• Newsletter Issue #453

    August 3rd, 2008

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    It’s hard to think of life without the Internet, yet it wasn’t so many years ago when it was the province of the government, college students and professors. Only in the mid-1990s did it begin to gain heavy-duty use by regular people, on its way to becoming a worldwide phenomenon that has embraced almost every element of our society.

    Well, one of the people who was there almost at the beginning was long-time Mac author Adam Engst,  Editor/Publisher of TidBITS, so we invited him on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE for an extended conversation.

    During this segment, he delivered an historical perspective on the growth of the Internet, and he also covered recent issues, such as the widely-reported “DNS bug” that has reportedly been fixed in Apple’s latest Mac OS X Security Update.

    Adam also explained why he isn’t buying an iPhone, and he covered the possible reasons for Apple’s difficulties launching its updated MobileMe online service. Did Apple bite off more than it could chew? Or maybe things are just getting so complicated that teething pains of this sort are to be expected.

    In addition, cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine, reported on his recent European trip, where he witnessed the launch of the iPhone in several countries. He also held forth on his various opinions of why Apple keeps getting dinged by Wall Street despite its great sales and profit margins.

    Moving to another front, on The Paracast this week, meet noted audio and film engineer Andrew Neddermeyer, who presents reminiscences of his father, the late Seth Neddermeyer, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II and had a deep interest in the strange and unknown. You’ll also learn about some of the paranormal experiences Andrew has discovered over the years.

    And you’ll definitely want to check out the YouTube video linked to his name, even if you have no interest whatever in the paranormal.

    Coming August 10: Investigative journalist Leslie Kean from The Coalition for Freedom of Information.

    CONSUMER REPORTS ONCE AGAIN SHOWS HOW NOT TO CONVERT PC USERS TO MACS

    So Microsoft promises to do its best to work with its PC maker partners and somehow give Windows users more of a taste of the Mac experience. Once again, the Redmond giant isn’t so much interested in bettering Apple with its products. It’s only too happy to come a little closer, if it can.

    That assumes, of course, that its concept of just good enough is really an improvement. After all, haven’t they been trying to do that for over 20 years? It’s not as if they succeeded by developing superior products. But a promise and a little bait and switch has served them well and afforded them long-term dominance over an entire industry.

    Now with Macs ascendant after being counted out as a tiny niche player for so many years, you have to wonder what’s being done to combat those popular Mac versus PC ads. Will Microsoft deliver a counterpunch, or just make another unfulfilled promise?

    This is not to say that third parties aren’t helping Microsoft, even if their methods aren’t so overt. But they might at times seem far more calculated, and sometimes they are, well, inadvertent.

    Take Consumer Reports, published by the non-profit Consumers Union. They claim to be incorruptible because they don’t accept advertising and purchase all the products they test at retail. They do not accept manufacturer’s review samples, implying that those samples would somehow be tainted, perhaps limited production versions that achieve superior performance when compared to the versions you can actually buy.

    Well, maybe there’s some truth in that, although, as a long-time product tester and reviewer, I never actually encountered a ringer, something that had really been tampered with by the manufacturer. I suppose they realized that if they were caught doing that sort of thing, their reputations could be severely tarnished forever. Or maybe whatever they did went undiscovered.

    So you might consider a Consumer Reports review of personal computers and security software to be fair and balanced, and not favor one side or the other. I also expect that some Mac sites will, once again, praise the magazine for giving Apple a fair shake, however, I have a different point of view.

    You see, CR dumbs down its content so severely that significant product distinctions are seldom mentioned, and product evaluations seem to make little sense. You have to really wonder about their choices.

    When it comes to the “Security Software” article in their September 2008 issue, for example, the Mac is barely mentioned. However, they do concede that “the spam filter built into Mac OS X version 10.5 worked well in our tests.”

    They do need to be reminded that the spam filter is actually built into Mac OS X’s Mail application, not the core system, but that’s what dumbing down does, apparently. What’s more, the only Mac malware protection they mention is Norton AntiVirus 11.0, primarily to prevent you from accidentally transmitting a virus to a Windows user.

    They also downgrade Apple’s Safari because of its lack of built-in phishing protection, and suggest Firefox or Opera as alternatives. That’s true as far as it goes, but the best protection of all is just to set up OpenDNS on your Mac or Windows computer, so you can take advantage of their powerful phishing prevention. No additional software is needed, and you can use whatever browser you want.

    In its review of personal computers, Consumer Reports really falls down on the job, as usual, by downgrading Macs in some respects because of fewer features. What sort of features? Well, the lack of such extras as built-in memory card readers, facial or fingerprint recognition hardware and docking ports.

    This is the PC-centric mindset. You put as many features as you can in the PowerPoint presentation bullet points, to demonstrate product superiority. It doesn’t matter if the features are easy to use, or even necessary for your particular purpose. Their lack means a product gets fewer total points when CR runs its tests. I suppose they use PowerPoint presentations too.

    At no time does CR really do a thorough or even a half-baked comparison of the benefits and shortcomings of the Mac OS versus Windows. They are playing to a general consumer-grade audience, and that would make such an article essential to help their readers make an informed decision.

    Instead, they continue to spread the erroneous impression that a Mac is just a prettier PC with a higher price tag, and that the operating systems are fundamentally the same, although they do admit that Macs are less vulnerable to malware.

    Here the price of simplicity is ignorance. For someone who is on the fence about the Mac versus PC, or simply doesn’t understand the distinction, there’s precious little guidance in CR. Now I am not one to suggest that it’s the result of some built-in prejudice against Macs. If they are brought down to the level of a PC, then maybe their readers will go for the bullet-points instead of real-world value.

    I should point out that Macs are widely used at CR. It’s just unfortunate that the people who do their personal computer reviews haven’t figured out why.

    And, no, folks, I am not suggesting CR’s parent company is getting big donations from Microsoft to keep its mouths shut. That would be far too conspiratorial a suggestion. Let’s chalk it up to just plain ignorance.

    SOME RANDOM NOTES ON BUYING A NEW TV

    This ages me considerably, but I recall, as a child, the arrival of the family’s first TV. Up till then, we were all devoted to radio, except when I visited my uncle’s apartment. Well, that same uncle invested all of $200 (plus or minus a few dollars) to purchase a TV for us at a nearby appliance store.

    It was big. It had a 21-inch screen. It was black and white. And, no, there was no remote control.

    But it lasted many years, surviving several moves, until my dad invested in a 21-inch color portable. Those were the days.

    Here in the 21st century, your next TV purchase is apt to be a big screen flat panel, either LCD or plasma. It’ll probably have a screen size of 42 inches or larger, and it will cost you more than one thousand dollars. Of course, when compared to how far the dollar went in those days to how much purchasing power you have now, today’s sets are far cheaper.

    The large question, of course, is what to buy. Each manufacturer may have dozens of models with only minor distinctions, other than screen size. Any decent-sized consumer electronics outlet will have a number of brands from which to select. With few exceptions, all models come with shiny black cases, and, from any normal distance look precisely the same.

    Other than price, then and a handful of features you might or might not understand, how do you make the right selection for your needs?

    Well, first there’s the choice of LCD versus plasma. If you’re concerned with the price of electricity, of course, LCD is more power efficient. However, plasma generally offers deeper blacks and a wider viewing angle. In that respect, it’s closer to the original CRT in terms of picture quality.

    On the other hand, LCD is getting better and better and the distinctions are far less significant than the used to be. That and other factors means that LCD beats plasma in total sales. But so does a PC versus a Mac, and that’s still no indication of actual quality.

    The next factor is the 720p versus 1080p equation. Obviously more pixels should be better, particularly if you’re planning on buying a Blu-ray DVD player, which is the only present source of true 1080p images. But before you lay out the extra money for the superior resolution, take a look at the picture quality of sets each each spec, side by side if impossible, and see if you can detect the difference while watching a Blu-ra disc.

    With a picture size of less than 50 inches, this may be difficult. At 50 inches, the difference is subtle but detectible, at least to me. However, finding a dealer who’d let you make that sort of comparison is apt to be difficult. But the one that does — and gives you a competitive price — is the one to take seriously.

    Once you’re past the basics, there’s the question of which product to select from the ones that meet your basic criteria. Alas, making picture comparisons at a store is often difficult. Dealers display their TVs set to the brightest or “Vivid” picture setting so they can stand out in a brightly lit showroom. That is, of course, the worst possible place in which to choose the right TV for your living room or den, because that ultra brilliant picture will look way overpowering in a normally dim setting.

    Some dealers, particularly the ones with higher-priced gear, have properly lit environments with living room chairs where you might actually get to see a TV in a semblance of a home setting. Even then, you’ll want to make sure that the set is properly adjusted. Since this can vary considerably from model to model, and to some extent sample to sample, I would suggest you have then select the Cinema or Movie setting. That preset tends to provide the best out-of-the-box picture.

    You’ll also want to check reviews of the products you are considering. The most obvious choices are CNET and Consumer Reports, along with a smattering of newsstand home theater publications. Despite its shortcomings, Consumer Reports does carry one set of data no other publication matches, and that is a survey of product reliability. You definitely want to consider a brand that isn’t trouble-prone. In fact, all things being equal, most of the brand name sets have good pictures. The differences, under test settings, are apt to be subtle and not significant in the scheme of things.

    So choosing a brand on the basis of its freedom from trouble down the road may be the best possible choice you can make. But don’t fall for the extended warranty gambit. That’s usually just a scheme on the part of the dealers to exact some extra profit from the sale.

    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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    6 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #453”

    1. Al says:

      When comparing Plasma to LCD TVs you have to take into account the relative life of both systems. Plasma TVs picture quality degrades much faster than the picture quality of LCD TVs.

      Last I heard, Plasmas have to be replaced after 6 years while LCD TVs are good for at least 10 years.

    2. When comparing Plasma to LCD TVs you have to take into account the relative life of both systems. Plasma TVs picture quality degrades much faster than the picture quality of LCD TVs.

      Last I heard, Plasmas have to be replaced after 6 years while LCD TVs are good for at least 10 years.

      Current plasma panels are rated at 100,000 hours. That’s a lot more than 6 years, my friend.

      Peace,
      Gene

    3. Maybe Consumer Reports are trying so hard to be fair in their evaluations because they don’t want to be seen as pro Mac?

    4. Maybe Consumer Reports are trying so hard to be fair in their evaluations because they don’t want to be seen as pro Mac?

      They are in the business of recommending the best product, so that would be a little silly, right?

      I only question their standards, which ignore the advantages and disadvantages of the Mac OS versus Windows.

      Peace,
      Gene

    5. Rob Mac says:

      I have found the AV Science Forums ( http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/ ) to be an excellent source of consumer-generated information. There are entire sub-forums dedicated to one model of one brand of HDTV display. For pre-purchase research and post-purchase support, they can’t be beat.

      They also have extensive coverage of digital television reception.

    6. I have found the AV Science Forums ( http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/ ) to be an excellent source of consumer-generated information. There are entire sub-forums dedicated to one model of one brand of HDTV display. For pre-purchase research and post-purchase support, they can’t be beat.

      They also have extensive coverage of digital television reception.

      I just wanted to give you a belated thank you. I’ve joined this forum and found lots of useful information.

      Peace,
      Gene

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