Interesting & Peculiar Products
If you buy a new PC with a DVD burner, there’s a good chance it will include either LightScribe or LabelFlash—both ways of creating disc labels directly on specialized recordable CD and DVD media. The October 2007 Perfect Vision includes a test run of both systems, which use the laser itself to make the label.
LightScribe produces very readable labels on relatively inexpensive, widely available media—but the software won’t allow you to include track names as part of the label. LabelFlash is faster and can import track names—but the media are more expensive and harder to find, and the labels are low-contrast.
You can also buy printable CDs and DVDs and do full-color printing with relatively inexpensive printers (some inkjet and multifunction printers also do CDs and DVDs). Bill Machrone (who seems to have moved here from PC Magazine) seems oddly dismissive of that solution: “they’re just another way to use up expensive ink cartridges. Besides, do you really need color?” Then there’s another solution (other than CD marking pens), one I’ve always used with considerable satisfaction but that reviewers seem to despise: Adhesive-backed paper labels. Here’s Machrone’s take: “They can be a pain to line up properly and render a disc unusable if you mount the label off center.” I suppose that if you don’t use the spindle that (I believe) comes with the starter kit for every labeling system, that might be true—but why would you do that? Yes, you have to be a little careful when you’re mounting the label—but I get great-looking labels with photo-quality backgrounds, at a total cost (CD-R plus label stock plus ink) that’s probably less than the special discs needed for these other solutions. 
There are now Vista PCs with Energy Star 4.0 labels and some with other “green” labels, such as the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) Gold certification. I’d love to see comparable noise ratings too, although energy-efficient PCs should also typically be fairly quiet. A November 2007 PC World review includes three “value desktop” PCs, one power laptop and an all-purpose laptop, all Energy 4.0 certified. The two higher-rated desktops also carry the EPEAT Gold certification. Dell’s OptiPlex 755 Mini-Tower earns a Very Good rating and runs $1,272; the $1,368 HP rp5700 Long Lifecycle Desktop earns a Good—it’s considerably slower and the least power-efficient of the tested desktops, but it comes with a five-year warranty. You won’t save a ton of money using any of these, but they certainly use less power: When fully powered up but idling, the Dell uses 44 watts and the Enano only 24, where a tested gaming PC uses 418 watts. (That’s an extreme case—gaming PCs tend to be power-hogs.)
PC World seems to be emulating the old PC in not providing specs with some reviews;, so I went online to see what you get for $1,272 on the Dell. Not a whole lot: a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 CPU, 2GB RAM, integrated graphics and sound, a 160GB hard disk, a CD burner/DVD reader, Windows Vista Business—oh, and a 20" LCD display and three-year warranty. That’s a fairly minimal configuration at a fairly high price. When I priced the OptiPlex minitower in late January 2008, without a display but with the same CPU and RAM, a 250GB hard disk and a DVD burner, I got a total of $779—still not dirt-cheap, but a whole lot more reasonable. (The 20" display goes for $264. If I was buying this system, I’d bump it to 3GB RAM and go to the next higher CPU at 2.33GHz; the total would be $874 without display.)
The Enano is interesting: It’s tiny and uses a notebook processor, but a fast one (the 2GHz Core 2 Duo T7200). It’s expensive ($1,500 with 19" display) and hard to expand, but you do get 3GB RAM, 120GB hard disk, a DVD burner, and extremely low power consumption in a case that’s a mere 8.8x6.8x1.65" and weighs 3lbs. 
Sure, there’s the OLPC XO, for those who don’t mind a healthy heap of ideology along with their $188 (really $400, but you get one—eventually—and some kid gets the other one), but it’s not the only option. A one-page December 2007 PC World piece runs down the three units the magazine was aware of at press time.
The OLPC has a 7.5" 1200x900 screen and uses a low-power AMD Geode LX-700 CPU; it has 256MB RAM, 1GB flash storage, runs a special version of Linux with a kid-oriented user interface and is designed to work under most any conditions. Touch typing? Not likely.
The Intel Classmate PC has been sent to pilot programs in several developing nations. It will cost about the same as the OLPC, but you don’t get Negroponte—instead you get an Intel Celeron CPU, a 7" 800x480 display, 256MB RAM and 2GB flash storage—and a unit that might be more powerful but isn’t nearly as flashy.
Finally, for the rest of us, there’s the Asus Eee (or eee) PC: $400 for the top unit (as low as $260 for other models, maybe), with a 7" 800x480 screen, 4GB flash and 512MB RAM in the $400 unit, an Intel CPU and a more business-oriented approach, still in a small, very light (2lb.), rugged package. All three have 802.11b/g; the Intel and Asus include Ethernet, while the OLPC has mesh networking; the ASUS includes a webcam (as does the OLPC), a card reader for expansion, and USB ports. Since it’s the only one you can buy as a standard business transaction, it’s a different animal…and a fairly tempting one. 
Heard of Runco? It makes high-end front projection TVs. It also makes flat panels—including the CinemaWall XP-103DHD 1080p plasma display, with lots of neato special circuitry to improve the circuitry. “CinemaWall” is right—this beast is a 103"-diagonal picture. And it only costs $99,995! I wonder how much power it draws… 
Hot to get a Vudu box? According to the December 2007 Perfect Vision, it’s a $399 box that offers “downloadable movies for rent or purchase” over the internet—at “roughly the same” prices as your local video store. The article is one of those that recognizes no other choice than “driving to Blockbuster” to get a movie, but never mind—the kicker here is that you pay full DVD price and get “near DVD quality”—maybe the same “near” that makes 128Kbps MP3 “near-CD quality” to people who don’t listen. When I see “near DVD quality,” I think “VHS quality,” although the truth could be somewhere in between. Do you get DVD extras? Unlikely. Are you really buying the movie for that “roughly the same” price? Even more unlikely—that is, unlike a real DVD, I’ll bet you can’t give it to someone else or circulate it from a library. (I checked the website. The box is down to $295. They’re vague about actual video quality, but real-time viewing only requires a 2Mbps broadband connection, so you’re talking a lot more compression than DVD itself. And, no, you don’t really own the movies: You have no first-sale rights. Clearly not a library item, and it makes Netflix look awfully good.) 
“Ever wish you could record something on the fly without tapes, discs, batteries, or cables?” That’s the lead sentence for a breathless pre-review for the XtremeMac MicroMemo, a $59 thingie that you plug into an iPod nano (second generation) or iPod video. It includes a microphone and enables the iPod to “record interviews, meetings, lectures…whatever you desire.” Wowie zowie: What an idea. Now, if only my $49 Sansa MP3 player could record with a $59 plugin…oh, wait. The Sansa already has a built-in microphone and audio recording capabilities (also FM tuner and the ability to record from FM). So, come to think of it, do dozens of other non-Apple MP3 players.
Of course, different people have different assumptions about what portable players should include. Rob Enderle seems to think we all want browsers and Wi-Fi in our portable players. Ever notice what Wi-Fi does to battery life? I’d like to believe there’s an inherent conflict between wanting compactness and battery life and feeling the need to have a browser in all devices. But Enderle’s always quotable and has made a good career out of that; who am I to doubt? 
You read that right: $3,000 for a “portable entertainment system” that’s 16x9x7.25”—which means the speakers can’t be far enough apart for much stereo separation—and includes a CD/DVD player, radio and alarm OK, so it’s an alarm clock too. Astonishingly (and, of course, with no actual graphs or test results), the review gives the Meridian F80 Tabletop Music System the highest possible rating for sound quality—ten out of a possible ten. For an 80watt 14lb. box that’s “really cool” and may deliver “surprisingly robust bass” but can’t conceivably compare in sound quality to a well-chosen $3,000 stereo system. This from the video equivalent to The Abso!ute Sound—I guess standards really are different here. Oh, the unit’s designed by Ferrari and has a glossy bright-yellow or red or black or silver arc across its top and sides.
For $3,000, you don’t get an iPod dock; that will come later, for “less than $200.” Meanwhile, you get a “truly unique product that will certainly appeal to anyone who values sound quality, stylish design, and all-around high performance.” And doesn’t fret much about money. 
It’s not a product yet, but it could be in another 18 months, if the January 2008 PC World report is right. It says Arizona State’s developed a new memory technology, programmable metallization cell, to replace flash memory—with roughly 1,000 times the density and “essentially zero” additional costs. If you could actually increase the cost-effectiveness of flash memory by 1,000 times and have it last for an indefinite number of state changes, it might finally be a cost-effective alternative to hard disks. Within 18 months, hard disk storage should be down to about ten or fifteen cents a gigabyte (that is, $100 to $150 for a terabyte internal drive); while 1,000x current cost-effectiveness would suggest a $20 two-terabyte USB drive, I’d be happy with, say, a $20 500GB drive—particularly if it has no moving parts and is as durable as typical USB drives. 
The January 2008 PC Magazine includes a bunch of special features for the magazine’s 25th anniversary. I thought one deserved special mention: “The most memorable tech flops.” Remember some of these winners? Memory Shift, the first memory manager for PCs—part of DOS 1.1, when IBM PCs came with 128 kilobytes of RAM. Microsoft Bob—and Windows 98 Me. IBM’s PCjr and PS/2. PointCast. DataPlay prerecorded half-dollar-size optical discs. Flooz and Beenz. And, to be sure, the NeXT.
The next feature includes a few odd highlights from the pages of early PC issues—e.g., the Compaq “portable” from October 1983, “super-fast 2400-Baud modems” from September 1984, an ad for the first Windows in 1986, 33MHz speed demons in 1990—and the Versatron Footmouse from August 1987. And, showing that PC has both a memory and a heart, they reprint the famous January 17, 1989 issue with PC’s Technical Excellence award—with the model holding a plaque clearly engraved “Technichal Excellence.” (The feature also shows one of the horrendous 3D testing charts from 1990, an innovation that made PC’s comparison charts essentially useless while it lasted.) 
PC Magazine gives an Editors’ Choice to an unusual system protection utility: ThreatFire 3 from PC Tools. It detects malware by its behavior and appears to be unusually successful at blocking malware installation—including brand-new threats. There’s no configuration and it’s free. On the other hand, the $30 Pro edition wasn’t any good at clearing existing infections. As of November 6, 2007, PC’s Editors’ Choice for internet security suites is Norton Internet Security 2008—with a great firewall, new identity protection, slow but effective virus/spyware scanning. The January 2008 PC World roundup also scores Norton Internet Security highest and gives it the Best Buy, with Kaspersky Lab Internet Security a close second, McAfee and BitDefender not far behind. I see that all of the top-ranked internet security suites now sell with three-PC licenses; for typical home use, that’s both sensible and refreshing. 
There’s an unusual four-way comparative review in the October 2, 2007 PC Magazine: The Motorola Razr2—as you get it from four different phone companies. They’re all the same (three of them are V9m, one is V9); they’re all different! Three of the four—Verizon, Sprint, AT&T—earn Editors’ Choice awards. What’s different? Mostly software, and that turns out to make a lot of difference—e.g., the AT&T model has less than two-thirds the battery life of the others but has the best call quality. 
Two Macs earn Editors’ Choices in the October 16, 2007 PC Magazine—which is also the issue that appears to “bring back the specs,” with a specs paragraph at the end of each product review (two cheers!). At $1,649 with 2GB RAM (and a 320GB hard disk), the Apple iMac (20-inch Aluminum) isn’t cheap but it’s sleek and reasonably powerful (2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, ATI 256MB graphics card) and has more recyclable components than previous iMacs. The $1,999 Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (LED)—are these really the model names?—is considerably faster than the regular MacBook, and although LED backlighting doesn’t improve the image, it does yield longer battery life. Let’s see: compared to the desktop, you’re paying 20% more for a slightly slower dual-core CPU, much smaller hard disk (120GB vs. 320GB), and roughly one-quarter smaller display. As notebook-to-desktop comparisons go, that makes the MacBook Pro a relative bargain. 
Want a tiny, reasonably cheap MP3 player—“tiny” as in 3.2x1.0x0.4" (0.8oz.)? PC Magazine finds the $90 Samsung YP-U3 Editors’ Choice-worthy. That gets you 2GB storage, “great FM radio,” voice recording, touch-sensitive buttons—and a bright 1.8" OLED display. This replaces the Sansa Express as PC’s choice—apparently because it’s skinnier and “a little slicker.” Since I paid $50 rather than $80 for the 2GB Sansa and think I might eventually use the expandability (the Samsung doesn’t have an expansion slot), I’ll deal with the slight extra bulk, thank you.
For larger units, PC still loves iPods. The November 6, 2007 issue gives Editors’ Choice awards to the $300-$400 iPod touch (although the “earbuds suck,” as do most earbuds that come with MP3 players) and the $149-$199 iPod nano (which has “crappy earbuds”). On the other hand, the January 2008 issue awards Editors’ Choice for a hard-disk MP3 player to the $250 Microsoft Zune 80GB, a “good-looking, feature-loaded device that bests the iPod classic” with a larger screen, wireless player-to-player sharing and FM radio. (The review doesn’t say whether it has voice recording.) As you’d expect, the earbuds “aren’t great,” which is one of the kinder comments I’ve seen on included earbuds. 
I’m not sure I’d rely on a PC magazine for TV reviews—but these days I’m not that wild about the TV magazines either. The November 2007 PC World has a major article on “which HDTV is right for you?”—limiting the comparison to LCD and plasma, since presumably no proper PC user would be caught dead using a rear-projection TV. The tests included five plasmas and seven LCDs. Most “were capable of producing superb pictures.” Best Buy goes to Samsung’s $1,600 LN-T4061, a 40" LCD with 1920x1080 resolution, although it didn’t do a great job with standard-definition material (including all those DVDs you own). 
Here’s an unusual comparison: PDF creators. A November 6, 2007 PC Magazine roundup includes four of them, one free. Not surprisingly, Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard gets the Editors’ Choice; the two other priced products (PDF Converter Professional 4, $100, and deskPDF Professional, $30) tie for second with 3.5 dots to Acrobat’s 4 dots. 
If you need serious photo printing at bigger-than-usual sizes, you may appreciate the Canon Pixma Pro9000 ($500). PC Magazine gives it an Editors’ Choice (November 6, 2007 issue) for exceptional quality and the ability to print on fine-art paper at sizes up to 13x19 inches. It uses eight ink cartridges and, while it’s slow as a business printer, it’s a very fast photo printer (two minutes to do a photo-quality 8x10 print). With semigloss paper, the unit tested “perfect on almost every point” other than a slight tint on a monochrome photo. The reviewer was so impressed with results on Canon’s fine art papers (e.g., museum etching, photo rag) that he plans to frame some of the results.
For other printing needs, other printers make more sense. If you need to do a lot of color printing (but not photo-quality and not water-resistant), the HP Officejet Pro K5400dtn Color Printer ($250) gets an Editors’ Choice for speed and paper handling (two paper trays and duplexer), and supply costs are low, although text quality isn’t quite up to lasers.
Among snapshot printers—specialized printers really designed strictly for printing small photos (usually 4x6), the December 2007 PC World likes Epson’s $100 PictureMate Dash best—but it’s another one of those confounding PC World “Best Buy.” The unit has the second-worst print quality of the five tested units—HP, Canon and Sony units all yield better color photos. Yes, the Epson’s a little cheaper per print ($0.26, where the others are $0.27 to $0.29) and faster—but shouldn’t output quality count for a lot in a printer that has no reason for being other than to print photos? 
You’ll take those snapshots with a digital camera, presumably, an area where the quality bar keeps rising. The January 2008 PC World roundup has cameras with resolution as high as 12 megapixels—and some very capable models as low as $200. Of 16 cameras tested the lowest resolution was seven megapixels. Best Buy: The $300 Fujifilm FinePix F50fd, a 12 megapixel camera that’s not all that hot looking but offers very good image quality and has all the latest features. 
Big fat PC buying guides are always interesting. PC Magazine’s November 6, 2007 guide offers Editors’ Choices in several categories. For mainstream desktops, winners ar the $1,649 Apple iMac 20-inch Aluminum and $2,199 HP Pavilion Media Center TV m8100y PC (that’s without a display), brutally expensive but including one of the few drives that can read both Blu-ray and HD DVD (and write Blu-ray as well as CD and DVD); oddly, even at that exalted price, it only has 2GB RAM and a 250GB hard disk. The $1,260 Lenovo ThinkCentre M553 gets a nod as a business desktop. Dell’s $499 Inspiron 531s is the award winner for budget desktops—and although you don’t get the hottest CPU around, you do get 2GB RAM and a 160GB hard disk, although there’s no DVD burner. Three units get the nod as Media Centers, but without specs: the $750 HP Pavilion a6130n, $1,800 HP TouchSmart IQ770 PC (an all-in-one PC), and the $999 Velocity Micro Vector GX Campus Edition 2007. Gamer? All gamers have big budgets, I assume, but the Editors’ Choice is actually the cheapest of those reviewed—a mere $5,400, for the HP Blackbird 002. Then there are notebooks. That same guide—it’s a long one for today’s truncated PC magazines, 14 pages in all—gives an Editors’ Choice to the $2,300 Lenovo ThinkPad X60 Tablet as a tablet PC and to the $4,024 (!) Dell XPS 1730 and $1,949 HP Pavilion dv9500t as desktop-replacement laptops.
Moving beyond the big fat guide, the December 25, 2007 PC Magazine replaces the Lenovo X60 Tablet’s award with one for the $1,934 Lenovo ThinkPad X61 Tablet—cheaper by almost $400, with a great keyboad, tough magnesium-alloy frame and good performance. The January 2008 issue crowns anew all-in-one winner, Dell’s $2,399 XPS One (base price $1,449. As tested it’s equipped with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6550 dual-core CPU, 2GB RAM, 500GB hard disk, Blu-ray burner, ATI Radeon graphics card with 128MB RAM driving a 20" LCD widescreen, and an ATSC (HDTV) tuner. It comes with Adobe Element Studio, a suite that’s powerful but no match for iLife. 
Here’s an unusual one: Office suites, specifically including online services. While Microsoft Office 2007 gets an Editors’ Choice and deserves it, Google Docs Beta also gets an Editors’ Choice, if a slightly lower rating. If you’re doing basic documents, spreadsheets and presentations, Google Docs “is the best online tool.” 
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