Digital Music With a Side of Thanksgiving Help

Rob Pegoraro
Monday, November 20, 2006 10:08 AM

Yesterday's column could have been a two-part series: One on the basic soundness of the Microsoft Zune player, another on the appalling defects of its online store.

Using this $250 player often brought a smile to my face, but dealing with its store and software usually just annoyed me. At times, I had to stop and say, "What the [bleep] were they thinking?"

My advice: Don't take the iPod off any holiday wish lists, just yet.

And for more of my advice, don't miss Sunday's Help File column, where I profiled ways to erase data from any old computer -- one of the most common issues mentioned in my e-mail and Web chats.

Oh, So That's How They Did It

I try not to read the reviewer's guides put together by PR staffs that accompany review copies of new hardware or software. I don't want a company's take to skew my judgment. But for the Zune review, I'm glad I flipped through it. Under a "Using Zune" heading, it explains exactly how Microsoft came up with its battery-life estimate of 14 hours:

"14 hours is based on these conditions: a single length average album of 128 kbps ripped WMA songs, played on repeat; with the EQ (equalizer) setting set to 'none'; the default volume setting (i.e. not turning volume up or down); the backlight timer set to 1 second; and with no other activity (like viewing pictures, navigating, etc.) going on."

This represents a major adjustment from the Zune's default settings. It normally keeps the screen backlight on until a minute after you last pressed any buttons. (That alone annoys me. Why not just dim the backlight, like on an iPod, so I can still read the screen?) So Microsoft's battery "test" has one of the Zune's most power-intensive parts switched on for a total of one second.

By way of comparison, my own battery test for MP3 players involves loading up a library of music, turning on the "shuffle" and "repeat" options (so the device won't stop after playing every song once), and then letting it play through. I'll interact with it when I'm at my desk or during my commute, but sometimes I have to leave it alone, which means the screen will dim or darken completely. This test often overstates real-world battery life. But with Microsoft's thoroughly rigged test, it only added an hour of runtime.

iPods Take Flight

Last week, Apple announced a deal with several airlines to add iPod connectors to their seats.

Some of the companies named in that press release, such as Air France and KLM, quickly backpedaled, saying they hadn't signed any such deal. Keeping in mind the lousy economic state of most airlines, I'm not sure the others will have this promised connectivity by the mid-2007 timetable Apple cites.

HD Radio Lives!

An occasional subject of my columns keeps creeping back into the news. HD Radio -- digital AM and FM broadcasts that ride on the same frequencies as existing analog signals -- has long suffered two big relevancy problems. The first is the lack of cheap, widely available HD Radio hardware. The other is the lack of good HD Radio broadcasts.

During the past month or two, a variety of affordable HD Radio receivers has emerged, including models from Radio Shack, Cambridge SoundWorks and Polk Audio. You now have a reasonable choice in HD-compatible clock radios (although with home-theater A/V receivers, there are still no under-$1,000 options).

And last week, WAMU, a Washington, D.C.-based public radio station, announced that it would begin carrying two HD alternate channels, one with Bluegrass programming and the other carrying the alt-rock flavors of Towson University's station.

Not only is this exactly the sort of thing that HD Radio should be used for, it also represents some belated compensation for WAMU axing bluegrass programming in the first place, a move that greatly contributed to the gentrification of the Washington airwaves.

(I'd express a wish for Washington's other public radio station, WETA, to do the same and launch an "HD2" channel that would bring back its classical broadcasts, but that station doesn't have a primary HD broadcast. That technological backwardness is pretty odd, considering how WETA's TV operation was one of the first adopters of high-definition television.)


Another review subject to scratch off my list: AMD recently revealed that it's canceling its Personal Internet Communicator, the $250 desktop I reviewed in 2005.

Thanksgiving Computer Cleanup

The Lifehacker blog recently ran its own list of the software you should download on a USB flash drive if you expect to be drafted into some computer repairs for any family members over Thanksgiving.

Lifehacker¿s list seems OK, but I have a few suggestions to improve it (with download instructions attached):

* Windows Defender: XP-only spyware removal and prevention.

* Ad-Aware SE: Free spyware removal for all Windows systems.

* SpyBot Search & Destroy: Same as above, but may find some things that AdAware misses. (Note: If either of the two programs above say the computer is clean except for "tracking cookies," then it's clean of actual spyware.)

* AVG Anti-Virus Free: No-cost, nag-free virus protection -- just the thing for a family member who let an anti-virus subscription lapse.

* Firefox 2.0: Fast, free, safe Web browsing. Essential on any pre-XP system, a really good idea on XP.

* Opera 9.0: If Firefox runs too slow, a possibility on an older machine, go with this faster, smaller browser instead.

Happy computing (should it come to that) and happy Thanksgiving!

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