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Personal Tech: Holiday Gift Guide

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Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Friday, December 18, 2009; 12:00 PM

The Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro waws online Friday, Dec. 18 at Noon ET to discuss recent reviews, answer your personal tech questions and provide gadget-buying advice for the holidays.

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Read this Sunday's Fast Forward column early: How to set up a new computer.

Rob's latest tech thoughts and tips are cultivated daily on his blog Faster Forward.

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Rob Pegoraro: Welcome, all, to my last Web chat of the year. (Not forever. Apparently there was some confusion over my phrasing of that last week.) This is your last shot at picking my brain about gadgets to get or avoid, and what to do with them once you've got them out of the box or blister pack. Let's go...

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Silver Spring, Md.: Rob, What's your take on the Google Nexus One? Will we see it for sale next month?

Rob Pegoraro: As I wrote on the blog earlier this week, leave me out of the hype over this alleged Google Phone: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/2009/12/spare_me_the_google_phone_hype.html

If it's anything like what we've seen, it will essentially be a T-Mobile myTouch with better software.

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Glenwood, OR: A video running on an HP laptop at Best Buy tells me that with its Windows 7/Windows Media Center (+ a TV tuner & internet access) can serve as a DVR. Any thoughts on the new laptops as satisfactory replacements for Tivo? Happy holidays!

Rob Pegoraro: That's true if you only watch over-the-air TV or the most basic of basic cable--or if (an unlikely circumstance) that HP has a CableCard slot (I don't think it does). Otherwise, forget it.

The Federal Communications Commission is now looking into revising the regulations about pay-TV tuners to open up that market to more competitors, including computer-based ones... the current system has failed to do so.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: How would you choose from among the options available for new electronic book readers (the original Kindle, or the new Barnes & Noble or Sony versions)?

Rob Pegoraro: I couldn't--I've yet to see Sony's new wireless reader or B&N's Nook. (A couple of readers have preordered the Nook and have asked if I'd like to take a look at their copies when they show up. I would, in fact; e-mail me at robp@washpost.com and we'll work something out. I can richly compensate you with giveaway, vendor-logoed flash drives!)

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Gaithersburg, Md.: This isn't exactly a gift question (maybe a gift for me), but what is the difference between a MacBook and a MacBook Pro? I'm thinking about switching to a Mac, but the MacBook is already quite a bit more expensive than a PC. If I get more memory and a larger hard drive, is there any real reason to spend extra for the Pro? I'd be using it primarily for Internet and word processing, as well as supporting a Sims addiction.

Rob Pegoraro: For most home users, the choice is between the $999 MacBook and the $1199 MacBook Pro, each with a 13.3-in. screen. The more expensive model adds a FireWire port (good for connecting an external hard drive), SD Card slot (great for transferring digital photography) and backlit keyboard (fantastically useful for typing in darkened rooms, such as during Macworld Expo and CES keynotes).

The weird thing is, the cheaper MacBook has a larger hard drive than the entry-level MBP.

I suspect most home users will do fine with the regular MacBook if they either don't plug that many things into it or use some wireless peripherals (like a WiFi printer).

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Washington, D.C.: In your new computer setup story, you suggest installing MS Security Essentials. Is that a better option than other free security programs (AVG, Avira, etc.)? Does it cause problems if you install more than one?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, I prefer it to those competitors--it's a lot less annoying in everyday use. No, don't install more than one anti-virus program.

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Patrick County, Va.: I rent my mom's farmhouse to an elderly man, who, after Thanksgiving, told me that a neighbor drives by at odd hours of the night to wake him up.

I have a laptop with a webcam. And I'm looking at ustream as I type this.

If I go down there and place the laptop facing the road, then I'll be able to see what is going on. However, I'd like to capture and save only those moments when the vehicle rides by so we can determine if this, in fact, deliberate.

Is there any software that would help me do this?

Rob Pegoraro: I'm sure there is, but I have no idea what it might be. Any suggestions?

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22101: need to buy a dvd player my sony one broke after using it ocassionally for the past year or so. prefer the ability to play foreign films. does it matter if it's compact in size or not? been a bit drawn to the $25 dvd players at target lately esp cuz the sony was 80 or so. advice? (pretty sure the sony workin is a lost cause, it displays in bw only and lots of noise in lieu of audio, but if i can fix it awesome. perhaps cleaning the head?)

Rob Pegoraro: Look up the reviews on Amazon for any model you're considering and see if that player is described as "multi-region," "region-free" or is said to be hackable into those modes (usually with the right sequence of button presses). Another option is to watch foreign DVDs on a computer with the free VLC Player program (videolan.org).

I don't think cleaning the laser or other parts of the disc mechanism will fix the Sony; if it couldn't read the disc you wouldn't just lose color and pick up noise, you wouldn't see anything at all.

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Dupont Circle: What's your take on the Roku? I'm thinking about getting one because we only have old Macs, so we can't take advantage of the Netflix watch instantly stuff. And buying a new computer for that seems dumb...

Rob Pegoraro: I reviewed the first Roku Netflix box last year and liked it (aside from the thin selection of movies). I've got the newer unit but... um, haven't gotten around to doing anything with it. Sorry. It's kind of a busy time.

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Port Townsend, Wash.: To run Windows (sewing) software on a MacBookPro with Snow Leopard, I have purchased Apple's Parallels software so I can have both Mac & Microsoft OS open at same time. Now I have to buy Windows. Best Buy, etc. are not allowed to sell XP now, I'm told, and I don't want to spend $$$ for Windows 7, esp. since it's so new. Absolutely refuse to buy Vista. So I'm shooting for XP. I know a package labeled Upgrade won't work. I want new BTW but do I need Professional or Home? SP2 good enough or should I only buy one listed as SP3? This is killing me: buying Microsoft.

Rob Pegoraro: You could try running it in a program called CrossOver Office, which doesn't need a separate copy of Windows. See if your app is listed in its compatibility list: http://www.codeweavers.com/compatibility/

Otherwise, look on eBay for a used, non-upgrade retail copy of XP. You may also see "OEM" copies of XP at sites like NewEgg.com.

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Alexandria, Va.: My husband and I both have iPhones, and with the DC weather being absolutely frigid, we're frustrated that we can't use our phones without taking off our gloves! I just discovered Dots gloves, which have a metal dot on the fingerpad and allows the user to use the iPhone without taking off their gloves. Do you have any idea how well this works? They're sold out everywhere, but I'd at least like to get some opinions before I wait for them to appear in stock again.

Rob Pegoraro: I haven't tried those, but I am checking out a few other iPhone-compatible gloves from North Face, Echo Touch and another company I can't remember. Look for a writeup in Help File sometime soon...

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wiredog: Patrick County needs more than just software. A sensor (probably a light beam type) that's broken when a vehicle passes by it. Software to monitor that and trigger the webcam. Software to control the webcam and record its output. Hmm. He needs to talk to someone who knows how to set that up, and what COTS solutions might work. I mean, I could come up with a slick custom solution, but it'd cost well over 10 grand just for the research and design.

Rob Pegoraro: Probably not the answer Patrick Co. was hoping for, but there you go...

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MacBook (Non-Pro) User Here: I'm able to run pretty much anything, including the Adobe Creative Suite, so no worries that way--it's much faster than my last Windows machine.

One caveat, though: the glass screen (whatever, at any rate it's not LCD) is just about impossible to use if there's any reflectable light in the area...so no coffeehouses, retail settings with flourescents overhead, no lamps in the background, etc.

I use an Apple 20" monitor at home, and can't recommend it more highly--but now you're up to 3 grand for the suite...

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the min-review!

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tina in falls church: re: farm lurker: Maybe a hunter's trail cam?? They are ok in bad weather. Some can stream with a subscription, some shoot in infrared for secrecy.

Rob Pegoraro: Or maybe there is a cheaper solution to this...

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FB, DC: I'm one of those, never say AT&T, folks who covets iphones but won't get one because I'm happy with my current phone company. Will Droid really fill the need? if so, which version? There is a great sailing app for iphone that calculates VMG and other sailing data that I'm hoping will become available for droid. Currently I've got a blackberry pearl, so I'm not using it for sailing at all, but we're hearing good things about the iphone app so I'm really hoping Droid will follow suit.

Rob Pegoraro: I like Verizon's Droid a lot (here I'm talking about the Motorola Droid, not other Android phones such as HTC's confusingly named Droid Eris... seriously, HTC, could you be any less helpful?) Can't speak to its support for sailing software, though.

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Washington, DC: How to set up an OLD Computer: good article on Sunday about how to set up a new computer. But I'm thinking about trying to upgrade to Windows 7 from Vista on my Dell Inspiron Laptop tomorrow when I'm snowed in and have the time. Will I simply download the program onto my laptop from Dell/Microsoft and then simply (emphasis on simply) follow the prompts? Or, will Dell send me the disks and I proceed from there? Anything else I should be aware of? Thanks as always.

Rob Pegoraro: You should be fine doing a direct, in-place upgrade from Vista to 7--the computer should have all its software intact, and you should find that you've got a good deal more memory free. You should back up your data first, just in case. But you already do that every week, right?

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Tampa, Fla.: Any advice on car adapters for iPods? My niece wants to play her iPod in her 2005 Honda Accord.

Rob Pegoraro: If you're lucky, her Honda has a line-in jack, which means you'll only need a cheap patch cable to run from the iPod's headphone jack to that plug. If it's got a tape deck, a cassette adapter is the cheapest way to connect the two. If it doesn't, you'll have to get an FM transmitter, which will cost more and be a little trickier to set up (you need to find a frequency free of existing FM stations, which will vary as you go from city to city).

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do i really need an ipod: debating whether i need an ipod. couldn't i just get a microsd card 4 my cell and put songs on it? realize i'm gonna get slammed 4 this but why is it so great having an ipod? perhaps folks can enlighten me.

Rob Pegoraro: An iPod will almost certainly have a simpler, more elegant interface than your phone, and it will be a cinch to set up with iTunes. OTOH, a 4 GB SD Card will cost a lot less than even the cheapest iPod shuffle. You can also replicate some of that by setting up Windows Media Player to automatically load a new auto-playlist of randomly chosen songs on the card every time you connect the phone to the computer.

(I know some of you are saying "I just want to drag and drop songs to the card; what's so hard about that?" Good for you... but a lot of home users don't care to do manual file copies, and some don't know where their music app stories their MP3s in the first place.)

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tina again: Cheaper solution.... a used .357

Rob Pegoraro: Hey, this isn't Stephen Hunter's chat :)

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D.C.: Dell markets several lines of laptop: Inspiron, Vostro, Latitude etc., grouped into home and business categories. But there seems to be a lot of overlap in the actual specs. Is there any particular reason to choose one line over the others where the specs and prices are similar? Any reason not to choose the cheaper line when other things are equal? More broadly, some reviewers talk about "build quality." That sounds like a good thing, but what does it mean exactly? More bolts? Extra solder?

Rob Pegoraro: The biggest difference you're likely to see is the software bundle; Dell's business-oriented models, like the Vostro, have a fairly stripped-down bundle compared to the Dell Inspiron models you might see at a Best Buy. But you can also custom-configure their consumer PCs to get rid of the third-party software.

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princeton NJ: OK, I need a device (like the Shazam ap) that can identify CLASSICAL music off the radio. Who's working on that? Is there any hope?

Also need small screen devices I can place in any room in my (4-story) house to identify music playing from my ITunes library base ( the main airport computer screen is up on 3rd floor -- it's getting to be a hike). Who's working on that?

Thanks, P Hyatt

Rob Pegoraro: I haven't tried Shazam (a really neat, free app for the iPhone and Android that identifies songs after listening to a brief snippet of them) on classical music... I take it the app doesn't work so well on that genre?

For small-screen display devices, consider getting an iPod touch and installing Apple's free Remote application. That's what a reader suggested in an e-mail and comment; I passed that advice on to a friend, who seems pretty happy with the results so far.

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Nashville, N.C.: I would like my laptop to download faster and show videos without always constantly buffering. What do I need to achieve this?

Rob Pegoraro: A faster Internet connection?

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Henderson, KY: In Windows 7, while playing solitare, the magnifier unexpectedly pops up, even when my pointer is on the game and not on another part of the screen. I have had to resort to re-booting to get it out of the way. How can I disable this function so that it does not pop up out of the blue.

Rob Pegoraro: Allegedly, this tip will disable the Magnifier, but I haven't tried it yet: http://www.sevenforums.com/tutorials/38827-magnifier-starts-startup-enable-disable.html

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Washington, D.C.: I'm trying to get some more mileage out of my computer before buying a new one. It sounds like a jet engine most of the time. It's about 5 yrs old, runs XP. I'm only really using Firefox and iTunes on it. I've cleaned it up, run all the scans, upgraded the RAM to over 2GBs, removed unnecessary programs, and there's still 50% of my hard memory unused. But it still runs hot and loud. What else can I do? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: You can replace the cooling fans to solve the noise or the heat problem, but probably not both unless you also want to add some sort of liquid-cooling solution--and it's doubtul whether you want to put any money into a five-year-old machine at all. Back then, processors just ran very hot on most computers.

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a ford crown vic with the factory radio and a cd player. I am thinking of upgrading to a radio that has an IPOD connection and a USB port. Can I use the ISB port to play music instead of CDs?

Rob Pegoraro: That's the idea--pop in a flash drive with your MP3s and rock on down the road. Some car stereos also include an SD Card slot, and some dispense with the CD player altogether (they're called "mechless" units, for their lack of a disc mechanism).

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For Patrick County: Earplugs: $2 White noise machine: $50 Telling the old coot to stop bothering you about someone using a legal road: Priceless

It's probably a waitress or cook on her way to the breakfast shift.

Rob Pegoraro: Still more advice for our reader...

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Rockville: What's your thought on the Inspiron? My husband wants one to hook up to our TV, but I'm not sure what it does exactly and if it's the best model out there.

Rob Pegoraro: I think you mean Dell's new, tiny Inspiron Zino desktop. I haven't checked it out yet and almost certainly won't until after CES, but in concept it's not too different from Apple's Mac mini--an extremely compact desktop that would fit in well under an HDTV to let you watch any sort of Web video and also enjoy your own music, video and photo files.

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another ipod question: I just bought a new Dell Studio 15 and was trying to figure out how to salvage music from my ipod photo (yup I'm one of those) that somehow I missed when copying my library onto an external hard drive from the old and now gone computer that had served as my storage. Unfortunately I've had no luck getting the new computer to even recognize the ipod. I've put the ipod in disk mode and still no luck. Any hope? I should add that my ipod works but is well finicky for lack of a better word.

Rob Pegoraro: I will soon be revising my "how to copy music off your iPod" story, but in the meantime here's the most recent version of that advice: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/10/AR2007021000002.html

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Roku: I agree with you in terms of the relatively thin selection of Netflix films available on the Roku, but I've had one for several months now, and I absolutely love it. I have Comcast internet and the quality of the stream is, 99/100 times, indistinguishable from a DVD. Also, you can rent films on Amazon.com and instantly watch them (which is exactly how I plan to spend tomorrow as the snow falls). I think a Roku box is well worth the money ($99 when I bought the 1G version).

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the recap...

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DC: Just a thought for the guy at the farmhouse: What will you do with your pictures? If the neighbor is driving on a public road, he has a right to be there pretty much any time for any reason, unless maybe he stops on the shoulder and starts blowing his horn. If it's a private driveway, maybe a chain across the entrance is a solution. But it's probably not a police matter, and confronting the neighbor directly might not be smart.

Rob Pegoraro: Is there no topic we can't resolve here?

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wiredog: I like Tina's solutions...

My iPod mount in my 05 Honda Element is an audio patch cable, and some velcro to hold the iPod to the dash.

Rob Pegoraro: I would've thought you'd use duct tape for this :)

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Austin, Texas: I've never found an FM transmitter adapter for an iPod that is even remotely acceptable. If you're in a decent-sized city, there are too many stations competing (and winning) over the wimpy transmitter in the adapter. And even when you get outside the city, the sound quality is just generally poor.

I'd actually recommend upgrading the car stereo to even a bottom-end aftermarket system, which will likely have at least an aux input.

Rob Pegoraro: I've heard great results from some friends' FM transmitters and seen dismal results from others (all of whom live in the D.C. area).

You can also look into having a car-stereo shop wire an extra line-in jack into your existing system. That's probably what we should do with our Prius--the tape-deck adapter we use has started making these slight grinding noises, which aren't too noticeable with most music but kind of annoying during podcasts.

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Shazam (Big Al): I used Shazam to identify classical music songs for a music class I took this past summer. Worked really well for me. Ended up with an 'A' in the class.

Question: What computer manufacturer (Windows only) would you recommend for a novice user? Dell, HP, Compaq, Acer, Toshiba, etc... (laptop and-or desktop machine)

Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: Appreciate the Shazam report--glad it worked well for you.

Best for novice users... best for novice users... hmm. I would recommend against Toshiba and Acer for their dismal software bundles. HP's software bundle stinks too, but the company does include a decent system-checkup tool that looks for new drivers automatically. Dells can come with a clean bundle, but only if you configure them that way.

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Clarendon, Va.:

I'd like to get my wife an iPhone type device. Unfortunately, we have a year to go on our Verizon contract. Should I a) pay the cancelation fee b) get a droid or c) just wait?

Rob Pegoraro: Get a Droid or wait. Eating the cancellation fee isn't worth it.

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Washington, D.c.: What do you think of Samsung netbooks, particularly the n140, their only model with Windows 7?

Rob Pegoraro: I haven't tried the N140, but it would have been a good fit in last week's review of netbooks with Win 7 Starter. (Though it also would have had the same generic, Microsoft-caused problems as other Win 7 Starter netbooks.)

Their other ones have seemed well-designed--Samsung didn't screw up the keyboards--but I'm not interested in buying anything with XP at this point.

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Sterling, Va.: My old car didn't have a line-in jack built in to the factory stereo, but it did have a place to add a 6-CD changer. I was able to buy a mysterious box online that turned the 6-CD changer input into a regular line-in jack, and I used that for my iPod. Probably cheaper and easier than a full new aftermarket unit, if you have that option available.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the suggestion... remember the name of this mysterious box?

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tina to wiredog: You are the man. I first thought of the S&W 500 pistol with the electric orange handle but it's not cheap

Rob Pegoraro: Yet another gadget that I haven't had time to review...

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Cleveland, Ohio: Any Storm 2 thoughts? It seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle with Verizon (i.e., no commercial shooting it from space in to cornfields).

Rob Pegoraro: I didn't get around to reviewing it either. Folks who bought it seem to like its onscreen keyboard a *lot* better than the one on the first Storm. OTOH, it's still stuck with BlackBerry's dismal attempt at an app store, BlackBerry App World, a mediocre browser and cobbled-together desktop-sync software.

Overall, I think Research In Motion has fallen seriously behind the iPhone and Android.

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re another ipod...: Yes, thanks I actually had your article out while I was doing this and downloaded senuti. Unfortunately I can't get the ipod to be recognized by the computer at all.

Rob Pegoraro: Oh. In that case, you might be out of luck--the tricks you can use to get an iPod to show up on the desktop again generally involve restoring it, which of course wipes out the songs on it. Is there a workaround I'm missing here?

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Wash.: Solid state drives have dropped a lot in price. How hard is it to replace a standard hard drive with an SSD in a laptop (with the intention of making a travel laptop more durable)? Any downside, other than smaller capacity?

Rob Pegoraro: It's possible--this walkthrough shows how one user replaced a hard drive with a drop-in Samsung SSD--but it may not be easy on a particular laptop. I'm not sure the benefits of it (mainly faster boot time and potentially longer battery life) would justify the cost, the storage space you give up and the time you'll need to reinstall Windows and all your software.

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Pittsburgh: Best value on a Blue Ray player?

Rob Pegoraro: As long as the Blu-ray player supports the "2.0 Profile" that enables "BD-Live" interactive content and has a way for you to upgrade its firmware to accommodate future changes to this not-really-done-yet standard, you should be OK. These things are, to some degree, commodity products now.

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re ipod fm transmitter: I've never had a problem using my fairly old at this point, FM transmitter. The only area where I get interference is around NYC. However, I'm told that the newer versions allow you to search for clear channels to transmit which should resolve my issue. I'd still prefer a direct hook up, but the FM transmitter has worked well for me for at least 5 years.

Rob Pegoraro: Here's a vote in favor of FM transmitters for iPod-to-car-stereo connections...

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Line adapter for iPod: My local "rims 'n' whatnot" store wanted $60 to run a cable behind the dash of my Passat, so given that everything German costs twice as much to service, that's probably a good solution.

Much better than the FM adapter. You think mp3's sound compressed on an iPod? Wait until you hear them on the FM band...

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, $60 isn't bad--it's cheaper than some FM transmitters.

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Kensington: For the folks who want iPod inputs for their cars, there are several aftermarket companies selling them for various makes. They are hardwired to the sound system so do not have static, etc. One that I've seen good reports on is XCarLink. Another is Grom. Some carmakers (i.e. Mazda) sell their own adaptors. Some (i.e. Mazda) are very difficult to use, but there are sometimes workarounds to make them useable (ask me how I know). Try researching online forums for your particular car make.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks.

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Bowie, Md: I just got an iPhone (yay!) and am enjoying learning about it's capabilities, apps, etc. I would like to be able to place my MP3s through my living room TVs speakers. What is the best way to do that? The TV is fairly new with all the standard hook ups. Is it just a matter of getting the correct cable to go from the iPhone's headphone jack or do I need another piece of hardware?

Rob Pegoraro: The patch-cable workaround that I suggested would work in this case, or you could get an iPod dock (which could also let you show photos and play videos from the iPod on the TV and also charge the thing).

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McLean, VA: We have a Dell Studio laptop that we sometimes plug into our TV using an HDMI cable, but we can't figure out what's going on with the sound. Sometimes the sound comes through the TV speakers (as it should), sometimes it comes only through the laptop's tiny little speaker, and sometimes we get no sound at all from anywhere.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this, since we experience all three scenarios with every possible source (DVD, YouTube, etc). The HDMI cable itself and the HDMI input on the TV are fine, because we never experience these problems when we attach other devices (such as a DVD player).

Is there anything in the Dell's software or configuration that we should check?

Rob Pegoraro: That's a weird one. If it were an HDMI handshake issue, the video would be screwed up, not the audio. I can only guess that something's messed up on the laptop's audio settings... but when you have to look in both Windows' own audio-properties window and whatever third-party app Dell might have installed, there's a lot of places for things to go wrong.

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Anonymous: I am running an IMAC with Snow Leopard, I can't run many WMV files (videos) or wave files. I can't find a reason for this. Any help or suggestions?

Rob Pegoraro: All I want for Christmas is for people to stop writing "Mac" in all-caps as if it were an acronym :)

The VLC Player I mentioned before should work, or you can download a Windows Media plug-in for OS X's QuickTime software: http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=915D874D-D747-4180-A400-5F06B1B5E559&displaylang=en

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Arlington, Va.: when will I be able to get internet radio in my car? Is it possible with one of those new-fangled smart phones and 3G?

Rob Pegoraro: It's been possible for a while--see the column I wrote this summer, in which I recounted listening to Pandora and Slacker all the way out to the Shenandoah Valley: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/29/AR2009052903711.html

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Rob Pegoraro: That's gotta do it for this week--I have a Help File to write, and at some point I'll have to trek to the grocery store for the ritual pre-Snowpocalypse stocking up.

Thanks for all of your questions--this week and every other week this year. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Seasons' Greetings, etc., and I'll see you in 2010.

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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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