Interesting & Peculiar Products
Kill A Watt
The February 2008 PC World’s “Geek tech” column (by Tom Mainelli) isn’t directly about this device—a $21 power-monitoring box. You plug it into the wall and plug something into it, and find out how much power you’re using for the device. That can be revealing, particularly for the many electronic products that are never entirely off unless you pull the plug—which includes anything you turn on with a remote control.
I’m tempted to buy one of these, even though I think we’ve already done most of the things it might help with (or maybe I don’t want to know how much power our ten-year-old TV draws when it’s off!). I’m pretty sure my LCD display draws little or no power when it’s switched off. I think the same is true for my all-in-one printer—but in any case, it and my new notebook computer are both plugged into a power strip I turn off when I’m not using the computer. (Why? Because I’m pretty sure the power block/charger will draw power all the time, and don’t see any reason to let it.) I’m also guessing, with some certainty, that the notebook uses considerably less power than the 5.5-year-old PC it replaces—it uses integrated graphics instead of a graphics card, I’m guessing a 1.7GHz Core 2 Duo is more power-efficient than an aging 2.2GHz Pentium 4, and there’s the objective knowledge that the notebook fan at its loudest is far quieter than the desktop’s fans were. But I don’t know. Do you know how much power you’re using for devices you’re not using?
Here’s another one from February 2008 PC World—and this time I have mixed feelings. Erik Larkin’s “Privacy Watch” urges readers to use “online monitoring and alerting services” to make sure nothing odd is happening with your checking, savings and credit card accounts. He specifically applauds Mint.com:
If you give Mint.com the user name and password for each of your financial accounts—including checking, savings, credit cards, and even PayPal—it will monitor them all daily and pull the transactions into its site for you to check… You can also have Mint.com send you alerts based on specified thresholds…
The magazine also gives Mint.com an innovation award. Neato, right? Of course, it’s “still in beta” (like Gmail and many others)—and “managed to lock one of my accounts because of failed log-in attempts.”
Here’s the thing. In a column on fighting identity theft (there’s nothing about privacy here), Larkin’s encouraging us to put all our passwords and account numbers on a commercial website. We’re not paying directly (it’s free). The site has impressive sets of certificates about encryption and all that and claims it’s not actually storing any of that important stuff. And wow, do you get all sorts of aggregated information once you’ve trusted Mint with all your financial data.
Call me a Luddite, but I really don’t want all my accounts to be available at one online place, particularly one where I don’t have a firm contractual relationship. When I’m told that an unknown company “carefully controls employee access,” I’m reminded of the 100% success very large well-established companies have had in that regard. For you, this might be a great convenience. Not for me, thanks.
PC Magazine’s Editors’ Choice review of the SimpleDrive 500GB Portable Hard Drive carries the title “Sleek, simple storage.” Indeed, while this compact (8.5x5x1.5") external drive doesn’t carry a Ferrari logo, it’s designed by Pininfarina. But then, you don’t pay for that logo (see elsewhere in this section): Even though it’s a full 7200RPM drive and has a good software package (both Windows and Mac) on the disk itself, it’s only $170 for 500GB.
Here’s how the blurb in Sound & Vision begins: “Think about it: You’re always going to need some kind of table radio somewhere, so why not get one with an iPod dock?” Thus begins a preview of the Cambridge SoundWorks i765 iPod radio, which also includes a CD/DVD drive and alarm clock. I’ll admit we don’t have a table radio, but maybe the writer’s right. On the other hand, $500 is a fancy price for a table radio.
Of course, it’s all relative. Last time around (February 2008), I mentioned another table radio that includes an alarm clock and CD/DVD drive—for a modest $3,000! (Also see below.) But, you know, to keep the price down, they don’t include the iPod dock: It’s another $200. By comparison, the Cambridge is a pauper’s table radio.
I’ve seen more rave reviews for the Meridian F80 Home Entertainment System. Just as a reminder: It’s a 14-pound table radio, an arc measuring 16" wide by 9" high (at highest point) by 7.3" deep. It’s a fancy table radio: Along with AM-FM and alarm, you get a DVD/CD drive (with video output), and there’s a “subwoofer” along with two 3" speakers. (The designer calls it a subwoofer. I don’t see how it’s possible to have a true subwoofer in a cabinet that small—but the term “subwoofer” gets misused all the time, even if not usually by high-end companies like Meridian.) Oh, and Ferrari puts its horse logo on the table radio and the outside of the arc is in one of the Ferrari colors—Rosso Corsa (dark red), Modena Giallo (yellow), Argento Nurburgring (bright silver), Nero (black) or Bianco Avus (off-white).
The review that surprised me is in the April 2008 Stereophile. It’s a favorable review; I expected that. The reviewer basically writes off the price—hey, if it makes you happy, who cares?—and I can’t really argue with that. The writer says it “might be the best table radio ever.” For $3,000, one would certainly hope so.
But… Stereophile measures most all of the stuff it tests. The reviews don’t depend on the measurements (comments on the measurements run in a “sidebar” under the review proper, and are done after the review is written—usually by a different writer), but the measurements are extensive, apparently done with considerable care and expertise, and fascinating in their own right. (That’s particularly true for some audiophile delights where the “musical ability” of the device is apparently there because the actual fidelity is demonstrably awful, rolling off lows and highs.)
I was looking forward to the measurements for this $3,000 charmer: Just how low does that “subwoofer” actually go, for example?
They’re not there. For some reason, this very favorable review of a device that, while relatively inexpensive by audiophile standards, is bloody expensive by table-radio standards or even one-piece music system standards, has no measurements in a magazine that consistently measures everything.
Mysterious and disappointing.
The May 2008 Home Theater devotes two pages to the Art.Engine—an “officially licensed, hand-built, 47-inch-tall two-channel wireless audio system in one enclosure.” Each side of the enclosure is a “NACA duct—a low-drag cooling technology used by Ferrari.” And, of course, this four-foot-high speaker system comes in Ferrari colors.
The description and picture are a little odd: Each side has eight 3" “woofers” topped by a tweeter, which would seem to be well above ear level for most applications. Actually, it’s not fair to say that the Art.Engine gets two pages: Most of one page is devoted to a side view of a Ferrari—the car, that is.
There’s no indication of how this speaker system (OK, sound system, since it includes four 200-watt amplifiers) sounds, and I’m not sure that’s even the point. What’s stressed: “Production…has been limited to 1,000 units. Each one…comes with a certificate of authenticity.” It sells for $20,000. I won’t comment on the speaker as pictured; my aesthetic sense doesn’t match those for whom this is designed. Neither does my wallet (although, if this was actually a high-end speaker system, $20,000 wouldn’t be considered outrageous), so that’s OK.
So you have this great new HDTV and you know most contemporary DVDs and TV programs come with 5.1-channel surround sound. You also know you’re not ready to place six speakers and all the accompanying cables in your living room.
One answer is a soundbar—a single device that aims to emulate all five surround channels (and maybe the .1 subwoofer) through multiple speakers and digital signal processing. It’s an attractive notion: One long, shallow device sitting under your big-screen TV is all you need.
The April 2008 Home Theater devotes a dozen pages to a discussion of the likely market for soundbars and reasonably controlled tests of five such devices. The units range from $800 to $1,400 (Yamaha makes several soundbars, but the group review includes a middle unit rather than the $1,800 higher-end unit). They come from Philips, Marantz, Yamaha, Denon and Polk. They include anywhere from six to 23 actual speakers, in either one or two cabinets (two systems house the subwoofer separately). In terms of price, one of them’s a ringer: The Polk SurroundBar 50 ($1,100) requires an external amplifier or receiver, while the others all include amplifiers.
How did they do? So-so. None did a convincing job of simulating surround sound. The Polk scored highest (barely) and was generally judged to have the most natural sound. The five reviewers didn’t show much enthusiasm for any of them. One simply refused to state a favorite, saying he’d look for a full 5.1 system in the same price range “and live with the aesthetics” to get real surround and better sound.
Oddly enough, the April 2008 Sound & Vision also had a (considerably briefer) roundup of even more soundbars—seven of them, ranging from Boston Acoustics’ $350 TVee Model Two (just 2.1 channels) and ZVox’ $700 Model 425 to the higher-end Yamaha, the $1,800 YSP-4000. That one gets the “Certified and Recommended” seal of approval, although it’s still not “as immersive as that of discrete speakers.” The high-end Yamaha has forty-two speakers in a 40-inch-wide cabinet.
Two years ago (in My Back Pages) I mentioned the Continuum Caliburn/Cobra/Castellon turntable/arm combination: it cost $89,000 (without cartridge), and one audio reviewer proclaimed it worth every penny, calling people who hated the product cynical and self-loathing. (Another magazine didn’t much care for it.)
Continuum Audio Labs has seen the light: The company’s introduced a junior model for audiophiles on a budget (the original combo is now up to $125,000). The Criterion and Copperhead combo doesn’t include a stand, but it’s merely $55,595. It’s not as good, of course—after all, you’re spending less than $56K (you still need a cartridge and preamp).
Here’s the fun part: The reviewer’s “early production sample” was out of spec—the arm got stuck partway through every LP. Woops! Well, you know, when you’re building on the cheap, things like quality control have to take a back seat. The reviewer’s comment on getting a defective turntable that costs nearly $60,000? “Better it happen to a reviewer than to a paying customer.” No big thing, right?
I’m thoroughly impressed with the Linn Klimax DS Network Music Player, as reviewed in the March 2008 Stereophile. I’m particularly impressed with what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t store digitized audio files; for that you need a storage drive. It doesn’t allow you to organize your files or build playlists, although they do provide software to run on the notebook or tablet that you supply (the software’s not very good, apparently). It doesn’t include a CD or DVD drive so you can rip to the storage drive you provide.
What does it do? It connects your storage drive to your stereo system, preferably over a wired network. So you can play those ripped files over your stereo. It does high-quality digital-to-analog conversion along the way. And it costs $20,000.
The measured performance is excellent. It had damn well better be.
Want a cell phone with “stellar voice quality,” “heavenly keyboards” (a full QWERTY keyboard inside a clamshell lid) and “robust” applications, including Quickoffice? It’s a little big (5.2x2.2x0.8”) and chunky (7.4oz.), but it’s got capabilities up the wazoo.
Oh yes, there’s the price: $1,099—and, by the way, it doesn’t offer U.S. 3G support.
After those pricey devices, it’s only fair to mention the other end of the scale: Free software, as described in the March 2008 PC Magazine list of 157 tools. They claim that “popular apps” equivalent to these freebies would run $5,183—but equivalence is in the eye of the beholder. Still, there’s a lot of good stuff here, including old standbys such as GIMP, Firefox and Audacity and others ranging from the KompoZer web authoring program to Virtual PC 2007 from some company in Redmond.
This one’s from a liblog: Hidden peanuts by Chad Haefele (www.hiddenpeanuts.com). A June 1, 2007 post (I’m running late on this) reviews the Philips PHDTV1 indoor antenna; he’s using it with his ATSC (high-def digital) tuner on his computer, and it apparently works great. In general, broadcast digital TV is supposed to be yes:no—either you get a great picture or you get no picture at all, not ghosts and shadows. I’ve heard that a lot more people can get clear over-the-air broadcast digital TV than could get good broadcast analog TV; that seems to be the case for Haefele.
When Haefele wrote about it, the price was $20 to $30—a bargain if it means you can drop cable. Checking now, I see prices in the $10.30 to $20 range and some quite positive reviews. (As usual for online reviews, they’re not uniformly positive.)
Whether at home or at your library, you will be moving to digital TV soon—one way or another. That may mean a set-top adapter and sticking with your aging analog set, or getting analog signals from your cable provider. But it may also mean, for some of us, moving from cable back to broadcast TV—maybe with a reasonably-priced indoor antenna.
I’ve seen formal reviews and informal commentaries on this little wonder, including an extensive review in the April 2008 Sound & Vision. Someday I need to go to a Sony store and look at one…
Here’s the downside, enough to convince most reasonable people to pass this one by: It’s an 11"-diagonal desktop TV—and since it’s widescreen, that means there’s not a lot of height. It sells for $2,500. And it doesn’t have all that many video input options. And it’s not really HDTV: Resolution is only 960x540.
Absurd, right? Yes, for most people—and Sony probably doesn’t expect to sell hundreds of thousands. But then there are the positives:
· It’s the first production OLED TV.
· The screen is three millimeters thick. “About the same thickness as three credit cards.”
· The picture is, by all accounts, nothing short of stunning—with an expanded color spectrum, superb contrast and the whole shebang. Every writeup I’ve seen has been glowing.
The XEL-1 is primarily a technology demonstration. It suggests that, if Sony or somebody else can scale OLED up to 42 to 50 inches, the results will be spectacular.
Moving from that tiny gem, PC World’s April 2008 issue includes a review of 50-inch and 52-inch HDTVs. The Best Buy of the lot, using their testing, is actually cheaper than the Sony: Samsung’s $2,400 FP-T5084. It’s another one of those strange reviews: The Samsung scores “Good” for picture quality across the board (HDTV, SDTV, DVD), where the second-place Vizio and fourth-place Sony Bravia both score “Very Good” on two of three scales and “Good” on the third. Apparently, features matter more than performance when comparing the Samsung to the even cheaper 52” Vizio ($2,200)—I guess the Sony loses points because it’s considerably more expensive (52”, $3,500) even though it “posted the highest overall image-quality score” and “delivered unrivaled brightness and contrast.”
A PC World February 2008 roundup looks at 17 flat-screen LCD displays in the 19”-and-larger range, all of them widescreen. Best Buy honors go to the $220 LG Electronics L196WTY-BF for a 19" display (although you’ll get better graphics quality with the $270 Samsung SyncMaster 932GW) and $260 HP w2007 among 20” and 22” displays (it’s 20.1 inches and offers very good performance across the board). Want a really big screen? They didn’t rate screens 30” and up, but the $1,000 Samsung SyncMaster 275T (27") gets the Best Buy for 25.5” to 28” displays. Of course, instead of a 1920x1200 pixel $1,000 display, you could buy two 22" displays (each 1680x1050) and have both a lot more screen estate and $480 left over, but what fun would that be?
The February 2008 PC Magazine gives an Editors’ Choice to Epson’s $250 Perfection V500 Photo, a scanner specifically oriented to photo scanning, using an LED light source (with no warmup time) and offering good speed, good scanning and Digital ICE to remove dust and scratches.
If you want to print those photos, Epson scores another Editors’ Choice for the $100 PictureMate Dash, a relatively big photo printer—but one that offers a big LCD, prints from a range of sources, prints quickly (42 seconds per 4x6 photo) and is reasonably cheap (25.3 cents per glossy). Another Epson photo printer—the $200 PictureMate Zoom—gets a March 2008 Editors’ Choice. Same price per print, same speed, probably the same quality. What makes this one worth an extra $100? A builtin DVD reader/CD-RW burner so you can save photos from a memory card to a CD and print photos from optical discs.
For business color printing, where photos aren’t a primary need, your best choice right now might be the $400 Brother HL-4040CN color laser printer, according to a roundup in the May 2008 PC World. It offers superior text quality and fast text printing (19.3 ppm), although the design is “sometimes awkward.”
Looking for a webcam—something a little more flexible than one built into a notebook’s lid? A PC Magazine roundup awards Editors’ Choice to the $100 Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000—“an order of magnitude better than any competitor.” Wow. Ten times as good as any competitor? Maybe not, but clearly superior, with 2MP resolution, a Carl Zeiss lens and generally fine performance (although audio isn’t great and the software isn’t wonderful). The only alternative they suggest is the $25 Hercules Deluxe Optical Glass—it’s cheap and easy.
Flash-RAM based MP3 players keep getting more memory. A May 2008 PC World roundup of such players includes two with 32GB RAM. One of them, from Creative Zen, only costs $300. It’s the Best Buy, with superior overall design, very good overall audio quality and a good signal-to-noise ratio. It also has FM and voice recording (as do most non-Apple players, even my $50 Sansa and the #2-rated $90 Creative Zen V Plus) and can handle photos and video; the 2.5" color screen displays 320x240 pixels. The obvious competitor, Apple’s iPod Touch, has a bigger, higher-resolution screen and wi-fi, but (like all Apple players) it lacks FM and recording—and it’s $499 for the 32GB version. It comes in fourth, just behind the iPod Nano ($199 for 8GB), which has the best signal-to-noise ratio of any of the top five.
How about “green PCs”? The April 2008 PC Magazine discusses a new suite of tests to earn a PC Magazine Green Seal and applies those tests to a handful of desktop and notebooks. So far, they haven’t found a unit that deserves both a Green Seal and Editors’ Choice, but the issue does note four Green Seal units: the Zonbu Desktop Mini ($99 with contract, as it’s a Linux frontend to rented online storage), Apple Mac mini ($799), Lenovo ThinkCentre a61e (a relatively compact Vista desktop), and the HP Compaq 27109p notebook ($2,457, a convertible tablet).
Maybe you want a bargain. The April 2008 PC World tests a dozen low-cost machines ($750 or less for desktops, $1,000 or less for laptops) and gives Best Buy seals to the $689 Dell Inspiron 530 (dedicated graphics card, good speed, decent capacity and a 19” display) and the $900 HP Pavilion dv2660se notebook (a “designer notebook” with excellent battery life).
Or a little more basic computing speed—from a quad-core “Penryn” (Intel) or “Phenom” (AMD) CPU. A roundup in the March 2008 PC World gives Best Buy honors to the $4,299 CyberPower Power Infinity Pro, a Penryn-based (Core 2 Extreme QX9650) system with 1.8 terabytes of hard disk (in a RAID configuration), a 22" LCD display and high-end graphics with 768MB dedicated graphics memory.
PC Magazine reviews a group of “ultraportable” and mainstream laptops in the May 2008 issue. An Apple gets one of two Editors’ Choice honors, but not the one you might expect. The ultrathin Apple MacBook Air ties for second among ultraportables; winner is Sony’s $2,499 VAIO VGN-SZ791N—3.9 pounds, but with a 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo T9300 CPU, nVidia GeForce graphics, 4GB RAM, a 250GB hard disk, excellent performance and more-than-decent battery life (3:49 on PC’s test suite). The winning Apple is the mainstream MacBook Pro 15-inch (LED), $1,999; it “oozes sexiness” and is the lightest 15" widescreen laptop around; it also gets good battery life and is reasonably well equipped, with 2GB RAM, 512MB dedicated graphics RAM, and a 120GB hard disk.
PC World tested ultralight notebooks in May 2008, using a three-pound cutoff that eliminates some of the units just noted. The Best Buy in this group is the $2,696 Lenovo ThinkPad X300. The MacBook Air came in dead last for performance and features.
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