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Archive for February, 2009

Kindle 2: Hands-on impressions

Posted by comtech3 on February 11, 2009

February 9, 2009 3:20 PM PST

by David Carnoy

While Amazon isn’t doling out review samples of its new Kindle 2 digital reader for a few weeks, I did get a chance to play with it at the launch event and come away with some first impressions.

Let me start by saying that the Kindle 2 is a nice upgrade over the original Kindle, but we’re not talking a jump from, say, black-and-white television to color, so early adopters who own the original Kindle shouldn’t feel too dejected.

Yes, the Kindle 2 is thinner–it measures a svelte 0.36 inches at its thickest point–and weighs in at 10.2 ounces. It also has 25 percent improved battery life and is about 20 percent faster, thanks to an upgraded processor. And it’s got 16 shades of gray instead of 4, so the text pops a little more. But this is an evolution, not a revolution.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is the height and width of the new Kindle. Some people have complained that the original Kindle should have been shorter and forgone the keyboard, like the Sony Reader. Whether you’re a fan of the keyboard or not, it’s worth noting that the Kindle 2 is about the same size as the original, measuring 8 inches top to bottom. According to the specs, the screen itself is a 6-inch, diagonal, E-Ink, electronic-paper display, with 600×800 pixel resolution at 167 ppi.

One gripe that Amazon has clearly addressed is the issue with the page-advance button. On the original Kindle, that button was extra long and easy to depress, which meant it was very easy to accidentally turn pages. On the Kindle 2, the page-turn buttons are smaller, and in playing with the device I noticed that it took a bit more effort to actually click the button and advance a page.

Amazon has upped the amount of onboard memory to 2GB (from 256MB), so you can store up to 1,500 books or assorted newspaper and blog subscriptions, as well as JPEG images. But unfortunately, it left out an expansion slot for additional memory. Like the earlier model, this one can play back MP3 files, but 2GB is pretty skimpy when you start getting into multiple albums with high bit rates–so think in terms of storing only your favorite songs or albums and not your entire music library.

I noticed a few other design changes. The on/off button and headphone jack have been placed at the top of the device, which makes both easier to access (the wireless on/off is now a toggle in the menu system, not a physical button, which is also good).

There’s a USB port at the bottom of the device that doesn’t look like your standard USB port; rather it’s of the micro-USB variety, similar to the ones you find on Bluetooth headsets. You charge the unit and manually transfer files from your computer to the device via this port. I say “manually” because the Kindle 2 has the same free-of-charge, Sprint, high-speed data connection–Amazon calls it Whispernet–that allows you to make wireless book purchases in the Kindle Store, surf the Web, or have files, periodical subscription, and blogs delivered to your device over the air. Alas, the wireless aspects of the device still only work in America–and there’s no word on a European or Asian version of the Kindle.

The original Kindle had a little rolling wheel to assist with navigation. The Kindle 2 moves to a five-way rocker button that’s more straightforward and helps solve some–but not all–of the quirky navigational issues the device has.

Amazon has made some nice tweaks to the interface and made it easier to access the embedded dictionary to look words up. But it’s far from a total revamp, so you’re still left with moments when you’re not sure whether you should go forward or back or which button you should hit to get to where you want to go. In other words, it’s not entirely intuitive, so Kindle newbies will have to play around with the device for a day or two to really get the hang of it (that’s pretty good, all things considered).

In many ways, these types of devices lend themselves to a touch-screen interface (that way, you can go to a virtual keyboard and shrink the device) and Sony went that route with its PRS-700 Reader.

Unfortunately, in going to a touch screen, Sony managed to lose some contrast and has run into some snags with glare issues. So, until the engineers improve the E-ink touch-screen technology, Amazon has made the right choice with its nontouch display, though some CNET readers are waiting for color, especially when it comes to Web surfing. (It’s worth noting that the Sony PRS-700 allegedly has the same processor as the Kindle 2’s, so they should run at very similar speeds).

At the press conference, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made it a point to highlight two new features. The first is Whispersync, which gives you the ability to sync two or more Kindle devices and “allows you to seamlessly switch back and forth between your Kindle devices while keeping your reading location synchronized” and pick up in a book where you left off. The word is this feature will eventually apply to other wireless mobile devices, though no details were given at the launch–and no mention of the iPhone (not yet anyway).

The second is called “Read-to-me,” a new “experimental” feature that allows you to have text read to you (this would come in handy if you were driving, for instance). In the onstage demo, the reading sounded really good, but in my brief tests there was still a pronounced robotic element to it. In other words, don’t expect to get a true audiobook experience, though you can choose between a male or female digitized voice.

One warning: Unlike its predecessor, the Kindle 2 doesn’t ship with a protective carrying case. The case that was included with the original was mediocre at best, but it’s too bad Amazon has chosen to ship the Kindle 2 completely naked. So, while the price of the Kindle 2 is $359, you can expect to tack on another $20-$30 for a protective case. Amazon’s Kindle 2 case will run you $29.99.

That gripe aside, the Kindle 2 is a nice upgrade over the original and I think those who waited for this new model to arrive will be happy they did. But remember, these are only our initial first impressions and as always, we’ll wait to pass final judgment until we get our review sample and put the product through more rigorous testing.

Editor’s note: The first batch of Kindle 2s are scheduled to ship out February 24 and word is that people who ordered the original Kindle during the holiday season (or even more recently) will receive the new model.


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Door shutting on Windows 7 beta

Posted by comtech3 on February 11, 2009

February 10, 2009 7:31 AM PST

by Ina Fried

Correction at 10:45 a.m. PST: The ability to start downloading the beta ended at the start of Tuesday.

The clock is ticking for those that want to play around with the Windows 7 beta.

Microsoft issued a late reminder on Monday that people had only until midnight Pacific time to start downloading the operating system.

Those who started their download in time have until 9 a.m. PST Thursday to finish the process, Microsoft has said. Those who went to the site on Tuesday were able to get a product key, but not the code itself.

“We’re sorry, but downloads are no longer available,” Microsoft says when users click through from the download page.

The betta fish, the unofficial mascot of the Windows 7 beta.

(Credit: CNET News)

Although the beta version will cease being available to the general public, members of Microsoft’s MSDN and TechNet developer programs will continue to have access to the code.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced the Windows 7 Beta at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. After a slight hiccup, Microsoft made the code available on January 10.

The software maker has said the next test version of Windows 7 will be a near-final “release candidate” version, although it has not said when to expect that to arrive. Officially Microsoft has said that the final version of Windows 7 will come by the end of January 2010, although the company has been aiming to get it done in time to be on PCs that ship for this year’s holiday-shopping season.

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Microsoft offers to just ‘Fix it’

Posted by comtech3 on February 6, 2009

February 5, 2009 4:00 AM PST

Posted by Ina Fried

When people encounter a problem with their PC, they often go to the Web and do a search to see if others have had the problem. If they are lucky, someone has found a fix and listed the steps on either a support document or within a user forum.

Now, they may have an even better option.

Over the past six weeks, Microsoft has quietly added a “Fix it” button to a few of the thousands of help documents on its Web site. When clicked, the computer then takes all the recommended steps automatically.

An example of the “Fix it” button that has started showing up in some Microsoft help documents, offering users a one-click solution.

(Credit: CNET News)

“If we know what those 15 steps are why shouldn’t we just script it,” said Lori Brownell, Microsoft’s general manager of product quality and online support

The “Fix it” option is still fairly rare, showing up in around 100 different help documents. The effort is growing rapidly, though, up from just four such fixes when the program quietly began in December.

Microsoft continues to offer users the option of doing things on their own if they either don’t trust Microsoft or just like being in control.

“We’re not trying to hide anything,” she said.

The first fixes included a number of common issues, including restoring a missing Internet Explorer icon to the desktop, how to enable the DVD library in Vista’s Windows Media Center as well as what to do when encountering the error message in Street & Trips 2008 that “Construction information for routes could not be downloaded”

For now, Microsoft is having to go back and search its archives to see which of its problem solving tips can be automated. Eventually, it hopes to create the automated fixes at the same time the help articles are created.

Where it can, Microsoft is also adding the “Fix it” option into the error reporting tool built into Windows. Initially, all users could do when a program crashed was send a report to Microsoft. More recently, the system has started checking to see if there is any information on the issue. Next up, said Brownell, is offering the option to have the issue solved automatically.

Long term, the company has even broader hopes.

While it would like to just eliminate bugs and glitches, Brownell said that is not an attainable goal.

“We’d love for our customers to never have problems,” she said. “We’ll never ship bug-free software as hard as we try.”

Instead, she said she is aiming for a day when Microsoft’s products themselves will be able to spot problems and proactively offer fixes. As an example, she noted that in Exchange, it’s a pretty safe bet that once one gets low on disk space, bad things will happen. Making sure that users take action before problems occur is an example where the company is headed.

Another example, she said, would be for Microsoft to be able to notify users if they are running two drivers that others have found to conflict with one another. Assuming the appropriate privacy safeguards were in place, Brownell said it would be great for the user to be alerted and offered a fix before a problem occurred.

That proactive world is still largely a vision rather than a reality. That said, Brownell said that the company is putting in place some of the plumbing necessary to make such things possible.

With Windows 7, Microsoft has added an “action center” that Brownell said offers the underlying capability needed to serve up fixes within the operating system. She said that she would expect some opportunities for that over the life of the product, though the current beta version of Windows 7 has few examples of that.

Personally, I’d just like to see the “Fix it” button extended to other areas of my life. I’d really like one that would make travel plans, fill out my expense reports and hire a plumber. That would make me (and my partner) much happier.

For what would you like to see a “fix it” button?

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Bump up your old iPod to 240GB

Posted by comtech3 on February 6, 2009

February 4, 2009 2:54 PM PST

Posted by Donald Bell

Photo of Toshiba iPod hard drive.

I’ll catch some hell for saying it, but Apple’s fifth-generation iPod (aka the iPod Video) is one of the best hard-drive MP3 players of all time.

Say what you will about sound quality or the easily scratched screen, compared with today’s iPod models the 5G iPod has a lot of advantages: it’s compatible with just about every iPod accessory ever made; video output is built right in; you can use it with older computers and old versions of iTunes; and there are countless ways to hack and modify it. Unfortunately, the old guy just doesn’t offer enough storage.

Don’t throw out that old 5G just yet. Rapid Repair now offers a 240GB replacement hard drive specifically made for the 5G iPod (iPod Classic and Zune users will have to look elsewhere). Granted, the drive will set you back $294, but it could be worthwhile if you just can’t live without your entire music collection in your pocket or you insist on listening to large lossless audio files.

I could also see the justification for upgrading if you’ve already invested in a lot of iPod accessories (speakers, car stereos, video docks) that won’t work with new iPod models due to differences in voltage or video output. Spending $300 to upgrade an MP3 player you love makes much more sense than spending the same money to upgrade all your perfectly good iPod accessories.

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Windows 7 will come in many flavors

Posted by comtech3 on February 4, 2009

February 3, 2009 9:50 AM PST

Posted by Ina Fried

Despite criticism that Windows Vista came in too many versions, Microsoft is moving ahead with plans to offer just as many editions of Windows 7.

Although the software maker will offer at least six distinct versions of the new operating system, Microsoft said to expect almost all PCs sold in the U.S. to come with either the Home Premium or Professional editions of the operating system.


(Credit: Microsoft)

“We’re going to focus on two versions,” Microsoft Senior Vice President Bill Veghte said in an interview, noting that those two versions will likely account for 80 percent of Windows 7 sales.

Still, versions of Windows 7 will include: Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. Unlike with Vista, however, the Home Basic version will be sold only in emerging markets.

So, if Microsoft is going to focus on two, why bother with all of the other versions? Veghte says it comes down to the fact that there are just so many places in which Windows is sold.

For emerging markets, for example, Microsoft needs to have lower-priced versions. As a result, Microsoft plans the severely limited Windows 7 Starter as well as the bare bones, but relatively full-featured home basic version. Volume license customers will be able to get an enterprise version that includes BitLocker encryption and a couple of other enterprise-only features. For consumers who really want access to those features, there will again be an Ultimate version of the operating system.

That’s not to say Microsoft is doing everything the same with Windows 7. Veghte said that Microsoft learned some important lessons from Vista.

One specific criticism with the Vista packages was the fact that there were features in Home Premium that weren’t in the pricier Vista Business edition. With Windows 7, each higher-priced version will be a superset of the other versions. For example, the Professional version of Windows 7 includes Windows Media Center.

Also, Microsoft will make it easier to move from one version to another. With Vista, Microsoft introduced the notion of being able to easily upgrade from one version to another, though a special upgrade disk was needed. Windows 7, despite its many versions, will actually come as a single piece of code, or image. That means all the features will come loaded onto a Windows 7 PC, ready to be unlocked with an upgrade product key.

As for the specific versions, Windows 7 Starter has some of the key features of WIndows 7, such as the new taskbar, but not the live thumbnail previews. It is also limited to three applications running at a time and will have limitations on the kinds of screen resolutions and processors it will support.

Home Basic, which will be sold only in emerging markets, removes the screen size, processor, and open application limits and adds support for Internet connection sharing and the new sensor and location-based features. However, Home Basic lacks such things as multitouch support or the Aero interface. DVD playback and Windows Media Center are also found in the Home Premium and Professional editions, but not in Basic or Starter.

The ability to use presentation mode or join a domain are two examples of features that are found in Windows 7 Professional, but not in any of the home versions. Finally, you’ll need either Ultimate or Enterprise for a few features, such as DirectAccess, BitLocker, or booting from a virtual hard drive.

Regardless of the rationale, having so many versions of Windows 7–not to mention any additional versions mandated by antitrust regulators around the world–will certainly open Microsoft up to additional criticism and probably some mocking from the folks in Cupertino.

To some degree, the customization is necessary. After all, while Apple may boast of only having one version–it essentially targets only the high end of the consumer market–the segment served by Home Premium.

However, the need for an Ultimate version, particularly now that the Professional version will have Media Center and other consumer features, seems somewhat dubious.

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