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


Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 14: December 2004


PC Progress, August-October 2004

Abbreviations for magazine names (in square brackets): P = PC Magazine, W = PC World, C = Computer Shopper.

Desktop Computers

Intel keeps improving the Pentium 4, as demonstrated in this “first looks” roundup of four P4s with the new numbers instead of speeds [P23:13]. The P4 560 runs at 3.6GHz, the 540 at 3.2GHz. Chipsets accompanying the new CPUs also add new features to speed throughput. Two of four systems earn Editors’ Choice honors: The $2,999 Dell Dimension 8400 (loaded, with 1GB RAM, two 160GB 7200RPM drives in RAID 0 configuration, ATI Radeon X800 XT graphics with 256MB RAM, a 19" LCD display, high-speed dual-layer DVD+RW drive and CD-RW drive, and other stuff) and Falcon’s $6,140 Northwest Mach V, brutally expensive and very fast—the CPU is overclocked to 3.8GHz. It comes with two 10000RPM 74GB RAID-0 hard disks and a 7200RPM 250GB “deep storage” drive, multiformat 8x DVD burner (and second DVD-ROM drive), 20"-viewable NEC CRT display, nVidia GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics, and all the rest. You could plausibly configure the Mach V for 4.8 terabytes of data—not bad for a desktop.

This “back to school” roundup includes 12 inexpensive notebooks ($1,500 tops) and nine very inexpensive desktops (under $800) [P23:14]. Editors’ Choices include the $1,099 Apple iBook G4 (12-inch), $1,500 Velocity Micro NoteMagix B50 Campus Edition, $999 Averatec AV3225HS notebook, and—for cases where a desktop’s OK and the budget’s tight—the $710 eMachines T3092, a well equipped unit (160GB hard disk, multiformat DVD burner, 512MB RAM) for the price.

A “performance desktop” roundup compares top AMD and Intel CPUs, reviewing two Athlon 64 units and four Pentium 4s running 3.2 to 3.6GHz[C24:9]. It’s never quite clear what elements count the most in Computer Shopper’s reviews, but in this case it seems odd that a “performance” category, with every machine but one priced and configured accordingly ($2,550 to $3,900), would be won by a business-class PC that’s the slowest in the roundup, absurdly slower than the rest for gaming graphics, with the slowest CPU, the least RAM, the smallest hard disk—and no DVD burner, unique in the group. That’s the HP Compaq Business Desktop DC7100, and while it’s reasonably well configured for a $1,838 business PC, I don’t believe it belongs in this roundup at all. It does come with a 19" LCD. I’d say the performance choice was between two identically-rated machines costing more than $3,000: the $3,899 ABS Ultimate M5-64, a 2.4GHz Athlon 64 3800+ unit that’s very well configured (2GB DDRAM, a 256MB top-of-the-line graphics card, two 250GB hard disks, an 8x multiformat DVD burner and separate DVD-ROM drive, Klipsch 5.1 speaker system, 19" Samsung LCD display) and the $3,100 Dell Dimension 8400, a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 with a “mere” 1GB DDRAM, comparable graphics card, two 160GB hard disks, Dell’s own surround-sound speakers, 17" LCD, 12x DVD+RW burner and CD-RW drive.

This unusual roundup offers three “favorite PCs” in each of three categories: budget, midrange, and performance[C24:10]. Best of the budget units is the Gateway eMachines T3092, an Athlon XP3000+ system with 512MB DDRAM, 160GB hard disk, multiformat DVD burner (and, oddly, a CD-ROM drive), diskette, multiformat media card reader, and 15" LCD—all for $1,098. Next step up—Best in the midrange category but, unlike the Gateway eMachines, not an Editors’ Choice—is the Hypersonic Fury GX: a $1,972 Pentium 4-3GHz system with 1GB DDRAM, multiformat DVD burner, media card reader and diskette, 120GB hard disk, a good midrange graphics card, Logitech speakers, and 19" CRT. Finally, $3,899(!) buys the “Best” performance system—the ABS Ultimate M5-64, configured as in the roundup above.

Digital Cameras and Software

Six megapixel cameras keep coming down in price. This mini-roundup [P23:12] covers three such cameras, two at $499 and one at $649. That higher price gets the Editors’ Choice, Casio’s Exilim Pro EX-P600, with solid image quality, a sharp LCD, a 4X Canon zoom lens (equivalent to 33-132mm on a 35mm camera), and great menus.

This larger roundup covers “20 of our favorites” in five categories[P23:17]. That makes for a lot of Editors’ Choices. This roundup also shows both boot time and recycle time between shots. Among compact cameras, the $500 Canon PowerShot S60 (5 megapixels, 3.6x optical zoom) earns one, as does the $600 Casio Exilim Pro EX-P600 noted above (6mp, 4x optical zoom) and $300 Kodak EasyShare LS743 (4mp, 2.8x optical zoom). In the ultracompact category, the $500 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T1 (5.1mp, 3x optical zoom) is Editors’ Choice; among “superzooms,” it’s the $450 Olympus Camedia C-765 UltraZoom (4mp, 10x optical zoom). If you’re an enthusiast, you have four Editors’ Choices: Konica Minolta’s $900 DiMage A2 (8mp, 7x optical zoom), Leica’s $1,850 Digilux 2 (5mp, 3x optical zoom), and Olympus’ $650 C-5060 Wide Zoom (5.1mp, 4x optical zoom) and $1,000 C-8080 Wide Zoom (8mp, 5x optical zoom). Finally, of the two hot digital SLRs, Editors’ Choice goes to Nikon’s $1,300 D70 (6.1mp, 18mm to 70mm zoom; $1000 without the lens).

Displays

While they’re still a lot pricier than CRTs, 17" LCDs are getting cheaper. This roundup includes 11 monitors [P23:15]. There’s an odd item in the discussion—true enough, but peculiar. That is, it says that all of the models have a 5:4 aspect ratio—another way of saying they didn’t include any of the “wide” 16x9 models. But the screen ratio is 4:3, not 5:4. The 1280x1024 pixel count that’s pretty much standard for 17" LCDs (and is what I use on my 18"-viewable CRT at home) is irregular: the pixels aren’t square. That’s always been an anomaly—going from 800x600 (4x3) to 1024x768 (4x3) to 1600x1200 (4x3)—but with 1280x1024 (5x4) in the middle, even though the screens are always 4x3. Why isn’t it 1280x960? Who knows? Anyway, Editors’ Choice is the $450 Envision EN7220, which has a fully adjustable base, a swiveling panel, excellent viewing angle, and good image quality—although gray-scale performance was on the weak side and it’s an analog-only display.

Mass Storage

Internal mass storage may be cheaper than dirt. External storage always costs a little more, but this 15-unit review shows that choices are getting better and cheaper.[P23:16]. These devices can be used for backup or other purposes. Editors’ Choice among locally attached units is the WiebeTECH Fire800, a 250GB 7200rpm hard disk that connects via USB2 or FireWire 400 and runs $470. It’s relatively expensive but also very fast. For a network-attached drive, consider the $280 Buffalo LinkStation Network Storage Station, with 120GB of 7200rpm storage attached via Ethernet or USB2.0. It includes a print server and creates a shared folder. If you need to take your stuff with you, Editors’ Choice among portable disk-based units is the $293 Transcend 1.8" Portable Hard Drive—although it only includes 40GV of 4200RPM storage, it’s tiny (3.7x2.8x0.6") and light (6oz), making it a good backup unit for notebooks.

Notebook Computers

This roundup includes 11 “mainstream” notebooks and five ultraportables, all in the general category of business notebook [P23:12]. Editors’ Choice for a mainstream unit is the $2,300 HP Compaq nc6000, which has outstanding battery life and a fast processor (the Pentium M745, a 1.8GHz CPU) in a 5.7lb. package. The Editors’ Choice box says it was a close decision, with IBM’s $2,030 ThinkPad T42 being a close second. Among ultraportables, it wasn’t close: IBM’s $2,300 ThinkPad X40 was a clear winner. It weighs 3.2lb, 3.8lb total travel weight (compared to 6.6lb travel weight for the HP Compaq). Both winners provided more than six hours of battery life using PC’s benchmarks.

The newest Pentium M processor for notebook computers, codenamed Dothan, is supposed to offer better speed along with longer battery life—and two of the notebooks in this roundup operated five and a half hours on a charge [C24:8]. Editors’ Choices include the $3,146 Dell Latitude D800—big and heavy, but with a 15.4" wide-screen display, nVidia GeForce FX Go5650 graphics with 128MB dedicated RAM, and 80GB hard disk—and $2,207 HP Compaq Business Notebook NC6000, lighter and with longer battery operation, but with a 14.1" LCD, 40GB hard disk, and 32MB display RAM. Both units include DVD/CD-RW drives (that is, reading DVDs and burning CD-R/RW).

Optical Drives and Software

Here comes dual-layer DVD burning: three of five drives in this roundup[C24:10] can write double-layer, 8.5GB, DVD+R discs. That’s great for people planning to master DVDs at home, but the high price of the new dual-layer discs makes them a poor choice for most applications. One gotcha with dual-layer burning: It’s relatively slow (2.4x), and it doesn’t matter how little data you actually need to burn: The technology requires that the drive burn all of both layers before the disc can be played back. Figure 45 minutes to do the job. Meanwhile, the Editors’ Choice in this roundup doesn’t do dual-layer—but the $179 Plextor PX-712A does write some 8x DVD+R media at 12x, comes with a good manual and extensive software, and works faster than the other drives (except for DVD+RW, where it’s the slowest). It can also, oddly enough, squeeze 200MB extra on a CD-R, but I’m not sure why you’d bother.

This roundup also includes dual-layer recorders, four of them, plus five other 8x burners[P23:15]. As usual for PC Magazine, you get a thoughtful, illustrated discussion of how dual-layer works. The editors decided to break the nine drives into three categories: external 8x, internal 8x, and dual-layer. Editors’ Choice for a dual-layer drive is the BenQ DW830A ($129), cheapest of the lot and very fast for ripping DVDs and recording DVD+R, although it’s slowest for dual-layer recording. (“Slowest” in this case means 44 minutes 44 seconds as compared to 40 minutes 12 seconds for the fastest, Sony’s DRU-700A.) Best bet for an external DVD unit: the $230 Memorex True 8X Dual Format External DVD Recorder, which comes with a comprehensive software bundle and is cheaper than other 8x external drives. Among internal drives, the Editors’ Choice goes to the $190 Pioneer DVR-A07XL, which “combines excellent performance and sophisticated hardware with a top-notch software bundle.”

Portable Players

Has the iPod met its match? Maybe, at least if money matters. This four-unit “first looks” roundup [P23:14] (with three more units getting mini-reviews) gives four dots to the $460 Apple iPod 40GB—but five dots and Editors’ Choice to the $370 iRiver H140, also 40GB but with built-in voice and audio recording (analog or digital) as well as FM radio. You can load it by dragging folders of songs via Windows Explorer; it supports Ogg Vorbis as well as the typical codecs; they got about 10 hours battery life; and it’s exactly the same height and width as the iPod, although it is 0.2 inches thicker and 0.4 ounces heavier. It even comes with two microphones for live recording: a builtin one with good quality that may pick up hard drive noise, and a lapel mike that eliminates that problem. If you don’t need 40GB capacity, a 20GB version goes for $270.

Note the heading “Portable Players,” with no “music” in the middle. While it’s still an odd little category, PC Magazine offers a mini-roundup of two Portable Media Centers [P23:17], both based on Windows PMC and integrating nicely with Windows Media Player 10. I’m a little surprised to see Bill Howard say these units have “enough essential usefulness…that you won’t kick yourself a year from now for buying early.” Are we really that desperate for video all the time, everywhere, no matter how crude? Higher-reated of the two $500 units (both 20GB) is Creative’s Zen Portable Media Center, 3.2x5.7x1.1", 0.8lb., sleek black with a roughly 3.5" 320x200 screen. They got almost 7.5 hours battery life playing video. You can output video to a TV from the Creative—if you really want to watch 320x200 resolution on a TV set! There’s no kickstand (also true with the Archos, I believe), so this will be a bear to watch under most conditions. But it’s cool.

Printers

“Different inkjets for different folks”—15 models categorized as general-purpose, mobile, photo, and snapshot [W22:8]. Mobile and snapshot printers really are specialized devices (and two of the three snapshot printers are not inkjets but dye-sublimation printers). The difference between a general-purpose inkjet and a photo printer has always been one of nuance and probably irrelevant to most users. For example, two of the five general-purpose printers (including the Editor’s Pick) have “Photo” in the model name. (The difference here appears to be that all “photo printers” use at least six inks, but so do two of five general-purpose printers that don’t say “photo.”) Category confusion aside, what’s notable is that most printers these days do remarkably good work—and ink costs aren’t as outrageous as they used to be. Editor’s Picks include the $150 Canon i860 Desktop Photo Printer as a general-purpose unit, $349 HP Deskjet 450wbt as a mobile printer, $480 Canon i9900 Photo Printer as a photo printer, and $199 Epson PictureMate (the only inkjet in the snapshot category) for snapshots. If you want the best text and color graphic output, surprisingly, drop down from the $150 Canon i860 to the $80 Canon i455, although its ink costs are on the high side (and, since it uses a tricolor tank, you’ll waste color ink in most cases).

This roundup of multifunction printers [P23:14] includes nine units from five vendors; Epson’s release dates seem to be out of synch with PC Magazine’s review cycles, so there’s no Stylus. Editors’ Choice for business applications is the $180 Brother MFC-3420c, with an automatic document feeder, built-in fax modem, and good cost per page for monochrome pages (a little high for color). It’s fast for business printing, slow for photo printing. For photos, the Editors’ Choice is the $200 Canon MultiPass MP390—borderless printing, excellent photo output, memory card slots and an LCD menu, and reasonable ink costs, even though it’s a two-cartridge printer.

Video/DVD Software

With inexpensive DVD burners (and blanks for less than a buck), there’s no excuse for showing unedited camcorder footage—unless the editing is too much hassle. This roundup by established video expert Jan Ozer [P23:12] covers five video editing and DVD authoring packages that cost no more than $100; all five get respectable ratings. Editors’ Choice is Ulead VideoStudio 8, strong on capture and import, fast scene trimming and deletion, special features and audio editing, and overall rendering time. It’s not the best for DVD menu creation, but it’s powerful in almost all other respects.

The six video-editing programs in this roundup [C24:9] also cost less than $100 and all get respectable ratings; there’s a fair amount of overlap with the roundup above. In this case, two programs emerge as Editors’ Choices: Ulead VideoStudio 8 and Sony Screenblast Movie Studio 3.0 (both $99.95).

Utility Software

Antispam tools continue to improve in what may be a hopeless attempt to save email from the scourge of spam. This “First looks” roundup [P23:14] includes five current tools. Editors’ Choice is MailFrontier Desktop 4.0 ($30, formerly Matador), which combines rule-based filtering with challenge/response blocking (where, if mail isn’t clearly spam or legitimate, the sender is asked to respond to a visual challenge that a computer can’t handle—e.g., “how many kittens are in this picture?”). MailFrontier managed to avoid almost all false positives (where legitimate mail gets labeled as spam); configured to minimize false positives, it let through 8% of spam (false negatives). You can do better on blocking spam, but at a price—for example, while Spam Shredder had only 2.1% false negatives, it blocked 9% of legitimate email. Then there’s SpamBully 2.0, which gets one of those rare one-dot ratings for good reason: Even after training, the software labeled more than 80 percent of legitimate email as spam. Bully indeed!

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 14, Whole Issue 56, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to wcc@notes.rlg.org. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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