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


Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 9: July/August 2005


Interesting & Peculiar Products

If you believe some pundits, the iPod Shuffle is the wave of the future—random bits of entertainment to satisfy the universal attention deficit disorder of the next generation. Some of us, maybe most of us, do wish to choose the songs we listen to. That can be tough on a 20-50GB player with thousands of tracks.

According to the March 22, 2005 PC Magazine, Gracenote and ScanSoft plan to solve this problem with voice command. ScanSoft makes Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the leading speech recognition software. Gracenote runs the biggest CD track identification database; iTunes uses Gracenotes information (as do other music players).

Can the companies get speaker-independent voice recognition to work well enough, on sufficiently inexpensive and compact circuitry, so that you could say, “Play a mix of Sade and INXS” and have it work? Or, as suggested in the story, could you be listening to the Meat Puppets, say “more like this,” and get a mix of Minutemen and Bob Mould songs? (I have no idea who any of these groups are, but that’s the example in the story). I won’t say it’s impossible—and the mistakes might be as interesting as the real choices.

iPoser

“Desperate to join the iPod club, but just don’t have the coin to be that trendy?” That’s the lead for a brief “new products” blurb for the iPoser—“its casing exactly matches the iPod’s, except it’s all casing—the iPoser is completely hollow.” You can get an iPoser Mini (in all colors) or even a fake first-generation iPod. “The ersatz iPod’s LCD screen lights up, lets you browse menus—the only catch is it won’t store or play music of any kind.” But the cavity where the works would be is “a good place to hold loose change and breath mints.”

Best of all is the price: $15 regular, $10 for the iPoser Mini.

It does pay to notice one thing: This blurb is in the bottom right hand corner of the “New products” pages in Sound & Vision April 2005. That feature has included a very special (and hard to find!) product in almost every April issue for quite a few years.

Big TVs

That same Sound & Vision had a pair of comparative reviews for different approaches to big-screen HDTV. The first comparison reviews four LCD front-projection units—like data projectors, but higher resolution—costing $2,995 to $3,999. The $3,500 Sony Cineza VPL-HS51 may be the best of the lot; it’s a 12.5-pound box with excellent picture quality.

The next article also reviews front projectors—but these are units you can buy for $1,500 or less. They’re not as bright and have fewer features and connections—and they’re all EDTV, either 800x600 or 854x480, as opposed to true HDTV (1280x720 on the $3K units). If you’re watching DVDs, that makes no difference, since they don’t deliver more than 480 pixels vertically. Of the three, the $1,299 InFocus ScreenPlay 4805, InFocus’ cheapest front projector, gets the best review. With any of these big-screen front units, you need to buy a screen as well, and should plan for a truly dark room for proper viewing. On the other hand, if you want a 100"-diagonal picture, front projection is the only way to go.

Improving Portable Audio

I’ve seen several articles full of snazzy products trying to ride the iPod’s coattails—portable speakers, FM transmitters for your car radio, wildly expensive devices so you can make the iPod the center of your home music system. One Slate article (from February 4, 2005) is charming: “Portable audio for snobs.” Evan Cornog notes how much he hated the sound quality of an iPod and MP3 players in general, then tries out four current players and a bunch of add-on products. The choice of player doesn’t affect the sound quality much, although that’s not entirely true: as Bill Machrone has found through serious testing, some MP3 players just can’t reproduce full-spectrum sound cleanly because of poor audio circuitry, while others—apparently including the iPod shuffle—do a great job through quality headphones. Cornog notes the need to encode music properly and choose good headphones—and more than anything, that a good headphone amp can transform a player.

He suggests using a lossless format for best sound (and says regular CDs still sound better). As with other writers, he likes Shure’s E5c ($499) and E3c ($179) in-ear-canal phones, with the $130 Sennheiser PCX250 noise-canceling phones a good approach for those who don’t like in-ear phones. He really likes HeadRoom’s separate headphone amps (the $269 Total BitHead and $729 Cosmic), which optionally blend channels a bit to make headphones sound more like speakers, and the BitHead isn’t all that large (larger than your player, though).

Firefox Addons

You’ve probably heard by now that Firefox isn’t vandal-proof, although its lack of deep integration with Windows gives it a headstart. Vulnerable or not, it’s the first Internet Explorer alternative in years to have serious market impact—and it’s also a fruitful platform for extensions, as discussed in a “First Looks” roundup in the April 12, 2005 PC Magazine (which notes that 20% of www.pcmag.com visitors use Firefox). Fifteen items described range from About site 0.1.1, which provides a range of site information such as Alexa traffic, Whois, Technorati references and stored copies on the Internet Archive, to Cards 0.16.1, a set of 27 solitaire games played in new pop-up windows. The list includes Firefox versions of some of the usual suspects such as GoogleBar.

Little Things Cost a Lot

Home Theater occasionally runs a “Premiere Design” piece—two pages of big photos and breathless prose about “a product that is as visually intriguing as it is technically advanced.” For May 2005, it’s the Goldmund Logos Mini speaker system, which looks like a little (10.6x7.9x8.7") blue box with some sort of black ears, suspended over a slightly larger white or aluminum box with a gold plate on it. It’s hard to tell for sure: The photographs are so artsy that they don’t communicate very well.

The text is revealing, sort of. There’s a claim of reproduction from 50Hz to 22KHz, with no test results. The blue box (aluminum) has a dome tweeter and a 5.1" “woofer” while the bigger box is a powered “subwoofer” with a 9.8" woofer and a matching passive cone. OK, so it’s an interestingly designed compact speaker system. It costs $24,350. The magazine says, “You’d better believe it’s worth every franc.” (It’s from Switzerland, thus the currency reference.) I’d love to see test reports, particularly ones that could plausibly justify that price. Not that it matters…

TV or PC?

Sony seems to have raised the all-in-one bar with the VAIO VGC-V520G, good enough for an Editors’ Choice “First Looks” review in the April 26, 2005 PC Magazine. It looks like a 20" widescreen Sony LCD TV, and it includes a TV tuner, but the screen’s backed by a 3.2GHz Pentium4, 1GB DDR SDRAM, 250GB hard disk, nVidia GeForce FX Go5700 graphics and a dual-layer multiformat DVD burner. In addition to Wndows XP, it includes Sony VAIO Media and VAIO Zone packages, to handle media and feed stuff to other VAIO systems on your home network. Full DVR functionality comes standard. The keyboard and mouse are wireless and there’s a remote control, naturally. At $2,699, it’s not cheap and it’s small for a TV, but if you’re short of space, it looks to be a good way to combine media center and PC functions in a single stylish box.

The Photo Burner

Here’s an odd one that makes sense for avid digital photographers, earning its PC Magazine Editors’ Choice: The $299 Aleratec Digital Photo Copy Cruiser Plus (reviewed in the April 26, 2005 issue). It’s a portable standalone CD burner with eight-format photo cardreaders built in; it will run on rechargeable batteries and write your photos to a CD with a single click. It’s also a DVD player with NTSC and PAL (TV) output and Video CD, MP3, WAV, MPEG, and JPEG playback capabilities. Attach it to a PC, and you have a standard CD rewriter and cardreaders. It comes with a full-featured remote and a collection of software.

Media Players: Detail, Please?

I’m not in the market for a $500-$750 media player, but if I was, I’d find the situation frustrating, particularly from the best PC-related reviewing source around, PC Magazine. Quite apart from the continuing issue of actually testing sound quality, the reviews offer varying and incomplete levels of crucial detail.

Consider two media player “First Look” reviews in the May 10, 2005 PC Magazine—both by Bill Machrone, both earning Editors’ Choice honors. The Archos PMA430 ($750) has a 30GB disk, serves as a multimedia player and recorder, PDA, wireless Web browser, and game machine. It weighs 10oz. and has a 3.6" color screen. So far so good—but what’s the resolution of that screen? What’s the size of the unit?

Right below that is the review for Epson’s $500 P-2000. This one has a 3.8" screen with 640x480 resolution, which is remarkable (that’s 212dpi, the best I’ve heard of for LCD). It has card slots for SD and CompactFlash memory, AV outputs so you can play back on your TV, and it can play MP3 and AAC audio. The review refers to its “heft”—but there’s no weight given. There’s also no indication of the hard disk capacity or size. Too bad.

Etching Your DVDs

BenQ’s $119 DW1625 LightScribe is one of the new DVD burners with HP’s LightScribe technology built in. That means you can etch the label for a DVD (or CD?) directly onto the disc itself, flipping the newly-burned disc over, inserting it back into the tray, and using the drive’s laser to burn the image.

Maybe this is a wonderful idea. The May 10, 2005 PC Magazine review says the image isn’t that dark, you can only get black, and it took 23 to 25 minutes to etch four lines of text with a few small graphics—and HP admits that the labels will fade.

Here’s what I find odd, earlier in the review:

…it’s not nearly as easy to create a picture-perfect label for that same disc. Scrawling song titles with a marker is a primitive solution, and printing directly onto the surface of a disc requires specially designed printers and media.

Maybe I’m lucky, but I’ve been using Fellowes/NEATO CD labels for more than two years now and I’ve never had a problem with them. They take a beautiful image on a good inkjet printer, the applicator’s not hard to use, and so far I haven’t seen any peeling. I wouldn’t use them for archival CDs, but they’re relatively cheap, fast to print, and look great.

But let’s assume that labels are out. Epson sells ink jet printers and multifunction printers, some as low as $100, that print directly onto the label surface of a disc. You have to buy printable discs, to be sure, and they’re more expensive than regular blank CDs and DVDs. But that also gives you full-color printing. As for “specially designed media”—well, guess what? You can’t use LightScribe on just any blank; it has to be a specially-coated blank. One that’s likely to be more expensive than printable blanks, since it’s a smaller market.

Surround Sound from One Box

Yamaha’s YSP-1 Digital Sound Projector costs $1,500, measures 40.5x7.75x4.6", weighs 28.75 pounds, should mount nicely beneath a wall-mounted big-screen TV—and contains forty tweeters and two “woofers,” along with a whole bunch of amplifiers. It’s a single box designed to provide full five-channel surround sound, handling Dolby Digital and DTS as well as Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS Neo:6 to derive surround sound from stereo recordings. The May 2005 Sound & Vision carries a three-page test report on the device, which uses digital signal processing on its many speakers to create “sound beams” bouncing off your room’s walls to provide surround sound. Necessarily for something that replaces a surround receiver and five speaker systems, but oddly for a speaker system, it includes a remote control.

How well does it work? Fairly well, according to Ken Pohlmann’s report, if you’re willing to spend the time to tune it to your room. An interesting concept.

“The World’s Best HDTV?”

Another Sound & Vision report (May 2005) asks that question about Sony’s Qualia 006—and although I haven’t seen it, there’s some reason to believe that it sets a new standard for non-CRT rear-projection TV quality. It’s based on SXRD, Sony’s variant on LCoS, a display technology that should avoid the screen-door effect you can get on LCD displays and provide almost as much black and color gamut as CRTs. It’s true high-def, with 1920x1080 resolution (1280x720 is more typical), and the test report says it’s a stunner. As “thin” rear-projection sets go, it’s neither that thin nor particularly light, at 273 pounds and 24.75" depth—but then, it is a 70" picture! Oh yes, there’s a little matter of the price: $13,000.

Smart Water?

Huh? That’s my reaction to a February 10 Freedom to tinker item and the Bruce Schneier comment that it comments on. Seems that there is something called “SmartWater.” Each bottle has a unique tag and tagging elements (e.g., microdots) that stick to an object when you spray SmartWater on it. Theoretically, you spray your stuff with SmartWater; if it’s stolen, the police can use the tags to identify you as the owner—and as “proof” that it was stolen.

Bruce Schneier had a “better idea”: “paint it on your [that is, someone else’s] valuables, and then call the police.” Edward Felten noted this but goes on:

The fact that an item has Bruce’s tag on it doesn’t prove that the item belongs to Bruce, but it does prove that SmartWater from Bruce’s bottle has been near the object [if the tags have good anti-forgery protection]. If Bruce is your neighbor, and he has been in your house recently, then the presence of his tags on your valuables means little. On the other hand, if there is no apparent connection between you and Bruce, and an item locked in the safe in your house has his tags on it, and he was known to own an item like that which he has reported stolen, then you have some explaining to do.

The stuff does exist and has been in use in the UK for some time. You can find the website readily enough. It’s not that expensive (£50 per year for a home-and-vehicle package, which works out to about $87 as of mid-July). There’s a guarantee of sorts (if you post the warning labels)—but not to replace your stolen property. Nope: You get one year’s license fee back if your marked stuff disappears.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 9, Whole Issue 65, 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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