I use the motto that you never know what will happen next, or perhaps the one that you never know what to expect when it comes to The Tech Night Owl LIVE. Indeed, you listeners tell me that it’s not like most other tech radio shows, where hosts more often than not fawn over the guests, or, unfortunately, themselves.
Instead, I try to hold conversations where I let the guest be the star, and let you decide what to believe, although I’m not hesitant about presenting my views about many of the topics I deal with.
On last week episode, I presented a look back at the top tech achievements of the year and what may come in 2007 from Apple and other companies with Macworld’s Dan Frakes and ace troubleshooter Ted Landau. Dan talked a whole lot about the form an Apple-based mobile phone might take. In recent weeks, I’ve called the product the “iPod phone,” and now I see that others have jumped on the bandwagon, although I truly believe I got there first.
Ted began his session with a short discussion about gadgets that seem real great when you buy them, but don’t survive more than a week or two of use once you find out that they are far more complicated than they need to be. He also dropped in a few troubleshooting suggestions during the course of the interview.
When I last talked to Joe Wilcox, he was an industry analyst for JupiterResearch. Now he’s the editor of Microsoft Watch, and the world’s largest software company was the focal point of our session. Joe won’t win any brownie points from you readers by suggesting that Windows Vista is superior to Tiger in some respects. Personally, I find Vista bloated and overdone during my initial experiences with the final release, but I’ll give it a more thorough examination soon, now that Parallels has more robust support in its new versions.
David Biedny and I touched upon some different ideas in this week’s episode of The Paracast. Our first guest on Sunday evening’s episode was author Mac Tonnies. The last time we talked with Mac, and that is his real name, he was talking about Martian mysteries. This time he presented a startlingly different viewpoint on the possible origin of UFOs. Known as the “Cryptoterrestrial Hypothesis,” or CTH for short, it suggests that our visitors from the skies may not come from other planets but from a place very close to us.
We also talked to UFO investigator Kevin D. Randle, who delivered an update on the 1947 Roswell, NM UFO crash/retrieval case and a number of other sightings that impressed him. It’s hard to to believe nearly 60 years have passed since Roswell occurred, and the controversy still won’t let up. Is it a part of American folklore, or a genuine crash of a metallic craft from “elsewhere”? The arguments will keep on coming, I fear, for many more years.
By the way, The Paracast has been nominated for something called The Zorgy Award. Feel free to check out the site and, if you decide to honor us with your vote, we’d really appreciate it.
In looking over all the commentaries I wrote in the past year, I find that I have reviewed a number of products, but not all I wanted. Others got an early look but little follow-up, even though I promised otherwise. It’s not as if I choose to set things aside, but I was so busy keeping up with current matters that I neglected to revisit older issues.
For our first issue in 2007, I’m going to try to remedy that. Let this commentary be a combination of revisits, updates, and a basic process of setting the issues aside once and for all, ready to face the new and different that we all anticipate for the coming year.
Mac OS X Tiger: The operating system that made Mac switching seem realistic, simply by being developed separately for two processors. Yes, the look and function in essentially the same fashion, but what goes on under the hood is different, or sufficiently different to support one processor or the other. Even more fascinating is the fact that Mac OS X shines on even the cheapest Intel-based Mac, which clearly demonstrates that Apple’s secret project to develop this version was meant to optimize it way beyond what you had a right to expect. As the year progressed, Apple continued to improve the Rosetta emulation environment, which lets you run PowerPC software on the latest generation of Macs. The 10.4.8 update, in fact, delivered an estimated 30% boost in Photoshop benchmarks, and the improvements no doubt haven’t stopped.
Boot Camp: Could you have imagined Apple doing anything of this sort? Sure, years ago, there were Macs with built-in DOS cards that were fitted with x86 processors. But performance was dreadful, compatibility questionable, and they were sidelined as relics of the days where Apple nearly lost it. With the arrival of Intel-based Macs, hackers worked long and hard to find an “unsanctioned” way to make it possible to reboot into the Windows environment. They succeeded, but just about two weeks later, Apple came out with a public beta of the official method, which made Windows run as quickly on a Mac as on a genuine Windows box with the same basic equipment. It was a truly innovative concept, until Parallels Desktop appeared that is.
Parallels Desktop: Imagine a little startup company from Virginia showing up Microsoft big time. While Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit hesitated about how they’d deal with an Intel version of Virtual PC, Parallels came out of nowhere with its first beta of an application that did most of what Microsoft could do with an incredible speed boost. As time past, more and more features were added, and the current version 2.5 beta adds improved graphics support, preliminary support for USB 2.0, and delivers something called Coherence. What’s that? Well, imagine being able to open a Windows application in its own window side-by-side with your Mac OS X applications, almost as if you weren’t using Windows at all? Well, except for the taskbar, of course. And it even works with Boot Camp. Oh yes, Parallels is promising genuine support for 3D graphics, which means you’ll be able to play your favorite games before long. Meantime, as you’ve all heard, Virtual PC is history. Microsoft delivered an appropriate spin on the story, that it would have to start development almost from scratch. Tell that to Parallels, which did precisely that in record time!
Intel-Based Macs: You take any model you want, and you won’t go wrong. Apple completed its Intel transition months ahead of schedule, to the amazement of all the nay-sayers. Even better, they made the whole process seem utterly transparent. The new models resemble the old ones closely enough that the differences just aren’t significant. I got a 17-inch MacBook Pro early on, and it was truly a decision I never regretted. It’s superbly fast, and in some respects seems snapper than the Power Mac G5 Quad that serves as my desktop computer. I’m not about to go all-note-book, as many have done. Call me old-fashioned, but I can see where they’re coming from. Sure, there were a few growing pains along the way in the form of early-production defects. Some complain they are too hot, but I don’t regard mine as any worse than the PowerBook G4 it replaced. A few firmware updates made the cooling fans run more efficiently, which helped. Another firmware update apparently fixed a sudden-shutdown problem on the first MacBooks.
Dell UltraSharp 2407WFP: I meant to complete my review of this marvelous display weeks ago, but haven’t had a chance. I will shortly, but I just wanted to give you an update. Dell’s after-holiday sale price is $719. How does it compare with the 23-inch Apple HD Cinema Display, which sells for $999? Well, the slightly larger screen makes text a tad larger. Dell’s specs claim a higher contrast radio, with means better reproduction of grays. When properly adjusted, which means choosing the Mac Mode in the onscreen menu and a basic calibration in Mac OS X’s Displays preference panel, and the results are simply terrific. Oh, and don’t forget to change the Font Smoothing setting to “Medium — best for Flat Panel” in the Appearance preference panel. This is not done automatically, and it makes a world of difference in the appearance of text. Other comparisons are simple: There’s no FireWire port, but there are four USB ports (Apple has two), plus a media card reader. So why am I recommending a Dell over Apple? If it were identical in picture quality, the price alone would be sufficient to close the deal, but the Dell’s picture is actually superior. Sure, the case is functional and industrial rather than elegant, but if you can set such considerations aside, the 2407WFP makes a great after-Christmas present to go with that new Mac Pro.
Canon PIXMA MP830 Multifunction Printer: Up till now, I’ve regarded all-in-ones as compromises. You get a decent fax machine, but copying, printing and scanning may be sub-par. The MP830 is the first printer I’ve used that truly makes it possible to dispense with separates, at least for the most part. If you’re a graphics professional, of course, you can get a better scanner, but for business graphics, Canon’s multifunction does just fine. Printing is about as speedy as a standalone printer, and copying speed may not match the old-fashioned Xerox, but it’s good enough for a small business. Output quality is first-rate in nearly every respect. At $299.00, it’s a steal, and with a reasonable discount, it’s a bargain. As with many other Canon models, it runs quiet, and uses five inexpensive ink tanks, which means the cost of consumables is as low as any printer on the market.
You’ll notice that I didn’t say anything about Mac OS 10.5 Leopard. This isn’t to say that I think it’ll be a dog. In fact, I’m sure it’s a downright awesome operating system, or will be when it finally sees the light of day. But that’s probably months away, although I realize some of you have profound hopes that Apple will find a way to ship it by January or February. Sure, Spaces, Time Machine and the enhancements to iChat, Mail and Spotlight are welcome beginnings, but there’s a whole lot more to go before you can pronounce it a must-have.
Of course, when everything is tallied, Leopard will probably have from 200 to 250 new features. And it had better be good, not because of the arrival of Windows Vista, but because Tiger has done so well.
It’s easy to say a gadget is great the first week that you buy it. But the real question is whether you’ll be using it a year from now, or even later. It may even be a miracle if the thing lasts that long in our disposable society.
Here I’m even giving a one product a second look. It may have not impressed me so much on the first pass, but in retrospect, I find myself becoming more accustomed to its charms. Or maybe it’s just resignation, but I don’t think so.
So in no particular order:
Motorola H700 Bluetooth Headset: The latest surveys show that it’s highly debatable whether using a hands-free system with your mobile phone makes it any safer to drive. Apparently the simple act of talking to someone you can’t see causes your mind to work harder at multitasking, which means your driving may suffer. Maybe we all need that hands-free driving system that’s being offered as an option in the latest Lexus LS, which handles the parallel parking chores for you. The H700 may not be the best-sounding headset out there, but it’s surely good enough at both ends of the conversation. It is also well-designed, with easy-to-reach volume controls and a large, robust multifunction button to handle all the rest. You turn it on by opening the boom, and off by closing it again. So what can I say? Well, be prepared to use that one-year warranty. I’ve already replaced mine once.
C. Crane Company CCRadio plus: All right, I’ll confess. C. Crane is an advertiser, so I’m not reviewing this product, although I did a couple of years back. Basically, it’s a robust radio with AM, FM, VHS-TV and weather, and it gets great reception. The large speaker is optimized for voice, so you’ll get great reproduction of your favorite talk shows, particularly if there on AM. It’ll also run 250 hours on a single set of “D” batteries, or you can just plug it in to the wall outlet. You can also set a Snooze mode, and it comes with a built-in alarm. Bob Crane told me he’s working on a smaller version of this radio, but it’s still locked up in development and probably won’t see the light of day for a while. Meantime, if you value great radios with an old-fashioned touch, I suggest you take a look at the CCRadio plus. And I’d say that even if the company didn’t advertise here.
VIZIO P50 PDM Plasma Monitor: This 50-inch high-definition flat panel TV has been discontinued, replaced by the P50HDTV10A, which is essentially the same product with an added tuner. List price is $1899, which is quite cheap, but you can find it for at least $100 less if you check around. What you get is a robust, reliable TV set with a gorgeous picture. It doesn’t look cheap, and the controls feel rock solid. Reviewers compare it to sets costing at least a grand more and then some. It makes the best argument of all for plasma over LCD, such as a wide-viewing angle, deep, rich blacks and great reproduction of action scenes. The latter is a problem in all but the best LCD panels. In a few short years, VIZIO has risen from relative obscurity to become a major manufacturer of budget sets. The big players in the industry have cut prices rapidly to compete. May VIZIO persevere.
XM Satellite Radio: No, I have no experiences to report with Sirius, XM’s sole rival on the satellite radio arena. You may not like the idea of paying $12.99 a month (with discounts for long-term contracts) just to listen to radio, but all those commercial-free music stations may change your mind. Except for occasional blips in reception, you can hear the very same stations from one end of the U.S.A. to the other. The variety is simply incredible, ranging from music, to talk shows, to old time radio. The latter format is one of my favorites, particularly when they dig up an old episode of “The Shadow.” Sound quality is quite good too, superior to standard FM. Of course, the terrestrial stations aren’t sitting still. They are rolling out HD radio, a new all-digital technology, which is supposed to be the best of all, but it’s still a work in progress. Worse, HD stations on the AM band apparently can’t send signals at night, because they’ll interfere with stations in other cities. That, to me, would have been the best argument in favor of this new broadcasting scheme, since that’s when AM stations sound their worst. I hope it’s a problem that’ll be addressed shortly, because it’s a deal-breaker for me. Meantime, I do wonder whether the rumors that XM and Sirius are talking merger are true, and if it happens, will the price go up? If it does, it may be back to terrestrial for me; that is, unless the satellites decide to carry one or both of my shows.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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