Personal Tech: Advice for Holiday Gift Giving

Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Thursday, December 11, 2008 2:00 PM

The Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro was online Thursday, Dec. 11 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss recent reviews, answer your personal tech questions and provide gadget advice for this holiday season.

The transcript follows.

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


Rob Pegoraro: I'm typing this to you from inside a copy of Windows--but is that copy running on a PC or inside a virtual-machine program on a Mac? Guess!

Or you can just ask me about today's column on virtualization software for a Mac. Or you can ask me about any other personal-tech topic you've got in mind. Let's get started...


Anonymous: You discussed recently the differences between Blue-ray DVD players and others that were cheaper, but I cannot locate this article (please provide the link). Can these new DVD players also play CDs and can they hook up to a TV set that is about 10-12 years old? More Gamble Than Gift: This Holiday Season's High-Tech Duds (The Washington Post, Nov. 20, 2008)

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the link, Michele!

Answer to your first question is yes. (Note to extreme audiophiles who have asked about this in the past: Denon just announced a Blu-ray player that also plays SACD and DVD-Audio music discs. All three of you should be very happy at the news :)

Answer to your second question... well, it's two answers. No--Blu-ray players require a digital HDMI connection. More important, why would you hook up a high-def video source to a standard-def TV? Am I missing something, or is that rather pointless?


Fairfax, Va.: I don't have wireless network at home -- does that mean that an iPod Touch will not be able to access the Internet from home?

Rob Pegoraro: Correct. No WiFi, no Internet for the touch.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Rob, do you have any opinion on the Flip Camcorder? It's on my pre-teenager's wish list and I'm seeing prices that range from $100-$170. Is it worth it? Why the price difference? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: If one of your favorite pastimes is uploading clips to YouTube, it's hard to find a much easier way to do that than the Flip. But its quality and recording times are pretty limited. (There is an HD version of it now, but I haven't had a chance to try that out. FWIW, I'm also hearing some favorable things about Kodak's Zi6, a Flip-style digital camcorder.)


NOVA: Hey, Rob! My 2-year old flat screen (not flat panel) bedroom TV died a few days ago. First the screen went out (I could still hear the sound and change channels), now its all dead (but I can turn it on and open the DVD player).

Two questions:

1. What should I look for in a small bedroom TV? Are LCDs in the 26" size pretty much the same price as box TVs? How bad will the picture look without an HD box?

2. I'm sure that someone out there could fix the nearly-new TV. Is there some organization that I could donate it to that fixes up electronics and gives them out? Or am I better to take it to the electronics recycling place in my city?


Rob Pegoraro: 26-inch LCDs have gotten really, really cheap. I won't say "as cheap as CRTs," but that's mainly a consequence of the near-total disappearance of tube TVs from the market.

Unless an LCD is sold and labeled as a monitor, it will include a digital (ATSC) tuner--so if you get a good signal, you should have an *outstanding* picture.

I know of organizations that fix up semi-busted computers, but I'm not aware of any folks doing the same TVs. If you've got any suggestions, send 'em my way!


South Riding, Va.: I have been using an HP IPAQ for about four years now. I figure it is almost time to replace it. I don't really use my cell phone, so I am not interested in a Blackberry or smart phone. I am fine with the Internet hotspots. Any good deals on the PDA front? Maybe something with a built in GPS device.

Rob Pegoraro: The PDA business is pretty much dead outside of the iPod touch (which retains its relevancy because of the iPod connection). There are some GPS receivers that offer limited personal-organizer functions, but the ones I've tried have all been awful PDAs.


Pasadena, Calif.: About a month ago, I enabled Time Machine on my Mac Pro, installing a second internal hard drive for the back-ups. About twice a week, I get error messages telling me that Time Machine was unable to execute a scheduled back-up. If I immediately force a back-up, the back-up executes without any problem. If I ignore the error message, the next scheduled back-up executes without any problem. Basically, 99% of the back-ups work perfectly, and there's some kind of phantom glitch 1% of the time. Is this normal Time Machine behavior, or is there a problem here I need to address?

Rob Pegoraro: That's not behavior I've seen on my own Mac, but I've seen other reports along those lines. You might want to try setting up the Time Machine backup from scratch (though the trick here is making sure that your Mac doesn't get hit by asteroid in the interval between your deleting the existing Time Machine backup and getting the new one finished).


Donate used computer: Old Pentium 4, 2.5Ghz, 60GB hard drive 512 RAM, Windows XP SP3, all clean and ready to go.

Anybody in Northern Virginia that will take this and use it for good?

Rob Pegoraro: Almost certainly. See last year's Help File item on computer recycling (which I will recycle myself when I redo that advice sometime this December):


Bethesda, Md.: A possibly stupid Windows-on-Mac question: does the virtualization approach allow you to use streaming video normally restricted to Windows users only? I assume this can be done using BootCamp, but can I also access such video in one window while booted into the normal Mac OS?

Rob Pegoraro: Yup: You're running a real copy of Windows, and none of the DRMed Windows-only video services require the kind of graphics-processing power that eludes these virtualization apps. (But it looks like many of the major Windows-only video services are going cross-platform; Amazon and Netflix, for instance, now support Mac OS X.)


10028: I want to backup data on my year-old iMac, on an external hard drive, I guess. Assuming that's the way to go, and given the fact that I have a minimum amount of data and applications to protect, what specs would you look for? I want to keep the costs down, of course, and mainly do word processing, some numbers. No video, no photos, only a few tunes to store. Brands? Thank you again very much for the tips you've already given, and hey, Season's Greetings.

Rob Pegoraro: My standard advice here is to get a FireWire/USB, bus-powered external drive. The FireWire connection will keep your USB ports free, and "bus powered" means it won't need a separate wall outlet.


Fort Collins, Colo.: Hi Rob, I read a lot of electronic papers, which are stored on my computer as PDFs, but I struggle to keep them organized. Do you know any sort of database or organizer software that could help me? I'd love it if I could search for all the papers that deal with a certain topic, or that are authored by a certain person, etc. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Google Desktop indexes the content of PDFs and makes them searchable (as does Spotlight in Mac OS X and Windows Vista's built-in search).


Deltona, Fla.: Are there any security suites available for hand-held computers (smart phones, PDAs, etc.) and specifically for the Windows Mobile operating system?

If so, has any review been done of how well they work?

Rob Pegoraro: You can run anti-virus apps on many handhelds, but I've never seen the point of them. There hasn't been any serious threat on those platforms... I certainly wouldn't spend my money on one.

(Here's a story I wish I'd seen more coverage of: a comparison of the history of virus attacks on Windows versus on Windows Mobile.)


Washington, D.C.: Can you recommend a good all-inclusive remote control to handle my TV, DVD player, VCR, DirectTV, Tuner, etc? I've grown tired of having so many remote controls that I don't understand.

Rob Pegoraro: A lot of people seem to like Logitech's programmable Harmony remote, but don't forget the "programmable" part of the description; that may be too much capability for you.

There are the simpler, cheaper, non-computer-linked remotes you can buy in any electronics store, but they always seem to fail to control one device in the living room... at least, that was the case when I bought my mom one of those a couple of years back.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Hi! I teach online. What's the best video camera communications service to use now? Skype (its Beta version) is so much nicer now, I'm using that. But what am I missing? What works best, looks best, responds best to different computers, which works best for a PC user to use with a MAC user, that sort of thing. Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: Skype is what I recommend for that scenario as well. Some folks seem to like Sightspeed, but with Skype you have the advantage of its popularity; the people you'd like to chat with may already have the Skype software installed.


Washington, D.C.: I am confused about Time Machine. Can it just be added to my two year old Macbook? On the Apple website, when you click to buy it you get the operating system page. I don't think I need a new operating system, do I?

Rob Pegoraro: If you're not running OS X 1.05 Leopard, you do need to update your OS. In that case, I'd try the iBackup app I mentioned on my blog a while back:


Bethesda, Md.: There's a commercial package, QUOSA, which is very good at managing PDFs, especially when most of the PDFs are downloaded from the scientific literature. It also integrates with reference manager software such as the commercial EndNote.

Rob Pegoraro: Here's a PDF-management option I'd never heard of... thanks!


Bethesda, Md: Rob Pegoraro: The PDA business is pretty much dead outside of the iPod touch (which retains its relevancy because of the iPod connection).

Does the Touch synch with MS Outlook? Looking to ditch some of my portable electronics, and as you say, the PDA biz is dead. I was thinking a Blackberry or smart phone (what's the difference?), but the iPod idea is intriguing. Is the iPhone an option?

Rob Pegoraro: Yup, both the iPod touch and the iPhone sync with Outlook (but contacts and calendars only, not tasks or notes) through iTunes.


Central Mass.: Hi, Rob. My housemate and I currently share an iMac. We both need regular access for work, as well as email and the usual Web access. We thought we'd kick in and give each other a second Mac for Christmas. (There, that's the holiday gift link).

I know we'll need some kind of a network, such as an AirPort or Time Capsule setup. However, we both do online banking under the current setup (one computer, cable connection to the modem). Do we need to be concerned about security if we go to a wireless network?

If so, is there a way to do an A/B switch kind of thing, where we are connected through the cable for the hour or so a month that we spend doing online banking, and going through the wireless network the rest of the time for regular Web access? Thanks for any help.

Rob Pegoraro: No - as long as your bank uses standard SSL encryption (which it should if it has an ounce of sanity), your data is scrambled all the way from your browser window to the bank's servers.


Baltimore, Md.: Owner of a dinosaur TV: Rob, I bought what was then a state of the art, 36 inch Sony CRT in 2000. It works great -- and weighs 240 pounds. Living in a small row house, there is no way I would hold onto or move the thing if I bought a flat panel HDTV. What would be my alternatives for getting rid of it? Would a charity likely accept it and haul it away? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: The upside of selling/donating it is that you'll win back something like 30 cubic feet of space! OTOH, you've gotta unload the thing first. I suspect, or maybe just hope, that you could find a buyer interested in using the set as a DVD or video-game monitor, but you certainly won't get much money for it. Try looking around on eBay and Craigslist (or, y'know, the newspaper classifieds) to see what the going rate for that type of CRT is.


Tina in Falls Church: As a follow up to last week's poster about FIOS upgrades. True. I was subscribed to the Premier package and after the new channels rolled out in November I did not get about 15 of the HD channels. I called Verizon last Thursday and found they are upgrading Premier customers to the new "HD Extreme" package for no additional cost. Actually, it was going to be seven bucks cheaper but I ordered an HD box for the new flattie so I will only save three bucks. It's worth a call if you are a current customer. They sure aren't going to send us a letter telling us we can upgrade and save money. It also provides a speed boost for Internet as part of the package. A one-year commitment is required.

Rob Pegoraro: A tip for Fios TV viewers. Thanks, Tina!


Philadelphia, Pa.: Rob, I much enjoy these columns of yours, please keep them coming. I have an iMac with Time Machine enabled and, as with your earlier poster, about once a week I get a message saying Time Machine was unable to perform a backup. I have learned to just ignore these because all the other backups work and they are so frequent there is no real problem.

Rob Pegoraro: Hmm. That would still make me feel a little queasy, but I suppose it's a lot better than an error message about disk corruption or something involving actual data loss.


Conyers, Ga.: I think you wrote about Apple's update of Safari 3.2 having some glitches. Do you know if they have fixed them as yet? I get the reminder that the update is available but don't want to download it until it's not going to crash. Thanks Safari Gets Phishing Protection (The Washington Post, Nov. 14, 2008)

Rob Pegoraro: The glitch I saw, about the phishing protection not working on one Windows install, went away after I restarted Safari on that machine. And Apple has since shipped a 3.2.1 (cute version number, eh?) update that includes some other, unspecified bug fixes. So yes, go ahead and upgrade.


New York, N.Y.: I just got the LG Dare about a month ago and am loving it so far! My question: do you, or anyone reading, know how to sync the calendar on the Dare with Google Calendar? Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: No idea about this, but if the Dare is like the LG Voyager, I suspect there's no way to do it at all. What can y'all tell me?


Washington, D.C.: Will I be able to buy a Wii this Christmas? Last year, they were no where to be found.

Rob Pegoraro: I asked our game guru Mike Musgrove about this. He says:

Doesn't seem like a problem this year. They should call GameStop and ask -- whenever I've done so in recent weeks they've usually had a Wii in stock.


Kingstowne, Va.: I'm the fellow who submitted two queries earlier this year about the Watergate at Landmark antenna system in Alexandria, as my girlfriend lives there and has been rather mystified by the condo association's less-than-coherent communications. I saw the comment in last week's chat from the reader in Wisconsin, but I wasn't online and couldn't respond. I wanted to say thanks for that and to give an update. I've been looking at the FCC regulations quite closely and I think they give the resident ample rights in this sort of situation.

A condo association MAY prohibit antennas on balconies if there is a common antenna: "Restrictions based on the availability of a central antenna will generally be permissible provided that: (1) the person receives the particular video programming or fixed wireless service that the person desires and could receive with an individual antenna covered under the rule (e.g., the person would be entitled to receive service from a specific provider, not simply a provider selected by the association) ...." (See The Watergate at Landmark situation thus appears to be one where the communal antenna WILL NOT provide the "particular video programming ... that the person desires" (i.e., HD programming), such that the association rule is pre-empted.

Of course, putting up an antenna on the balcony when the condo rules prohibit it -- even if the FCC regulations invalidate those rules -- is setting yourself up for a fight, even if it's pretty clear you'd win. I'd be quite happy to file a complaint with the FCC since the people who run the condo association there are the stereotypical old people who make rules solely for the sake of making rules, and I'd delight in cutting them down to size. On the other hand, why get into a fight if you don't need to? So here is what I've decided to do:

(1) For Christmas I got my girlfriend an HD-capable TV for her living room since she doesn't have one yet.

(2) When I hook it up to their existing antenna I'll see whether any HD signals come in. If so, I'll wait until early February to proceed to step 3; if not, I'll move ahead immediately.

(3) Prior to February 17 (probably around February 1 or so), I'll hook up my old Zenith Silver Sensor antenna that I used when DirecTV didn't carry HD locals over the dish, and I'll see what kind of results I get in terms of pulling in local HD. If it works fine, problem largely solved unless the local broadcasters are going to relocate their digital broadcasts to the VHF band in February.

(4) If it doesn't work, then it's time to consider either an amplified antenna or an outdoor antenna on the balcony. (The latter is really the least-attractive option because of the problem of running the cable to the TV.)

So there you have it. Do you perchance know the answer to whether the local digital channels are going to move from their current UHF locations to the VHF locations being vacated by the analog broadcasts? If the answer is yes, I may look for a different antenna now and throw it in as part of the Christmas present.

Rob Pegoraro: This may be the most info-rich question I've ever gotten here! You're correct about the FCC regs and the general state of the technology.

About local stations moving from UHF to VHF, I looked into that for a recent Help File column--WJLA and WUSA are making that switch around here:


Getting Rid of the Dino-TV: I just put mine on the street with a "for sale" sign. It was gone in minutes. Should work just fine in Bawlmer.

Rob Pegoraro: Heh. (My editor's from Balto., so I had to post this one...)


Virtual PC vs. WINE?: Have you looked at Crossover Mac, and would that software be a good approach for someone who only has one or two windows applications to run on a Mac?

Rob Pegoraro: It Depends. You have to look up the apps in question on CodeWeavers' compatibility list ( - and can I get a round of applause for companies that use simple, human-readable addresses like that?) and see what level of support you'd get for it.

I really like the idea behind Crossover, but the reality of it... well, for one thing, as a tech columnist I need to verify how things work in a real copy of Windows, so it's not a good fit for me personally.


Indianapolis, Ind.: My Mac-husband has iChat video cam. I have a PC. Can I video cam to him?

Rob Pegoraro: See the prior answer about Skype (which means he'd have to switch from iChat to Skype). Gmail's video chatting capability is another option, also free.


Dupont Circle: So my mom really likes to watch DVDs (not actual TV programming), but my parents only have a DVD player in their den, not their bedroom. This is because they have a giant flat screen in the bedroom and she doesn't want to mess up the look with wires connecting the TV to a DVD player. This, of course, means that she never uses the nice big TV and doesn't get to watch anything in bed, which was the whole point. Is there anything I can get them that will make the TV-DVD connection wireless and pretty?

Rob Pegoraro: Figure out some way to hide the cables running up to the TV. Worst case, drill a hole in the drywall behind the TV, route the cables inside the wall, and drill another hole behind whatever furniture holds the DVD player.


Fairfax, Va.: So I'm buying myself a new laptop this holiday season; what's my best bet for a great value? I don't play games on it; I'd want to easily be able to watch video clips on YouTube and DVDs, listen to music, view/edit photos, and do all the standard email, internet, Microsoft Office stuff. Advice? Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: Um, ANY Windows or Mac laptop on sale today can do all those things. Sorry, I need a query that's a little more specific (this kind of question is like asking Tom Sietsema for a restaurant recommendation by saying "I'm hungry. Where should I eat?")


36-inch CRT: I sold mine earlier this year on Craigslist. I said the buyer had to come get it, and bring a friend to help carry it. (The friend bailed and I had to help carry it, but at least I got the thing out of my house.) I think I got $150 and considered myself lucky, after rejecting a couple of lower offers -- you might get a little more for a Sony, but CRTs aren't going for much. Then again, this was before the economy took a nosedive, so I'm not sure whether that (1) makes used TVs more appealing, or (2) makes people even less likely to buy anything. Good luck.

Rob Pegoraro: More advice about how to unload an old tube TV. Thanks!


Washington, D.C.: I see there's a $500 37" LCD tv on newegg from HANNspree. You know anything about the brand?

Rob Pegoraro: Heard of it, but that's about as far as it goes. Has anybody bought a set from this company?


Mays Landing, N.J.: Is there available yet any machine for recording Blu-ray HD onto an HD disc -- not drives for computers but home recording playback machine? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: No. Well, not in this country. But they've been on sale in Japan for a while. When I asked a couple of manufacturers about this discrepancy at CES in January, they told me that they didn't want to make a Blu-ray recorder for the U.S. market because it couldn't interoperate with all of the cable and satellite services--in many cases, you'd need to daisy-chain it to a cable or satellite box, which would make the whole setup clunky, which would depress sales.

That could be BS, but if true you can direct the blame at your friendly neighborhood cable or satellite operator.


New York: I just received a HP Pavillion dv-5 laptop. I usually leave it by shutting down all programs, having the desktop displayed and letting the machine go to sleep. About 30% of the time when pushing the mouse to restart, it appears as if the machine is in a coma. To get it to restart I have to manually shut it down and reboot. When this happens it goes thru a BIOS cycle. What's up? It is running Vista with service pack 1 installed.

Rob Pegoraro: Windows can be like that--but in my experience, Vista is much better than XP at avoiding this problem. See if there isn't a BIOS update from HP to fix this issue.


Dover, N.H.: Rob, In response to a writer from last week, Ion makes turntables that convert your vinyl to MP3 or CDs, depending on the model. I bought the MP3 version that converts from vinyl and automatically moves it into iTunes. Bought it at Best Buy for just over $100 and well worth it. Easy to use and it has already paid for itself by moving music into my iPod that is not available in iTunes.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks, Dover!


Wisconsin: Thanks for today's timely article! My 4.5 year old Dell is slowly dying, right as I'm finishing up a PhD thesis. I'm switching over to my MacBook. I'm using bootcamp right now with a hard drive partition. If I switch to Fusion, what happens to the partition and to the programs and data currently saved on the Windows half of the machine? Will everything need to be reinstalled? My second question relates to where data are stored using Fusion. Are Windows-related data files stored in the virtual machine file? How does that work with backing up files? Thanks for your advice.

Rob Pegoraro: Fusion (and Parallels) can run that Boot Camp installation from within OS X, although you lose some functions (for instance, you can pause a Boot Camp system but can't suspend it in Parallels).

You can then import the Boot Camp-installed system directly into OS X--say, if you decide you don't want to use Boot Camp at all and would like to get that disk partition back.


Silver Spring, Md.: Kindle - I know it could be better, but it is the best ebook reader for right now. Buy one and try it, and if you don't like it you can dump it on eBay at a tiny loss (if any) as long as they are on backorder. It beats carrying four heavy books on a long trip.

Rob Pegoraro: No, Kindle is not the best e-book reader for "right now"--Amazon is sold out of the thing through the holidays. That is what you'd call a major inventory-management failure.


Vienna, Va.: Speaking of BIOS updates -- if there are several BIOS updates listed on a computer support website, do I need to download all of them to be up to date, or will merely downloading the most recent update get me up to speed?

Rob Pegoraro: The most recent one should suffice, but read the fine print. Don't underestimate the ability of computing firms to screw up a perfectly simple upgrade process.


Clifton, Va.: South Riding: My girlfriend had an HP IPAC with cell capability. She now has an iPhone. We got it last Christmas or the Christmas before. She loves it.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks, Clifton!


Silver Spring, MD: Re: Cookies for Santa? Here is a story from this week: Facebook users hit by virus: "Guy Bunker works for Symantec, who make Norton AntiVirus, and says there are two ways Koobface gets people's credit card details. 'It can either wait for you to buy something online and just remember the details you type in on your keyboard. Otherwise it can search your computer for any cookies you might have from when you've bought something in the past, and take them from there.'"

That last sentence confuses me. I thought cookies didn't hold anything critical. Can cookies contain my credit card details? I recognize that we're talking about the virus doing the looking but I thought the cookies just let the company know who I was.

If this BBC story is true, I'm more likely to flush my cookies after each purchase because I don't want unencrypted financial details sitting on my computer. Facebook users hit by virus (BBC, Dec. 10, 2008)

Rob Pegoraro: That story doesn't make sense to me either. I've never heard of any stores saving credit-card details in cookies. What this Symantec guy may be talking about is stores that save a shopper's login in a cookie.


Caveat: Rob, you need to remind folks running Windows on their Macs to be sure to install some kind of virus/malware protection under Windows. Even though it's virtual, it can still catch a bug on the Internet or through email. It won't affect the Mac side of the computer, but it could wreck havoc on your XP or Vista partition.

Rob Pegoraro: Good advice--one of the first responses to today's column came from a woman who unintentionally passed along a Windows virus through her virtual copy of Windows.

To their credit, Parallels and VMware include a year of anti-virus protection: Parallels throws in Kaspersky's AV softare, while Fusion comes with McAfee's.


Baltimore, Md.: We have Direct TV with a DVR. Is it possible technically to copy the saved programs to a computer or device? Legally, it may be another story but I would like to be go mobile with some programs we've recorded rather than be tied to one set in the house.

Rob Pegoraro: It is, but it's not easy--you'd need to run some audio and video cables from the TiVo's outputs to a computer with a matching set of A/V inputs, then digitize the footage. We're talking about a real-time recording, so you'd need to sit by the computer for an hour to do this.

The failure of the electronics industry to allow for this kind of *legal* viewing of your own recordings speaks volumes about the control-freakery of the movie industry, and the cowardice (or, to put it as charitably as possible, conflict-aversion) of mainstream electronics vendors.


Tallahassee, Fla.: ION now makes a one-box gadget to digitize VHS tapes. I did it the clunky way, with an old tape player, a video-capture card, my laptop, and a lot of manual editing. Would like to recommend this box to my sister, who hates tech. Any of your readers know if this ION device is worth $200? (!)

Rob Pegoraro: Haven't tried that gadget either. Has anybody in the room done so?


Nashville, Tenn.: I've owned my MacBook for 2 yrs (80gig/1 mb RAM, 2Gh Intel) and have about 50gb free space on it -- it's not my main computer. It'd be nice to run a few Windows programs, but not necessary. I was intrigued by your comment that Fusion and Parallels could "migrate" XP OS from a real PC. Would this be OK with Microsoft if I took it from a soon-to-be-decommissioned desktop? Otherwise, am I right in thinking I'd have to buy a full copy of Windows? Currently Amazon is selling full XP for $180. A bit steep for my purpose when combined with buying Fusion. Thanks for all your help, past and present, Rob.

Rob Pegoraro: Migrating a Windows system won't work for you unless that computer has the world's smallest hard drive--you're not just migrating a copy of Windows, but an entire Windows system. You'd run out of room first. (You need to leave about 10-20 percent of the drive vacant, or Bad Things can happen in terms of performance and stability.)


Windows on Mac: I switched to a MacBook (or however they want to use capital letters) about 18 months ago because I use InDesign for work. But I also need Word and Excel, so I added the "Office for Mac" suite including Entourage as an Outlook replacement.

The Mac runs faster in every way than my last Windows laptop, but the Microsoft applications really slow things down. Not to the slow speed of the HP, but much slower than other Mac applications.

Just my 2 cents' worth, unless you have a suggestion.

Rob Pegoraro: Sounds like you're running Office 2004, which is a PowerPC application--Office 2008 is written to run on Intel chips. Except... I use Office 2004 on an Intel Mac, and I've never thought it particularly slow at all. Office 2007 on this Windows machine is what seems slow, especially in terms of app startup times.


Knoxvegas, Tenn.: I have hundreds of vinyl LPs, and a couple of good quality turntables. What's the best/simplest way to attach a turntable to a USB port, short of buying a USB turntable?

Rob Pegoraro: You can buy a little USB breakout box with a set of audio inputs (connecting the turntable directly to your computer's line-in jack can result in a noisy recording).


Mays Landing, N.J.: RE: Blu-Ray Recorder -- Thanks for your answer. I guess they are admitting Japan is better than the U.S. at adapting their equipment. I guess we are behind the times. They do make them available for computers!

Rob Pegoraro: Going shopping for consumer electronics of any sort in Japan can be an excellent way to make yourself feel glum about the state of affairs in the U.S.!


Richmond, Va.: For the guy with the girlfriend in the Watergate -- the only thing I'd do differently is go ahead and hook up the antenna long before Feb 1. There's really no reason to wait, and if the master antenna system isn't supplying HD, why not get the HD channels as soon as possible?

Rob Pegoraro: Follow-up on the most-talked-about apartment building in this chat...


Posting again re: simple laptop: My point is that I don't need any bells and whistles. I don't need video editing capability, I don't need room for video games or the highest speeds for online WoW playing. I want to be able to easily watch clips like on YouTube; easily watch DVDs; surf the web quickly, and have memory for Microsoft Office plus probably some photo editing software. To use your Sietsma example, I'd say to him "Where's a good place to get a regular American meal, nothing fancy, just something that's pretty tasty and won't cost a lot." I don't want to pay for a lot of stuff I don't need on a laptop.

Rob Pegoraro: I hear you, but I'm telling you, laptops all do those things just fine. Your performance requirements are met by anything on sale today. Now if you can give me some other criteria, like screen size, weight, Mac vs. Windows, price, etc., I can come up with a suggestion or two. (For instance, the entry-level MacBook would be a good call, as it includes a very good photo editor/organizer, but I don't know if $999 exceeds your budget, or if you just don't like OS X.)


Olney, Md.: Rob, Harmony remotes aren't just programmable universal remotes! (No, I don't work for them, I'm just a fanboy.) They work on an "activity" basis, meaning it asks you on your computer which devices you use for, say, watching a DVD (like, receiver or not?), and it will turn everything you need on or off with one press. Also, the computer interface is SO much easier than programming a stand-alone remote; you can reassign buttons using drop-down menus, for example. I can't recommend them highly enough for those with a lot of home theater components, especially those that have more than 3 or 4 possible sources of media.

Rob Pegoraro: Here's a posting about the Harmony universal remote.


Germantown, Md.: Any suggestions for a firewall for Vista 64-bit? Right now I am just using Windows Firewall and would have installed Zonealarm, but have heard conflicting things about compatibility issues.

Rob Pegoraro: Stick with the built-in firewall.


Ellicott City, Md.: I want to get one of those HDMI hubs so I can add one more HDMI port to my TV. Do they work? Is the picture and sound quality the same through the hub? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Haven't tried any myself. The only risk I see is that the hub fails the "handshake" required by some DRMed video (e.g., Blu-ray players) and fails to relay any video at all. Shouldn't be an issue with a current, name-brand hub.


Bethesda, Md.: I have a computer hooked up to my HDTV, and enjoy watching Netflix-on-demand. It's cool that Xbox and TiVo users can also access this, but I don't own either device and don't plan to get one, although I own a Wii.

I'm interested in this because it's too tough for other family members to operate Netflix-on-demand from the PC.

I understand that for business/political reasons it's unlikely that we'll see Wii support for Netflix. Can you explain why not? Can you keep an eye peeled for this functionality at CES?

Rob Pegoraro: That's more a matter of Nintendo's own approach to game-console design. They haven't bought into the concept of the console as digital-media hub, unlike Microsoft and Sony.

Some DVD and Blu-ray players support--or will support--Netflix "watch instantly" video. That could be the simpler way around this problem.


Direct TV for Christmas (well, actually, for BB season): Can anyone tell me how many actual, watchable HD channels are available through Direct TV? When I try to research it, they all (including Comspaz) talk about "hundreds of HD channels," but if Direct TV only has the three-dozen or so that Comspaz offers, it's not worth the trouble.

Rob Pegoraro: I think you get to "hundreds" when you count all the possible premium and pay-per-view options (these days, you can get something like 12 different flavors of HBO alone, right?).

But the absolute number doesn't matter. What does is the number of HD channels *that you'd actually watch.* That should be a simple matter of looking at their programming packages and seeing which one matches your interests.

FWIW, unless you've got a promotional rate from Comcast, you should be able to lower your bills by switching to another service--or by telling Comcast that you're going to switch, then asking for a cut in your rate.


Leesburg, Va.: "My second question relates to where data are stored using Fusion. Are Windows-related data files stored in the virtual machine file? How does that work with backing up files?"

I save my Quicken for Windows file (Mac version isn't an option) out to my /documents/directory on my Mac, then back it up to my time capsule like normal. It's been very helpful to have multiple copies of the file over time when something gets messed up in the categorization inside Quicken. Also, I've had bad luck with fast-user-switching causing the VM to lock the file, so I never save any documents inside the VM itself so I can roll back to a stable snapshot without losing any data.

Rob Pegoraro: Good tip--thanks!


New York, N.Y.: I read today that at-home-burned DVDs fail pretty quickly -- sometimes as soon as a year. What's the safest way to back up data: dvd, tape, external hard drive, other?

Rob Pegoraro: I've seen some rewritable discs stop working, but only after years and years (like, five). I've been using the same two DVD-RWs for backups over the last three years, and no problems with them.

But in general, your safest backup is one on multiple media: hard drive *and* DVD, or hard drive and online.

The safest, sturdiest backup medium overall is probably a USB flash drive (see, and their capacities are getting to the point where one could suffice for backing up all your files.


Odenton, Md.: Rob, have you ever have a problem with SD cards become "read only"? I had a SD card and wanted to move some pictures from my iMac onto it so I could show the pictures on the TV from a DVD player with an SD input. The problem is the computer wouldn't let me put the files on the SD card, saying I didn't have permission. 'Get Info' revealed it was in read-only mode. I checked the 'lock' tab on the side of the SD card; it was fine. I put the SD in the camera, took some pictures, and was able to move them onto the computer. So the camera can write to the card, but not the iMac. And I tried to format it using Disk Utility, but since it's in read-only mode, I'm not allowed. Any ideas, or do SD cards fail like this fairly often?

Rob Pegoraro: Nope, never. I'd fix this particular problem by using the camera to reformat the card; most can do that on their own (dig around in its system menu to find the right command).


Texas: I bought an iPhone 3G in August and really like it. I will have no problem holding onto this for two years. What improvements to the phone do you see coming in the next year or two?

Rob Pegoraro: More storage. Flash memory is just too cheap for Apple not to do that. I expect to see a 64 GB iPhone and iPod touch by the end of 2009, possibly a lot sooner.


TiVo: I don't know if this would work with DirecTV, but you could try TiVo Desktop Plus software for PC. You to have to have your TiVo connected to your network, but I use it to copy programs to my laptop to watch while flying. Search for it under

Rob Pegoraro: Duh--why didn't I think of this? (I reviewed TiVo ToGo when it first shipped... although you should know that I really hated it back then.)


Washington, D.C.: Rob, have you heard anything about when Apple will come out with the next round of Mac desktops (including the Mac mini)? If not, would you advise someone in the market for a Mac desktop to hold off a little while, or buy now?

Rob Pegoraro: The iMac and Mac mini have both been around for many months in their current configuration--especially the Mac mini. So there are reasonably good odds that we'll see upgrades announced at Macworld Expo next month. But will they be major upgrades, the kind that make you feel like a chump for buying the old version? For the iMac, probably not. For the Mac mini... maybe. It's hard to say because Apple's overall strategy with that model has been a bit of a mystery.


FiOS: Just got a letter that FiOS is raising their rates, so the other person might be mistaken they are "getting more channels for free".

Rob Pegoraro: No, the channels are free--they just raised the price for the Fios program guide! (That's not a gross distortion of how some telecom services are marketed.)


Alexandria, Va.: I've been shopping around for a new GPS system for my car and was hoping to spend in the $100-$150 range (don't need fancy, need directional help!). I've heard that Tom Tom and Garmin are the best; any thoughts on which way to go?

Rob Pegoraro: Last time I tried out GPS units, the Garmin, TomTom and Navigon all came out looking reasonably good to me. But at the price range you're considering, there aren't many meaningful differences in functions. (Though if you have a Mac, Garmin provides better support than other vendors.)


Bethesda, Md.: All TiVos allow you to copy full-resolution files from your TiVo to your desktop. TiVo software will then let you convert these files into formats that are portable friendly. You can even burn these to DVD or store indefinitely on any hard dive you want. Brandless DVRs are another story.

I don't get why you're such a TiVo hater. I know how much it costs, but I also know it how well it works. You're getting to the point of being misleading; it's a highly available piece of equipment that is more functional than any Blu-ray, dedicated box, or PC-based-converter card, and you ignore or bash it every chance you get.

Rob Pegoraro: Speaking of Mac compatibility, that first feature you mention is Windows only.

But anyway, let's talk about TiVo. My objections:

* I resent the idea of paying $12.95/month (I know, less with a multi-year or "lifetime" purchase) to use a TiVo.

* I know that the TiVo service includes more than an electronic program guide--something you get for free at numerous Web sites--but I don't see the value of many of those extras.

* I really don't see the value of TiVo Suggestions. I don't have time to watch the recordings I *choose* to make on a DVR, much less ones the DVR makes for me.

I wouldn't say I "hate" TiVo, but I do find it a questionable value proposition. (If you want to see actual hate, you should have seen what I thought of the TiVo Series 3.) If they'd ditch the service charge, I'd be much happier.


Alexandria, Va.: With the coming demise of analog broadcast, I'd like to replace my battery powered TV, which I use when power is off. I've heard there are some that have rechargeable batteries but for emergency use, that wouldn't work all that well (or not at all).

Rob Pegoraro: You can buy a battery-powered DTV converter ( or portable DTV (


Alta, Utah: My 20+ year-old AM/FM receiver, amp, etc. decided to call it quits this week, just in time for the holidays. What do you suggest as a replacement and/or upgrade?

Rob Pegoraro: If you use this as the center of a home-theater system--TV, DVD, Blu-ray, TiVo, whatever--get one that can switch among multiple HDMI inputs. (That will avoid the situation a previous chatter mentioned earlier today.)


Arlington, Va.: One more DTV question, where I've gotten conflicting advice:

I have cable service on a 15 year old TV with no cable box. The coax from the wall is plugged directly into the coax outlet on the back of the TV. Works fine. I assume this TV has only an analog receiver

Will this still work okay after February or will I need a converter box?

Rob Pegoraro: For the millionth (not really, this is only the 242nd time)... cable has nothing to do with the digital transition.

Please repeat that after me: Cable has nothing to do with the digital transition. If you subscribe to cable, forget this switch is even happening. If your cable operator moves channels to a digital tier, it's because that company wants to make more efficient use of its own network, not what's happening with the public airwaves. Buying a converter box won't do a thing either way for cable service.


Rob Pegoraro: OK, it's 4 p.m. and I really need to sign off. But first... we did have a question earlier about where to get "a regular American meal, nothing fancy, just something that's pretty tasty and won't cost a lot." Since I am all about value, I forwarded that query to Tom Sietsema. His answer:

"My response would probably be most any of the Great American Restaurants around Northern Virginia, including Artie's, Sweetwater Tavern and the new Jackson's Mighty Fine Food (in Reston). All buy good ingredients, all are known for great service and value."

Thanks for all of the questions, including the ones I couldn't get around to answering. (I spotted two that might make good Help File items, but I need to research them first.) I'll be back here next week, and the Thursday after that. Talk to you then...


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