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Technology Today March 2006
by Robert Sanborn 

Winter has arrived and so has the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And what a show it was. Saw so much neat toys that I almost forgot about looking for computer goodies and what the trends for 2006 and beyond will be.  How about an LCD Television screen that is over 100 inches in size. We saw a couple of those. Same for big boy toys like a Hummer decked out with so many screens and speakers that you wondered if there was a place to sit. 

The Consumer Electronics show may have been a few months back but there are still a lot of things lingering on the shelves and in my own thoughts even this late in April. As you read before, the show was huge, miles and miles of hallways to walk, and truly, thousands of people everywhere. But the trends that start there will be with us like the lowering prices in flat screens and memory cards. Saw a Samsung 19 inch monitor for less than $300 and now 1 gig memory cards are less than $50. Bodes well for digital camera buffs who now discover that you need at least 10 gig of memory for a long trip and having just spent two plus weeks in China, I can attest to that. Same for those of you longing for a really big flat screen monitor for your desktop. Can’t wait to find the time to go shopping! 

So what was cool?  One thing was the Acer Ferrari 20 inch Desktop Monitor for around $599. Bright, slick, big, cool, and red. How about Monster, you see their name on the old Candlestick Park in San Fransisco and they have some really neat additions to your home theater. Besides all the high definition video you can get, they also have developed HDS, High Definition Sound and it is something to hear. Put that into your next home theater system.  These are the one to buy. 

Monster also showed off the neatest remote control around. How about controlling every electronic system in your home and office. A unique design, better ergonomic layout, and also does lighting and control multi rooms and give you mood lighting settings. Anything electronic and it can do it. $499 gets you the controller, a Wifi link for $100, and lighting modules all for $899.  

From SanDisk comes the Sansa E200. It is an MP3 player (so what you say), that has a 1.8 inch LCD screen, sleek design, 20 hour battery life (replaceable batteries), FM tuner, voice recorder, Micro SD Memory card slot and with 6 gig onboard, handles a ton of music. $299. 

News from APCUG 

The APCUG events at the annual conference were again terrific from the people and companies we heard from.  Jonathon Seckler from AMD, www.amd.com, gave us some thoughts as to where they were looking for the future. According to AMD, what people want out of a digital home is to share a printer and to get on the internet. In Japan, he says that flat panel screens outsell CRTs. Not surprising when you consider how small their homes and offices are. They also think that the mainstream form factor for computers in 2006 will be downsizing to the small and quiet systems. I see that from what people are asking for, small, quiet computers.  He sees the internet getting faster and the faster it is, the more content will come to us like blogs, pod casting, video, and music. One thing he mentioned that I didn’t like was the fact that he see active participation in digital home activities in television shows like Survivor. Please, we waste enough time on junk TV without getting more people to sit at home by themselves in front of a boob tube. What makes listening to these speakers worthwhile is to see where their companies are going and what they think are the trends in consumer tastes and purchasing.  Worth the effort. 

Digital Photography was another workshop put on by the APCUG that I attended. It was hosted by Lee Otsubo at www.thedigitalphotoguy.com. Interesting to hear from him and also to fill in some blank spots for me as well about digital photography.  He tells us that you can never have enough memory cards. I agree and you should buy the fastest speed cards you can. You can also never have enough batteries for your camera and you should get the rechargeable kind. For a good 8x10 print, you need at least 4 megapixels. You should always set your camera to the highest resolution or highest jpg quality. It is easy to dump pictures you don’t want but you can never get a good print out of a 640x480 pixel image. He says that for most consumers, don’t worry about the Tiff or RAW image formats on your camera. You should also look at the preset options on your camera for taking pictures in different lighting conditions like snow, night, close ups, landscapes, and so on. The auto modes can be too easy sometimes and you can get poor pictures if the conditions are not perfect. So take lots of pictures, you can always dump them. 

For lens control, check out the zoom but never use the digital zoom. All it does it shrink the picture and add its own pixels and that never works. For composition of your images, don’t always center the picture.  Use the grid mode if your camera has it and offset the subject and fill the frame. You should also check out the minimum focusing distance for your lens. Especially if you are interested in close ups. A couple of his favorite quotes, “you can see a lot just by observing”, from Yogi Berra, and “If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough.” Robert Capra.  

You should also use flash to fill in a picture even in the daylight. Some cameras come with a fill flash setting. You should also give up on the red eye reduction settings, all they do is flash the camera too many times and get annoying.   So how to print the pictures. He tells us that you should get a good quality six color photo printer but don’t need to spend more than $200 for it.  Also buy good paper that matches the printer. I can agree with that one and I have tested quite a few different paper brands for photos and really settled on two brands, Pictorico and Epson. 

For software, dump the camera software and go with a good digital imaging software package like Paint Shop Pro or Adobe Photoshop Elements. Photodex is another program he mentioned. 

Adobe Systems, www.adobe.com was another company making a presentation to us and they talked about Photo Shop Elements 4. This is one of the two programs I recommend for digital camera users. A ton of new features like organizing photos, write to DVD, Meta Data imbedded in photos to help you better and more quickly find what you have. Some other new features include a quick red eye removal when you import a picture, and a compare mode to quickly select and rate pictures to get the best one of the bunch. It has an excellent image selection tool that allows you to quickly select a section of an image and change the color. The quick fix tools are just great. It has an intelligence built in for things like correcting skin tones. The magic extractor is a great tool to get you started into the layering concepts and working with layers.  If you want to change your image, there are a lot of new artistic effects and filters available.  A new slide show feature allows you to update the images and to add comments, text, and voice over to the slide show.  Great additions to the product and well worth adding it to your tool kit. 

Adobe also talked about their Premier Elements 2. Part of Photoshop organizer, it will do video, pictures, audio, and music. There is an excellent tutorial video to get you started. One really neat feature is the direct to timeline capture which is based on your video source. An easy way to make it work the way you want it to so managing the timeline in your video clip is very easy.  The nice thing about this program is that the more you learn, the more complex your videos can be. Things like multiple pictures, video on top of picture or within an image. There are also a lot of automated tools to help you make your DVD with titles, segments, and the like. There is a wide range of exporting options as well for sending your video to other sources and platforms.  A very impressive program. 

Trend Micro, www.trendmicro.com and David Perry has been a long time supporter and friend of user groups and he was back to give us some thoughts on the nature of viruses and what we should expect going forward. If you don’t follow that industry much, we have seen quite a shift in what viruses attack on your computer. From the boot and file viruses, they have moved into macros and email to the new blended threats that attack different components in the computer. But according to David, it is the internet and email now the biggest sources of these and the anti-virus programs need to attack them at the packet level when they first come near your computer. It is the control computers that manage the internet, mail servers, and the like where security will be critical. But we shouldn’t rely only on those systems to keep us free from attack. One statistic that David gave us was that 1.7 million people were victims of phishing attacks. You should never respond to an email request for your account, bank, or social security number from anyone at all. Period. It doesn’t matter how legitimate it looks, it never will be from a legitimate source.  

So where will the next big threats come from? According to David, it is the practice of “pharming” where hackers attack a domain server and poison the name server to direct you to another server when you type in a valid web address. So instead of going to the real Microsoft site when you type in www.microsoft.com, you would be directed to a different server controlled by the hackers.  

Trend Micro is a Tokyo based company and has the largest selling anti virus product in Japan and is still moving into these shores. Their products that we should know about besides the PC Cillin 2006 Anti-Virus program are the free online House Call scanner for your computer http://housecall.trendmicro.com/, and CW Shredder, see it on the Housecall site, which gets rid of the Cool Web Search attacks.  There is special pricing available for user groups so check with them.  You should also never upgrade the software online if your subscription runs out, always buy a new copy of the software. 

Corel Corporation, www.corel.com, is another major sponsor of APCUG events and they had a few people in to tell us what is new with their company.  You may know this but they have recently purchased JASC Software, the makers of my favorite digital editing program, Paint Shop Pro. You will find that Corel is becoming a software giant with quite a variety of software packages of which probably the most well know is Corel Draw now in an X3 package version. Word Perfect has also been upgraded to the new X3 package version and there are quite a few enhancements in both programs. For digital video production and creating your own DVDs, they have two new programs, Visual Creation Studio and Visual Creation Studio Pro. These we found to be easy to use software packages with features like having the audio track follow the video track to keep it in sync and a new sound effects bundle. 

Word Perfect X3 comes with a much needed facelift and upgrade for WP users. They have bundled a Yahoo toolbar to make browser integration much easier. A huge plus is the addition of a PDF (Portable Document Format) distiller to allow you to create PDF files from within WP. You can also import PDF documents as well. Another good publishing feature is that you can save a document without all the meta data such as corrections, internal information, notes, and the like. 

The flagship product, Corel Draw X3 has over 40 new updates. One of them being the changes to Corel Powertrace. A new hints toolbar and hints panel tell you how to use a particular tool. A smart fill tool makes adding content much easier. Another improvement is the image adjustment lab for working with digital images. There is now support for over 100 different file formats when importing images. You can auto adjust photos from within Corel Draw X3 or launch Photo Paint. And did I mention the power trace? Very impressive as they easily cut out a segment within a photo.  Then after that, use the smart fill tool to easily fill in objects with all sorts of items.  Great stuff. Of course, watching a pro work with some of these editing tools make it look so easy but when you see them work the tools, it really gives you some great ideas on how to make the program work and make those kinds of adjustments yourself. 


One neat company I ran into was Otterbox, www.otterbox.com. They make some of the neatest and useful ruggedized protection cases. I picked up a few to give them a run through and they do the job. The first one I used was while traveling in China to keep track of all my memory cards for the digital camera. It was the simple little model 1000 but it is made like the rest of them of seriously stiff plastic that has a heavy duty clamp clip, a seal between the top and bottom and is strong enough to withstand anything I threw in the bag and then some. These are truly indestructible, waterproof, solid, and they float. I just put a layer of padding between the cards, and it truly keeps them out of harms way. Same with some of the USB drives that I need to carry around. This one was for around $12.  

The next unit I got was for my iPAQ PDA, the model 1900. You need to look at this unit to believe it. Seriously protected from all sorts of elements and pounding it is well shielded with a front see through window that flips up to reveal a membrane covering the front of the unit. Tight enough to the iPAQ to seal out anything, close enough to still use the stylus to write messages, check mail, calendar and the like. If I need to get to the memory cards on top, there is a clamped top section that I can remove. Need to charge the bottom, a very heavy duty rubber seal closes up the bottom of the Otterbox. For even extra security, there are metal screws and sockets that you can screw these irremovable clamps down to really keep them there. There is a holder on the outside for your stylus. Inside when you slide in the iPAQ, there is a Velcro strap to keep it really snug to the front of the case and the membrane. This allows for thicker units to be used. Outside is also a Velcro strap to keep the Otterbox snug to whatever you need to attach it to.  The instructions are simple, pictures clear, and to the point. This is really the unit to have if you need to work with your PDA in a less than ideal condition or outdoors.  For about $100. You can go to their web site and see the fitting guide to make sure that your PDA will work with this case. 

Another piece I got which is what I have been looking to add for my van was an Otterbox for my GPS unit. The camper van I have has a front windshield that is so sloped that getting and keeping a good GPS signal has been tough but I have this great roof storage area above the driver that would do great except it is exposed to the weather. The Otterbox 1600 GPS case is perfect. Just mount it up there with the super heavy duty double sided tape on the bottom and it goes no where while keeping the GPS receiver out of harms way. What surprised me at first is that it was a solid black case and I had thought that it wouldn’t work without having the direct view of the sky but the plastic case doesn’t get in the way at all so it can be sealed up there nicely. The only snag was that the padded insert was too small so I had to modify it so the Pharos GPS receiver I have would fit and once in, was just fine. Worked like a charm on my test drive around town. This case sells for about $20. 

Short Takes 

If you haven’t been to the Cnet web site lately, www.cnet.com, you should take a look, new products listed, new buying guides, a security center, and a new How To section that is quite impressive. Everything from building your dream computer to home video, cameras, networking, and games. For those on the go, want Cnet for your Pocket PC, then go to http://m.cnet.com . If you join their community, you can create your own My Products site.  You put in what you have and what you like and it builds a database for you of those products. Finally, want to know everything there is about HDTV ? Then try out http://hdtv.cnet.com for complete coverage. Pretty cool stuff from Cnet editor Brian Cooly.  

More Cool Stuff 

Digital Innovations, www.digitalinnovations.com has the kind of stuff you wonder why didn’t someone come up with that years ago. Take a look at their web site. Things like the Ispot, a wireless lost item locator. Put one of these fobs onto something, loose it, hit the corresponding button on the main unit and you hear where it is. A glare shield for a Sony Playstation unit. Skip Dr. is the automatic disc repair system for CDs and DVDs. How about a USB Drive lock with a key combination on it. This really keeps your USB drives secure. A media vault that also has a three digit combination lock on it. Or for real security, a motion activated alarm for a notebook or anything else lying around. We even got some sneak peeks so there is even more neat stuff coming. 

How about the world’s smallest footprint vacuum tube hi-fi stereo amplifier. From Z.Vex Effects at www.zvex.com the iMPAMP is truly cool stuff. Lay an iPod flat and you will get the idea of how big this unit is. Plug in your speakers, bring your audio source whether from a tuner, computer, iPod, or something similar and sit back and listen to  music all day long. About $500. 

Bogen Imaging caught my eye with a tripod so solid and light that I need to get me one. http://www.bogenimaging.us/ check out the web site for the Manfrotto line of Modo tripods that are incredibly light and strong. Less than 4 pounds for a tripod that stands 5 feet high! 

Eton Corp, www.etoncorp.com is a maker of radios for all occasions but these radios have a lot of style and flair behind them. Some are designed by Porsche Designs and it shows. Take a look at their web site at www.porsche-design.com. My favorite is the Eton S350 deluxe, about $100. 

Finally, for the person who has everything from www.coolitsystems.com is the beverage chiller that is connected by USB. For around $40, you get to use your computer to cool that can of what every you drink.  

Robert Sanborn is a technology analyst for PC Lifeline. You can reach him through the net at robert@pcll.com


Last Update:06/26/2007


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