe feature, a 19" LCD display, and fairly strong graphics. (It’s hard to tell exactly what’s in it; PC World’s roundups don’t include separate paragraphs for each machine and have sparse descriptive boxes.)

Digital Cameras and Software

There are enough moderately priced digital SLR cameras to make this roundup feasible [W23:9]. No SLR will ever be tiny, but many skilled photographers find them more suitable than any other camera design. Best Buy in this group is Canon’s EOS Digital Rebel XT, which has been around for a while; it costs $899 for the body or $999 for body and an 18mm-55mm lens (a much better deal). It’s an 8 megapixel camera and offers outstanding battery life and very good image quality along with good speed and small size.

This roundup [P24:17] offers three groups of possibilities for “your next digital camera”—the one you buy when you’re tired of your first one. D-SLRs provide the most flexibility at the highest price; Editors’ Choice is shared between Canon’s $1,599 (with lens) EOS 20D and the $799 (with lens) Nikon D50. Canon’s $999 EOS Digital Rebel XT scores an identical five dots. If you like Canon D-SLRs and price is no object, a sidebar gives the $7,999 EOS-1Ds Mark II five dots—but note the price! “Super-zoom” cameras offer at least 10x optical zoom (the only zoom that matters), and all those in this roundup have 12x optical zoom. Editors’ Choice is the $699 Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30, an 8MP camera. If compactness is your primary criterion, go for the $500 Canon PowerShot SD500 Digital Elph: 7.1MP, 3x optical zoom.

If you have or are taking video footage and want to edit it down to worthwhile DVDs, the time has never been better, according to Jan Ozer’s roundup[P24:21]. He focuses on two consumer-friendly video editing packages with serious power: Pinnacle Studio Plus 10 and Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0. Premiere Elements is a scaled-down version of the professional Adobe Premiere (with DVD authoring added); “it delivers power heretofore unavailable in a $99 package” and gets an Editors’ Choice. Pinnacle Studio Plus (also $99.99) isn’t far behind; it’s easier to use and efficient, but not quite as powerful.

Digital Video Recorders and PC Equivalents

You don’t need to buy a new Windows Media Center PC to use your PC as a digital video recorder—but you do need a powerful contemporary PC with loads of disk storage. This roundup [P24:17] describes five software or software/hardware “solutions” for existing PCs to serve as media centers and DVRs, ranging from the software-only InterVideo Home Theater 2 Platinum ($70) to ATI’s $199 All-in-Wonder 2006 graphics card, TV tuner, software, and remote control bundle. Editors’ Choice is Meedio Pro ($80), a software package that offers similar functionality to Media Center with a different (and better, according to the review) interface; you’ll need your own TV tuner and other hardware.

This roundup of standalone DVRs [W24:1] only provides rankings for the “top three” units without hard drives and the “top three” with drives. Best Buys go to Samsung’s $400 DVD-VR325 (no hard drive), which includes a VHS recorder as well, and the $700 Toshiba RD-XS54, with a 250GB hard disk. Both units handle DVD-R/RW and DVD-RAM but not DVD+R/RW, unlike, say, $40 internal PC drives.

Displays and Graphics Cards

In the market for a 19" LCD? This “top 100” roundup [W23:10] includes seven new tests (but as usual you’ll have to go to the web to get detailed results) and offers buying hints. Oddly enough, of the 10 displays listed in descending rating order (tricky, since the top seven all get 4 stars), the two Best Buys are in fifth and sixth place—HP’s $379 F1905 and Dell’s $479 UltraSharp 1905FP. They don’t have the best text or graphics display; they don’t have the best usability; but they are the cheapest of the four-star group, and apparently that’s what matters. (Hmm. It’s still “Best buy” here rather than “Best bet.”)

This roundup [W24:2] says it covers graphics cards starting at $99, but as usual with PC World ratings are only provided for the “top N,” whatever arbitrary figure “N” has for the category. In this case, that’s five “mainstream” and five “power” boards, and the cheapest rated board runs $165. The winner among mainstream boards is the EVGA e-GeForce 6800 GS, $200 with 256MB RAM; among power boards, the winner is also from EVGA, the e-GeForce 7800 GTX K0, also with 256MB RAM; it costs a cool $570.

Headphones

This quick roundup of six headphones [P24:16] gives sole Editors’ Choice to “the most unassuming-looking and least expensive headphones in this roundup”: Sennheiser PX 100 open-back headphones. At $40, they’re light, comfortable, sound terrific, and fold into a little plastic case.

Notebook Computers

Tablet computers may still be niche devices but they do keep improving, as this roundup shows [W23:9]. Lenovo’s $2,059 ThinkPad X41 Tablet has a 12.1" screen, a fingerprint scanner with biometric security scanner, 1.5GHz Pentium M LV 758, 512MB RAM and a 40GB hard disk. It weighs 4.2lb., but that includes a keyboard, since it’s a convertible tablet/notebook. PC World gives it four stars. The $2,439 LE1600 Tablet PC from Motion Computing isn’t rated because it’s a preproduction model; it’s faster and a little better equipped (768MB RAM, 60GB hard disk), and a pound lighter if you don’t need a keyboard (the keyboard is a $170 option). Both have 802.11g built in, and the ThinkPad gets remarkably good battery life (5 hours).

Three media center notebooks are big (each has a 17" widescreen LCD), heavy (11 pounds or more travel weight), and expensive ($2,217 to $3,736)—but they’re loaded, with fast processors, high-end graphics, DVD burner, TV tuner and—well, the article doesn’t include boring details like disk space. If this is what you want, the Best Bet is what I would have guessed: Toshiba’s $2,999 Qosmio, a well-designed media machine.

This roundup [P24:19/20] includes five ultraportables (four pounds or less) and another five tablet convertibles. Toshiba’s $2,099 Portégé R200 is Editors’ Choice among ultraportables; it weighs 2.7lb. (second-lightest of the lot) and is well equipped, including a biometric fingerprint reader. Among tablets, the Lenovo ThinkPad X41 Tablet ($1,899) gets the nod; it’s relatively light (3.5lb.) and offers fine security, battery life, and keyboard.

How low can you go? This mini-roundup [W23:12] considers three notebook computers selling for around $500 after rebate. The ratings (on PC World’s new 100-point scale) are close—75 at the top (Acer’s $499 Aspire 3003LCi) to 72 at the bottom (the $529 HP Compaq Presario M2000). These are all reasonably capable units—astonishingly capable for that kind of money!—but they all cut corners. Two lack WiFi; two have 256MB RAM, marginal for Windows XP; none has a DVD burner; two have 40GB disk storage or less. The Compaq doesn’t have an optical burner at all, just a DVD-ROM player. Battery life ranges from crappy (1:19) to poor (2:24). Still, they all have fairly big screens (two 15", one 14.1") and are fast enough for most work. The Acer probably deserves its higher rating: It’s the only machine with 512MB RAM, a 60GB hard disk, and WiFi, and it’s the fastest of the three—but the battery life is pathetic.

Optical Drives

DVD burners are in the usual PC curve: prices keep coming down while speed keeps going up. This roundup [W23:11] features seven internal drives and three external, all including dual-layer capability. Best Buys are the $90 Pioneer DVR-R100 as an internal drive, fast and with a “robust” software bundle, and the $180 LG Electronics Super-Multi GSA-2166o as an external device, offering strong performance, LightScribe labeling capability, and support for all formats including DVD-RAM. What I find most impressive is that you can buy a dual-layer burner for $50 (Samsung TS-H552U)—and it’s pretty good as a +R burner (but won’t handle DVD-R DL, uniquely among the ten—they all handle DVD+R DL).

Pointing Devices

Jim Louderback’s done a bunch of comparisons of cheap peripherals; this one [P24:16] is on mice—optical mice costing $5 to $16.50. The two best devices, in his tests, are the cheapest: a $5 BTC mouse (normally $7) from Fry’s and a $10 CompUSA house-brand mouse. Worst, as in a previous keyboard test, was Nexxtech’s $13 mouse (at Circuit City). The $10 mouse is “sleek, fashionable and effective”—not bad for that price.

Portable Players

This mini-roundup of large-capacity disk-based music players [W23:11] compares five 20GB models—ranging from 4.8oz. to 5.9oz. weight and $260 to $299 price. Although it’s the heaviest of the lot and one of only two that doesn’t offer FM and voice recording, the $285 Apple iPod still gets the Best Buy for outstanding ease of use. Close behind is the Cowon iAudio X5, with lots of music formats, voice recorder, FM—and video playback.

If video playback is your primary purpose, this mini-roundup [P25:2] awards Editors’ Choice to the $500 Archos AV500 (4" widescreen LCD display, 480x272 pixels; 30GB capacity—or $700 for 100GB capacity—in a 9oz. 3x4.9x0.7" package). It offers exceptional direct video recording and playback and a complete set of accessories; audio recording is another strong point.

Printers

Color lasers keep getting cheaper, as this seven-printer roundup shows [P24:21]. The Editors’ Choice for light duty (with a duty cycle of 35,000 pages per month, “light” is relative) is HP’s Color LaserJet 2600n; it prints both monochrome and color pages at 8ppm, and costs $399. It’s light enough (40lb., not bad for a color laser) for one person to handle and comes with a network card. If you need heavier duty, the other Editors’ Choice is the Xerox Phaser 6300/DN, $1,500; claimed speed is 26ppm color, 36ppm monochrome, and it’s rated for 100,000 pages per month. By the way, both the $400 and $1,500 printers support duplexing! The HP printed a 50 page color text Word document in 6 minutes (as fast as claimed) and the Xerox took just over two minutes.

Another color laser roundup [W23:12] covers ten printers costing $700 or less. The HP2600n came in ninth out of ten in this roundup, probably because it’s relatively slow and has high estimated supply costs. Best Buy and first in the group is the $449 Dell 3000cn, with fast text printing (17.9 pages per minute), high text print quality, very low monochrome supply costs (1.5 cents a page), and a relatively small footprint (17" square). You can add a duplexer for $300 and a 500-sheet drawer for $230.

Multifunction or “all-in-one” printers continue to improve. This roundup [P25:1] covers seven of PC Magazine’s favorites over a broad price range ($90 to $500), including three Editors’ Choices. The $200 Canon Pixma MP500 Photo All-in-one is a value winner, lacking a document feeder but offering duplexing, excellent paper handling, and “superb performance”; it’s fast and offers true photo quality output, waterproof with the right ink and paper. As an office unit, the $500 HP Officejet 7410 All-in-One shines, with builtin wireless, high speed, a 50-page document feeder, builtin fax modem, and good print quality (though not up to the best). Finally, if photos are a prime use, the $400 HP Photosmart 3310 All-in-One offers high speed, true photo quality output, and a transparency adapter—although output is only “water-resistant,” not waterproof.

USB Keys

Who knew there were so many varieties of these handy little devils—the real death of the diskette? This “superguide” [P25:2] covers a dozen USB keys in three categories: conventional flash drives, new U3 flashdrives (U3 is a software platform that supports applications running directly from the USB key, with no changes to the system registry—purely portable software), and very small hard drives packaged as oversize USB keys. Editors’ Choices are the $400 Kingston DataTraveler Elite (also available in capacities as low as 256MB for prices as low as $43), which comes with security and file management software, and $35 Memorex U3 smart Mini TravelDrive, a U3 drive. The applications that come with it—Thunderbird email, antivirus, and Migo file synch—only use about 4MB space. (Just as you can buy lower-capacity Kingston DataTravelers, you can buy higher-capacity Memorex units, up to 2GB for $180.) None of the mini-hard drives earns Editors’ Choice, but the $200 Apricorn MicroKey (6GB) gets a solid rating; according to the review, the mini-hard drives may be tougher than some flash drives.

Utility Software

This quickie on anti-spyware programs covers three updates since PC Magazine’s most recent roundup [P24:14]. While Ad-Aware SE 1.06 scores high for removal and Trend Micro Anti-Spyware 3.0 does reasonably well on spyware blocking, neither of them is as effective overall as Spyware Doctor 3.2, PC’s current Editors’ Choice. (But note below.)

Half a dozen desktop search utilities [W23:10], five of them free, one $199. The reviews offer decent details on what each of the six does—and you may be surprised by the Best Bet (PC World’s new term for Best Buy, what other magazines call Editors’ Choice). While Copernic Desktop Search and Yahoo Desktop Search both score 3.5 stars (Google only three, tied with the $199 DtSearch), MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search gets top honors.

The anti-spyware software picture changes more rapidly than antivirus or firewall. This roundup [W23:11] awards Best Buy honors to Spy Sweeper 4.0 ($30) among paid standalone programs and Panda Platinum Internet Security 2005 ($50) as a suite.

Another PC Magazine mini-roundup on anti-spyware programs [P24:23] results in that rarity: Agreement between the two big PC magazines. To wit, Spy Sweeper 4.5 ($30—actually $30/year) gets the Editors’ Choice as the best available anti-spyware tool.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 4, Whole Issue 74, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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