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Transcript

Holiday Tech Buying Guide

Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Monday, December 20, 2004; 2:00 PM

Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro hosted the final discussion on The Washington Post's holiday tech buying guide and answered your personal tech questions. He also talked about his latest column, which offered tips on keeping a Windows PC safe.

A transcript follows.

Rob Pegoraro (The Post)

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Want to know what upcoming topics are being covered? Sign up for Fast Forward e-letter -- get updated information on personal technology news and product demos. Read past editions of Rob's e-letter online here.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Rob Pegoraro: Welcome to my last chat for 2004. I'm taking questions on holiday gadget shopping, and the lines are open now...

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Washington, D.C.: Nice column yesterday. Have a question about the one below it about spyware by Wayne Rash. Does Norton not have an anti-spyware program? I have Spybot but don't really want Ad-Aware since it didn't work well with Norton on my old computer. I'd hope that Norton would have something that would integrate well with their Internet Security program.

Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Finding and Snuffing Out Spyware (Dec. 19, 2004)

Rob Pegoraro: The Norton security suite does not include an anti-spyware component. Big oversight on Symantec's part.

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Los Gatos, Calif.: Since new PCs get attacked within 20 minutes of connecting to the internet, how can they download SP2 or any other update without getting infected in the process?

washingtonpost.com: New Computer? Six Steps to Safer Surfing (Dec. 19, 2004)

Rob Pegoraro: That's why I tell people to turn on the firewall before they do anything else--a firewall will stop those incoming attacks.

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Brampton, Ont.: I'm finally into digital photography. I am downloading my old family pictures to DVD. This Christmas during family gathering it would be nice to print out a few choice pics for family and friends without going to the mall. I want to spend no more than $200-300. What to look for in this price range? Also can you do a review of photo printers soon.

washingtonpost.com: Digitized and Brought to Life (December 19, 2004)

Rob Pegoraro: $200-$300 is a good budget to have for a digital camera. Look for something that has:

* at least 3 megapixels of resolution

* at least a 3x optical zoom

* CompactFlash or SD Card storage

* if possible, AA batteries (a set of rechargeables costs much less than the proprietary batteries a lot of cameras use).

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Vienna, Va.: On impulse, I bought MS Digital Image Suite 10 this weekend as a gift for my wife ($70 after rebate). I just read the Post review which put this s/w second to Adobe Elements 3.0 and now I have post-purchase jitters. Should I order Adobe (and possibly miss the x-mas delivery window) or relax and keep the MS product as being good enough? We have only used the bundled Dell imaging s/w with our Canon Elf (3.2 MP) so this would be our first intensive experience into editing pics. Thanks for the help!

Rob Pegoraro: I would go with Photoshop Elements myself. If you haven't unwrapped the Microsoft product, return that. But don't order Elements... just pick it up at any store. (Say, the Micro Center down the street in the Pan Am shopping center.)

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Honolulu: I tried your suggestion to use firefox and was disappointed because it does not work with my electronic edition of the Washington Post. Will that be fixed?

washingtonpost.com: Firefox Leaves No Reason to Endure Internet Explorer (Nov. 14, 2004)

Rob Pegoraro: You mean the downloadable paper we sell? Not sure why that doesn't work in Firefox, and, not knowing any of the details about how it's put together, I can't tell you why that's so. But it's something that we should fix. As a Post employee, I'm decidedly opposed to this operation doing things that make it harder for willing customers to pay us money, and putting out a product that only works in one browser counts as one of those things.

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washingtonpost.com: Tech Buying Guide: Cameras

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Vienna, Va.: Have not seen any weigh in on XM receivers. Any thoughts on the Roady 2 vs Myfi? They seem to be priced about the same. Did you test either?

Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Satellite Radio That's Well Received (Dec. 12, 2004)

Rob Pegoraro: We just reviewed the MyFi and found it a bit... well, nerdy. I would get the Roady2 myself. It's a lot cheaper.

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Rockville, Md.: Can you comment on the safety of using PayPal? There are several websites that preach against using it.

Rob Pegoraro: PayPal is safe. I've used it for years in all my eBay transactions, and to send money to friends. Never had a problem. PayPal's chief issue is one of public image--so many phishing scams try to exploit it.

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Warren, N.J.: I can not come to today's chat due to meeting conflicts. If there is a way you can point me to some DIY documents on how to upgrade my Dell D800 laptop to a Windows Media Center 2005, it would be great.

Thanks and regards,Joe

Rob Pegoraro: You can't--Media Center isn't sold directly to customers, only to computer manufacturers.

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Pelahatchie, Miss.: My computer will not go on line with my electric fence on.

Rob Pegoraro: What??

Sorry, I've got nothin' here...

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Waco, Tex.: Read your column on 6 steps to safer surfing. On my Windows 98SE 4.10.2222 control panel, I find "network", not Network Connections" and I don't find anything there to click on for my cable connection. Is there really a firewall for this older operating system?

Rob Pegoraro: No, there isn't a firewall built into Win 98. You'll have to download somebody else's--try ZoneAlarm (www.zonelabs.com)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Rob, love the chats.

Just a comment on last week's discussion of getting mp3 players to work in your car.

Aiwa and JVC car stereos both come standard with front auxiliary inputs. You can get a good Aiwa model installed at places like Circuit City for around 99 bucks.

I had this done and I feel it's worth it, to get a direct stereo line-in. You can easily spend $40 on a top of the line transmitter only to get mediocre, FM-quality sound at best, and lots of static hassles pretty often, especially in a big city. Something to consider as a long-term investment in good car mp3 sound.

I too am really baffled why car stereo makers haven't figured out how useful an input is...

washingtonpost.com: Transcript: Holiday Tech Buying Guide (Dec. 13, 2004)

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the note. Hope some car-audio manufacturers are reading this chat!

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Philadelphia: Hi Rob,

My mom's a professional landscape designer whose G4 tower, despite upgrades, has slowed to a crawl under the weight of thousands of digital photos and several years of AOL e-mail. Should she replace it with the new iMac G5 or spend more and go with a G5 tower? I'm tempted to recommend the iMac (a new monitor is a bonus) for its value and all-in-one design, but I know the consumer Macs tend to date a lot faster than the "pro" line. What do you think?

Rob Pegoraro: The Power Mac will run faster than the iMac, but will the difference be enough to outweigh the major cost savings (and coolness points) the iMac affords? I'm not so sure. I would lean towards the iMac myself and apply some of the savings towards upgrading its memory to at least 512 megabytes.

(Note that you can goose the iMac G5's performance a bit by going into the Energy Saver system-preference pane and changing the processor-speed setting from "automatic" to "highest.")

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Bowie, Md.: Not long ago after reading your column I downloaded Google's desktop search engine to my laptop. It works great! Recently however, I heard that I should delete it because it transmits information from my computer to Google. Any truth to this?

washingtonpost.com: Google Desktop Outshines Windows' File-Search Capabilities (Oct. 24, 2004)

Rob Pegoraro: No. It doesn't transmit your data to Google.

FYI, there was a report a day or so ago about a security flaw discovered in the Google Desktop program, but I *think* this has been fixed in more recent versions.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm in the market for a new laptop. It would be mostly for Excel, Word and Internet and playing around w/ some pictures too. I value simplicity and reliability- things shouldn't have to be that difficult. Is the Apple iBook an overkill and should I stick with Dell? Or is the Apple iBook as good/easy/stable as people say? Price isn't the only factor, but counts. At first glance Apple's appear to cost more, but they don't seem to nickel and dime you like Dell. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: The iBook is a good laptop--one of the best buys Apple offers. The one thing to watch out for there, however, is the screen; the 12-in. display isn't too big, and the 14-in. model costs costs more (undercutting the value advantage) while not offering any more resolution.

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North Pole: Any idea how well XM works inside an office building? I know Mrs. Claus would enjoy better radio that she can find in DC, but doesn't have access to a window where she could place the antenna. (Didn't XM run a TV ad for a guy who was using his XM in the middle of a cubicle farm?)

I've ordered an XM set up. Should I return it and go with an MP3 player instead? Either will offer commercial free music at her office, although I think not having to rip and organize MP3s would make XM her first choice, if it will work.

Rob Pegoraro: XM uses land-based repeater antennas to cover places where its satellites can't reach. This may or may not work in your office building... there's no way to tell short of getting somebody to bring an XM radio to the Claus Cubicle.

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Lititz, Pa.: Dear Rob: I use my PC's CD burner to make audio CD-R's for use in my car. However, at home I have neither a CD player nor a DVD. I do have a receiver and speakers and some old VCR's. I would like to consider either a combo DVD/VCR player so I can play my CD-R's thru my larger system. What should I consider? I see all the small portable's being advertised for MP3's. What features should I consider? Sincerely, Mark P.

Rob Pegoraro: If you're shopping for a regular DVD/VCR combo, there really isn't anything to consider--these have become commodity items. Get one from a manufacturer you've heard of, and make sure that the box says the player is CD-RW and MP3 CD-compatible. (Almost all of them are.)

Here's what I wrote about shopping for DVD players last month.

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Giving in to the digital age..: Hi - I am finally breaking down and purchasing my first digital camera. I have narrowed my choices to the Canon Powershot A85 or A95. Are these good choices, which is preferable and am I liable to break the A95's flip out screen

Rob Pegoraro: Unless you plan on making 8 by 10 prints from your photos, the A95 looks like overkill. Having a non-flip-out screen should also make the A85 a little lighter.

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Milwaukee: I am interested in buying a DVD recorder. I want to transfer all my video to DVD and then using it to record tv shows with re-writable disks that I could then watch on other dvd players in the house. I wouldn't mind also being able to play these on my 1998 dell computer (windows 98) Which recorder should I be looking for? And what specific criteria do I need?

Rob Pegoraro: Have a look at the link I just sent along; that story also covers DVD recorders. (To summarize it, get a recorder that uses DVD+RW media, which offer the features you're looking for.)

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Arlington, Va.: Windows Media Center 2005 can indeed be purchased by mere mortals. Newegg.com is one place where you can purchase it, as long as you also order a piece of hardware.

Rob Pegoraro: Seems like a bit of a scam there... Media Center isn't designed to be plunked down on any old set of hardware.

BTW, since you mention this company, you've reminded me of the caveat a reader e-mailed me the other day: Make sure the shop you buy from offers price protection! NewEgg.com did not, resulting in this reader spending more than needed on a new printer.

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wiredog: Electric fence problem: Probably the cable (tv or phone, whichever is used to connect) passes too close to the fence and gets interference. IIRC, those things are AC. If you can, replace the line with shielded cable, bury it, or just run it through a grounded metal pipe.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks. There was *zero* chance I could have answered that question on my own :)

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Atlanta: Rebates, man. What's up with 'em? So evil. So, so evil.

Rob Pegoraro: Companies bank on buyers not sending in the forms--or sending them in incorrectly. Indeed, I got snaked out of a rebate last year when I mistakenly threw away the box a new handheld had arrived on; without the shipping form on the outside of the box, Amazon wouldn't provide the rebate.

Moral of that story: Anytime you buy something with a rebate attached, treat the packaging as if it were potential evidence on CSI.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Rob,

Great column yesterday. The 6th step is essential. Trust your gut no matter what. Because even if you follow all the other steps problems can still happen. I was the unfortunate recipient of an update from Symantec 2 weeks ago that caused intermittent problems sending and receiving email. Unfortunately it took them a few days to acknowledge the problem and come up with a better solution than uninstall all Norton products and reinstall all of them. In the meantime I kept calling my ISP's tech support and they kept telling me to disable my firewall and unhook my router and that would fix the problem. I kept refusing, but eventually said OK just to prove them wrong (and when I did they said oh just keep them off and it will be better - I refused). System Restore in XP fixed my problem (and of course they came out with a patch the following day) and knock on wood its all better now. But even if you follow all the steps problems will still happen and tech support may create bigger problems while attempting to solve the one you currently have. So trust your gut

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the comments.

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Detroit: If I backed up my current hard drive onto an external back-up, would I be able to just download it all onto a new computer hard drive without hassle?

Rob Pegoraro: No. You can't move applications from one computer to another under Windows the way you might haul over MP3s--you either need to reinstall them from the original discs, or you need to use a special utility that will move over all of a program's related files. (We'll have a feature in Sunday's paper about how to move your stuff to a new PC.)

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San Jose, Calif.: You need a hardware firewall as Step 0 before even worrying about your software firewall. They're cheap, and they'll keep out most of the attacks, enough to keep you safe until you've downloaded the security and operating system patches that are newer than your out-of-the-box operating system. SP2 is much better than XP was before it, but there are always new exploits discovered, and at least 2-3 patches since SP2.

Rob Pegoraro: I disagree. Not because a hardware firewall won't work (I've got one myself, in the form of a WiFi router) but because that's not effective advice to give to the general public. It requires somebody to go to the store and pay money to pick up a strange new gadget--even though it will offer on real-world utility over what's already on the computer.

My goal in listing those steps was to put together advice that anybody could follow *easily.*

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Arlington, Va.: What equipment do you recommend for trying to set-up a wireless home network? I would like to connect several computers without having to rewire my house. Should I use 802.11a, b, or g? Should I look at one of the new "pre-n products? Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: 802.11g. 802.11a is a niche product, 802.11b is being supplanted by g very quickly, and buying pre-standard hardware is usually a mistake (esp. when you won't need the extra speed for what you're trying to do.)

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: DOES iPOD WORK WITH GLOVES ON? Either I am a fool, or my new iPod will only be used indoors for the next 4 months. I cannot get the dial to function to adjust volume or navigate the menu when I have gloves on (which is most of the time since I walk to my office and run outdoors year-round). Neither can anyone who sits near my office. This strikes me as a serious design flaw!!! Especially on mornings like today!!!!!!

Rob Pegoraro: No, the iPod click-wheel control won't work with gloves on. The parts you push will, but the wheel itself requires that you put your naked finger to it.

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Stoughton, Mass.: Yo Rob, I run Shields Up By GRC.Com once sometimes twice a week.What is your take on this ??? Good, bad, or other???? Thank you, The Gunny

Rob Pegoraro: It's a good site to test your computer's security against. Twice a week, though? That's more often than you need, unless you're habitually adding or removing firewall software.

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Arlington, Va.: Rob,

Can you recommend a relatively inexpensive device that I can use primarily for reading e-books on our overcrowded Metro trains? My inclination is a Palm-OS based handheld rather than a pocket PC.

Rob Pegoraro: Good idea. Get a Tungsten E or another Palm with a high-res screen, which will make books much more pleasant to read.

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Washington, D.C. : Rob --

XP has a "migration wizard" to move important files (e.g., registry) from one machine to another.

Is there an equivalent 'wizard' for those with Win2K machines upgrading to WinXP (in my case, from 2kPro to XPPro).

Happy Holidays and may you never run out of batteries!

Rob Pegoraro: Files and Settings Transfer Wizard should work in that case too--that's in XP Pro as well as Home.

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Rockville, Md. : Hi Rob, I go hiking and would like to use a GPS to save the coordinates of certain spots I find. I don't need anything more than that. Do you have any suggestions? thanks

Rob Pegoraro: I've got a writer checking out portable GPS units, but the review won't run for another couple of weeks. Sorry...

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Van Ness, D.C.: Rob, I am not computer-literate. I bought a new Dell, a basic setup. On the first day I used it, my designated home page -- the Post -- got sucked into some googly-looking index page that I can't get rid of. How do I get my home page of choice back from the clutches of this monster? Please know that I am really dumb and maybe even fearful of my computer's workings, though at least I know enough to have lots of protections.

Rob Pegoraro: Run the anti-spyware utilities we mentioned in Sunday's paper. Then download the Firefox browser and switch to that instead.

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Clifton, Va.: Rob,

Hope you can answer -- my girlfriend's is in the US Army and stationed in Korea. They screwed her pay up bad. How can I use Paypal to send her money?? Please answer this is an emergency. Thanks. Santa will bring you that new Ferrari F430. Only in 1/24th scale.

Rob Pegoraro: Once again, I am stumped :( Can any PayPal users help out Clifton? I've sent a fair amount of cash through PayPal, but not to anybody in the U.S. armed forces and not to anybody in Korea.

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Kahoka, Mo.: I am getting ready to make a DVD for my daughter's graduation. I would like to scan old pictures using Photoshop, videos (which I haven't yet downloaded) with music overlay. What software do you suggest?

Rob Pegoraro: If you already own Photoshop and are used to that interface, you might like Adobe's Premiere Elements. We reviewed it recently and liked it.

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Beautiful Silver Spring, Md.: Rob, will the feature on migrating from one computer to another cover Macs as well? And especially, will it cover migrating from a 6-year-old Bondi blue iMac to a new iMac G5? Because then you will have made my day.

Rob Pegoraro: I can try to answer that one now: Get a crossover Ethernet cable and connect the old and new Macs together. Turn on AppleTalk and file sharing on your blue iMac, then make the entire hard drive sharable. Then switch to the new iMac and bring up the old iMac's shared hard drive on the desktop. (I'm not in front of a Mac as I type this, but I think you'd do that via the Finder's Go menu.)

Then copy over all your old files to your Home folder on the new iMac.

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Re: Canon Powershots--: The A95's flip-out screen is incredibly handy; it's much more convenient to be able to twist it around, if you're taking a picture from above something, for instance. Being able to transport the camera with the LCD screen facing in is also terrific.

Unless price is really an issue, I'd recommend the A95 over the A85. I've really found the screen to be an incredibly useful feature.

Rob Pegoraro: A contrary view on the Canon A85 vs. A95 debate...

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Baltimore: I downloaded Firefox to my iMac. It came as a zip file, which showed up as an icon on my desktop.

After the download ended (I have dialup so it took 1/2 hour), I double-clicked the icon, and it unzipped, creating 2 more desktop icons. One of those icons looks like an external hard drive; the other looks like a document or something.

I double-clicked both icons. The disk drive icon caused a window to open, with a Firefox icon in it; the other desktop icon did nothing when I double-clicked it.

I moved the Firefox icon to my Dock.

So, what do I do now with those 3 desktop icons? Can I trash them? What are they?

Also: is it just my imagination, or is Firefox a lot faster Safari?

Rob Pegoraro: First, you need to drag the Firefox icon inside that desktop hard-drive-looking icon into your Applications folder. Then you can trash the stuff on the desktop.

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Washington, D.C.: Needed to defend Newegg a bit. I don't know about their price protection, but I have ordered from them quite a few times and they have offered excellent prices and very fast shipping. Others I have talked to who work in computers extol them as the best computer parts website because of their prices and service.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for letting us know. (Didn't mean to beat up on this one site, but it happened to be one that a reader had just mentioned a valid point about.)

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: Are there any truth to the rumors that Apple will introduce a PowerBook G5 at MacWorld in January?

Rob Pegoraro: I have no idea.

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Palmdale, Calif.: How can I get a CD with Windows XP Service Pack 2?

Rob Pegoraro: Here: http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/protect/cd/confirm.aspx

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Washington, D.C.: I waited to the last minute and now cannot find an XBox anywhere! Any idea whether any stores in the Washington, DC area still have any in stock, or whether anyone will be getting them in. No one online seems to have any either.

Rob Pegoraro: Any suggestions out there?

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Charlotte, N.C.: I am looking to buy a portable MP3 player with a budget of know more than $125. What is the best player in terms of memory quantity, durability, features (fm,voice recording, etc.), reliability, warranty, ease of use, and battery life in that price range?

Richard

washingtonpost.com: Tech Buying Guide: Music

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for that link. Gotta tell ya, for that price you can leave out most of that shopping list--you will be able to buy a flash-based player with decent capacity, but you're unlikely to get many extras like FM or vox recording. Creative and Rio have generally done well in this category, and their players should all support the current copy-control technology used by Microsoft's Windows Media Player (a requirement if you'll be buying anything from online stores like Napster or MSN Music.)

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Los Angeles: Hello Rob, My wife has decided to get me the 60GB Nomad Jukebox by Creative.

I have asked her to hold on because I am thinking the Ipod is going to eventually be able to play WMA.

Should I wait, or just go ahead and ask her to buy the Nomad now?

Thanks and keep up the good work.

Lucas

Rob Pegoraro: I have had multiple sources report that the iPod's circuits do support WMA playback, but Apple hasn't turned that on. Why? Apple isn't interested in doing anything to help its competitor's own proprietary format survive. Instead, Apple's iTunes program, included with every iPod, can convert your entire WMA library (copy-restricted downloads from Napster et al. excluded) to MP3 or AAC formats, either of which will work on an iPod.

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Herndon, Va: I'm thinking about getting a big screen TV, maybe a 50" DLP, in the $2500-$3000 range. Do you think they will come down in price after the holidays, and the Super Bowl? I can wait a while until I buy.

Rob Pegoraro: Their prices will keep declining, but I would expect them to hold steady starting a couple of weeks before the Super Bowl, not dropping further until afterwards. The guys running the stores ain't dumb... they know how many TVs move in the weeks before the game.

FWIW, you should have no problem getting a 50-in. DLP (or rear-projection LCD) set at those prices today. It's only a question of how much less you might pay if you waited a bit longer.

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D.C.: Rob - I wanted to get your thoughts on going 100% Apple. Right now I have a decent but older windows desktop and an Apple Powerbook. I wanted to replace the desktop and I'm considering a new Imac but wonder if I should keep a windows machine in the house. I'm not sure why, but maybe I've bought into the Microsoft rhetoric. Any reason you can see to keep a windows machine around?

Rob Pegoraro: I'll throw out a couple...

1) If you play a lot of computer games, you need a Windows box, period. (Make that, you'll need a high-end Windows box with a good graphics card, not any old PC.)

2) If you regularly use a program that only runs in Windows and lacks a Mac equivalent. The number of programs that qualify is smaller than you might think.

Really, you're the only person who can answer this. Lemme put it this way: How often do you find you have to switch back to the Windows desktop because you can't do something you need to do on the PowerBook?

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm intrigued by digital SLRs. My film SLR is about 25 years old so none of my lenses would work with a DSLR. I've heard rave reviews of the EOS Digital Rebel, the Nikon D70, and the Canon 20D. Do you have any recommendations? I know the 20D costs a few hundred more and is also 8.2 megapixels, but I've also heard people swear by Nikon lenses.

washingtonpost.com: Tech Buying Guide: Cameras

Rob Pegoraro: My high-end digicam guru, Jim Hawk, is a huge fan of the D70. He also liked the Digital Rebel too, which is a good deal cheaper... but he was more ecstatic after trying out the D70.

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Washington, D.C.: We got a Kodak digital camera last Xmas and love seeing the pictures on our computer. But i'd like to be able to make prints easily. What do you recommend?

Rob Pegoraro: Order your prints online from a site like Ofoto, or take them into a any camera store (Ritz, etc.) and get printouts there. This will almost certainly cost you less than making individual prints at home; it may even save time, considering how slowly inkjets work when printing out photos at max quality.

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Woodley Park, D.C.: Rob, I'm thinking about using an old laptop for home recording purposes (I'm an amateur musician), but it only has a Pentium II processor. I'd love to update the processor and put more memory into it rather than buying a new computer, but I'm told that laptops are next-to-impossible to upgrade in this way. Thoughts?

Rob Pegoraro: You've been told correctly.

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Rockville, Md.: For the girlfriend in Korea--might depend if she's already got a paypal account set up, and what kind of bank account she's getting the money in, but it should work fine (I've done it the other way--got money from a friend who was stationed over there, via paypal)

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks, Rockville!

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Washington, D.C.: Any opinion as to which is the better high speed internet service, Verizon or Comcast?

Rob Pegoraro: They're both plenty fast, but Verizon is $10 or so cheaper (depending on whether you get their DSL through one of their package deals). Only catch is, Verizon DSL can be tricky to order. I keep hearing from readers who want to get it, are told by Verizon that's not possible, then find they are eligible after all (sometimes only after I summon the help of a very enthusiastic Verizon marketing guy who really shouldn't have to spend this much time cleaning up after his sales department).

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Alexandria, Va.: Any recommendations for accessories for the Ipod mini? Speakers in particular but also car adapters, cases...

Also, any recommendations on photo printers, or at least what to look for & how much to spend?

Thanks for the recent article on digital cameras! Your recommendations were really helpful!

Rob Pegoraro: The number of iPod accessories has really floored me. I mean, I'll give you two words: iPod socks. No, really... these are fabric sock-like things you can wrap an iPod in. Don't know who's buying them, but the Apple Store in Clarendon had a fine selection Sunday evening.

Ah, where was I? Speakers and car- or home-stereo connection kits make sense to me. Avoid the Monster Cable kits Apple sells, and I'm skeptical of the high-end speaker systems (helpfully enough, that same store had a range of different speaker setups lined up, so you could audition each one).

Another idea would be a remote control, which would also address the complaint of the fellow who couldn't use an iPod while wearing gloves.

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An idea for creative high tech gift: If you are cheap but own a computer with cd burner and lots of music cds, then make your loved a mixed cd. Cheers!

Rob Pegoraro: True enough...

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Washington, D.C.: XM Radio or Sirius, which one do you recommend? Thank you.

Rob Pegoraro: I've had better reception with XM in my own tests. I do have to add that I haven't had the chance to do a drive-off test lately... also, Sirius' exclusive content (Howard Stern, NFL broadcasts) doesn't do anything special for me.

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Firefox DOES work with Wash Post site: That's how I'm reading this chat.

Rob Pegoraro: And that's how I'm answering these questions! But that reader was talking about our Electronic Edition, a special download we offer that replicates the print paper's appearance: ee.washpost.com.

(Hmm: the "system requirements" page on our site says it does work with Netscape browsers, so Firefox should work too, unless the site *only* allows IE and Netscape.)

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Annandale, Va.: Re playing MP3 CDs on a DVD combo player: the players I've purchased play MP3s but ONLY if they're all in the root directory. Is there any that will follow subdirectories and find the mp3s?

Rob Pegoraro: That, unfortunately, varies by model. Some will only see the root directory. Some will see every directory, but ignore that structure and present the songs as one long list.

>User reviews on Amazon are a good way to watch out for these gotchas. But it's also advisable to keep your MP3 CDs simple... just put all 120 or so MP3s in the root level of the drive (that is, the first level you see when you double-click the disc's icon on your computer).

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Chesapeake Beach, Md.: Which "must-have" items that people are clamoring for today do you feel will go on sale on December 26? Any technology for sale this Christmas season that is near the end of its shelf life?

Rob Pegoraro: Interesting question! If I can make a series of wholly unsupported guesses, I think we're nearing the end of:

* CRT-based projection TVs

* 2 megapixel digital cameras

* handheld organizers that sell for over $200 but don't offer WiFi

* digital video recorders that aren't bundled with cable or satellite service (sorry, TiVo)

I think I've been inflammatory enough with this list already :) Back to the chat...

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you have any recommendation for a universal player for a home stereo (i.e., one that plays CDs, SACDs, and DVD-As)? This summer I bought a new car that plays DVD-As, but at home I only have SACD capability. Stereophile recommend a Marantz and a Linn (the Linn is too pricey) but I am curious as to your thoughts.

Rob Pegoraro: I think the DVD-Audio/Super Audio Compact Disc format war is a perfect example of how the consumer-electronics industry is run by idiots. Both reportedly sound great, but neither seems to have an advantage over the other. SACD *ought* to win, just because it, from the start, has allowed for hybrid discs that also work as plain old CDs, while DVD-A is just getting around to that.

But DVD-A has gained an inexplicable advantage in the car-audio field. Why Sony (the major backer of SACD) hasn't fixed this utterly escapes me. Why these morons couldn't settle on *one* standard at the start infuriates me.

Well, it would infuriate me if customers actually cared. But they don't. They're either still buying CDs, which sound quite good enough, or buying online in WMA or AAC format--or downloading MP3s without paying for them.

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Kensington, Md.: Mozilla is not a gadget....but if I install it what happens to all the 'stuff' I've saved on AOL?

Rob Pegoraro: You'll have to export it--save it out of AOL in a form that Mozilla can understand, using the workarounds I've outlined over the last two Help File columns.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you have a recommendation for headphones to use w/ the iPod. Those #%!-# earbuds keep falling out of my ears!

Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Not knowing your own ears (nothing personal, but I don't want to :), I will punt you over to one of my favorite tech-news sites, Ars Technica, which ran a supremely detailed comparison of headphones a few months back:

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Milwaukee: MKE again. I have Firefox, which is great but I cannot bring up MLB.com fully. It has two Quicktime pictures with the broken Q in each box. I have downloaded the latest Quicktime along with Macromedia flashplayer but I still get the broken Q's. Any ideas?

Rob Pegoraro: As I noted before, I'm doing this chat in Firefox... I just brought up MLB.com and everything looks normal there. (Well, except that the site is missing a story reporting that the D.C. stadium imbroglio has finally been settled and the Nats are no longer being held hostage. No, I'm not bitter :)

Do QuickTime clips play normally in IE? If so, try reinstalling Firefox... it ought to see the QuickTime plugin at that point.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Would like to know which of the current manufacturer's portable DVD players is reliable and quality?

Rob Pegoraro: I've got the current issue of Consumer Reports in front of me, which includes a roundup of these portables. They didn't find any major differences in quality--$250 Mintek and Audiovox portables did about as well as Panasonic and Sony models that cost almost 2x as much.

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Rob Pegoraro: Well, that's going to do it for today... and this year. Stay warm, enjoy the holidays, and I'll "see" you all here again after the 1st of the year.

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