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


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


Interesting & Peculiar Products

Better DVD Repair?

One ALA Midwinter 2005 exhibitor was showing a different kind of CD/DVD repair system: the VMi3500 Buffing Unit from VenMill Industries (www.venmill. com). I can’t vouch for the system, obviously, but the idea makes sense.

As far as I know, all other optical disc repair systems work by abrading the “playing side” of the disc to remove light scratches and dirt that won’t come off with washing. The problem with abrasion, in addition to consumables cost, is that it can only be done so many times before the disc is no longer playable—either because there’s no polycarbonate layer left or because the layer’s so thin that the laser doesn’t focus on the information layer properly. I’ve heard a range of numbers from competing disc-repair vendors as to how often a disc can be repaired. DVDs have much thinner polycarbonate layers than CDs (because they’re all fundamentally two-sided), so the maximum number of repairs is likely to be smaller.

The VMi3500 works differently. It buffs the disc to heat it—enough to soften the polycarbonate slightly, so that the buffing will flow polycarbonate into light scratches. According to the sales materials, no material is removed from the discs under repair, which means that light scratches could presumably be repaired an indefinite number of times.

I saw it in action and it seems to work very well. The operation cycle (30 seconds for light problems, 60 seconds for deep buffing) includes a cool-down cycle, so the disc when it emerges from the tray is warm to the touch but not dangerously hot. It’s a simple process: Open the tray, put the disc in, spread some “AC fluid” (antistatic fluid) with the supplied applicator bottle, push the tray in, and hit the button. When the cycle’s done, the tray opens. There’s a daily step to clean the buffing pads themselves, using a supplied cleaning disc (which itself needs to be cleaned every so often). You replace the fluid after 500 discs and the buffing pads after 2500 discs (the machine starts warning you after 2400 cleaning cycles).

The bad part: The machine is expensive, somewhere between $2,500 and $3,000. The good: Supplies are very cheap, a few cents per disc—and, if it works as advertised, you can keep fixing normal wear and tear on your discs indefinitely.

“Normal wear and tear” is an important caveat. The sales DVD says quite clearly that the unit will not repair discs with heavy scratches (0.001" or deeper, I believe)—but neither will most other units. And, of course, the buffing unit can’t do a thing when borrowers who don’t understand push-to-release hubs wind up cracking the disc hubs. Does that still happen as often, or are most library patrons now familiar with the way DVD cases work?

This isn’t a sales pitch. I don’t know whether for most library applications this unit is better or worse than the range of products (almost all less expensive to purchase and probably more expensive to run) that fix discs by removing the scratched polycarbonate layer. I do know that it’s an interesting and potentially worthwhile alternative. (If I’ve missed other disc repair systems that avoid abrasion, I’m sure the manufacturers will let me know!)

Another Stinky Peripheral?

Here we go again: NTT Communications Corp. (Japan) is testing a new service that “sends out smells according to data received over the Internet.” According to Yuri Kageyama’s December 8 AP story, “Users attach a device to their laptops that resembles a crystal ball with a nozzle. The device receives aroma data from the central server and exudes fumes from the nozzle in accordance with that reading.” (I guess everyone uses laptops in Japan…)

The test combines hard-hitting factual information with a must-have peripheral: They’re using it to “send combinations of 36 scents…as horoscope readings.” Or, rather, one horoscope reading, apparently: “Cancerians get a waft of chamomile, lavender and vetiver oils…while people born in Pisces get a concoction of lavender, clary sage and lemongrass.”

The story also says NTT is considering this doohickey “as a commercial product for aromatherapy, testing incense or just plain fun.” Testing incense? By combining prepackaged perfumed oils? How about perfume? Or, I can just see it: Scents to enhance your gaming experience—should go great with shoot-em-ups and similar wonders.

“It’s not yet clear how much the product will be sold for or if will be released outside Japan, company officials said.” I, for one, can wait. Next step, of course: a smaller version that can be bundled with smartphones…

TiVo: What Went Wrong?

Edward W. Felten posted an interesting essay January 21 on Freedom to tinker: “Why hasn’t TiVo improved?” “The name TiVo was once synonymous with an entire product category, Digital Video Recorders. Now the vultures are starting to circle above TiVo, according to a New York Times story by Saul Hansell. What went wrong? The answer is obvious: TiVo chose to cozy up to the TV networks rather than to its customers.”

I didn’t realize TiVo’s been around for eight years. Felten says it’s selling “essentially the same product” it did in 1997—largely, he believes, because they won’t add features that might offend TV and cable networks (e.g., ReplayTV’s commercial-skipping methods).

So how does TiVo plan to become relevant as a brand rather than a generic name for (other forms of ) DVR? By hiring a new CEO—“someone with less of [the current CEO’s] fierce believe in the power of TiVo’s technology. [Board members] said they preferred someone with an ability to repair TiVo’s relations with the big cable companies.”

Matt Haughey at PVRblog commented on Felten’s comment, also on January 21, noting that “lawsuits are killing innovation” and that “anything that helps customers enjoy TV, movies, or music is a target for lawsuits.” Haughey argues that TiVo needs to “damn the torpedoes—continue to make technology that makes customers happy, regardless of what Hollywood thinks.” A bunch of comments appear, ranging from geek superiority (“Why buy a TiVo when you can build your own equivalent?”) through thoughtful comments on what DVRs/PVRs really need—to statements flatly asserting that it’s illegal to copy a TV show to DVD, period. And, to be sure, at least one person saying, “Anyone who is actually interested in watching television has no other reasonable option.”

Convergence?

PC Magazine 24:1 (January 2005) gives an Editors’ Choice to the HP Digital Entertainment Center z545 in a full-page “first looks” review. The z545 is a Windows Media Center Edition PC, designed specifically to fit into the living room. It’s the size and shape of a large home theater component (4.4x17x16.6"), horizontally oriented, black brushed aluminum, and the front panel looks as plain as most components. Flip-down doors reveal the DVD drive (a dual-layer multiformat burner), AV and FireWire inputs, memory card slots and USB ports, and—HP’s interesting new feature—the 160GB removable hard disk that complements the 200GB hard disk inside the box. You can buy extra 160GB cartridges for $199 each, which is outrageous for a 160GB disk but may be reasonable for this level of integration.

Drawbacks: Neither TV tuner is HD, it’s more cumbersome to use than a simple DVD player—and not a whole lot else. It comes with wireless keyboard (with trackball built in) and full-function remote control. The $1,999 price doesn’t include a display.

FEDs and SEDs

I’ve been mentioning SEDs for some time—surface conduction electron emission displays, which use millions of tiny electron emitters to create a CRT-quality big-screen display without the weight, size, and manufacturing fragility of big-screen CRTs. It’s been “promising” for a long time, and (as reported earlier) Canon and Toshiba say they’ll be producing large-screen SED televisions by 2006. (Toshiba now says some sets will be out this year, costing as much as plasma sets but offering better quality.)

FED stands for field effect display, a similar technology relying on coatings of diamonds or carbon nanotubes. It’s also two layers of glass, one with a cathode grid and coating, the other with phosphors—and, as with SED, the two layers are one or two millimeters apart. As with SED, the color spectrum and overall picture should be comparable to direct-view CRTs, but on much larger screens—and for all their heft and size, CRTs still provide the best television (and computer) picture you can buy. FED appears to be two or three years away (which can translate into “possibly never” in the tech field).

Really Cheap Computers

As one of my predictions during Midwinter’s LITA Top Tech Trends, I posited that some PC company (I suggested eMachines/Gateway as a strong possibility, Sony as a weak one, and “some PC equivalent of Apex” as a third) would—during 2005—start building a PC equivalent to the Mac Mini: A $300 to $400 book-size machine with enough disk storage, CPU power, RAM, connectors, optical storage and software to handle most basic computing and web browsing. I suggested $300 as a Linux price, $400 as a Windows price. I also noted that a very cheap machine along these lines was already being built, but primarily (I thought) for developing nations.

I was at least half-right. According to Steve Fox’s “Plugged in” column in the January 2005 PC World, AMD and international partners are “readying” the Personal Internet Communicator, “a fat-paperback-size machine that’s part of its ‘50x15’ initiative, intended to outfit half the world’s population with computers by 2015.” The unit uses AMD’s Geode GX500 CPU and comes with 128MB DDR RAM, 10GB hard disk, a new “Windows XC,” and a suite of basic applications. It’s nowhere near as powerful as the Mac Mini, but it’s not aimed at the same market—and it’s a lot cheaper: With keyboard, mouse, modem, and four USB ports, $185; $249 with a 15" CRT. It won’t be sold in the U.S. or other “first world” nations.

That unit seems to be a very basic system, although it’s probably several times as powerful as the last pre-Pentium4 PC I owned (which cost ten times as much). It’s not the unit I’m projecting. That unit would, more likely will, be a preconfigured system with plenty of power for mainstream processing (but probably not gaming), and the $400 price ($300 with Linux) might not include the display (after all, the Mac Mini excludes keyboard, mouse, and display)

It’s not much of a leap. As of late January 2005, eMachines sells the T3624 minitower for $360—with a 2.66GHz Celeron, 256MB DDRAM, 60GB disk, CD-RW drive, fax/modem, Windows XP Home, MS Works, Money, and Encarta and others (and antivirus and spyware protection), speakers, keyboard, and mouse—but no display. Get that system down to book size and you’re there. By the end of this year? If the Mac Mini is doing well at all, I’d bet on it. That little box will be no more suitable for library or college use than a Mac Mini unless you come up with a great way to chain it down, since it’s even easier to drop into a backpack than a notebook computer.

Doing Without MS Office

When did WordPerfect Office become a “home suite”? Maybe there’s always been a “home” version that lacks the database—but I was still shocked to see the price of WordPerfect Office 12—Home Edition: $69, according to a December 28, 2004 PC Magazine review. That buys WordPerfect 12, Quattro Pro 12, a task manager, Corel Photobook and Corel PhotoAlbum—and the full Norton Internet Security 2005 suite (with 3-month trial subscription), Pinnacle Instant CD/DVD disc recording, and a Britannica Ready Reference encyclopedia. The review calls it “friendlier and more usable” than the other leading MS Office competitors (StarOffice and OpenOffice), and gives it a slightly better rating than Microsoft’s closest competitor.

That competitor, MS Works Suite, has always been an odd duck—and the secret way to buy the full Microsoft Word cheap, if you don’t have an office suite and don’t do much spreadsheet or presentation work. The key word is “Suite,” and at $100 it’s more expensive than MS Works, but you’re getting the full Word—along with Works spreadsheet/database, Streets & Trips, Encarta, Money, Picture It! Premium, and a task manager.

I tried Works Suite at one point. The “database” may be adequate for my modest needs, but the spreadsheet couldn’t cut it—and I don’t demand all that much of a spreadsheet.

Quattro Pro has always been a worthy competitor to Excel. I never cared for earlier versions WordPerfect as a writing program, although it’s great way to “process words”; newer versions may be better writing tools. If what you really wanted were the MS programs, you can set the Corel programs to resemble Microsoft equivalents and save in Office formats by default. You won’t get perfect compatibility, but for most purposes you’ll be fine.

SCOTTeVEST Classic: Geek Chic!

Bill Howard at PC Magazine never lets us forget he’s a geek and proud of it. His December 28, 2004 “Gear to go” column talks about all the stuff a true presentation geek needs to be fully productive on the road. But, you know, it’s hard to cart all that stuff on a plane, and it’s hard to get at your bags once you’re on board.

I’ve been wearing an equipment vest that holds my music player, headphones, pen, cough drops, paperback novel, wallet, ticket, cell phone, tissues, and more. The most thoughtfully designed is the SCOTTeVEST classic ($130)…with some 30 interior pockets—so many that you have to remember which overlapping, zippered, Velcro pocket has your wallet… The look is somewhere between geek and safari chic, and I’m fine with that. When you get to the airport X-ray machine, you just drop the whole thing in one of the bins (it makes a big thunk) and retrieve it on the other side.

Howard also proudly carries the “largest rolling bag that fits in overhead bins (22 by 14 by 9 inches),” and I have words for people carrying those 22" bags, ones not repeatable in polite company. American (at least) recently expanded most overhead bins so that the biggest carry-on bags that fit in their sizers—21" tall—will fit nicely, wheels-in. That leaves a lot more space for bags: A 44" section can hold three bags with a little room to spare. So now I’m seeing all these bags that are just one inch too tall to fit wheels-in. Shazam: One-third of the space is shot. But Howard and his ilk do get one more inch to stuff more stuff into. Arggh…

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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