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2004 Laptop Guide

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TechNews.com Tech Policy E-letter You are reading the weekly Fast Forward E-letter. Written by Washington Post personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro, the e-mail version of this feature includes links to all the top personal tech stories from the previous week.
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_____Recent E-letters_____
Laptop Questions and Answers (washingtonpost.com, Jul 19, 2004)
Answering Your Linux Questions (washingtonpost.com, Jul 6, 2004)
Digital Copyright Blues (washingtonpost.com, Jun 28, 2004)
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Monday, July 12, 2004;

It's been a few weeks, so we should have plenty of things to talk about during my Web chat at 2 p.m. ET today. Between digital radio, Linux and the state of the laptop market, I anticipate a pretty full hour of questions and answers. Submit questions early if you can't stop by during the hour.

The laptops story, one of our annual summer features, was an interesting experience this time around. I had never had two major manufacturers (IBM and Sony) outright decline to participate in a review. Both offered the same basic reason: We won't have hardware available in time for your deadline that meets your criteria.

I'm sorry things worked out that way. Sony's Vaio S series seems like an interesting design, filling the void left in Sony's lineup when it replaced the moderately priced Vaio 505 with the extremely expensive X505. I suspect the latest ThinkPad T series laptops would have fared well in this roundup as well.

This review was also interesting to edit because of all the trouble we had getting properly configured review units. Three of the five machines shipped with a different software bundle than what was advertised, forcing my reviewers to play what-if games when writing their evaluations. PR people, please, please, please try to ensure that review hardware matches what ordinary customers will buy. Otherwise, what's the point of running a review at all?


Toshiba's Satellite A75-S206 is one of five models reviewed in this year's laptop guide. (Courtesy Toshiba)

Check out my column, Mike Musgrove's overview article on the state of laptop innovation, and our individual reviews of five models.

Now, about that Linux column I did two weeks ago....

I was right in most of my guesses in last week's newsletter about the e-mail I'd get -- except for the messages complaining about two errors in the piece. Drat!

First, when I wrote that none of the three distributions I reviewed could be installed next to most Windows systems, I was wrong -- both Mandrake and SuSE can partition a current Windows installation (i.e., one that uses the "NTFS" hard-disk format), although some caveats do apply. Second, Red Hat is based in Raleigh, not Chapel Hill, N.C. The correction on that ran in Wednesday's paper.

The Linux review also sparked an extensive discussion at Slashdot, a widely read tech-news site. The first postings were, um, scathing, but as the conversation continued it got more balanced. Here's my own contribution to it.

I'm of two minds about all the attention this one column has received. On one hand, it can get a little boring to read hundreds of e-mails when so many of them make the same point, and not always very intelligently or articulately. (I was actually relieved to see some spam break up the monotony Monday night.)

On the other hand, now that I've found this simple way to boost my readership, I will be dropping the word "Linux" into my stories at every opportunity. Linux, Linux, Linux!

Another Important Mozilla Update

I don't mean to make the Mozilla family of browsers and e-mail clients (Mozilla, Firefox, Thunderbird, Camino) a regular feature here, but this week brought yet another update. Three new Windows releases -- Mozilla 1.7.1, Mozilla Firefox 0.9.2 and Mozilla Thunderbird 0.7.2 -- fix a security vulnerability in earlier releases. (Camino, a Mac OS X-only browser, was unaffected, as were the Linux versions of these three programs.)

The vulnerability arose because these programs, when presented with the right kind of link, would ask Windows to handle whatever awaited at the other end of that link. This could let a malicious Web site instruct Windows to run a particular program; in the right circumstance, a Web site could cause that program to crash with a "buffer overflow" error. To spare you the technical details: That's bad.

A more detailed explanation of this issue, along with links to these new versions and a patch that will fix older versions, is available at mozilla.org/security/shell.html.

Mac users may note that this situation isn't too different from a security vulnerability in Mac OS X that I wrote about a few weeks back. Both cases also involve a similar root cause: Building in more functionality than is strictly necessary.

So after writing at such great length about the security flaws of Internet Explorer, am I disappointed to see Mozilla-based browsers revealed to have their own issues? Of course. But I can't say I'm surprised either. Every program will have bugs. What counts is the severity of the problems these bugs cause, and how quickly the bugs are fixed.

-- Rob Pegoraro (rob@twp.com)

P.S. I wrote a few weeks back that I planned to go into some reader questions about digital radio, but I'm still waiting on a response from my contact at HD Radio. So please watch this space.


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