Interesting & Peculiar Products
Here’s a case where I don’t know what to make of a product—and might not even after there have been some reviews, given the market it’s aiming for. Burwen Bobcat is software, a plugin for Windows Media Player. According to an early writeup in the October 2006 Abso!ute Sound, it’s “a proprietary, patent-pending, computation-intensive process…that does three things: It applies a new form of rapid, high-frequency reverberation... Bobcat restores the leading edges of transients to their original steepness. Bobcat can…apply extremely precise equalization adjustment optimized for various types of material. Overall, the idea is to create audio waveforms that more closely resemble those that originate from high-quality analog recorders (but without the associated noise).”
The claims are where things get dicey. Mark Levinson (a high-end audio person) claims Bobcat turns 128K MP3 files into “sound quality on a par with, if not better than, that of SACDs”—and that it will turn files ripped from CDs (without compression) into “the finest digital audio sound he has yet heard—sound he likens to that of analog master tape.”
Does it work? To date, I haven’t read any reviews (but I’m behind on reading). It’s not cheap: Figure a minimum of $1,500, bundled with hardware. It’s designed to appeal to high-end audiophiles. I question whether you can restore the quality lost in 128K MP3s, but then I don’t much believe in magic.
Will reviews tell the story? That’s hard to say. High-end audio magazines have run a few too many reviews praising the huge, unmistakable, “anyone with ears can hear them” effects of such miracle cures as freezing your CDs, marking the edges of CDs with green ink, putting coins in certain points on top of speakers, having special clocks somewhere in the listening room [I am not making this up], setting stones or blocks of wood (but only the right stones or wood) on components, demagnetizing vinyl recordings…the list goes on and on. I’m not quite ready to say that some high-end reviewers manage to hear whatever they think they should hear…
Meanwhile, expect a followup when there are loads of reviews. Maybe. I can think of better things to do with $1,500, and in any case my ears aren’t golden enough, although I can certainly hear the loss in 128K MP3 and, even more easily, sense the listening fatigue of low-bitrate audio.
Sure, it’s an oxymoron, but the name suggests what these are: Big flash drives intended to replace hard disks. An October 2006 PC World piece discusses Samsung’s new 32GB SSD (solid state drive), which is already in a Japanese Samsung notebook (not yet available in the U.S.). As the article notes, “32GB may not satisfy multimedia addicts, but it’s plenty for average business users”—at least until Vista comes along!
Initially, these drives are designed for portable devices. They’re too expensive for desktop PCs, given that the memory alone costs about $16 per gigabyte, with integration adding to that. PC World tested the Samsung SSD against two contemporary 5400RPM notebook drives from Seagate (one with perpendicular recording, one longitudinal). Since most notebook drives are 5400RPM or slower (as opposed to desktop drives, mostly 7200RPM, some faster), that’s a sensible comparison—and for most tests, the SSD was faster. Much faster for finding a file and running Nero Express; just a bit faster for booting up (35 seconds rather than 42) and copying files and folders.
The SSD is a lot more expensive but does have some selling points: It’s silent, light, shock resistant—and it draws very little power.
Both figuratively (Intel’s Core 2 Duo dual-CPU chip produces fast results) and literally: The base of one “laptop” reached 114 degrees in PC Magazine testing—and they found temperatures as high as 120°F in one case. Right now, these notebooks are mostly for gamers; one good choice appears to be Dell’s XPS M1710, which costs $3,789 (ouch!) but gets very good test results. It’s loaded, with 2GB RAM, 512MB graphics RAM, a 100GB 7,200RPM disk (relatively unusual for a notebook), a DVD burner, and a 17" widescreen display—but it also weighs just under nine pounds and has mediocre battery life (2 hours 23 minutes).
At the opposite end of the price scale, the same November 7, 2007 PC Magazine that gives an Editors’ Choice to the Dell XPS M1710 includes a “real-world testing” look at laptops you can buy for less than $600. It’s an interesting story with an odd lot of machines, including a “GQ” (Fry’s Electronics house brand) that cost $349 and is mostly a joke to enable a cheapo ad price—the sales reps didn’t want to sell him the unit. Not surprising: the CPU is pathetically slow (it’s a VIA, intended for embedded devices and consumer electronics), the hard disk runs at 4,200 RPM, it took four to six times as long to run benchmarks as a typical laptop—and the battery lasted about 90 minutes. There was one winner: Gateway’s $579 MX6214, with a 1.67GHz Celeron CPU, 512MB RAM (the others had 256MB, barely enough to run Windows XP with “shared” graphics memory), a 15.4" display, a DVD burner, an 80GB 5,400RPM hard disk, close to three hours battery life, and performance not too much slower than a $1,000 notebook.
With the demise of PC Progress, this subsection will feature products that are interesting primarily because either PC Magazine or PC World regards them as the best choices among similar products at the time of review—the products receive either Editors’ Choice (PC Magazine) or Best Buy (PC World) awards. I won’t include every such product, but will include those I think worth noting.
For really big computer displays, PC World (November 2006) favors the $719 Dell UltraSharp 2407WFP, with impressive scores across the board, a wide range of adjustments and connections, support for HDCP, and a relatively low price. Or you could spend $2,749 for an Apple 24" display—but that one happens to have a powerful Mac built in, with a Core 2 Duo T7600, webcam, 500GB hard disk, and other goodies; the November 21, 2006 PC Magazine gives it an Editors’ Choice. One oddity: Photshop runs almost twice as fast on the iMac 24" under Windows as it does under OS X!
Digital cameras can be divided into several overlapping segments. PC World uses “advanced” for cameras that fall between point-and-shoot and digital SLRs. Best Buy in a November 2006 roundup is the $285 Fujifilm FinePix S5200; it’s only 5 megapixels, but it has a 10:1 opltical zoom and great battery life—and yes, it has “superior” image quality. PC Magazine awards simultaneous Editors’ Choices to two digital SLRs, the $799 Canon Eos Digital Rebel XTi and $1000 Nikon D80—both body only, add $100 to $300 for a lens. Both offer 10MP performance and quality images; both are for serious photographers.
I’m a little surprised that HP’s LightScribe technology (which allows you to burn a monochrome label directly onto specially formulated recordable CDs and DVDs, using the laser itself to create the label) has proliferated as much as it has. A November 2006 PC World roundup of DVD drives finds LightScribe on two of the five internal and three of the five external burners, including the two Best Buys: the $85 LG Electronics GSA-H10L internal drive and the $75 Samsung SE-S164L external burner. I’m astonished that you can buy a 16x name-brand dual-layer multiformat DVD burner for $75, much less one with LightScribe; it even comes with Nero Express. Oh, and both drives are truly multiformat, handling every DVD and CD format including DVD-RAM.
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