Interesting and Peculiar Products
It’s Not a PDA, It’s a PEO
Would you pay $700 for a “personal entertainment organizer” from Sony? The Clié PEG-UX50 is actually lighter than some other Sony PDAs (6oz.) albeit a little large (4.1x3.4x0.7"), but it’s quite a combination: 640x480 onboard camera (built into a hinge between the screen and a thumb keyboard), MP3, 480x320 color screen, and Bluetooth and 802.11b Wi-Fi support. There’s 104MB of memory: 16MB for user files and programs, 29MB for multimedia files, 16MB for backup. It’s a Palm OS unit, not Pocket PC, and as the four-dot review in PC Magazine 22:17 notes, it “looks like a doll-sized laptop.”
PC Magazine 22:17 (October 1, 2003) includes first-look reviews of two sizable LCDs at plausible prices. The 19" Dell UltraSharp 1901FP ($749) offers relatively low resolution for its size, 1280x1024; this and some other compromises justify a three-dot rating. For $1,300, you can move up to the 21" Samsung SyncMaster 213T—1600x1200, a wide viewing angle, and a rotating screen with Pivot Pro software. As the four-dot review notes, a 21"-viewable CRT would be huge, bulky, and awkward; this unit is expensive, but it’s light and slender.
Louise Knapp had a fascinating little story at Wired News on September 30: “It sucks, but that’s a good thing.” “It” is Super Slurper, “a starch-based polymer with a powerful thirst,” a powder that can absorb more than 2,000 times its weight in water “instantaneously.” The Agricultural Research Service developed it decades ago; it’s used in diapers, wound dressings, oil filters, and elsewhere.
Now a company’s thought of a new use: Drying waterlogged books. According to Nicholas Yeager of Artifex Equipment, a quarter of a million library books are damaged each year in the U.S. by water from flooding or burst pipes. The current recovery techniques—freeze-drying and air-drying—are slow and expensive. Theoretically, sheets embedded with Super Slurper could offer a fast (10 minute?) and cheap way to handle the problem. It’s not ready for market just yet, but it sounds interesting. The piece quotes Jan Merrill-Oldham at Harvard: “If we could apply this technology to lots of books at once—well, you fantasize about these things.” This is one that I sincerely hope is as promising as it sounds and works out well—and Merrill-Oldham’s cautious enthusiasm is highly encouraging.
Remember Flexplay, the slow version of Mission: Impossible’s tape recordings? You buy a DVD in a vacuum-packed closure. Open it, start playing it, and 48 hours later it’s gone. Well, the disc is still there, ready to occupy landfill space, but a resin in the disc has reacted with atmosphere and made the DVD unplayable.
Our friends at Disney (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, the home video distributor for all Disney-related studios) thought this was Neato. “EZ-D” discs went on sale in grocery and convenience stores in Illinois, Texas, South Carolina and Kansas: $7 for such movies as The Hot Chick and Sweet Home Alabama. Some electronics retailers had them too. The discs went out to the stores. And, apparently, sat there, according to an October 28 Wired News story by Katie Dean. One store sold 15 or 20 of them in a month. Wonder why?
Some customers figured out that $2 for a rental DVD is cheaper than $7, even if you’re a day late and pay another $2. One clerk suggested that customers might be worried about the quality of the DVD: “Seeing as how it self-destructs, can it really be that good?” A Charleston, South Carolina retailer noted that customers “think it’s ridiculous. They won’t pay that type of money for something that’s going to vaporize.” but this guy thinks, “Probably in a yuppie market it would do excellent.” I’m guessing there’s a good reason Disney isn’t testing this in California or New York or some other “yuppie” market…and “not making the test too easy” isn’t it. Some of the Charleston market’s EZ-Ds have been shoplifted—with the shoplifters tearing the disc out of the package to steal it. Which, of course, starts the deterioration.
A few years ago, I suggested (in an American Libraries article) that it would make a lot of sense to do audiobooks in MP3 format on CD-ROMs: You could fit an unabridged book on one CD-ROM, given that voice could be compressed heavily without losing much quality. By the time the article appeared, the first such audiobooks were on the market.
At the time, I noted the missing piece to make the format work really well: Players that could bookmark several discs, so you could pick up where you left off even if you needed to deal with more than one book at a time.
That day has come, according to a piece in AudioFile for August/September 2003. (I don’t know much more about the magazine: I picked up the sample issue at North Carolina Library Association and ripped the page out to bring home.) Soulmate Audiobooks, in cooperation with Shipstone Group, has released the Audiofy Player and the Soul Player.
The Audiofy Player is software for PCs and Macs to make it easy to play MP3 CD audiobooks (or other MP3 CDs, for that matter), with chapter and page navigation and bookmarking. In some ways, the more interesting device is the Soul Player: A portable CD player “created exclusively with audiobooks in mind.” It displays author, title, page numbers, and playback time, recognizes audiobook formats when appropriate CDs are started—and “holds its place on up to 12 different CDs.” I don’t know the price or other characteristics, but this is a sensible device, one that should serve libraries well.
Here’s one that makes a lot of sense for some purposes: the NEC MultiSync LCD1765. It’s a $550 17" LCD display (1280x1024 resolution) designed so you can pack it in a shoulder bag to take with you. The stand folds flat against the back of the unit and a glass sheet protects the panel itself (and reduces glare). A PC Magazine review (November 11, 2003) gives it four dots; image testing yielded generally good results. The unit lacks speakers, USB ports, and pivot capabilities—but portability is the key selling point here.
Five megapixels for $400: That’s the big news in the new Gateway DC-T50 digital camera. (Yes, Gateway’s in that market now.) The unit earns three dots in a November 11, 2003 PC Magazine review. Strong points: solid metal body, convenient control layout, fast startup time, good LCD screen, fast focusing in bright light, and excellent outdoor results. Weaknesses: Problems with focusing in low light and with some indoor shots. 3X optical zoom, average battery life (some 200 pictures in these tests, with extensive use of the LCD screen).
Or maybe you’d prefer a 6.3 megapixel digital SLR for less than $1,000—also a breakthrough of sorts. The October 28, 2003 PC Magazine gives four dots to the Canon EOS Digital Rebel, which accepts all Canon EOS lenses—but also has a mount that could lead to “newer, smaller, and cheaper lenses designed specifically for the Digital Rebel.” Unfortunately, the EOS Digital Rebel still uses a sensor that’s two-thirds the size of a 35mm frame, favoring telephoto purposes but making wide-angle use more difficult. For an extra $100, the Digital Rebel comes with an 18mm to 55mm lens—which equates to the very popular 28- to 90mm. range in standard terms. That’s a good deal for a quality SLR lens.
Yes—and that may be a bargain. The VersaLaser from Universal Laser Systems is a laser printer of sorts, and as far as your computer is concerned it’s just another USB printer. The difference is that the laser is 25 watts, a lot stronger than any regular printer—and this unit “prints” on paper, wood, plastic, leather, some metals, and even marble. It’s a cutting/engraving/etching system—but because it “looks like” a printer instead of a machine tool, you can use it with everyday software such as CorelDraw or even Word. I’m not sure that many readers would have plausible applications for this device; if you think you might, read Bill Machrone’s ExtremeTech column in the November 11, 2003 PC Magazine for more information.
That’s the promise of Sharp’s new Actius RD3D, a $3,299 notebook with a Pentium 4-2800, 512MB SDRAM, 60GB disk, DVD-RAM drive…and a unique 15" XGA display. The display has two LCD panels with a parallax barrier between them. Most of the time, you use the front display, a 1024x768 unit. When software supports 3D, the rear display and barrier come into play. The rear unit is monochrome; the resulting display is 512x768, but with apparent depth. If you’re interested, check the December 30, 2003 PC Magazine for a full-page four-dot review. It’s brutally expensive as a notebook (and it’s heavy at 10.2 pounds, 11.8 pounds travel weight), but if you’re on the bleeding edge, you should expect to bleed money.
Sound & Vision for January 2004 has a two-page test report of TDK’s DA-9000 CD/hard disk recorder. This $400 device is a standalone component with a 20GB hard drive, CD burner, portion of the CDDB/Gracenote database installed on the disk, and PC connection (to retrieve other CDDB information or download already-ripped recordings). This is presumably intended to appeal to those millions of people who really want to store all their music on a hard disk and create custom CDs, but don’t know how to use a PC or Mac or find iTunes and MusicMatch too complicated.
The devil, as always, is in the details. “Normal” ripping actually consists of recording in uncompressed form: “When the unit is later placed in standby mode, the audio is converted to the selected data format and the interim uncompressed copy is deleted.” Why go this roundabout route? Because converting to MP3 is “time consuming” on this device, where straight copying is rapid (they don’t say how rapid). Now, I find that MusicMatch 8.0 Plus will rip a 70-minute CD (e.g., one of the “Essentials” discs) to 196K or 320K MP3 in about three minutes on my computer (which by today’s standards is entry-level, with a 2.2GHz Pentium 4): Compression is at full CD reading speed. Well, maybe that’s because MusicMatch does inferior compression? Nope: Quite the opposite. David Ranada used MusicMatch 8 for comparison. At the more aggressive of the TDK’s two compression ratios (128K), the TDK gave “swirly” or “swishy” qualities to most tracks—much more so than MusicMatch. (Those adjectives describe the faults I find in most 128K MP3, which is why I use much higher rates.) Even at 320K, the highest bitrate you’d ever use for MP3, TDK’s encoding wasn’t up to snuff: “very good but not quite as good as that produced by MusicMatch.” And, unsurprisingly, TDK forces the two-second gaps between tracks of ripped material, even when recorded back to CD; with MusicMatch, that’s a user option (since some CDs, such as operas and rock concerts, don’t have such gaps between tracks).
So you’re paying $400+ to get a small hard disk, a CD-RW burner of unspecified speed, a box—and software that’s nowhere near as fast or effective as MusicMatch Plus. ($20 of hard disk space for non-portable use is worth $20 to $40; a decent CD-RW burner costs $30 to $50 tops; MusicMatch Plus with a lifetime upgrade license goes for $40.) All so you can avoid using a PC, at the expense of sound quality and convenience. Such a bargain.
OK, this is sniping; after all, we don’t own a $3,000 refrigerator or $2,500 professional stove either. But I was a little stunned by the January 2004 Sound & Vision review—a rave review—for the iCEBOX FlipScreen kitchen entertainment center from Salton. It’s “so cool” because it combines a DVD/CD/MP3/WMA player, FM tuner, TV tuner, and 12" 600x800 touch screen LCD display in a two-foot by one-foot box (less than 4" deep when you’re not using the drop-down screen) that mounts under a kitchen cabinet. Oh, and there’s a wireless keyboard, since it’s also a web browser. Pretty neat, I guess—although the browser is just that (there’s no hard disk and the only computer functions are browsing and media playback), and you can’t use AOL or any other ISP that requires its own software. The price of this goodness? A mere $2,300. “The iCEBOX FlipScreen is one of those products you think you don’t need until after you’ve lived with it—and then don’t know how you ever lived without it.” (Of course, I wasn’t entirely aware that the kitchen is “now the central gathering point in most homes,” so maybe it does make sense to spend a small fortune on a little TV with DVD/CD playback and web browsing. Particularly since you can mount it under a cabinet, virtually the definition of cool.)
Computer Shopper just loves the Archos AV320 Video Recorder ($600), giving it 8.3 points and an Editors’ Choice mark in a December 2003 review. What you have here is a chunky MP3 player (4.5x3.75x1.25"), and a hefty one at that (12.6oz.), with a 20GB hard disk—and with a 3.8" 64K-color screen covering most of the front. The review doesn’t state the resolution of that screen, which should be somewhere between 280x210 pixels and 360x270 pixels, but maybe that’s just as well. The device only stores MP4 video, which it can capture directly from TV, DVD, or VHS—and it stores “40 hours of video on its 20GB hard drive.” That’s 500MB per hour, which is just not going to be high performance under any circumstances. Probably great for viewing on such a tiny screen, though. One interesting point, and a surprising one given the MPAA and others: “The AV320 sidesteps video copy protection, delivering clean duplicates of DVD and VHS movies in MPEG-4 format.”
I wasn’t sure whether to note this here or as a Quicker Take. The Epson Stylus Photo 900 costs around $170 and should do a great job on photos. I don’t know whether it uses the same DuraBrite inks as my Epson CX5200 (they don’t smear and the color inks use pigment, not dye; the colors should last for decades on good paper), since the item I’m working from isn’t a full review. What’s interesting about the Photo 900, though, is that it has a special carrier for CD-R and DVD-Rs: You can print your label directly on the disc. That’s great—but it requires special printable discs, which (according to Steve Bass’ January 2004 PC World rave for the printer) cost $0.50 more than regular CD-Rs (that is, almost three times as much!), or $4 more for DVDs (again, almost three times as much as a regular DVD-R). Fellowes Neato self-adhesive labels, and several brands of competitor, typically cost around $0.20 per label when you buy 50 sheets (2 labels per sheet), sometimes less on sale. But, sez Bass, the printable CD-Rs mean “there’s no paper and glue to peel off the disc and gum up your player.”
Which raises the question: How often do properly applied disc labels come off in a player? Is this a real problem, or a way to sell overpriced discs? I’ve been using Neato labels (and the application device) for more than 18 months now, producing close to a hundred CD-Rs (from my own CDs). I can’t see how the labels—which don’t quite reach to the outer edge of the disc, and leave a wide margin at the hub—could accidentally peel off; I’m not sure that I could peel them off if I tried. (Steve Bass responded by saying that one of his buddies had it happen once, and included a photo. No way of knowing whether the label was properly applied: There are brands that don’t include a really good applicator. I’ve also read that CD label adhesives have improved significantly in the last year or two.)
The January 20, 2004 PC Magazine includes a review of five social-networking services—Friendster, Friendzy, LinkedIn, Ryze, and Tribe.net. There’s no Editors’ Choice, particularly since all but Ryze are listed as beta versions. Friendster has about 25 times the “membership” of the others put together. Overall, all of the services except Friendzy earn four-dot ratings, with highest subratings going to Friendster for population, LinkedIn and Tribe.net for appropriate privacy and Friendzy for user profiles.
There’s a lot to be said for networking (speaking as one who was never much good at it). Do digital “six degrees of separation” services actually foster wider networking, or is something else going on? “Friend” and “acquaintance” are very different words, fuzzy as both are. The acquaintance of an acquaintance of my acquaintance could be someone I’d detest—but the possibilities are interesting. I honestly don’t know what to make of this whole phenomenon (and I’ve neither been invited to nor chosen to join any of them). I wonder whether they’re tools that really only work if you’re wired the right way?
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