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  •   Consumer Tech Discussion With Fast Forward Editor Rob Pegoraro

    Friday, February 12, 1999

    Rob Pegoraro Rob Pegoraro began writing about the Internet for The Post back in 1994, which meant he had a Web page up before the Post did (the quality of it was another matter entirely).

    A few gray hairs, multiple trade shows and several bottles of Advil later, he became editor of Fast Forward in September 1997. There, he reports on, reviews, and often yells at home computers, Web sites, Internet providers, video games and other things that beep.

    For background, read this week's Fast Forward and past chats with Pegoraro.

    The transcript of today's live discussion follows:

    Arlington, Virginia: Sometimes it seems like the number of gadgets people haul around, install in their cars and attach to their computers is getting out of hand. If you had to start abandoning all your gizmos one by one, what could you do without, and what would give you the shakes? And does this worry you at all?

    Rob Pegoraro: Morning, y'all... I'd like to say I'm typing away on a laptop in a park somewhere, but I'm at my crummy old desk. (Where's my wireless Internet when I need it?)

    Anyway, on with the show. Excellent question here. I'd ditch the tape deck on my stereo first: I don't think I've even turned it on in months. Last thing to ditch would probably my PalmPilot; I'm about as likely to leave the house without it as I am to step outside without my lungs.


    Damascus, MD: I am running Windows 95 and need to exchange email with attached documents with Mac users. How can I do this?

    Rob Pegoraro: Well, just attach the file. Any recent Mac e-mail program--Eudora, Outlook Express, Claris eMailer, AOL, whatever--will read the attached file without any problems. This is one case where the industry managed to get its act together and agreed on standard ways to do things.

    Clarification: The e-mail program should have no problem decoding the attachment. Whether the recipient has the right program to open the file is another question entirely.


    rosslyn heights, va: what's the best search engine on the web?

    Rob Pegoraro: "Best"? I think I prefer the term "least worst." Lately, I've been using one called Google , which tries to rank pages by seeing how many other pages contain links to them. This popularity-contest approach seems to work pretty well, except for really new sites that haven't had time to collect links from other pages.

    I also like Ask Jeeves , but not for its core feature--allowing you to ask questions in plain English--so much as how it feeds your query to a batch of other search engines at the same time. That evens out the odds a bit; the search engines can't all be brain-dead at the same time on the same subject. Well, usually...


    Queens, New York: I'd have to say that in the last year, there has been more copy devoted to Palm Pilot in FFWD than any other product yet I still haven't read any compelling reason to fork over $300 plus for one. Are there any worthy competitors to the Palm Pilot worth looking at?

    Rob Pegoraro: No. All of the Windows CE handhelds are strangled by the complexity of trying to mimic the Windows interface on a screen the size of a business card (not to mention lousy battery life and often buggy synchronization software). There are other, larger competitors--the sub-laptop-sized Win CE devices, such as the Vadem Clio that Alan Kay sorta favorably reviews in today's page, as well as Psion's palmtops--but those are a much different kind of machine, in that you can't take them everywhere unless you want to tote around a briefcase or a purse full-time.

    But if paper works for you, hey, it's hard to argue with spending $6 at Staples for a Week-at-a-Glance instead of the $200 and change a Palm III will cost you. The point of these computer organizers is not to give you extra geek points, but to help you defrag and optimize your life, so to speak. Use what helps you do that best.


    Dublin, Ireland: Hey Rob, it's your cousin Catherine here,
    and how are things??

    Rob Pegoraro: Hey Catherine... good morning, er, afternoon. Thanks for stopping by. Things are well, aside from me losing way too much sleep on SimCity 3000 this week. (Our review's next Friday, BTW.)


    ft. myer heights, VA: what is the best cell phone for the price -- hardware-wise (separate from the best calling plan issue)?

    Rob Pegoraro: You should pick a wireless service before you pick a phone, actually. The quality of your cell experience will depend much more on your monthly bill and your carrier's coverage than it will on the actual hardware in your hand.

    My own preferences, however, are for phones with that little jog-dial feature (it's on most Sony phones these days) and as long a battery life as possible. And whatever you buy, *please* get a phone with a silent alarm and remember to use that feature in restaurants, theaters, etc. (See last weekend's Weekend cover on that point.)


    College Park, MD: Rob, have you any knowledge of a program called QTalk which is used in conjunction with ICQ? It's simplex rather than duplex, but, it seems to work well to hold a conversation. I use it to chat with a friend in Orlando and its clear as a bell most times.

    Rob Pegoraro: That's news to me. But I haven't tried too many of these Internet-phone-call programs--the people I would most likely use them with, my mom and dad, aren't quite early adopters of this sort of thing. Whereas the friends of mine that are tech-savvy are more likely to just use e-mail for long-distance communication, which doesn't require any scheduling beforehand and isn't dependent on a congestion-free Internet.


    Laurel, MD: I've posed this question before, but haven't seen a
    response: What is the status of Real Video
    Telephone technology?...When can the common
    person expect to have digital video telephones in
    every household?...What are the phone
    companies/techno firms working on?...Is anyone
    developing a video phone for the mass m

    Rob Pegoraro: This is one of those technologies that seems to stay in a perpetually embryonic state. You can certainly buy this kind of stuff--viaTV, for instance, sells its hardware for a few hundred bucks--but it's still too complicated and expensive for most people. And the quality is pretty lousy over a regular phone connection; it's not much above the quality of one of those surveillance cameras in a bank. If we had cheap, high-bandwidth connections to everybody's home, things would be easier... but if pigs had wings, they'd be flying in formation over the Capitol, you know?


    Washington, DC: When are recordable DVDs going
    to be available

    Rob Pegoraro: You can, if you want, buy a DVD-RAM drive for your computer *today*. The only problem is, you won't be able to use the discs you record on anything but your computer--there are something like five or six different proposed "standards," most of which are mutually incompatible, and the video industry appears too paralyzed by fears of piracy to make up its mind on which one to adopt. This is staggeringly immature behavior--but never underestimate the ability of the consumer-electronics industry to shoot itself in the foot.

    So: Buy a DVD-RAM drive if you feel like being an unpaid beta tester. Otherwise, boycott this until these companies decide to grow up.


    Washington,DC: What are you thoughts on the IBM Aptiva? Is is really the best? I'm looking for something that will handle basic small business activities.

    Rob Pegoraro: It's not the best, but it's not the worst either. When we last reviewed home computers (last November), we found that the IBM was basically, well, OK: The software bundle was more diverse than most--IBM heretically bundles Lotus SmartSuite instead of Microsoft Office--and the hardware was a good value, but tech support was mediocre. (But not much worse than everybody else's.)

    For the kinds of uses you're talking about, where you're not dealing with high-end performance requirements, it strikes me that it's pretty much a commodity market. Just about everybody ships the same hardware and software, at roughly similar prices. I would pick the manufacturer with the least offensive tech-support policies. Dell and Gateway, for instance, are much less of a pain about this, whereas H-P, to name one, makes you call long-distance for any help at all.


    Washington, DC: Picard or Kirk?

    Rob Pegoraro: I'd give a slight edge to Picard, although hearing a Patrick Stewart cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man" could change that opinion drastically.


    Fairfax, VA: Are there any XML enabled Search engines available now? Also when do you expect IE 5.0 browser to come out of beta?

    Rob Pegoraro: Jargon patrol: XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language, which is a way for Web authors to add descriptive terms to the code underlying their creations--for instance, you can define some sort of database syntax with XML. The idea is that an XML-fluent browser could read a page's code and then display all sorts of content you couldn't easily cook up with regular HTML (HyperText Markup Language, the guts of any Web page).

    I don't know what search engines support this, although I suspect the answer is "very few"--Web browsers haven't had much time to support this standard, if I recall correctly.

    I'm not sure about Internet Explorer 5.0 going final, but I'd guess sometime this spring. I've been using the beta at home for months now, and it basically works. There's not that much new in this version, anyway--they should have called it a version 4.5, but this is a marketing-driven arms race. You can't seem to be "behind" Netscape, after all.


    Rockville, MD: More on phone choices, but not cellular... Do you have a favorite choice for your basic home phone that includes caller ID?

    Rob Pegoraro: Nope. If you're talking a basic, corded phone, just buy something with buttons that feel right. If you're buying cordless, I'd opt for one of those 900 MHz digital phones--the range does improve, and the digital technology minimizes the risk of other people eavesdropping, which appeals to me on peace-of-mind grounds alone.

    BTW, I actually got to use a rotary phone last weekend. Wow! I had completely forgotten what it was like to wait for the circle thing to wind back to zero for each number... life must have been much slower before touch-tone dialing.


    Arlington, Va.: I'm considering getting another home computer (I used to have one, but got rid of it, so the only one I have is at work now).

    I want run Netscape, Quicken and a word processor, and maybe occasionally Photoshop. That's really all I need. What are the minimum specs I could do those things with at a reasonable speed? Thanks.

    Rob Pegoraro: Well, expect for Photoshop, any computer sold today will do fine. But Adobe Photoshop (for the uninitiated, this is an exceedingly complex and powerful image-editing program) will eat as many processor cycles as you can throw at it, not to mention RAM. So don't buy anything with less than 64 megs of memory. You didn't mention whether you were looking for a Mac or a PC, so I'll go into both: If you're going to be spending any major amount of time in Photoshop, get either a Pentium II 350 or above or a G3 Mac or iMac running at 266 MHz or faster.

    Well, that about wraps it up for today. If I didn't get to your questions this time around (or if you're a relative of mine whom I didn't give a shout out to), you can e-mail me at rob@twp.com, and I'll be back here in two weeks, from 11 to noon on Friday the 26th. See y'all then...

    - Rob

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