Interesting & Peculiar Products
Hockey Puck HTPC?
PC Magazine gives it an Editors’ Choice, so I’ll treat it seriously: Sony’s $3,000 VAIO VGX-TP25E. It’s designed as an HTPC—home theater PC—that is, something you’d have in your living room driving your HDTV. “Hockey puck”? That’s right: The PC itself is a 3.6” tall, 10.6” diameter cylinder—a big black hockey puck. It’s really designed for HDTV: there’s no DVI port, but there are HDMI and VGA ports. It’s energy efficient—two watts sleeping, 33 watts idling, 50 watts full power—and it’s well equipped: 2.1GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard disk, 256MB nVidia graphics card, Blu-ray burner, and two ATI Wonder digital cable tuners. Except that the tuners are in an external tower. It comes with a wireless keyboard (trackpad, no mouse) and remote control.
There are some oddities in the review. “The Blu-ray burner is tricky, as you have to lift your discs on and off a spindle in the pop-out tray, running the risk of scratching them.” Huh? At what point did slot-loading drives (which can certainly scratch disks) become ubiquitous? Both notebooks in our house have tray-loading DVD burners; so, I’d venture to say, do the bulk of all desktops and notebooks—and set-top DVD players—sold today. There’s also the oddity that the reviewer didn’t test the cable tuners, but nonetheless reports that “their functionality is a crap shoot and getting them to work can be tricky”—based on past experience with tuners in similar models. I’d never heard of guilt by association in a PC review, but times change. Let’s call this one—product and review both—interesting and peculiar. Is a giant hockey puck really more design-compatible with TVs and stereos than a rack-size receiver-like box?
Sure, the $400 Asus EeePC is a great traveler (yes, I’d love to have one if I traveled more), with two pounds travel weight, no moving parts, enough Linux power for modest work—but also a cramped keyboard and small screen, the flipside of being small and light.
The EeePC 900 is bigger in every way. That may or may not make it better. It’s $550, 2.2lb., has an 8.9”, 1024x600 pixel screen, doubles the RAM to 1GB and quintuples solid-state storage to 20GB. You can get it with XP if you’re not a Linux fan and it has a webcam built in (still, of course, no optical drive or hard disk). Still a somewhat cramped keyboard.
HP has a competitor to the Eee—or does it? I’ve seen lots of editorial coverage suggesting that ultralight inexpensive notebooks really mean something when somebody like HP arrives—but if the First Look at HP’s 2133 Mini-Note PC in the July 2008 PC Magazine is any indication, I have to wonder whether it’s the new attitude that only the biggest companies matter. The 2133 may be “stylish”—but it’s also three pounds (actually 3.2, 3.9 pounds travel weight) and $749. Oh, and the tested unit has a hard disk, not a solid-state drive. What it does share with the Eee: The keyboard is undersized (although apparently a little better than the Eee—still, touch typists will have trouble with a 92%-size keyboard) and there’s no optical drive. Otherwise, it’s 50% heavier, close to twice as expensive—but it’s from HP. (PC Magazine says it has a “spacious and sexy” screen design. Sexy? Really?)
Then there’s the Toshiba Portégé R500 (SSD). Cheap it ain’t, at $2,699. Tiny it ain’t—it has a full-size keyboard and 12” screen, and it measures 11.2x8.5x0.8”. What it is, is light for a full-size notebook: 1.7 pounds system weight, 2.4 pounds travel weight (that is, with AC adapter). It’s power-efficient enough to earn PC Magazine’s GreenTech mark (12 watts idle, 21 watts at full load). It’s not super-fast (1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo), but it’s not bad—and it comes with 1GB RAM and 64GB SSD. PC gives it 3.5 dots. So far, no machine has received both GreenTech approval and an Editors’ Choice.
This PC Magazine Editors’ Choice seems like a dandy: the $2,500 Hitachi CP-A100 digital projector. It’s compact (5.2x15.6x14”), not too heavy (12.8lbs.), and it has a bright LCD-driven image for up to a 120” screen. There’s decent built-in audio; it doesn’t do a great job on video, but it’s fine for computer-generated images.
The kicker here, though, is how well this device will work in difficult circumstances—when you need a big screen but don’t have a lot of clear real estate. The unit can project a 98” (diagonal) image from only fifteen inches away. Think about that…
How low can you go? Remembering how high HDTV prices were just a couple of years ago—and, more recently, how expensive any set with full 1080p operation was—this July 2008 Home Theater group review is a little astonishing: Three 42” LCD HDTVs, all full 1080p—and each costs $999. You’re most likely to see sets like these at Costco, but other chains may have similar sets by now (at this writing, Best Buy had two 42” 1080p LCD HDTVs, at $800 and $900 respectively, but they weren’t these brands).
The sets are from Sceptre, VIZIO and Westinghouse—and be aware that this Westinghouse is no more an old established brand than the other two. The bad news: None of these sets is good enough to compete with the best sets on the market. The good news: They’re all decent.
Since I grumble about the absurdities of much high-end audio pricing in My Back Pages, it’s only fair to mention some of the items that appear to qualify as high end without such prices. I’ve mentioned a few in MBP, I’ll mention more here as appropriate.
The Abso!ute Sound for August 2008 features the NAD C515 BEE CD Player and C315 BEE Integrated Amplifier, $299 and $349 respectively. That may sound like a lot, but $300 for an audiophile CD player is relatively inexpensive—and $350 for a 40 watt per channel (two channel) integrated amp is on the low side. NAD’s a well-known name in the field, with a solid reputation.
The current PC Magazine Editors’ Choice for a digital SLR is Nikon’s $1,800 D300—big LCD display, advanced autofocus, loads of manual settings (it comes with a 421-page user’s manual), and of course Nikon optics. $1,800 gets a body; for $2,540, you can get the body and an 18mm to 200mm lens, “likely to be the only lens you need” with its 11x zoom. It’s hefty for a digital camera, but it’s an SLR—figure 2.1lb. with battery and memory card.
PC World looks at megazoom cameras in an August 2008 article—in this case, six units with at least 10x optical zoom, costing $350 to $1,000. Unfortunately, Nikon’s new model in this category wasn’t ready, which means the roundup’s missing an important player. Of the six, the Best Buy goes to the Olympus SP-570 UZ, $500—which as an astonishing 20x optical zoom, offering the 35mm equivalent of 26mm to 520mm. It also has servo-controlled zoom, 23 scene modes, lots of manual settings if you need them, good ergonomics and superior image quality and battery life. It’s not light (19.5 ounces), but then ultrazooms can’t be all that light—all that lens and casing has to weigh something.
For security suites, Norton still gets PC Magazine’s nod—Norton 360 Version 2.0 for “a less technical person’s computer.” It’s $80 for a three-PC license.
Feel like your notebook isn’t quite fast enough? Want to sneak a little gaming in on the side? PC Magazine gives an Editors’ Choice to a neat little notebook that might fill the bill—Core 2 Extreme X9000 processor, 4GB RAM, 200GB 7200RPM hard disk, 512MB nVidia GeForce 8800M GTX graphics, 15.4” 1920x1200 screen, and really solid gaming performance. The Alienware Area-51 m15x is a little heavy, at 7.8lb. system, 9.5lb. travel—but there’s one other thing that might give you pause: It costs $4,499.
PC World’’s winners for business notebooks, as listed in the July 2008 issue, are considerably less expensive—and one of them’s a little surprising. The $1,199 Micro Express IFL9025 is tagged as best as a desktop replacement and has an 85 PCW rating. The $1,724 Lenovo ThinkPad X61 is the ultraportable choice—and it has an 84 rating. (Their definition of “ultraportable” is apparently four pounds or less.) The odd one is the “all-purpose” unit—Sony’s VAIO VGN-SZ791N. It’s by far the most expensive ($2,500) and only gets a 71 PCW rating; the specs seem closer to an ultraportable (13.3” screen, 4.0 pounds) with a beefed-up CPU.
Just how cheap can a good inkjet printer be? The Best Buy among inkjet printers (that is, single-function units) in PC World’s July 2008 roundup is the Canon Pixma iP3500—and it sells for $80. But two steps down, considerably slower on graphics printing but still speedy for text printing, there’s the Canon Pixma iP2600—and it costs $50. Not bad for a Canon. The odd part of this roundup: The final paragraph, which disses multifunction printers as a way of making single-function units look good. The writer seems to think the only things you’d ever do besides printing are “make copies or scan documents to e-mail” (really?) and says people who need to do that “may not mind wrestling with a multifunction printer’s scanner or its button-busy control panel.” Right. When I’m using it as a scanner or printer, the buttons in use on my Canon total one—the power button. It’s really hard to find that button, labeled “On/Off” and with the usual icon… And, somehow, I’ve never had to “wrestle” with the scanner. Open the cover, put the document or photo down, close the cover… So, yeah, I love the Canon Pixma line, but, thanks, I’ll pay the extra $30 or $40 and have a color scanner/copier handy as well.
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