• Newsletter Issue #314

    December 5th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    We had a wide-ranging show on December 1st. Our first guest was James Gaskin, author of “Talk is Cheap.” The book covers the ins and outs of Internet phones, from the phone-based systems, such as Vonage, to the computer-based technologies, lead by Skype. We even got into the controversial question of providing proper 911 support, a subject that has caused lots of confusion in some circles, and has drawn the attention of the FCC.

    Next up was Adam Steinberg, no relation to the hosts, who is a Product Manager for Elgato Systems, makers of EyeTV, a TV interface for your Mac, and other products. Adam sent us an EyeTV 500, the digital TV model, for review. We have the unit hooked up to the local cable TV connection right now and we’ll have more to say on the subject within the next week.

    The subject of digital music dominated our interview with Macworld’s Christopher Breen. The matter is especially apt, now that RealNetworks is making its Rhapsody music service available for Mac users.

    On December 8th, we’ll be joined by Joe Kissell, author of a number of books, including “Take Control of Apple Mail in Tiger.” We’ll also be joined by Jon Gotow, from St. Clair Software, author of Default Folder X. More guests will be announced shortly.

    And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, iPod accessories, memory upgrades, network music players, software and books. More great prizes will be offered in the weeks to come.

    If you haven’t heard our program, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives or download the Podcast version. Enjoy.

    THE BROWSER REPORT: FIREFOX 1.5

    After months and months of anticipation, public previews, and a slower-than-expected development process, Firefox 1.5 is out and ready to continue its ongoing battle against to gain traction against Microsoft Internet Explorer. On first glance, the new version doesn’t seem all that different from its predecessor, but Mac users will notice a redesigned preference panel that makes it look more like a genuine Mac OS X application.

    As you begin to use the latest Firefox release, however, you’ll see evidence that a lot of work was done under-the-hood. Site rendering is faster, and, when switching back and forth from one page to another, display seems almost instantaneous. As with just about all browser releases, support for Web standards is said to be improved, and that’s something that’ll only become apparent over time. There will, of course, always be sites that depend on Internet Explorer’s treacherous ActiveX feature, simply because some Web designers are lazy and don’t seem to recognize the potential security lapses.

    Among the other notable improvements in Firefox 1.5 is drag and drop reordering for tabs, security enhancements, superior popup blocking and improved profile importing from Safari and the Mac version of Internet Explorer. Speaking of security, you’ll also appreciate the “Clear Private Data” feature, which lets you remove personal information. That, and the ability to report problems with a specific site, are reminiscent of near-identical features in Safari.

    If you move among computing platforms, you’ll appreciate the fact that Firefox works in essentially the same fashion, while remaining mostly true to a specific operating system. Although Mac support is improved, it’s not perfect. When you open multiple browser windows, for example, the second window appears to the right and below the first, which means it will may below the Dock. This is a minor, but notable programming lapse that the folks at Mozilla ought to address as soon as possible, without waiting for the next major release.

    Speaking of updates, the process is now automated, which means you won’t have to download an all-new version when an update is ready, assuming the patching system supports major releases, of course. That may not be such a big deal on a Mac if you have broadband, because installation is a simple drag-and-drop process. Not so under Windows, where such an update feature will be a godsend.

    This isn’t to say that Firefox 1.5 is perfect. Aside from that cosmetic issue, where windows descend beneath the Dock, I found occasional instances of flaky behavior. At first, the Page Up and Page Down keys were nonfunctional, a symptom reported by others. In my case, I was able to restore normal page navigation by deleting both application support and preference files. While I had to recreate my profile, in my case, importing the data from Safari was sufficient to restore most of my particular setup.

    Alas, the fix was only temporary, and the problem returned a few days later. I see that others are reporting an assortment of scrolling problems, so I’m not alone in this.

    Initial application launch is still rather slow, however, as agonizing seconds lapsed before the home page appeared. Subsequent launches were speedy enough, nearly as quick as Safari. I also ran into an occasional application crash, but it wasn’t consistent enough to blame it on a particular site or feature. I’ll have to look into this further, to see whether it’s something unique to my system or a wider problem.

    While I’m pleased to see that over 100 million copies of Firefox have been downloaded so far, and that it’s slowly gaining market share against Internet Explorer, I’m not as yet ready to make a permanent switch from Safari. Some feel that Firefox is faster, but I’m not altogether convinced of this, at least in my particular system setup. In addition, Apple’s browser still seems more stable, more predictable.

    In the end, I think the folks at Mozilla should be commended for the work they’ve done so far. On the other hand, they ought to pay a little closer attention to the Mac platform. Issues of window placement and scrolling may be minor in the scheme of things, but over time, they can become aggravating. Other than cross-platform similarities, is Firefox really superior to Safari? I’m not really convinced of that, at least not yet.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: A NEW LOOK AT PLASMA TV

    When I first saw a plasma TV at a local consumer electronics outlet, I was floored by the extraordinary picture quality, and also by the purchase price. Although it was a science fiction fan’s dream come true, I didn’t feel I had achieved a level of financial success that allowed me to spend the price of a compact car on a TV, I accepted it as a neat curiosity and nothing more.

    As you might expect, the prices for advanced technology somehow have a habit of dropping to a point where normal people can afford such gear, even if they still have to stretch a bit. For high definition, I felt the best bang for the buck was offered by rear projection, which uses a tiny imaging device to generate the image onto a larger screen. In fact, I reviewed just such a product earlier this year, the futuristic Samsung HL-P5085W. The technically-minded call it a microdisplay, because it uses a tiny chip, known as DLP, to create the image. Other rear projection systems use LCD and other methods to generate the picture.

    At the time, this 50-inch marvel had a street price of $3,699. A lot of money, to be sure, but the picture was great, particularly if you’re willing to pay a few hundred extra to have it professionally calibrated. But a TV of this sort has fairly high maintenance requirements. Every few thousand hours, you have to shell out from $200 to $300 to replace the projection lamp. If you’re an avid TV viewer, you can expect to buy one of those lamps every year or two. It begins to add up, and soon the projection TV costs more as some of the more-expensive flat panel models.

    Now that we’re immersed in the 2005 holiday season, I decided to check out what that $3,699 would buy nowadays, and the picture has changed considerably. Yes, rear projection TV’s are cheaper, but not by a whole lot. But the the prices of plasma and LCD flat panel sets have really plummeted. Give or take a few hundred, you can take the same figure today and get a 50-inch plasma from one of the major manufacturers.

    In the past, plasma had its disadvantages. One was that it was highly prone to burn-in, where a static image would, over time, leave its faint imprint on your expensive screen. That includes the black bars at the left and right of a standard definition picture. But TV makers have devised the means to minimize this effect, such as automatic pixel shifting, which is said to eliminate after effects of a static picture. In addition, panel life has increased to approximately 60,000 hours, which is the equivalent of watching TV for 27 years, at six hours a day. Even if your viewing habits are closer to 12 hours a day, 13.5 years is quite good, and by then, there will be newer technologies that’ll probably leave plasma in the dust.

    Are there any other shortcomings of plasma? Well, they use more power than other technologies, so you’ll find that your electric bill will increase somewhat. In any case, the best plasma produces an extraordinary picture, including the deep, rich blacks that still eludes some of the other imaging systems, such as LCD. Like the CRT, the picture remains bright and crisp at a wide viewing angle, unlike projection TV, which shows marked dimming under the same circumstances.

    So does that mean that plasma TV is the holy grail when it comes to widescreen, high definition TV? Well, however you look at it, spending over three thousand dollars for a TV is a major purchase. True, there are smaller screen models from lesser known manufacturers for not much above two thousand, but the picture quality and reliability are not apt to be as good, so the savings may not be as great in the long run.

    On the other hand, as manufacturers find newer and more efficient production technologies, it’s quite possible that the prices of flat panels will continue to drop. Does that mean there’s a genuine 50-inch high definition flat panel for less than a thousand dollars in your future? Maybe not next year, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

    I’ll have more to say on this subject in the very near future.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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