Interesting & Peculiar Products
I love PC Magazine’s “real-world testing” articles, where someone goes out looking for inexpensive options for some piece of equipment. This time (December 26, 2006) it was portable DVD players in the $79 to $156 range, on the theory that if you’re using a player for kids in the back of an SUV, maybe a $300 device isn’t your best bet. You don’t get dot ratings in this test, but the clear favorite was also the most expensive: Magnavox MPD850 at $156, with an 8.5" screen, a full set of accessories and necessities (including two headphone jacks to keep two kids happy) and a vibrant and vivid display that may lack subtlety. Battery charging was initially a hassle, but the charged battery lasted four hours. Neither of the others ($79 and $140) sounded even mildly attractive.
What does it cost to get serious audio equipment, where “serious” is defined by aficionados and the kind of people willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an amplifier or a pair of speakers? Barry Willis, recently moved to The Abso!ute Sound from Stereophile, looks at “affordable excellence” from time to time. In the February 2007 issue, he reviews the NAD C325BEE integrated amplifier and C525BEE CD player. The former costs $400, which is higher than mass-market prices for a 50 watt per channel stereo amp but still quite reasonable. The latter: $299, ten times what you’d pay for a cheapo CD player, but not an enormous sum—and less than one-twentieth what some audiophile CD players go for. Willis gives both high marks for superb detail, tremendous dynamics, excellent soundstaging and loads of musicality. I guess I’d wonder what more most people would hear from $40,000 amplifiers and $20,000 CD players.
Bill Machrone waxes enthusiastic about this program (www.whatsrunning.net) in his February 6, 2007 PC Magazine column. The program shows pretty much everything that’s happening in your PC—processes, services, modules (DLLs). It offers tools to figure out what this stuff is and maybe what you can do about it—e.g., whether you have processes running that you don’t need. I suspect it’s a valuable tool and the price is right (free for personal use, $25 for commercial use). I added it to my system, about a one-minute download with very fast install.
So how’m I doing at the moment? Right now, I see 42 active processes (lots better than Machrone’s 88), 96 services (not all of them active and some of them possibly pointless—can I get rid of telephony services?), 12 startup items, 39 IP connections (that’s not bad, actually), 209 drivers (some of which I could probably delete)—and, tada, 364 modules (DLL). Here’s yet another way to control what runs at startup, and with the “online info” service for processes it may be a wealth of information. It could also be an enormous timewaster, to be sure. (As always, when disabling a Startup item, be damn sure you know what you’re doing, or you may wind up in Safe mode looking for a restore point.)
Sure, CRTs are on their way out (except for high-end graphics work and other areas where a CRT’s truer spectrum still counts), but there’s more to high-def than plasma and LCD flat screens. The highest-end (as in true home theaters) is still front-projection TV, where a projector can run anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000 or more. But RPTV—rear-projection TV—still plays a big role. Home Theater (February 2007) did a faceoff—a carefully controlled comparative review based on the judgments of several expert viewers—of six RPTVs offering the highest definition, 1920x1080 pixels progressive or 1080p. Sizes range from 60" to 65"; prices from $2,900 to $4,300; and—one big change in newer RPTVs—cabinets ranged from 18.8 to 23 inches deep, considerably shallower than older RPTVs with screens this large. (According to the article, prices dropped enough during the review period that the range at publication was $700 top to bottom, not $1,400.)
Most earlier RPTVs use three small CRTs. These use either DLP (TI’s “two million tiny moving mirrors on a chip” technology), LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) or one of two branded variants on LCOS, D-ILA or SXRD. All the sets offered reasonably good pictures; four offered very good or excellent pictures. Oddly enough, the most expensive set (Olevia) came out worst (sixth) in overall scoring; the second and third most expensive (Sony XBR and Mitsubishi) came out fourth and fifth. I usually expect Sony XBR to win competitions like this (I’m biased; we have a ten-year-old Sony XBR that’s still so excellent we’re delaying a move to HDTV and widescreen)—but while the set has outstanding contrast, its colors are oversaturated (typical of Sony) and its video processing wasn’t up to the competition.
The top three as rated are also the three “cheapest.” Nearly tied are Toshiba’s 62" $3,100 62MX196 DLP HDTV and JVC’s $2,900 61" HD-612FN97 D-ILA unit. I’ll admit to slight surprise at the clear winner, but maybe I shouldn’t be surprised: Samsung’s 61" $3,300 HL-S6188W DLP unit offers accurate color and very good video processing. There’s one problem, although it probably makes Samsung look good in showrooms: The set’s way too bright for normal nighttime use (they call it “eye-watering” and “headache-inducing”) and there’s no user-accessible light output control. Anyone buying this set should pay a couple hundred extra for professional ISF calibration (calibrators have access to a special menu that can lower the light); otherwise, wait for a model with an iris or adjustments—or watch in a well-lit room.
This subsection replaces PC Progress. This installment includes material (beginning October 2006) that was waiting for the next PC Progress.
How small can a desktop computer be? This mini-roundup [P25:16] reviews six “mini PCs.” Best of the lot is the $1,200 Winbook Jiv Mini, a snazzy and very unobtrusive little box that’s reasonably well equipped: 1GB RAM, Intel Core Duo processor, 100GB disk, dual-layer DVD burner, and a TV tuner. It comes with a wireless keyboard but no screen. This being the new and “improved” PC, they don’t bother to mention the dimensions of the Editors’ Choice mini PC; going online shows it’s 9x8x1.7" and includes DVI, component, S-video and composite video output—and integrated wi-fi and Bluetooth.
An extensive PC World roundup (January 2007) covers “cheap PCs,” reviewing 14 systems costing $489 to $999 (including monitor) and rating the “top 10.” Best Buy, rated considerably higher than the second unit: Micro Express’ $999 MicroFlex 668, with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 dual-core CPU, 2GB RAM, 250GB hard disk, 256MB ATI Radeon X1600 graphics and a 17" Viewsonic LCD. I’d take the advice of the “Smart PC shopping tips” right after the roundup: Upgrade the LCD to a 19" (or larger) screen for $100 or so, since that’s apparently the only cut corner of this otherwise well-equipped unit.
The Best Buy among desktop replacement notebooks in PC World’s January 2007 “top 10” feature has one unusual feature, shared by the second-place unit: an HD DVD-ROM drive, so you can play (but not record) high-def video. The $2,530 HP Pavilion dv9000t records all varieties of standard-definition DVD, including dual-layer and DVD-RAM, has a 17" screen and weighs 8 pounds.
Tablet PCs never grabbed a huge share of the market but they’re still around, almost always now in convertible form (notebooks with keyboards where you can swivel the screen around and make it a touch-sensitive tablet). A February 6, 2007 PC Magazine mini-roundup includes five products across a huge price range; Editors’ Choice is the $2,299 Lenovo ThinkPad X60 Tablet, with an Intel Core Duo CPU, 1GB RAM, builtin EV-DO wireless, and seven-hour battery life (by putting the optical drive in the dock rather than the unit itself). It also includes a fingerprint reader and an accelerometer to determine screen orientation.
This PC Magazine roundup is actually a “real-world testing” feature: Photo-printing options, rating online services, store kiosks and portable photo printers. Editors’ Choice goes to the online Sony ImageStation service, which offers very cheap prints ($0.10 for 4x6 prints), cheap postage ($1.19) and very good print quality. dotPhoto, Shutterfly and Snapfish all tied for second place. In terms of dot ratings, two portable printers tied with Sony ImageStation, but they’re more expensive to use ($0.27 and $0.29 per print).
A PC Magazine digital camera piece covers 13 point-and-shoot cameras costing $180 to $550. The $180 Kodak EasyShare C533 is “a decent choice for budget shoppers” but comes in 11th out of 13. The Editors’ Choice is also the most expensive camera: the $550 Canon PowerShot S80, an 8MP camera with 3.6x zoom. It’s light (7.9oz.), has a “beautiful” 2.5" LCD screen (and a glass viewfinder) and takes excellent photos.
The February 20, 2007 PC Magazine features nine “superzooms,” cameras with at least a 10x zoom range, one of which is only $330. Editors’ Choices are the $400 Panasonic DMC-FZ7 and $650 Panasonic DMC-FZ50, both of which have 12x zoom range. The more expensive Lumix DMC-FZ50 has 10MP resolution and “D-SLR-like quality and performance.”
“Digital entertainment systems” may be a peculiar product category. The six-system mini-roundup in the December 5, 2005 PC Magazine doesn’t clarify things all that much. The review awards three Editors’ Choices for three very different not-very-thoroughly-described units. For the Niveus Media Center Rainier Edition 750, a “nearly silent digital entertainment system in an A/V-rack-friendly case” (which looks like a stereo amp or oversize DVD player, with a wireless keyboard and remote), the story is a reasonably powerful dual-core PC with an HD DVD player (there are no HD DVD recorders yet) and a 750GB hard disk. The summary says “’Nuff said”—but at $5,499 without a display, I’d like to hear a little more: Why is it so expensive? I might even ask the same question about the HP z565 Digital Entertainment Center at $2,999 (again looking like a black stereo amp, again without a display), but at least it’s got 2GB RAM, two regular and one HDTV tuners, both a 500GB internal and 300GB removable hard drive—but no high-definition drive. The third one’s not so expensive at $2000: Sony VAIO VGX-XL2 Digital Living System, a “two-part cube” with a Media Center PC and a 200-disc CD/DVD jukebox. Strangest of the lot (and lowest-rated, with a “stay away” note): the bright yellow $3,407 Maingear Prysma, a “full-fledged digital entertainment system” shaped like a pyramid. Maybe it keeps your data fresher or sharpens your MP3 tunes?
PC World’s March 2007 issue includes an extended “Jukebox in your pocket” article, testing 21 portable audio players (some of which also play video). As usual, they only provide full results for the “top X”—in this case, the top five flash players and the top five players with hard disks. For flash players, the $140 Creative Zen Plus beats out Apple’s iPod Nano and gets the only Very Good score of the bunch; while the $140 model only has 2GB RAM (for 4GB you pay $180) and the sound quality isn’t quite up to the iPod, it includes FM, voice recording and video; it’s well-designed and flexible. Among hard disk players, Apple’s $249 30GB iPod gets the Best Buy but has the same score as the $250 Creative Zen VisionM.
PC Magazine for February 20, 2007 gives a full-page review and Editors’ Choice rating to Canon’s $400 Pixma MP960 Photo All-in-One, identified as a “photo lab AIO.” It’s a three-function (no fax) and doesn’t have a document feeder—but it does offer 35mm film scanning and can print directly from film as well as the usual PictBridge cameras and memory cards. It duplexes, has text quality very nearly equal to laser printers and produces true photo quality prints. It’s not the fastest printer around.
I’m surprised there are so many dedicated photo printers—units that only print photos, typically 4x6 (sometimes 5x7 or panoramic). PC Magazine reviews six in the March 6, 2007 issue, finding three of the six worthy of Editors’ Choices. The $300 Epson PictureMate Flash not only produces high-quality waterproof prints quickly, it incorporates a CD burner, so you can either print photos from CD or DVD or burn a set of photos from a memory card to a CD-R/RW. For $200, HP’s Photosmart A716 includes a 4GB hard disk and can create slide shows to watch on TV—and if money is an issue, the $100 HP Photosmart A516 is compact, cheap, and includes software to analyze photos and correct the most common problems.
A PC World roundup rates five antispyware programs, starting with one of those “you’re all doomed” sentences: “The question is when, not if, adware and spyware will strike your PC.” Depending on how broadly you define “adware,” that’s probably true for any PC with internet access, but it’s not a given (especially with Firefox 2 and IE7). Still, you should be using antispyware. I’m happy enough to see the Best Buy: Webroot Spy Sweeper, which I’ve been using for some time now.* The same rules apply as for antivirus software: Don’t have two of these programs both set for real-time protection: They’ll interfere with each other and drive you crazy. But you can certainly use a second program for occasional scans. (*No longer true: ZoneAlarm is my regular spyware blocker, with a Spy Sweeper sweep once in a while.)
PC Magazine’s roundup of antispyware software includes a dozen programs. Spy Sweeper gets one of two Editors’ Choices; the other goes to PC Tools’ Spyware Doctor 4.0. A February 6 roundup covers six “alternative antispyware” products—ones that rely primarily on techniques other than signature detection, and can be used alongside mainstream products. Primary Response SafeConnect 2.1 gets the Editors’ Choice; it costs $24.95 a year and looks for “unusual activity.”
PC Magazine’s December 5, 2006 roundup of PC security suites comes up with two Editors’ Choices—a result I find personally interesting since that’s just about the point at which I switched from an earlier version of one (Norton) to the other (ZoneAlarm), because Norton had become so intrusive and slow. Apparently, Norton’s improved quite a bit for 2007, particularly in the firewall department—but ZoneAlarm still gets a higher firewall rating. Norton’s a touch better for anti-spyware and antivirus; the two tie overall. Weakest? McAfee.
I’m a little surprised to see a roundup of standalone DVD recorders in PC World (January 2007). Wouldn’t most PC owners use a $60 builtin burner instead of a less flexible $340 to $700 standalone drive? If you’re in the market, the good news is that these recorders (all of which include hard disks; they’re DVRs with DVD burners) all offer high quality video. All but one of the five in this roundup also handle DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW; the Toshiba is both the priciest and least flexible (it doesn’t handle the “+” formats). The Best Buy pretty clearly is one—the $399 Pioneer DVR-640H-S not only handles the four major recordable formats, it also records dual-layer disks and DVD-RAM and the remote control includes a commercial-skip button. The hard disk is 160GB, more than adequate for a non-HDTV unit.
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