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

Selection from Cites & Insights 9, Number 8: July 2009

Interesting & Peculiar Products

High-Def Bluetooth?

Not HDTV, in this case, but high-definition audio—digital audio with higher sampling rates and larger word length than standard CD (44.1KHz, 16-bit depth, usually abbreviated 16/44). According to the January 2009 Stereophile, Chord Electronics has demonstrated a short-range transmission technique using the Bluetooth 2.4GHz standard capable of 4.5Mb data rates and used to transmit 24/96 stereo audio. The digital protocol is called A2DP and it’s already in the chipsets used in most cell phones.

Would you really use a cell phone as a storage device for high-definition audio, transmitting it to your high-end stereo system when you want to listen to music? Anything’s possible, and high-end data phones have gigabytes of storage, but this may be a little out there. The storage requirements are non-trivial: uncompressed data would appear to require 52.5 megabytes per minute of audio, so 8GB of storage would hold less than three hours of music. With true lossless compression, you might get that up to five hours or 312 minutes. It would certainly be a different mindset than packing 8GB of storage with thousands of tunes at such low data rates that there’s clear loss of audio quality on any decent headphones.

iHome Audio iH70SRC

This one’s a little mystifying, but maybe it’s just me. The product’s clear enough: Powered PC speakers that include an iPod dock in the base of one speaker, so you can use them as both iPod speakers and PC speakers. There’s even a remote (really? you need a remote control for speakers designed to be used a foot or two away?). But…based on the photo, an iPod Touch covers more than half the right speaker. That seems like a recipe for muted sound that favors the left channel. (As you’d expect for PC World, the “tests” consist of casual listening and no testing, resulting in “I found the sound quality to be pretty good, though a bit thin overall,” and there’s no indication at all of what’s in the speakers.) I dunno: Maybe these make sense at $150. Maybe not.

I investigated, going to the PC World review site and from there to the manufacturer. Turns out the extent of specs at the manufacturer’s site is 15 watts amplification (I’d guess that’s peak power)—and “reson8 speakers” with no mention what size speakers or, for that matter, the size of the units. You gotta love detail like that.

Checking a little further, it turns out that the magazine photo is reversed—the iPod cradle is in the left speaker, not the right. Other reviews indicate that the speaker is at the top of each 3.2"x8.5" (7.5" deep) unit, so maybe the iPod doesn’t block it—but that also means you’ve got a single speaker probably around 2.5" in diameter. Hi-fi this ain’t. (Checking still more sites, looks like they are indeed 2.5" speakers with “high-fidelity Reson8® speaker chambers,” whatever that might mean.)

When is a Netbook not a Netbook?

I would argue that a “netbook” that costs $650 and weighs 3.7 pounds including power brick is really a cheap ultraportable—it’s too expensive and too heavy to be a netbook. But Asus calls the NJ10C a netbook—and it has some netbook characteristics, such as the 1.6GHz Atom processor, 1GB of RAM and 160GB hard disk, along with a 10.2" 1024x600 screen. I guess the question is whether, compared to a budget notebook, the lower weight (3.7 pounds as compared to, say, six pounds) and somewhat more compact case balance the slower CPU, somewhat undersized keyboard, less RAM and smaller screen, since you’re paying about the same price.

PC World uses the title “Not quite a netbook” for a full-page review (April 2009) of Sony’s VAIO P, which starts at $900 and can cost as much as $1,499. The tested model, with 64GB solid-state storage rather than a hard disk, runs $1,199, putting it way outside the netbook class—and it runs Vista Basic. That seems odd, given its use of a netbook-class 1.33GHz Atom processor. What it does have going for it: Size (9.6x4.7x0.9"), weight (1.4lb.), a decent (88% of full-size) keyboard and an 8" widescreen with 1600x768 resolution. Running Vista, benchmark results were pretty awful. This seems more like a UMPC, whatever those are these days—ultralight, ultracompact, also pricey and slow. (The rating is a 68, “Fair.”)

High-Resolution Downloads

Most early legal audio downloads offered inferior sound quality, although even a couple of years ago some sites offered 256K MP3 or equivalent (still compromised, but good enough for many people most of the time).

But what if even full CD quality isn’t good enough—as it clearly isn’t for some people? There are options. According to the April/May 2009 Sound & Vision, there are two main sources for high-resolution music downloads.

MusicGiants offers Super HD High Definition downloads, transferred from SACD and DVD-Audio sources at 88.2kHz/24 bits or 96kHz/24 bits, both potentially substantially better than the 44.1kHz/16 bits of standard CD. Both use Windows Media Audio Lossless encoding and offer 5.1 channel and stereo selections. HDtracks (as with MusicGiants, just add .com for the URL) sells the same resolutions but uses the lossless FLAC format.

Glancing at the sites, I see that MusicGiants (HDGiants on the home page) includes music from all the major publishers and features Music Concierge Collections, $500 to $5,000 packages of preselected songs delivered on hard disk. Browsing the download site (which only works on IE—or from Windows Media Player), I see 78 albums as of late May 2009 (mostly jazz and classical), with most album-equivalents priced at $19.99 and up and none of the one I checked available on a per-song basis.

HDtracks doesn’t push big-label affiliations as much and seems to have mostly independent and smaller labels. A late-May check shows just over 300 albums in high-def format (also mostly classical and jazz). A quick check of a couple samples shows some by-song availability ($2.50 and up) and lower prices for complete albums (but still around $16).

If you have the ear and audio equipment to appreciate the difference, both may be plausible sources—and both sites have much larger collections of CD-quality downloads.

More about Streaming Video

The April/May 2009 Sound & Vision devotes five pages of a “Tech Trends ‘09” theme to Ken Pohlmann’s breathless coverage of “another paradigm shift,” this time to streaming video. Pohlmann’s always been a digital absolutist, so it’s no surprise that he says flatly “it will be improvements in streaming that will eventually kill off Blu-ray.” (OK, so Blu-ray is digital, but it’s delivered on a physical object with all those messy first-sale rights, and anything physical is so 20th century.) He gives as the biggest factor in deciding whether to skip Blu-ray for streaming: “your tolerance for lower picture quality.”

The only write-ups of streaming video I’ve seen that haven’t mentioned picture quality as an issue are those done by people who apparently don’t give a damn. Pohlmann doesn’t quite avoid the issue, with “not necessarily terrible” being high praise. On the other hand, he confuses two issues (not unusual): He says some streams are at 720p—but without knowing how much excess compression that involves, that tells you nothing. Actually, near the end of the article, he’s a little more forthcoming, just after advising us to “test the waters” of streaming. Well, he’s only a little more forthcoming on YouTube video quality: “bad on a PC screen and abysmal when blown up on a big-screen TV.”

How Many Channels Will You Install?

Another “Tech Tends ‘09” story in the April/May 2009 Sound & Vision was a tough call: Should I mention it here or in My Back Pages? The story: “Taking you higher,” a discussion of 9.1-channel sound systems, adding height to the expanded surround sound of 7.1.

Yep. Onkyo’s introducing six receivers with Dolby ProLogic IIz technology. The “z” stands for the z axis, height. You put two more speakers above the front left and right speakers, each at least three feet higher.

The writer’s enthusiastic. I may not be the right one to comment: Even in our new house, I can see neither any plausible way nor any desire to install a surround-sound system, much less a 7.1 or 9.1 system. Ten speaker cabinets in our living room? Right… But for someone with a quarter-million-dollar home theater, it might be just the thing, particularly for gaming.

Two Terabytes, One Drive

Remember the wait for the first one-terabyte hard disk? It finally arrived in Summer 2007, a few months later than many of us expected. The Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000 cost $399 when reviewed in July 2007.

Come April 2009—and here’s the Western Digital 2TB WD20EADS. It costs $299. It holds two terabytes. It’s also environmentally friendly, a relatively low-power device and offers competitive performance. The PC World writeup says, “The $299 price tag may seem high; but at 15 cents per gigabyte, it is fairly competitive with that of other drives.” Did I mention that it holds two terabytes? That’s two thousand gigabytes or two million megabytes (accepting the usual hard-disk caveat that two terabytes is probably 2,000,000,000,000 bytes, not 2 times 1024 to the fourth power, which is how you’d specify two terabytes of RAM).

Editors’ Choices and Group Reviews

A December 2008 PC World group review calls them “mini-notebooks,” a quaint usage for netbooks. (The author offers other synonyms and favors “laptots,” but hasn’t this particular issue already been settled? If I describe a sub-$500 portable device with a screen somewhere between 8 and 10 inches, weight not much more than 2 pounds, full keyboard that’s a bit undersized and Atom-class CPU…wouldn’t you say “netbook”?) It’s a rapidly changing category, so even a December 2008 review may be too dated to be very useful, but it’s a snapshot of sorts. All five units in the group use Intel’s 1.6GHz Atom chip and 1GB RAM and all include Ethernet, Wi-Fi, a Webcam, two or three USB ports and an ExpressCard slot, and none costs more than $500. They’re heavier than some netbooks, ranging from 2.7 to 3.7 pounds (surprisingly, the heaviest is the Asus Eee PC 1000H 80G XP—but it also has the best battery life and a 10" display, as well as “a great keyboard”). Best Buy in the group is the cheapest unit, the $349 Acer Aspire One.

All-purpose notebooks show up in the April 2009 PC World, but the category’s getting fuzzy. That said, the Best Buy in the category goes to Acer’s $999 TravelMate 6293, which is light weight (4.8lb.), powerful (2.26GHz Core Duo), small (12.1" screen) and has great battery life (just under eight hours). It comes with 2GB RAM and a 250GB hard disk, and includes Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and a webcam.

The same April 2009 PC World includes a big roundup of ultraportables or netbooks (the magazine uses mini-notebook, ultraportable and netbook somewhat interchangeably). The price range has broadened (the five top units range up to $649). This time, the winner is the same Asus Eee PC 1000H 80G XP that was the heaviest in the December 2008 roundup; somehow, the same unit now weighs 3.2lb. The Acer Aspire One also seems relatively unchanged, but it’s dropped to third place; apparently the criteria have changed.

“The future belongs to tapeless high-definition camcorders. But the future isn’t quite here yet.” A December 2008 PC World group review covers six high-def camcorders, five using either hard disks or flash drives—and gives the Best Buy award to the single tape unit, Canon’s $1,000 Vixia HV30. MiniDV videotape may not be Shiny, but it’s inexpensive, easy to work with, and the camera produces good video—with fewer pixels than most AVCHD (high-def) models but also less compression and better video quality. The best bet for those wanting to avoid tape is the Sony Handycam HDR-SR12, but it’s heavier and more expensive.

Home Theater does an annual HDTV Face-Off, where a panel compares several HDTVs under proper conditions. This time (as reported in the February 2009 issue), they compared four high-end designs: two 50" plasmas and two 55" LCD sets, both with LED “local-dimming” backlighting (clusters of LEDs that can be dimmed separately to improve black level in images). These are all relatively expensive sets, ranging from $2,500 to $7,000. Overall winner: the $5,000 Pioneer Elite KURO Pro-111FD Plasma HDTV. Second-best performer, but also most expensive: the $7,000 Sony BRAVIA KDL-55XBR8 LCD HDTV. Amazingly, the Sony had the deepest blacks—but, as with most LCD sets, its picture gets a lot worse if you’re sitting off to the side. One interesting sidebar shows the power consumption of each set—and it’s a shocker, if not really surprising. For a peak white window, the Samsung (LCD) draws 90.5 watts and the Sony 108 watts—while the two plasma sets, with smaller screens, draw 271 and 292 watts respectively, nearly three times the power. (For full-white screens, a really tough test, the LCDs draw 139 and 170 watts—and the plasmas draw 419 and an astonishing 585 watts.) So, basically, if you watch TV three hours a day and the white-window consumption is typical, you’ll be burning an extra 600 watt-hours a day or 220kWH a year with a big plasma screen. (How significant is that? Well, moving from an old CRT to a big-screen LCD almost certainly saves power, while moving to a big-screen plasma may burn more power. In our household, the difference stated would be about 5% of our usage; your mileage may vary. And, to be sure, we don’t watch anywhere near 3 hours a day.)

From HDTV to Blu-ray, the way to get the best possible high-def picture. The February/March 2009 Sound & Vision tests four reasonably-priced Blu-ray players that support BD-Live, the odd feature that provides for live networking to add to Blu-ray discs. All four list for $250 to $350 and all are name brands. Two score well enough for the “certified and recommended” seal: the $350 Samsung BD-P2550 and $250 Panasonic DMP-BD35. The Samsung’s fairly fast—five seconds to power up and open the disc tray, 23 seconds after insertion to display an image (for regular Blu-ray discs; BD-Live ones with lots of Java can take more than a minute to load). The Panasonic takes 20 seconds to power up, but only about 10 seconds after insertion to play a normal Blu-ray disc.

Speaking of Blu-ray, the April 2009 PC World tests ten Blu-ray players costing anywhere from $175 to $400. The Best Buy is also the most expensive, Panasonic’s $400 DMP-BD55K. The review’s caveat on most inexpensive units: They do fine with Blu-ray but don’t upscale standard DVDs as well as more expensive units. The Samsung BD-P2500 is a close second to the Panasonic and costs $350; while its images are great, it doesn’t decode DTS-HD Master audio directly. That may not matter for most users. If what you want is fast loading of Blu-ray discs, go for the third-place finisher, still one of the best Blu-ray drives: the Sony PlayStation 3. The Panasonic takes about a minute to start playing a disc, the Samsung about 56 seconds—but the PS3 takes 24 seconds from disc load to playing the movie.

PC World reviews the “top internet security suites” in a March 2009 report that’s considerably longer and more informative than the magazine’s usual one-page mini-roundups. Probably no great surprise on the highest score (89 out of 100): Norton Internet Security 2009. Second place: BitDefender Internet Security 2009.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 9, Number 8, Whole Issue 118, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Editorial Director of the Library Leadership Network.

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