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Personal Tech: Advice for Holiday Gift Giving

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Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Thursday, December 4, 2008; 2:00 PM

The Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro was online Thursday, Dec. 4 to discuss recent reviews and answer your personal tech questions.

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The transcript follows.

Read Rob's latest tech tips in his blog, Faster Forward.

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Rob Pegoraro: Good afternoon! What kind of computers/gadgets/other electronic items are on your gift/wish lists? Which ones aren't? Let's discuss...

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WDC: Hi Rob - I'm thinking of buying a Samsung 40" LCD with as many ports as I can find and with a 4-5 ms (if possible), 720 or 1080 (if I must). But, I'm wondering about their "touch of color" feature - what, exactly, is it, and does it enhance picture quality? Thanks, mj

Rob Pegoraro: This is more of an interior-design question than a technological query... "Touch of Color" is just that, a slight dark-red tint to the bezel (the plastic around the screen). It doesn't do *anything* for the image on the screen, but you may or may not find that it makes the set itself look nicer in your room.

Features like this are your surest indication that the HDTV market is hitting commodity status--manufacturers don't need to sell purely aesthetic additions to a product when they're still figuring out how to make it work.

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Annapolis, Md.: My mom and I are fans of your chats and articles....

Mom has an analog radio with a TV band that she uses regularly while doing things around the house. She's lamenting its demise when the TV stations all go digital. Any idea if similar TV-band radios will be marketed (or do they exist already???) after the changeover?

Any info greatly appreciated--Dad's got it in his head to find her one for Christmas, and I'm not convinced they will exist.

Rob Pegoraro: Your dad's going to have to save that for next Christmas, or maybe the Xmas after that. I haven't seen or heard of any radios with digital (ATSC) tuners. Based on the number of queries I've seen along these lines, there must be a market for such a thing, but nobody's moved to address it yet.

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please help!: OK so this is not the highest tech question but I need help. I saw a great price on a DVD player and mine is broken. Are DVD players going to be replaced by BluRay and is it stupid to buy one? Or am I safe buying the one I saw on sale? The newest gadget is not important to me here but I don't want to buy something I won't be able to use soon. thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: You're safe buying a DVD player--much safer than you are to buy a Blu-ray player. I'm not saying Blu-ray is the next Betamax, but it's a long way from mass-market acceptance, and there's a slight chance that it could be replaced outright by video downloads (if, that is, Hollywood ever gets its act together about online movie availability).

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Bethesda, Md.: Why does Apple offer two sizes of AppleTV?

My understanding of the product is that I'll see everything in my desktop computer's iTunes library on through the TV interface. I understand that some content will be stored locally on the AppleTV box. But can't I pull files down from my desktop to the unit freely? If that's the case, why would the size of the units drive matter, other than if I had a slow home network/wireless signal?

Rob Pegoraro: Originally, the Apple TV didn't allow streaming of photos, as I recall. And you still need the hard drive to download iTunes HD rentals.

That said, my primary advice for Apple TV buyers is: Don't. This machine is due for an update, starting with a bigger hard drive (seriously, where is Apple even finding 40 GB drives these days?) and, I hope, also adding access to more online content, like TV shows on Hulu.com. My sense is that Apple will announce an updated Apple TV at Macworld Expo in January, but I don't have evidence of that--just the company's past practice.

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Vienna, Va.: Rob:

Thinking about buying a Sony Blu-ray disc player (the 350 model). The price isn't that big an issue (its about 199-250) or the price of the discs. Mainly, whether any format changes or firmware upgrades are on the horizon that will make this model less attractive in a few months. Any thoughts on whether to hold out on the purchase of this or any BD player?

FYI, I've got a 42 Toshiba LCD HDTV that I want to hook it up to. Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: Make sure the Blu-ray player has upgradeable firmware (the Internet connectivity required for BD-Live interactivity ought to allow for that).

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Fairfax Va.: On your netbook review you just posted - did you get a chance to look at the ASUS eee PC 1000H? I saw you talked about the ASUS eee PC 900 and the 1000H is so much better (larger keyboard, memory, hard drive, etc)...

washingtonpost.com: Faster Forward: Netbooks Need A Little More Work (Post, Dec. 4)

Rob Pegoraro: No - I decided to focus on the smaller, cheaper models each manufacturer offers. Of course, at the time I didn't know Asus would send such an expensive configuration of the Eee PC 900!

Were I to look at larger models, I'd also have to check out Dell's Inspiron Mini 12, which has a 12-inch screen but doesn't weigh much more than the Mini 9.

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Fairfax, Va.: Rob, great timing with your "Tiny PC" article as I'm considering getting one soon. I've looked at some Asus forums, and it seems a lot of people wipe out the Linux that comes with theirs, and install Ubuntu immediately. Would that improve your view on the Asus? (I haven't used Linux yet, but am not opposed to learning)

Also, the article states: "Storage is yet another area of compromise. Limited amounts of flash memory left only about 3 gigabytes free on the Acer, 10 GB on the Dell and 15 on the Acer." One of those Acer is probably supposed to be Asus... so is it the 3 gig or 15 gig?? Of course they come in so many configurations (Solid state drives and hard drives) that it's probably a moot point anyway.

Thanks for the timely comparison!

washingtonpost..com: Tiny PCs, Full-Size Problems

Rob Pegoraro: Speaking of netbooks--good catch on that stupid little mistake, which somehow escaped the attention of at least three pairs of eyes, my own included. (Have you considered work as a copy editor? :) It's the Acer that had only about 3 gigs free on its drive.

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San Francisco, Calif.: I want an iPhone!! BUT, my company won't go in on the exchange server - I need my email and calendar quite a bit...how good is the safari to get to Outlook Web Access?

Am I missing out not having one?

Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: I haven't had the chance to try out Outlook Web Access on the iPhone - can anybody report on that? (You can use OWA in Safari on a Mac... well, I'm pretty sure that my wife has.)

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Arlington, Va.: I was very excited about the G1 phone from T-mobile until I read your review. Now I'm hesitant to buy one. I don't have internet access at home and I've been debating buying a computer for a long time because I'm just not sure how much I'd use it. I thought the G1 phone would be a good compromise. I'm already a T-mobile customer and happy with their service and I don't plan on using the Mp3 features of the phone. Would you still recommend waiting to see what else comes out? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: The key phrase in your answer is "I'm already a T-mobile customer and happy with their service." My main objection to the G1 was T-Mobile's service--which at the time, didn't even include 3G connectivity in the D.C. area.

The fact that you don't have a computer also comes into play here--the G1, unlike most smartphones, doesn't require a computer at all. It does all its syncing with Google's Web apps (Gmail, Google Calendar) over the air. So if you're already using those, I suspect you'd like the G1 quite a lot.

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Washington, D.C.: Rob, I appreciated today's netbook roundup. It sounds like the MSI Wind is the right choice for people who are comfortable, say, recompiling their Linux kernel.

But I'm curious about your sense of where the market is going. In particular I'd like to know when netbooks with integrated 3G are likely to hit the market, as they have in Europe. I know the Dell can add 3G as an (expensive) upgrade. But in Britain the carriers are subsidizing netbooks to get new subscribers!

Do you think something similar is likely to eventually happen here, or should I go ahead and buy a Wind and USB 3G adapter during the post-holiday sales?

Rob Pegoraro: It's easier to integrate a 3G receiver in Europe, where everybody's standardized on one wireless technology (GSM) and you can move from carrier to carrier by swapping out a SIM card.

FWIW, the Lenovo does include an ExpressCard slot that could accept a wireless data card.

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Washington, D.C.: I am searching for a communication device for my 75 year old father who lives in another state. I got him a cell phone for emergencies if he is stuck somewhere or if he falls down while walking the dog, but even the simple ones seem too complicated for him.

Do you know anything about the 3 button Jitterbug phone with operator assistance? Are they any good? Are the operator's helpful? Is it as easy to work as it looks? Why don't the national carriers offer phones for the technologically enable?

Rob Pegoraro: Here's my review of the Jitterbug (along with a gizmo that prints out e-mails sent to its address):

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/25/AR2007072501994.html

Most carriers have at least one uber-simple phone in their lineup, but it may not be advertised very well on their sites and in their stores. (E.g., the Samsung Coupe Verizon sells, or sold.)

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Sibu, Malaysia: Hi Rob: I've downloaded software to re-flash my Sony Ericsson w200i phone via a dcu65 usb cable.

I hope to clear weird problems - the phone shuts itself off after a minute or so.

Is there any risk to my PC running on XP? Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: Probably not--worst case scenario is that the app to install the firmware update looks ugly.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: I have done some research on car mounted GPS systems and read that although the traffic alert feature sounds stupendous to an L.A. driver, the feature still has some bugs and does not deliver either correct nor timely traffic information. What is your assessment of this feature in the car mounted GPS gadge? What car mounted GPS system do you recommend and why?

Rob Pegoraro: That was my experience when I tried out a bunch of GPS receivers with traffic alerts. The basic problem there is that they have to rely on automated updates, not the kind of detailed advice you get off the radio or (self-promotion alert!) a Web page like washingtonpost.com/traffic.

Here's my advice on GPS receivers (and a few other things):

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/2008/11/gadget_guidance_2008_leftovers.html

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Alexandria, Va.: I've always been a desktop gal, but my PC is ready to retire, and I'm wondering if a laptop is a smarter investment for the next 5 years. I do 90% of my work from a home office, involving internet research, so I need to be able to open multiple tabs simultaneously, and large PDF files. I'm also struggling with the whole Mac/PC issue. Any advice?

Rob Pegoraro: A desktop will cost less than a laptop with the same capability, so if you want to look at it in terms of return on investment, a desktop would make more sense. In other words--at the risk of being Cap'n Obvious--a laptop only makes sense if you're going to move it around at least sometime, even if it's only taking it from the study to the living room.

You should check out a Mac--if the apps you use come in Mac versions or have Mac equivalents. Since you mentioned dealing with PDFs: If dealing with Adobe Reader hasn't exactly rocked your world, you might appreciate the way OS X includes its own PDF viewer, and can also generate a PDF from any other document.

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Apache Jct, Ariz.: Hey Rob, it's been awhile writing you. Now that I've set up my set-box for my digital TV in my guest bedroom, do I still need that round UHF antenna, or can I toss it? Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: You need some kind of antenna plugged into the TV. And it will have to be capable of picking up UHF signals, since that's where most DTV channels reside.

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Anonymous: Hi Rob, I'm intrigued by these seemingly magical devices that can not only play LP's but can copy them to CD's. Some also play CD's, radio etc. What do you think of these? Any recommendations? I've got a lot of LP's gathering dust. thanks for your help.

Rob Pegoraro: There's a $300-ish gizmo I've seen in catalogues (like Hammecher Schlemmer - wow, spelled that right on the first try!), but I haven't tried it myself. I'm not so young that I don't remember what records look like--my brother, in fact, has developed this weird vinyl addiction--but I never bought more than one or two.

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Laurel, Md.: Rob, I have a traffic-alert GPS that I use to choose from among several different roads I could take from the Beltway to my house (note address above.)

It HAS kept me off the BW Parkway or I-95 when I was alerted in advance which one had major back-ups, but it takes 10 minutes from an incident for it to show up.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the real-world testing!

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Cottage Grove, Ore.: Pulling the Plug: If I'm not running any programs accessing it, how bad is it really to go ahead and pull the usb plug on an external hard drive when the Safely Remove Hardware icon tells me repeatedly to wait until later. No longer how long I wait, it's never long enough for the Safely Remove Hardware icon.

Rob Pegoraro: If it's a flash drive, I'd go ahead and yank the thing. As long as there isn't a file open, you're not incurring any risk. But if it's a hard drive, you need to make sure the drive is not spinning, or you could be setting yourself up for a drive crash.

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Safari and Outlook Web Access: I have an iPod Touch and sometimes use it (on WiFi) to check my work e-mail using Outlook Web Access. I think it works pretty well (though most of my basis for comparison is using Safari on other Apple computers -- but I haven't noticed a difference the few times I've used Outlook Web Access on a Dell laptop with Explorer). But due to the size, it can be tricky to select or delete an e-mail (your finger is much bigger than the tiny buttons), unless you enlarge it a lot (and then have to scroll back and forth to read the text). If you need to check e-mail a lot, it could get annoying.

Rob Pegoraro: Another real-world report...

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Ashland, Ore.: Hey Rob,

We used to have a Nikon Coolpix 4500, which is a split bodied camera, that we really loved. I dropped it, and broke the shutter button sent it in for repair and was told it would cost more than it was worth to fix (their quote doubled once they got the camera, the jerks). So we've been without a camera for a long time now and I'd like a new one. Is there a modern digital camera that is split bodied? The closest I could find is the discontinued Nikon S10. Is there somewhere else I should look?

Rob Pegoraro: I haven't seen anybody else working on that kind of design either. The manufacturers seem to have settled on the traditional box shape for point-and-shoot models (one reason is probably that they've gotten better about miniaturizing zoom lenses to fit into thinner cameras and so don't need a variable-geometry setup like on those Nikons).

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Beltsville, Md.: I have Comcast (non-HD) service for my primary viewing. This weekend I was playing around to see if I could get broadcast HDTV through an antenna, and while I got a perfectly clear picture, the INFO menu said it was still 480i reception.

I can't find anything in my documentation that says I have to DO anything in particular to get improved broadcast reception. Is there a piece of equipment I need?

Rob Pegoraro: Poor DTV reception won't knock your signal down to a lower resolution--you won't be able to watch it at all. What you probably saw a channel airing standard-def content--remember, digital TV can be high-def, but is not *required* to be HD.

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Washington, D.C.: I note that the Dell Inspiron Mini 12, which you mentioned, runs Vista Home with 1 GB of memory. Is that remotely possible?

Rob Pegoraro: Possible, but not pleasant. I would not put Vista on any of these netbooks--the sole category of hardware for which Microsoft still licenses XP, precisely because of Vista's hardware needs.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Just a positive review for the G1. I've had it for about a month now and couldn't be more pleased with it. The physical keyboard is great and the Google system is stable and easy to use. T-Mobile's 3G service even reaches out to the boonies in Gaithersburg, where I live, and the service costs about $20 less per month that AT and T iPhone service. The music player is no competition for the iPod, but that's not what I was looking for.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks! I can say that in the two months since that review ran, I've been pretty satisfied with the G1 as a phone and Web device. One major reason: Its browser--even though it runs on the same WebKit framework as the iPhone's Safari--has been *much* more stable than the iPhone's.

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Washington, D.C.: If I want to get someone a picture printer, and she has a Kodak camera, do I have to get a Kodak picture printer?

If so, what's the best big-box deal available?

If not, what's the best brand available (that's affordable)?

Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: 1. No.

2. I don't know.

3. I don't know either.

If by "picture printer" you mean the little dye-sublimation models that only print 4-by-6 photos, I would advise against buying them at all. Those are so cheap to order online, you may never make up the purchase price and operating costs of the printer.

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Sterling, Va.: Gift for myself ... I have a Palm Treo 700p on the Verizon network, and have finally accepted the fact that the Palm OS is dead and there's no use wishing for an update.

The problem is finding a suitable replacement. Verizon seems non-committal to Android, and I'm not convinced that the Blackberry Storm's keyboard won't drive me batty. I need the email, the Outlook integration and the productivity apps. And I really want to stay on Verizon, because I've tried all of the big providers and they seem to be the one with the best service where I am (and in the metro).

Any advice? Do you think the Storm's UI (the SureClick or whatever they call it) is a winner? Or should I limp along on my 700p until Verizon gets its act together and does something with Android?

Rob Pegoraro: The Storm is apparently sold out, and by many accounts it's also not very good. (One example: With the screen in vertical mode, the keyboard switches from a QWERTY layout to the SureType two-letters-per-key layout used on the Pearl. Dumb, dumb, dumb.)

Since you mentioned Outlook syncing, take a look at Windows Mobile phones. A friend got the HTC Touch Pro and really likes it... unfortunately, that one's sold out as well.

I wouldn't rule out Verizon supporting Android. The company will be able to customize Android as much as it wants, which is something it seems to want to do before adding any phone to its lineup.

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Helena, Mont.: Are you familiar with the MailBug, an email only gadget? I know there are no other internet capabilities but we are hoping it will be a good choice for my 85-year-old mother who continues to have many problems sending email from her computer and has no one there to really help her on a daily basis. Thanks! Cindy

Rob Pegoraro: I hadn't heard of it until your post. But for that kind of scenario, a netbook running Linux could work as well (assuming the user has broadband, which isn't always a given).

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Stormville, N.Y.: To anonymous on " ... play LP's but can copy them to CD's". I think a better solution is to use an "LP-to -digital recording system with USB output". From the description of a Sony model : "# easily transfer your LPs to your PC # fully automatic operation". These "gizmos" cost about $150. If you have a record player then using a program such as Roxio Easy Media Creator (often on sale) is sufficient and also allows you to edit the music.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the suggestions!

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Hyattsville, Md.: The Flip Mino seems to be the best gadget for my ubersocial teen sister. However my sister asked for a camera for Christmas. Can the Flip also take still pictures?

Rob Pegoraro: No. You can do a frame grab of a video using the Flip's software, but the resolution of that will make even the worst camera phone's pictures look good.

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Richmond, Va.: The question about the Nikon repair reminded me -- I can't see enough good things about Precision Camera for out-of-warranty repairs. I sent a Sony Cybershot to them and had it back in a week, better than new. On the other hand, their initial quote for the Coolpix model mentioned is $174 + $12 shipping, so yeah, at that point, it's just not worth it.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the recommendation (never heard of this shop myself, though).

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Snowy, Ohio: My boyfriend just hooked up our digital converter box. The quality is so much improved EXCEPT when it snows...which has been almost everyday the past three weeks. Is this an actual problem or did we do something wrong?

Rob Pegoraro: It's not a problem I've heard of--VHF and UHF TV signals should not be attenuated by snow or rain or any other kind of precipitation. (Satellite TV can, however, hence the term "rain fade.") Have you tried changing the position of the antenna? How far are you from your stations?

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Eugene, Ore.: When to purchase next laptop: Will Windows 7 be enough of an improvement over Vista in security and GUI that it's worth putting off a laptop purchase till next autumn?

Great column! Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: Couldn't tell ya - Windows 7 is too far from release to say either way. But you should be able to put Windows 7 on anything capable of running Vista today (Microsoft has said it wants to reduce its hardware needs), so if the improvements are that great you could upgrade later on.

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Rockville, Va.: I've been looking for an A/V receiver to be used with a 52" LCD,FIOS, a blu-ray player and possible future components. Do you have any recommendations?

Rob Pegoraro: The big thing to look for is HDMI switching, so you can route all those things through the receiver. The receiver should also support the latest version of the HDMI standard, which I think is 1.3. Other things I'd look at:

* Bluetooth stereo audio, so you can send audio to the receiver (say, from a computer) and listen via Bluetooth headphones.

* An HD Radio tuner--though the cheapest A/V receiver to include one so far is a $900 Yamaha unit.

* I don't care for satellite radio, but if you do, look for a model with XM and Sirius support.

Anything else Rockville should keep in mind?

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Alexandria, Va.: Rob, what do you think about the Slacker G2 Portable Radio? Is it worth the $250 price tag? Will Slacker still be around in 5 years?

I love the concept of being able to create personal radio stations and updating the player with new music everyday by accessing a Wi-Fi hot spot and all for free.

Rob Pegoraro: I've seen it demoed but have passed on reviewing it so far--my sense is that it doesn't have a particularly bright future when smartphones can include their own Internet-radio software (like Pandora on the iPhone).

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Fairfax, Va.: Glad you liked my catch of the Acer/Asus memory ... but you didn't answer the other question ... if we replaced the Asus Linux with Ubuntu, would that improve things in your eyes? (seems a lot of Asus owners do that)

Rob Pegoraro: That would be a big upgrade--but you'd still have a keyboard that's badly laid out and also a little too small in general. (Even by netbook standards.)

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Blackberry Storm. It's terrible. I have a Treo 650 and played with a relatives Storm over Thanksgiving and couldn't stand it. The HTC model Rob recommended is good, but waiting a bit longer may be a better idea. Patience will hopefully pay off as I wish to upgrade as well!

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the report... I heard a variation on this from a Storm user at a meet-and-greet event we had for PostPoints members Tuesday night. He mentioned, more than once, how much of a learning curve the Storm required. I also noticed that his Storm was visibly slower at moving from program icon to program icon than the BlackBerry Bold I compared it with.

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Chicago, Ill.: Dear Mr. Pegoraro:

I read your recent article on tiny PCs. My wife is in the market for one and she is leaning towards the Acer Aspire One after looking at all the ones mentioned in your article.

She needs it for email and writing letters. Will this unit work for her? Do you suggest something else just as portable or should she just want for a newer models of these tiny pics that you see coming out shortly?

Rob Pegoraro: I think it could. The mail program looks well thought out--it has a wizard that auto configures your settings after you add your e-mail address and account password. It doesn't have the most recent version of Open Office, but what it has ought to suffice for basic letter writing.

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for snowy Ohio: I live in Maryland and my digital converter box has problems getting signals when we have bad thunderstorms. Once the weather clears up, the signal comes back.

Rob Pegoraro: Another data point on DTV and bad weather...

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Potomac, Md.: Rob, have you ever looked at Slide and Negative Converters like the ones sold by Brookstone and HAMMACHER SCHLEMMER for about $100? I have a huge number of photographs that I would like to convert, but I'm leery of spending $100 only to get unsatisfactory results. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: I have not--I don't have any slides to scan, and all the negatives have photos to match. Slide scanners are... well, the kind of niche product I'm just not going to get around to reviewing in most cases. Sorry!

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Madison, Wisc.: Regarding the Watergate at Landmark in house antenna question from the 11/13 chat, I have some ideas. It sounds like they are installing a system that will receive the local digital stations at a central location and redistribute them as local in-house system analog VHF (and possibly UHF) channels so existing analog TVs can get the stations without adding a converter box. So, this benefits those who don't plan or want to get digital sets or converter boxes, but doesn't help those who do get digital sets or want to get HD. Those that aren't helped apparently will have to use their own indoor or balcony mounted antenna (FCC rules allow balcony antennas even if condo rules don't) or get the cable services mentioned. So, the options were to do what they did or simply provide a good antenna hookup that will allow everyone to use a box or a digital set. Perhaps there is some way to combine the over the air digital signals into their distribution system so converter boxes and digital sets work.

Rob Pegoraro: That's my thinking as well, although I have not yet had time to inquire further. (If only the management of this building knew how much we were talking about them here!)

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LCD TVs with 120Hz refresh rate and 60Hz hdmi: Thanks for taking my question Rob. So I am in the market for a new LCD TV and I have a quick question about the 120Hz refresh rate on more expensive sets. I looked up the Samsung LN40A650 on crutchfield's website. While reviewing the specs I noticed the the HDMI 1.3 hook ups on that set "accepts signals up to 1080p (60Hz, 24Hz)." Does this mean that 120Hz feature is worthless because the signal coming into the set is only 60Hz. Here is a link to the samsung specs.

Thanks for your help on this question.

Rob Pegoraro: You won't get an incoming 120 HZ signal anywhere--that's something the TV does. It inserts additional frames (generated automatically by the TV's software) to smooth out motion.

That particular Samsung, BTW, is one of the models with glossy screens. So it wouldn't be the best pick for a room that gets a lot of light.

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Athens, Ga.: I have a Toshiba laptop 4 yrs old. It had two 256 mb ram for total of 512. I wanted to upgrade ram by substituting 1 gb for one of the 256 mb. Salesman said that I should always buy a pair of the same rather than change just one. Is he right? Thanks for advice.

Rob Pegoraro: No, not really. Sometimes, a computer will see slightly better performance when you pair up memory modules, but it shouldn't prevent the machine from working.

That said, I'd normally say "just get two 1 GB modules," because RAM is so cheap, but I can see not wanting to sink a whole lot of cash into a four-year-old laptop.

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All I want for Christmas is an iPhone: Hi Rob,

I am ready and waiting for an iPhone for Christmas. I'd be happy to switch my phone account to AT and T, but my husband would prefer to keep us both on T-mobile (which has good coverage where we live). Both of our brothers live in Europe currently (London and Frankfurt), and will conveniently be visiting for Christmas, so my husband thinks we should have one of them buy an phone without a contract so that I can just put my T-mobile sim card in. Any flaws in his great plan?

Rob Pegoraro: Yeah - you can't buy an iPhone with an unlocked SIM card slot. So even if you bought it out of contract, you'd need to unlock its firmware to use it with somebody else's SIM.

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Slide scanner: I got the one Brookstone sells. It works fine, but since you only scan 1 slide at a time, and the tray holds 3 slides, it's slow going. But so far I think the quality is good.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks!

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Washington, D.C.: HD Radio -- is this the next wave in radio or is it, too, destined to share the fate of Betamax? If it's a real deal, will prices on players come down a bit in the next year? (Is it worth waiting until next Christmas?) thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: That's an excellent question. I can think of few tech products that have had a more thoroughly botched launch than HD Radio--I mean, here we are, more than four years after its debut, and you still can't buy a receiver with HD Radio unless you spend over $500 on it. There aren't any portable HD Radios. And its retail presence is miserable--the Best Buy in Tenleytown, right across the street from noted HD Radio broadcaster WAMU, has never had any sort of advertising or display for the technology every time I've visited it.

What has kept it going, I think, is that once radio stations have spent the money to add digital capability, they're not looking at any major ongoing costs. That, and there a decent number of car stereos--some of which are now becoming standard equipment.

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GPS HELP!!: Hi Rob, I want to get my husband the Magellan Maestro 4350 GPS ... got a special offer from AAA (includes extended warranty, AAA tour books uploaded, free live traffic updates for 3 months and then discounted traffic service , etc) for $350. Then I saw the same GPS on Amazon starting at $269 but without the little extras. Is the AAA deal a good one??? Is this GPS solid or should I keep looking?

Rob Pegoraro: I had a pretty miserable time testing a Magellan unit last year, as you can read in the review I linked to before--but much of that was because the company had shut down its online service for two weeks (!).

However, I'd look at similar models from Garmin. $300 in general may be a bit much to pay for a GPS unit these days. I'm not sure about the value of AAA tourbooks myself, but I may be too used to checking online for tourist-type info (Yelp, etc.).

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Arlington, Texas: When I run a Shields-Up test on my FIOS DSL, it tells me that that I failed the ping test, so a hacker can identify my computer on the web. I use the Windows XP firewall, which apparently allows pinging for Microsoft updating or something. How much of a problem is this? Should I shop for another firewall? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: No, you're fine. The risk of a hacker seeing your computer online is like the risk of a car thief seeing your car on the street--the important thing either way is making sure the bad guys don't break in, and the Microsoft firewall is fine for that.

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Washington, D.C.: Rob, I want to buy my boyfriend an iPod touch for Christmas, but I have a few hesitations. The guy is tech-savy, and likes the Touch, but won't buy one for himself because he thinks they will only get better in time. I'd like for him to have the player for an upcoming trip that we are taking, and the internet browser is an additional bonus for the trip, as well as music, movies, etc. So should I take the plunge? And which model should I buy? I'm willing to pay in the $300-$400 range but don't want to pay for more machine than he needs, especially since we do lose and break these things, and there is always a newer, sleeker model around the bend. Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: The touch sounds like a good idea in this case. If you're going to watch movies on it, get the $299/16 GB model; otherwise, the $229 8 GB would be fine. (There's also a 32 GB, $399 unit, but I'm not so sure about spending that much on a single iPod.)

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Chevy Chase, Md.: FROM MY 17 YEAR OLD SON: ANY RESPONSE?

This guy has no idea what he's talking about. I guarantee you that the Apple TV has the capability to stream Hulu, CBS, CNN, and many other Internet and television-based video sources. It can also play many more media formats than just those compatible with iTunes. And as for sub-$250 Blu-Ray players...well, I've seen a $100 Blu-Ray player.

In short, don't believe this guy at all.

Rob Pegoraro: Your son is probably thinking of an Apple TV modified with Boxee, an add-on, unsupported program. If I owned an Apple TV myself, I'd certainly install that too--but it's not something I'd assume everybody would be up for doing.

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Alexandria, Va.: Rob, I really would like to consolidate my iPod and phone into one device and still use iTunes, which leaves only the iPhone as an option. My contract with Verizon is up in January. I love the Verizon service and am hesitant to leave even though their phone selection isn't very good. What's your opinion of the AT and T service quality in DC and the suburbs?

Rob Pegoraro: Fine except in the subway, where it doesn't exist. (Which is why I won't be getting an iPhone anytime soon.)

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Capitol South, D.C.: Speaking of digital reception, we often have a great digital picture but no sound using our rooftop antenna. Is this a problem with the reception, antenna, TV?

Rob Pegoraro: *No* sound? That's odd. When digital TV signals fade out, both picture and sound degrade, but I've never had the picture stay excellent while the sound drops out.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: I love my CanoScan 8800F film and negative scanner. I've been having a ton of fun archiving my Dad's numerous family slides and negatives.

Rob Pegoraro: Another answer to the slide-scanning query from a while back. Thanks!

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Arlington, Va.: Not a question but a tip for the audience: earlier this year I signed up for FIOS triple play for $109.99 a month. Now Verizon has added more HD channels and has a package called "HD Extreme" for the same price I paid back in Jan. I called them and they said, sure we will upgrade you for the same price and also give you a month free of all the movie channels too. They also are upgrading my Internet connection to 20M/5M download/upload speed.

Rob Pegoraro: Much appreciated!

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Lovell, Maine: Is there some reason that the technical guru's who usually are somewhat listened to by industry have not raised a "stink" about the software that ONLY responds to mouse commands?

I, like you, Rob, am a touch typist (60 wpm) and I appreciate the ability to go exactly where I want to go using a keyboard. After more than 50 years of using keyboards, I have not found a single one that is better than the old IBM Electric. Having to reach down, move a mouse, click something, and then put hands back on the keyboard to enter data or text is a terrible time waster. Further, it seriously penalizes users whose hands--for a variety of reasons--are not rock steady.

I have an IBM Thinkpad portable which is pretty good from a keyboard point of view, but if ANYTHING ever cried out for standardization, it is the keyboard--come on IBM, release the design patents on the Electric. And come on Rob and the rest, put pressure on industry to make decent keyboards for your computers. I simply will NOT buy a laptop without trying it out and even then, if the keyboard is screwy or miniscule, I am not interested even if the machine itself is said to be the best processor on the market.

Thanks.

John

Rob Pegoraro: People do complain about mouse-only software--for one thing, that can mean the app will be inaccessible to somebody with vision problems.

Funny that you mention IBM, though: After a few years of not having a ThinkPad as a primary laptop, it now really bothers me to use one and have to reverse my memory of where the Ctrl and Fn keys are (IBM puts Fn at the outside corner, while Dell and others put Ctrl there).

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Arlington, Va.: Hoping I get this question in! My husband is a big techy/nerd guy. Any suggestions for techy stocking stuffers?

Rob Pegoraro: Have a look at ThinkGeek.com, the site of a local company. All sorts of geeky items there!

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Falls Church, Va.: HDTV: My last dinosaur T.V. died so I got another Tosh 32"HDTV. I have the basic FIOS cable box leftover from the dinosaur on it. Talk about terrible pix. I had hoped to run terrestrial on this one and get the local HD but ... but it's more complicated than it should be. If I want to can the cable box and run only antenna that's one thing. I would be choosing not to get the full range of channels avail on cable and only watch over the air stuff. But, if I want to be able to switch between input sources (cable box vs. antenna) I would have to reprogram the remote in between. Smoke is drifting out of my ears. I guess it will be another 5 bucks/month to Verizon to get the HD box. Any ideas for elegant solutions? I called Tosh too, they advised I choose over the air or HD box b/c the switching between inputs can be complex. Sound right?? Hubby is the other dinosaur to consider ... if it's too complex he can't work it easily. Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: Things shouldn't be that complicated--the Toshiba remote should have a switch-inputs button that cycles through each connection (HDMI, component, etc.). You'd change over-the-air channels with the Toshiba remote or change Fios channels with the Fios remote; no reprogramming needed either way.

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Cody, Wyoming: Hi Rob,

My computer doesn't have enough USB ports to fit my needs. Is there anything available I could add USB ports with?

Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: It's called a USB hub, and it sells for $30 or less. (Though you can pay for a USB hub made to look like something else: http://hubpages.com/hub/Strange-USB-Hubs )

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Bose or not: For a long time I've wanted a real stereo system. Then I realized that I only have CDs and my iPod. I was looking at the Bose sounddock II - I love the design, and I had a good impression of Bose. But as I was looking, I found lots of online comments saying that Bose cost more than it was worth. Am I wasting money going with Bose? I just want a high-quality sound system for my iPod that I can place in my living room.

Rob Pegoraro: See what else you can find. Bose devices may sound better, but they cost much more than a lot of competing hardware. I don't know that I would justify that premium myself.

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Laurel, Md.: Rob, as a proud "late adopter" I read your columns partly because of the summaries like at the one at the end of today's columns -- Netbooks should improve a lot from today's state-of-the-art.

Looking at my favorite techno-discount sites, looks like there are great deals now on automobile GPS receivers and monochrome laser printers.

Anything else suitable for gifting (not things like memory or a new DVD drive) that you think now is really a great time to buy?

Rob Pegoraro: HDTVs and digital cameras are the first two things to come to mind when I think of technologies that have seen rapid price drops combined with major upgrades in capability--"safe" purchases, in other words.

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Colorado: I have a Macbook as my primary computer and an old Thinkpad running XP that I keep around for printing labels (and for those benighted web sites that require Internet Explorer to run properly). I'm tired of Windows and just learned about VirtualBox, which would allow me to load a guest OS on my ThinkPad. OSX is not an option for a guest OS. What have you heard about VirtualBox and what Linux system would be closest to OSX?

Rob Pegoraro: * I haven't;

* Ubuntu - but it's still a long way from OS X.

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Richardson, Texas: AT and T U-Verse may soon be available to me. I presently have Time Warner Cable and internet connectivity. How to I compare the two.

How do I find out the connectivity speeds differ?

I don't even know enough to know what questions to ask and what differences there might be.

I have checked forums on the web but most of the time I am not sure what they are discussing.

Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Each service should state its connection speeds on its site--but U-Verse, as a fiber-based service, should be a lot faster.

The bigger real-world difference, however, is likely to be price. Incumbent cable companies usually charge more than newer competitors.

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Herndon, Va.: Assuming we don't mind tinkering, what would you do to the MSI Wind to get it up to snuff?

Rob Pegoraro: What you'd do with any PC that ships with a lousy software inventory: Uninstall most of the junk bundled with it (like the useless add-on WiFi software), clear the desktop of pointless icons, download and install Firefox, etc.

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Embarrassed to ask: This is embarrassing given how tech savvy everyone on here is, but I've not yet ever looked into buying a flat screen, HD TV nor have I helped or gone with any friends who have bought them. I am 100% clueless on how to determine what I need. I don't even know what I don't know! Any tips for easy to understand resources?

Rob Pegoraro: I suppose you could start with my most recent column...

Tech Shopping? Look Past the Numbers (Post, Nov. 27)

... though the primer I did about flat-panel TV sets from a couple of years ago could help as well, as long as you ignore the prices I cite in it:

LCD or Plasma? Consider Size, Weight, Glare (Post, Nov. 26)

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Washington, D.C.: Rob: I'm sick of The Washington Post's obvious anti-Samsung NC10 netbook bias. No mention of it in today's blog entry? This is why people are turning to Fox News!

Seriously, I received one yesterday, and could touch-type on it right out of the box. The screen is beautiful and it seems to have the same ports/options as the other major players.

Rob Pegoraro: Ha! I saw the NC10 before it launched (Samsung was demonstrating their new laptop line) and did think about including it. I opted to get the MSI Wind instead--I'd heard good things about it from many people--but in retrospect, I'm not sure I made the right call.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Hi Rob! Its Tina. Just thought I'd pop in to ask about what to get Mike and his non-techy parents. They like the GPS system he got for them a couple years back. But they are the kind of people who don't know how to text message (yes, sad)! Mike, on the other hand is tech-savvy, but has almost everything -- iPod, plasma TV, GPS in his car, fancy Suunto sports watch.

Rob Pegoraro: Hello there! Buying a tech item for a tech enthusiast can be kind of risky; there's the chance that he/she will already have clear but unstated preferences. Maybe combine the things you mentioned--get a GPS watch? They're not as huge or expensive as they once were. The EyeFi Explore WiFi-equipped SD Card I wrote about this summer could work too, assuming he's got a camera that takes SD Cards.

For the parents... one thing to explore, if they call a lot, is setting up their computer with a Webcam and a Skype or Gchat account, so they can videoconference instead (and save on phone bills).

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding your comment about Safari's propensity for crashing on the iPhone, this also used to be one of my major headaches about having an iPhone. But ever since Apple released the latest update a couple of weeks ago, Safari hasn't crashed on me once.

Rob Pegoraro: I wish I could say the same, but it's still got a bad case of the crashes on the review iPhone 3G.

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New Jersey: Hi Rob,

Enjoy your columns/chats/blog/tweets :)

We're thinking of finally getting a camcorder that goes with the times. Do you have any thoughts on the Flip Mino or the Flip Mino HD? I guess I'm really not sure how useful a 2X digital zoom will be if you want to capture your kid at a concert or at a martial arts class from the back-benches. I don't feel like plunking a lot of money for something that will only be used a few times a year for these types of events.

Rob Pegoraro: I'd probably prefer the Flip MinoHD, just based on how crummy the regular Flip's video can be. But Kodak also makes a Flip-style camcorder, the Zi6, that a lot of people have had very good things to say about.

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Rob Pegoraro: We're now at the two-hour mark, and my typing fingers need a rest. Thanks for all the great questions--if I didn't get to yours, I'll be back here next week.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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