• Newsletter Issue #341

    June 12th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    I’m sometimes asked if I’m influenced by other technology programs, and if so, how? Well, the actual answer is that I don’t really spend a lot of time listening to so-called competitive shows, except, perhaps, for the one hosted by my friend Craig Crossman, the nationally syndicated “Computer America.” It’s not that I have any particular objection to doing so. It’s largely a matter of time and the fact that my company doesn’t have a research staff to determine what others are doing.

    As for me, I prefer to do my own thing, and it’s up to you listeners to determine whether that’s of any consequence. My actual influences are traditional talk shows, and I’ve listened to them for three quarters of my life, so I try to consider what I like and don’t like in the behavior of the host, and then try to do the best work I can.

    Speaking of which, on our June 8th episode, we featured Macworld’s Christopher Breen, who detailed his efforts to turn his Intel-based Mac mini into a complete digital lifestyle center. Author Steven Sande was on hand to deliver hints and tips on exploiting the power of Apple’s consumer-level Web-authoring tool from his new e-book, “Take Control of iWeb.” We also asked author and desktop publishing guru Galen Gruman why he has problems recommending QuarkXPress 7.0.

    Coming up on June 15th will be another fascinating visit to “The David Biedny Zone,” and he tells me that he is going to explain why today’s computer operating systems, both the Mac OS and Windows, don’t impress him a whole lot. We’ll also be joined by popular author Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus.

    Now about our other show, The Paracast, on June 13th, David Biedny and I will talk to Dr. Steven Greer of the The Disclosure Project, who feels there is indeed a “smoking gun” that proves UFO reality and other hot-button topics. He’ll also discuss his new autobiography, “Hidden Truth — Forbidden Knowledge.”

    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, video tuner/recorders, 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.

    A LITTLE COMMON SENSE ABOUT PLASTIC SEALS

    The other day I read some stories about a peculiar problem with the new MacBook. Seems some folks have been complaining about excessive heat, which itself isn’t uncommon with these new Intel-based note-books. However, in this case the cause was traced to a plastic seal covering the rear cooling vents just below the screen. Evidently these protective materials were placed on some units to prevent dust from seeping into the computer at the factory, but customers are apparently forgetting to remove them.

    Now I realize people make mistakes, and I’ve done some pretty dumb things in my life. But I won’t characterize this particular oversight on the part of new owners with any offensive labels. Instead, I’ll invoke the principle of common sense.

    You see, lots of electronic gear ships with plastic sealing, foam inserts, cardboard inserts, tape and other items that are designed to ensure safe shipment. Printers, with all the mechanical gears, spindles, rollers and what-not inside, are quite prone to being filled with protective coverings of one sort or another.

    I’ve had the pleasure of unpacking a number of iPods, for example. Each was completely sealed with Apple’s infamous plastic covering, and I must say it takes a little time to pry everything apart. But at least these products generally don’t arrive scratched from the factory, though I agree that they can easily get that way when allowed to lie naked in your pocket or purse.

    By far the strangest location was on the inside of the side cover of a Power Mac G5, and I have to admit I had used the product for a while without ill effects before I cracked open the case. Yes, the model I had was an early production unit, but I didn’t expect to actually have to open the thing to make sure it was clean and ready to use. The plastic coverings didn’t seem unduly warm when I finally discovered their presence, however, and that only happened because I was in the midst of writing an article about the chassis layout and the sophisticated cooling systems. I have since learned that Apple actually posted a Knowledge Base document on the subject, so maybe it wasn’t so unusual after all.

    No other Power Mac G5 that I’ve examined exhibited the presence of any packing substance of any sort, so maybe I was in a somewhat unique position. In retrospect, I’m pleased that the discovery didn’t follow some sort of smoke or other unusual heat symptoms.

    No doubt, you’ve observed the power bricks for any recent Mac note-book, and don’t forget that you’re not supposed to regard them as laptops anymore, unless you use them in the dead of winter and cherish anything that’ll help keep your flesh warm. Every unit I’ve unpacked, whether mine or that of a client or friend, has required a little effort to pry apart these materials.

    With such experiences, I wasn’t surprised to discover that of the new MacBooks came with a fitting of their own protective material of this sort. But rather than concern yourself about why it might happen, I would hope most of you realize that no Apple product should be operated until you carefully check to make sure all the packing materials have been removed.

    The photos I’ve seen of the units in question make it clear, to me at least, that a cursory examination would have revealed the presence of such material. So why was it overlooked until the unit almost became too hot to touch? Maybe in the excitement to put these babies through their paces? Well, I suppose that’s understandable. As I said, things happen, and there’s no need to make excuses for a silly mistake. It’s part of being human.

    In any case, Apple has since issued an appropriate warning notice, saying that “Some MacBooks may have left the factory with a thin piece of clear plastic covering the rear vent. This is used in the factory to prevent dust from getting into your computer. If your MacBook has the plastic still over the vent, simply remove and discard it.”

    On the other hand, I’m sure you don’t have to look real hard to find what I regard as actual mistakes on Apple’s part. There’s plenty of ammunition available, more than enough to provide years and years of entertainment without blaming them for our mistakes. Maybe we can now all focus our attention on those matters instead.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: TV CALIBRATION REVISITED

    I admit it. Tweaking can be fun, and sometimes it actually pays off, particularly when the process isn’t too painful and there’s a positive outcome. In last week’s issue, I extolled the virtues of a 50-inch plasma TV that actually costs just under two grand, the VIZIO P50 HDM.

    Yes, I said the picture was great, out of the box, particularly in the Movie mode, but I wondered, in passing, if I could make it better without having to invest in professional calibration. While using instruments will ensure the best possible picture from any high definition television, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to spend several hundred dollars to perform the operation on a relatively, in the current market anyway, inexpensive product.

    Enter Ovation’s Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-up, a DVD that costs $16.99, if you can still find a copy. Yes, there are more expensive fixer-upper videos, and some probably do a more comprehensive job on both audio and video. But I wanted cheap, and this one is quite simple to use. Each video adjustment step has a brief tutorial, but you can handle a lot of it without watching the directions, with a little attention to detail. There are no printed directions to speak of, but it does come with a tiny plastic filter that you will need in adjusting color accuracy, but I’ll get to that shortly. Absolutely no tools are needed for the basics.

    Now most TVs are, out of the box, too bright, too sharp and have way too much contrast. That’s designed to make them look impressive in a store display. The VIZIO’s User mode, the one designed for individual adjustments of each input source, is actually quite good before you get to the nitty-gritty. This surprised me, but there’s also a Vivid mode that displays all the excesses of which today’s HDTV’s are capable of.

    After a brief introduction, the Tune-up DVD puts up a simple menu. Click to the left for the instructions, and to the right for the test pattern.

    As I got going, I found that I didn’t have whole lot of work to do. The pattern shows you in the simplest way the state of your current picture, and your TV’s adjustment menu will allow you to quickly experiment with the various options. The VIZIO’s brightness in User mode was spot-on, and the contrast was only slightly high. I hadn’t spent five minutes on the process and I was already well along.

    Sharpness was also at the optimum level (a real surprise), so I next tackled color. One setting on the VIZIO, labeled Hue, handles color balance, and another, Saturation, handles color intensity. Here’s where that tiny filter came in handy. It’s meant to be placed over your eyes, and it took another few minutes to make some additional minor adjustments. I had to increase color Saturation somewhat, and make a minor alteration in color balance.

    The rest of the adjustments require instrumentation, but since this is a budget-priced tune-up, that was definitely out of the picture, if you’ll excuse the pun.

    I took note of the final adjustments on the VIZIO’s menu, and transferred those same settings to the S-video and HDMI inputs. In an ideal world, where you have instruments at your beck and call, you’d actually calibrate each setting separately. The pros spend tens of thousands of dollars on such gear, by the way, and receive special training, which is why they charge you a fair amount for their services. However, in this case, I felt the 15 minutes I spent on this little exercise to be more than sufficient to get the job done.

    After all was said and done, I did see some minor improvements in color quality on the test DVD, and promptly switched to my usual TV diet to see what else might have changed. The local cable provider, Cox, is still saddled with some analog stations from its original installation, which provides the worst possible source material. Among these are the CNN and Fox cable news networks. I didn’t expect much, but the flesh tones seemed more accurate, and there seemed to be a greater contrast range on both studio-based and filmed content, such as ads.

    The acid test came with HDTV. I lucked out and caught “Batman Begins” on one of the premium channels. This is director Christopher Nolan’s fabulous reimagining of the legend of the “Dark Knight” with A-list performances from some great character actors.

    The best parts of the film are darkly lit, and here I was able to see more detail, no doubt the result of backing off a bit on the contrast. Again, color fidelity was also somewhat improved.

    Bear in mind, however, that the picture on the VIZIO was already terrific. The changes made as a result of this quickie calibration were relatively minor in the scheme of things. If you don’t look carefully, you won’t see them, and, in fact, variations from film to film or network to network may be far greater.

    On the other hand, for the modest investment in cash and time, the end result was definitely worth the effort. And if your TV deviates to a greater degree from any reasonable standard of accuracy, you may indeed achieve results that are even more significant. In the end, however, if you can’t coax the picture quality you want, contact a pro. You’ll want to check the Imaging Science Foundation for information on a trained technician in your city.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech 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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