A road warrior again

Nine years ago I took the plunge and bought a notebook computer before leaving Durban for a life on the road.

The machine in question was a Toshiba Satellite 1800-100 and by today’s standards seems woefully underpowered (see here for my article from the time). It wasn’t the latest and greatest model but it still cost me the huge amount of R14000 not including the bag to carry it in, which cost nearly R600 more.

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Dead but not yet buried

Rattling around on the back seat of my car is a spindle of CDs which I burned to listen to in the car after I upgraded to one that had a CD player.

Catching sight of them the other day, it popped into my head that the phrase ‘dead man walking’ describes CD (and DVD) technology perfectly. CDs were marvels of technology when they were launched in 1982. They held a whopping 700 MB of data, the equivalent of about 80 minutes of uncompressed audio.

CD BruléImage courtsesy *** Fanch The System !!! ***

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How to buy a computer

There have been a couple of questions from readers in the past few weeks about buying computers, and I thought it might be useful to try and provide some sort of advice in this column.

It is not surprising to find people are nervous about doing the wrong thing when asked to choose between products containing so many components of differing sizes, speeds, and model numbers.

Potential buyers are often concerned that the computer they choose may not be up to the task that it is being bought for. The other common fear is that, knowing nothing about the speeds and capacities of the various components, they might be paying for technology or capacity they don’t need.

The good news is that the entry-level PC these days is more than good enough for most computing tasks. These include office work, fiddling with digital photography, doing e-mail, surfing the web, and playing less involved games.

The entry-level PC will be quite fine these for those pursuits although I would recommend paying for extra memory, so that the machine has at least 2Gb of RAM. These machines will most likely not have separate network and video cards, but have them built-into their motherboards, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Choosing a computer does get a bit more complex when you are buying them to engage in activities, such as video editing, high-end gaming, and advanced image manipulation, which need more computer resources to be really viable.

The advice I gave to a reader who wanted to buy a gaming computer for his son was to take a look at a couple of the games his son was going to play. Programs, including games and video editing packages, will always have a listing of the minimum requirements they need to run and, very often, a suggested configuration as well.

It seems that most of the monitors available today are LCD screens and I don’t know all that much about them. It seems to be that screens with higher contrast ratios and lower response times are better.

I’d say the thing to do is to take a careful look at difference between the cheaper and more expensive models, and don’t get seduced into buying an inferior screen, simply because it’s larger.

Choosing a laptop, or notebook, sounds quite hard too, but it’s also a matter of buying a machine to suit what you’re going to do with it. At the most basic, you have the so-called Netbooks, which would be fine for web surfing, a bit of wordprocessing, or sending e-mail.

These normally have smaller screens but make up for that with a greater battery life and enhanced portability. You have to decide if you can live with the smaller screen and keyboard.

As with their desktop cousins, the entry-level notebooks will be fine for just about any task and you really only need something better if you’ve got a special requirement. I would want at least 2Gb of RAM and a wireless networking facility built-into any machine I bought.

As far as operating systems go, I personally would not choose to buy any machine with Microsoft Vista on it at this stage. Windows 7 is due out very soon and I would insist on a free upgrade to that, or I wouldn’t buy. I’d also definitely consider using a Linux variant, like Ubuntu, if I could get Linux versions of all the software I intended to use.

The only really hard thing about buying a computer, to my mind, is choosing who to buy it from. The ideal is to buy from someone you trust to provide unbiased advice and the technical support you’ll need, and that’s really a matter of individual choice.

One hint I’ll give is that the glib-sounding person you found in the newspaper, with only a mobile number listed, is probably not the right one to choose. Of course, if you have a favourite guru, the choice will be easy for you.

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Everyone’s a palooka sometimes

Recent events in my computing world were a salutary reminder that everyone will eventually earn themselves an entry in the Palooka’s Hall of Fame (PhoF).

I installed a trial version of the new Windows 7 operating system on my upgraded computer but decided that I wasn’t quite ready for it, and would go back to Windows XP. The process of installing an operating system isn’t all that hard and involves booting your computer with the installation CD, and following the prompts.

I’ve done this before quite often and have found that it is better to retain the hard drive with all your old files on it and use a clean new hard drive for the installation. That way, you’ll be able to plug the old drive in after the installation of the new operating system, and access any of the old files you discover you need.

The fresh new SATA hard drive was connected and the computer had been told that this was the Master hard drive, where the operating system was to live. I then made the mistake of connecting the old IDE drive, with all my files, before installing XP.

The old drive was plugged into the motherboard’s IDE socket and, unbeknownst to me, the motherboard decided that this should be the master drive. It couldn’t have happened on an IDE-only motherboard, but it did on this new one.

The damn thing asked me whether it should format the Master drive, in preparation for Windows XP and, although it did issue a dire warning that all data on the drive would be lost, I assumed it was referring to the empty drive, and said it could go ahead.

The formatting finished and Windows started to install itself but the process bombed out for some reason; luckily for me, as turned out. I soon realized that I had formatted the wrong drive and that there were some files on it that had not been backed-up.

Shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted, I unplugged the formatted drive from the computer, and then installed XP on the correct one. Fear and trepidation ruled the day because I realised that, although there were some files I’d miss, there was at least one whose loss would make my life seriously inconvenient.

It is possible to recover files from a formatted hard drive because they are not actually deleted and should be recoverable providing that no new files are written over the top of the old ones. That was what happened when Windows started to install itself on the drive but I had to hope that the vital files were still intact.

I went onto the Internet and found a program called Recover My Files (recovermyfiles.com) which has a very cunning marketing scheme. You can download it for free and, so as not to overwrite any files, you install it on a different hard drive to the one you want to recover files from.

After scanning the hard drive for a long time, it gives you a list of the files it has found and, after you pay $69.95, it saves the files for you in another location. The cost seems a little steep but the truth is that you don’t mind at all, when it tells you that it has found the files you thought gone for good.

I ended up getting my vital file back and quite a lot of the picture files I had been working on in the week before the event. A few of the recovered files turned out to be unusable but it seems that, when Recover My Files thinks it can restore a file, it usually can.

Luckily, my backups onto DVD disc had been pretty thorough and so I only ended losing non-vital stuff but my lapse into palookadom has reminded me of the importance of backing up.

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The beauty is a beast

Late addition:
This article had already gone to print when I had a look on Internet for other reviews of the product and found that there were none. I was alarmed to discover that the Toshiba Satellite A300-1QE seemed only to be available in South Africa and Romania and was not listed on the A300 specification sheet. I had dreadful visions of obsolete machines being dumped on unsuspecting Banana Republic consumers (and me endorsing them) so I was relieved to hear from Toshiba’s product manager Reon Coetzee that the machines were specially built for the Europe, Middle East and African region. The only difference between them and the other Satellite A300 models is that they offer users the choice of installing their operating system with French as the default language. The hardware components are the same as in the other models and they fall under Toshiba’s World Guarantee. Another thing I learned is that laptop models have a shelf-life of three months; not that they’ll only last that long, but it’s how long before a new model arrives.

It’s not all that often that I get to review computer hardware so the arrival the other week of a Toshiba laptop was very welcome.

The particular machine is the Satellite A300-1QE and it arrived in a very stylish backpack which had kept it safe from harm during the journey from the agents to my door. It is quite a large laptop and is finished in glossy shades of black and charcoal which extend even to the keyboard.

I had little problem deciphering the little symbols on all the buttons and expansion ports on the machine but I guess that people with with poor eyesight could have some difficulty in making them out against the dark colour scheme.

The glamorous-looking laptop is also pretty potent and comes with a 250 GB hard drive, a large 15.4 inch screen, Harman Kardon speakers, and 2 GB of RAM. Built in is a DVD Super Multi Drive compatible with just about any disc, and it lets you burn both CDs and DVDs as well.

It has wide variety of expansion sockets and interfaces including plugs for an external monitor, S-Video TV-out, iLink (IEEE 1394), external microphone and headphones, WebCam and microphone, a slot for memory cards, and four USB ports. Included is an ExpressCard slot, which I’d never heard of, but which is apparently a descendant of the old PCMCIA slots.

In this day and age, it comes as no surprise to know that the laptop is provided with built-in Bluetooth, WiFi, and a standard network socket. In the time available, I was unable to test the machine’s wireless networking capabilities but I did plug it into my home network and it was able to access the Internet without any intervention on my part.

In using the A300-1QE, I found that it seemed to work well and require little fiddling. For example, I inserted an SD memory card with pictures from my camera into the correct slot and, in a moment or two, the computer offered to download them. I also inserted a sound CD and it gave me the choice of either playing or copying the music to my hard drive.

The A300 runs on the dreaded Windows Vista which irritated me in some ways but which nevertheless seemed to work pretty well. I guess that Vista has had time to mature and that it makes a difference when using a computer designed for it, with plenty of power to spare.

Back in 2000, I had a Toshiba laptop and was impressed with its design and build quality and the A300 did nothing to to change that first favourable impression of Toshiba products. The thing that amazes me is how far laptops have come despite the fact that, at around R13000, the A300 is R2000 cheaper, and many orders of magnitude more powerful than my old machine was.

I would be very pleased to own a Satellite A300-1QE with the slight reservation that I would first look at the rest of the Toshiba range to see if I could find a model that perhaps didn’t look quite as shiny.

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Going gadget crazy

One of the most eagerly awaited events on the gadget lover’s calendar is the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Nevada.

This year’s show featured hosts and hosts of desirable gadgets but probably one of the most noteworthy announcements was by Microsoft, who announced the arrival of Windows 7 any time in the next year or so. They announced that a beta version of the new package would be available for free download from the Microsoft website the following day, January 10.

The news caused a great deal of excitement in computer circles and, hardly had the new Windows been put up on the Internet, than the huge demand crashed Microsoft’s servers. Things got back to normal after a couple of days and users were downloading the new Windows which, it would seem, was receiving a pretty enthusiastic reception.

Windows 7 has apparently been designed to work faster than was the case with Vista and also on lower specification machines. Among the new features is an improved taskbar which displays buttons for all the programs that you have open on the computer and will now allow you to re-arrange the buttons in any order. Clicking on the wordprocessing icon on the taskbar for instance, will call up a jump list consisting of all the documents that you have worked on recently.

One of the major new departures in Windows 7 is the fact that it is being designed to be used with a touch-screen so that, for example, you could operate the computer without a mouse just by touching its screen. You will, of course, also need a screen that has touch-screen technology built-in and it does remain to be seen whether a touch-screen will work better for you than a mouse.

Microsoft said it would limit the numbers who could download the beta version of Windows 7 to about 2.5 million users but, at the time of writing, it was still available on the Windows 7 website. Before plunging ahead and installing it, however, it must be remembered that it is still in its beta test phase and will therefore be loaded with bugs.

It would be far too risky to install it on a computer used for work because the chance of a disaster would just be too great. There’s absolutely nothing to stop you downloading and installing Windows 7, however, providing you have spare computer to do it on and enough bandwidth to download the rather large installation files.

One of the most annoying things for me about watching television is the constantly changing sound volumes when you go from programmes to ads, or even from one station to another, and you keep having to change the volume setting on the TV. It’s an irritation and can be a major problem for people who are hard of hearing and who do not easily tolerate quick changes in volume.

It seems that our sound woes may be at an end one of these days because, also at CES, were a couple of television sets produced by Toshiba which incorporate a new technology called Dolby Volume. The Dolby website describes Dolby Volume as “an innovative approach to delivering consistent volume levels across a wide variety of content, channel programming, or input sources”.

Also on display at CES were Sony televisions which have rather reversed the current situation between them and their owners, by watching the owners as avidly as the owner watches them. The sets will switch themselves off in order to save power when they detect that the viewer has left the room or fallen asleep.

One last item that caught my eye from CES was a Victrinox Swiss Army knife designed for people doing business presentations. They have 32 GB of memory, a built-in laser for using as a pointer during presentations, and a Bluetooth button which can be used as a mouse. I was amused to see that there are versions of the knife without a blade but I suppose that’s par for the course in these days when a knife could get you arrested on an aeroplane.

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Doing the video thing

Making my own videos has never been a great priority for me although I have now started to think that it would be a good idea for use in documenting interviews which have historical.

There is an awful lot but I don’t know about video, and I haven’t often used a video camera. so I was pleased when I was offered the chance to review Toshiba’s Camileo PRO HD camcorder. It is a very compact little machine which is which is a trifle unconventional in shape, being about the size of a small brick of margarine stood on end, with a screen that flips out from the side, so that you can see what you’re recording.

The Camileo records in high-definition format (1280×720 pixels) but it supports other lesser formats such as VGA or QVGA. Video or still pictures are recorded onto SD card and can be replayed through a television or downloaded to a computer. One nifty trick is that the Camileo can upload video clips directly to YouTube if you connect it to an internet-enabled computer.

I soon had the camcorder unpacked from its neat packaging and had it working as soon as I had figured out the instructions. The machine turns out to be pretty simple to use but, unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said for the instruction manual which accompanies it.

Holding the camcorder ion one hand and the instructions in the other, I did eventually manage to take some test videos. Once that was done, I connected the machine to my TV and got it to replay the videos I just taken.

The quality seemed to pretty good, at least to my inexpert eye, and so I decided that I would take the camera with me the next day to record the visit I was going to make to the old whaling station on the Bluff. I duly filmed the ruined buildings, which are all that remain of that once vibrant industrial site, and need not have been quite so selective about what I filmed because I hardly made a dent in the battery and a 2Gb SD card.

Having a lot of video clips on the camera is only half the battle, however, because you then have to download them onto your computer and create some sort of coherent whole from bits and pieces you’ve recorded. The software supplied with the camera is called Nero Vision Essentials, which is a scaled-down video editor which you can use to assemble video clips into movies.

After copying all the clips onto the computer, and opening them in Nero Vision, I found it very easy to put each of them onto a timeline so that they play one after each other. You do get an opportunity to trim the clips and you can add sound, special effects, transitions between clips, and titles to your movie very easily.

All in all, I found the Camelio PRO HD camcorder to be a very neat little item of kit and one which would doubtless be great for documenting family events and holidays, or whatever have you. It is small enough to put in a pocket and light enough so that, even with an extra battery or two, it wouldn’t be hassle to carry all day.

I liked the Camileo but a problem was the flip-out screen which was difficult to view in very bright light, making it difficult to frame my subject properly. If I were buying a camcorder for myself, I would want one of the ones with a little eyepiece on a stalk that shades the viewing screen.

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**So easy your granny can use it

For more years than I can shake a stick at, I’ve been going to listen to speeches or interview people and then having to go home or back to the office and write up a story.

It’s easy enough to do if you’re in a one-on-one interview and you write down the interviewee’s responses to your questions, but things are a bit more difficult when it comes to listening to a speech in an auditorium, and you can’t control the speed at which people speak. The best you can do is write fast, develop a good memory and, a trick of the trade, rush up to the podium at the conclusion of the speech and grab the speaker’s notes.

As an aid to memory, I did try to use a cassette recorder but I found it was too cumbersome and generally the tapes would run out just when you got to the interesting part. On the last two press trips I went on, however, I met other members of the media who use digital voice recorders to record speeches and interviews.

This looked like a jolly good idea, so I popped down to my local electronics store to see what they could offer me. It seems that camera-maker Olympus is one of the major brands in digital voice recorders. The assistant showed me a number of models ranging in price from R400 upwards with varying features and recording capacities.

I eventually settled on an Olympus WS-110 DS, which is a tiny little recorder not much bigger than a cigarette lighter, but which can record high quality speech for 17.5 hours. It has a built-in microphone and speaker, which give good results but an external microphone will improve the quality, as will playing recordings back through headphones or a computer with speakers.

I was soon in action with my new toy when I paid a visit to the whaling station on the Bluff in Durban and had the good fortune to be able to interview whaling skipper Rolf Larsen. I was amazed at the high quality of the recordings that you get out of such a tiny machine and, even though the interview went on in noisy surroundings, I had no trouble reviewing what was said.

I am finding it extremely valuable in all sorts of interview situations, to be able to go back and refer to exactly what was said and by whom. The recorder has not replaced taking notes with pen and paper, in some cases, is all I need, but it’s still a comfort to have a recording available.

The unit has an integrated USB connector on it for downloading the recordings you’ve made into your computer, where you can listen to them. The recorder is able to store files in any of five different folders, which allows you to keep the files for different projects separate.

I was a bit disappointed to find that my usual sound player and editor, Audacity, does not yet support the .WMA sound format produced by the recorder. After a quick look on the Internet however, I found a wonderful new program called Free Audio Editor (free-audio-editor.com), whose name gives you a pretty good idea of how much it costs.

I was very quickly able to download the interview file, listen to it and produce a version with an introduction and the irrelevant chatter cut out. Free Audio Editor is a great little program that only seems to have one slight snag; it can import all sorts of different sound file formats, but can only output sound files in .WAV format. If that’s a problem, you can always upgrade to the deluxe version for $29.95, and output sound in any format you want.

**The blurb says that Free Audio Editor is so easy to use, that even your granny can do so. They didn’t know my granny, clearly, but the program is really very easy to use.

One unexpected little bonus is that the Olympus WS-110 DS came with a copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking Recorder Edition 9.5. The purpose of this software is to transcribe dictation you’ve recorded, into a word processor. I won’t say too much about the program this time, because both it and I are still in a steep learning curve, but I will return to it in the very near future.

Previous columns at allan-fishnet.blogspot.com.


Elonex One

A website, www.elonexone.co.uk, reveals that the Elonex One ultra-compact laptop will be available later this year in the UK at the incredible price of £99.

It apparently weighs less than a kilo, has a 15cm screen, full networking capabilities, USB ports, a memory card slot, a Linux operating system, a selection of programs, and a battery that lasts four hours. It is mainly aimed at the education market but the makers reckon it’ll be quite fine for people who want a cheap and cheerful portable to send e-mail, surf the Internet, or create documents.

I’ve mentioned that I recently played with the Asus Eee PC laptop, which has quite similar specifications to the Elonex One, and if was anything to go by, the One will be a viable machine. I’d think that it is going to be very popular when it comes out, barring exploding batteries or any other production problem.

I’m finding the arrival of these cheap compact laptops fascinating for a couple of reasons including their hardware, which is pretty puny when compared to today’s entry-level PC. Many users are going to find, to their surprise, that the compact PCs are plenty for they want and that they really don’t need expensive dual cores and gigabytes of memory.

Some users will need, or want, more powerful machines but I think cheap compacts are going to put some kind of dent in the market for higher-spec PCs. The other factor to be borne in mind about these compacts is that they do not have Windows or other Microsoft programs installed on them.

The vast bulk of computer users have routinely acquired their computers along with a copy of Windows which, if they were honest, they paid through the nose for. Most haven’t even known that there was an alternative operating system but now, there are going to be lots of people exposed to Linux.

Can you imagine the result, say, of the managing director of a firm watching his daughter doing her homework using her free Linux operating system and free Open Office suite of programs, and then getting to work to be faced with a stiff invoice for the latest Windows and Microsoft Office upgrade for all his workers?

The momentum towards Linux increased recently when IBM announced that it has gotten together with firms in Eastern Europe to supply Microsoft-free PCs to organisations in Russia. The PCs will be loaded with Red Hat Linux and IBM Lotus Symphony software, which includes word processor, spreadsheet and presentation programs.

I should think that Microsoft will find a way to survive and prosper but I can’t help remembering that they also thought that about Agfa and Minolta.

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Kindling a passion for reading

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been talking about some great new products which I got to see.

They were a compact non-Windows laptop and an electronic book reader, which particularly took my fancy. You can find the original articles in my archive at the address given at the bottom of this article.

During the course of my research on the iRrex iLiad reader, I came across the information that there were a couple of other similar products available including one from online retail giant Amazon.

The Amazon Kindle has only been available in the USA but is apparently due for release in the UK sometime soon. It is currently out of stock so I guess that the launch will happen as soon as more become available.

The main difference between the two readers is that, with the Kindle, you do not even need to own a computer. It communicates with Amazon’s book, newspaper and magazine store using wireless technology.

You can buy your reading material from anywhere where there is mobile coverage and it is delivered wirelessly to your unit. There is a wide selection of stuff available ranging from bestsellers to newspapers and magazines, such as Time and Fortune, and a selection of popular blogs.

The unit will display most types of text document and you can get them onto your Kindle by sending them to Amazon by e-mail which converts and relays them, at a small charge, to your unit via wireless.

Amazon mean you to use the wireless function but you can transfer files, including audio books, manually from your computer to the unit. Documents still have to be sent to Amazon to be converted and are mailed back to you so that you can put them on your machine.

The use of wireless is pretty clever and convenient if you happen to live in a service area but, for the rest of us, the Kindle is just an interesting idea. It would have been so much better if it had also had a web facility built-in so that it could be used anywhere in the world.

I suppose Amazon thought there would be more money in limiting the product to wireless and in forcing you to convert documents before it will display them.

It’s a diametrically different approach to that of iRex who made the iLiad reader as open as possible and capable of displaying web feeds and just about any document you can throw at it. The down side to that, for some people perhaps, is that you do need a computer to upload stuff to your iLiad

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t write off the Kindle if I had the opportunity to own one and would certainly enjoy being able to pick and choose between various models of electronic reader. I’ve said before that, having seen the technology, I’m convinced its going to take off like a rocket when the readers come down in price.

If I ran a bookstore, for example, I would be looking closely at the technology and figuring out how I could get involved and avoid being one of the ones who get left behind.

Previous columns at allan-fishnet.blogspot.com.