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Technology Today February 2007
By Robert Sanborn

Good news for computer junkies is that Windows Vista is now at a store near you and it will not be cheap. For the quick summary, you should have a Pentium 4 machine (not a Celeron or AMDís version of the Semperon), have at least 1 Gig of memory, and at least 120gig hard drive. If your computer is more than 1 year old, think twice about the upgrades as there could be video problems as well. This website is a good place to start: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/windowsvista/buyorupgrade/upgradeadvisor.mspx?wt_svl=20029a&mg_id=20029b

First go to the advisor and see if your computer will run with Vista. Couple of quick picks on Vista itself. If you have a computer running Windows XP already, home users should upgrade to the Vista Home Premium version for $159. The Business upgrade will be $199 and for those who want everything, go with Ultimate for $259. Check the website and see which version is right for you.

While you are in a shopping mood, the prices of monitors are dropping again. Great news. Unless you really want to watch DVD movies on your computer, I would advise to stay away from the Wide Screen models that are coming out. You donít really get that much for your money. Also, the way they measure them is nearly as misleading as the sizing for regular monitors (non LCD). Remember when that 19 inch CRT monitor was really only about 16.5 inches across ? Well, the widescreen LCDs do the same thing. A 19 inch widescreen monitor is only as tall as a 17 inch LCD monitor so what it really turns out to be is a stretched (sideways) 17 inch monitor. Not worth a powder for people wanting the 19inch because they want more vertical space for websites and the like. The buy right now is the Samsung monitors. The 203b 20 inch was had for $299 and the 19 inch 931b is only $219 right now at OfficeMax. Great deal.

Cable Woes

The cables are running amok here and it is driving me nuts. The good news is that a lot more of what I need to connect to is using USB cables. The bad news is that there are too many different types to fight with.

The standard USB cable is called an A-B cable and it has the flat connector A that connects to your computer. The B connector is the standard square type that goes into nearly every printer and scanner made. To get a good look at them, take a look at the following web site http://www.ramelectronics.net/html/connecters.html which also has a lot of different connectors on the back of your computer and is an easy way of telling what is what.

One of my earliest digital cameras made by Largan uses a A-A USB cable to connect to it. Just try and find one of those these days. My cell phone, a Motorola uses a USB cable to charge it and it has a Mini-USB connector on it. Same with this other little oddball scanner I have as well as a new Panasonic camcorder. So I buy a new digital camera to take with me on trips and low and behold, it has yet another USB connector on it, called the Mini-USB2.0 connector which is smaller than the mini-usb connector.

Notebooks

Because of the new wave of Vista enabled computers coming out, you find that a lot of stores will be dumping the old models and you can find some really inexpensive (and cheap) notebooks out there. Remember when you are buying one, you should never plan on upgrading any hardware in them because they are so proprietary in nature that upgrades is just not an option. Doesnít matter who is selling the notebook, you will run into that problem. Notebooks only have one slot for hard drives, two for memory, and usually cannot upgrade sound, video, or the screen. If you have started with say 512mb of memory, it usually comes in 2 256mb sticks and if you want to upgrade, you need to dump those modules and buy new ones. 2 gig of memory right now is about $350. Hard drives are starting to get larger for notebooks, the current large offering is around 160gig, paltry by todayís desktop standards but it will still set you back $200. While twice the size of the current 80 gig drive in most notebooks, the price per gig goes up quite a bit. Another reason monster notebooks are so expensive.

The good news is that I have been running Vista Ultimate Edition on my notebook and have seen how it is affected by the need for updated drivers. Make sure your manufacturer tells you and has tested his products with Vista. I have had problems with video drivers, DVD burning software, and even Internet Explorer.

For desktop computers, think dual core, twice the processors in the same chip and the software is beginning to take advantage of it. I see that in graphics program, photo editing, and the like.

Anti Virus Programs are still a pain to use and install. The really crafty hackers and virus creators are making it more and more difficult to put a new program onto a computer that has been infected. I have had a chance lately to look at the latest versions of Norton, McAfee, & Panda and I still recommend the Norton. Easier to track where things are and easier to update. Norton has also come up with some very good removal tools in case things go wrong which makes it a lot easier to deal with. The folks at Symantec have also done a lot to make it a more cleaner running environment and not such the resource hog it was.

CES 2007

The Consumer Electronics Shows this year was overwhelming in the fact that entertainment is really hitting the mainstream. While there are only a few companies that actually make flat panel television screens, there are a ton of companies putting their own labels on them and the monster flat screens were something to see. Panasonic and Samsung for instance were showing off LCD and Plasma Television screens of over 100 inches in size. I certainly donít have room for one but people are standing in line to buy them. Something else that has reached critical mass is the sales boom of the Apple iPod personal music center. You know it is a huge hit when you see literally hundreds of companies selling add ons for the unit. Take your iPod everywhere and turn it into your sound system for your car, home, personal, and business. There are docking stations and add ons to make it work with everything including the really neat Soundolier speaker system.

So, yes, I did pick up a ton of literature, fortunately most of it on CD or USB memory drives and it certainly made packing for home an adventure in cramming but I made it. There were 2,700 exhibiters there this year by official count and actually, far more that showed up in other companyís booths and off site locations and the estimate was 140,000 plus people. All this took up 1.8 million square feet of floor space spread out over 4 different conference centers and hotels. Since we are in the season (Go Colts), imagine it covering over 31 football fields.

It was huge, it had everything, and the weather in Las Vegas was great, sunny and 60 every day.

Neat stuff that you can use start with Sanyoís Eneloop rechargeable batteries. These are really different in that they come precharged and ready to use out of the package and actually have a shelf life of a couple years. The problem that has been with rechargeable batteries is that they continuously lose their charge immediately after charging whether you use them or not so that with typical batteries, after a year of sitting, they have no charge left in them. A real pain when you want to charge up a bunch of batteries for a trip and know that you have to do it within days of leaving. Not these. They only lose about 15% of the charge after one year and so even if you keep them on the shelf for three years, you will still have at least half a charge left. So charge them up, put them in the camera bag or in my case, on the shelf waiting for the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to die and then they will be ready to use. As for horse power, the AA models have 2000 milliamps of juice and the AAA batteries have 800. If you are like me and have a number of AA flashlights around, the Eneloop is a great choice for them as well. Another place that these batteries shine is when using them with digital cameras. For some reason and someone out there will tell us, alkaline batteries run out of steam much quicker in digital cameras than do rechargeable batteries. The eneloop will give you up to four times more pictures with a set and in their testing, you got 117 pictures with alkaline batteries and 514 with the eneloops. The more I think about the money I waste on Alkaline batteries for things like my noise cancelling head phones which tend to sit for a couple months between trips, it just shows you another great use for these batteries. You get 1000 recharges out of these batteries and when they do die, are recyclable. Available at Circuit City, $28 gets you a charger and four AA batteries.

More, much much more to come.

Wireless Networking

Wireless networking has been growing at an enormous rate with hot spots nearly everywhere and companies trying to make it easier for you to connect. The problem has been the standards and that is where you end up getting mixed up. The currently available standards are 801.11 a, b, and g. Most wireless systems these days use the g standard which provides up to 54mbps (megabits per second) transfer rate as opposed to the b standard of 11 mbps. The a standard actually came out about the same time as the b standard and it also provides up to 54mbps speed but it uses a different radio spectrum and was found to offer a more limited range than the g standard which became most widely used. Something to think about when you look at these is that any of them is still much faster than what comes out of your high speed internet modem so if you are mostly interested in keeping a high speed connection to the internet, then any of them will do. Where they make a difference is when you need to transfer data files between one computer and another for back up and file sharing.

Today, the g standard for Wireless is the most popular in use but it does have downsides one of which it uses the 2.4 gigahertz radio frequency which can interfere with some appliances like cordless phones and the like. The other problem is the short range, I know several people with connection problems in houses that I donít think are really that large but if you go from a basement office to an upstairs bedroom at the end of a hallway, the signal dies.

So there are a lot of solutions out there for the problem but you need to remember that often, each of these solutions require you to get all new hardware for all of your connected computers as well and that gets to be a bit inconvenient when most laptops today have built in wireless network cards. A good example of this is from D-Link, www.dlink.com who has a wide variety of wireless routers that while all based on the current g standard, have boosted performance by using non standard technologies. What I really mean by this is that if you get one of their "Enhanced Wireless G" or "Super G Wireless" routers, you may also need to buy that same brand and technology for all your computers to get that boosted range or speed. An other companyís enhanced or super G card may not work well with the router you have and that can cause all sorts of problems. And I donít mean to pick on D-Link, the other makers are doing the same thing and the reason is to boost performance and range while waiting for the next standard, 802.11 n to come out. The other technology you will hear is Mimo, which stands for Multiple Input, Multiple Output. It is a boosting technology that will become part of the n standard but again, you can buy it now but like before, you have to replace all your adapters to take advantage of it.

In fact, all of these companies have their n router and adapters out on the market already to go with just one little problem, the standard has not yet been finalized. What that means is that you could end up buying a technology that is not only instantly obsolete, but wonít work with the equipment in your new notebook. But n has a lot of promise with 12 times speed boosting and most important for a lot of people, 4 times the range than g offers. A Cnet review of Wireless N (back in September 2005) talked about the changes in the technology and the fact they thought the standard would be issued sometime in 2006 and as you see, we are still waiting.

So, what to do? Waiting is always the preferred option whenever a new technology is coming out and that applies to everything from the quad core processor base computer to Microsoftís Vista to Wireless n technology. But if you canít wait, then here are a few things to ask the manufacturers. One would be, is this router upgradeable to the new n standard if there is a change. What about the adapter cards that you will need ? Can their firmware be upgraded to the standard. If you are also buying a new notebook, see if it can be upgraded. Careful of the answers on that one, the easy answer is "yes, you just buy a new adapter". But some notebooks have internal cards for the wireless connection that can actually be replaced. You really donít want to have two different adapters looking for the wireless connection.

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

 

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