washingtonpost.com
Personal Tech: Holiday Guide 2007

Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Thursday, November 29, 2007 2:00 PM

The Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro was online Thursday, Nov. 29 at 2 p.m. ET to answer your holiday tech questions and discuss his recent reviews and blog posts.

Browse the 2007 Holiday Tech Guide.

A transcript follows.

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Rob Pegoraro: It's "that" time of year, which means:

* You're already sick of holiday decorations;

* You're already sick of the mall;

* You're desperately confused about which of all these new gadgets are actually worth getting for anybody.

I can't help you about the first two things, but I'm here for you on that third item. So... what can I tell you?

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Charlottesville, Va.: Any idea if Palm is going to open the Centro to other carriers? The wife needs both a new phone and a new PDA and the Centro appealed to both of us more than the Treos do. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: As I recall, Sprint's exclusive only runs through the end of this year, so after that anybody else could jump in with their own version of it.

But: The Centro only runs on CDMA networks so far, which means the only other carrier that could offer it around here would be Verizon. And Verizon hasn't even gotten around to selling the Treo 755p that Palm introduced back in May, and which was hardly different from the 700p introduced the year before!

So unless Palm has a GSM version of the Centro ready--which I don't know to be the case--I think it's going to be a Sprint-only proposition for a little longer.

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Chattanooga, Tenn.: My Mom has decreed that we will all make our own presents this year, but I know my Dad still love's his tech stuff. If I make him a crystal AM radio, do you think that would satisfy all parties?

Rob Pegoraro: Wow! I remember building one of those as a kid, and I think I actually tuned in a station or two with the thing. If your dad's a real geek--in the finest sense of the word--I think he'd be hip to this idea.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Posting early due to time constraints. Hanukkah Harry bought me an early gift, an all-in-one new printer/scanner/copier, attached to Windows XP desktop. How do I get my Windows XP wireless laptop, connected via wireless router, to print to the new printer?

Rob Pegoraro: You'd need to turn on file and printer sharing on the desktop, then make sure the firewall software on both the desktop and the laptop were set up to allow file/printer sharing. Then you should be able to browse to the new printer from the laptop.

I'm not sure if you'd also be able to use the scanner wirelessly, though...

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Washington, D.C.: Do I really want to spend $400 to get one of those One Laptop Per Child machines? Yes, it would be nice to get the free year of T-Mobile Hot Spot, but I don't do all -that- much work in Starbucks. Yes, it would be ultra-cool to have a gadget that not many people have, but I hear that they keyboard is small and weird, and it probably wouldn't do much for me past the novelty phase. (And yes, there's some tax deduction, but I don't itemize...)

But ... but ... but ... OMG it's so green and pretty and it looks like a bug and how cool would it be to have one when nobody else does! Talk me out of it, Rob.

Rob Pegoraro: The software on the XO laptop is still underdone--and that's not my opinion, that's the assessment of a local software developer who's spent a good amount of time testing the thing out and writing some programs for it.

Also, the UI on it is so far from what you're used to that you'll be starting off with essentially zero knowledge of how to use it. That may work for kids who haven't used a computer before at all, but if you already know your way around Windows/OS X/Linux, you'll be lost on the XO.

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Carlisle, Pa.: Rob. I am considering buying a new PC for home use. I will be using it for the web (FireFox), photo editing (Picassa), word processing (MS Word) and spreadsheets (Excel).

I am planning on buying a Dell desktop running Windows XP Home unless you give me a strong argument for taking the plunge to VISTA. I appreciate your insight.

Rob Pegoraro: I thought about including a note about this in the "how to buy a computer" advice I wrote last week, but decided against it. For one, the XP options available to home users tend to either cost more than installing Vista or are limited to some older models in a manufacturer's lineup. For another, some of the worst transition pains with Vista are associated with migrating an old system over to the new operating system. But if you already have Vista installed, there's less hassle to deal with.

The other thing is that Vista isn't going away. You'll need to buy it at some point in the life of a new machine... you might as well rip off that band-aid now (and hope that the "service pack 1" update to it due sometime next year fixes the worst of its issues).

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I am about to show just how dumb I am - may I proceed. For much more than 10 years I have used VCRs (that is plural) to tape my ordinary TV watching in order to time shift. Each of these are old and two are attached to a TV without cable, therefore in 2009 they will go black (I think) I know the TV will without a converter box but I am not sure about the VCRs. I was wondering whether it would do me to buy DVR recorders but I am not sure if these work as a VCR where you can set a timer and channel and have a show record. (Am I making ANY sense at all?) At times I have gotten terrible info from electronics stores so I have no faith in what they would tell me. Could a DVR Recorder fit what I want to do and if so what features should I look for. Sorry the question is so long - feel free to edit. Many thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Yup, a DVD recorder will do exactly what you've described. You just need to make sure it includes an ATSC digital tuner--some are now sold without either analog or digital tuners, which gets around the FCC requirement that vendors include digital tuners but makes those models useless to anybody who might ever want to watch TV off the air.

Most manufacturers offer DVD recorders that also include VCRs, which you can use to archive old videos onto DVDs.

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Manassas, Va.: Hi Rob. I've read some of the reviews of your digital cameras. However I know a few of them (Sony 100) is hard to find in the stores now.

Anyhow, a friend of mine has a film camera that's breaking down. She needs a simple to use camera (not very tech savvy) and if possible takes AA batteries. If you can get one that doesn't have much of a handle on it so you can slip it in a backpack; that would be nice too.

I have an old Sony (I need to upgrade) and having the option to pop in AAs from a regular store when traveling was nice! True confessions, I was looking at the T100. Can't find it and hear the T-200 isn't as good. Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: The Kodak digital cameras that I've tried have been pretty approachable, in terms of how they label things on the screen and present their functions.

What cameras have y'all found to be easy and (relatively) painless for recent converts from film point-and-shoot photography?

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Low Tech Gal in NYC: I am half way through a 2-year contract with Verizon. Believe me I know the meaning of the "Sir Charge" commercial. I will be working in London full time starting next month (coming home maybe 1x/mo). I also do not have international coverage. Which do you think makes the most sense:

1. Get an iPhone here - I don't have access to my personal email from work so this could come in handy as far as staying in touch with me friends and fam and allowing them to call me with a non-intl number

2. Get an iPhone in London

3. Get a phone in London - makes this cheaper for me to call my boyfriend daily in Germany

Thanks for your advice

Rob Pegoraro: Go with the third option.

The first one will get you killed in roaming fees--we're talking a dollar a minute. Tell your friends to get a Skype account if they want to call you for cheap.

The second option will cost you an enormous chunk of change (thanks to the beatdown the dollar has gotten from the pound) and leave you with a phone that you won't be able to use in the U.S. without hacking it to run on an AT&T SIM.

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Long Island City, N.Y.: Rob, i could be very much interested in Kindle, but don't want to shell out $400 without touching the material. Amazon won't answer my attempts to learn how that can be done. Do you know of any retail outlet or whatever, or whether it can be bought on approval? Maybe the answer isn't what i wish, but i do wish to know. Thx.

Rob Pegoraro: That's an excellent point you raise--you'd think that they'd find some way to get such a novel (pun not intended... no, really) device somewhere where people could touch/see/feel it.

My review of the Kindle, BTW, should be in next Thursday's Post.

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Steubenville, Ohio: Setting up a new eMachine T3616 (with Vista Home Basic) and attaching a Canon DR-7080C scanner. Canon does not say the scanner software is cleared for Vista. After one warning the drivers installed. The Capture Perfect software (included with the Canon installation disk) installed without any complaints as did the Capture Perfect update taken from Canon's website.

The scanner and Capture Perfect played nice together. We then installed OmniPage 16 and it does not see the scanner and it broke the Capture Perfect. Uninstalling and reinstalling Capture Perfect fixed the problem for Capture Perfect.

(Neither MS Paint or MS Word can see the scanner.)

We have OmniPage telling us that it is Canon's problem; that we need to check with Canon about an updated driver and Canon...well, you know the rest.

Both companies phone support have tried but neither will take responsibility. Any ideas?

Signed: Desperate in Steubenville

Rob Pegoraro: First off, both Canon and OmniPage stink for not updating their software for Windows Vista. I don't mean to rant, but this operating system was shipped to developers A YEAR AGO. It's been in development FOR MOST OF THIS DECADE. IT CANNOT POSSIBLY HAVE BEEN A SURPRISE TO ANY SENTIENT SOFTWARE DEVELOPER ON THIS PARTICULAR PLANET.

Seriously, I don't get it. It cannot possibly be that hard for people to have updated their releases to work in Vista by now.

Have you checked the Canon and OmniPage sites for updates? That should always be your first trouble-shooting step--whatever came on the CD in the box is almost always going to be out of date.

Otherwise, I'd look for a replacement for either the Canon drivers (try the shareware app VueScan, $40 at hamrick.com) or the OmniPage OCR software (don't have any great ideas there).

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Washington, D.C.: Can you tell me what the best portable dvd players on the market are now? Something under $300 please. Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: I have no idea.

Sorry, that's true. I just haven't spent enough time looking at what's available in this category. Were I shopping for one, I'd probably get what Consumer Reports suggested.

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McLean, Va.: Love my iPhone. Wish it had Flash. Why doesn't it? When will the iPhone get Flash? So many websites have flash features embedded that it seems like an inexplicable omission. Was there an Telco reason to omit it? Do Flash items hog bandwidth?

Rob Pegoraro: Flash animations don't take up that much bandwidth, but running Flash does take up a decent amount of memory. I can see why Apple left it out--given the iPhone's limited bandwidth and resources, it's an understandable omission.

(And if that gets sites to stop hiding crucial features behind Flash front-ends, I'm all for it!)

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Silver Spring: I just got my Samsung Blackjack II. Man is it cool lookin'! What have you heard about it so far?

Rob Pegoraro: BlackJack II? I think you're the first to talk to me about it. A friend of mine has the original BlackJack, though, and loves the thing.

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Washington, D.C.: ISO basic DESKTOP, not laptop, computer. My mother's 10-year-old computer (hard drive and monitor) died and need to be replaced. Also cannot be a Mac-based platform. Windows 98 is the program on her old computer. The only data migration that -must- be done are her games; she has Alzheimers and can't/won't learn new games. I am trying to avoid Vista at all costs (know how to use XP). My main concern is that none of her games will work on any new computer. We children (not Mom) do use the computer for internet research and email, but not much else. Thanks a lot.

Rob Pegoraro: The cheapest way to do this would be with a used desktop, but you could also get one of Dell's small number of XP systems. I'm pretty sure that all of her software would run in XP, unless some of it's DOS-only--most non-utility programs that worked in Win 98 should also function in XP.

Good luck...

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Silver Spring: a good kinda cheap camera is the Canon A570 with or without image stabilization.

Hot tip for better pictures...use the camera in Program mode, set the colors to Vivid and exposure compensation to -2/3."

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks!

(I bought the A570is--the image-stabilized version--for myself early this summer and have been pretty happy with the results. It's a little thick, but I can still carry it around in a pants pocket when I need to.)

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WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Pegoraro, What would be my best bet for cheap (free?) easy-to-use "print to pdf" software? I'm asking because I just found out from the tech support people for the Post's electronic edition that that is an alternative to actually printing pages, but a separate program like "Adobe Professional" (presumably expensive and complicated) is required. I really would like to be able to store the odd page for later reference without actually having to print it. Thank you very much for helping everybody out with their problems.

Rob Pegoraro: I'm disappointed that our support people didn't mention the free, open-source PDFCreator: http://sourceforge.net/projects/pdfcreator/

(Or, if you use a Mac, you've already got PDF creation built-in. Just hit the Print... command and you'll see that option.)

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Washington, D.C.: In last year's Holiday Tech Gift Guide, there were a set of wireless speakers that plugged directly into an electrical outlet. I have searched the Post website but cannot find last year's Tech Gift Guide. Do you have any information on these speakers you can share?

Thanks! Jamie

washingtonpost.com: Holiday Tech Guide 2006

Rob Pegoraro: Don't remember this product myself, but there's the link.

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Arlington, Va.: Question about properly "sizing" an external hard drive for use with Time Machine. My Mac has an 80 GB internal drive. Should the hard drive be dedicated to the Mac and for backup use only? If so, should I buy 100 GB, or more?. With so many drives on the market, how does one compare them? Aside from size and USB/Firewire connections, what specs matter most? Thanks for your thoughts.

Rob Pegoraro: A 100 GB drive would only work if you set Time Machine to back up just your own data and settings, not the whole hard drive. Otherwise, you'd want at least a 120 GB drive--so you can have that complete backup and still have room to store previous versions of your data.

You can unplug a Time Machine hard drive and use with another computer, but then you lose the entire point of this feature. Also, the hard drive has to be Mac-formatted.

Last week's Help File has a bit more on this, but the big points I made there are that the hard drive should have a FireWire port and should be "bus-powered."

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Manassas, Va.: Rob, If I'm determined to stick with Verizon, is the Treo 700p really my only choice if I want Palm OS? Should I wait a few months in hopes of more choices? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Hold out a little longer. I'm told that Verizon is now running promos for the 755p--which is not a huge upgrade over the 700p, but at least you lose the external antenna. And maybe the Centro will show up in Verizon's lineup within the next few months--though I'm not too confident of that.

The real problem here isn't VzW so much as it's Palm. That operation has been one of the most thoroughly mismanaged technology companies that I've ever covered--worse than the mid-1990s incarnation of Apple.

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Washington, D.C.: Follow up question to ISO basic Desktop. Rob, would Mom's old games migrate/work/function in Vista? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Probably, but that's not as assured as in XP. You'd have to research each title individually--go to the developer's site and see if there's any info, or Google ("[program name] Vista compatible?") for reports from other users.

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Blackjack II guy: Yeah, they went on sale this Monday. I am probably one of the first few thousand people in the states to get the thing.

I am new to this smartphone PDA thing. What do I need to add to my monthly plan to use things like email and surf the 'net?

Again, I am a smartphone newbie...

Rob Pegoraro: Get a data plan. NOW. Your carrier is going to whack you senseless with per-kilobyte usage fees otherwise.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Rob, I would like to back up my collection of digital music in iTunes in a Macintosh laptop. I am divided between buying a portable hard drive from the Mac Store or buying a cheaper, non-Mac specific portable drive from Best Buy. Is there an advantage to buying the more expensive products from the Mac Store? I saw a 500 gig USB powered portable drive for less than $100 from Best Buy. Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: Apple Store prices on non-Apple hardware are generally woefully uncompetitive. You can use any hard drive out there with a Mac--although, as I mentioned earlier, a FireWire drive will leave all of the (too few) USB ports on a Mac free.

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For the Win98 Gamer: If you can load your mother's old games onto an XP system, you can often run them best by using the "compatibility mode" feature. To do: locate the .EXE game file and right-click, choose Properties, then the Compatibility tab. Select the correct OS (win95, win98) and Apply. Worked for me.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the reminder about this valuable, somewhat hidden XP feature. Good tip...

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To the girl moving to London: Sprint has these international calling cards for about $10 at CVS. My best friend lives in Germany, and at $0.03/minute, they last forever. A great early Christmas gift to your friends here! (I am not at all affiliated with either Sprint of CVS). Just make sure you get the international card and tell your friends not to use them for US/Canada calls because they charge about 10 cents a minute in North America!

Rob Pegoraro: Not familiar with these cards, but I'm happy to pass the suggestion along...

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Arlington, Va.: Rob: Thanks for taking my question. Are there any Digital Video Recorders that record to a hard drive that don't require a monthly subscription to a service like Tivo?

Rob Pegoraro: I am not aware of any these days. That, IMHO, stinks. I like the TiVo interface, but I'm seriously uninterested in paying $13 a month for one of those things to find more crap for me to watch on TV.

But instead, the only non-computer alternatives to TiVo are the DVRs that you rent from your cable or satellite company.

(Non-computer meaning you can also set up a home theater PC, but then you've got an entire computer stuck in the living room next to the TV.)

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Re Centro on other carriers: There've been rumors/unauthorized photos of a GSM one, though with Sprint's exclusive it won't be out before the new year. By the time Verizon launches their open access program, they'll probably have the Centro too... then again, given their track record on the 755, we'll have to see.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks...

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Hi Rob. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.

On your recommendation, I got an iMac. I'm not too happy with it since I've been a PC/Windows user for at least 15 years. I still use a PC at work. Maybe I'm just stuck in the windows world.

Is there anyway to customize the Mac OS to act more like windows? (e.g. close the window on the right instead of the left)

I don't want to run Windows on my Mac since it's $500 cheaper to purchase a PC. I've almost decided to return the Mac and purchase a Dell.

Rob Pegoraro: I just did a quick search on "tweaking mac os x to look like windows"... and it turned up a bunch of links to pages explaining how to make Windows look like OS X. Swear I'm not making that up.

There are ways to tweak the way OS X looks, but they only go so far. The placement of the close button really bugs you that much?

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Verizon and the Treo 755p: Verizon has made public a "coming soon" image. They haven't said yet when "soon" is, though.

Rob Pegoraro: As most of my editors can attest, "soon" can mean whatever you want it to mean!

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wiredog: For the Mac back-ups.

I have a Maxtor One Touch 3, 300 gb, on sale at Microcenter for $90. Needs to be plugged in, but otherwise perfect. Has firewire (400 only, but we're not going for speed here), and can be Mac formatted. Works quite well. The initial backup took about an hour (lots of photos, plus iTunes), but weekly incrementals take a few minutes.

What I really need are two of them. Rotate them monthly with one going into the safety deposit box at the bank. That way I only lose, at most, a months worth of data (and photos!) if the house burns down.

Rob Pegoraro: You really do want that second backup--but I'd probably stick to CDs or DVDs and make it a data-only backup. Using an entirely different kind of media for the backup of the backup would make me feel a little more secure.

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You can unplug a Time Machine hard drive and use with another computer, but then you lose the entire point of this feature. : Are you sure? I'm pretty sure Apple advertises the ability to use a hard drive for Time Machine with multiple computers. Each backup goes in its own folder. Of course, the drive would have to be pretty large to make this feasible.

Rob Pegoraro: And all those computer need to be on the same local network, or you're in for a lot of sneaker-netting, right?

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Rob, I have 2 questions that I hope you can answer:

1. I am considering getting Verizon FIOS for my internet. The company says that one of the min spec is a NIC 10/100. It seems that this is an ethernet card. I have an iMac G5 (vintage 2005). I reviewed the system specs of my computer and cannot tell if I have a NIC 10/100. Do you know?

2. If we get a 720p HDTV, will a 1080p upconvert DVD player work with it?

thanks for your help

Rob Pegoraro: Doesn't jargon suck? If Verizon had just used a word--"Ethernet"--instead of an acronym nobody uses outside of IT departments--"NIC" being short for "Network Interface Card"--you wouldn't be confused.

The 10/100, meanwhile, refers to the speed of the Ethernet port. 100 Mbps Ethernet has been standard for years and years; in fact, your iMac has gigabit Ethernet, 10x faster than what Verizon recommends.

Yes, the DVD player and TV should work fine. Flat-panel HDTVs are designed to convert any HD input into their native HD resolution.

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Rockville, Md.: A message from AOL Spyware Protection annoyingly pops up multiple times each time I use my laptop. It reads: "We have found and blocked Zango Search Assistant 10.0.341.0. To view details, select View Blocked Items."

What does this mean? Why is it happening? How can I stop it? I recently deleted Zango cousin (according to the internet) Seekmo from the Control Panel. What should I do to stop these messages and get rid of this ad/spyware?

Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: Zango is nothing you want, nor is any "search assistant" software. The AOL spyware remover should be able to boot Zango, but if not try Spybot Search & Destroy (spybot.info)

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Los Alamos, N.M.: A cousin and I have been debating the most effective way of checking email while traveling.

Currently, I use a computer provided by the motel where we are staying, or borrow the computer of a family member, and erase all history, cookies, etc., after each use.

What mobile devices, other than laptops and cell phones, are available that have an effective wireless connect, a viewable web browser, don't weigh much, and maybe, can be used on a cruise ship and overseas.

I have been looking at PDAs, iPod Touch, the Nokia N800.

Rob Pegoraro: Any of those last three would work overseas, as long as you've got WiFi. The N800 has an Ethernet port too, right?

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Need Xmas present for BF!: What are your picks for best ipod accessories?

Rob Pegoraro: If he's a runner and wears Nike shoes, the Nike + iPod kit is one idea. (And there's also some new Timex watch that includes an iPod remote control.)

If he's a photographer and has an iPod classic or earlier hard drive-based model, Apple's iPod Camera Connector can store photos on the iPod while you're on the go.

Otherwise--a set of external speakers or a car adapter seems like the obvious choice. (No, the Bose speakers aren't that much better as to justify their price.)

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Washington, D.C.: I want to buy my s.o. an Apple PowerBook, but I wonder if I should wait until after the first of the year. She'd really like a 12-inch version, and I've heard rumors that Apple is planning to release one early in 2008. Do you know about plans to release new versions of the PowerBooks next year?

Rob Pegoraro: I wish I did! I need a new laptop for work, and an ultralight laptop that ran OS X and Windows would be enormously convenient.

The rumor sites say such a thing will come to pass, but they've predicted it before and been wrong each time since the debut of the 12-in. PowerBook.

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Winter Park, Fla.: Asking for advice: We just bought a Mac to replace our aging PC. However, we need to install Windows on our new computer, because we need the Windows version of Office (due to work requirements we have to have Office 2007, since Office 2008 won't have macro support). We went to install Windows on a Boot Camp partition, but the very first thing we were faced with is how much space we want to allocate to Windows.

So, with that as background: Assuming there's little to nothing else we'll be installing on that partition, how much space is needed for an installation of Windows XP Home and Office 2007?

(And yes, we know about the virtualization option. We're planning to run Windows with VMWare from the Boot Camp partition, in fact--so we won't need much or any space for Office documents, since they can go elsewhere on the hard drive.)

Rob Pegoraro: I'd allocate 25 GB in that case.

But if you need macro support, you could stick with Office 2004 for Mac. I'm told that NeoOffice, a Mac version of OpenOffice, also supports Office macros--but I've yet to try that out. Macros are one of those business-level features in Office that I ignore. I've only ever heard of one home user setting up any macros in Office, and that user is me.

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Voyager-new Verizon cell phone: I need a new cell phone and this looked interesting. Any thoughts?

Rob Pegoraro: I've been trying it out over the past few days--and I'm not too thrilled with it.

My biggest objection is that even though this thing ships with what seem to be good calendar and address book programs, it doesn't include any software to sync those apps to a PC.

The Web browser does, as advertised, work with full-sized pages, and it does so over a fast connection. But this phone feels like it could have done a lot more.

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Alexandria, Va.: I just got a Blackberry Pearl from Verizon. Mostly I got it because the data package is cheaper than with the other smart phones. Before the 30 days is up, do I need to be thinking of any reason why another smart phone would be better? Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: Only if the Pearl starts to bug you. You don't have too many other smartphone alternatives with VzW--some Windows Mobile phones and a Treo or two.

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Time Machine Wireless: Rob, I asked an employee at the apple store about using time machine to back up two of my macbooks - by connecting the hard drive to my airport extreme base station and she said that time machine does not function wirelessly. Now the store was busy and she could have been wrong...but do you know if this is right?

Rob Pegoraro: I believe she was correct. I have heard that Time Machine may add wireless network support, but even then your backups would take much longer than they would over plain old USB or FireWire.

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Arlington, Va.: Rob: For the person asking about TIVO like capabilities without paying a monthly fee...The ARCHOS 405 or 605 portable video players will record TV shows with an optional adapter ($99). You download the TV listings through a wifi connection on your home network. The TV listings are free (for now).

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the suggestion!

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Washington: For the hard drive buyer: Don't go to the Mac store -or- to best buy, both of which are overpriced for the quality. Go to a computer store, either online or in person, and choose from a better selection at lower prices.

Rob Pegoraro: That's what I'd do. This is a perfect example of the kind of product that I'd rather buy online--the store can't really add any value beyond delivering the drive intact, you can make direct comparisons easily, and it won't cost much of anything to ship.

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Andy, Washington, D.C.: I have a problem with my iPhone not syncing play counts. I have a few smart playlists (and made one similar to the one you mentioned the other day), but noticed that sounds weren't being removed from the list after I listened to them. I checked my recently played songs after I docked the iPhone and noticed the first thirty or so songs I listened to didn't show up as recently played. Do you have any ideas on how to fix this? Thanks!

P.S. I also noticed a few songs had the wrong album art on the iPhone, but when I checked in iTunes, the correct ones showed up.

Rob Pegoraro: That's a mystery to me. iTunes is supposed to stay on top of these things. Anybody have any ideas on what to do here?

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Rockville, Md.: Tape2PC - I want to digitize many dozens of cassette tapes. I have been somewhat daunted by the instructions I have seen that require a tape deck and an adapter - but wonder if the new ION Tape2PC machine that connects to the computer via USB is any better/worse for this job.

Is it true that in any case the quality of the digital file depends on the quality of my soundcard?

Rob Pegoraro: Haven't tried that particular model, but here's a blog post I wrote up about a colleague's experience with Ion Audio's USB turntable: Vinyl to MP3, the Hard Way

As long as you have a digital input for your audio--which is where the USB connection comes in--you don't have to worry about the sound card's quality.

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Potomac: Have you done any reviews of GPS devices, specifically the ones for your car (as opposed to portable)? I am thinking of getting one soon and would like opinions.

Rob Pegoraro: I wrote one comparison earlier this year: GPS Units Weighed Down by Buggy Features

I'm also working on a short piece about GPS for National Geographic Traveler, which has given me the opportunity to try out a few more units. The TomTom OneXL seems nice, but I've been less impressed with HP's iPaq 310 (although it syncs to Outlook--meaning it knows where your friends and family live--it's refused to find any of these addresses, saying they're all "invalid").

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Pasadena, Calif.: Sorry if you've answered this but wanted to get it in before time's up. I'm going to be getting a new tv to hang on the wall above the fireplace. I've heard different pros and cons about both LCD and Plasma. What is your advice?

Rob Pegoraro: See the last part of this column: Numbers Don't Lie, but They Mislead

Short version: If the room gets a lot of light, get an LCD. (An LCD will also weigh a lot less than a plasma screen.)

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St Paul, Minn.: The main reason for these perks by payment processors is related to the first fact you identified in your article-- buyers have to give them access to their bank account. By cutting credit card issuers out of the transaction, the consumer loses the protection against fraud offered by a federal law known as the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) which is the single best consumer protection against vendor fraud. The FCBA allows a buyer to dispute charges on a credit card statement for defective, undelivered or unordered products and services. To file a dispute, all you need to do is contact the credit card company in writing within 60 days of the fraudulent charge. The credit card company has to acknowledge your letter in 30 days and complete an independent investigation in 90 days. The credit card company must either explain why it thinks the charge is accurate, or correct the mistake and issue a "charge-back" against the fraudulent seller. Buyers who use bank accounts instead of credit cards lose these rights and have ALL the risk of fraud and the payment processor and seller have none. Bad deal.

washingtonpost.com: Fast Forward: Online Merchants' Middlemen

Rob Pegoraro: Actually, both PayPal and Google Checkout also allow buyers to dispute purchases. PayPal would never have gotten off the ground as a payment system for eBay if it didn't offer that sort of recourse.

Also, remember that only the payment processor--not the merchant--ever sees your bank account number in these systems. So unless you think PayPal or Google is trying to rip you off, you're fine. And if you do think that, why do business with them at all?

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wiredog: DVDs for backup? Rob, I have an 8MP camera... Had it for 2 years. Thousands (literally) of images. Plus iTunes. E-mail going back 15 years. Various other documents of various types.

I went to hard drive for backup when I realized that a "full" backup (just data, not programs or OS) would take 20 DVDs. Twenty! That's a lot of disk swapping.

Rob Pegoraro: You've gotta delete some files! (The computer will also weigh less afterwards :)

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N. Rockburg, Md.: Rob, bought the kiddies laptops on Black Friday. Very good deals but they come loaded with Vista of course. Saw your earlier response to the post about Vista ... that was encouraging. The post where the guy's hardware wouldn't sync up was discouraging. What do you think about the Apple commercials where the woman says many people are going back to XP. Is that for real? Necessary? Viable? Thx.

Rob Pegoraro: For real? No. It's a lot of work to downgrade to Vista--I don't recommend that unless you're in serious and unending pain. I do think that a lot of people using Vista aren't happy with it, and in that sense Apple is onto something.

(Don't forget, too, that Microsoft has decided to let PC makers keep selling machines with XP preinstalled for a further six months, through mid 2008.)

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dc: Hi Rob!

I was planning to get a new LCD TV for myself for Christmas. Over thanksgiving, my family told me that if you don't get HDTV service, the picture will actually be worse on the HGTV than it would be on my old normal tube TV. I have digital cable, but can't imagine spending more for HGTV. Am I doomed? Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: I wouldn't spend anything extra for Home and Garden TV either... oh, wait, you're talking about HDTV :)

It's true that standard-definition TV can look worse on an HD set, but I think a lot of that is pyschology--you know how much better the high-def stuff is.

Either way, you're not doomed: You can watch the local networks' HD broadcasts for free with an antenna.

Is RCN an option? That would be cheaper than Comcast.

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Arlington, Va.: Rob, Do you have any insight on the quality of the cellphone coverage in the DC area for different carriers? For a few years it seemed like there was a review every 6 months, but I haven't seen one in a year or two. Has Cingular/AT&T improved since all my friends dropped it following the merger? How about T-Mobile or Sprint? If Verizon is number one, who is number two? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Here's my most recent punditry on that subject--note that most of the prices listed there are already obsolete: Wireless Choice Is Far From Clear

Verizon's coverage is best overall, although Sprint phones can roam on Verizon's signal (which is why Sprint users are the only people besides Verizon customers who can talk or browse the Web on their phones in the subway). Then you've got AT&T, and I think T-Mobile's still the worst.

These differences may not matter if you spend most of your time close into town, but if you get out in the country it can make a difference.

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NoLo, DC: For the person asking about the size of a boot camp partition for Office 2007, I'd suggest ditching Boot Camp altogether and just buying Fusion (which seems far more stable under 10.5 than Parallels; I've got both). Unless you really need the full horsepower of the machine, e.g. for games, the convenience of running windows apps without needing to reboot outweighs any performance hit you get from running the OS in a virtual machine!

Rob Pegoraro: Another tip on a subject we covered earlier here...

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Trenton, N.J.: Hi Rob; I was in market for a DVD recorder/VCR combo and was amazed that tuners were optional--and what a poor job some stores, notably Best Buy, did in NOT posting in their otherwise detailed descriptions (on their site) that one needs a tuner if one doesn't have a cable box (BTW, Circ City and even Sears do explain that).

I am curious about why they would NOT include tuners, much like VCRs always have, and wonder if you can explain; also, why are the models with tuners so much more expensive (seems to be $50-75 more)?

And finally, what models do you recommend (the price range between the lowest price for a Magnavox at WalMart for $170, and a Panasonic for $300, seems large)? And which kind of DVD recording media work best and will play in other DVD players?

thanks as always and happy holidays! Howard

Rob Pegoraro: Manufacturers now have to include digital tuners if they include an analog tuner in any video device--so some are dodging this requirement by not including tuners at all. I think that's a dumb call, unless you've somehow never had your cable or satellite go out on you.

Digital tuners do add some cost, although that cost keeps dropping all the time.

I've tried DVD recorders from Panasonic and LG and thought they both worked well, although the Panny had slightly better digital-TV reception.

For use in other DVD players, any of the write-only media (DVD+R and DVD-R) will work, as well as DVD+RW; DVD-RW needs a finalization step before you can watch it on another player, and DVD-RAM has both severe compatibility issues and is largely invisible in stores anyway.

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Re: Either way, you're not doomed: No. We are ALL doomed.

Rob Pegoraro: Is that you, C-3PO?

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iPod: Do you know if any places are having the iPod on sale? I know apple had 30 percent off on Black Friday...but are they going to be doing anything like that before Christmas?

Rob Pegoraro: No. But look around at other sites besides Apple--and see if you can't take advantage of some of the deals I describe in today's column to chisel off $10 or so from the cost.

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MR in ATL: Hi Rob, Thanks for doing these chats. I've learned a lot from you over the years...

My question: I just bought a Sharp 37" 720p LCD. Instead of using an upconverting DVD player, I want plug my laptop into the TV using an SVGA monitor cable. Is there a media player that will upconvert the DVD from native 480 lines to a higher resolution (720) so that I can take advantage of my maximum TV resolution? Or am I missing something?

Rob Pegoraro: I'm not aware of any DVD-playback software that can do this. The HDTV itself might; check its settings, and see if any such image-enhancement mode works on video coming in via S-Video (it may not).

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Bowie: I know this is VERY general, but when shopping for a computer (let's say desktop PC's just to focus), can you usually itemize prices differences feature-by-feature (e.g. 1.6 to 2.0 GHz is worth $50, extra GB of memory is $40, etc)?

Or do prices differences often reflect non-obvious differences, like build quality that will affect longevity?

Rob Pegoraro: Usually, you can't attach a dollar value on features or specs like that. The one exception is memory, since you can always add more later on. Check dealram.com to find the going rate on memory for a particular model, then factor that into your calculations.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Rob, I'm looking for compact digital camera with great zoom and image stabilization. The Panasonic Lumix TZ-3 looks good, but is it? Do you know anything about this camera? Thank you!

Rob Pegoraro: I haven't tried it, but I did generally like the Panasonic camera I tested last fall. Here's a review from a site whose judgment I trust, the Digital Camera Resource Page: DCRP Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3

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NY: We're spending 2 weeks in Shanghai, one of us will be working and the other just lounging about (OK, not really). How can we stay connected? We don't own cell phones, but we're seeing a need to get phones while there, to pick up where WiFi/email leaves off. How do we go about this?

Rob Pegoraro: Rent a GSM phone, either before you leave or when you arrive. (This summer in Beijing, I had to walk past a kiosk renting SIM cards before I even got through passport control.)

You're going to like Shanghai, BTW. Take the maglev into town if it's at all possible. And if you've ever played SimCity, you *must* visit the Urban Planning Museum.

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Hooray for Skype: Just another plug for Skype. The girl moving to London should definitely get a phone there (teeny tiny cool looking Nokias are available for 20 pounds!) for use within Europe. It's free to receive calls over there and very cheap to talk within Europe. On top of that, she can talk on her computer's internal mic OR buy a cheapie headset at Best Buy before she goes and talk over AIM or Skype for free. The reception isn't as great...but you get what you pay for. My boyfriend and I hop all over the world and use it. I love technology!

Rob Pegoraro: I've really gotten to like Skype calling too. It's laughable how cheap international calls are that way--it's going to take me forever to use up the $10 in credits I bought last summer.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'm a late adopter of technology - when asked what kind of TV I own I still say "color". So what's the story on the digital tuners for folks like me?

Am I correct that the products and prices are still not set and I should just wait until for last minute? OK, I almost certainly wait until AFTER my TV does not work to actually buy a digital tuner.

Signed - An Archer on my roof forever

P.S. Is channel 4 carrying the game tonight?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, in this case I would recommend waiting as long as possible to buy a digital tuner. You won't *need* one until Feb. 2009, when the analog airwaves go away--why not give the industry a little more time to keep improving tuner technology and lowering tuner prices?

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Thanks, Silver Spring!: We also bought a Canon A570IS this summer, and it's great for normal use (although in certain lighting, the pictures are actually a little grainy...need to learn the settings). They're under $200 now. Buy a simple memory card reader for transferring pics to computer and boom - you're in business.

Rob Pegoraro: Another vote for this camera...

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Nashville, Tenn.: Rob, hope this isn't too low-tech, but I see digital photo frames everywhere and wonder if there are differences among them. Is a cheap one as good as an expensive one? I've never used one, but want to have my pictures move like Harry Potter's. Would that be possible with short videos?

Rob Pegoraro: The number to look at with these things is its resolution; higher is better. Higher contrast ratio figures are also better. Also, try to see how each one looks when turned on and, ideally, when displaying your own photos (they all should include memory-card slots).

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Laurel: I noticed in the Plastic Pack ads that the computer retailers aren't requiring as many mail-in rebates as before. Last year, I think the typical desktop system had $200-400 worth of required rebates to attain the advertised price. Did enough customers complain that they'd just shop mail-order, if the stores didn't stop trying to confuse us out of our savings?

Rob Pegoraro: I think customer complaints had a lot to do with that, yes.

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Annapolis: What would you recommend for someone who's been naughty, that seems like it would be useful but is impossible to figure out or get support for?

Rob Pegoraro: I had to save this one for last--in part, so I could think about all of the worthy candidates for this honor. I'm still not sure... but how about the crappy electronic expense-report software from Oracle that we've just started using here?

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Rob Pegoraro: That does it for today--but don't worry, I'll be right back here next week. Thanks!

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