Interesting & Peculiar Products
Beyond the Eee
Oddly enough, the ultramobile computer category has already split into different branches that aren’t directly comparable. If you want a rugged device for modest on-the-road computing needs, chances are you want a machine without a hard disk—and chances are you won’t mind a user-friendly Linux version. If you want something that can pretty much take the place of your whole system, you’re in a different submarket. Maybe it’s the difference between “netbooks” and ultramobile PCs?
In any case, PC Magazine gives its Editors’ Choice for ultramobile PCs, as of October 2008 at least, to the MSI Wind, a $480 unit that weighs 2.6 pounds and has a 10.1 inch screen. It runs XP Home, it’s got an Intel Atom PC, the keyboard’s 92%-size—and it has an 80GB hard disk. As a competitor to, say, the HP 2133 Mini-note PC, great. As a direct competitor to the two-pound ASUS Eee models that don’t have hard disks…I’m not so sure. But for the UMPC market, this may be the model to beat as I write this.
Not a library item as such, but dynamite for those of you who have the space for a home theater but neither the budget nor the mad skillz for a typical professional setup. Epson offers the Ensemble HD: a $5,000 to $7,000 package consisting of a front projector with rear speakers built in, big powered screen with front speakers built in and controller including DVD player and receiver. There’s also a subwoofer. The September 2008 Home Theater includes a long discussion of the combo and installation issues. (Epson also supplies installation materials.) If you’re handy, you could install it yourself; otherwise, it should only take installers “a few hours.”
This could be a library item—indeed, one of the first ones is in the University of Michigan’s Shapiro Library—but it’s probably not something you’ll pick up as a casual purchase. I wrote about it in September 2008 (really August 2008) and, indirectly, in May 2002—but while there were supposedly eleven machines in use at the time, details were a little fuzzy.
Things firmed up a bit in September 2008. The University of Michigan announced installation of an EBM and that it would charge around $10 a book. A Creative Commons blog post noted that two million books available were all in the public domain and added, “The espresso version is simply covering printing costs. Compared to the average price of books these days, especially textbooks, ten bucks is pocket change.”
Both sentences are open to question. When EBM was announced, the cost was supposed to be about a penny a page, and I’m guessing a pretty small minority of Michigan’s public domain collection is books close to 1,000 pages long. Remember when Internet Archive was promoting dollar books, printed using a similar system? As for “pocket change,” I don’t know of too many public domain textbooks—and most mass-market paperbacks cost less than $10, last time I looked. On the other hand, the EBM is producing trade paperbacks, not mass market paperbacks, so $10 isn’t bad. On the gripping hand, presumably not a dime is going to royalties or publishers, since these are public domain books. I can’t speak to the reality behind the pricing, but if I had to guess I’d guess a lease situation, with something like half the price going to maintenance and leasing. This is not a complaint: If you want an OP book, being able to get your own trade-paper-quality copy for $10 with a seven-minute wait is a pretty good deal for all concerned…and Michigan, with its enormous digitized collection, is a great place to start.
Peter Murray’s September 22, 2008 post at Disruptive library technology jester (dltj.org) may be the best place to start if you want more information; the post is rich with well-chosen links. (A comment at one such link notes that the University of Alberta installed an EBM in November 2007—but “Canada’s only Espresso Book Machine” is in the bookstore, not the library. Most other EBMs are in bookstores as well, as far as I can tell. Another comment, from Paul Courant of Michigan, notes that Michigan found Alberta’s experience helpful as they decided to proceed.)
In the past, I’ve included material about print-on-demand systems (since that’s what the EBM is) in the ebook category—but that’s silly, since the EBM specifically produces print books.
The September 2008 PC World has a half-page review of Polaroid’s $150 PoGo portable printer—“the first photo printer to use Zink, the zero-ink technology that Polaroid pioneered.” It uses a thermal printhead and special glossy photo paper with “100 billion or so dye crystals.” It’s small enough to fit in your hand. It took less than a minute to print a 640x480 image from a Treo…and apparently uses 2x3” paper.
There’s an absolutely essential element missing from this review, an element that might tell you whether it’s an expensive toy (if the largest prints it can produce are two by three inches, “toy” is the right word) or an ultra-expensive toy: Namely, how much do those sheets of special glossy paper cost?
Maybe September 2008 was PC World’s special “skipping the important stuff” issue. “The best TV on the web” offers the magazine’s “choices for must-stream TV” in a six-page article. The article covers quite a few bases but seems curiously reticent on one issue: What does the video actually look like—and what does it measure like? They’re talking about watching streaming video on your real TV, after all.
When there is something, it’s internally contradictory. For example, referring to ABC’s “high-definition” streaming, “The image quality falls far short of what you’d get on Blu-ray Disc, but it’s still impressive.” So it’s not really high-def, but it’s “impressive”? Or this: “Star Trek Remastered looked great, but the video playback was not smooth at full-screen.”
I’m trying not to be snarky. When I missed an episode of Pushing Daisies because of travel, I watched it from ABC’s streaming service. It looked pretty good—on my 19” computer display. Would it look good on a real TV? I have no idea.
I’m not sure why you’d want to have your CDs playing at an angle. Doesn’t that just impose extra stress on the mechanics of the drive? Not a lot of extra stress, to be sure, but what’s the point? That comes to mind more when it’s part of an extremely high-end CD player like the Chord RED Reference CD player from BlueBird, an oversized solid aluminum structure “which provides a rigid support for the uniquely angled CD mechanism.” The beast costs $29,500. (No, there’s no missing decimal point: That’s just under thirty thousand dollars.) Of course, Bluebird doesn’t build the CD drive itself: They use a Philips CD Pro 2 then add electronics and packaging. The CD Pro 2 has an excellent reputation and is used in other high-end CD drives (including one that sells for a little less than $3,000), but it’s usually horizontal.
What’s the advantage of a diagonal slant? It’s distinctive. Also, in my opinion, dumb. I can’t believe the slant is going to increase the life of the bearings in the drive, and there’s no suggestion that it somehow improves the sound.
Not PC-related, but here because I bitch about absurd audio prices so much in My Back Pages. The September 2008 Abso!ute Sound lists seven “great-sounding systems that fit just about any budget”—ranging from $500 to $6,000. These are all high-end systems, just not priced that way.
The cheapest is specialized: It’s a desktop system consisting of a $169 Oppo universal player and a $399 Razer Mako powered omnidirectional desktop speaker system. Somehow, the magazine believes that $399 and $169 add up to $468—but you could also just hook the Razer Mako up to your computer’s audio outputs.
The Oppo DV980H also serves as source component for the next one up, a $767 system that adds an NAD C315BEE integrated amp and PSB Alphas B1 bookshelf loudspeakers, both of which have been glowingly reviewed. Note that the Oppo is “universal,” which means it plays SACD and DVD-Audio as well as regular CDs…and, by the way, also plays DVDs with 1080p upconversion.
Those are the only two under $1,500. Otherwise, it’s interesting that you can assemble a high-end tube system (if you really believe tubes are more accurate as opposed to more “musical”) for under $4,000 (under $5,000 with turntable).
It’s not a full system, but it’s worth noting a very positive review of Polk Audio’s RTi A1 loudspeaker in the September 2008 Stereophile. “Rich, holographic, uncolored, detailed” midrange. Great high end (but with “very subtle highlighting”). Very good bass—and an overall sound so good that the experienced high-end reviewer “wanted to mine my entire record collection, playing more and more different types of music.” The price? $350 a pair.
I wrote the portion above a few months ago, but haven’t had room for Interesting & Peculiar Products since October 2008. In the meantime, I’ve seen two very different takes on the same general subject, both from more recent issues of The Abso!ute Sound.
“The rule of 10”? My rough calculation that, in most areas, there’s rarely more than a ten-to-one difference between the most expensive product that serves a specific purpose and the least expensive (reputable) product that serves that purpose—unless the extra money goes for something other than improved functionality, such as scarcity or glitz.
So, for example, the cheapest highly-rated, reliable, safe sedan or subcompact available in the U.S. costs around $15,000—and I’ll argue that, if you’re paying more than $150,000 for a sedan, you’re buying exclusivity or extreme luxury, not simply a better car. You can buy a name-brand notebook computer for around $600; pay more than $6,000 and you’re buying something pretty specialized. The cheapest name-brand 4GB portable players cost around $50; I don’t know of any 4GB player that costs anywhere near $500 (unless it’s a special celebrity model). You rarely see more than a 10:1 ratio between the cheapest reputable TV in a size and technology class and the most expensive TV in that class.
This rule is only for somewhat utilitarian devices. It obviously doesn’t apply to artwork or perfume or anything custom-made. It does apply to houses, but only within general size categories and local areas: A 1,200 square foot house in Silicon Valley costs a lot more than ten times as much as a similar house in Detroit—but you’d be hard-pressed to find a 10:1 ratio among, say, 1,000 to 2,000 square foot houses within Silicon Valley.
Does it apply to sound equipment? Maybe not (and maybe it depends on subcategories)—but you have to wonder whether what you’re buying past a certain price multiple has much to do with either sound or construction quality. The two instances below make me wonder even more.
This long section is the principal editorial feature in the January 2009 issue, and it’s supposed to honor “the very best products we’ve reviewed in the previous year.” So we’re not just talking “good enough for the high end,” we’re talking the very best.
But the editors chose three winners in many categories: One that represents good value, one that offers outstanding performance “without a mega-buck price tag,” and one that’s the best reviewed regardless of price. Still, in all cases these are legitimate high-end products and “the best of the year.”
What’s the range? If you want a two-channel stereo system playing CDs, DVDs, AM & FM, the “best of the year” will run you $2,800—notably, a lot less than ten times as much as the bargain system listed earlier (which also plays DVDs but doesn’t include radio). That’s for the NAD VISO Two (a $1,299 DVD-receiver) and a pair of Paradigm Reference Signature S1 speakers. The high end for such a system, within the regular awards? $160,000 or so—more than 30 times as much.
Skipping over specialty awards, let’s look at the high-to-low ratio in various categories. For CD players, the price points are $299, $2,695, and $59,995—less than 10:1 from budget to outstanding, but more than 22:1 between outstanding and cost-no-object.
For “digital separates” (digital-to-analog converters when the CD player isn’t good enough), the price points are $1,575, $4,995—and $67,000, but the latter does throw in a CD/SACD player.
Phono cartridges? $99, $599, and $8,000. What can I say, other than that the $99 and $599 options are actually variations on the same cartridge, the Ortofon 2m? Which leads us to turntables! No cheapo under-$1,000 units here, even though some such units have received good reviews. The “budget” choice is $1,150; the better one—where the reviewer says it “redefined what is possible in the playback of vinyl sources” runs $5,200 to $10,800. Ah, but if redefining what’s possible isn’t good enough, you go for “the cat’s pajamas”—the Clearaudio Statement, a mere $150,000. (It literally weighs half a ton and appears to be very fussy to use, but it’s quite a sculpture.)
Apparently, there are no worthy budget choices for phono stages or integrated amplifiers: The two options are, respectively, $1,500 in each case and a little more: $19,250 for a phono stage and a mere $6,500 for an integrated amp. Of course, real high-end folks don’t buy integrated amps (or $1,299 receivers that include CD and DVD playback)—they buy separate preamps and amplifiers, probably monoblocks (one amp per channel). For preamps, the three options run $1,800, $4,000, and a piddling $25,000—and the amps are a little surprising, given a later review. To wit, for vacuum tube lovers, you can go from $4,500 per channel (the “budget” option) to $49,000 per channel, with a middle choice of $17,000 per channel. If you prefer solid-state, you can pay $2,699 or $16,500.
As already noted, budget speakers will run you $1,500 (or $2,000 for floor-standing PSB Imagine Ts). But this time there are several more choices: $3,695 Gershman Sonograms as mid-priced winners, $1,200 Quad ESL-2905 for the upper-end and $25,000 Magico V3 as cost-no-object. (But there’s also the $1,995 MartinLogan The Source as one of two “budget components of the year.”)
But wait! There’s more! Two other speakers finish in a tie for “overall product of the year,” and they make the “cost no object” speakers seem like bargains. Your choices: the MBL 101 X-Treme at $199,000 a pair or the Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 Series 2 at $148,000.
The MBL 101 X-Treme is something else, as is made clear in a drooling ten-page review that’s half photographs and headlined “Zowie!” Each of the two channels consists of two huge enclosures, one of which has MBL’s peculiar-looking speakers, the other six 12” subwoofers. Total weight for the speakers: Just under two tons. As the review makes clear, if you want to get the most out of these speakers, you’ll spend a little more: $200,000 worth of amplifiers (also from MBL), plus who knows what for cables, preamps and the like.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, I avoid claims regarding loudspeakers—given the nature of the beast, suggesting a 10:1 ratio is just silly. Can you justify an 8:1 ratio between the “cost no object” speakers of the year and these two-ton speakers? Well, nobody reading this ejournal is likely to be kicking in half a megabuck for speakers, so it may be a moot question.
This one—a special issue of The Abso!ute Sound—was in some ways even more interesting. The cover says “the best products at every price,” and the issue is a combination of advice, alternative approaches to $5,000 systems, and “the best” in various categories. Let’s look at some of those, noting the cheapest and most expensive “the best” in each category:
▪ Desktop speakers: $199 for Acoustic Energy Aego M to $1,590 for Ferguson-Hill FH007/FH008.
▪ iPod speaker systems: $299 for Sierra Sound iN Studio 5.0 to $2,999 for the Meridian F80, “the world’s coolest table radio.”
▪ Earbuds: $50 for Skullcandy Titan to $549 for Shure E5c.
▪ Earphones: $69 for Grado SR60 to $995 for Grado GS1000.
▪ Stand-mounted speakers: $279 for PSB Alpha B1 to $6,600 for ATC SCM20-2.
▪ Floor-standing speakers: $800 for PSB T45 to $16,900 for Vandersteen Model 5A
▪ Planar speakers: $550 for Magnapan MMG to $16,800 for Sound Lab M-1a
▪ Subwoofers: $549 for PSB SubSeries S1 to $5,400 for Wilson Benesch Torus Infrasonic Generator.
▪ Turntables with arms and cartridges: $399 for Rega P1 to $10,800 for Basis 2200 Signature.
▪ Separate tonearms: $495 for Rega RB301 to $1,899 for SME 309.
▪ Cartridges: $89 for Shure M97xE to $1,500 for Transfiguration Axia.
▪ Phonostages: $499 for Simaudio Moon LP3 to $4,000 for Aesthetix Rhea.
▪ CD players: $299 for NAD C525BEE to $2,695 for Bryston BCD-1.
▪ CD and High-res (SACD etc.) players: $169 for Oppo Digital DV-980H to $6,000 for Esoteric X-05. (Why is the cheapest “best” CD/SACD player $130 less than the cheapest “best” CD-only player? Good question)
▪ Integrated amps: $499 for Cambridge Azur 540A v2 to $4,835 for Plinius 9200.
▪ Preamps: $599 for NAD C162 to $5,195 for Edge G2.
▪ Power amps: $699 for NAD C272 to $11,000 for Mark Levinson No. 433.
▪ Speaker cables: $270 for Kimber Kable 8TC to $4,600 for Synergistic Research Tesla Apex.
Yes, those are wide ranges. It looks as though you could assemble an excellent CD playback system for just under $950 (not including cables)—or put one together for $38,000.
But that’s not the story here. The story is what’s missing—all those megabuck items I’d been seeing in this magazine and its competitor. So I keep on reading, after lists of great LPs and CDs, and way in the back of the issue I see a little section: “Exotica.” Here they talk about “pride of ownership” and being hand-made. And here is where you get the real high end—speakers from $22,000 to $200,000; turntables from $15,000 to $150,000 (but for $15,000 you don’t get a tonearm); tonearms from $3,800 to $10,650; cartridges from $4,500 to $8,000; phonostages from $6,000 to $19,250; disc players from $6,950 to $65,000; digital separates from $18,000 to $67,000; integrated amps from $6,500 to $14,500; preamps from $10,000 to $25,000; amps from $15,000 to $86,000; speaker cables from $11,000 (but that’s only 1.5 meters, not the usual eight feet) to $25,000 (yes, that’s for one eight-foot pair of cables). In other words, here is where you assemble that CD playback system for $46,000 (including speaker cables) to $485,000 or more. But the magazine calls these exotica—at which point, the sky probably should be the limit.
The article title (in the November 2008 PC World) is “8 best buys for essential gear.” Not optional, not desirable, but essential. The title above appears in the subheading below that. A little further along, we learn that, if you’re traveling, “clean socks are nice, but the laptop is indispensable.” Not only are a laptop, a camera, a desktop and a cell phone all indispensable, but “it’s always the right time to upgrade your gear.”
Here’s what you must have—remember, you need all eight. (Why the number? The November issue is a “special list issue,” an especially lazy way to produce a magazine. But that’s another essay…)
▪ An all-purpose laptop; they recommend the $1,299 Micro Express JFL9226.
▪ A power desktop: the $2,000 Dell XPS 630.
▪ Even though they admit that a good multifunction printer gives you better all-around functionality, they tell you to buy a color laser: the $400 Brother HL-4040CN.
▪ A cell phone: T-Mobile’s $200 Blackberry Pearl 8120 (that’s $200 with a two-year contract).
▪ Camera: Canon’s $150 PowerShot A590 IS.
▪ External hard drive: SimpleTech Duo Pro Drive, no price given in the article. On the web, it shows up as $280—but it’s also a one-terabyte drive.
▪ Monitor, and here 22" “feels right”: HP’s $350 w2207h
▪ HDTV—and, oddly, they recommend a 42" unit, a cheap one, Vizio’s $1,100 VO42L. I guess after you’ve spent $4,700 for the rest of these essentials, you can’t come up with $2,000 to $3,000 for a first-rate big screen.
The general take on the original Apple iPhone was that it was a brilliant product—but a mediocre phone. (Thus, the iTouch, essentially an iPhone without the phone part, was a great introduction.) By most accounts, the iPhone 3G is actually a good phone. The September 2008 PC Magazine gives an Editors’ Choice to the iPhone 3G for improved phone quality and better internet speeds, along with bona fide GPS support. Unfortunately, 3G is a battery killer—and, in a refrain that should be familiar to many Apple “iWhatever” owners—the earbuds are still lousy. (But good replacement earbuds and other earpieces are cheap.)
The October 2008 PC gives Spyware Doctor with Antivirus 6 an Editors’ Choice and it’s reasonably priced ($40 for a three-computer license)—but this feels like an odd category, somewhere between a specialized tool and a full protection suite. The November 2008 issue says the best security suite is Norton Internet Security 2009 ($70 for a three-PC license)—and this version apparently has very little impact on computer performance, the issue that drove some of us away from Norton earlier. The most resounding endorsement: The reviewer, Neil Rubenking, closes by saying “I’ll be installing it on my own systems.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.
In a not particularly surprising case, Dragon Naturally Speaking 10 Professional gets an Editors’ Choice as speech-to-text software in the November 2008 PC Magazine. You can use Vista itself for speech-to-text, and Vista’s interface is apparently better, but Dragon “beats Vista in accuracy, speed and customization options.” What’s new here: A plausible built-in competitor to a $350 program.
This one, I think, really is good news if you’re in the market for a digital SLR. The November 2008 PC Magazine gives Editors’ Choice honors to an $800 camera, the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi. It’s a 12MP camera with great image quality and includes image stabilization. $800 buys not only the body but also an 18mm to 55mm lens (for another $200 you get a 55mm to 250mm lens).
A very brief omnibus review on “hottest new PCs” includes several Editors’ Choices. The $449 Lenovo IdeaCentre K210 gets the nod among value desktops, the $843 HP Pavilion Elite m9400t among mainstream desktops and the $6,999 Velocity Micro Raptor Signature Edition for gamers. (You want to play? You got to pay.) Among desktop replacement notebooks, HP’s $2,000 HDX 18 (with an 18.4” screen) gets the award, while the MSI Wind (see above) and Sony’s $2,500 VAIO VGN-SZ791N both get ultraportable awards—and the $1,200 Dell Studio 15 and $980 Acer Aspire 6920G-6071 are both award-winning mainstream laptops.
If you plan to modify digital photos but want to do it online, the group review in the October 2008 PC World may be interesting. None of these offers the range of tools you’ll get in Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro, but they’re $80 cheaper (as in free)—even if some of them won’t even let you print pictures. Best Buy in the review goes to Picnik…although you’ll need to pay $25 a year for some features.
The January 2009 PC World has another roundup of inkjet multifunction printers—and Canon Pixma continues to rule the roost, with the top three of the “top 5” short list. Best Buy is the $180 Canon Pixma MX700—but the second-choice MX7600 ($400), while more than twice as expensive, offers superior (rather than Very Good) graphics and text. Third place is what appears to be the newer version of my own MFP, namely the Canon Pixma MP620, $150 (I have the 610)—with superior text but only good graphics. (The 620 adds wifi and Ethernet, but lacks the 610’s duplexer—which is convenient but so slow that manual duplexing makes sense for anything longer than 4-5 pages.)
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