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

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 12: October 2004

Interesting & Peculiar Products

Today’s Best Digital SLR?

Walt Crawford

I note breakthroughs in digital cameras from time to time (even as we purchased a wonderful little film Nikon late last year, when my wife’s zoom camera broke down). According to PC Magazine, Canon’s Digital Rebel (the first digital SLR under $1,000) has been bested. The new Nikon D70 goes for $999 (body), but for an extra $301 they throw in a solid 4x optical zoom lens, f3.5 to f4.5 and with the 35mm equivalent of 27 to 105mm. It’s a 6 mega­pixel camera with a full range of professional features and it’s extremely fast for a digital: 0.4 seconds to boot up, no shutter lag, and it can take a burst of 8 frames in one second or keep shooting 3 frames per second until you run out of memory. Not only does it rate better than the Rebel, PC Magazine gives it the nod over the $2,000 (body) Olympus E-1, their previous Editors’ Choice as a digital SLR.

Dual-Layer Recordable DVD

I noted two issues ago that this was on its way; the July 2004 PC Magazine includes a full-page review of Sony’s $199 DRU-700A, the first drive on the market to support dual-layer DVD+R DL discs. It’s a strong review, earning the unit an Editors’ Choice. An upgraded Nero digital media suite comes with the drive and supports dual-layer recording. Among other uses, dual-layer recordable DVDs mean that low-budget filmmakers can prepare full preview versions of their works. As for replicating Hollywood movies, that does require apparently illegal software (and 321 Studios has now gone out of business). One interesting facet of dual-layer recording: Burning time is independent of the amount of source material, because you need to completely burn both layers of a dual-layer disc for it to work at all. That took about 40 minutes on the Sony. (Since then, several other dual-layer DVD burners have emerged, most of them—like the Sony—also supporting all forms of writable DVD except DVD-RAM.)

Archos AV400 Pocket Video Recorder

I ran an item on the AV320 in February: $600, 20GB, 3.8" color screen, “up to 40 hours” of MPEG4 video, and the apparent ability to copy commercial movies onto its hard disk. A Wired News rave review for a newer line offers more details. The AV400 line is significantly smaller but a little taller (4.9x3.1x0.8" as compared to 4.5x3.75x1.25") and lighter (9.9oz. compared to 12.6oz), still a trifle bigger than the iPod. But it’s not a competitor to the iPod. It includes a 3.5" display specified here as 320x240 and it plays a variety of media formats (and can serve as a portable disk drive). The 20GB AV420 goes for $550 (and now they claim “up to 80 hours” of video at an even more degraded bitrate); you can get an 80GB unit for a stiff $800. There’s now a docking cradle, software, and remote control so you can use the AV400 directly as a video recorder (there’s no video tuner in the device). This item doesn’t include the claim in an earlier article that the unit can copy commercial movies; “record programs off…any device that pushes video out through a standard video cable” could imply that, if Archos is taking the risk of ignoring Macrovision. An interesting device, all in all, although I wonder about the claim that it’s “definitely better for watching movies than the headrest monitors on airlines.” Are those screens really that small and low-rez?

Microsoft Portable Media Center

The idea is, roughly, what the Archos AV400 does, although not quite. As Jim Louderback describes it in a discussion at ExtremeTech, “Another dumb idea from Microsoft,” “Imagine an iPod on steroids with a color LCD screen spanning most of one side of the unit, capable of playing video, photos, and music.” Creative and Samsung should both be shipping such units by now. So why’s Louderback—a typically technophilic PC journalist—not enthralled?

“The [3.8"] screen is just too darn small. Even relatively-simple shows like Letterman will look terrible… I’ve carried around a bunch of portable DVD players with screens measuring from less than five inches to upwards of ten. When it comes to video…bigger is always better.”

Louderback considers other problems more fundamental. For one thing, getting a show onto the PMC to watch on your commute (hopefully on mass transit!) is no piece of cake. The PMC can’t record directly from TV; it has to be transcoded from video recorded on a PC first. That’s assuming your PC is one of the 7% equipped to record video, of course.

Let’s say you do get video on the device. How do you watch it? With portable DVD players, that’s not hard: They open like notebooks, so you set them on “your knees, seat-back tray or bar-top.” The Creative DMC, at least, is too rounded to stand on its own at all: it “wobbles like a woozy drunk on the far side of the Cuervo worm.” So you sit there holding the chunky box in your hand, in a fairly constant position. “You’ve heard of carpal tunnel syndrome? I predict a rash of carpal media syndrome among those too brainless to follow my advice and avoid the PMC.”

Then there’s the price: $500 for a 20GB version—double the price of a 20GB hard-drive MP3 player or a portable DVD player with a 7" screen. He suggests that, if you really need video on the go, you buy a DVD recorder—and either slip a recorded DVD into a portable player or, better yet, “pass on the portable hardware altogether and just play the DVD on your notebook!”

Finally, if you’re devoted to having a small video box, he recommends the Archos devices, which can record directly from TV.

Ambient Devices

It comes from “research conducted at MIT,” according to the July/August 2004 EContent story, so it would be presumptuous of me to call this developing family of products peculiar. The idea is to make “everyday items” into “glanceable objects” so as to offer “seamless integration of only the most pertinent information into people’s lives.”

For example? The $149 Stock Orb is a frosted glass sphere that changes color based on the value of a stock you’re following—or any other content that can be tracked by value ranges. The $179 Weather Forecast Beacon is an elongated cube, again of handblown frosted glass. Same idea: Somehow the color tells you what you need to know, sparing you all those annoying numbers and letters.

Here’s one I’m sure everyone will want, given the state of email: the Ambient Pinwheel, “which begins to spin once an email has been received and continues to increase in speed with each new message.”

Sima GoDVD!

This sounds a lot like the device being used in a booth at ALA to make DVD-to-DVD or VHS-to-DVD copies. It’s a $130 box that “enhances” analog video so you can convert it to digital form to burn to DVD. (I’m working from a September 2004 Sound & Vision writeup.) Unmentioned in the owner’s manual, one effect of that “enhancement” is to undo Macrovision: Presumably, you’d be able to copy a commercial videocassette to DVD with this device (or a DVD to a DVD, albeit with the loss of all special features, scene breaks, everything but the video and audio streams degraded through digital:analog and analog:digital conversions).

Macrovision isn’t happy. Its president, Bill Krepick, suggests that GoDVD! violates DMCA—but that’s the wrong law. GoDVD! operates entirely in the analog domain, and VHS is an analog medium, so DMCA simply doesn’t apply. Krepick goes further: “We have control over the patents of any device that defeats our technology. And we didn’t license these guys.” Sima says it’s researched the issue and is convinced GoDVD! is legal. Time (and lawsuits?) will tell. Note that, as with many fair-use devices, GoDVD!’s fairly useless for piracy: It only works in real time and it doesn’t have component jacks (S-video’s the best you can do).

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 12, Whole Issue 54, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced at least monthly by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non­Commercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.