Interesting & Peculiar Products
MusicGiants and SoundVault
If you care about sound quality, legal downloaded music has always been problematic (to say nothing of illegal downloaded music!). Most services offer something a little better than 128K MP3, but in most cases it’s still a compression rate that assures careful listeners will hear some degradation.
That’s changing, according to a story in the January 2006 Abso!ute Sound (confirmed elsewhere). The four big record publishers have formed MusicGiants Network, which offers tracks in Windows Media Audio Lossless format. “Lossless” is the key term. As with Apple’s lossless format and one or two other variants, WMA Lossless doesn’t compress all that much but assures that the original bitstream emerges from decompression. So if the CD sounds good enough, the WMA Lossless version should sound at least as good (there are plausible reasons it could sound better).
It’s an expensive service. Tracks cost $1.29; albums cost $15.29—or more than a CD (with cover art, insert, and jewel box) should cost. You pay a $50 annual fee up front but get a $50 credit toward music—and if you buy $250 worth of music each year, the renewal fee goes away.
Apparently the Big 4 see relatively wealthy clients as the target audience; thus the hardware companion, the SoundVault. This is a home-audio server “meant to take the place of a CD player in an audio rack” with a 380GB hard disk, “enough to hold about 10,000 songs” in WMA Lossless format (figure 2:1 compression at most, so that sounds right). The SoundVault includes an embedded version of Windows XP, a whole range of inputs and outputs, and expansion capabilities—and it costs $9,500! For that price, you think they’d throw in a terabyte of storage (after all, that would only be some $500 worth of hard disks).
By the way, paying the price of a CD doesn’t buy you the flexibility of a CD: WMA Lossless files still carry DRM.
Fujitsu’s LifeBook T4020D ($2,150) as reviewed in the February 7, 2006 PC Magazine may be a realistic option for those who want tablet PCs—some of the time. It’s a 4.6lb. convertible: A notebook computer with full-size keyboard and touchpad, but with a 12.1" screen that can swivel to cover the keyboard and become a proper tablet PC. While this isn’t the thinnest or lightest tablet, it does include a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive and is well equipped in other respects.
“If these two products don’t herald the age of e-books, nothing will.” It’s a shame Sebastian Rupley concluded his PC Magazine “Pipeline” writeup of these two ebook readers with such a conclusive statement. Particularly when taken with the tease “Can innovative new designs convince people to chuck their paperbacks?” it’s a nice way of projecting failure.
I’m not saying the Sony Reader (Sony’s American version of its E Ink-based reader, “to be priced between $300 and $400”) or the roll-up Philips Readius (prototype only, predicted shipment this summer, no price) will fail as devices. (The illustration of the Readius shows contrast so low that “eye-popping” might be read in a negative manner, but the scrolling idea is charming in theory. The Sony looks about the same as pictures of the Japanese version: Good, if certainly not paperback quality.) You can bet Sony will have DRM attached to the ebooks it’s selling at Sony Connect, but the reader’s also supposed to display PDF, which helps. Oddly, they’ve also made it a music player, and “7,500-page” battery life won’t mean much if you’re decoding and amplifying MP3 while reading ebooks.
What I will predict is that neither device will “convince people” in general to “chuck their paperbacks”—that’s just not going to happen. There’s a sound potential multibillion-dollar market for ebooks under the right conditions, but it’s not massive replacement of trade books. On the other hand, even if the Sony Reader and Philips Readius both fail miserably, those failures in no way preclude the eventual success of ebooks, in some markets, on some devices.
The story title: “Your Next PC Will Cost $159.” PC Magazine (March 21, 2006 again) seems to be serious. Fry’s Electronics has (or had) a “GQ 3131” computer selling for $159. Black minitower, decent generic keyboard, generic mouse, “terrible” speakers. 128MB RAM, 40GB disk, CD-ROM drive. Add 512MB RAM for another $40 ($199 total), and it would run decently—it has a 1.67GHz AMD Sempron chip. Linux, of course, in the form of Linspire (formerly “Lindows”); four USB ports and Ethernet. Linspire includes OpenOffice 1.1.3.
The verdict? If you already have a display sitting around, this is a workable system, but don’t try to run it with the supplied RAM.
Home Theater ran an unusual three-page review in its April 2006 issue, certainly suitable for the month but a full-scale review of an apparently real product, also from Fry’s Electronics: the GPX HTD2204 HTIB. (GPX is real enough, making a range of cheap electronics products. I can’t verify the reality of this particular model on Outpost.com, Fry’s web presence, but the photo looks genuine.)
What you get: A progressive DVD player (that is, one that will turn out 480p signals for HDTV as well as the usual 480i for regular TV), “subwoofer” with amplifiers for all the speakers, and five little speakers for the five channels. Add a TV and you have a complete 5.1-channel home theater system. Systems that combine five speakers, a subwoofer, DVD player, and amplification aren’t unusual; they’re usually referred to as “HTIB,” home theater in a box, and they’re usually several hundred dollars—typically nothing great, but a way to get surround sound from your DVDs without much hassle.
But the price here isn’t a few hundred dollars: It’s $60. Naturally, the salesperson at Fry’s wasn’t anxious to sell the only unit on hand (and, to be sure, suggested an extended warranty when reviewer Geoffrey Morrison insisted on buying the unit).
The benefits of this system are easy to recount. It’s absurdly cheap and Morrison says the manual is actually fairly well written—although it’s also incomplete (not mentioning, for example, how to turn on progressive scan). That’s about it.
Otherwise? The DVD player isn’t awful. The “subwoofer” has some response down to 50Hz. but its peak output, and the output of the other speakers with their 3" “woofers” below about 1000Hz, is a good 10-15dB lower than those speakers’ output in the treble. You don’t get much bass, much midrange, or really much of anything: “Put a pair of headphones on a desk, and you can approximate this system’s volume level and sound quality.” In other words, “cheap” in this case is true in both meanings.
Morrison’s conclusion: “If this is all you can afford, go for it. Otherwise, don’t.”
If you’ve switched (or are switching) to digital cameras and want to make big prints or manipulate your images a lot, that headline should be intriguing. PC Magazine awards an Editors’ Choice to the Fuji FinePix E900 in a full-page April 11, 2006 review, not only because of the impressively high-resolution image sensor but also for the other features that matter.
The FinePix runs on two AA batteries; it has a 4x optical zoom lens starting out at a fairly wide angle; although it’s a point-and-shoot camera, it will save RAW (uncompressed) files; and it captures images with a wide dynamic range. Tested resolution hit the limit of PC’s test target. The camera’s quick to boot up but slow (4.7 seconds) to recycle.
Ten colors, eight gigabytes, four ounces (well, 3.8), $250. That’s the new Creative Zen MicroPhoto, and it’s a strong competitor as an MP3 player and occasional photo viewer. It’s compact (2x3.3x0.7"), the 1.5" color screen uses OLED technology, offering vivid colors and wide viewing angles. The device meets MS PlaysForSure DRM standards for protected WMA files—but it doesn’t support lossless compression formats or Audible.com content (yet). Sound quality was very good; the rechargeable batter lasted about 15 hours. An FM tuner is included, and you can record from FM. The control pad glows in the dark. PC Magazine gives it an Editors’ Choice.
PC Magazine looks at two one-terabyte external hard drives in a full-page April 11, 2006 review, giving the Editors’ Choice to Maxtor’s $900 OneTouch III Turbo (over Iomega’s $800 XL Desktop Hard Drive), partly because it’s smaller, partly because you can configure its two internal 500GB drives as a 500GB RAID 1 subsystem, offering good backup security. Unfortunately, the disks aren’t removable.
There’s a true peculiarity in the first paragraph of the review, given PC Magazine’s reputation as the premiere PC journal:
So how much is a terabyte, really? Well, besides the abstract notion of its being 1 million kilobytes…
I’m certain that PC Magazine employs copy editors. Those editors should be knowledgeable enough to know that one million kilobytes is a gigabyte. A terabyte is one million megabytes or a thousand gigabytes or one billion (U.S. billion) kilobytes.
Both interesting and a little peculiar, this product looks like a plausible solution to some public library problems—and the first time I heard about it, at least, was from a blogger in Queensland, Australia: Deb, the Real Public Librarian.
She calls them the “towers of terror,” and the five-high stacks in the photo are a bit terrifying. They store optical discs, CDs or DVDs, 100 to a unit, under computer control. In a way, they’re like Sony’s megajukeboxes (but only 100 discs, not the 400 that a Sony unit can hold)—but designed to retrieve and eject discs, not play them. For libraries that find theft too much of a problem to have actual CDs and DVDs on the shelves, Disc Stakka systems may be more compact, retrievable and secure than having binders full of sleeved discs behind the counter.
They’re not ideal, and her post notes reasons why. They may have started in Australia, but Imation offers them in the U.S. as well. (Imation’s not a fly-by-night; it began as the data media arm of 3M.) I see online store prices around $110 U.S. as of this writing.
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