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Technology Today December  2004
by Robert Sanborn 

My how the year has gone. It seemed like only yesterday that we were at Comdex seeing what is new and exciting in the computer world but as you know, this year Comdex was cancelled. To refocus, they say, but you know, you didnít need to refocus when you have the most successful computer show in America but screw it up. You donít continue to charge exorbitant prices for booth space when the industry is shrinking, and then have the stupidity to decide that you really donít want all those people looking over computer stuff so they shrunk the attendance. I thought that marketing 101 says the more people that see your product, the more that are likely to buy it and talk about it.  But donít feel to sorry for me, it just gives me a chance to stay home in November, which by the way was a strange feeling as I had gone to Comdex for nearly 20 years straight, but also gives me the chance to visit another show that you will often read about in this publication, and that is the Consumer Electronics Show. While the focus of the show is quite a bit different, I am still going to cover the computer aspects of the show because these little chips are getting into everything these days. But wait till Christmas. 

The new range of digital cameras with bigger megapixels are coming out and that is great for all of us as the prices just keep coming down on the lower end models. I was seriously looking at a new Kodak that had 5 megapixels, uses standard SD Memory cards, and has a 10x optical zoom lens. But the closer I got, I see it uses non standard batteries; an electronic viewfinder which I am not used to, and is a bit awkward to hold. I will continue the search.  

It does mean though that you will see memory prices dropping. I saw a great Cruzer USB drive of 1 gigabyte selling for $60 after rebates and the same with pricing on the memory cards for digital cameras so look to stock up. 

Speaking of waiting till Christmas, I was on a trip recently to China and had a chance to trade a few drinks with a couple of tech counterparts over there and they tell me to look to see prices of LCD monitors drop a bunch after the holiday. Seems like several new production plants are coming online which means a boost in quantity and a drop in prices. In just one yearís time, I have seen the average prices of the 17 inch LCD monitors drop at least $200 or more but you have to watch out and check them closely. You will continue to see some very vague names in products out there and my advice as usual, is to stick to a known name like Sony, Viewsonic, and the others. One name that is worth looking at and has come out with very good monitors is from Samsung.  

New Computer Cases 

One of the things I really enjoyed about Comdex was looking at all the cases available for building your own computer. As I build several computers a year, I get to pick and choose but usually just take something standard and useable and affordable. This time I decided to get an all aluminum case and picked the Super Lanboy from Antec, www.antec.com. I wanted to see whether a really cool case is worth the effort or is it just a bunch of marketing hooey. Well, the first thing I noticed is how light it is. This case does not come with a power supply so I decided to not splurge too badly and go with the TruePower 430 watt power supply also from Antec. It is rated one of the quieter supplies you can buy. So, as I said, the first impression of the fact the case is lighter than the power supply, and it is very clean inside. Lots of drive bays available but you know, it feels a bit flimsy. Two little problems I found right away is that when you unscrew the side panels and try to remove them, you are in danger of bending the case if it doesnít want to come loose. As you probably have seen, with side panels, they often have about twelve of the little metal flanges that lock into the case to give you a real tight fit. Well, if they are too tight, you might damage the case just getting it off. I also discovered that when I tried to install the power supply, one small piece of aluminum had been bent (no, I didnít bend it putting the supply in), and so I had to get a pair of pliers to straighten it out. I also noticed another bent piece where the cute little accessory tray is mounted on the front of the unit. I was nearly ready to send it back until I took a close look at both of them to discover the problems and fix them.  

Besides the option of choosing my own power supply, It comes standard with two 120 mm fans built into the case, one in the front with a cool blue led, and one in the back of the case. I like these bigger fans because they are slower while still sending as much air through the system.  The internal hard drive bays (of which there are four of them), are easy to mount and remove and have rubber mounts to help dampen vibration on the drives. The five external drive bays; 3 5.25 drives and 2 3.5 inch drives mount pretty much like any other so you donít need to use specialized drive rails which to me is an advantage. Like most case manufacturers, they give you a bag of different screws but donít tell you what they go to so if you have built systems before, you can pretty well guess but as always, there are some rather odd screws that you donít have a clue as to what they go to. And speaking of odd screws, usually the back fans are connected by four screws to the case but in the Antec, they use rubber self attaching screws that you pull through holes on the back of the case and then snip them off. So the back fan is attached by rubber mounting screws to help dampen vibrations. If you need to replace this fan, they give you only two more of the rubber mounting screws. Go figure. 

Removing the front cover requires removing six metal screws that hold it on but then it doesnít go far because of a connector between the fan and the front. You barely have room to get to the back side of the front to remove the face plates for the external drives and while they are plastic covers to the drive bays, they are very tight so it was difficult getting them off. Having put my mainboard into the case, I still wish that it was made of sturdier aluminum. The trays that you put the hard drives into are at a right angle to the rest of the external drives so if you want to span a cable between them, you need a really long one. The trays are also pretty flimsy. They have rubber grommets that you mount the drives through to give it a damping effect but the trays are pretty loose inside the case so they can easily bounce around. 

For more details, it does contain two front USB ports and front panel audio connectors if your mainboard can support them. As with any case, with Two CD Rom drives, floppy, and a couple of hard drives, the cable clutter gets pretty thick. I am using the new Cobra from Antec (about $15) to give me more breathing room for the interior and higher performance, or so they say. However, if I use the rounded cable, it is really difficult to get the side panel on because the cable sticks out too much. The flat cable would easily fit in the small space on the side mounted drives. And finally, it does come with the neatest carrying strap for carrying around your computer.  

Now that the case has been in use for a week, I find that it is much quieter than my previous one despite the fact that there are now five fans spinning inside there. There are two on the power supply, the two 120mm fans on the front and back of the case, and the CPU fan and I suspect, it is the CPU Fan that is now the noisiest in the case. Will replace that next time I get inside. One thing I do wish companies would start doing is to space out the USB Ports on the cases and mainboards. With these USB Drives, they do take up some space and it gets hard to have two of them side by side. 

The case is available from CompUSA for $90 and the Antec Truepower Power Supply model 430 is $100. Quite a far cry from the Premier cases I usually get from my distributor which sells for around $50 including the power supply.  I think for the $190 for this case and power supply combo, while very cool, with the blue led fan on the front, the clear plastic side panel to show off lights or what ever inside the box, including the fact that the CPU fan is still spinning, and the very quiet way it is built, this is a pretty nice case but at $190, a bit over priced.  I will continue looking at others to use. 

More Changes Inside Your Computer

 For people building your own computer, you need to know that a few more things have changed inside the case. First is that Intelís new line of processors have what is called the LGA775 sockets and processor layouts that are quite different than prior processors. While the old PGA478 actually had 478 pins (I think someone counted them), the new one uses a totally different means of making contact between the processor and mainboard. You need to take a close look at it. This means new and different CPU fans. It also lets us know that the power supply is going to change with a new line of mainboards using a 24 pin main power connector rather than the normal 20 pin that we see with Pentium 4 Power supplies. The good news is that the mainboards I have come across accept the older 20 pin power connector but if you get the new PCI Express video connection, you may also need to plug an extra power connector into the mainboard directly to power that power hungry card. PCI Express is a new card socket promoted to give you higher video performance than you get with the current AGP sockets.   

If you decide to use the new Serial ATA hard drives in your computer, donít be surprised that you need to make another run to the store because not only do these drives require a SATA drive controller built into your mainboard, you need a different kind of power supply connector as well. Newer and upper end power supplies, like the Antec I mention above, have them built in but you may have to buy one of those little power gender changers to make your drive work. 

Digital Camera 

I am still waiting to buy my digital camera. I have had a ton of them to play with over the years but I am getting close. Why so picky you ask? For one reason, being a former pro photographer, I really want good optics, easy to use, multi megapixels, and a reasonable price. Not too much to ask I hope but I am looking right now at a Panasonic Z20 camera, 5 Megapixels, a 12X Optical lens made by Leica, and it is large enough to hang onto and full of other great features for only $599 retail. Stay tuned. The problem is that batteries, memory cards, and filters may take me well beyond that. 

A friend bought a Kodak camera recently and purchased the printing dock that came with it. The printer uses a mylar film that is four colors and what it does is to run the paper over the different part of the colored film four times to produce a photographic quality print in a 4x6 paper. Quite impressive. 

And speaking of digital cameras, according to the CEA (Consumer Electronics Association), 48% of the time, people use a digital camera as their primary camera. To see how quick things have evolved, 42% of the people have owned a digital camera for less than a year where only 12% have owned one for more than three years.  What a change.

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

 

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