Audiovox's Stylish New XM RX's

By Mike on 7:47 pm

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Audiovox recently brought out a couple new receivers for XM Satellite Radio. The great thing about satellite radio is you have a much wider choice of receivers than with satellite TV, and they don't have to be bought/rented through the service provider. I had a chance to look at the new receivers from Audiovox last weekend so lets take a look at what they offer.

The Audiovox XpressEZ is the budget model and at only $40, it's a steal. It's a plug-and-play receiver meant for car but can also be used at home. However, this is a real bargain basement receiver. It lacks an FM transmitter on board. It requires either a tape deck adapter or FM transmitter for in car use. At home, you can hard wire it with a standard 3.5mm audio jack, which is the best method to get the best sound. Controls are sparse. There are only four buttons and a dial. It holds 10 preset stations, like Audiovox's other receivers but to access the preset, you have to enter the preset menu and scan with the dial. This is a little clumsy. The dial was a nice touch though allowing you to scan channels quickly. The display is fairly small though and the silver and black might be hard to see in some lighting conditions. Previous Audiovox radios used bright blue on black. At only $40 though, it's a great way to get started with satellite radio for cheap, or to use as a second receiver where featured don't matter as much. It's stylish glossy black design reminds me of the PSP and it will look good anywhere.

Next up is the XpressR. Essentially, its an updated version of the Audiovox XR9, which is the radio I own. In fact, it's nearly identical to the XR9 in terms of functionality. It's also plug-and-play for car or home. It's design is in line with the EZ, glossy black. Features are more robust. It can store up to 30 preset channels. 10 of which can be stored to buttons on the radio itself. It has a nice big screen which is also black on gray like the EZ, as well as the dial for changing channels. This radio has two big downsides though. No built in FM transmitter and its more expensive than the XR9. When I bought the XR9, it was selling for $60 as its usual price. The XpressR costs $130. So we're paying $70 more for less features. I would avoid this radio.

The new Audiovox receivers serve up style but lack flare when compared to the previous generation. Whether audio quality has improved or not I cannot say. The EZ is a good cheap way to get into XM and I would recommend it. The XpressR should be avoided due to its high cost and lack of features compared to the XR9. Audiovox has moved the XR9 to their Jensen brand and it sells for only $30 US, same as the EZ. It's still the better buy.

Secure Yourself

By Mike on 10:32 am

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I was reading on the BBC today about a series of "spam trojan" attacks being launched at Blogger, the host of this blog. They somehow hijack blogs and create fake posts with links to virus infected files. As a note, I do not post videos on this blog or my other blog. I rarely post links either for that reason. You can Google the stuff if you need to find it.

Unfortunately, this is becoming a big problem. I suppose you've all gotten them in your email by now. Fake greeting cards, links that pretend to be from Youtube, and "fun" links that that only come up as IP addresses. It's wise not to click any links you find in your email unless you know the person and that you knew they were sending you something. These false links, sometimes appearing legitimate are boobytrapped with viruses. Police suspect that all this is the responsibility of a single group, though who this group is is unknown.

Internet vandals are a huge problem. Spam, viruses, spyware, rootkits there seems to be more of it than ever. Even legitimate websites can become easily infected without anybody knowing. You have to secure yourself. Get a decent anti-virus program. I recommend Avast!. It's a professional program but the home version is freeware and fully functional. It's one of the best anti-virus programs out there. If you must by a commercial anti-virus, Norton is probably the best widely available product. I don't recommend McAffee since I've seen problems with it in the past. I don't recommend Norton either actually since it uses more memory and processing power than should be necessary but it at least won't screw up your computer.
Secondly, secure yourself when on the net. When joining web forums or filling out forms that ask for your email, setup a free email account through Gmail, MSN, or Yahoo for that purpose. Don't share your home email. On web forums, always select to hide your email from the public. If other members need to speak with you personally, they can use the forum's built in PM feature. Remember to also keep your firewall active to prevent hacking attempts. Lastly, don't visit potentially hazardous sites such as porn sites and don't click on links willy nilly. P2P services such as Limewire are also a haven for viruses and other malware.

The Future of Windows Vista

By Mike on 10:08 am

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A lot of people on other tech sites got tired of me voicing my dislike for Windows Vista. Not that I did it that much but they're full of Windows fanboys. I still use Windows XP and I have no plans on changing, not even for DirectX 10. I figure I'll eventually migrate to fuss free console gaming.

I did try Vista on my system. Microsoft had offered a free one year trial of Vista Longhorn Server Beta so I downloaded it. It needed some tweaking but I got aeroglass working. It's basically like Windows Vista business tweaked for managing file servers. Right off the bat, Vista looks very familiar. It's like a bastard child between Windows XP and Mac OS X Tiger. Arguably, Microsoft was trying to capture some of Apple's growing audience by offering similar features to Tiger such as dashboard widgets, expose, and a GPU accelerated GUI. Some elements from X windowing program Beryl, used in some Linux operating systems were also incorporated into Aeroglass such as advanced animations and transparent windows. In Vista, these features translate to little more than eye candy. Unlike expose which displays all open windows at once, which are selected through point and click, Vista makes you cycle through them. The task bar has improved to become more Dock-esque, one of the few pluses of Vista and it completely makes the cycling thing pointless since it displays an image of that window when you mouse over its position in the bar.

Graphics aside, what about other improvements. Vista claims to be more secure than XP. It certainly is, but keep in mind XP was like swiss cheese when it first came out. Most security issues anyway deal with common sense, such as not visiting porn sites and not opening unsolicited emails. XP SP2 is almost as secure as Vista with the right antivirus software. Its been shown that Windows Live OneCare anti-virus is vastly inferior to most other commercial anti-virus programs out there, even free ones such as Avast. Same goes for Windows Defender anti-spyware. These programs are often labeled as irritating since it constantly asks you to confirm your actions, as the Mac commercial famously pointed out. Most people just turn it off.
Also new to Vista is more DRM. Microsoft claims they hate DRM but they seem to be the ones who are making it increasingly intrusive. It's claimed its to appease the RIAA and MPAA, yeah right. Programs such as Windows Genuine Advantage are back in full force, but this time they cut the OS back to bare bones capability if it suspects your OS is pirated. WGA is infamous for false alarms. Trusted Computing in all its infamy is there too, all to limit what you can legally do with your PC under fair use. It actually makes more sense now to use older systems just to avoid that crap.

Going on from there is the next big upgrade, DirectX 10. So far, it's shown little improvement over DX9, which XP and Xbox 360 use. Mind you, there are very few titles that support it. There is some debate over what DX10 actually does. Some claim it simply improves rendering performance, meaning faster games. Others claim its supposed to greatly enhance visuals to near photo-real quality, as some Flight Simulator X screenshots showed. So far we've seen nothing. No solid difference between the latest DX9 titles and what little there is of DX10. Neither ATI nor nVidia seem to concerned about it either. Most of their newest generation cards are just basically added DX10 support with little to no increase in speed. High ends being the exception but most people don't buy those. The most infuriating part about DX10 is that it will never come to XP. Microsoft claims Vista is so different that XP is incapable of using DX10. I think this is BS cooked up just to sell Vista to foolish gamers. Vista's gaming performance is dismal concerning older titles. Some have problems, some don't run at all even though they were fine under XP.

Lastly, there's Vista's system requirements. It requires double the processing power than its contemporaries uses, and triple the memory. Though OS X Leopard is catching up in that department, it's providing a bevy of new features that Vista didn't. Vista features a lot of useless bloat software which drives up ram requirements.
In essence, Vista is simply a kernel update to XP. It is XP but with some fancy features that don't really work. Does Vista have a future with all its garbage. Of course, most people don't know any better. Hardware wise, PCs are cheaper and more customizable than Macs and Windows is easier to use than Linux and its console. Still, Vista has met with a certain backlash Microsoft did not expect. There was something of a Dell users revolt that forced Dell to bring back XP on new systems. Some 40,000 people voted to bring it back in a poll. Microsoft thinks that 40,000 people doesn't matter, at least that's what they said, not me. Dell also offers Ubuntu Linux on some systems, something new for a commercial computer dealer. Many of the back to school sales boastfully mention that their systems use XP. I think Microsoft is going to have a rough road in the years ahead for Vista, even though they refuse to admit it. A lot of people don't like it since XP is essentially the same but lacks the garbage. Businesses especially hate it. It's Windows ME all over again. I think Vista will eventually become dominant as Microsoft forces it on the market but you'll find more people seeking alternatives than ever before.

PSP to Become a Full GPS Unit?

By Mike on 1:10 pm

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Is the PSP becoming the ultimate mobile gadget? I'd say no since smart phones pocket PCs are still much more powerful and offer wider functionality. Still, Sony is now producing some rather interesting add-ons for the pocket console.

A little while ago, Sony released a GPS unit for the PSP in Japan. The device costs 6000 yen (roughly $50 US). Nobody was quite sure what it was for. Supposedly, the GPS will offer connectivity with games such as Hot Shots Golf and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. As to how it will work with these games, you're guess is as good as mine. Sounds pretty useless right? Not so. It appears that the PSP's addon GPS receiver will be able to function as a fully functional GPS device. A company in Japan, Edia, has taken up the project. Like most other in car navigation GPS unit, it will feature a scrolling street map showing your exact position. Screenshots are available on Yahoo.

What does this mean for the PSP? Well consider that most GPS receivers with display cost upwards of $300+ for the cheapest. At $250 for the set, the PSP would be the cheapest fully functional GUI based unit on the market. According to some reports, maps will be available on UMD. Maps will probably be sold with the GPS unit corresponding to the region it was sold. Once it comes to North America, I expect it will come with a Canada and US road atlas. According to Sony, additional maps will be available for purchase from the Playstation Network. The unit is in 11 different languages . You'll have to input waypoints manually. According to Sony's press release, the kit will feature mounting hardware and an in-car power adapter for the PSP.

So far, there is no word on when the device is coming to North America. It's planned to be released in Europe sometime in the Fall under the name Go!Explore.

Here's a link to the European press release.

Console Wars July

By Mike on 10:52 am

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If there is one piece of tech news that's dominated 2006, its the game console wars between the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii.

According to the NPD, a US based marketing firm, the PS3 sold 159,000 consoles, up 60% from the previous month. Its claimed that the $100 price drop for the 60gb model was the primary reason of this. The Wii still topped at 425,000 units sold. The Xbox 360 took second with 170,000 sold.

The Wii is still the most popular console in the world, selling more units than the Xbox 360 in the same time period. Shortages are still being reported. In fact, the only place I've ever seen Wiis on the shelf was at a Costco on just one occasion. No major electronics stores are carrying them. Apparently, they're all sold as soon as they come in. At $279, its the cheapest console. The Wii itself is signaling a shift in gaming demographics. Graphics quality is no longer as big a concern as innovative gameplay. In my opinion, I think people are looking for games that are just fun rather than the overly complex, overly serious graphical wonders that have been coming out in recent years.

Sony is also moving in a new direction with the PS3. In the past few months, they've been trying to position it as more of an all-in-one home entertainment unit rather than a video game. Such tactics have been met with only limited success in the past. I believe this new marketing tactic is to change people's perception regarding the high price. Most people think its $559 price tag is too much for a video game. Sony has had mixed success using this tactic when it comes to the PSP. Such so that the PSP has become so distanced from its chief rival, the DS, that comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. I'd say they've done the same with the PS3. It's become impossible to compare it to the Wii since the two are just so different. I'd knock the PS3 out of the console wars simply because its now difficult to even classify it as a console. In fact, I think home theater PC is a more accurate definition of what the PS3 is.

Then there's the Xbox 360. The 360's sales have been declining, down from 198,000 in May according to NPD. I expect this is mostly because people are waiting for the fall to get the consoles since that's when the new and cooler 65nm processors are due out. Summer is a slow season for gaming anyway. November to January is when sales pick up due to Christmas and Boxing Day sales. I think the 360's reputation as being a lemon is really hurting it, especially considering the price cuts and increased warranty didn't do anything to budge sliding sales. The 360 has also tried to grapple onto the media center concept. As I said in my review, the 360's media capabilities are nothing to phone home about. It's cluttered GUI also hurts it in terms if media, especially when you compare it to the clean and easy to use GUI that the PS3 uses. If we were to compare game consoles to cars, I'd say the 360 is the minivan of consoles. It's a big thing that does a lot of things. Everyone has one. It performs its job ok but underneath, it's a piece of crap. The PS3 is like your luxury sedan. Packed with features, runs great but expensive. The Wii is your sports car. It's a fun toy and is purposely designed to do one thing exceptionally well.

Bioshock Demo Review

By Mike on 9:19 pm

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I spent the better part of yesterday evening downloading the Bioshock demo. It's a hefty file at 1.8gb. Lets take a look at the demo.

The system I ran it on is by no means spectacular but it's capable of running all but the most demanding games on medium to high quality. So far, the only game I've found it to struggle with is Microsoft's FSX, mostly due to its advanced physics. System specs as follows.
AMD Athlon X2 3800+, ASRock 939Dual-SATA2, 1gb PC2700 DDR2, nVidia Geforce 7600GS 256mb manually overclocked, Creative Soundblaster X-FI XtremeMusic, Windows XP Home SP2. I consider this to be a middle of the road system. It's pretty typical of what you'd find these days in your average user's home.
I installed the game on my gaming hard drive. An 80gb Maxtor 7200rpm PATA. An older drive but I prefer to keep my primary SATA drive for other stuff since its faster. Installation was pretty strait forward. Unzipped it, clicked setup, told it where to install it, yes, yes, ok.
Getting into the game. Easy menu styles. It automatically set up the optimum settings for my computer, medium high. No stuttering even with 2xAA and 2x AF turned on. This is where I usually keep the filtering settings, since its the same settings game consoles use. The game can be played with either the keyboard and mouse, or with the Xbox 360 controller. I tried both and controls were pretty easy with both. The Xbox 360 controller is already preset and using it only requires one click. Once you've done that, the menus switch to a console style.

Visually, Bioshock is stunning. The game takes place in 1960. You're involved in a plane crash and are the sole survivor. You discover an mysterious lighthouse, the lone building on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. It belongs to someone named Andrew Ryan, a businessman. The place is empty except for a bathysphere at the bottom of a flight of stairs. You get into the sub and are taken down below the ocean. A movie comes up explaining Ryans dream, the city of Rapture. The screen scrolls down giving you stunning vistas of an art deco styled city under water. The views are truly stunning. The sub then pulls you up to an airlock. You're met with yet another loading screen and then.... BSOD.

Yep, the first time I tried the demo, I got the dreaded Windows blue screen of death. Reboot. Went through the whole scene again. I got to the same spot, the game crashed to the desktop. I hopped onto the internet to check the review sites. Apparently this is not isolated to me. Large numbers of people who bought the retail version of the game are complaining of problems ranging from no sounds to frequent crashes to the desktop and BSODs. The game is also available for the Xbox 360. While the game doesn't crash on the 360, gamers are complaining of frequent frame rate issues. The PC version seems to play smoothly, it's problems are far worse.
To put the icing on the cake so to say, Bioshock also uses the highly intrusive SecuROM DRM system. You'd think they'd learn to stop using DRM, particularly after UBISoft's Starforce copy protection fiasco. In Bioshock, the DRM system only lets the game be installed on two systems at a time. Some gamers with dedicated gaming systems frequently like to reformat their computer and install Windows fresh. Supposedly it makes the system run faster. The problem is that if you don't unistall Bioshock first before formatting, it still counts it as being installed on a separate systems. Do this twice and you have to phone them and explain why their game doesn't work. It also secretly installs strings into your computer's system registry that cannot be removed by even users with administrator level access. This is the same thing that Starforce and Sony BMG's rootkits were doing. Even the demo has DRM. Why?! As soon as I saw that, I uninstalled the game and did a registry clean.

I think Bioshock proves the point I was trying to make the other day quite nicely. Bioshock seems to be an outstanding game but its crippled by bugs and intrusive copy protection. In my opinion, it should not be for sale and should be removed from store shelves immediately until the problems are fixed. Games already sold should be recalled.
Of course by this point the developer usually makes some remark that they cannot possibly test it on all computer configurations. My system is typical for a midrange system that Dell would sell or that you would find for sale at Best Buy. If its having problems, you're probably going to have problems. Of course I know me demanding a recall is about as likely as me winning the lottery, and I don't even buy lottery tickets. The poor suckers who bought the game will now be forced to wait for a patch to fix it, then another patch ad infinitum as I pointed out the other day.

If PC gaming is dying, this is what's killing it. You invest hundreds of dollars in a system and all they give us is shoddily made "blockbuster" games that don't even work. 2K Games is going to have to do a complete turn around. To add salt to the would, I ate up 2gb of my 60gb monthly cap downloading this garbage. Bioshock looks like such a great game which is the sad part. I was considering buying it until I uncovered the mess. Way to go 2K, you're crap lost you a sale.

So lets get to the numbers.
Graphics: 9 out of 10 - Stunning art deco visuals
Audio: 9 out of 10 - Great sound
Gameplay: 0 out of 10 - Where's the game?
Controls: 7 out of 10 - Typical console shooter
Overall Quality: 1 out of 10 - looks great but its broken
Value: 0 out of 10 - broken games shouldn't 60 cents let alone $60

Overall Rating: 1 out of 10
-Has potential but needs a complete overhaul.

360 Hot Wheels Recalled

By Mike on 11:25 am

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The 360 is the hottest console on the market today. In fact, it's so hot it's on fire! By now I'm sure you've heard about the heating issues present in the 360. The console overheats due to hot processors and lack of good airflow. This has been causing the console to prematurely expire. It's cost Microsoft over $1 billion to fix the issue. A problem that should clear up by the fall with the new 65nm processors.

It doesn't end there. Now the 360's racing wheel is overheating. That's right, a joystick used for the 360 also gets way too hot for comfort. The problem occurs when the wheel is hooked up to AC power instead of its onboard battery. Microsoft is warning that a certain component in the chassis is overheating when the AC adapter is connected and may release smoke. Microsoft claims that there have been no fires or injuries as a result but they're recalling them just the same. I can theorize what's happening. It's likely somebody reversed some wires. I did this once with a speed controller out of one of my RC planes. You'll know somethings wrong because it will produce the most acrid smoke you'll ever smell. Just be sure to unplug it immediately if this happens.

Check out the recall here.

I hate to say it but typical Microsoft. This isn't the first time they've had power issues. According to Games, they had to recall 14 million AC adapters for the original Xbox due to fire issues. In all fairness though, the PS2 Slim had similar issues. However, the Xbox 360 seems to be having a lot more hardware issues than should be normal. First the console is prone to overheating, then it started scratching DVDs, now it's racing wheel is overheating. Seems the 360 has been poorly designed or is using inferior components. Compare this to the PS3 which is fundamentally similar but doesn't have these problems.

I decided to do a bit of surfing to find out why this was, and it became obvious. The PS3 is cooled by a massive fan attached to a huge heatpipe based heatsink. The 360 on the other hand uses two tiny fans which are typically used for cooling smaller components on computers. It has two fair sized heatsinks with heatpipes but I think the problem is not removing the heat from the processors, but because it has nowhere to go after that. The PowerPC is a hot processor. Even the 1.33ghz single core can get quite spicy on my laptop until a loud blower fan kicks in. The 360 has a triple core 3.2ghz PowerPC. The PowerMac G5 requires some serious cooling and the G5 didn't run as fast and had fewer cores than the Xenon. ATI's higher end graphics processors are also known to run quite hot. Simply put, airflow is inadequate.
How to fix the 360? Simple. It needs a bigger case that can accommodate at least an 80mm blower. Coupled with 65nm processors and I think the 360 will be cool as a cucumber.

Yet Another PS3 Add-On

By Mike on 10:27 pm

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What is Sony doing exactly with the PS3? Seems like they're trying to make it into an all in one media center. SCE Europe is releasing a device that will allow your PS3 to function as a DVR. The device will use an interface similar to Windows Media Center. It will be able to record video off your TV where you can play it back later or even stream it to your PSP for mobile viewing.

Dubbed the PlayTV, (a trademark infringement I might add since PixleView's line of PC TV tuners bare the same name) the device is a separate box that attaches to your PS3, via USB presumably. There is no word if something like this will ever be integrated into the PS3 itself. So basically it's a separate device that connects to your media center that enables you to record TV shows, similar to say, a VCR. Will such a device catch on? Well, it depends on how well it works and what video formats/resolutions it can record to. For now, it seems to be for digital TV and for free to air broadcasts only, of which there are few in North America. It will be available in select European countries in 2008. Games hinted that they didn't know if it would work with smart card enabled cable and satellite boxes. I think I can safely say it will since I've used my PC to record shows off my satellite on numerous occasions.
I would like to know what connections the device has. Is it cable ready? Will it record HD shows in HD? Only time will tell. All I can say is I hope Sony gets their ass in gear and gets these out in North America. I'm dying to get that PSP TV tuner that's coming out in Japan.

Eurogamer has the story.

Bad Games

By Mike on 3:33 pm

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I can't count the times I've wanted to kick myself for not checking online reviews before I bought a game. I've bought some pretty bad ones over the years. Two particular nightmares come to mind. I won't mention the company who made them but lets just say it's a major developer who's name begins with 'U'. These two particular titles, a modern jet combat game and a Rouge Squadron/arcade style WWII flying shooter refused to work on my computer despite well exceeding even the recommended system requirements. The former ran like a slide show while the latter had no sound. I installed numerous patches for these two titles but to no avail. The second game was so bad, the developer actually said they had given up with it even though everyone was still having problems. It's still for sale though and I nearly gagged when I saw it coming to PS3 in this week's Best Buy flyer. This was a game that's been panned by everyone who bought it due to its sheer number of bugs. I hope they actually fixed it for the PS3 version.

One of the greatest things ever about TV top console games is the ability to try before you buy. I can go to my local video store and rent it first to try it. Unfortunately, PC and handheld games are usually not available for rent so you're talking a big gamble buying them, even after reading reviews. Some reviewers I think don't even look at the games.
One of the major problems to affect PC gaming in the past few years is the sheer amount of badly coded ones out there. It seems that nearly every game you buy now has some major bug that creates havoc when you try to play it. Then you need to wait for a patch to come out to fix it. Sometimes the patch works, sometimes it doesn't and you have to wait for another ad infinitum. Others promise features that they don't have, such as Flight Simulator X which was touted to be the first DirectX 10 game out there. It was later found out after its release that it was only DirectX 9 and the DX10 addon would not be out until Fall 2007 in some (likely) payware add-on. It sucks for flight sim fans who are having to put up with Vista's crap because they bought it thinking it would enhance their FS experience. Then there are just really sad examples such as Knights of the Old Republic II which were rushed into production without being finished, and have a noticeably incomplete feel. KOTOR 2 is still an excellent game mind you but single player RPG games like it are story driven and without its full story, it leaves many questions.

I expect what happened to KOTOR 2 is what's happening to the majority of bad PC games out there these days. They're being rushed into production before they're sure the product is sound. Usually to meet set in stone release dates. I'd rather have a great game delayed a couple month so it's perfect rather than a mediocre one that comes out on time. Companies do have specific deadlines to make though such as the Christmas season but it's their fault for not giving enough time or resources to produce quality products. They'd never get away with bugs in console games today. There would be a huge backlash since they usually can't be patched, and thus would have to recall then, loosing money in the process. I've never heard of a PC game being recalled. The saddest part is these games usually cost $60 a piece plus the huge investments many PC gamers put into their computers to get them running just right. The point of PC gaming has always been to keep on the cutting edge with titles that are the ultimate in visuals, sound, and gameplay. For some reason, titles in recent years have not been living up to that.

Why We Love to Hate DRM

By Mike on 12:08 pm

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Wanted to watch a movie in back in 1991? It was as easy as popping the cassette into your VCR and watching it on any cable ready TV in your house. Listen to music? Put a CD into your CD player and hit play. Somewhere along the line, someone at some major corporation figured that that was simply to easy and thus DRM was born.

DRM stands for digital rights management. It's also sometimes referred to as copy protection. It's been around for at least 10 years but has steadily become more intrusive. Supposedly, DRM's original intent was to prevent piracy. That is mass producing media content and selling it illegally. Supposedly. The entertainment industry, probably the most corrupt on the planet, has always struggled with the concept of recordable media. Even the VCR was viciously attacked. The concept of the VCR was that people could record their favourite programs while they were away so they could watch them at the time of their choosing. The entertainment industry fought viciously against this stating that it infringed on copyright. I think at one point, Major League Baseball was demanding people have their written consent to record games. The VCR eventually won the legal battle under something known as "fair use", a clause under the copyright law which essentially places reasonable limits on it. You're basically free to copy anything you've already purchased for personal use, tape stuff off the TV/radio for personal use, and copy portions of other material which you don't own, such as book chapters.

The entertainment industry has always hated "fair use" and thus developed DRM to prevent it. DRM in many ways is technically illegal and even violates patents. CDs for example cannot legally bare the "Compact Disc Digital Audio" logo if they have DRM on them. This was something that Phillips specified in their "Red Book", which contains the CD's specifications. Ironically, Sony, the co-developer of the compact disc, would become embroiled in a major legal battle over hidden "rootkits" on some of their CDs.
I'm no law expert but I'd place DRM in a legal gray zone. As I noted, it violates fair use, but it's illegal to tamper with it due to patents. Entertainment companies spend millions on lobbying governments to keep it in this legal limbo while forcing it down the throats of customers.

The true purpose behind DRM, at least lately, is not preventing piracy. In fact, there is little if any proof out there that shows it actually prevents piracy. Many execs have admitted that DRM is a major revenue generating tool. Lets see how it works. Lets take a fictional movie, James Bont: Casino Riviera, a FONY Pictures production. Now I buy the DVD of this movie. I try to rip it to my computer so I can play it on my portable media player. I get an error message that the DRM is not letting me rip it. So then I have to go buy a separate copy for my media player. Therefore, FONY makes two sales off me for the exact same product. Further More, say I have a media server, an OrangeTV. It doesn't use the same format as the version I bought for my media player and DRM won't let me recode to a compatible one. I have to buy and download yet another copy of said movie from yTunes in order to watch it on my media server. That's three sales of the same product. Does that sound right to you? Keep in mind these are all $15-$30 a piece, times three.

As for piracy itself, where does it exist> The entertainment industry likes to make you think that it's just some average guy, you perhaps, in his basement with an eBay account, DVD burner, and a lot of time on his hands. Real piracy is a lot more simple that cracking DRM codes. In fact, it's as simple as $9.95 for a movie ticket and a decent cell phone that can record video. Yep, that trick still continues as portable movie cameras get smaller, cheaper, and produce higher resolutions. It's either done by smuggling camcorders into the theater or getting a guy who works there to sneak you in after hours. Never having bought one of these movies myself, I can't vouch for quality but I expect it to be horrible. Some say you can even hear the crunching of popcorn and the sucking of soda on these fake DVDs. Once they have the tape, they're usually shipped off to the Chinese mafia for mass production. I'd put good money down that at lest 90% of pirated movies out there are of this variety. People buy then though because they're cheap (sometimes $5 or less) and most people really don't give a crap about video quality. No amount of DRM is going to stop this method and if someone as inept as me can smuggle candies into the theater, sure as to god someone can get a camera in there. Therefore, banning all electronic devices from theaters is impossible unless you're going to frisk everyone that goes in. I wouldn't put that beyond them though.

So what should studios do that lets consumers fairly enjoy titles they legally bought while keeping the real piracy down. Well, they can eliminate DRM for one. It simply does not work and they're using it to blatantly gouge consumers. We're on to you. Lowering prices of the product will also turn people away from pirated copies to higher quality originals. Don't charge extra for so called "premium" DRM free products. That's an ass-backwards way of doing it. I figure a fair price is $10 for CDs and $15 for DVD movies. Lowering the price will work to actually INCREASE sales and thus not hurt profits. In fact, profits may increase.

Why Mac

By Mike on 9:27 pm

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There was once a time I strongly disliked Mac computers. I got my first PC back in 1998 after years of using Macintosh computers. The 90s was a rough decade for Apple. It was just one string of commercial failures after the others. Who could forget such memorable bombs as the Newton PDA and the now infamous Pippin game console. It's not that Apple's computers were particularly bad during this period but they were overpriced and underpowered compared to the Windows PCs of the era. Windows 95 came out and revolutionized GUI computing on the PC which was superior to the the "Classic" Mac OS.

Back in 2005, I figured I would need a laptop for university. I had a taste half a year prior using my Dad's Compaq Persario R6000. A computer that has never run quite right. The big advantage was being able to keep all my notes organized without risk of loosing them or mangling them. The biggest problem I encountered though was a relatively short battery life of just three hours and its bulk. The R6000 I would class as being a desktop replacement notebook. It weighs a ton. I considered many options. Dells, Compaqs, IBMs (now Lenovo), even an ancient PowerBook that I found in the back of the office. Somebody directed my towards the iBook line. I was a little skeptical at first but reviews were good so I took the plunge.

I originally paid $1149 for my iBook G4. I bought the cheaper 12'' model with the 1.33ghz PowerPC G4 processor. A fairly robust system, the CPU was actually a little faster than my Athlon XP 2000+ that I had in my desktop at the time. As a testament to the longevity of the PowerPC, all three seventh generation game consoles use it or a derivative of it. Though a slower clock speed than my XP, it was still able to pump out 720p Quicktime HD video thanks to GPU acceleration. For its price point, the iBook G4 was one of the few laptops in its class to feature a fully dedicated GPU. An ATI Radeon 9550 with 32mb DDR. A huge plus was its light weight and 6hr battery life. Though now it only gets 5.5hrs due to wear form constant battery use. Still respectable though compared to many PC laptops.

The most pleasant surprise was how much Mac OS X improved over "Classic". Most of what Jeff "Mac" Long tells you on TV is true. The system is far more streamlined and easier to use than Windows XP and it lacks the bloat of Vista. In fact, OS X Tiger has near identical features to Vista but only requires half the computer power to run. Flipping between multiple windows with a single click or movement of the mouse, searching my documents hassle fast and easy with Spotlight, checking the weather with Dashboard, and all my most commonly used programs one click away on the Dock. OS X uses a tried and true Unix base with a GPU accelerated desktop environment for easy and smooth computing. Macs are also more secure than Windows. Since there are less of them out there, they tend to fly under the radar of malware developers. It doesn't mean that they can't get viruses but they typically do not. Apple also tends to be a little more on the ball, patching problems as soon as they appear rather than on an inflexible monthly schedule like Microsoft does.
Furthermore, Apple is gracious to include commonly used software like iLife with the computer. My only two beefs is the lack of decent CD/DVD burning software and that it only includes a trial version of an office suite. I believe a full version of iWork should have been included just as iLife was, but you can still use NeoOffice which is just as good. Compare this to Windows machines which usually don't come with any included software. For a long time, Microsoft didn't even include a basic DVD player. Windows computers usually come with Microsoft Works as an office suite, which is very basic and very dated. Other software costs extra. Apple used to also include an encyclopedia, dictionary, atlas, and a couple of games with their systems. I'm not sure if they still do.

If you're interested in buying a Mac, there are many different options. The Mac Mini, iMac, MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacPro. Price ranges from about $600 up. All Macs now feature Intel's Core 2 Duo processor except for the MacPro. It uses an Intel Xeon which is a server version of the Core 2. The iMac offers the best value for desktop users since it comes with everything you need including keyboard and mouse. Like video game consoles, Macs are truly ready to run right out of the box. The iMac is an all-in-one system meaning that the screen and computer itself are one unit rather than two separate ones. The iMac is very powerful for its class and is well suited for anyone.
The Mac Mini is a small form factor system that's about the size of two CD wallets stacked on top of each other. It's not an all-in-one and requires a separate keyboard, mouse, and monitor. It's the cheapest Mac though and its best suited for those where space is a premium. Since it includes digital audio outputs and Apple's Front Row media application, it's well suited as a home theater computer.
The MacPro is a very powerful system. It's a traditional tower desktop that comes with dual processors with up to eight processing cores. This isn't really a home system. It's for people who do a design work and such. Stuff that requires a lot of processing power. It's the most expensive system.
The MacBook and MacBook Pro are laptops. All models are good and portable and which one you buy really only depends on what you can afford.

PS3 vs Xbox 360: Quality Wars

By Mike on 6:05 pm

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Console wars. Which is better. Better graphics, better games, better features. What about build quality? I would argue that this is the most important factor when buying a console or any item for that matter. How well built is it and how long will it last. It seems when it comes to build quality, the Playstation 3 is winning this fight.

The People at PS3 Vault have put the Playstation 3 through a torture test. Three tests, 108 hours strait each. Once in a regular living room at 22.7c. Next in a freezer at ambient temperatures between 4c and -18c. Finally in a humid sauna at temperatures between between 37c and 48c. In the living room, no problems were reported. No problems with the freezer either. A slight burning smell was noted in the sauna but the console was physically fine. The test was done using a mix of games and bluray movies in a regular pattern.

PS3 Vault: How to Kill a PS3

Mind you, PS3 Vault has a strong bias in favour of the Playstation 3. Still, I think we could safely say that Microsoft's Xbox 360 would not stand up to that punishment. As I said in my review of the Xbox 360, it's a typical Microsoft product. It does what you want it to do, when it feels like it doing it. That said, I've had mixed experience with Sony in the past. Back in the late 80s, out Sony TV was constantly in the shop. Our Sony VHS in the early 90s didn't last long either before the plastic gears wore down. Oddly enough, our longest lasting Sony product is our Betamax. It was used quite a bit back in the day and at over 20 years old, it still works like a charm. Not that it gets used much anymore. Of course, it was built like a tank. (it's sheer weight is a testament, it weighs a ton) Seems the PS3 is too.

As for the Wii, well, it's a typical Nintendo product that's made in Japan. Sturdy and will last for years like most Japanese products these days. The Xbox 360 is made in China and like most Chinese products, it's loaded with garbage parts. I assume the PS3 is made in China as well. Foxconn is supposedly the OEM for all three next generation TV top consoles. That is, they make their motherboards. Most of the parts are made in China too, such as the 360's processors.

MP3 Player Buying Guide: Part 2

By Mike on 9:00 am

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The other day, we looked at players from some of the more well known manufacturers. Apple, Creative, Sony, and Microsoft. None of these players was a clear winner. If I were to declare a winner from Sunday, I'd say it was the Sony PSP. The PSP lacked sufficient onboard storage but made up for it with a robust array of features. The ability to stream music, surf the net, and play games scored it big points. The Microsoft Zune was easily the worst player looked at due to its limited usability and highly intrusive digital rights management protocols. The iPod and Zen players from Apple and Creative were near the top. Creative beat out Apple for having similar features and quality but at lower prices.
Today we'll look and some of the lesser known MP3 players. Particularly units from iRiver and Cowon/iAudio. Finally I'll help you decide which of these players is best for you.

iRivier is a more obscure brand but they arguably make some of the best MP3 players out there. We'll start with the new Clix 2. It's a video MP3 player with 2-8gb of storage. It boasts a 320x240 res screen. It's a slim flash type player. Flash is kind of inappropriate for video due to lack of storage. You can put several full length movies on the 8gb model. A huge plus with all iRivier players is support for the OGG format. OGG Vorbis is an open source audio compression format and arguably one of the best. It's superior to MP3 and WMV at lower bit rates and is similar in quality to the patented MP4 AAC format. Another video player along the same lines is the B20. Comes in 2gb and 4gb and features a digital radio tuner. Not many digital radio stations though and it's not satellite radio compatible.
For audio only flash players, iRiver has some more bizarre styles such as the odd S7. The S10 is a conceptual player with an OLED screen. The T60 is a more conventional design. All have similar features and support the same audio formats. iRivier does have some hard drive based players. None worth looking at. They're expensive and lack storage compared to models from Creative and Apple.

Cowon is yet another more obscure brand. They call their MP3 players the iAudio series. I guess people think adding a lower case 'i' to a product automatically makes it good. Cowon's players aren't bad though. In fact, they're supposedly some of the best. Unfortunately I've had to take a lot of stuff from hearsay since there's no way I could test every one of these players. We'll start with the iAudio 7. It won a CNET award. This particular player is a sleek black design and comes in either 4gb or 8gb flash. This particular player actually offers a full function graphic equalizer. Rounding off features includes 3D surround sound , FM radio, and microphone. It's a little on the chunky side though for a flash player, at least as fat as the PSP. It's got a full colour screen. iAudio players, like iRiver's, also play OGG Vorbis files.
For Video, Cowon has the X5. It' has a 20gb or 30gb HDD. As a video player, it's pretty pathetic. The screen has a resolution of only 160x128, compared to the 320x240/480x272 standard that other players have adopted. iAudio boasts that it supports 260,000 colours and plays video at 15fps. Most players today support millions of colours at 30fps. For audio, it seems pretty decent. Supports MP3, WMV, Wave, OGG, and FLAC. FLAC is a lossless version of OGG. It has similar audio features to the "7".
Then there's the iAudio 6, the latest HDD player. It's essentially a cross between the "7" and the X5. For a HDD player though, it only supports 4gb on an ultra tiny drive. For that type of application, flash makes more sense. Video playback and supported codecs are identical to the X5.

Well, that's it for the round. Multiple players from six manufacturers. Today's winner, well, there really isn't one. I'd call it a tie. Both iRivier and Cowon have excellent players with excellent quality. They also support the elusive OGG Vorbis audio format which is perhaps the best lossy encoding format out there. That scores them big points. However, both lack storage. For video, iRiver is your best bet. The video playback on the iAudio players just sucks. 128p is far too low a definition to enjoy watching videos. You need 240p minimum.

So now you've looked at this multitude of players. There are others out there too from other companies, both good and bad. Which one should you pick. Well, it depends on your lifestyle and what you're using it for.
HDD based players are the best for people with large media collections. All HDD players except for the iAudio 6 had at least 20gb of storage. Twice what the largest flash player looked at. Flash on the other hand is for people who want something low cost, or are on the move. If you're working out at the gym, flash players aren't effected by movement like HDD players are since they contain no moving parts.
For video watching, I'd look at players with relatively large screens with widescreen support. Here I'd pick the PSP. since it has a nice big screen and it's lack of storage is made up by the fact that hard copies of videos can be purchased on UMD. The PSP also plays games too so you've got all your bases covered. It's bulky though though the PSP Slim will be better. The Zen Vision W is also another good player to take a look at. Though it doesn't have as many features as the PSP does, it's mechanical HDD gives it massive storage space for watching uncompressed video.
Small flash based players such as the iPod Shuffle and Creative Stone are the best for active people. They're relatively small size keeps them out of the way. The Stone is the best choice here since it's cheaper than the shuffle and features a display.
For your average day to day player, I'd look at the Zen V since it has all the same features the iPod shuffle does but at much lower cost.
If you're an audiophile, look at the iAudio and iRiver players. They features the best audio quality and the richest variety of coding formats.

MP3 Player Buying Guide: Part 1

By Mike on 3:54 pm

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They're called iPods. It's become sort of a generic term for the digital music player. Even the term 'MP3 Player' isn't entirely accurate since MP3 is not the only portable music file format out there. Digital music players originally appeared in the form of Sony's Minidisc, then later portable CD players with MP3 capability. Then came the iPod and everything changed. Unlike the portable CD player, it was smaller and could hold a lot more music. The original could hold up to 20gb of music, compared to MP3 CDs which could only hold 700mb and the Minidisc which could only hold 1gb max.

The iPod itself was one of the first true MP3 players. It has become an iconic symbol of this generation. Apple has three iPod models currently in production. The iPod (aka iPod Video), the Nano, and the Shuffle. The Shuffle holds 1gb of music and costs $79 US. The Nano ranges from 2gb-8gb and starts at $149 US. The full iPod has either a 30gb or 80gb drive and starts at $249 US. The Shuffle and Nano use flash memory while the iPod uses a mechanical hard drive.
While the iPod is one of the most common MP3 players out there, it's not the best. They're expensive, particularly the Nano which seems cheap at $79 but lacks a display and FM radio. In terms of playback, formats are limited. The iPod can only playback MP3, MP4 AAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF, and Wave. The iPod features an interesting form of DRM as well. You can upload songs to your iPod but you cannot download them back onto your computer, which is pretty stupid. Even DRM king Sony allows two way transfers. Audio playback is good but throw away the crappy earbuds that come with it and get decent ones.
Positive points includes video playback with the iPod (Video). It's robust HDD, up to 80gb can hold a lot of movies which you can buy from iTunes or rip and convert yourself. It can playback most current video formats at a resolution of 320x240. The iPod wins out in terms of storage space. It's ideal for those who have large music collections. The flash based players are not worth it though since there are cheaper players which are just as good but offer more robust features.

If anybody were to create an iPod killer, it's Creative Labs. The makers of the well known Soundblaster series of PC soundcards. The Zen players come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. I own the Zen Nano Plus. It's about the size of a pack of gum, gets long playback on AAA batteries, and has features such as a backlit display and FM radio. Excellent sound quality, it supports WMA and MP3 but that's it. That's the major drawback. The Zen Stone Plus has phased it out. Similar to the iPod Shuffle, it has 2gb or storage and a built in rechargable battery. Supports WMA, MP3, Audible, and Wave formats. Also has FM radio and a display.
In competition with the iPod Nano is the Zen V Plus. Similar in features to the other players, it has an OLED screen that can display photos, like the Nano. However, it can store up to 16gb on its flash drive. Unlike the Nano, it's cheaper. Starting at $80 for the 2gb. Same features, same quality but for less. Sounds like a good deal to me.
Next in line is the Zen Vision W and Zen Vision M. The M is similar to the full iPod. It comes with either a 30gb or 60gb mechanical HDD. It supports the same audio formats as the above players but it supports a much wider array of common video formats than the iPod does. Additional formats include DivX, Xvid, and WMV. Video resolution is the same as the iPod.
The Zen Vision W takes things a step further by adding 480x272 res widescreen video. It's identical to the M in every other way
Finally the vanilla Zen Vision. It has the same features as the other two, except for one. A 640x480 res screen. That's 480p DVD quality video on the go. One downside with this player is that it only includes a 30gb HDD. Still enough for several full length, uncompressed movies. The Zen Vision M starts at $249. Same as the iPod.

Sony is next on the block. They do make some portable audio players under the Wakman line. None worth looking at. If you're considering a Sony MP3 player, the Playstation Portable is the only way to go. Good audio playback, it supports MP3, WMA, Wave, and MP4 AAC. It's also capable of streaming audio wirelessly which the above players cannot. You can use either the "Location Free" media server or several of the free server tools that exploit the audio RSS features. Video playback is good with all popular formats supported. Video is widescreen at 480x272 resolution. You can also buy feature length movies on Sony's proprietary UMD discs. The downside with the PSP is that it's limited to 8gb of storage using Memory Stick Duo cards. This is highly limiting for such a device. It also skimps on maximum volume and lacks a manual equalizer. The PSP does not force the use of any DRM oddly enough though it can playback DRM content if necessary. Unlike the others, the PSP plays games as well with near Playstation 2 quality graphics. It can also surf the internet. Despite it's lack of storage, it's robust features make it a good deal. The core system costs around $180 US. Larger memory cards cost extra. A 4gb card can be found for about $80.

Lastly for today, we'll look at the Microsoft Zune. Designed to be an iPod killer, the Zune is an absolute joke of an MP3 player. The Zune sports an 30gb mechanical HDD with a 60gb model on the way. Also included is video playback at 320x240, FM radio, and Wifi. The Zune supports MP3, WMA, and MP4 AAC for audio. However, only WMV is supported for video playback. It is an uncommon format where MPEG and its derivatives dominate. The Zune has Wifi but can only communicate with other Zunes, making it useless in the real world.
The Zune uses a highly intrusive DRM method. It actually implants a virus into music files that limits the number of times a song can be played or shared when using Wifi. No other player looked at uses this kind of DRM methods. In fact, most didn't use DRM at all, even Sony's. The Zune also cannot playback songs legally purchased from many places such as iTunes, Napster, Yahoo, and even MSN Music Service. It does not comply with Microsoft's own "Play for Sure" coding that these sites use. WMA with DRM is being force on users. It's better to just use MP3.
The Zune is perhaps the worst product Microsoft has ever created and probably the worst MP3 player on the market. The device costs $250 for 30gb but is far inferior to the Zen Vision M and iPod that both sell at the same price point.

Hybrid Cars: Future or Fad

By Mike on 10:01 am

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There's a lot of talk about "saving" the environment these days. If you've ever read my other blog, you know how I feel about that. It's hogwash. However, the apocalyptic nightmare being put forth by the eco-nutters has increased sales of hybrid cars. There seem to be more Toyota Priuses on the road, though ironically more Hummer H2s are appearing as well.

I had a chance to look at the 2007 Toyota Prius on display last year. Local car dealers were displaying their new models at a local festival. The Prius is a mid-size sport hatch back. Modern styled with an elegant yet high tech interior. Back are the digital gauges on the dash. I remember my Mom's old Oldsmobile Delta 88 having the digital gauges back in 1991. Still, the big problem with the Prius's styling is that it looks like a hybrid. Unlike Honda who has incorporated the technology into their regular lines. It has a toy like appearance too it that will make it unappealing to some.

The car itself is powered by two motors. A 1.5l gasoline engine rated at 70bhp and a 33kw (44bhp) electric motor. This gives it a net horsepower of 110bhp, which is slightly less though still comparable that other cars in its size. The electric motor runs at 273.6v and has 258 foot-pounds of torque, more than double the turning power of the gas engine. Powering the electric is 168 nickel-metal hydride cells. NiMH cells are the same rechargable batteries used in laptops, RC toys, digital cameras, etc. Toyota claims 60mpg with this system. It saves gas by shutting off the gas engine when its idling.

The battery system in hybrids tends to be the biggest weakness of the car. They raise the initial price of the car since the cells required can cost around $10 each at least, times 168. They last for 500-1000 cycles. A cycle is a full discharge and recharge of the pack. Assuming one cycle per day and that you drive everyday, the packs will only last one and a half to three years. At a conservative estimate of $10 per cell, $1680 is a lot to be spending on maintenance for that time period. Then you have maintenance of the gasoline engine on top of that. You'll find that the money you're saving on gas will quickly be eaten away by the initial higher cost plus maintenance. Lithium based batteries in some hybrids would cost even more to replace. The ones used in cars probably cost $50-$100 per cell, costing up to $5600 to replace assuming the same voltage. Some have suggested that a hybrid can actually cost more over its lifetime to run than a full-sized SUV.

Another problem concerns fuel efficiency. Some reports claim 60mpg . However, hybrids tend to do better in city driving conditions that at highway speeds. This is because they often have smaller gear boxes and the electric motors are most efficient at low speeds. This is the opposite of pure gasoline cars which get better mileage on the highway. EPA estimates for the Prius actually put its true mileage at 46.4mpg, getting 48 city/46 highway. Much lower than the claimed 60mpg. The EPA has recently revised its testing methods to reflect real world conditions. While the Prius has the best efficiency over all, many cars such as Honda's Civic come close while having bigger, more powerful engines. In fact, my trusty 2005 Civic with a 1.7l engine gets 33mpg on average, self tested in real world conditions. While this particular model of Civic doesn't have that much more in terms or horse power, it has a higher power to weight ratio. In the end, you're not saving money running a hybrid after all, even in the long run.

So who's the Prius for. Well, if you want a hybrid, the Prius is the best way to go since its the most efficient but also the most powerful. You're not trading too much performance. However, high maintenance costs make it expensive to operate in the long run. Tax incentives are available but the initial price is still more than $1000 higher than a regular car. The Prius is best suited for those who do mostly city driving since relatively short driving distances will keep gas and maintenance costs down. For commuting, I'd recommend a regular car since you'll save on maintenance and initial purchase cost. Purchasing a regular car with a manual or auto clutch transmission will also save on gas since these usually have five to six gears rather than just four present in most automatic cars. Dual clutch transmissions will give you the best of both worlds.

360 Sees $100 Price Cut in Canada

By Mike on 11:14 pm

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Microsoft's Xbox 360 has had its price cut by $100. That means the Core now sells for $299 and the Premium at $399. The Elite dropped $50 to $499.

Also in the news, there's word that Microsoft will be adding the digital HDMI port to the Premium version and maybe the Core version as well. This gives the 360 true digital connectivity at last. Not that big a deal really but good news for those who like digital setups. The addition of the port on the Core and Premium sort of makes the Elite pointless. It offers a 120gb HDD to the Premium's 20gb. Unless you intend to use the 360 as a dedicated media server, the Premium is still the best way to go.

Just because the price has dropped, doesn't mean you should run out and buy a 360 if you don't already have one. The 65nm cores for the 360 are coming in only a couple of months. Just don't do something foolish like freezing yourself in the mountains until then. You might wake up in 2546.

OpenOffice: Why Pay for Office?

By Mike on 9:28 pm

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Most computers only come with very basic software. Apple is a little more generous while Microsoft systems tend to very sparse. With Windows computers, you really only get the bare essentials. Office suites tend to be the biggest letdown considering they're one of the most used programs. With most store bought Windows and Apple computers, you get either Microsoft Works or Appleworks. Both programs are extremely dated and limited in functionality. Apple includes Office, but only as a trial version. Office costs at least $170 for the basic Home & Student edition and up to a whopping $900 for the so called Ultimate edition. For the average home user, I think even $170 is a hefty price tag for an office suite. There is a cheaper Basic version but it's OEM only. Most software stores where you're average user shops don't sell OEM packages.
So what does $170 get you. Well, it gives you the basics. Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and something called OneNote. That last one seems to be a fairly useless program for making notebooks.

Now what if I told said to you that you could get all that for free. You'd probably think I'd gone nuts or downloaded a pirated version of Office. No, my way is easy, free, and 100% legal. It's called open source. You might be familiar with open source already. The popular Firefox web browser is an open source program. What this basically means is that a program's code is freely available to edit. Large communities of programmers work on these projects rather than just a few working for a software company. The finished product is usually available free of charge to the public.

Introducing An open source office suite. It once was a derivative of Sun Microsystems's StarOffice. It's available for regular download, torrent download, or on CD. All are free of charge. OpenOffice currently runs on all major operating systems including Windows XP, Windows Vista, Mac OS X, and Linux.

The following programs are included with the suite.
-Writer: A word processor similar to Word.
-Calc: A spreadsheet program similar to Excel.
-Impress: A presentation program similar to PowerPoint.
-Base: A database program similar to Microsoft Access.
-Draw: A drawing program similar to CorelDRAW
-Math: A tool for creating mathematical formulas
-Basic: Similar to Microsoft Visual Basics

If you've used Office or Corel Office, you'll find these programs familiar and easy to use. The functionality of OpenOffice 2.2 is almost identical to Microsoft Office 2007. OpenOffice lacks programs similar to Publisher, OneNote, InfoPath, and SharePoint Designer. However, most of the features that these programs have are already embedded in OpenOffice's programs. For example, Publisher lets you save documents as professional quality PDF. So does Writer. In fact, in Writer, saving to PDF is a one click processes by clicking the PDF icon in the tool bar. Many of the programs Office adds aside from the core seven (mentioned above) are superfluous. In the tech world, it's called bloatware. You do not need to be paying $600 for that crap. The only major component missing is something similar to Outlook. However, the Mozilla project has Thunderbird for email and Sunbird as a calendar program. Hop over to for those. If you're using Mac, you already have programs similar to Outlook such as Mail and iCal.

When it comes to saving and transporting documents, that's always been a problem. OpenOffices uses the open document format, or .odt in the case of Writer files. As the name suggests, it's an open format. OpenOffice can also save files as Office documents so that Office can read them. It is also capable of reading a much wider number of formats from all popular Office suites.

If you're using a Mac, you might want to check out NeoOffice. It's adapted to run natively on Mac while the OpenOffice Mac version runs on the X11 windowing system. Don't worry about what that is. What the NeoOffice guys have done is tweak OpenOffice to run natively on Mac OS X using tools such as Java and Cocoa. What this means is that Mac users will have a full Aqua interface complete with proper menus and even visual effects. NeoOffice runs a little slower than OpenOffice X11. However, the X11 version has a clumsy interface due to it being essentially a near-direct port of the Linux version. NeoOffice is available for all versions of OS X. The current version is based on OpenOffice 2.1. It's compatible with both Intel and PowerPC Macs.

I've used OpenOffice for four years now and I highly recommend it. There's certainly no harm in trying it since it's totally free, no catch. Download it at

More Macs, More Fun!

By Mike on 12:58 pm

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Apple has been busy updating its line after the release of the iPhone. They're giving you two hot and fresh slices to choose from.

First off, the Mac Mini has seen a "slight" upgrade. Apple released this small form factor computer back in 2005. The new Mac Mini is virtually identical to the older one. However, Apple has upgraded the Pentium M based Core Duo/Solo to the Merom based Core 2 Duo. The Core 2 Duo being a far faster and more efficient processor. Also, both models now come with a dual core processor. The Mini comes in two flavours. A 1.83ghz model with 2mb cache and a 2.0ghz model with 4mb cache. One disappointment with the upgrade in my opinion was lack of a DVD-RW drive in the base model. DVD writers are cheap enough and combo DVD/CD-RW drives just don't cut it any more. Lack of an onboard DVD burner makes iMovie/iDVD pretty much useless. External ones are available but it's probably just as well to buy the top model with the DVD writer.

The iMac has also seen a major revision. The system has been slightly redesigned to make it thinner. It also been given a new paint job: black and gray over the previous all white. It comes in a 20'' and 24'' model, the 17'' model being dropped entirely. The screens resolutions have also been enhanced to 1680x1050 for the 20'' and 1920x1200 for the 24''. The larger model is capable of showing true 1080p HD video flawlessly. For processors, you get a choice of the 2.0ghz or 2.4ghz Core 2 Duo or the beefy 2.8ghz Core 2 Extreme. I expect the later to use the Merom XE, though the fastest listed on Wikipedia was only 2.6ghz, meaning the 2.8ghz model might be a special OEM version. All processors probably use Socket P if that's the case. All models come with 1gb of ram and can be upgraded to 4gb.
Apple has also upgraded the graphics chip to ATI's Radeon HD series. The 20'' model comes with the HD 2400, which is a basic chip. The HD 2600 comes in the 24'' model and is suitable for gaming. Dropped is the Intel integrated graphics chips that were once in the 17''. The GPUs come with dedicated 128mb DDR3 and 256mb DDR3 respectively.
For connectivity, a big plus was the inclusion of the 802.11n wireless standard. A WiFi standard that has a maximum speed of 248 megabits/second. That's 4.5x faster than Wireless G WiFi. Also included is a Firewire 800 port alongside three USB and one firewire 400 port. The iMac has a total of five USB ports if you include the two on the keyboard. Plenty should you even desire to add Microsoft's external HD-DVD drive. Of course it includes standard Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet. Dialup users will have to purchase a USB 56k modem separately.
For storage, Apple has really beefed up the hard drives on the iMac. The base 20'' model with the 2.0ghz processor comes with a 25ogb HDD with the option of adding either a 320gb or 500gb drive. The 2.4ghz 20'' has a base 320gb drive with either a 500gb or 750gb drive as an addon. The 24'' comes with a 320gb base but can be upgraded to a whopping 1tb. Of course all Macs use a standard 3.5'' SATA drives so you're not bound by Apple's upgrade options should you want one different from what they offer as addons. All models come with a DVD writer.
For software, you get OS X Tiger, Front Row, Photo Booth, and iLife 2008.

The New iMacs start at $1199 US.

The one downside is the timing of this release. While it will sell plenty for back to school, it's not a good time to buy with OS X Leopard coming out in October. It's best to wait until then to get it preloaded. The $200 price increase from dropping the 17'' model will discourage some buyers looking for cheaper all in one Macs. Other than that, Apple has put together a really nice package and they look great too.

Leaving Comments

By Mike on 12:46 pm

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I welcome any comments you have. I've made some changes though. Anyone can now leave comments, not just registered Blogger members. However, I've chosen to moderate comments. This is due to the high number of incidents of flaming and general cyber bullying I've noticed on many other tech sites. There's just too many "children" on the internet these days. Please avoid getting into lengthy discussions with other people who have commented too. This is a blog, not a forum.