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Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro
Consumer-Electronics Shopping

Friday, December 17, 1999, at 1 p.m.

Friday's Fast Forward looks at the state of consumer-electronics shopping, in particular, trying to get help in the stores these days. Whether you need technical advice on the finer points of home networking or just the price of a printer, things can be tough out there. How has it been for you so far? Bring your war stories, your questions and your tips to Friday's gab session with Rob Pegoraro, who will be sharing a few of his own. Submit questions early.

You can continue the discussion among yourselves on the new Fast Forward message board.

Rob Pegoraro: Hey, folks--welcome back to our biweekly support group for techno-victims. Issue one! How much fun, if any, are people having shopping for consumer-electronics goodies, online or offline, this season? (See Amy Joyce's story today for some examples of retailer-induced aggravation.)

But as with all our chats, anything personal-tech-related is fair game. So bring on your questions. With apologies to Frank Ahrens: Let's go!

Washington, DC: In this morning's column you mentioned making an attachment read-only to avoid virus problems. How do we do this?

Rob Pegoraro: You can't make the attached file itself read-only, but you can open it in read-only mode. This mostly applies to Microsoft Office documents, since they're often unwitting vectors for macro viruses. Inside Word, or Excel or whatever, hit Ctrl-O or select "Open" from the File menu, then right-click on the file and select "Open Read-Only."

(Memo to people who write e-mail programs: Give me a way to do this from within Eudora or Outlook instead of having to navigate to my attached-files directory in Word.)

Bethesda, MD: I've noticed on various Internet auction sites that there seem to be quite a few people interested in "vintage," or out-of-date, PCs. I know that there are people who collect such systems, but I'm wondering how large that market really is. Should a guy like me - who owns an 8086 PC - hold on to it, hoping to cash in on a collectible boom down the road? Or is my wife correct in her classification of such systems as "junk?"

Rob Pegoraro: Heed your wife's wise words, Bethesda. An 8086 is just old; you'd need a machine with some sort of history or obscurity to commend itself. An Osborne luggable or a Trash-80, for instance, might provoke the right sort of nostalgia-addled computist to pay.... something.

Woodbridge Va.: Hi Rob. I'm having a problem deciding between iMacs -- the Special Edition, graphite gray one for $1,499, or one of the other rainbow colored ones for $1,299. The salesperson at the store suggested that it would be worth getting the SE version because of the extra memory, but I don't know if I need 128K for Quicken, word processing, a few games and some slightly advanced web surfing. Plus, the wait to get an SE is a mile long. What do you think?

Rob Pegoraro: Overall, the $1,499 model is a better deal--the extra memory and the extra hard-drive space probably add up to more than $200 in value. OTOH, you can't buy the SE right now, whereas the plain old $1,299 DV is widely available. And Quicken, AppleWorks, Word, games (well, except for total resource hogs like Quake II, Quake III), etc. won't need the extra memory.

Another option, though, is the $994 regular iMac. You lose the FireWire ports, but unless there are decent odds you'll be acquiring a digital camera you may not get much utility out of 50 MHz more speed and a DVD-ROM drive.

Arlington: I think I'm finally going to plunge into the whole minidisc thing. I like the idea of all the features the format has to offer - digital recording, random access, easy editing, etc. Am I making a mistake, or will minidisc be around for a while? Ideally I want to get a home deck for recording and a portable to take in the car, to the office, listen on the metro... Does this make sense or does a portable that records make a better investment?

Rob Pegoraro: MiniDisc will definitely be around for the duration--in Japan. Here, I'm not so sure. Sony et al., IMHO, totally screwed up this format by not bothering to cut prices until CD-R had started driving a tank through MD's potential market share. And now there's MP3 to compete with as well, which is even more portable and editable than MD.

If you do go the MD route, though, I'd go with one of the cheaper recording portables. Sound quality should be the same as with an actual deck, plus you'll save on the cost of getting a portable and a deck. (Also, unless things have changed, the usual Sony portable-deck bundle includes the oldest, biggest, clunkiest player they offer.)

Rockville, MD: Even though I like comparing prices on-line, if I am going to make a major electronics purchase, I still want to see the item in person to get an idea of it's quality and functionality. To you think buying electronics sight unseen from on-line retailers is a long term trend?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes.

Oh, you wanted *subtance* to that response. First, I know what you mean; I would need to look at and touch, say, a cordless phone before buying. (To continue that example, a lot of cordless phones get returned because they turn out to sound lousy, and returning things is much easy if you buy offline.) But what if I've already seen the product before, at a friend's house or in a store while on other errands? And what if it's a product that most people don't return, that simply works, like a portable CD player or a VCR? In that case, I'd rather save the money.

Also, there are no quirky independent electronics stores in my neighborhood for me to feel guilty about taking business away from :)

Washington DC: Greetings Rob:

I bought a new Dell computer with a nice 17" Trinitron monitor last month, and blew out the monitor a few weeks later. I was wondering how I had managed to do this, and I have a suspect: the microwave oven on the other side of the wall. The display would shimmy whenever I nuked a Hungry Man, and I'm guessing that can't have been good.

Is it possible that the microwave killed the monitor? I didn't notice any warnings in my documentation -perhaps I didn't read closely enough-, but I guess the microwave broadcasts electromagnetic waves. Could the microwave also harm the computer itself? It's in another room separated by a foot-thick brick wall, but the microwave was really only 18 inches away from the monitor.

Dell was nice and replaced my monitor, but of course I didn't tell them about the microwave.

Thanks much.

Rob Pegoraro: Did you test the monitor's performance while reheating chili or pizza? I think you need to consider the role of the TV dinner here...

Seriously, it's certainly possible for different devices to interfere with each other. There are FCC rules about this kind of stuff, which I will freely confess to having not read. I've never heard of this kind of consumer-electronics fratricide before, but, hey, anything's possible.

Rockville, MD: I've been researching WebTV vs. DirecTV for the past week -even before I knew the Post would be doing a piece today-. I'm curious how happy readers are with the "cheaper" receivers, i.e., the ones you get free with a rebate. Also, which service are readers happier with? For my needs, I like the WebTV option of paying $15-mo and picking my own 10 channels. -I already have a roof antenna and rotor for local channels.- Do you expect better "deals" in January or are the current offers as good as it gets.

Rob Pegoraro: Um, do you mean Dish Network vs. DirecTV? Anyway... readers with either system, please chime in! This is a topic of considerable interest to your host; although his current abode faces the wrong way for a dish, he would definitely be looking at buying a sat-TV system if the next dwellings are aligned appropriately.

He also promises to can this third-person self-referencing after this question.

LostInSpace: What does the acronym DVD stand for. I see it every where.

Rob Pegoraro: Digital Video Disc, originally.

Then Digital Versatile Disc--when people were dreaming of this being the Grand Unified Theory of digital multimedia.

Then Digital Video Disc, when people noticed that less than 10 worthwhile DVD-ROM titles had materialized, and that DVD-Audio was in the process of being strangled by copy-protection worries.

Six months from now, the answer may be different. Anybody want to offer new meanings for this abbreviation?

DC: My 2 cents on the MiniDisc thing. I bought the Sharp 702 recordable because I wanted the flexibility most of all. I can record CD's, tapes AND mp3's onto it - whereas something like the Rio is limited in format. Also I like being able to erase the whole disc at the touch of a button - and unlike a recordable CDR, I get the same quality each time.

Rob Pegoraro: A vote in favor of MiniDisc. Thanks, D.C.

Annapolis, MD: What's the score on the Finally! arrived Windows 2000? There was a time when computer mfrs. sold their wares loaded with Win 98, with FREE up-grade to Win 2000, when and as available. Now it's an extra. Is it worth the hassle?

Rob Pegoraro: Hola, Annapolis. I'd say probably not. Microsoft really doesn't want everyday consumers buying Windows 2000, judging by the pricing--it will cost about as much as Windows NT does today. W2K is more aimed at offices and small businesses, with higher-end versions designed for use in workstations and servers. Also, many home computers won't be able to run W2K at all (it's much more selective about what hardware it supports than Win 98) and some games won't run under it either.

But despite all this, some marketing genuis in Redmond decided to give this successor to Windows NT a name that suggests it's the replacement for Win 98. In fact, the next "consumer Windows" release, "Millenium," won't ship until mid-next year, and there won't be a consumer version of W2K until maybe 2001. I believe the word for this strategy is "Hello?!"

Vienna Va: My daughter brought from Italy, TV's and VCR's, that uses the PAL-NTSC protocol to France. Unfortunately, France doesn't support this protocol but supports Secam. What is the cheapest way for me to use this PAL-NTSC equipment in France.

Rob Pegoraro: Good question! (This means "I don't know" in journalese.) Anybody in the house tackled this issue before?

(FYI, NTSC = how TV works in the US. PAL and Secam are different standards, with slightly different resolutions, used elsewhere.)

E-mail me about this and I'll see what I can dig up for you. Deal?

Washington, DC: I just recently got DSL from Bell Atlantic installed at my home. DSL is so fast it's really worth it, but Bell Atlantic's customer service for DSL is as bad as it's always been for plain old phone service. Among the most galling aspects is that their internal phone system for customer support-care does not work properly, making it almost impossible to reach anybody -- and they're the phone company! The installation CD that came with the "DSL modem," in addition to installing useful software, installed an OLD version of Netscape and wiped out my email and web browsing preferences in favor of their own -- that means all of my passwords for Web sites were pitched, along with my pop email preferences, and of course phone service was no help.
Sorry for the length of this post. Ultimately I'd say DSL is so fast it's worth it for the home consumer. And it's not a high-quality industry, so it's not as though Bell Atlantic is much worse than anybody else. But their customer service sucks, and you need to be ready to spend some time recouping from their rapacious installation software, at least on a Mac.
Now, do you know who at Bell Atlantic I can complain to about this? None of their employees who I contacted on the phone knows who

Rob Pegoraro: Congrats on the DSL! Sorry to hear of your problems with it. Question: Did BA (I'm assuming your ISP is BA.net) give you the plain old configuration info you'd need to set up your system to use the DSL connection? They should--any service this complicated, they ought to assume that the user may not want to have his existing Internet software trashed.

If you want to complain: I've seen complaints before in this forum about the Mac installation software being particuarly lame. I don't have any magic e-mail addresses to offer, unfortunately. You might want to try a letter, as old-fashioned as that seems. Otherwise, I'd suggest redoing your Internet software setup, then using the BA.net CD-ROM as a coaster.

MC Lean: I took your advice last time about liking my 2 computers and bought a cross over cable to get rid of the hub. My next issue, since I have only one monitor, is there software available to shutdown both computers? I don't want to switch the monitor cable from computer to computer to shutdown each computer separately. Windows likes to be shutdown gracefully so it will come back up automatically. So I can't just turn off the electricity. I prefer doing it without an AB Monitor switch.

Rob Pegoraro: Do you need to see the shutdown prompt? I know you can shut down a Windows box with the keyboard alone... it's something like, hit the key that brings up the Start menu, hit the up arrow once, hit Enter, and then Enter again. (Or Tab, then Enter, depending on what option is the default in the "Shut Down..." window--sleep or shutdown.)

Wash, D.C.: Mac question for you: I know that one can buy adapters to use ADB and SCSI port based devices on the new USB port machines out there. Without wanting to seem too naive -I'm actually pretty well versed in hardware and computer-, I'm unable to answer my colleague's question as to why there are no adapters to use USB peripherals on ADB or SCSI ports for older Macs to use new equipment. Is this something than can be done or will ever be done, even if it takes a large outside add-on?

Rob Pegoraro: You know, I've never heard your question before. I suspect it's a matter of the limitations of ADB (Apple Desktop Bus, which connects the keyboard and mouse to the CPU) and SCSI (connects things like hard drives and CD burners). I.e., USB can imitate ADB or SCSI, but not vice versa.

In any case, the way out--if your Mac has an open PCI slot--is to add USB to your machine with an internal card. I did this at home; the PCI card cost about $20 at the store, and the latest Mac OS supports just about any third-party USB card. If, OTOH, you've got a Mac with no internaal slots, or only NuBus slots, you might be hosed.

Note that you don't need to buy something labeled as "for Mac"; just pick up something in the PC section of the store and you can save a few bucks, provided it lists support for a standard called "OHCI" on the box. (Forget what this stands for--Open Host Configuration I-something--but the Mac OS looks for this kind of chip on the card.)

Lazy Shopper: What is the best DVD player out there?

Rob Pegoraro: I have no idea. But I'll tell you who might:

* There's a review of DVD players in the Dec. issue of Consumer Reports.

* The E-Town Web site liked the Pioneer DV-414, although its picks tend to skew towards the high-end. (If you know what "progressive-scan DVD" is and why it's important to HDTV owners, this is the site for you.)

* The DVD Resource Page offers some good general advice on DVD hardware shopping.

That help, LS?

Rob Pegoraro: And that's all the time we have for today. Thanks for the questions--and good luck with your shopping! Happy holidays. I'll be back for another chat in two weeks; until then, you can e-mail me about anything I didn't get to or you can talk amongst yourselves in our new forum. Y'all come back soon...

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