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Personal Tech: Holiday Guide 2007

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Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Thursday, December 6, 2007; 2:00 PM

The Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro was online Thursday, Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. ET to answer your holiday tech questions and discuss his recent reviews and blog posts.

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Browse the 2007 Holiday Tech Guide.

A transcript follows.

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Rob Pegoraro: Good afternoon! There are more questions about Amazon's Kindle--the subject of my column today--than I thought I'd get. I'm looking forward to getting into them, as well as all the other tech queries I see in the queue (to name a few, iPods, high-definition video discs, HDTVs and home computers).

Let's go to the first question...

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Columbia, Md.: I just want to weigh in on the kindle, having had mine for a week now. I love it--they key thing is that, like you, I find myself getting lost in my book. I do wish the contrast between the type and background were a little better, but I also don't find it a real problem. I love the ability to search books, and I think the navigation is very cool and intuitive. The buttons are big, but as I've used the device I've found very comfortable ways to hold it without accidental button presses.

There is just so much misinformation about the kindle out there, including in the responses to your column today. It's amazing how people who haven't used a kindle and don't know about the infrastructure behind it feel qualified to pronounce on it, but I guess that's the nature of the internet. And certainly this device is not perfect, and it's not for everybody. But please let me note that:

1. People can back up books on their own computer in addition to the automatic backup at amazon.com.

2. In areas where Whispernet isn't available, content (except for sample chapters) can be moved from the computer to the kindle via usb, a la the iPod (and Sony reader).

3. Amazon sells a lot of kindle versions for less than $10. Classics are especially inexpensive. Or, you can load up your kindle with the many free books available through Project Gutenberg (check out manybooks.net, for example--it supplies books in kindle format).

4. Where Whispernet is available, the web browser--though rudimentary--is very, very cool. It won't replace your computer, but I imagine that it will be incredibly handy in certain circumstances (e.g., when you are stuck in an airport).

5. Again, where Whispernet is available only (for now), but the ability to look at sample chapters before buying is really great. You can read through them at your leisure and, if you want to keep going, then--presto--you've got the full book.

My only hesitation in buying a kindle now was the thought that a new and improved version might be available soon. But you know what? I'm enjoying this one so much, it doesn't really matter!

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the detailed critique. I didn't talk about the Web browser in the review because it's under an "Experimental" menu item (just like the embryonic MP3 playback capability), but I'll be interested to see what Amazon does with it.

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Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Hi, Rob, What is the capacity of the Kindle? How many books, magazines and newspapers can it hold? What happens to your purchases if your Kindle runs out of room? Is online storage included?

And what do you think of the name "Kindle." Is Amazon implying the device will set the book world on fire?

Rob Pegoraro: Amazon says the Kindle has 256 megabytes of internal memory, of which 180 MB are available. So far, I've eaten up about 44 megs of that with one book (Michael Lewis' "Moneyball,") and the first chapter of another (Scott Rosenberg's "Dreaming in Code"), a few days' worth of the Post and the NYT, one edition of the Atlantic Monthly, a few days of the Boing Boing blog, an e-text and a photo I e-mailed to the Kindle.

The Kindle also has an SD Card slot, so you can expand that memory. More importantly, you can remove things from the Kindle and download them later on--everything you buy or subscribe to is stored in your digital library at Amazon.

The Kindle name doesn't really say "books" or "reading" to me, but at least it's memorable and not some alphanumeric gibberish like "PTG-N100a" or whatever.

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Augusta, Maine: if the kindle is sold out don't that me no one can buy one no how?

Rob Pegoraro: Yup, that's usually how it works in this business.

I think the Kindle being sold-out says a great deal more about how few of these things were produced than about overall consumer demand. Amazon's publicist wouldn't tell me how many Kindles have been sold... you'd think the company would be bragging about that if hundreds of thousands of Kindles had flown off the shelves.

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Wii: I have the Wii tucked nicely away for the jolly guy to deliver to my kids, so I don't need the tips on finding one.

But, as the uncoolest mom ever, I don't know what else I need besides the box of stuff. Out of the box can two or more people play? Do I need any cables or adapters (like when I bought a printer and it didn't include the cable!)? And, I understand that it comes with several games (sports ones, I think), are those appropriate for my 12-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son?

Help, please!!!

Rob Pegoraro: Let's help out this person. (BTW, please don't disclose your location here--you might have people trying to break in!) What are good stocking stuffers to go with a new Wii system?

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Books R Better, reason #432: Despite it's name, the "Kindle" is actually more ineffective as kindling than a real book. I couldn't start a fire with mine no matter how hard I tried. It just melted.

Rob Pegoraro: But you could at least burn the manual and the box, right? (Yes, this e-book reader includes a printed manual in the box, while many other electronic gadgets make you open a PDF.)

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Rockville, Md.: I'm intrigued by the Kindle (and other e-book devices), but for now I'm going to pass on it, mainly due to the burdensome DRM on the books and the price of the Kindle itself. (Although if the Kindle were $150-200, I'd almost certainly pick one up and assuage my conscience about the DRM by loading the Kindle with free public domain e-books.)

If the e-books of modern titles were MUCH cheaper, I'd still have philosophical objections to the DRM but probably fewer practical ones. If I buy an e-book for $10 or $15, then I want to be able to read it on my handheld reader(s) and all the computers that I have or will have regular access to, including computers I may own in the years to come. At $10 to $15 I want to OWN that book and, other than illegal distribution, I want to be able to do what I want with it, like move it (not copy it) to my girlfriend's Kindle or whatever. Now, if you give me that same e-book for 2 to 5 dollars instead, I'm much more willing to view it more like an indefinite "rental" that I can read on only one or two devices. When I replace those devices, I lose access to the e-book, but it's no big deal because the book was pretty cheap.

Amazon gets a lot right with the Kindle (the wireless delivery system with no wireless charges ever, for one) but it's not yet the killer gadget for e-books. I enthusiastically support the spirit of what they're trying to do, but it's what happens after the purchase that's a major sticking point for me.

Excessive DRM on content, whether it's books or music, limits sales, and it's not because people are dishonest but because they expect a REASONABLE degree of freedom in what they can do with something they've paid for.

Rob Pegoraro: Rockville, you're making an enormous amount of sense here. Thanks!

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St. George, Utah: I have an MP3 CD with 10 hours of music, and an audio CD with 80 mins of music. Can both of these type of music files be transferred to the current MP3 players now popularly on sale? Would they have to be loaded onto a PC first, then copied? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Yes and yes. Any digital-music program--iTunes, Windows Media Player, Zune--can do the job for your, as long as your MP3 player works with that program.

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Washington, D.C.: I got the Nikon Coolpix 5.1 a few years ago for my birthday and while I adore it, it's been a bit sluggish lately since I took it to the beach. I'm looking for a new camera, and one of the only things I would change is that I have difficulty having people's faces clear. The background always seems to be what's in focus, and I always use the portrait setting. What new cameras are out there to help me keep faces in focus?

Rob Pegoraro: So glad you asked! Make sure your next camera includes an increasingly common feature called "face detection focusing." The camera will try to spot human faces, then highlight them on the LCD--Nikon, as I recall, puts a yellow smiley-face icon on each face it detects--and lock the focus on them.

There's more on this topic in the gadget-guidance summary I wrote a few weeks back: Numbers Don't Lie, but They Mislead

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McLean, Va.: A couple more comments on the Kindle:

Regular books also lack backlights.

Kindle reads mobi format books, and there's a PDF to Mobi converter.

Another topic: Got a Dell XPS 720 at work, Installed XP on it. What a pain. Dell doesn't ship a separate disk with the SATA drivers, so the install blue screens. Fortunately I've seen this before (about 3 or 4 years ago in Linux) so I went to the Dell site to download the drivers.

Dell doesn't have drivers for the video card it shipped with, so I had to go to NVIDIA to get them. (Browsing the web in glorious 16 bit color in VGA resolution! And people wonder why I bought a Mac for use at home.)

Fortunately I have enough install experience that I wrote down everything about the system hardware and setup before I started.

Rob Pegoraro: I suspect that somebody who's accustomed to downloading hard-disk drivers to install an operating system may have a little more tolerance for the foibles of new technology than most people.

True about the lack of backlights in books. I thought of making today's blog post a joke review of books that would point out how they lack any sort of built-in search, can only be backed up with a photocopier, can't be downloaded even thought they're all text, etc. But the post I'd already written was way too long as it is... maybe some other time.

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Re: Kindle:$400? Sheesh. I could put up with a lot of compromises if the thing cost $99.95, but for $400, the thing better shine my shoes and pick the kids up from soccer practice.

Rob Pegoraro: We've got some demanding customers here!

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Springfield: What is "excessive DRM?"

Rob Pegoraro: I think you know what "excessive" is; "DRM" means "digital rights management," a somewhat Orwellian phrase to describe using technological measures to limit what you can do with a digital file. This is often also called "copy protection," but I prefer to call "copy prevention," "usage restriction" or "copy controls."

In the case of the Kindle, the DRM prevents you from reading one of these e-books on anything but a Kindle, printing it or loading it.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Rob, My girlfriend wants to buy a Mac Book, but she also wants to edit Word and PowerPoint documents from work. Have you had (or heard of) any problems with the default Mac software for editing Microsoft Office files? How well does it perform? She'd prefer not to buy Office for Mac, but she also wants to make sure that her Mac edits are readable on a PC. Thanks for your help.

Rob Pegoraro: There is no default software to edit Office files--TextEdit can open a Word file, but it's only the most minimal sort of compatibility. Don't expect a complicated layout to show up intact in TextEdit.

iWork is a very good Office alternative, but it can have trouble editing some Office files. My sister-in-law, for instance, gave up on editing an Excel spreadsheet from her job in iWork's Numbers and, last I heard, ponied up for a copy of Office.

(This is about the same situation you'd face on a new PC, where only Microsoft Works will come in the box and you'll have to spend extra to get a copy of Office.)

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Samsung BJII: I am the new BJII owner from last week.

So far the thing is pretty cool, although the built in GPS is locked and only works with Telenav, not Windows Live Search or Google maps.

Luckily someone built an app that installs another COM port for the thing. Installed it and now the GPS works like a charm on Live Search. GPS is tough on the batteries.

I am new to this smartphone thing...what is the deal with registry editors? How do you install them and use them? Right now I am limited to 300kb for ringtones but I hear I can change that in the registry, but I have no idea how to install and use such an application. What can you tell me, Rob-o?

Rob Pegoraro: I can tell you to take a break from tinkering with your phone. Seriously, editing the registry?! It's a PHONE--live with the defaults for a little while before you do something that might break the thing.

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Anonymous: Hi Rob, I am about to buy an iMac 24in 2.4Ghz. What do you think? Jack.

Rob Pegoraro: I think you're buying more computer than you need. That bigger screen comes at a substantial premium over the 20-inch iMac, and the screen on that model is plenty large in its own right. I don't think the faster processor in the 24-incher is worth paying extra for, at least not unless you're going to live in Photoshop or Final Cut.

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Wii Stuff: Got mine last Christmas so I'm not sure but I think it just comes with one Wiimote. You will want Extra Wiimotes, nunchuk controllers, Wiimote recharging system, and games (Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Play, Carnival Games)

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks!

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Vienna, Va.: For the Wii mom:

You need a second controller (both the nunchuk and wii remote) so that both kids can play.

For kids (and adults), the hottest game is Super Mario Galaxy. Other good games - Mario Party 8, Madden 08 (particularly if they are sports fans), Paper Mario, Metroid, and Legend of Zelda

Rob Pegoraro: And more on the Wii

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Ocala, Fla.: The Kindle is totally underwhelming. The device is way overpriced, the cost of books is horrendous compared to what it costs to produce and deliver them, and the DRM is offensive. No thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Ocala gives the Kindle a thumbs-down

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PTG-N100a: From what I've heard and read the Kindle is/almost/Good Enough. Almost. Version 2 is going to get publishers and authors very worried. The situation with scribd vs SFWA is only a precursor.

Rob Pegoraro: Our alphanumerically identified friend is referring to the Science Fiction Writers of American attempting to get works removed from a Web site called Scribd. The Boing Boing blog has a summary: Science Fiction Writers of America abuses the DMCA

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Vienna, Va.: Also for Wii mom: While the wii does have some games included, they just show off the capabilities and your kids may quickly tire of them. They are certainly age appropriate, but you will absolutely need at least one other game.

Rob Pegoraro: One of two additional Wii posts...

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Rockville, Md.: How can I find a Wii?!? I thought that by now, it would be something that I could walk in a store and buy and not have to hunt down when stores MIGHT get a shipment and then wait for hours before they open in the hopes that the shipment did arrive!

Rob Pegoraro:... and here's the second. Any suggestions for Rockville?

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Washington, D.C.: My wife loves the 8mp digital camera I bought her in 2004. She uses the Adobe photo software I bought her in 2005. We take indoor family photos all the time. What can you give someone who has a great camera and usable photo software? She doesn't really want a telephoto or fish eye lens. Have their been great advances in digital photo accessories this year? Right now I bought her a photo and mp3 player to use as a personal photo album.

Rob Pegoraro: I would seriously think about getting a new camera. Anything new should have two features unheard-of in 2004: image stabilization and the face-detection feature I talked about earlier today. Image stabilization alone makes an enormous difference; it opens up entire areas to photography. (For instance, you can finally get a steady shot of the inside of a cathedral.)

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Reston, Va.: Perhaps a basic, dumb telecom question...I got our babysitter a prepaid cell phone so that she doesn't have to carry the costs of cell phone calls when she's babysitting. We got T-Mobile, bought her a Razor phone which quit after a year. I'm not nuts about the choices they designate for their prepaid plan--can I get an phone being marketed as "unlocked for T-Mobile" and use it on their prepaid plan? Are their subscriber and prepaid networks the same? Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: You should be able to use any unlocked GSM phone--unless I'm missing something (note: not a T-Mobile subscriber myself), you'd just pop in the SIM card from the dead Razr and you should be up and running.

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browserville: Don't know if this is the right forum, but I've always wondered about this.

On both IE and Firefox, I have my browser set not to accept cookies. However, some sites, such as this, require them, so I have my browser also set up to clear cookies when closing the program. I close the browsers prior to running either AdAware or a-squared, which both always find cookies. What gives?

Rob Pegoraro: What gives--and I'm sure this isn't the answer you wanted--is that you're wasting your time.

Blocking all cookies, or clearing all of them every time you close your browser, is tinfoil-hat behavior. You gain only a minor level of added privacy at the cost of massive inconvenience to yourself.

The only cookie setting I recommend is to block "third-party" cookies, such as those set by advertising networks. But even then, the privacy risk involved is minimal compared to what you incur by keeping a credit card, paying a mortgage, or carrying around any of those shopper-loyalty cards.

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Lake Elmo, Minn.: Got a Sony Reader. From my perspective the Kindle is not close. The Reader is more flexible with the types of documents that you can put on it (and it's a Sony, if you believe that!) and is far less DRM-restrictive than the Kindle. It's also better looking and more book-like than the Kindle. If you're tempted by Amazon, look at the Reader first.

Rob Pegoraro: I was wondering if anybody would mention the Sony Reader (which didn't get nearly as much attention when it arrived at the end of 2006). Mike Musgrove beat me to the review: Tote a Small Library to the Beach

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Wii Mom: This is the Wii Mom -- Thanks for all of your help! I have printed the answers and will be walking through Target or Best Buy looking for those things that you all mentioned.

I really appreciate it! Happy Holidays!!!

Rob Pegoraro: And to you as well! Good luck...

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Pittsburgh: For Silver Spring: NeoOffice is an open-source (i.e., free) product that can do the MS Office stuff (Word/Excel/ppt), including editing and saving in Microsoft (and other) formats. I've used it for a couple of years and it works just fine.

Rob Pegoraro: Good idea--should have mentioned that too.

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Carrboro, N.C.: Here's where the Kindle loses me--and what it lacks to be an iPod-like success.

I own over a thousand CDs and probably close to that many books. The day I bought my iPod, I took it home and in minutes I could load up anything in my music library to play on my iPod.

Were I to buy a Kindle, I'd be starting from zero: books I already own I'd need to re-buy (or, if out of copyright, find and download) before they'd be available on the Kindle.

I'm sure the publishing industry loves it--they have visions of everyone re-buying books for the Kindle the way we re-bought music when CDs first came out. But from the perspective of a user with a large library, it's missing the one thing that made the iPod worth getting.

Rob Pegoraro: I suppose you could recruit a squad of interns and have them scan and OCR every book in your library...

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Re: Wii: Out of the box, the Wii only comes with one controller set. (There are two parts to a Wii controller -- the main controller, and the "nunchuk". The Wii comes with one controller plus one nunchuk.) You'll certainly want a second controller and probably a second nunchuk.

The game "Wii Play" comes with a controller for only $10 more than a controller alone, so it might be a good deal.

You won't need any extra cables unless you want to connect to an HDTV.

The "Wii Sports" game that comes with the Wii is absolutely appropriate for your kids (and for you!), and I'm sure they will have fun with it. Any other games depends on what your kids like to play. (I would say you probably can't go wrong with "Super Mario Galaxy", if you are looking for something.)

Hope that helps.

Rob Pegoraro: Oh, here's one last Wii-accessories post...

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Winnipeg, Canada: I've been a Facebook user for about a year now and I'm getting more and more leery because of the privacy concerns with Beacon. I've never been under the illusion that I had a lot of privacy when I post information about myself on the web, but I'm not crazy about being tracked all over the place.

If I abandon Facebook, does that accomplish anything (other than expressing my displeasure)? It sounds to me like the sites that use Beacon will still track me and what I do, look at, buy, etc.

Rob Pegoraro: Actually, you and everybody else who didn't like Beacon won--Facebook has made Beacon into an opt-in proposition, and you can also turn off Beacon entirely. (Here's Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's apology on the Facebook blog.) Log into Facebook, click the "Privacy" link, then click "Edit Settings" for external Web sites, and you can set Facebook to block out this option entirely.

Tote a Small Library to the Beach

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re: cookies: Is spybot better than adaware for checking for intrusive cookies, bugs, and media slugs?

Rob Pegoraro: I prefer it, but mainly because it's faster than Ad-Aware.

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Digital frame help please!!: I am looking into purchasing these for my parents and in-laws. I need something we can load up for them with pics of the grandkids, and easy to use so we don't get a million questions after we've given the gift. Everytime I look online at them I get more confused, as most all seem to have several negative user comments, even the pricey ones. Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated. What should I be looking for??

Rob Pegoraro: I'd certainly be more inclined to buy a digital picture frame from a company I'd heard of (say, Kodak). The numbers I'd pay attention to next would be resolution and contrast, with higher numbers being better. Also, make sure the frame has memory-card slots for whatever storage your camera(s) use.

Anybody have suggestions for digital pix-frames to get or avoid?

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Fairfax, Va.: I bought Dell laptops with pre-loaded with Vista for my college-aged kids for Christmas, and want to install them with an older version of Microsoft Office that I already own with available licenses. Am I looking at compatibility issues between Vista and Office?

Rob Pegoraro: If your copy of Office is old enough, yes. Office XP does not work in Vista, according to this handy chart put together by the University of Pennsylvania's IT department: Windows Vista Compatibility Chart

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Kathleen, Ga.: A coworker recently said a better time to buy electronics (computer components) is after the holidays in February. Any truth to that?

Rob Pegoraro: I don't think so. You don't have crowds to deal with after the holidays (aside from the pre-Super Bowl stampede to buy HDTVs), but there are too many Web sites out there for price competition to go away at some times of the year and return at others.

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Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada: I'm having trouble installing Leopard on a G4 iMac. The Finder doesn't work. There is nothing on my desktop but the menu bar, and when I force Finder to relaunch, it quits after less than a minute. I've zapped the PRAM, run the Disk Utility, reinstalled Leopard, ...

Is there a place where I can find others who have had (and I hope solved) such problems?

Rob Pegoraro: Hit the MacInTouch Web site, which has been tracking issues with Leopard and pointing to Apple's tech-support guidance as it changes: www.macintouch.com

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Atlanta, Ga.: I asked this last week but was too late for your discussion: my philosophy grad student son wants an MP3 player for Christmas to play books on tape. No need for video and little need for music. Would one brand be better than another for this? Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: You've gotta ask him where he'll be getting those books on tape--if they use Microsoft's PlaysForSure technology, then you have to get a player compatible with it (meaning not an iPod, not a Zune). If they're all plain MP3 files, any player will do, but I still think the iPod is the best bet for general use.

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wiredog: Rob, Have you played with any of the Archos dv players? Forsee any difficulties in using one with a Mac? Is Handbrake still the best DVD ripper for the Mac?

Rob Pegoraro: Haven't tried any of Archos's players since I reviewed the model they made for Dish Network a year or so ago.

Yes, HandBrake's very good. I haven't tried too many options to it lately, but it's not like I feel any need to--this is one of those rare programs that's free, simple and effective. (Often you only get two out of those three.)

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Now that analog TV is going away, what can I get to replace my radios that receive TV signals?

Rob Pegoraro: Nothing for now--I haven't heard any radios that include ATSC tuners to pull in the audio part of TV broadcasts.

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Arlington, Va.: I would like to get a new laptop with an HD drive, shall I get HD-DVD or Blue ray? I also noticed that most of the laptops these days come with glossy screens that make them uncomfortable for viewing. Any thoughts on what laptop screens are the most comfortable for viewing. Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: Neither. Buying into this high-def format war involves an excessive risk. Why should you have to subsidize the immaturity of studios and manufacturers who couldn't pick one format at the start? Let 'em suffer for a little while longer!

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Londonderry, Vt.: Rob on the Wii may I also suggest a Gamefly Subscrpition .Gamefly is a rental service like Netflix but its for Video Games.

Then the Wii Mom and her kids can try before they buys games. Gamefly also have a great prices on Pre played games.

Rob Pegoraro: I've never heard of this service before, but I'll pass this along nevertheless...

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Fairfax, Va.: i guess i have to get new cell phones for the family. what's the cheapest way to go for a 4 phone family that travel little and doesn't use a lot of minutes?

Rob Pegoraro: You're going to have to check out each carrier's options--the last time I did comparison pricing, I only looked at two-phone rates, and that was several months ago anyway.

You'd also need to make sure that the carrier's coverage would, in fact, cover everybody in your family--a much more important thing than cost alone.

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Alexandria, Va.: Rob, Am looking at 42" Panasonic plasma TVs for the holidays, but the difference in resolution (720p vs. 1080p) is a stumper. A key issue is whether video at less than 1080p - especially standard-def TV - would look better at the lower resolution, because it needs less scaling/altering. Be glad to save some $$$ if that's the case. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: You'll be fine with 720p. Not even marketing types for HDTV manufacturers have tried to tell me that the average viewer will even see the difference between 720p and 1080p on a 40- or 42-in. screen from typical viewing distances.

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Bose Sound Dock Portable: Do you have any thoughts on the new Sound Dock Portable for iPod? I know it's pricey, but it seems there is nothing comparable out there in terms of battery, aesthetics, quality. (Unless you count Logitech's Pure Fi Anywhere, which is ugly as heck, and doesn't look as great quality-wise).

Rob Pegoraro: I doubt I'd buy it--that price premium just bugs me a little too much, and there are plenty of other iPod speakers systems to choose from. But I won't claim to speak for everybody's taste.

What iPod speakers do y'all out there like?

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Thanks for your review of the Kindle; it was interesting to read your comments- and the problem with the freeze-up. I love ebooks (have both of the Rocket editions and use PalmReader on my Zire); this device fascinates me...but aside from the poor design what really makes me stop in my tracks is the DRM incorporated in it. The publishing industry needs to take a good hard look at the millions (billions?) invested in failed DRM stores by businesses and come to a more forward-looking policy. Anything that sells more books to more folks should be encouraged, not impeded.

Rob Pegoraro: You bought both versions of the Rocket eBook? Wow. (This device got a fair amount of publicity when it first arrived, but it had zero long-term effect on the market--it would up being so unimportant that it doesn't even have its own Wikipedia entry!)

(Wait: I don't have my own Wikipedia entry.)

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Falls Church, Va.: Maybe I'm too old, but when it comes to e-book readers, I just don't get it. What is the benefit over an actual book? Is it marginally lighter than a paperback?

There are ads in the Metro for some Sony device that claims to store 160 books, but why would I ever want immediate access to 160 books? At most, I'm only going to be reading one or two books at a time. I don't need to carry around the entire Wheel of Time series, along with all eight volumes of the official biography of Winston Churchill.

Rob Pegoraro: That's a fair question to ask. The e-book may wind up being a niche product for a long time to come, something people only use as an accessory to a book library. (One of my editors suggested yesterday that the Kindle could be a good thing to take on a vacation as an alternative to carrying multiple guidebooks--although its display is less than ideal for viewing maps.)

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Cheverly, Md.: did you review the asus eee pc, thinking about getting a world traveler pal the eee pc..size does matter

Rob Pegoraro: Still testing it--I should have a review out before too long.

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HELP!: I can't find the explanation to this using search engines. Perhaps I don't know the right keywords.

Verizon DSL cable modem is connected to a wifi router 10 feet across the room from my PC. Usually this works fine. But sometimes, when I open my browser nothing opens. I just get "looking for yahoo.com" and then it times out with a "Cannot load dialog" pop-up.

The connection diagnostics say the signal strength is good or better, and it's both transmitting and receiving packets. And I've set the firewall to allow all.

Any idea what is the most likely cause and resolution?

Rob Pegoraro: This is why I hate wireless networking--not because I have these problems, but because readers tell me about them and I have no idea what might have gone wrong, much less how to fix it. If you can't get to any Web sites at all when these errors pop up, it's a general problem with your connection--you can see if it's confined to your wireless network by running an Ethernet cable from the DSL modem straight to your computer.

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Sequim, Wash.: Rob -- I have Office XP loaded on a Toshiba A135-4527 with factory installed Vista. I have used Word quite a bit, Excel somewhat, Access just once for a small project and the other apps not at all. That makes this NOT a comprehensive report, but so far it works just fine. MS, of course, does not officially support this, so if I have problems I'm on my own, but I would be anyway, given MS's current level of support. I'd encourage the guy with the question to install it and see what happens.

My question, though, is also compatibility/availability. I used to do quite a bit of layout with TeX on an Amiga. Many things are quite simple with TeX that are impossible (with Word) or expensive (as with Quark and similar, high end packages).

Is there a good implementation of TeX available at no cost that will run on Vista? -- Steve

Rob Pegoraro: Interesting--so maybe you can run Office XP on Vista. Did you use the compatibility-mode option somebody else just suggested to me?

I have no idea at all about your last question. Sorry!

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Secrets of the Wii...: Rob, as I've already had my Wii for a year, I wanted to help those lost souls out there trying to fill the missing piece in their life. You could wait in line Sunday morning when the stores advertise more Wiis, but the easier and warmer method just requires an internet connection. Walmart and Target often have the Wii for sale on their website, but only in "bundles" that cost $600 and require buying a bunch of games you probably don't want. The secret to doing this method is that you are allowed to return the part of any online order without returning the entire order to a brick and mortar store with a shipping receipt. So return the Wii and keep the games!

Rob Pegoraro: Ahhhh... very sneaky! I like it :)

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Carlisle, Pa.: I just bought a digital photo frame made by a company I hadn't heard of - Tru Photo - believe it's only sold at Linens N Things. What I liked about it was the fact that it is not a widescreen, so it will take up less space on my desk and will not distort photos. I only wanted a small frame, so I only had to spend $50 on black friday.

Rob Pegoraro: I never thought of L-n-T (or its doppelganger, Bed Bath & Beyond) as a place to shop for technology. Maybe I should...

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North Port, Fla.: My wife wants me to download some songs and burn them to CD. I found sites, WalMart, Yahoo, etc. WalMart only charges per song/album-the others I found want a subscription that lets me download but not burn-and give me the -privilege-of paying more to for songs to burn. Is this just the way it is or am I missing something? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: You're missing something--Yahoo (like Napster and Rhapsody) offers a subscription service built on Microsoft's PlaysForSure technology. But it also sells songs individually; you just need to go a little out of your way to choose that option.

However, I wouldn't bother with any of the stores you mentioned. Try Amazon's MP3 store and, if that doesn't carry the tracks you want, get a copy of iTunes--Apple's iTunes Store has the biggest inventory of any music-download store, with no subscription required.

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Fairfax, Va.: I have a 4-year old PowerBook with a battery life of about 2 hrs. I have reset the battery and followed all suggestions on the Mac site. Is this normal?

Rob Pegoraro: Unfortunately, yes. Over four years of being discharged and recharged, most batteries will start to lose capacity. Shop around for a replacement--there are some third-party batteries that claim better battery life than Apple's own models, and they cost less in the bargain.

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browserville, redux: Okay, maybe I am wasting my time, but I'm still wondering where the cookies come from if they're supposedly cleared by the browser. Besides, I look pretty stylish with the tinfoil hat

Rob Pegoraro: Spybot in particular seems capable of finding cookies all the time (although I think the new version released for Vista no longer makes such a fuss over them).

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Silver Spring, Md.: Does the Kindle work with Macs?

Rob Pegoraro: Sure--plug it into a Mac's USB port, and it shows up on the desktop like any other external drive would, at which point you can drag over downloaded books or other files. So you should also be able to use it with a Linux PC (though I didn't test that out).

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Gazing Upon Eye Street: AAC vs. MP3: how much sound-quality difference is there at the higher bitrates? And which is more widely usable on portable devices? Both seem pretty commonplace now, along with WMA.

Rob Pegoraro: From what I can tell in my own listening tests, and in what I've read of comparison tests other people have done, there is very little difference to be heard at those higher bitrates. AAC is supposed to offer the biggest advantage over MP3 at rates closer to 128 kbps.

MP3 is far more usable, although AAC support has really come along lately--the Zune and the PlayStation Portable, for example, both handle AAC files.

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Bethesda, Md.: What's going to happen to older TiVos in 2009 when analog broadcasts end? Do the Series 2 models they sold have a digital tuner built in? Is there a software fix for this?

I was thinking of giving an older series 2 to a friend, but realized this might not be doing them a favor if it will only last a year or so.

Rob Pegoraro: I've read some of DirecTV's Series 2 TiVo units include a digital, ATSC tuner--but not any others. And there is no software fix for that. You'd need to get an external ATSC tuner, then hope that the TiVo's IR blaster could control that. The folks on this TiVo Community thread don't sound very hopeful.

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Bowie: Rob, how big a monitor does anyone need? I'm currently on a 17-incher and don't even have to wear my reading glass prescription. What on earth are 22-inch monitors for? Hi-res spy photographs?

Rob Pegoraro: I've seen *laptops* with 20- or 21-inch screens!

I've got a 20-inch monitor at home, and it is handy for running multiple applications and for viewing multiple online widgets at once.

(This is ultimately somewhat relative. When I had a laptop with a 9-inch display, a 15-inch external display looked enormous. The 17-inch CRT that replaced the 15-incher looked gargantuan. And so forth.)

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Macon, Ga.: I'm no Apple fanboy, but at 128, AAC files DO sound better.

Of course drive space is cheaper, so it's less of a big deal to use bigger MP3 files than it used to be.

Rob Pegoraro: One follow-up to an earlier question. And here's my follow-up to the follow-up: Do AAC files sound better than MP3s when you listen through iPod headphones? Computer speakers? Living-room speakers?

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WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Pegoraro, Thanks for steering me to PDF Creator last week. It did exactly what I needed and wasn't too hard to figure out. As near as I can tell, however, it doesn't allow me to merge the pages I save as .pdf files into a larger, multi-page document, which might come in handy. Do you have any recommendations? Thank you very much.

Rob Pegoraro: I will have to look around. I know there are shareware apps to do this (PDFpen for Mac is the last one I read about), but I don't know about free options. Might make a good Help File item...

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Carrboro, N.C.: So what the deal with HD Radio? I keep hearing commercials for it and would be tempted to check it out, but the radios themselves are relatively expensive.

It makes sense than an HDTV would be more expensive--you've got all that new technology to display lots more stuff on the screen. But HD radio is mostly about tuning in the digital broadcasts, and there's no obvious equivalent of those big bright screens to drive up costs.

So why isn't there an HD radio available for a reasonable price? If I could go spend $20 for a HD clock radio I'd certainly check it out, but it costs $150 or $200 for a shelf unit and nothing smaller/cheaper is available!

Rob Pegoraro: It's bizarre, isn't it? The cheapest HD Radio unit I've heard of is the $100 model a company called Radiosophy sells. It seems that manufacturers are catering to audiophiles who might otherwise, I guess, be looking at that crazy-expensive Bose Wave Radio thing for their nightstand.

(My own gripe with HD Radio--which I've shared many times before--is the near-complete absence of it from audio/video receivers. I've only ever heard of it being included on three ultra-high-end models--a $1,800 Yamaha and some $2,000-plus rig from Denon.)

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Madison, Wis.: This site provides one explanation why Spybot keeps finding cookies on a machine where they are supposedly blocked.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks!

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Sequim, Wash.: Rob - Re: Vista and Office XP -- no compatibility mode, I loaded it on spec and just started routine testing -- opened each program, created a file, saved it, closed, shut down, rebooted, and found everything was there. I suspect the word that they are not compatible comes from MS's refusal to certify them as compatible. And not even MS can afford as many testers as it'd take to check every conceivable action for compatibility.

The newest versions of Office are more visually compatible with Vista, other than that, it appears Office XP has similar functionality. -- Steve

Rob Pegoraro: Appreciate the extra details...

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Re: "AAC sounds better": For me, it's not so much a matter of headphones vs. speakers. It's just that at 128 kbps, compression artifacts are a lot more noticeable with MP3's, especially with cymbal crashes, crowd noises or other sounds that have a natural flanging effect.

Rob Pegoraro: Gotcha. I agree about the general point on higher notes showing more obvious compression artifacts. The first few notes of AC/DC's "Back in Black" can be a good test for that: Do the cymbals at the start sound crisp or blurred?

(You can all thank me now for putting that song in your heads.)

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Bethesda: Is there any discernible difference between brands of CD-R's? If I'm just burning audio CD's and not backing up precious data, is there any reason to look beyond the price? What about blank DVD's?

Rob Pegoraro: I've read reports of cheapo CD-Rs failing after a few years, so I might stick to a name brand. It's not like you're saving a huge chunk of change either way.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Rob, how do I go about removing programs from my desktop computer when the uninstall asks for the discs which I no longer have?

Rob Pegoraro: Oooh, I hate that! You can try the ZSoft Uninstaller (zsoft.dk) I mentioned in Help File; another option is Revo Uninstaller (revouninstaller.com).

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Seattle: I'm so sure the young man in question wants an mp3 player -just- to listen to books. Sounds like a nice way to score a free gadget from mom.

$100 will buy you a Zune30 from Amazon.com. It's not PlaysForSure compatible, but it's the best value-per-gig on the market today. Plus, it's a cooler (i.e., less stale) interface than iPod.

Rob Pegoraro: Heh. Good point about the gift-request strategy...

Not so sure about the Zune 30. It's brick-like compared to an iPod, and it's not going to go over too well if this would-be audiobook listener has a Mac or any other computer not running Windows XP or Vista.

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Audio Quality: Rob - for me, neither AAC nor MP3 files sound good on my living room speakers. CDs or vinyl albums are the way to go. CD prices are actually cheaper in real terms than they were 20 years ago, especially when shopping for back catalog albums from Internet retailers.

Rob Pegoraro: You're not that audiophile nut in Clifton, are you?

Seriously: Just raise the bit rate of an AAC or MP3 file if the quality bugs you. Amazon and iTunes sell 256-kbps downloads, for instance. Or use a lossless format to rip your CDs, which will still take up only half the space of a CD.

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42" Panasonic: For the previous poster contemplating a 42" Panasonic plasma, I have one. As you already indicated, HD looks great, but I will also add that standard definition channels look fine as well. I am 100 percent happy with my purchase.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks!

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Bethesda, Md.: Any thoughts on the One Laptop effort? I should be getting one soon (in case you wanted to review it).

Rob Pegoraro: This is the One Laptop Per Child, the cheap laptop made for use in Third World schools that's now being marketed in the States as well. The hardware looks very impressive--but not the software. The OLPC developer around town that I've talked to, last time we chatted, seemed surprised that OLPC considered this software release-ready at all.

But I'd be interested to hear your impressions when you get this thing. Drop me a line after you've had a few days to play with the laptop, please.

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Seattle: On the CD-R question, and as a former big-time live music trader, absolutely, yes, CD-Rs make a difference.

What you want are Taiyo-Yuden brand CD-Rs. They are a pre-market manufacturer, and are made exclusively in Japan. You know you have T-Ys because the underside of the CD-R will be a deep blue, compared to most CD-Rs that are a light green.

T-Y's are easy enough to find. Any CD-R that says "Made in Japan" (and this can be Fuji, Sony, whatever) are T-Y's. Most CD-Rs you find are made in Taiwan or India; you want to avoid those. Either search online for Taiyo-Yuden (shop4tech.com is a good place), or, in big box stores, be sure to inspect where the CD-Rs were manufactured. If it says "Made in Japan," you're good. If not, don't buy them.

Rob Pegoraro: This distinction is new to me, but I'll "onpass," as people say in newsrooms

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Charlotte, N.C.: I'm buying a new Laptop, and after all the horror stories and complaint's I've heard about Vista, I'm seriously considering getting with XP instead. Your thoughts?

Rob Pegoraro: The Vista compatibility issues are real. But some of the worst of them involve just installing Vista--which you wouldn't have to deal with if you got a computer already running Vista.

Also, Vista isn't going away; the odds are that you'll need to upgrade to it within the life of a computer you'd buy today. Assuming you don't have any programs or peripherals that have been proven not to work in Vista, I'd take the plunge and stick with Vista--which will also afford you a much broader choice of laptops.

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Thanks: Thanks for all your advice this year. Technology is a minefield and you make it easier. Have a great holiday!

Rob Pegoraro: You're welcome! And I'm not done giving that advice--I'll be right back here next Thursday, and the Thursday after that. See you all then...

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