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


Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 11: October 2005


PC Progress, March-September 2005

Desktop Computers

Combined reviews of desktop and notebook PCs show up here as well—such as an odd “ultimate & affordable” roundup [C25:4]. It’s another “classify the user and slot a PC to suit them” article with no ratings but an “ultimate” and “affordable” choice identified in each of five categories. Hey, if you’re a multimedia professional you can spend $15,597 on an Apple PowerMac G5—but you’re mostly paying for two 30" Apple Cinema HD displays. Or you can spend a “mere” $3,818 for Velocity Micro’s ProMagix A/V/D, a slightly more modest solution. (Both have 500GB of disk storage and several GB of RAM.)

Another PC Magazine mixed desktop and notebook roundup, this time of “value PCs”: Desktops costing $700 or less with a display, $600 or less without one, and notebooks coming in under $1,100. Editors’ Choice among desktops is the Polywell Poly 2800NF2-MX: $699 buys a 2GHz Sempron 2800+, 512MB SDRAM, 120GB hard disk, nVidia GeForce4 MX440 graphics, dual-layer multiformat DVD burner, 17" CRT, and a fair amount of expansion space. Two notebooks share Editors’ Choice honors. If weight matters, Averatec offers the AV3270-EE1 for $949: 4.3lb. with a 1.6GHz Mobile Sempron 2800+, 512MB SDRAM, 60GB hard disk, VIA 53G graphics with 32MB dedicated RAM, multiformat DVD burner, 802.11g, and a 12.1" screen. If you want more power and don’t care as much about weight, Dell’s $999 Inspiron 6000 ($999 with Dell’s E-Value Code 1111-i6000PC) uses a 1.6GHz Pentium M 730, 512MB SDRAM, 60GB hard disk, Intel GMA 900 GM graphics with 128MB RAM, multiformat DVD burner, 802.11G, and a 15.4" widescreen LCD—but it does weigh 7.0 pounds. On the other hand, it offers almost 6 hour battery life.

A PC World roundup of ten “space-saving PCs” [W23:6] yields three Best Buys (one per category) and six four-star ratings in all, a very strong showing. Best Buys go to the $1,611 Shuttle Computer XPC i8600b in the mini-box category, Dell’s $1,403 OptiPlex SX280 as a “thin-profile” system, and—in a change from recent roundups—Gateway’s Profile 5.5C ($1,885) as an all-in-one. Gateway’s latest Profile design puts the PC works in the base of the LCD display instead of using a thick display casing.

PCs designed as media centers keep getting better. This mini-roundup [P24:12] covers four good units costing $1,000 to $3,500; Editors’ Choice goes to Sony’s $1,800 VAIO VGC-RA830G, with a Pentium 4 500J CPU (3.4GHz), 1GB SDRAM, two 160GB disks in RAID-0 configuration, a high-end graphics card with 256MB RAM, a dual-layer multiformat DVD burner (and second DVD-ROM drive), good Logitech 5.1-channel speaker systems, and—in a departure for Sony—Windows XP Media Center Edition. The keyboard and mouse are wireless. $1,800 does not include a display.

Digital Cameras

PC Magazine updates its roundup of “superzooms,” cameras with at least 10x optical zoom lenses, in this “First looks” roundup [P24:5]. The cameras cost $360 to $1,000. Editors’ Choices are two Panasonic Lumix cameras, the $500 DMC-FZ15 and $600 DMC-FZ20. The first is a 4MP camera that only needs 1.5 seconds between flash shots; the second, a 5MP unit that needs 3.5 seconds between flash shots. Both offer 12X optical zoom with a Leica 36mm to 432mm lens.

Displays

Big LCD displays keep getting more reasonable in price and performance. This roundup [P24:6] includes ten models measuring 20 to 23 inches, all with at least 1600x1200 resolution (two have 1920x1200 resolution). Editors’ Choice is the Samsung SyncMaster 213T, “reasonably priced” at $900 and with outstanding performance—except that it tends to smear a lot on fast-moving images (even worse than some other 25ms. displays). Runners-up are Dell’s $749 UltraSharp 2001FP and LG’s $750 Flatron L2013P.

Input Devices

If you’re not satisfied with the mouse and keyboard you have—and if it’s not an optical mouse, you probably shouldn’t be—here’s a roundup of ten input devices: three mice, four keyboards, three sets[P24:9]. Editors’ Choice among the mice isn’t one—it’s the $200 Contour Design RollerMouse PRO, a gel-filled wrist rest with a pointer control, roller bar, scroll wheel, and five buttons that sit below the keyboard (apparently centered below the standard keyboard portion). Among sets, top choice is the Microsoft Optical Desktop Elite for Bluetooth ($155), a refinement of Microsoft’s wireless set that uses Bluetooth instead of an RF receiver.

Notebook Computers

This mini-roundup looks at three “Sonoma” laptops—the newest version of Intel’s Centrino platform [W23:4]. Supposedly, the platform will allow for future improvements. For now, it doesn’t improve speed much but also doesn’t carry much of a price premium. Oddly, PC World chose to rate the preproduction Dell Inspiron 6000 ($2,564) but not the Compaq Nc6230. The only production unit, Gateway’s M460, offers one glimpse of what a full-fledged desktop replacement costs and offers (it rated just behind the Dell, at 3.5 stars). For $2,184, you get a 2.13GHz Pentium M 770, 550MB of 533MHz DDR2 RAM, an 80GB hard drive, DVD burner, wide-screen 15.4" display with 1280x800 resolution driven by the ATI Mobility Radeon X600 with 128MB of display RAM, USB, S-Video, and FireWire ports (but no legacy serial or parallel ports), and 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi. Battery life was only 3:17, but this is a desktop replacement.

Multimedia notebooks? I guess that makes sense these days. This roundup includes a baker’s dozen “luxury notebooks.”[P24:12]. The price range is $1,200 to $3,000 and the review splits units into three categories: high-end, mainstream, and “multimedia minis.” Editors’ Choice among mainstream units is the $1,349 HP Pavilion dv4000, beating Apple’s PowerBook G4; it’s reasonably lightweight (6.4lb.), inexpensive, and has a great 15.4" screen (you get 512MB RAM, 80GB disk, and a multiformat DVD burner). The high-end choice is the $3,000 Toshiba Qosmio G25-AV513, “a beast in terms of weight [9.4lb]…storage space (120GB) and connectivity.” It also has a bright 17" screen, 1GB RAM, and a dual-layer multiformat DVD burner—but you get crappy battery life. (The story makes it sound a little worse than it is: “a disappointing 1 minute 59 seconds.” Now that’s bad battery life! It’s really one hour and 59 minutes, still pretty low.) Finally, Toshiba’s $2,100 libretto U100 is the “mini” of choice at 2.1lb. and 8.3x5.7x1.2"—but in addition to the high price, you get a small screen (7.2") and undersize keyboard.

Optical Drives

Double-layer DVD burners seem to be taking over rapidly, with no real cost premium and almost universal multiformat capability (everything except DVD-RAM). This test of 10 burners [W23:4] shows two Best Buys, neither of which is top-rated. That’s Plextor’s $130 PX-716A. Of the Best Buys, Toshiba’s $130 SD-R5372 has the best all-around performance (but limited bundled software) while BenQ’s $90 DW1620 offers good performance at a very good price.

Three external drives add analog-to-digital video capture, making it easy to copy a videotape to a DVD—in one case, without using the PC if you choose[P24:4]. While that feature could make Sony’s $300 DVDirect VRD-VC10 the most flexible of the group, there’s a problem: Sony’s video capture won’t work with a PC. It’s either a DVD burner or a straight transfer device. Given that, it’s not surprising that HP’s $200 DVD Movie Writer dc5000 gets the Editors’ Choice: it’s the least expensive in the roundup, offers fine recording quality, and includes a complete software bundle. All three units record dual-layer DVD+R DL discs and record DVD+R at 16X. The HP can also record DVD-R at 16X.

Portable Players and Related Devices

I guess this is a “PC category” now, for better or worse. This roundup [P24:12] includes five small-hard-drive units and five more with large hard drives. The Apple iPod mini and Apple iPod earn Editors’ Choices in the two categories—but the $200 Creative Zen Micro also gets the nod among small-drive machines (5GB). The Zen includes FM radio and voice recordings and nine different case colors with a form factor slightly shorter and thicker than the iPod mini: 3.3x2.0x0.7" as compared to 3.6x2.0x0.5".

The same PC Magazine [P24:12] reviews earphones for portable players, looking at sound quality as well as noise-suppression quality. There are two ways to suppress noise: active suppression vis out-of-phase sounds that match what an included microphone picks up (within limits), or in-ear phones that fit so snugly they block noise. There’s an Editors’ Choice in each category. The $300 Bose QuietComfort 2 phones don’t perform that well as headphones (weak low midrange and awful high-frequency response) but are great for active noise suppression. They’re light as big over-the-ear headphones go but they’re bulky. The $130 Etymotic ER6i ear-canal phones block noise by fitting tightly and offer good frequency response, if perhaps a bit light on the bass.

PC World also reviews replacement headphones [W23:7], including half a dozen over-the-ear units and another six in-the-ear phones. Best Buy for the over-the-ear headphones is the $150 Bose TriPort for comfortable fit and good sound, although the phones are large, don’t fold, and don’t come with a case. The $120 Etymotic ER-6isolator gets the nod for in-the-ear units (presumably the same as PC Magazine’s ER6i); the only complaints are that it comes with only two pairs of tips. The Bose QuietComfort got a low rating (two of five stars) because they didn’t sound very good. A sidebar discusses noise cancellation, noting that ear-canal phones like the Etymotic do a better job than active noise-suppression units.

Sound & Vision 70:6 (July/August 2005) reviews five portable multimedia players—without much in the way of objective tests, but at least with some care and detailed specifications. There’s no clearcut winner, but the $500 Archos AV400 may be the most plausible of the group. It has a 320x240-pixel 3.5" screen, 20GB disk (you can get 80GB or 100GB models), weighs 9.75oz., and measures 5x3.25x0.875". Archos (and NHJ, another maker in the roundup) was perfectly happy to dub commercial movies from regular DVD players. That same issue reviews four current legal music download services (with sidebars on some others and on audio quality), concluding that Yahoo Music Unlimited now has an edge over the iTunes Music Store, partly because of $0.79 permanent downloads (if you’re a subscriber) and $60/year subscription prices for unlimited usage. Yahoo! now owns MusicMatch, my ripper/manager/burner of choice. Then there’s AllofMP3: a Russian site with an English-language option that offers, well, what it says, with incredibly low prices and various downloading options—for example, $0.36 for a 320kbps MP3 download. The site’s supposedly legal in Russia; whether you’re infringing copyright if you use it in the U.S. is another question.

Printers

What makes a photo printer? As several roundups have demonstrated, mostly calling a printer a photo printer (except for specialized units that only produce photos). This roundup [W23:4] includes seven desktop printers and four “snapshot” printers—and compared their ink and paper costs to each other and, briefly, to store processing and online photo printing. With one exception—Epson’s snapshot-size PictureMate, which yields a cost of $0.23 per 4x6 print at discounted supplies prices—all these units cost more for 4x6 prints than either stores (Ritz, Walgreen’s, and Target averaged $0.28) or online services ($0.35 including shipping for 20-print orders). The other snapshot printers cost $0.50 to $0.81 cents per 4x6; full-size units ran $0.46 to $0.97, averaging $0.66. Where inkjet printing on photo-quality paper comes out better is when you’re doing 8x10 blowups: I figure the cost at around $1 to $1.50 each, which is less than you’d typically pay for 8x10s from a photo shop. Best Buys in the review are Canon’s $230 Pixma IP4000R and Epson’s $199 PictureMate. Speed ranges enormously: Canon’s Pixma IP8500 takes 39 seconds to do a 4x6 photo, while the PictureMate takes 136 seconds, more than three times as long.

Multifunction printers have established themselves as great ways to add a high-quality scanner and copier to your home office without spending much more than for a good inkjet printer or taking up any more space. (I only need a copier about once a month—but it sure is nice to have one immediately handy when I do need it, particularly one that makes nearly perfect color copies.) But inkjet printing still takes longer and costs more than laser printing, and for lots of purposes color is overkill. Now several companies offer laser multifunction printers. This roundup [P24:4] includes eleven of them (ten monochrome, one color). Expect to pay $400 to $1,300, with most units in the $500 to $700 range. Expect text printing at anywhere from 12 to 21 real pages per minute (actual test results for a 50-page Word document, excluding the one color unit, which managed 8 ppm). Editors’ Choice is the $600 Brother MFC-8840DN, with a heavy duty cycle (20,000 pages per month), built-in Ethernet and optional wireless, and very good speed and quality. It printed the 50-page document in 2 minutes and 31 seconds and spit out a 4-page PowerPoint presentation in 22 seconds flat.

PC World’s multifunction laser roundup includes four monochrome and three color units [W23:7], ranging from $400 to $500 mono, $1000 or $3000 color. Best Buys are the $490 Brother MFC-8840DN for monochrome, the $1000 Canon ImageClass MF8170C for color.

Worth noting: The April 12, PC Magazine confers Editors’ Choice status on three new devices in “First Looks” reviews: the $300 Canon Pixma MP780 Photo All-in-One as the multifunction printer of choice if you don’t need networking; Xerox’ $3,399 Phaser 5500/DN as a departmental laser printer (50ppm, 300,000 page per month duty cycle, excellent output), and Canon’s $400 CanoScan 9950F as a flatbed scanner with first-rate slide-scanning features.

This group review [P24:11] covers seven “top of the line” photo printers, costing $200 to $550. The worst score in the roundup is four dots, a very high score. Two Canons earn Editors’ Choice. The $500 i9900 Photo Printer (which can print photos up to 13x19") for its fast, high-quality photo output; it uses eight colors. The $350 Canon Pixma iP8500 Photo Printer is also fast, produces excellent photos, and uses eight colors, but only handles up to legal-size paper. Oddly enough, it scores lower than the two honorable mentions: Epson’s $550 Stylus Photo R1800, which uses 8 colors, prints up to 13x44 inches and prints directly on optical discs, but is slower than the Canons for photos, and HP’s $200 Photosmart 8150 Photo Printer, a six-color printer that maxes out with legal paper. If you plan to use one printer for all purposes, the editors say the Epson may be the best choice: it’s faster for business printing.

Projectors

Lighter, brighter, cheaper: That continues to be the trend for business data projectors (which can also be used as home TV projectors if you have the right ancillary equipment). This roundup [P24:13] covers eight units over a wide price range ($800 to $2,500) and fairly wide weight range (2.8lb. to 7.1lb.). Two Editors’ Choices emerge: Dell 1100MP ($800), a surprisingly impressive bargain unit (4.9lb., 480:1 measured contrast ratio, 1429 measured lumens, 800x600) and the Plus V-332 ($1,995), the lightest (2.8lb.) unit with the best measured contrast (1179:1), albeit less bright than some (1027 measured lumens, 1024x768). It’s one of few data projectors that can be packed immediately after use; it also has an iris to protect the lens when not in use.

Utility Software

One problem with anti-spyware software is that reviewers don’t seem to agree on the best approaches, typically resulting in widely varying results. This roundup [W23:4] covers nine programs, with Sunbelt’s $20 CounterSpy 1.0 earning the Best Buy. Second is Webroot’s $30 Spy Sweeper 3.2, the winner in some previous roundups. If you’re not willing to pay, Lavasoft Ad-Aware and Safer Networking Spybot Search & Destroy make a good team. (I’ve used Spybot for some time, recently adding Spy Sweeper.) One promising sign: Microsoft’s Windows AntiSpyware (acquired from Giant Software), in beta, looks to be a fine performer.

A followup [W23:8] includes three new versions and gives a four-star rating to Spy Sweeper 4—but calls CounterSpy 1.5 “a clear winner” even though it’s beta software and thus not eligible for a rating.

PC Magazine reviews seven spyware applications with some cautionary notes in a typically strong introductory essay [P24:13]. Editors’ Choice among this group is PC Tools’ $30 Spyware Doctor 3.2, just edging out Spy Sweeper 4.

This quick roundup of security suites [C25:4] gives a surprisingly low rating to Norton Internet Security (slow antispam, disappointing censorware, and they find that Norton slows their system) and yields two Editors’ Choices out of four suites reviewed. PC-Cillin Internet Security 2005 ($50) gets the highest score for fast scanning and first-rate tools (but its spyware detection is turned off by default); ZoneAlarm Security Suite 5.5 ($70) is a close second, and includes a unique privacy-control feature.

Another antispam roundup [P24:7] covers four fairly new tools and awards two Editors’ Choices. OnlyMyEmail Personal costs $3 per month for a special email account that filters up to three existing accounts. Spam, viruses, and the rest are stopped at the servers and never get to your computer, so downloading email is fast—and the performance was the most accurate I’ve ever seen, blocking 0.6% of good mail and missing 0.4% of spam in PC Magazine’s extensive test suite. Qurb 3.0 costs $30 and integrates with Outlook or Outlook Express; it’s a brute force system that works with a whitelist—that is, all mail from senders not on the whitelist gets quarantined. Qurb attempts to verify the sender’s address using Sender Policy Framework.

PC World’s midlength utility roundup covers four utility suites (not security suites) and 18 standalone utilities(W23:6). This time, Symantec’s $100 Norton SystemWorks 2005 Premier earns the Best Buy for its balance of features and usability, although it is resource-intensive. I don’t see any Best Buy designations among the “small utilities,” but a few got at least four stars out of five: Free Undelete, Acronis TrueImage (disk imaging for data recovery), Window Washer (to erase your history), PC Wizard 2005 (comprehensive system information), X-Setup Pro (system tweaks), Folder View, VisualRoute 2005 (a network trace-routing program), ClipCache (the clipboard on steroids), and Insert Toggle Key (making Windows beep when you hit Insert, so you don’t accidentally go into Word overwrite mode).

Web Browsers

PC Magazine reviews mid-2005 versions of the popular Windows-based browsers[P24:10]. Editors’ Choice goes to Firefox 1.0.3, for the usual reasons. Second place is the paid version of Opera 8.0, largely because Netscape 8.0 has become “cluttered and confusing.”

Wireless Routers

“Unwired for speed” [P24:10] considers “fast, faster, fastest” wireless networking—802.11g, enhanced 802.11g, and “MIMO technology,” the predecessor to 802.11n (coming in 1997?). The two faster technologies work—but at the expense of compatibility. Interestingly, Editors’ Choice in each category came from Linksys: the $69 Wireless-G WRT54G for 80211.g, the $89 WRT54GS for enhance 802.11g, and the $199 WRT54GX for MIMO performance.

A similar roundup [W23:8] includes six units, all of them “MIMO” of one sort or another. While Linksys did well here also, getting one of two four-star ratings (it’s hard to tell whether it’s the same model), Belkin gets the Best Buy—at $238 for the combination of Pre-N Router and Pre-N Notebook Network Card (for comparison, the Linksys combo is $274).

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 11, Whole Issue 67, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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