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


Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 5: Spring 2005


PC Progress, November 2004-March 2005

Abbreviations for magazine names: P = PC Magazine, W = PC World, C = Computer Shopper.

Desktop Computers

As several roundups make clear [P23:20, W23:1, C25:2, P23:23], the third version of Windows XP Media Center Edition may finally be worth owning—and HP’s Media Center Photosmart PC m1050y (anywhere from $2,169 to $5,578, depending on the roundup) is the hot unit.

For something different, Computer Shopper reviews five “underdog” PCs—systems from companies you’ve never heard of. I find it a bit laughable that xVx (that’s the company name) offers “lifetime toll-free support,” since that’s not going to be longer than the life of the company—but if you’re a risk-taker, you may find some of these offerings interesting[C25:1]. Of five units tested, one scores high enough for an Editors’ Choice: the Elite Titan 64 ($1,999) from Elite PC. You get a 2.4GHz Athlon 64 3400+, 1GB DDRAM, 256MB ATI Radeon 9800 XT graphics, two 36GB 10,000RPM hard disks in RAID 0 and a removable 250GB hard disk, a DVD burner that may or may not be multiformat, a TV tuner card, Creative Audigy 2 sound card, and XP Pro. No display, no speakers, three-year warranty.

PC World reviews eight “cheap PCs”—but, being PC World, the features comparison only covers the Top 5. Best Buy and top rating goes to the $505 Dell Dimension 3000, an odd configuration with a low-end CPU (2.4GHz Celeron D 320), remarkably tiny hard drive for 2005 (40GB), and no optical burner (a 24-48X CD-ROM drive)—but it includes a 15" LCD display and they throw in a printer. (For $18, you can upgrade the hard disk to 80GB.)

Digital Cameras

Seven megapixel cameras may be the current “sweet spot” between semi-pro models (usually 8MP) and lower-end units (3 to 5MP). This roundup includes five cameras costing $500 to $700. All but one offer true 7MP resolution, and the exception has a 6.3MP sensor that creates competitive images[P24:1]. Three earned Editors’ Choice ratings. Canon’s $700 PowerShot G6 has a satin aluminum body, loads of control (but automatic shooting as well), the equivalent of a 35mm to 140mm zoom lens, and 1650 lines of resolution, the best in the roundup. Canon’s $600 PowerShot S70 is a great compact choice and yields 1550 lines of resolution; it’s a little faster (in terms of light gathering) than the G6, but a little less powerful. The third Editors’ Choice is the “lower-resolution” model, Fujifilm’s $500 FinePix E550. Fujifilm’s unique CCD sensor has octagonal photodiodes; putting the camera into 12MP “interpolated” mode increases the actual resolution from 1375 lines to 1550. The camera is mostly plastic with a metal faceplate; it’s fast and has a 32.5mm-to-130mm 35mm-equivalent zoom lens.

This mini-roundup[P25:2] covers ultracompacts, “small enough to fit in a shirt pocket.” That means some compromises somewhere, but one of the seven tested still earns an Editor’s Choice: the $399 Canon PowerShot SD300 Digital Elph, a 4MP camera with a 2" LCD, 3x optical zoom, and very good images. What’s interesting here is that this 4MP camera earns Editors’ Choice against a field that’s mostly 5MP: It’s how you use the resolution that counts.

Free Software

It’s been a while since PC Magazine’s done a big roundup of freeware. This roundup [P23:20] evaluates 21 applications including office suites, separate productivity items, graphics tools and PDF writers. There are no Editors’ Choices—in most cases, you still get more from commercial products—but these are lengthy, careful reviews. Many people will find OpenOffice an acceptable alternative to Microsoft Office, for example, and some free graphics tools continue to be important, such as The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), a classic Unix/Linux image editor that began at UC Berkeley. It runs on Windows too, “just as well as it does on Linux,” but it can’t compete with programs such as Adobe Photoshop Elements. It is, to be sure, $100 cheaper (as in free). By the way, if you remember VisiCalc fondly, Dan Bricklin’s brought it “back from oblivion,” without copy protection. It’s a 27KB download (no, that’s not a misprint: even on a dial-up connection, it should download in a few seconds) from www.bricklin.com and should run really, really fast on today’s PCs. “You may be amazed at how much calculating power is packed into this 27KB historical gem.”

Mass Storage

This roundup of a dozen backup devices in four categories is a good example of why I’ll be happy to see Computer Shopper go away[C25:2]. Here’s the opening sentence: “In the world of digital storage, there are two types of people: those who never back up their data, and those whose hard drives have crashed.” What nonsense! Millions of people do back up their data and have never experienced disk crashes—probably tens of millions if corporate PCs with auto-backup systems are included. It’s like saying that nobody uses virus software until after they’ve been infected: Ridiculous and demeaning to the readership. Meanwhile, the roundup offers Editors’ Choices to Plextor’s $99 PX-712A DVD burner (internal) and Buffalo’s $399 LinkStation Network Storage Center (a 250GB server).

Media Hubs

I’m not sure this category makes sense yet (or ever), but PC Magazine offers an early roundup (raising that question) [P24:3]. Of four digital media hubs (plus two briefly reviewed in a sidebar), two earn Editors’ Choices: the $129 Apple AirPort Express (cheap, elegant, music-only, iTunes-only, 802.11g built in) and $299.99 Roku PhotoBridge HD1000, the “best digital media hub you can buy,” with support for several music formats, MPEG-2 video, JPEG photos, and strong HDTV support.

Notebook Computers

Wide-screen notebooks offer an interesting mix of entertainment (expensive DVD players but with much larger screens than dedicated portable DVD players) and usefulness. This roundup[C24:11] includes five notebooks costing $1,899 to $3,864 and has a set of results I’ve never seen before in a comparative computer review: all of the systems reviewed are Editors’ Choices! I’ll summarize the top-rated and bottom-rated of the five, noting that the HP Pavilion ZD7000, Sony VAIO VGN-A190, and ABS Mayhem G1 fall somewhere in the middle. The top-rated Dell Inspiron XPS (8.8 out of 10) costs $3,864 (most expensive in the roundup), uses a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition CPU, and includes 512MB DDR, a 60GB hard disk, a multiformat DVD burner, and a 15.4" 1920x1200 display, a resolution matched only by the Sony with its slightly larger (17") screen. It’s fast, includes 802.11b/g wireless, and has high-end graphics support—but it’s also heavy (9.4lb without adapter) and the battery only lasted about two hours. Bottom-rated but still an Editors’ Choice is the $2,799 Apple PowerBook G4 (8.1 points), which also has 512MB RAM and 802.11b/g support, but has an 80GB hard disk, less powerful graphics, a DVD-R burner (no DVD+R support), and a 17" 1440x900 screen. On the other hand, it’s considerably lighter (6.9lb) and has good battery life (2 hours 40 minutes)—and, of course, you get Apple’s sleek design.

This roundup covers five lightweight notebooks (no more than 4 pounds without power brick), with a sidebar for two “real pocket PCs”—the OQO Model 01 and Sony VAIO VGN-U50 (not sold directly in the U.S.). Editors’ Choice among the lightweights is the $2,049 Fujitsu LifeBook P7010D, 3.3lb. without adapter; the keyboard is a little undersized and the included biometric security (fingerprint) is “picky,” but it’s compact (1.4x10.3x7.8") and fairly well equipped, with 512MB RAM, a 60GB hard disk, a DVD/CD-RW combo, and a 10.6" 1280x768 screen. As for the pocket units, the Sony gets a plausible rating, but the OQO earns a scant 6.7—it’s expensive, slow, and has lousy battery life.

Optical Drives

The bad news, if you’re a true speed demon: According to this roundup of 16X DVD burners with dual-layer capabilities[P23:22], they’re not much faster than 12X burners. For that matter, 8X burners do almost as well. (The fastest unit burning a 4.37GB disc took 6 minutes 3 seconds with DVD+R). But these internal drives are versatile (all four handle every DVD medium except DVD-RAM), fast, and relatively cheap ($99 to $120), and all come with decent software suites. Three of four earn at least four-dot ratings, including the 4.5-dot Editors’ Choice, the $120 Pioneer DVR-A08XL, which includes a comprehensive software suite, produced the most compatible DVDs in the roundup, and—in addition to the fastest DVD-R and DVD-RW burn times—is the only one to include 4X dual-layer burning, meaning you can create an 8.5GB DVD+RD disc in just under 24 minutes. It’s a slow CD ripper, though, so don’t throw out your high-speed CD drive just yet.

Phones and PDAs

PC reviews fourteen “smart” phones in this extensive roundup[P23:18], including units running BlackBerry OS, Palm OS, the new Windows Smartphone (Microsoft Windows Mobile for Smartphone, if you must), and proprietary operating systems. Editors’ Choices are the $200 BlackBerry 7100t, “the first BlackBerry that truly feels like a phone,” for those who want something like a keyboard, and the $470 Nokia 6620 for those who don’t. A phone with 27MB RAM, 12MB flash RAM, and an MMC slot—for almost $500? If it meets your needs, why not? (The BlackBerry has a 20-key “hybrid keypad” that relies on predictive text. It also has a slightly larger and higher-resolution screen than most smart phones, 2.1" with 240x260 resolution. And it actually has 36MB RAM!)

This mini-roundup includes three units that are predominantly PDAs, three more that are mostly smart phones[P24:1]. They’re all interesting products, including Dell’s $500 Axim X50v with a 3.7" 640x480 screen, Motorola’s sleek aluminum Moto Razr V3 (also $500, but only with a Cingular contract), and two other new Motorola phones. The single Editors’ Choice in the lot is the latest Treo, palmOne’s $600 Treo 650. The keyboard’s a little better than on previous versions, there’s Bluetooth if you want to go for the Full Borg look (walking around with a portable headphone attesting to being owned by a cell phone), a much faster processor, and decent battery life for a combined phone/PDA/BlackBerry replacement. No WiFi, but it does have RAM that doesn’t lose your data when the battery dies. All three Moto phones get four-dot ratings; the Razr is definitely the hot new item, at least for looks.

This roundup includes a dozen portable devices [W23:1]. Editors’ Picks among PDA phones are the $599 PalmOne Treo 650 and $299 RIM BlackBerry 7100t; no smart phone, handheld computer, or mobile IM device earns that honor—but the $600 Motorola Razr V3 gets a high rating.

Portable Players

Maybe some people really do want to watch low-rez TV on the go instead of, say, reading—and Microsoft Windows Portable Media Center seems to make that feasible if, to my mind, a bit silly. This roundup [W22:12] reviews five high-capacity audio players (20GB and up), four “midcapacity” players (1GB to 5GB), five flash players (256MB or 512MB), and six video players. Best Buy among the high-capacity audio players: No big surprise, Apple’s $399 40GB iPod, with the $250 20GB Creative Zen Touch and $300 20GB Rio Karma trailing. Rio’s $249 5GB Carbon beats out the iPod Mini among midcapacity players. They like iRiver’s $160 IFP-790 (256MB) best of this small group of flash players (it includes an FM tuner/recorder and voice recording), and has remarkable battery life). Finally, while no video player earns a Best Buy, the $499 Creative Zen Portable Media Center gets the highest rating of the group—but it’s awkward to hold and on the heavy side (12oz.).

This roundup sticks with music and photos, including four disk-based players costing $250 to $600 [P23:23]. All four (Apple iPod Photo, Creative Zen Micro, iRiver H320, Virgin Player) get strong four-dot reviews—but the Creative Zen Micro reaches 4.5 dots and Editors’ Choice status. The $250 Zen Micro is a 5GB player that includes an FM receiver, voice recording, and a driver to provide Windows Media Player 10 compatibility; it has “impeccable” audio performance. The iPod Photo review includes an interesting limitation: The displayable photos on an iPod can only come from one computer!

Want to capture streaming internet radio (or other streaming audio) to use on your portable player? This roundup[P23:21] reviews six programs that offer those capabilities. Editors’ Choice is $30 Replay Music 2.0 ($30), which can break a stream into individual MP3 or WAV files and attempt to tag them with song and artist information. Replay also includes CD burning functions. The automatic identification isn’t foolproof (PC’s tests showed about 80% right). If you have a Mac, consider the $32 Audio Hijack Pro 2.0, which can grab audio from any application, “even your PC’s built-in DVD player.” What about legality? Since capturing internet radio streams should be just as legitimate as recording off-the-air broadcasts, the programs themselves should all be legal under the (embattled) Betamax doctrine. As for capturing subscription streamed audio, chances are the click-through contract you “sign” to sign up for such services expressly forbids capturing, but maybe not. Capturing audio from a DVD player may be fair use, but is explicitly forbidden in on-screen copyright assertions. (Does Audio Hijack violate DMCA? There’s an interesting question…)

Printers

What’s the difference between a general-purpose inkjet printer and a photo printer? Except for dedicated printers, mostly the name. This roundup [P23:20] evaluates 15 printers and six dedicated photo units. While 10 of the 15 are described as photo printers, PC Magazine didn’t find clear distinctions. Some photo printers add extra inks to the standard four—but so do some general-purpose printers. Editors’ Choice for an all-purpose printer is the $150 Canon Pixma iP4000 (called a “photo printer” by Canon), for balanced performance, speed and quality in text and photo printing. HP’s $150 Deskjet 6540 earns an honorable mention. Another Canon printer, the $500(!) i9900 Photo Printer, gets the nod for those primarily interested in photos; it uses eight ink colors (with eight cartridges) and prints photos fast—30 seconds for a 4x6, 65 seconds for an 8x10! (The iP4000 is more typical: 65 seconds for a 4x6, 150+ for an 8x10. The HP’s substantially slower.) If you want a dedicated unit to make great 4x6 prints and do nothing else, you can’t beat the $200 Epson PictureMate for quality and price: It makes high-quality, smudge-proof, waterproof, long-lasting prints at a precise materials cost of $0.29 per print, paper and ink combined, which is about what you’d pay for good-quality traditional prints. It’s not that fast—135 to 142 seconds per 4x6.

Need speed? This roundup includes a dozen high-speed laser printers, six monochrome, six laser[P24:1]. To qualify for the review, printer engine ratings had to be at least 25ppm for monochrome, 20ppm for color, and the printers had to hold at least 1,000 sheets of paper (but could use add-ons to reach that capacity). Editors’ Choice in the monochrome set is HP’s $3,800 LaserJet 9500dn, a hefty beast (168lb.) that yields great speed, excellent text output and decent graphics and photos, very heavy-duty paper handling (it’s rated for 300,000 pages per month and prints tabloid-size paper; you get a duplexer and 1,100-sheet capacity for that price). Consumables are cheap: The cartridge costs $270 and is supposed to print 30,000 text pages. That’s 0.9 cents a page. If you don’t need tabloid output, they suggest the HP LaserJet 4350dtn; it costs $2,180 and is essentially as fast as the 9500dn—but it costs more for consumables, 1.1 cents per text page. (After roughly 810,000 pages the total cost of the 4350dn will be higher. If you keep a printer long enough to print 1620 reams, that is.) Among color units, the Editors’ Choice has been around quite a while: the Xerox Phaser 7750DN, their Editors’ Choice a year ago. It’s not cheap ($6,800) but it’s fast, easy to set up, offers excellent output, and isn’t that expensive to run (1.5 cents for monochrome pages, 8.4 cents for color pages).

This roundup of multifunction printers [C25:1] includes four inkjet and two laser units in a broad price range, $150 to $700. Editors’ Choice is Canon’s $199 Stylus CX6600, one of the fastest printers (5ppm for text, 3 minutes for an 8x10 color photo) with top print quality and reasonable ink costs.

Utility Software

This survey article covers ten file-search utilities that search Outlook mail databases and the files on your PC in a single step[W22:11]. It’s an odd software category and the range of products is a little odd too. Two programs earn Editors’ Picks: The DtSearch Desktop with Spider ($199), expensive but powerful, and Lookout Software Lookout (free, no tech support), which installs as an Outlook toolbar.

The big two antivirus tools “have evolved to become more and more alike” and now distinguish themselves by adding new features[P23:19]. This roundup gives 4.5 dots and Editors’ Choice to Norton AntiVirus 2005, which now includes a simple firewall, albeit called “Internet Worm Protection.” A broader roundup[C25:1] includes six packages, but confuses the issue by rating antivirus programs against full internet security suites. Not surprisingly, Norton AntiVirus loses points for not having a full firewall or doing real-time spyware detection; one of the full suites, PC-cillin Internet Security 2005 ($50), gets the Editors’ Choice—even though its track record for virus detection isn’t quite as solid as Norton.

How do this year’s major personal firewalls stack up? This review covers the big two, McAfee and Norton [P23:20]. McAfee’s improved considerably—but it’s vulnerable to “leak attacks.” The Editors’ Choice goes to Norton Personal Firewall 2005 ($50), which blocks all but one leak test and includes privacy control. Notably, it’s almost impossible to shut down NPF through software attacks or even a direct Task Manager shutdown.

Put the two together (and add other utilities) and you have security suites. This review [P23:21] goes into considerable detail for each of the two major suites (McAfee and Norton). Norton wins again, by a considerable margin. On the other hand, while Norton AntiSpam is good, a two-item review[P23:22] says Cloudmark SpamNet 3.0 is a little better. Both get 4-dot ratings, but Cloudmark—a $40/year subscription service that relies on community-based filtering—gets the Editors’ Choice. A followup First Look[P24:2] gives a second Editors’ Choice to ZoneAlarm’s $70 Security Suite 5.5, while retaining the Editors’ Choice for the Norton suite. PC World’s review [W23:2] includes Trend Micro’s $50 PC-cillin Internet Security 2005 along with McAfee and Norton, and gives Trend Micro the highest rating of the three—apparently for its low price and for working seamlessly with XP/SP2’s Security Center. Another PC Magazine roundup, part of a long “false sense of security” feature article [P24:3], reduces Norton Internet Security to an honorable mention—mostly because ZoneAlarm Security Suite 5.5 is that much better.

This roundup of antispyware tools [P23:18] includes three commercial products. Editors’ Choice is the priced version of Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware, SE Plus 1.02. PC’s other Editors’ Choice, Webroot’s Spy Sweeper 3.0, isn’t part of the survey. A more complete roundup [P24:3] drops the Editors’ Choice for Ad-Aware, leaving Spy Sweeper 3.5 ($30) as the only Editors’ Choice; as with security suites, the change is because the best has gotten significantly better. A Computer Shopper roundup [C25:3] seems to regard antispyware tools as “privacy protectors,” which is an odd take—and this one rates Spybot Search & Destroy 1.3 higher than Webroot Spy Sweeper 3.5 (which in turn rates higher than Ad-Aware SE Plus).

Trying to be anonymous on the internet? This roundup[P23:21] reviews four “anonymity apps,” all of which work by routing your web requests through a remote proxy server to mask your IP address. Editors’ Choice is GhostSurf 2005 Platinum ($50); in addition to IP-masking (using the company’s own servers), it includes other privacy tools and an antispyware program.

Videocameras and Software

“It’s time your home movies went digital.” That’s the tag line for this roundup of 17 digicams and seems right on the money: Unlike still cameras, it’s hard to make a good case for continued use of amateur-level analog videocameras.[P23:20] This thorough treatment will probably convince you to stick with MiniDV rather than DVD (DVD digicams require on-the-fly MPEG2 compression, which yields inferior picture quality) and that you might not want the smallest or cheapest cameras around. There are four Editors’ Choices based on price range and recording type. JVC’s $449 GR-D33US is your best bet in a bargain digicam; Sony’s $700 DCR-HC40 MiniDV Handycam does the best job in the $501 to $800 range; and for those willing to spend a bit more, Canon’s $999 Optura 400 shoots the best video in the roundup and pretty good 2MP still photos. Finally, if you must record directly to DVD, choose Sony’s $999 DCR-DVD201 DVD Handycam: It offers the best video of any DVD unit.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 5, Whole Issue 61, 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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