Personal Tech

Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Friday, February 6, 2009; 2:00 PM

The Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro was online Friday, Feb. 6 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his recent reviews and answer your personal tech questions.

A transcript follows.

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


Rob Pegoraro: Good afternoon, and welcome to my chat--hope having this happen on a Friday instead of a Thursday hasn't confused too many folks.

It's been three weeks since my last appearance here, so we've got plenty to talk about: the digital-TV transition, Windows 7, Apple's iLife and iWork, etc. etc.

But I'd like to start by asking you a question for a change: Can you recommend an aftermarket laptop battery for a Toshiba Satellite laptop? A coworker needs to replace her battery and wants to know if she's got any cheaper options besides the $100 Toshiba charges for a replacement unit.

And now, on to your queries...


Laurel: Rob, I just saw your 1/22 column on over-the-air digital, which I just happen to have been fooling with recently. Living half-way between Washington and Baltimore (note address above), I got a DB2 MultiDirectional antenna, and an almost-free drugstore converter box.

While watching a channel, the signal strength meter is usually 80-99 and it looks great. But every few seconds it drops to 15/27/0 and the screen pixelates and the sound drops. Is this most likely an issue of antenna quality, antenna placement, using a cheap converter, or living 20 miles from the broadcasters? TV's Digital Transition Doesn't Have to Cause Headaches

Rob Pegoraro: Hard to say. Does this happen with only a few channels in particular or all of them? You shouldn't see that kind of fluctuation--at most, you might see the strength twitch from 70 to 80.

The only way to know for sure is to test different things--if a neighbor has another antenna or converter box to test, try that out. See if you can't isolate whatever component is dropping the connection.


Delayed DTV Transition: What's your take on Congress delaying the DTV transition? Do you think it will further confuse people who are not yet ready? Or will we find ourselves in the same position 4 months from now and debating yet another delay? I think if people aren't ready now they never will be!

Rob Pegoraro: This was the big news about digital-TV this week--Congress voted to push back the shutoff of analog TV broadcasts to June 12, although individual stations can still move to all-digital broadcasts earlier if they want.

I looked into the argument for a DTV-transition delay on my blog a couple of weeks ago, and the only one I found particularly convincing was that it would allow the government to restart the coupon program that's supposed to subsidize the purchase of converter boxes.

This delay, BTW, hasn't become law yet. You can read the text of the bill and post a 500-word comment on the White House Web site:


iLife '09: Do you think it's worth it to shell out the $$$ for the new iLife over using either the old version or the new Picasa for Mac?

Rob Pegoraro: I plan on doing just that myself. I really like the new iPhoto, even if the face-detection feature sometimes registers awfully high on the unintentional-comedy scale.

I can't say the same for the new iWork. It's got some nice features here and there, but I just don't see $79 worth of upgrade there.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Hi. I want to take my Iphone to Japan. I don't need to use it to make calls, and know service there is limited. I will turn off data roaming and not look for wifi. But what about these functions, do they depend on a wireless data source? Or are they just stored on the phone? - Clock, calendar, and alarms - Apps like a translation app (downloaded here) - GPS - Itunes (downloaded here) Have you tried Skype on an Iphone? Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: If you put the iPhone in airplane mode, you won't be at risk of any unintentional data use, and all the apps you mentioned should work.

>But: Using WiFi oveseas is OK too, since that's not sending any data over any cellular services. It's possible to shut off the phone part of the iPhone and keep WiFi active... I think you'd tap the General category in the Settings app, then turn off data roaming, but let me double-check Apple's advice on that.


Bethesda: I've signed up for FIOS TV and Internet and now I need to know what to expect. I'll be dropping Comcast cable and internet as soon as it's all hooked up. What should I expect in terms of service and reliability? What else should I be prepared for?

Rob Pegoraro: Fios users, this is your chance to contribute...


Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.: I'm running Mac OS X 10.5.6. In going through my hard drive directory, I saw a folder marked "Previous Systems." Inside were three more folders dating back to July and November. Can I safely delete them without affecting the current System folder? Please advise. Matt

Rob Pegoraro: Have you done an "archive and install" re-installation of Mac OS X? That would explain the presence of those Previous System folders; in that case, yes, you're fine trashing them.


North Shore, New Zealand: Hi Rob, Don't worry about it being Friday there, it's Saturday morning here. JackNZ

Rob Pegoraro: Does that mean I can knock off work now?


White House Website: It's a 500-CHARACTER limit, not 500 words. So keep your arguments short and sweet.

Rob Pegoraro: Oops... right you are. That's a pretty strict word count. You might have to write your comment in SMS-speak: "DTV delay = bad. Why r u coddling ppl? Can't kp pushing this off to l8r."


Martinsburg, W. Va.: I have an amplified external antenna (rooftop) hooked to my Dish 622 DVR. The antenna is aimed in the general direction of the D.C. towers. I receive D.C. digital channels 4, 5, 7, 9, 20, 26 and 32 reliably via the antenna. I also receive Baltimore channels 2, 13 and 45 reliably.

That's over 60 miles, straight line distance.

People who live closer to D.C. who can't get a good over the air digital signal either need a stronger antenna, a better location (e.g., in the attic or on the roof), or an amplifier.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the detailed report--remind me to point your comment out to the guy who was trying to argue that DTV reception was not possible over distances greater than 20 miles. (Apparently, some manufacturers are putting that incorrect stipulation on boxes for converters or antennas.)


State of Dyspepsia: Cheap batteries = used batteries. If you must, start at eBay and use it to find the best online vendors.

But they won't perform like new ones....which are $100 and up.

Rob Pegoraro: That's an option as well. I don't think my colleague is looking to spend too much; this is a pretty old laptop.


Texas: After years of dedication to Windows based machines, I am thinking of buying an iMac with a 24" screen. Should I wait until the new OS comes out before buying? Will there be substantial differences in the new OS? Also, how careful should I be about viruses?

Rob Pegoraro: I wouldn't postpone a purchase for the new OS X release--it doesn't seem likely to show up until summer, and it's not going to bring any major new features either (this one's supposed to be a performance and reliability-oriented release).

I'm not aware of any successful virus attacks on Mac OS X, and there have only been a few trojans attacking OS X. But that doesn't give you a license to act like an idiot online: If you run random programs you find on the Web, or that some random site tells you to run, you probably will get hacked at some point, even if you use a Mac.


FiOS is Great: What can you expect with FiOS? Great customer service, excellent channel selections (more than we got with Comcast for the same price), and really fast Internet (speeds beat Comcast in my unscientific tests, even with Comcast's "Powerboost"). Comcast service used to go out every three months or so for a day or two (we never figured out why and the technician could only fix the problem, not isolate and fix the cause). We've had FiOS for almost a year now and not once has the service been unreliable. Make the switch and never look back!

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the testimony...


Odenton, Md.: Rob-

I'm not sure you're allowed to answer this question, although I have a feeling you'd have no problem with what I'm trying to do. I've got some old VHS movies I'd like to 'convert' to DVD using my DVD recorder. However, they have Macrovision and my DVD recorder won't let me copy them.

I now know I need a digital video stabilizer to get around this issue. Any recommendations? This Grex model gets mentioned a lot, just wondering what you thought.

Obviously I'll add the disclaimer that I'm not doing this to sell anything. I'd just like to move the old tapes and player into storage space and have everything on DVD. They're children's movies, so I don't think the kids will mind the quality.

Rob Pegoraro: I'm "allowed" to answer that (though my neighbors at the MPAA, two blocks away from 15th and L, may not be happy). But... I don't actually know the answer to your question, since I haven't tried doing anything like this myself. If somebody has a suggestion for Odenton, now would be the time to chime in.


Saratoga, Calif.: First time questioner. I'm about to give up and update wither my system software or buy a brand spanking new desktop running Vista -- I guess that's what it comes with. I'm kind of afraid that all my old but entirely adequate apps and drivers will not take well to either approach. Did I mention that I'm now running Windows 98SE and that incompatibilities with my ISP software have crept it forcing me to either make the change or schedule a weekly session with a shrink. The phone calls to the ATT call center in India are driving me nuts!

Yes, cost of the upgrade is a consideration. Tech support is very expensive in this area.

What would you recommend?

Rob Pegoraro: Buy a new computer. You're going to have a hard time finding a copy of XP to install, and even if you can it's going to be miserably slow on a machine currently running 98 SE. It's time to retire that thing.


District of Columbia: I used and got my dell replacement battery for under $100 with rebate (or would have if I'd remembered to fill out the $15 rebate form). But they also have sales sometimes too.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks! (You reading this, Nancy?)


Laurel, Md.: Such signal variations might be due to planes. BWI is between Laurel and Baltimore.

Rob Pegoraro: I doubt that--the only reports that I've seen of plane-induced signal disruption have come from people living right next to National Airport in Crystal City. (My own home is a few miles west of National and maybe a mile or two south of the upriver flight path, and I've never seen any flickering from planes taking off or landing.)


Cheap Computer Batteries: My son found a great deal at

just fyi/fwiw

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks. But... Really?


Aluminum Macbook shutdown: Hi Rob, I got a new aluminum MacBook in October. Its has one strange problem--it randomly shuts off. Apple Support pages don't help-random shut off issues seemed to mostly be w/the older version.

Sometimes weeks will go between the shutdowns--it happened once when I first got it, and then not again until January. Since January it has been happening once a week or so. Upon restart, things are usually fine, with the exception of one time when it happened 3 times in a row.

The only consistency I tend to notice is that it often happens when video is being streamed (has happened several times using Firefox on free episode site and on blogs with videos). I've started using Safari for watching movies/shows with no issues.

My 90 days are up and I didn't buy AppleCare. Do you think this is a major cause for concern? Any thoughts? I ran the disk utility a few days ago and it repaired several permissions (and no shutdowns since).

Rob Pegoraro: You're still under warranty--the trick would be to see if you can't replicate this shutdown, so you can let an Apple Store "genius" see it happen.

Another thing to consider: Do you have the latest Flash player installed? Visit in Firefox to check that.


Washington, D.C.: Has there been any news on when the Palm Pre will release?

Rob Pegoraro: Only rumors... the official word remains just "first half of this year."


Urbana, Md.: Hi Rob,

Do you consider the new Office 2007 Word encryption option safe for keeping personal records? How about WinZip 12 encryption...?

Rob Pegoraro: Your best encryption option for Windows is the free, open-source TrueCrypt:


Manassas, Va.: Hello Rob,

I bought a Sansa Fuze after Christmas. What are the best sites for Downloading Music. Are any free? Can you download one song at a time as opposed to a monthly fee?


Rob Pegoraro: Check out


Chicago, Ill.: Is it possible to hook up the Digital converter box to a computer and watch broadcasts on your monitor.

Rob Pegoraro: Only if your monitor has a composite-video input (a small, round yellow plug). Most don't.


Rockville, Md.: Hi Rob Two questions: 1. I am going to buy a new laptop but at the same time would like to wait for SSD at reasonable price. How long it will take to replace current hard drive with SSD? 2. I am also looking for a laptop that has both SSD and current hard drive which I can shut down and operate only on SSD when I am on long flight to save battery. Any suggestion?

Rob Pegoraro: I think we're still a year or so away from solid-date drives--can we just call them "flash drives" and not add yet another TLA to our computing vocabulary?--becoming a mainstream alternative to hard drives. Right now, they're only big at the low end (many networks get by with just 4, 8 or 16 GB of flash memory) and the high end (you can drop $500 and up on high-capacity flash drives that store 64 or 128 GB of data).

I don't know of any laptops with both flash and hard drives that can be used as you describe.


Burke, Va.: So I need a new camcorder to replace mi MiniDV and I can't decide between the Hard Drive units that may fail, the flash drive units which don't have as much recording time and would force me to buy more cards, or to stay with the miniDV format which seems to be prone to picking up drive mechanism sounds. Do you have any strong leanings?

Rob Pegoraro: Speaking of flash memory... I'd get a camcorder with an SD Card slot. This way, you get the durability and compactness of flash memory, but you're not stuck with a finite storage quota. High-capacity SD Cards are laughably cheap these days and seem to be getting cheaper all the time.


Jacksonville, Ala.: Hi, Rob:

One thing about consumer video strikes me as infuriating: the proliferation of formats (mp4, AVCHD, HDV, etc.) that are often incompatible with any one given video editor. You can play stuff back on the camera, but it's often hard to edit. Is this going to change soon?

Rob Pegoraro: That's something that video-editing-software developers have to fix... it's not like people are going to ditch a $500 camcorder because their $80 video editor won't read its files.


FIOS: FIOS is single handedly both the greatest TV experience (in terms of quality and quantity) and Internet (in terms of speed and downtime) that I've ever experienced.

The DVR is not as good as a tivo-brand Tivo, but it's the best one that a service provider give you that I've had.

I say this not because I'm a shill or something, but because I recently moved away from my FIOS into a new home serviced by some company called Open Band that is just...terrible.

I really miss my FIOS.

Rob Pegoraro: More Fios experiences...


Anonymous: In our motorhome we have a 13" Hitachi Color AC/DC tv that is connected to a rooftop antenna. There is a mechanical dial that moves across the screen changing the channels. There is a pushbutton dial that changes the TV from UHF to VHS and another pushbutton that brings up a line on the screen to indicate where you are currently viewing (the numbers are displayed at the bottom of the screen horizontally.

We currently receive TV reception from cities and some metropolitan areas if we are close by. We want to know if we will be able to successful use a converter box with this TV and would appreciate your possible answer before we buy it. Thank you.


Rob Pegoraro: You can certainly plug a converter into the TV, but I don't know how that would work with this antenna-aiming system you describe--never seen anything like that myself.

One other issue: From what I've heard, you're going to have a hard time keeping a signal tuned in on the road.


Baltimore, Md.: I'm thinking about buying a 40" LCD TV, with a 120hz refresh rate. Are prices on these things going to fall much in the next few months?

Rob Pegoraro: Probably--why should the next few months be any different from the last few months? But a lot of manufacturers will be rolling out their spring product lines, so older models will come off the shelves to be replaced by newer models that will probably sell for a good deal more.

If you don't restrict your shopping to the big-name brands (Sony, Samsung, Sharp), you'll be able to save a lot more. Vizio has a 42-in. 120 Hz LCD with a list price barely over $1,000.


Dupont Circle: Rob, I get interference in my neighborhood from the constant helicopters (Marine Corps 1 and 2, WTOP, DC police), and trucks, and cars, etc.

Rob Pegoraro: I think a lot of the same traffic goes over my house... not sure what to tell you.

I suppose I should try to make sure I've got the TV on the next time there's a flyover at Arlington--our house is right under that flight path. (It was quite a wakeup call the first time we got buzzed by four F-16s one fine morning.)


To Texas buying an iMac: I recommend that you may want to check out the refurbished machines on Apple's website. Refurbished doesn't mean used, they get a full factory check before being sold and can be had for hundreds of dollars cheaper than a "new" machine.

Rob Pegoraro: Shopping tip to keep in mind... also, if you're looking at the 24-in. iMac, consider the 20-incher too. That's still an enormous screen, but it's a lot cheaper.


Laptop Batteries: One additional warning. If the laptop uses a Li-ion battery, the date of manufacture is critical. These batteries have a finite lifetime (3 years) that starts ticking the day they roll off the assembly line. If your colleague finds a cheap battery that is old, its capacity may be severely reduced even if it unused.

If you're ordering from the laptop manufacturer, the battery should be very fresh (no older than a couple of months). I know from experience that Lenovo stamps manufacture dates on their boxes. I'm not sure about other brands, but assume the date is available.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks!


Martinsburg, W. Va.: For the person wanting to copy VHS tapes to DVD.

I have used Plextor ConvertX for copying videotapes to the hard drive, then burning to DV-R. I've done this with VHS movies I own which haven't been released on DVD.

The current Plextor ConvertX PX-AV200U costs a little over $100.

Rob Pegoraro: Much appreciated...


Burke, Va.: You wanna know what life with FIOS is like? I live in Burke, and have all three -- internet, t.v., and phone.

The phone is fine. It works.

The television is EXCELLENT -- good picture, good DVR.

The internet (I have 20/5) is blazing fast.

However -- Verizon FIOS service is HORRIBLE. My router broke, and they had to ship me a new one. Not a big deal, except I got twenty different stories from FIOS about how/when/how long. Very rude customer services folks, who know nothing. If you want to be credited for downtime, the customer service folks can't do it -- you must be transferred to billing. Billing will ARGUE with you about whether you should get credit for three or four days of downtime (you know, while your replacement router is being shipped).

So it's a great product if it works -- but if it doesn't work, God help you, because the FIOS service department won't.

Rob Pegoraro: I think I've heard this about Verizon's service before myself...


Silver Spring, Md.: Is this how it works? DTV gets delayed four months. Congress funds some more coupons (not 'enough', but more). The conversion happens in June with greatly diminished media coverage since the stories are pretty much played out. Some number of us get called out to our parents' homes to set up their boxes. All is well.

I think the lousy state of the economy is boosting interest in this story, since many folks don't have money for a new TV or cable. I'm still waitin' on those coupons but I'll figure out some way to get TV (since it's only the greatest invention ever, duh.)

Rob Pegoraro: If everything goes well, as the saying goes...


Screen of Death, Va.: Rob,

My Toshiba laptop computer, when turned on, starts going into the normal pre-load screen, but then stays black and says something about POX Rom and a media cable?

Is this fixable?

Rob Pegoraro: Maybe, but not by you or me. Anything that will cause it to fail the POST (power on self test) usually requires help from the kind of people who keep soldering irons in their toolkit.


Woodstock, Va.: Hi Rob, thanks for taking my question. I'm running XP and everything's up-to-date. Low end user, Quicken, Word, not much else. Question, starting Firefox (3.0) is S-L-O-W. maybe 15 sec or so. I use shortcuts to some sites, e.g, Wash Post, Drudge and the Firefox component is very slow. Is this usual for Firefox. Any ideas?

Rob Pegoraro: No, that's not usual. You could try using Opera or Google's Chrome, but upgrading your computer's memory might help too.

Another option: try the "(Safe Mode)" option in Firefox's Start menu folder. That will disable any extensions you've added; if one's at fault, you should uninstall it.


Burke, Va.: I'm sorry, I just read the post above from someone who said FIOS has "great customer service". Do yourself a favor -- Google "FIOS" and "customer service" together, and step BACK from your monitor. FIOS has DREADFUL customer service.

Rob Pegoraro: And still more on Fios


District of Columbia: For the Mac user whose MacBook is randomly shutting down - the first thing I'd check is overheating. Make sure the vents are clear, and find a utility that will show you the internal temperature of your laptop. (OS X might ship with one, I don't recall off the top of my head.)

Rob Pegoraro: Good tip. One app I'd try for monitoring system temperatures is a free Dashboard widget called, I think, iStat nano:


Alexandria, Va.: Do you know why some of the digital sub-channels, if that's the right word (like ch. 26-1, 26-2, 26-3, etc.) do not carry Closed Captions like the regular channels do? Is this going to continue to be a problem when we go completely digital? I am hearing-impaired and need CC to enjoy watching TV, and don't understand why not all channels use it. Or is there something I'm missing about setting it up properly?

Rob Pegoraro: They should--there's no exemption from closed-captioning rules for digital broadcasts. But you might have to enable them on your TV, which is something you'd have to flip through its manual to find out (though you could just hit the menu button on the remote and look around for settings related to CC).


Burke, Va.: Re: the Palm Pre, there appears to be substantial information (see cnet) that it's 3/15 for a drop.

Rob Pegoraro: I've seen stories suggesting a 2/15 launch. Neither of those dates seems realistic to me, given the number of "we haven't announced those details" yet replies I got from Palm reps at CES last month. The picture I got there was of a device that is still in the last stages of development.


Arlington, Va.: Rob, I enjoy my VZW cell service but would really like a good smartphone with it. I'm not sold on the Storm. Any idea when something like the G1, the Palm Pre, or an iPhone would be available with Verizon.

Rob Pegoraro: "something like the G1"? Could happen this year. There's no particular obstacle to Verizon offering an Android phone--i.e., no exclusive deals prevent that.

"Palm Pre"? That's a definite possibility too. Sprint has a lock on it for a little while, but it's not a permanent deal.

"iPhone"? Forget it. Not gonna happen anytime in the next few years.


Silver Spring, Md.: FIOS sounds great. I can speak from experience that trying to get Verizon to fix a technical problem is a pain. Here's how we handled it:

Phone (static) and DSL (drops) problems reported to Verizon. Call Verizon repeatedly for two months and have many visits from technicians who don't know as much as me or are simply disinterested.

Finally, we call our Congressman's office to complain. The problem is fixed the next day and we receive several follow up calls from managers at Verizon and the Congressman's office to be sure that everything has been taken care of. Now you know.

Rob Pegoraro: But if you live in the District, does the call-your-representative trick still work?


Reston, Va.: Here, by Reston Town Center, watching analog television wwith a digital converter, my DTV reception is interrupted (sound cuts out) every time a plane passes overhead on approach to Dulles.

Rob Pegoraro: That has to be an issue with your tuner. I live closer to National than you do to Dulles, and I've never seen that issue. (Yeah, some planes are bigger at IAD, but many aren't.) Next time we're discussing this--my next chat should be in two weeks--everybody please remember to specify the age and make/model of TV and tuner.

In my case, I've been using a Zenith converter box and a 26-in. Sony LCD, both 2008 models.


Washington, D.C.: Rob,

I have a three year old MacBook with OS X Tiger. It works great, and I rarely have any complaints. Now that Leopard is available, should I be upgrading my OS? This is my first Mac.

Rob Pegoraro: I would hold off on that; you don't sound unhappy with Tiger, and if you can stay happy through the summer, you can then--if the rumors are correct--skip Leopard and upgrade to its replacement.


Valdosta, Ga.: Has anyone found a software restore solution for the Apple Ipod? Feels like the inevitable failures guarantee a trip to the Apple Store or additional tech resolution online business for Apple.

Rob Pegoraro: Um, you do know that there's a "Restore" button right in iTunes, right? Click that and it will wipe your iPod's memory and reload its software from scratch.


Antwerp, Belgium: Hi, few weeks ago you told me that upgrading from 2 to 3 giga RAM won't make much of difference. I convert many times avi files to dvd format and pc is very slow, don't you think more memory wont help a bit? I still think memory eases up on pc's performance. Thank you

Rob Pegoraro: No. "Transcoding" video files is a processor-intensive operation.


Downtown: Hi Rob. I very much enjoy your columns and blog.

Occasionally on my Ipod Touch I'll pick up a wi-fi site called "FreePublicAccess" or something similar. But I'm unable to connect to the internet. Any ideas on what's up with that? Thanks...

Rob Pegoraro: You're looking at a defective Windows feature in action.


Rob Pegoraro: That's gonna wrap things up for today--thanks for all the questions (some of which you may see in Help File later on). See you here in two weeks...


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