Personal Tech: Holiday Guide 2007
Thursday, December 13, 2007; 2:00 PM
The transcript follows.
Rob Pegoraro: And here I was thinking that I'd have a slow afternoon, what with baseball fans glued to their TVs to see who gets nailed for steroid use in the Mitchell report that comes out... um, now. Apparently not! It seems that I've got more than enough material to keep me busy for the next hour or so.
But first, one brief note to any PR types who may be reading this chat:
1) Yes, I'm going to CES in January.
2) No, I'm probably going to book an appointment to see your client at the show.
3) That doesn't mean I won't make it to their booth at some point during that week.
And with that, let's go to the phones...
Chevy Chase, Md.: I was really disappointed with your review of the V Cast Mobile TV or Mediaflo service. I have it, and so do my kids, and the picture is unbelievably clear-- better than HD, and there is lots of good programming. It's true that the service does not work perfectly everywhere (neither do cell phones) and that the content could be better (although there is already lots of sports, news and entertainment to watch), but if you show the phone to random folks in the target demographic, I think the reaction you get will be completely different from the one you expressed in your review. I wish you had written something far more balanced and objective.
Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the comment. But I think I can say--objectively--that the resolution of V Cast Mobile TV is nowhere near HD. Verizon's John Johnson tells me that Mobile TV comes in at 320 x 240 pixels, which is just about identical to the resolution of VHS. High-def video is at least 1280 x 720.
Atlanta, Ga.: Were people clamoring for a review of the Verizon television phone? I wasn't, but then what do I know?
Rob Pegoraro: And here's a contrary view. I should note here that I've gotten a total of one (1) e-mail about the column so far--and that was from somebody doing marketing for a company in the phone-video business.
For the sake of my own self-esteem, I can only hope that our spam filter has unintentionally trapped dozens of other replies!
Chicago, Ill.: A question on DVD recorders: I hate the idea of buying anything without a digital tuner, but I don't think I would use one for awhile on a DVD recorder.
Is a digital tuner worth an extra $60-$80? Is there anything new that might be advantageous on a DVD recorder that I should consider?
Rob Pegoraro: Yes, it's worth the slight extra cost. Put it this way: If nothing else, you'll have over-the-air HD as a backup in case your cable or satellite goes out.
Many DVD recorders also include QAM tuners, so you could hook it up directly to basic cable without needing a cable box.
Santa Cruz, Calif.: Hi Rob. My wife's and her siblings' sweet idea to buy a DVD player and Netflix subscription for her elderly parents has dissolved a bit in confusion. The parents have a vanilla 5-year-old Sony TV, and the kids aren't sure a current inexpensive DVD player will connect simply to the TV. Are DVD current models going to work with the older TV? The kids are scattered around the country and would really like to avoid paying $150 to someone's "geek squad" if all it involves is hooking a cable into the back of the TV! Thanks for the help.
Rob Pegoraro: You should be fine. Any DVD player, new or old, should still include the S-Video and RCA outputs needed to connect to an older TV. (S-Video is a black plug, about the diameter of a pinky finger; RCA is a thinner yellow plug.)
Santas' Workshope, USA: Hi-Rob: Is there specific model of about 40" TV that is far superior to others this year? I'd like 3 hours of computer use and 3h daily of cable HD?
Rob Pegoraro: No. Not that there aren't differences in quality and performance among models, but nobody's "far superior" to anybody else.
Athens, Ga.: I recently purchased a new PC with the Windows Vista Home Premium system after years of Windows XP. I am still in the throes of learning the system and just learned that Vista is being replaced by Windows 7. Why is Microsoft so insensitive to consumers by releasing Vista if it wasn't so good that it had to be released after such a short exposure? What excuses do they offer?
Rob Pegoraro: Whoah, Athens! Windows 7 is *years* from being anything you can buy. Microsoft's developers have barely begun to blog about it. There is no point in devoting a single brain cell to this issue.
Chevy Chase, Md.: The point is that the mobile TV picture is as good as the eye can perceive on a screen of that size. It is HD for a small screen. Did you watch the cell phone TV in your car? The signal is perfect.
Rob Pegoraro: I was trying to keep my eyes on the road (otherwise I would have lost count of how many telephone poles I'd passed :)
No, even at that scale I found Mobile TV's picture quality suffered some issues. Anytime the signal was less than strong, the picture started to get blocky and blotchy. Verizon says the system is geared to sacrifice video quality for the sake of a consistent audio stream if the signal weakens, which I think is the right idea--but I couldn't help but notice the consequences of that.
Vienna, Va.: My 12-year-old wants an iPod and I want to get him a non-i clone. Am I being a bad mother?
Rob Pegoraro: Probably. Sorry! Hopefully he only asked for an iPod nano, not the more expensive Touch or Classic models.
Saint Petersburg, Fla.: Hi Rob, I have a batch of my dad's old home movies, taken back in the 50's and 60's, that I want to put on DVD for family members. The movie stock is in surprisingly good shape, and I even have Dad's still-functioning Kodak projector. I'm concerned, though, about a conflict between the frame rate of the projected image and the scan rate of whatever camera I end up using to feed a video signal to the DVD recorder. Should I be concerned? If so, are there mitigating techniques or equipment? Tks.
Rob Pegoraro: I have no idea about this, but I'll throw it out there for the folks in the audience--how should St. Pete try to work this?
Silver Spring, Md.: Hi, Rob. I am going to buy a new desktop PC some time within the next year, and I want it to be the "media center" type. Do you know of any technologies that will be introduced or upgraded in 2008 (such as DDR3 and cable cards that don't take 2 days to install) that I should wait for? And do you know when Lenovo's consumer division will open for business?
Rob Pegoraro: Can't think of any impending breakthrough technologies in desktops for next year... you might get more affordable HD DVD or Blu-Ray recorder drives, but that's all that comes to mind.
Lenovo is having some event at CES to announce/celebrate the launch of its consumer line. So think no later than Jan. 10
Honolulu, Hawaii: Hi Rob - Thanks so much for your columns and advice. I'm considering getting signed up with Verizon's broadband access service for DH's big Christmas gift. (Well, OK, I guess I'd use it, too!). I'd probably go with the USB device for transferability but wondered what you and the legion of smart readers had to say about the service vs its competitors and in general. It's pricey for sure but if we got reliable service everywhere Verizon has cell service it could be worth it. For those who are interested, it works well on several islands here in Hawai'i - I've had friends who've even used it in the midst of field work to access mapping data.
Rob Pegoraro: When I tried VzW's BroadbandAccess, I was pretty happy with its performance and speed as well. But you do need to keep in mind the service's usage restrictions and 5 GB monthly bandwidth quota. For a lot of people, those things won't make much difference--but some folks have been less than thrilled to find out about these issues.
Washington, D.C.: Rob,
Thank you for taking this question. I've been on the Palm platform since 1997. My Cingular Treo 650 is end-of-life and needs an expensive audio jack repair. I'm looking at new phones and providers, and I can't seem to quit the Palm. I use the DataViz documents, Pocket Tunes for streaming audio, Passwords Plus, and Garmin Mobile XT with a Bluetooth GPS.
It seems like the Verizon 700p, $100 from Amazon.com after MIR is the best deal for me. I get to keep most accessories, my apps, and then get better Internet.
The iPhone would leave me without these apps and is a closed platform. A Windows Mobile might be a substitute but costs more and offers a more bloated UI. I'm currently on a grandfathered $20 unlimited digital EDGE/GPRS plan with AT&T, (and they haven't kicked me off for being a hog), so I'd definitely have to pay more per month--may even with a 3G phone on AT&T.
What are your thoughts?
Devoted Treo User
Rob Pegoraro: You don't sound like you're looking for a reason to switch platforms, which is understandable. I'm glad you've found a good price on the 700p, because in terms of hardware, it's a deeply unimpressive update. If you think of it as getting a 1.2 version of your 1.0 Treo 650, you'll have the right attitude about it.
Vienna, Va.: I want to buy something that is apparently impossible: A clock-radio that will play CDs, cassettes, and MP3s, AND has a readable clock. The idea is that I'd like to have only one appliance in my room rather than several. Why has this been so hard to find?
I listen to a lot of audio books and they come in all three formats.
Rob Pegoraro: That's because cassettes are dead as a music format. You can get something that does CDs and MP3s easily enough, but tapes? I think you're out of luck, unless somebody here can point me to whatever combo device I've overlooked.
BTW, what audiobook providers are still offering content only in tapes? How do they stay in business?
hd dvr: A few weeks back, someone asked about a non-subscription hi-def dvr. We have a Sony DHG-HDD250, which receives tv schedules broadcast with a local station (i.e. free!). A quick look seems to indicate these are no longer being sold, but it might be worth considering watching ebay or the like.
I love ours -- my only complaint would be that we should have bout the hdd500 version (2x the hard drive space) since my husband insists on storing every episode of Chuck!
Rob Pegoraro: Thanks. "hd dvr" is referring to the exchange we had here about the lack of no-subscription digital video recorders--the only current, non-computer hardware either comes from TiVo or cable and satellite providers, all of whom will charge you a monthly service fee.
Looks like a total case of market failure to me. In most categories of consumer electronics, if one company insists on socking its users with a monthly bill, somebody else comes up with a way to wrap those service costs into the upfront purchase price.
Colorado: I have a digital recording of my daughter's theatrical performance and the file is 303MB. Is it too big to send via e-mail? and if so, is there a way to compress it?
Rob Pegoraro: Um, yeah, that would be just a *little* too big for e-mail. That's even too huge for YouSendIt, which caps file sizes at 100 MB.
You can compress it by converting it to a more portable format like Windows Media or QuickTime, but if it's a long recording you may not be able to squash it too much. In that case, burn the sucker to a CD and put that in the mail instead.
Chattanooga, Tenn.:...but if you fail to book an appointment, you may miss out on your chance to see next year's television phone!
Rob Pegoraro:... or I may miss out on my chance to see next year's iSmell!
(Note: Not a joke, this was a real product from a company called DigiScents.)
Beltsville: RP: BTW, what audiobook providers are still offering content only in tapes? How do they stay in business? My public library.
Rob Pegoraro: You should ask for your money back!
HD DVD or Blu Ray: Which one should I buy for my movie-addicted husband for Christmas this year? If I understand correctly, this is the like the BetaMax/VHS debate from years ago. Will Sony (and the Blu Ray) lose again?
Rob Pegoraro: At least one of the two high-definition video disc formats will lose, but it's possible that both will. DVDs have an enormous installed base, and on a lot of not-enormous HDTVs they can look pretty good from the average couch, especially when "upconverted" to something that looks more like HD.
So I'd get an unconverting DVD player--or recorder--instead of either a Blu-Ray or HD DVD player. (Note to the manufacturers: If I could buy a Blu-Ray or HD DVD player that also recorded DVDs--or, better yet, recorded in one of these high-def formats--I might have a tougher decision to make.)
Washington, D.C.: Regarding the question on conversion of old movie film to DVD - the best option is to have this done by a DVD conversion service (do a search for these places) that will scan the movie film frame-by-frame and recompile the results into a video-compatible output. This is the only way to avoid objectionable flicker and/or blended frames. Less expensive methods may rely on "speeding up" the original movie frame rate in an attempt to eliminate flicker.
Rob Pegoraro: Thanks!
Question: If I get a hi-def tv, will I be able to better see up close the debilitating effects of steroids on my favorite MLB athletes?
Rob Pegoraro: Well, I hope not *all* of those effects :(
Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Rob. Just got a ThinkPad R61e with Windows XP. When in my user account, all is well. But when trying to use another account, we get the blue screen of death every time. Tried deleting the other accounts and creating brand new ones; same result. We just want two accounts that work like the one functioning one. Where do I begin?
Rob Pegoraro: Every time I think I've heard of every weird bug in computing, I get something like this. The only thing I can conceive of is that your ThinkPad's hard drive has got some nasty data corruption that somehow hasn't spread to the primary user account. But that is only the wildest of guesses.
Any theories to explain this one?
From Daniel Greenberg- Film to DVD: It is possible to buy the equipment to transfer film to DVD, but the process requires some skill to get a good transfer. It is a lot easier to take the films to one of the transfer services. But keep a few things in mind.
The video will not be archival quality. It will degrade your film image for more than the frame rate issue you point out. DVD uses a lossy compression. It is possible to get a full frame backup, but this will be more expensive.
DVD is also not an archival medium. DVDs themselves can degrade. If you make a DVD transfer, rip the DVD to a hard drive and make regular backups.
Look at some sample DVDs that the company has made to see if the quality is good enough for you.
Rob Pegoraro: Here's some good advice from veteran Post freelancer Daniel Greenberg (if you read Sunday's Travel section, he contributed to the guide to travel gifts there).
Columbia: Now that their days are numbered, what did you think of CompUSA?
I bought a desktop from them, and it cost me $100 more than quoted because they either lied or were completely incompetent about explaining that the mail-in rebate terms were.
Now, I won't even look at a desktop package with more than $50 in rebates, figuring that's what I'm willing to lose.
Rob Pegoraro: Good old CompUSSR... I wrote an obit of sorts for them on my blog when they closed all their D.C.-area stores, and was a little surprised to see 100-plus comments within a day or two. (Most were from people who wanted to take their turn shoveling dirt on the store's grave.)
My recollections of that store focus more on bad advice from the sales reps and non-functioning computers on the show floor. (Though the same description could apply to most computer retailers!)
Would anybody else in the congregation like to share their memories of the departed at this point?
Upconverting?: I recently purchased a 720p plasma TV, and I'm wondering if you can explain upconverting DVD players. Is an upconverting DVD player necessary? I read somewhere that most HDTVs are already capable of upconverting.
Rob Pegoraro: See how your TV handles standard-definition video. Many do have some sort of "line doubler" or similar technology to try to upconvert that, which can take the place of upconversion in the DVD player. In some cases, you may have to turn on this function.
I've asked people at a few different electronics companies which kind of upconversion is better--in the player or in the TV--and they've all said versions of "it depends."
Dover, N.J.: Hi Rob - I have a 3-yr old Windows XP PC which my friend help configure. He partitioned my 30 GB internal hard drive into C and D drives, with Win XP being on C drive and other installed programs (games, dvd software, etc.) on the D drive. I have another internal hard drive (E) of 40 GB and an external drive (G) of 120 GB.
In the last 6 months I have started getting a "Low Disk Space" warning for my C drive. This never popped up before (I am assuming some patches applied to XP are causing this). Anyways, is there a way to re-partition my 30GB hard drive to give more space to C while taking away from D? D has about 8 GB of free space.
Rob Pegoraro: This is why partitioning hard drives is a bad idea--you're always going to run into this problem unless you set it up with ginormous C: drive partition.
The just remedy for this would be to make your friend undo his mistake. But if he won't, your cheapest option is with a free program called GParted that you can burn to a CD, then boot off that disc to change the size of partitions. It can't merge partitions, but if you make the C drive big enough, you can copy everything from D back on to that--at which point you can delete the D partition and expand C to fill the entire hard drive.
It's a free download at gparted.sourceforge.net (make sure you get the "LiveCD" download)
If you want to merge partitions right away, you'll have to shell out some money for a copy of PartitionMagic or some other commercial utility.
Woo Hoo...: I managed to find and order a Wii online. Without all the unnecessary "bundled" games, and without having to pay a lousy scalper. It's for my young daughter (7), but really for me. Now, the most sophisticated I ever got with games was Ms. PacMan...any recommendations for games that both of us would enjoy?
Also, new laptop is on my horizon in early 2008. I bring lots of work home (we're an MS Office place), would I have a hard time w/a MacBook and Office for Mac?
Rob Pegoraro: Congratulations on your find! If you pull up last week's transcript for this chat, you should see a bunch of suggestions on what would go with a Wii. And I'm sure people will be adding their own here momentarily.
By early 2008, you'd be looking at the new Office 2008 for Mac, which--unlike earlier versions--no longer supports macros created in Office for Windows. That's the only compatibility issue I can think of... I've been moving files between Mac and Windows copies of Office for years and have never had anything to worry about.
Hudsonville, Mich., to Colorado --: Why don't you post that video on YouTube? You don't have to make it public, then just email the link to someone else. I have done this for relatives in Washington state and also my kids in college -- works great. Colorado, you will need to set up a free YouTube account, but that is easy enough.
Rob Pegoraro: Could work, but YouTube clips can't be longer than 10 minutes--I suspect a 300-meg clip runs a lot longer than that.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Shalom Rob. remember a while back I caused a furore when I asked about IE6? You put ur angry foot down and told me to switch to Firefox and abandon IE altogether. You even wrote a column about it. I have a progress rapport. I had no heart of abandoning IE so I upgraded to IE7 and magic. No more errors or crashes, didn't have a problem since. I'm very happy with the upgrade. IE works good I regret I didn't upgrade before. I guess you don't get to many happy IE people but I wanted to share this with you. Had my problems persisted in IE7 I for sure would have moved to Firefox. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Enjoy the CES
Rob Pegoraro: You're welcome, and I'm glad you were able to get past IE 6. See, it ain't so bad!
Washington, D.C.: Re home movies to DVD - I've got a ton of home movies in the basement too. There are lots of companies that provide transfer services, to digital tape, VHS or DVD. One that comes to mind is mymovietransfer.com. I haven't used them (yet) but their web page seems to cover a lot of the questions one might have when considering choice of firms. I'm sure a Google search would turn up many more.
Rob Pegoraro: It should. Around here, for instance, I think that Ritz Camera shops now offer this service.
Arlington, Va.: Have you heard of any problems with the latest Firefox update (184.108.40.206)? After it automatically updated it stopped working although IE still functioned. I looked at all my firewalls and support on the mozilla site and everything checked out fine. I did a virus, spyware check and that was okay too. When I did a system restore to Firefox 2.0.10 I got a weird spybot warning about kernelfaultcheck trying to change my registry. I had no clue what that meant so I denied it. Firefox then worked until it automatically updated (you can't say no to the update) and then ceased functioning again. After the same spiel I disabled the auto update of Firefox and now I'm back to figuring this out. What's strange is that my wife's laptop has the same OS (XP) and antivirus program (pc-cillin) and has no problems with the update. Could my Firefox be corrupt and will an uninstall/reinstall remove enough of Firefox? Any help is appreciated. Also how damaging are system restores to the system?
Rob Pegoraro: Firefox user profiles can get corrupted sometimes--but I don't know that a system restore would un-corrupt them. Anybody got any ideas about it?
(BTW, System Restores shouldn't affect your system's health. They just take a fair amount of time.)
From Daniel Greenberg- Don't Throw out that Treo: Don't throw out that Treo just because the audio jack is not working (a common Treo malady). Your Treo is likely covered for a free repair, as long as the headphone jack does not look like user damage.
I recently took an aging Treo 650p to Sprint for a similar kind of minor repair and received a brand new Treo 755p.
And, because it was not a new purchase, it did not force me into a new 2 year contract.
Rob Pegoraro: A-ha... there may be a Plan B. Thanks, Daniel!
DVD adapter: My older television required an adapter to hook up the DVD player, since the tv didn't have the required inputs. The adapter was about $40, and it requires me to throw a switch every time I use the player.
Rob Pegoraro: Does your TV not have RCA or S-Video inputs at all? If so, you're using something called an RF adapter--but no TV made in the last 15 years ought to need that kind of gadget.
Washington, D.C.: Hi, Rob, I listen a lot to music streamed over the Internet from radio station using either iTunes or WMP. The quality of the audio seems to vary from station to station. The worst offenders sound fine when they start, then begin to hiccup after a few minutes or drop off for long stretches. Is this due to my broadband connection (which I could see if every station had this problem) or is it an issue with that particular station's streaming technology? Thanks!
Rob Pegoraro: Could be either one. The only way to know for sure would be to try switching to a different Web station the next time one starts to drop out--if the second one does no better (and a third or fourth have the same problems) then it's probably your connection.
Is there any mechanism to copy a VCR tape to a hard drive?
Rob Pegoraro: Yup--just not quickly. You'll need a analog-to-digital converter box for your computer to add a set of video and audio inputs, plus digitization software.
Another option is to buy a device that can do the conversion for you directly. Some portable media players offer this function (I'm thinking of a few Archos models) and there's also a standalone box called the Neuros that can record video in digital form, which you can then transfer to your computer.
Help!: Hi Rob,
I'd like to get my husband a multi-disc changer for Christmas, but the pickings are pretty slim -- I'm guessing most people rip cd's rather than storing them? Anyhow, he is never going to do that, so I'm in the market. A salesman at circuit city gave Sony's cd/dvd 400 disc changer a glowing review (hmmm), but it gets mixed reviews on amazon (model DVP-CX995V).
Do you know anything about these? Is the quality of the cd/dvd player any good (we have a 52" hd tv)? THANKS!!!
Rob Pegoraro: I haven't even thought about CD changes in a while--the computer *is* the CD changer these days.
Amazon reviews can help you assess a product, but you need to read them carefully. Are people complaining about things that the manufacturer could have fixed, or a generic issue with this type of product? Are they comparing the thing to competing models that they've used, or their idea of the perfect device in this category?
MBA Husband: Rob, My wife is starting an MBA program that requires a laptop. We have always been a PC family, but we are considering a Mac Book.
The Mac runs a little more then a Windows laptop for similar specs. Other then the relative safety from virus' do you think there is a reason to buy a Mac over a Windows machine?
I am familiar with PC specs, but not Mac's. Would processor speed and Ram have the relatively the same importance in either one?
Rob Pegoraro: I'll answer this in two ways--why to get a Mac instead of a PC, then why to get a PC instead of a Mac.
Why get a Mac?
* Vastly better track record of security
* Much simpler to set up and, more important, maintain over time
* Much better set of bundled software
* No anti-piracy mechanisms looking over your shoulder
* Excellent hardware design
* Can still run Windows if that becomes necessary
Why get a PC?
* Apple doesn't make some popular types of computers, like cheap-but-heavy laptops
* You can always find a PC that costs less than the Mac you were considering, even if it can't do as many things as that Mac
* Much wider choice of software
* Some programs and online services require Windows
* Far better for playing games
Processor speed is about as important (not much) on either platform, but I think RAM matters a little more in Windows, just because Vista needs so much of it.
Alexandria, Va.: Can you recommend an HD radio? Are they worth it?
Rob Pegoraro: It's not a tech-shopping chat if I don't get an HD Radio question :)
I like HD Radio as a service--the bonus channels you get are a great idea--but I don't like the selection of compatible radios. You'll have the best choice in stereos for your car, but for use in home you're limited to some audiophile-oriented tabletop models. They're all pretty cheap compared to a Bose Wave Radio, but not to most other AM/FM radios.
Marietta, Ga.: Speaking of libraries and audiobooks... Does the recent announcement that Microsoft is killing off the PlaysFerSure nomenclature affect my ability to rent audiobooks from my local library over the internet?
Rob Pegoraro: No, it just ensures that everybody's going to have a lot more trouble figuring out Microsoft's digital-music strategy. (I'll have more on this in my blog tomorrow a.m.)
Stormville, N.Y.: Rob, a Merry Christmas to you!
Thank you for all the valuable information, your responsiveness, and your patience.
Rob Pegoraro: You're welcome!
Rob Pegoraro: And on that note (no, I didn't plant the question!) I have to sign off. Thanks for keeping me busy as usual. I'll be back here for one last pre-Christmas chat next Thursday. Talk to y'all then!
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