Tips Hot off the wire & tickels our editors' fancies...

Print those digi-pix — up to magazine-size bleeds!

The new Canon i9100 photo-optimized printer ($499) arrives in June with some fresh tricks up its sleeve, like 13x19" borderless prints that look & feel like photos. Watch it produce a borderless 4x6 in about 37 seconds, 8x10 in about a minute. More than 3,000 nozzles, 6 ink tanks, 74 million droplets per second & other tech tricks make this little performer worth your attention. [And, did you catch Canon's latest camera, out last month? The new Canon PowerShot G5 ($899) boats a 5Mp CCD, 4X optical zoom, swivel LCD, hot shoe & an arsenal of advanced exposure, balance & creative controls.] Canon has a bang-up website, www.powershot.com, aimed at selecting the right mix of Canon products; not a bad place to get a good general overview of current industry options and features, as well.

On the other hand, for people who need to grab still images from video sources: The JVC GV-CB3U JLIP video capture box ($300) grabs frames from its composite or S-video inputs as 640x480x24-bit JPG or BMP images (serial port). Use batteries (6 AAA) when mobile, an adapter at the desk, to get the quick shots you want from sources you already have.

PC Graphics Goes Hollywood — That's Entertainment...

PC-as-Media-Center: There's been a price cut on the HP Media Center 884 PC (to about $2,300). That's the news hook that lets you consider what it has, like a 3.06GHz P4, 512MB DDR, DVD+RW combo CD-RW & 48X CD drive, 6-in-1 camera memory card reader, PVR TV card, 128MB GeForce4, THX certified Klipsch ProMedia 5.1 speaker system & more. Here's PC Theater with nothing to add (unless you want to).

If you develop for this kind of environment (or just do the stuff at home, to make really super home movies?...): The hardware to perform real-time Dolby encoding (for noiseless all-digital PC audio outputs, even from games) is already built into the mother boards (like many Intel models) with the SoundMax 4 chip set. The missing piece is a high-level driver, but including it would involve paying a license to Dolby. That's a roughly $10 hit on price that the motherboard makers don't want to take (makes them less competitive). Microsoft doesn't seem eager to add that cost to Windows. But some third parties (PC Theater types) are looking at bundling the necessary software with add-on audio gear. ANALOG DEVICES (Santa Clara CA), www.analog.com for the skinny?

KLIPSCH REFERENCE SATELLITES FOR PC THEATER: As PC's become entertainment appliances (as well...), especially for the home-office types, you want serious desktop speakers. Great names have been available; the speakers have been a bit better, but.... Klipsch claims a serious, no-compromise product. Only high-end audio specialty retailers sell Klipsch's "reference" models; places like Best Buy sell the PC-specific ProMedia series. Coming soon, a line of physically smaller Klipsch Reference Series satellite speakers has the biggest sound you can fit on a desktop. These passive speakers need a separate surround receiver to drive them. Since they're only available at audiophile merchants, where PC people seldom go, the challenge is to make their audio experience so compelling that you can't help but enthuse, contagiously. Not quite so audiophile? Strictly a computer-guy? First Klipsch got you thinking about upgrading from those $10 computer store speakers to the very much better sound of ProMedia ($200- 500) & now it's time for the next step. A Quintet ($500 for 5- channel, $900 for 5.1) set brings a volume, crispness, clarity & fidelity that we doubt you've ever heard or expected from a PC. Only your sound card won't drive them - you need a separate consumer component audio surround amplifier (or receiver) for that.

JVC takes this home-theatre/PC thing very seriously. Maybe it's the space problems in Japanese houses (not your average daimyo's-castle); maybe it's that often-demonstrated Japanese penchant for neatness. But: JVC created the compact JVC DS-TP380 ($330) for home theater systems. Complete with a 5.1 receiver & speakers, it's a great fit for complete PC Theater. With the 6" subwoofer tucked wherever it fits, the 5 full-range satellites are smaller than many tissue boxes. The company has thought through other components needed for this complete approach: The JVC Model JX-S111 ($150)is a good solution to video-bank switching. It routes 2 composite video inputs, 2 S inputs & 3 component inputs to 1 composite output, 1 S output & a monitor. The JX-S555 ($650) adds discrete audio & optical connections & a few other goodies. The JX-S777 ($800) boasts 8 A/V inputs, 2 component inputs, 5 A/V outputs, 2 monitor outputs & 3 digital Firewire I/O connections. Then there is the whole question of tape vs. optical-disk. DVD may be the buzz-word on lots of folks' lips, but tape has always proven easier, and often cheaper. JVC is speeding up the brand new market for D-VHS with dealer promos in 10 cities. This format means playing back and/or recording HDTV (1080i) at full quality. Blank tape cassettes are $15-25 for up to 4 hours of HD content & record at up to 28Mbps (a movie-length tape holds about 50GB). The JVC HM-DH30000 D-VHS recorder ($600 street) makes it all happen; is it as much a next big thing for PC Theater as it is for Home Theater? Nice tool for the studio-guy, too.

PC (not TV) people may not care about this until next year, when Microsoft has HDTV features on its road map, but sales data from audio/visual outlets may have some influence. This from Crutchfield, in Charlotte, VA: Big screen & most especially HDTV (16:9) compatible wide screens are a very strong category right now, but the details may surprise you. Bigger LCD & plasma screens are not the category winners; direct view CRT (picture tube) & projection displays still lead. Perhaps price has something to do with that, with customers wanting to upgrade their viewing while maintaining some control over spending; does that sound like a phenomenon you're seeing elsewhere? And yes, most of the models being bought can be used as both TV & PC monitors. Ooooooo....

Connecting with MAC OS X

by Rhona Gutierrez

It's something you hear a lot: "I can't use [name of peripheral] with OSX, so I won't change over." This is a real complaint, and one that neither Apple nor peripheral-makers have been quick to address. Almost always, the issue is drivers. Sometimes the problem is just how to plug in a PC peripheral to a MAC computer. Both these issues are not going to get easier, as Apple's market share continues to slip and the company itself redefines its business.

On the other hand, there are solutions. Here are a couple for printing.

Because Apple has adopted Unix for its operating system, a lot of open-source developers are paying attention. GIMP-Print for Mac OSX (http://gimp-print.sourceforge.net/) is a good example. Initially intended for use with GIMP, the open-source graphics program, GIMP-Print has evolved into a very large set of printer-drivers. Because this is intended for use in an open-source world, the software supports both Ghostscript and the Common Unix Printing System (CUPS) which Apple licenses and builds into OSX. Effectively, this means Mac-users can choose which printing strategy to use, regardless of printer. Ghostscript delivers excellent PostScript printing even on dumb (non-PS) printers; CUPS is native to OSX. For those of us who're users, not techies, GIMP-Print sports a "foomatic" simplified installer and support for 300 printers, including Epson, HP and Lexmark models.

The other problem: Connecting — especially older — PC printers with their parallel interfaces to newer Macs. A firm called Keyspan has a solution. The company's $39 parallel-to-USB cable couples with free-for-download software. According to Keyspan, the "secret" is in that software. Plug in the cable, run the software and buddabing! you can print.

"Though other manufacturers offer USB parallel printer adapters, none of them have developed software which makes it easy to add a parallel printer to the Print Center", noted Mike Ridenhour, president at Keyspan. "Our solution is ideal for PC users switching to a Mac and is also useful in schools and offices."

Keyspan's hardware/software combination is compatible with GIMP-Print.

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In the Bag: The Computer Bag You Want to Have

by Yen Shu Huey

TECHXNY — formerly PCExpo (which remains as a part of what is a smaller event) — had the best show bag I have ever seen, of all the shows I've attended, and only matched by one given out by Tektronix in 1987. The TECXNY bag was produced by Case Closed. I don't much like black nylon — too left-coast techy-nerdy, too obviously a target for computer thieves. This bag was black, and I liked it fine. [I also don't much like flashing other folks' logos; the TECHXNY and Case Closed logos on this bag were handsomely done, enhancing the look rather than just being offensive.]

Case Closed partners April Lockhart and Debra Wong know the computer business pretty well, it seems. They were tired of having to carry the usual computer bags — black, bulky, effectively modified overnight bags with which we're all familiar, which dangle from the shoulders of IT types with tape on glasses and mid-level executives whose ill-fitting suits are scrunched in interesting ways. The ladies set out to change all that.

The computer case handed out by TECHXNY seems to be the company's utility line. It is clearly a computer case (it's square and it's "armored"). It should take full-size notebooks easily and if yours is a small-format notebook, you'll have room for everything else you need for a day's work. The company's normal offering comes in a range of colors, with the logo embroidered in matching thread (elegant understatement). Customize this with add-on pouches in matching fabric for various things such as cell phones and PDAs.

The various tote-bag cases set this company apart. These are fine, well-designed ladies' bags — the kind of thing found at Crouch & Fitzgerald or elsewhere along Madison Avenue, and very definitely "executive suite". The company offers its "traditional" bags in colored leather — without too much stretch of the imagination, these could be "unisex".

Case Closed Bags
CaseClosed offers elegant computer bag designs for women in business. These are serious business cases with panache.

I am not stretching things too much when I say that Case Closed computer cases are almost without peer (I checked the competition). A couple premier luggage makers (e. g., Hartman) have produced handsome computer briefcases to match their signature designs. Other than that, the universe is populated by the grossly overpriced trite offerings bearing the labels of the well-known computer-peripheral makers or the laptop-maker's logo, and the odd offering from this or the other prominent clothing designer, intended to match that designer's wallets and belts.

Case Closed is a new kid on the block. It's competition is entrenched, and the computer industry is generally conservative (could have something to do with a general lack of personal style). Annoyingly, the company website (www.caseclosedbags.com) is only half done; since the company is unevenly represented in shops, it is hard to see all the things these women have, and make a purchase. So, two opportunities: Call Misses Lockhart and Wong and order a bag or two (or, bug your local shop), and maybe broker some deals with your friends who haven't twigged to this option yet (and make enough profit to buy yourself a couple neat bags for different parts of your life?).

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Little Things You Have to Have

by Donald Jenner

When I hear about Kensington, I think of computer memory products. True — but too narrow a view. I came away from visiting with Kensington at this year's PCExpo Showstoppers better educated, and with three neat things I find I cannot live without.

First, there is the PocketHub. This is a four-port USB hub with a short cord. It is intended for notebook computer users, and measures two inches square, and just shy of a half-inch thick. It is great with my Toshiba Portégé (even matches the color...) — but I also use it as a second extension-hub daisy-chained to my first hub on the desktop. It fits right where it needs to be, is entirely accessible, and requires no additional power for most uses. Wonderful, especially since my subnotebook has only one USB port and I have several items I want to use. $50.

Second, the FlyFan is the answer to a number of prayers. Have you noticed, those airline air-vents really don't work all the time? Have you noticed, ventilation on aircraft is really very poor? And so on? Part of this, we are told, is that airline pilots often throttle back on the A/C while in flight (saves fuel; oxy-starved passengers sleep and are less trouble; whatever...). Part of it is that these planes just don't have good air circulation systems. Take your notebook computer with you, and plug the FlyFan into the USB port. The little fan's gooseneck adjusts as you need it, and the little fan moves a lot of air. [This was not a bad thing, when the A/C when out at the office one day; guess what got plugged into the desktop USB port?...] The whole thing coils up to stick back in your notebook bag; the membrane-thin fan blades fold where they have to, and spin out properly, when the fan is used. $25.

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Third, the FlyLight puts a spotlight on the keyboard. When your airplane seat-mate sleeps, this is courteous. When making a presentation in a darkened room, this means seeing the computer keyboard (or little graphics tablet — so useful for writing on the screen when presenting...). Kensington has this in a couple different finishes (black and "platinum") and both white and red lights. $20.

These are good solutions, priced attractively. I see lots of things with $200. to $2000. pricetags, and the first question I ask is, what's the business reason for this item? On the one hand, I had no such qualms with the Kensington products I saw (in general, not just these); the prices just didn't give me pause, and the business reason was apparent. This strikes me as a recipe for success.

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Solving the CD Problem

by Donald Jenner

We are great fans of notebook computers here at CitiGraphics. We all have 'em. We installed WiFi just to make it easier to use 'em. On those days when we don't want to leave our comfy chairs, we stay home with the notebook. And so on. The story is a common one.

My personal choice in this (I get a choice; it's a management thing...) is a Toshiba Portégé. I bought my 3440 model a couple years ago, mainly because I am getting older and even seven pounds plus accessories (make that ten pounds...) is not as much fun as it was. The Portégé slips into a little sleeve I had made (a bit of extra padding), then into the leather envelope I carry when I need such a thing.

But this kind of slim, light subnotebook computer does not have a CD-ROM drive. I could get one — but that's another thing to carry.

V Communications (V-com) has the solution. Install CDAnywhere on the hard disk. Use this software to create compressed images of the CDs you need, and "mount" them to virtual-CD drives on your hard disk. Access the virtual drives just the way you would any other drive.

It does take time for CDAnywhere to compress the CD (but that compression can be controlled to some extent). There are some management things to do. You are going to use a good amount of hard disk space (a CD can account for around 650mb — though this is not normally the case); that's less an argument than it used to be, given the proliferation of 20gb hard disks in even small-format notebook computers (no one uses that much hard disk space, and if software vendors start thinking otherwise, they will be very very foolish indeed).

The only real downside is not having a CD-ROM drive for those ad-hoc occasions when one is away from the office. For any situation where one needs a repertory of CDs — standard symbol sets, good-sized databases, catalogues-on-disk, presentation graphics for building custom shows on the fly, &c. — CDAnywhere is just dandy.

CDAnywhere is just as interesting in the office, naturally. Hard disks are less fussy than CD drives, especially when set up in SCSI arrays. In our tests, the virtual CD drives were easily shared across the network. Among other real advantages: There is no "spin up" on a virtual CD drive, so access is at hard disk speeds — a special plus in network applications. For users with special company-wide datasets, this means that the master CD sits in a safe place, not out on a fragile computer.
Oh, and if you like music: CDAnywhere can manage MP3 conversion of your favorite audios.

Lan Management for the Rest of Us

by Donald Jenner

While it may not yet be (Bill Gates's view notwithstanding...), that the network is the computer (the old Sun tagline), it is fairly evident that if you have more than one computer they all should be connected in a network. Networks share scarce resources — Internet connections, printers, backup systems and so on. They facilitate communication. They are now cheap to establish. They are fairly easy to set up. They offer enhanced security. They are, as the lady says, good things.

Networking involves two elements. There is hardware and there is software (this should sound familiar...). After looking around for years, there's one network software solution I found for SOHO installations that I really like: Software602's 602pro LAN Suite. I've tried several. I've used this company's older 602pro Internet Server Lite at the office, and at home for years; I have put it in place for clients. It works consistently, without problems. It is fairly simple to install, and the folks behind the product are generally helpful.

The current version of this software — LAN Suite 2002 — is a complete solution to a whole lot of networking issues. It is well-conceived, and has only one potential flaw. [Even that is merely potential.]

LAN Suite manages the local network; you set up an "intranet"; that is, your local network looks just like a small Internet. Hard-code in local intranet addresses (not hard, and explained in lots of places) or let LAN Suite serve them with its built-in DHCP address server. Want to use the network to pass information around? Set everyone's browser to point to your local server site (which might just be all that spare capacity on your machine, or it might be an older machine set aside just to be "the server"); create a simple web page there with the message of the day or something of the sort. Other pages in that set can be used to manage calendars and so on.

Second, LAN Suite does a bang-up job of managing the connection between your LAN and the Internet. Have a fast DSL or cable hook-up? Still using a dial-up connection? Both are managed correctly. Got kids you want not connecting to various places — or employees who should be attending to business, not something else? LAN Suite easily locks out access to sites, system-wide or in smaller increments (after all, the boss should have some perqs...). Do you manage your own system — and would really rather not be running over to the server to do it? LAN Suite has a manage-via-web-browser feature. All this is fairly secure — certainly sufficient for average SOHO and mid-size business needs.

Security is a major reason for using software like this. Put LAN Suite up, and you sit behind a firewall. The more "always-on" your Internet connection, the more you want this kind of protection. Nothing is perfect, and firewalls can be broken through. But why make it easy? [This could be an argument for even a standalone system running this kind of software, just for the firewall benefit. There is also an argument, this does not prevent some nasties from getting through; more thoroughgoing approaches are feasible, but they are also cumbersome; your choices in security will be dictated by the level of your paranoia?...]

Third, LAN Suite is a communications manager. It has built-in electronic post-office capabilities, for receiving and routing e-mail. Where e-mail won't do, LAN Suite can manage a fax-via-computer. Do your users have different handles, for different rolls? Adding aliases is not difficult. The software manages both SMTP-relay connections and SMTP-direct (and LAN Suite's SMTP server can be a relay server on its own). The company builds in support for both free and for-a-fee anti-SPAM filters (including DNS black lists), and supports additional filtering based on adding names to the list. About the only feature I could not find was a list server capability; this might encourage using LAN Suite with its mail server functions turned off and the use of an alternative mail or list serverprogram. [In that case, the free 5-user LAN Suite might work just fine, since the user-limit seems to apply only to the number of mail-users entered, and none of the internet-server/proxy-server functions appear dependent on that part of the software. See the discussion of an alternative, but more costly, postoffice product in the green box below.]

How hard is this to implement? First, Software602 has always had a generous try-before-you-buy policy; download the software and try it out. If your need is truly modest — one to five stations — the software is free. Running a larger office? You pay $200 for a 25 user license, or $400 for an unlimited license. Minor upgrades are free; major new releases carry a low upgrade price (say, around $100). I've not seen anything comparable for the money; I do wish they had intermediate price points.

Setting things up is not entirely trivial. Basic installations are — well, basic and automated so far as that is possible. Best practices will require the use of "advanced" configuration, and that can take some time and some thought. It is not so tricky that average sorts can't do it, though, and LAN Suite's on-line help system is excellent; there is additional assistance available via phone or e-mail for modest charges. Say perhaps, it takes an hour or two to get a good, fairly complex, custom installation up and running right.

Downside: Software602 claims the same problem every other software vendor has, protecting its intellectual property. This company's approach is to send you a license key, which you must plug into software precisely. The company claims to have engineered this in such a way as to tie the key to the machine; if you subsequently move the software to another machine, you need to de-activate the key and get a new one — bothersome. Software602 has never had a lot of luck with its key systems; I have continued the older less-able version of the software because the key for a later version simply has not worked. [The company verified the key they sent me; it still never worked; their line: "We don't support that anymore"; not what you want to hear when you've paid the price for the product, whatever their lawyers say.]

What's the bottom line? Software602 offers a very reasonably priced, very reliable, easily installed and maintained solution to home, SOHO and mid-size business networking software. These folks understand that market's issues and problems better than the better-known brand-name software vendors, and they have a solid history. Take a look: www.software602.com

UPDATE (6/03): LANSuite 2003
Software602 has released its most recent version of LANSuite. The 2003 version retains all the elements of earlier versions — built-in mail, TCP firewall, very tight port-mapping capabilities and so on. The company also keeps its no-cost full-feature five-user version (great for try-before-buy and SOHO/home deployment). But, the user interface is nicely rearranged. Functions are now grouped a bit more elegantly. For example, the old Proxy tab is still there, but clicking on it puts up a second set of tabs along the bottom of the "card", for related functions site-access, mapped-links and IP-filtering. The result is a bit less clutter. For Win2K, Win2003 Server and WinXP, LANSuite now has an enhanced firewall built-in; this goes well beyond the limited capabilities of the IP filtering of earlier versions, consonant with the increased sophistication of attacks directed especially at cable and DSL users (many of them less familiar with the risks of more persistent 'net connection). Internal documentation appears very clear, so this is a useful feature; we didn't have the chance to test it, so we can't say if it achieves the "stealth" level protection of, e. g., ZoneAlarm (where the computer is effectively invisible to scanning by potentially hostile outsiders).
Software602's Other Great Products

Software602 has a number of things to look at. One of them, PC Suite, is a free alternative to Windows Word and Excel. The price is right, the functionality is just dandy. Want all those extra goodies that come in Microsoft Office, but really don't get used much? Software602 will happily sell you a low-cost add-on. Want to push the stuff out on a larger network? Buy the site-license version.

Why is this important? Pay attention to Microsoft's latest End-User License Agreement. That company wants a lot of control, including the ability to monitor your business, and versions of its software in use, with the distinct notion of compelling changes. Microsoft actually has forced this issue; if you install current Microsoft software ("free" or paid-for — this includes things like downloading the latest patches to the Windows Media Player, e. g.), you also install the updated monitor code. Rather unpleasant, considering that even Bill Gates has admitted, the latest stuff in the latest versions of Office elements are infinite overkill.

Software602 is a much less sneaky operation. Great value, openness — nice people, taken altogether.

VPOP3 — All the Mail Features You'll Ever Need
Some years ago, looking for the right mail server for some clients (and before Software602 made its mail software easy to use), I discovered VPOP3 from Paul Smith Computing Services (PSCS) in the UK. This "virtual postoffice protocol 3" implementation is very complete, offers superior mail management features, is relatively easy to implement and easily maintained and is not overly costly.

VPOP3 installs on just about any Windows platform. I've run it on Win95, Win98 and WinNT. It is smart enough to take advantage of its environment. Setup is not overly complex, with a good user interface and detailed help that is context-sensitive at several levels.

Why use this, rather than the comparable features in LAN Suite? One reason in particular: List management. VPOP3 does a splendid job of mailing- and distribution-list management; they are easy to set up and easy to manage and attach to one or more common owners. Another reason: I like the way VPOP3 has its own security, which also works (by passing incoming mail through a standard text file) with my usual anti-virus; my virus-checker sees the temporary file and reports the virus while eliminating the nasty. [LAN Suite integrates with some but not all virus checkers.] Third, VPOP3 handles multiple servers a bit more effortlessly.

The company's product is really fine; the price is unpleasant. A 25-user license is $196.; a 100-user license is about $200. more. The upgrade policy is generous; upgrades from one dot-X release (e. g., from 1.3 to 1.4 and so on — the company is now up to 1.5, after about four years...) are free. On the other hand, the company has changed its license-key procedure; to get the new-style license key for the current series of upgrades, you must supply certain information beyond the old license key — the original invoice number, date of purchase and so on. Don't happen to have all that? Pay £5, please. The company's excuse: They have a manual filing system, and it takes time to look up invoices, to check users and so on. Uh, right... A computer company keeps its records in a shoebox, or something?...

ARCHIVES —
Older stories, but still worth your attention

Which Windows?

Microsoft wants you to have WinXP on your desk, and your server and.... The reports say, this is not such a swift idea; WinXP is not getting a lot of good ink, and lots of users — the ones who use it in more demanding ways — don't think much of it. Consultants find that the auto-updates have been a major disaster. What seems to be happening? WinXP looks like a follow-on to WinME. This is not a nice thing to say.

It's not that Windows-on-x86 users don't have options. Most of us have copies of WinNT4 with all the service packs on CD. WinNT4 Workstation makes a nice server environment for small offices, home office operations, and so on. Lots of us have copies of Win98, left over from machines that have long since bit the dust; the software works well (both as server and workstation), especially with the Second Edition updates (and so long as you avoid some of the stuff IE5.x does to your system). Windows 2000 fixes any last nasties that might be a problem for WinNT users.

Two Windows Packages

The real question, to this commentator's eye, is, what happened in Redmond?

The answer may be, "corporate maturity".

Notice that Microsoft has gotten a wire, well, in uncomfortable places (...) about licensing. The company is dead set on protecting its intellectual property rights. This should never be an issue for a company, where new products, offering significant advantages, are regularly brought out to supersede older products. That was the case for most of Microsoft's core product lines. Folks wanted the new version, and would find a way to get it — more often than not (at least, in the U. S.) by paying for it. Piracy was real, but not enough to keep Mr. Bill and the Microsoft Team from becoming very, very wealthy.

This focus on making the old stuff redundant seems less the case these days. Windows XP, in its more business-oriented "professional" version seems to offer no special advances over Windows 2000. In the "home" version — bundled with most Win-on-x86 machines these days, the only thing that can be said is, it seems more stable than WinME (not hard, in some assessments). Claims about what's "under the hood" are not all that compelling. Work-alike means they are not terribly significant; Gates's announced new focus for the company (better security and reliability) indicate that new features are not there now and aren't in the pipeline.

What does that leave Microsoft? A cash-cow to be milked. Intellectual property rights to be protected. A king-of-the-mountain position to defend. None of these constitute good reasons to buy Microsoft's latest-and-greatest. Add to this, that the latest-and-greatest is substantially more costly than last-year's-model (about forty percent more, if you shop). In short, there is no technical reason to get the new version, unless it is to run some piece of software in a version that is new-version specific. And that is rarely so.

A consideration: When a tech-company begins defending its intellectual property rights, it usually means it has nothing interesting in the pipeline.

A consideration: Microsoft has not been tending to business, except insofar that business has been, to keep itself one company. If Microsoft were three companies, it might actually be nimble again.

A consideration: Apple successfully put a nice, usable interface and utilities on top of the user-hostile Unix kernel. Doing something similar with the Linux kernel should be quite feasible ("Linux" after all is a kernel with Unix System V3 utilities on top of it). Given the good press Linux has had, and the kernel's inherent stability and universality, it should be possible to give the kernel away, sell the stuff-on-top interface and support stuff at a nice, competitive price, and convince a good number of vendors to produce versions of their applications to run in the new environment (some of 'em have done most of the port anyway).

IBM’s Intellistations Really Are

A look at IBM’s Intellistation lineup is all that one needs to see why the company is still an industry leader. The machines look slick. Check under the hood; take the machine for a road-test; that slick look is sustained where the rubber meets the computing highway.

IBM has a lot of experience designing workstations. Early implementations coupled graphics terminals to mainframes. Later standalone systems based on different generations of IBM-designed silicon were regularly included on the best-of-breed list.

No small part of the reason: IBM is a top-to-bottom company. It can design and manufacture its own chips, it can design and manufacture its own planar boards, and so on. This leads to a very precise understanding of what constitutes quality.

Intellistation M-type
IBM's Intellistation M-type uses PIII and P4 processors with very fast memory; stripped price: about $2,000.

Another element in the mix: IBM is a large company, and different divisions can share expertise where that makes sense. The current Intellistation product line is a good example of this collaboration. There is substantial intellectual overlap in the design of PC-family workstations and PC-family servers. According to Gary Wiseman, who works in IBM’s Raleigh performance lab, this pays off handsomely when the convergence passes the 80 percent point or thereabouts. For example, the new Intellistation motherboards were co-designed with the server team.

Even “finishing touches” benefit from the collaboration. Intellistation cases now feature tool-less entrance – an ease-of-access feature commonplace to systems designed for use as servers.

I specifically asked to look at one of the more modest systems, jazzed up a bit, but still at the low end of the Intellistation spectrum. What arrived was an E Pro fitted with a 1GHz Pentium III processor, 256mb of SDRAM, an NVIDIA GeForce2 MX 4x AGP display adapter and ATA/100 15GB/7,200rpm hard disk, running Windows 2000. The monitor was IBM’s 18” analogue LCD flat panel monitor (see sidebar). Everything was a handsome charcoal grey; this E Pro was supplied in a mini-tower with a six slots available (a desktop case with a smaller card bus is available). The machine sported three full-size brushless fans – one for the power supply, one for the processor, and one just to make sure that there is no heat buildup. This was a typically thorough IBM design job, with nothing to be faulted. I was a bit surprised at the (largely empty…) mini-tower case; smaller is better, and I suspect that a lot of users would be just as happy with a smaller box with fewer slots.

The short story: It will be painful sending this system back.

I used KaratCAD’s implementation of the AutoCAD OEM engine for some quick drawing tests (it was handy at the time…). I plugged the system into the network and surfed on over to the Internet for some challenging stuff to download and muck around with.

There simply was nothing slow about this system – software loading, drawing, screen updating, everything simply snapped. Purely subjective comparison of front-of-screen performance (the only kind that interests me) with that I get on my present “standard” (a reference machine based on AMD’s 650MHz Athlon, with 128mb SDRAM, fast hard drives and a speedy NVIDIA graphics card) suggested that the speed difference was above the least-noticeable-difference threshhold.

This superior performance was no surprise, considering the ample memory for the application, and the clearly tight integration of the various elements. Other than the NVIDIA card, all the other elements, including networking, were integrated onto the system board. On the other hand, I am accustomed to IBM systems being a bit, well, stodgy; there was nothing stodgy here.

The machine I used was actually a prototype for the entry-level series of E Pro Intellistations; it carries a pricetag (absent monitor) of US$2,559.. The most basic E Pro model (800MHz Pentium III, 64mb SDRAM, simpler hard drive) starts at US$1,485..

The rest of the E Pro line adds second-generation RAMBUS memory support to the mix. The M Pro and Z Pro series upgrade the support-chipset and expands capacity for more memory, dual processors (respectively, Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon). Pentium IV availability is planned.

[Expect the initial P4 machines to perform with a bit less crispness than comparable P3 machines, according to IBM sources. The Pentium IV is a bit more “RISC-y”. Software will have to be re-compiled, perhaps even performance-tuned, to take advantage of the new chip design. It may make sense to stay with “legacy” P3 systems until you turn over software as well, if getting the best turn of speed from your high-megahertz machine is an interest.]

Okay, so IBM has a nice box. Is this a market-making difference. Yes, but there is more. IBM has some really spectacular service options, and some of them are (good grief!) free.

IBM understands business needs; they largely set the standards for service to corporate clients. Rolling out a new department-wide system? IBM understands this process and is proud of its support capabilities. The indications are, some of the rough places that had developed when the company was suffering hard times some years ago are pretty much repaired. One particularly nice feature in a technology marketplace run wild: IBM makes a specialty of planning transitions from older-to-newer technology (no surprise, but it is nice to see it systematized).

What about ordinary folks? In addition to call-in support, there is the by-now usual Web-based support. Again, IBM has thought of a better way. Call in for support, and your call gets qualified, and escalated from a simple-solutions, to more-complex-solutions, to system-engineering-solutions. Use the Web-based support system, and your question goes directly to the system-engineering crew, according to IBM’s Rick Rudd.

Add to this, IBM certifies hundreds of top software and hardware products, tested to work with its products. Buy an IBM system and hardware or software certified to run with it, and IBM can provide one-stop support for both its own branded product and the add-in/on. [Usually, it can provide support for other stuff, too.] Can you say, “no run-around”?

Well-made, really hot hardware, coupled with a support model that aims to keep customers: This is a marketing model that one could get comfortable with.

SIDEBAR – Flatpanel LCD Monitor

If the IBM Intellistation was neat, the LCD monitor – with the rather uninspiring (strictly Borg) designation “T-series” – was what made me drool.

IBM has been telling folks about the flatpanel future for nigh onto two decades (I remember the company’s gas-plasma-screen-hanging-on-the wall ad). For the last few years the company has been selling analogue and digital flatpanel LCDs in 15”, 17” and 18” models. The end of October brought the introduction of the company’s first “hybrid” (analogue/digital) model.

Since IBM sells all three variations on the theme, what does it recommend? In conversation with Tim Martin, product manager for the T-series, it depends mostly on what the future program is.

Analogue monitors take the analogue signal and conver to digital in any case. For most users – CAD users, office users and so on – the slight color shift that may take place should be below the least-noticeable difference threshhold. In a purely digital environment, where both display adapter and monitor are digital, there is no conversion, so there is no shifting. In short, this is a merely æsthetic matter– the informal polls taken seem to get a 50-50 response as to which color-values are better.

The obvious advantage to hybrid flatpanel monitors is their accommodation of both analogue and digital input. If the idea is to keep the monitor while upgrading the system unit with its display adapter, this can be a significang advantage.

Flatpanel LCD monitors are not cheap; the reason, according to Martin, has to do with manufacturing. The “blanks” on which the screen areas are printed (literally; it is a photolithography process) can accommodate only so many units. The size of the blanks are still determined, so it seems, by screen sizes popular five or six years ago for notebook computers (where, of course, this technology first became popular). Larger screen sizes, which use the area on the blank less effectively, result in more waste and so on.

Consequently, an economy 15” LCD panel costs close to US$1,000.. The 18” T86A analogue monitor I used comes in at about US$2,800.. Not cheap, but very cool – and prettier than most standard CRT monitors.

More on this subject in CitiGraphics...

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Affordable Color Laser Printing

QMS appears out to change the printing universe. The company’s end-of-year sale on its entry-level Magicolor2 color laser printer broke a whole lot of price barriers. Even if this was a clear-out-the-warehouse ploy (denied by the company), the result was a goodly number of very nice color laser printers in the channel, at prices well under half that of competing products. At $1,300. the Magicolor2 Desklaser is a deal-maker. If one was lucky enough to find the below-QMS-sale pricing offered by on-line discounters such as BUY.COM (at one point, about $806), it was possible to get this printer for not much more than a top-of-the-line color inkjet printer.


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The QMS magicolor2 Desklaser:
Affordable color laser printer

Color printing is important: Anything printed in color is more generally going to have a more potent effect on the person reading it. This is just the way human beings are built. Good color printing strategies have been uppermost in printer-maker R&D to-do lists for just about as long as they’ve been making printers. The objective: photo-realistic color printing.

Part of what makes color photos seem real is a certain random quality to the way dye-taking elements clump throughout the photo. This is a problem for the digital environment; computers don’t do randomness well. The best strategies for photorealistic color used dye-sublimation. As the various colors were laid on, the surface receiving them was “fluid” and the different process colors mixed in less-than-precise ways. This is about as close to random as one can get, and the results are remarkable. But dye-sublimation starts in the mid-four figures and rapidly rises to five figures.

Color inkjet printers have two strategies for photo-realism: First, they can apply a pseudo-stochastic distribution of colors; a couple different mathematical algorithms are around and they work pretty well. Second, ink is wet; use a paper with a water-soluble coating and the different color droplets will blend a bit before the coating dries. This is similar to what happens in some dye-sub processes. The first of these techniques is cheap and not too bad (Epson’s high-end model 5000, with six-color output and this kind of pseudo-stochastic rasterizing is used by pre-press houses to test high-quality image output). The second technique — touted as genuinely photorealistic — requires special paper at prices that make having new prints made from negatives cost-effective.

Even so, inkjet printers are great, because at low-end prices, they are cheap, general-purpose printers. Daddy can print his resume one day, and a picture of Mommy and Baby for Grandma, the next. Don’t get the paper wet, though: Inkjet ink is not permanent, and those gel-coated pages remain water- and dampness-sensitive. [That was not always so: HP’s PaintJets used a spirit-based ink that was permanent. Sadly, this idea died for reasons no one fully explained, but possibly connected to problems using such ink with plain paper.]

Laser printers (and LCD printers — different innards with the same high-quality result…) are better general-purpose printers than inkjet printers. First, the output is high-quality: Toner is fused to paper like thermographic ink is fused to paper (depending on a number of factors, you can even get raised printing). Today’s high-res laser printers deliver at least 600 dot-per-inch (dpi) output, and a number of 1200dpi laser printers are on the market (1200dpi is low-end typesetter quality). Second, laser printing is about as permanent as it gets; fused toner can rub off (if you rub real hard…); it does not run when wet, though.

In a word, for office — even SOHO — and for kids-doing-schoolwork, laser printers are a better alternative. But color is in, and laser printers doing color have been $2,000-plus purchases. Until QMS had its sale, that is…

The Magicolor2 may be called “desklaser”; it is really a small departmental printer. It comes in two models: The basic version (the one on sale) is a 60-odd pound cube roughly two feet wide in each dimension; the auto-duplex model is heavier and a bit larger (to accommodate the duplexer); both can be ordered with an additional feeder mechanism on the bottom.

Both models come with a standard parallel port; both come with 10baseT ethernet standard. Lots of printer-makers offer ethernet connectivity as an option, adding a couple hundred dollars. With the advent of cheap 10baseT kits and the ease of establishing a reliable network just about anywhere, including ethernet in the box is a smart move on QMS’s part. Letting the printer sit directly on the local (TCP/IP-based) intranet means faster printing. The intermediate spooling through the “printer server” is eliminated — whether the printer server is a special spooler or just one of the workstations to which the printer is attached.

The desklaser models are relatively “dumb” printers, according to the QMS salesperson with whom I chatted. That does not seem to mean much: Printing is quite speedy, both for color pages and black-&-white pages. QMS asserts that this entry-level printer actually starts printing faster than do other, fancier machines in the family. This may be because the rasterizing is already being done at the workstation, by some very fast drivers (a point proven years ago by Zenographics’ Bob Romney). Though the memory complement is low (8mb); testing showed problems only when attempting to print an 8”x10” bitmap. In any case, memory is standard EDO simms (if you can find ’em).

The most important question: Is the output pretty? The answer is, yes, with only two reservations.

First, the kinds of tricks that color inkjet printers can play with a water-based ink on a paper with water-soluble coating won’t work with a laser printer. Shades are going to be created by discrete dots of “process” (cyan/magenta/yellow/black) color. The magicolor2 desklaser’s drivers offer three rasters: standard, fine and “airbrush” — a pseudo-stochastic pattern. The standard output is dandy, and the fine and “airbrush” outputs are still better. The “airbrush” raster is generally a bit more contrasty and “sharper” than the fine, ordered pattern.

Second, color matching can be controlled by Windows, or by the driver or by a design program supporting its own models. My experience suggests using the driver’s color matching gives the best results.

The only other downside to this printer: There is no manual feed for the occasional envelope or special one-sheet feed. The printer will handle the jobs, but you need to fill the tray. The quick answer: Buy an additional tray.

Do you really need a color laser printer? I think there are some good reasons in a SOHO environment for an affirmative: A top-flight black-and-white laser printer (e. g., an HP LJ2100) will cost between $550. and $750.. It will be a workhorse and give great service. For color, you add a good inkjet printer; a decent one costs $200. or more. Finally, add a printer-manager to connect both printers to the network, perhaps. Buy-in cost: Between $750. and $1,000. — about what the QMS machine costs. Consumables are a bit pricier than a black-toner cartridge, but not a lot more so. If color is something you use a lot, inkjet cartridges will add up fast, anyway. The lost real estate for multiple printers is also not insignificant for SOHO users.

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Travan NS — Faster, Smarter Tape Backup

Tape remains the most effective and efficient medium for backup and short- to mid-term backup. Current technology has called forth some new developments, especially suited to SOHO (small-office/home-office) needs.

The changes? First, hard disks are bigger than before. SOHO buyers, unlike large-corporation buyers, tend to end up with commodity market machines, and these commonly have disk capacity 50-300 percent greater than common corporate-sales configurations. Second, the sophistication of small-office networking is increasingly spreading to home-office environments (if only to let Mommy and Daddy share the same phone line with the kids for Internet access, along with peripherals like printers).

Most lower-cost tape drives — from Hewlett-Packard and Iomega, notably — have been just keeping up with growing capacity and performance requirements. The new Travan-NS specification developed by Imation and implemented by a number of vendors, coupled with Iomega’s sale of its Ditto tape drive line to Tecmar, bids fare to change a lot of this.

Ditto drives have been around for awhile. They are relatively low-cost devices, effectively the current generation of desktop-standard tape backup drives. Tecmar took a line that Iomega clearly had shown little interest in, and is reviving it in important ways. Most significant: the Ditto Max Pro models for workstations and small networks. Tecmar sells 10gb models now and promises 20gb drives for later in the year. At US$299 and US$399 (MSRPs)for workstation- and network-oriented models, these will be serious options for purchasers of even low-cost systems with the super-sized hard drives that seem commonplace, and for small-office workgroups.

Want another option?

Small backups and duplicate copies of things are the province of removable disk media. The options are interesting; Price/performance favors CD-R technology for truly long-term archival storage. CD-R/W is also interesting. All this should have proven a headache for the folks at IOMEGA, but Zip drives are still very much with us. Imation’s SuperDisk is also an interesting option. More on the first three another time; SuperDisks just got a lot more interesting. I have had a SuperDisk drive here for quite awhile; I could never get it to work really well. First, it was simply not compatible with our testbench machines running with Adaptec SCSI cards installed. Stability in less heavily configured machines was not all that swift, either. Various of us around here tried this box in its parallel-port model (internal and USB external models are also available), with limited luck.

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SuperDisk drives deliver 120mb of floppy-disk storage, in a disk the same size as a standard floppy. The drive can internal or external; external models are USB or Parallel Port. For MacUsers (or funkier PC types...), get the drive in color, to match your system.
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That seems to have changed. I was looking for something to use in the field to carry scanned images (big ones, lots of ’em) from place to place. I downloaded the latest driver, and sure enough, with version 1.41 (I think that’s it) it looks as if Imation (or the company’s contract programmers) finally got the driver right. The thing installs on machines with a SCSI board in it. It works reasonably well without crashing the system — most of the time. [I noted a possible problem when formatting a standard 1.44mb floppy, and also when the system was left with such a floppy in the drive for awhile. The system went away, without an error message (just a screen suddenly blank) — no clear reason, yet. The problem seems sporadic.



I really would like to see the SuperDrive idea work: I like the media better than I do ZIP disks. I like the idea of a single drive doing the job of two. More on this down the road, in context.]

[Special good news for Ditto drive owners: Tecmar wants you happy. For US$20, you get a software fix for the Ditto’s Y2K problem. For US$50, you get an upgrade from 7gb to the recently introduced Tecmar-built 10gb model (list price: US$199). For US$250, the Ditto owner can trade up to one of the new 20gb models. Caveat: There is lots of the older, lower-capacity product “in the channel” and in the Iomega warehouse; buy this only if it’s really cheap – effectively, disposable. If the cost of the 7gb model, plus the US$50 upgrade, isn’t a lot less than US$200, it’s not a bargain.]

The real buzz is about Travan-NS drives. “NS” stands for “Network Series”. The idea is to create a price-effective competitor to mid-range DAT and 8mm tape technologies. Coupling some changes in the medium and its packaging with a read-while-write head and built-in hardware compression, Travan-NS drives achieve comparable performance in a less-costly-to-manufacture – and generally more reliable – system. [Read white papers from both Tecmar and Imation at www.techmar.com. While these papers clearly favor the Travan-NS approach, they offer a very good summary of the technology differences and related issues.]

Several companies have introduced Travan-NS drives. They range in price from US$400 (Aiwa) to US$770 (Tecmar) for the 20mb model. There are feature differences, and all require SCSI.

If price is your greatest concern, tests suggest that the lower price models are good performers. But, the modestly higher price for Tecmar’s drive (about $120 or so more than the others, except for the low-end Aiwa drive) merits attention.

Tecmar’s NS20 features a motorized cassette bay, not unlike that in a VCR. This Tecmar feature, dubbed “Nsync”, seems a good idea, since the tape is entirely within the drive when in use. If you leave the tape in between backups, the mechanism slightly retracts the tape, so it is not stretched over the head; this improves tape life. The mechanism is responsible for positioning the cartridge correctly, and for extracting it. Again, this should improve accuracy. [Tecmar is promising Nsync for its updated Ditto drives, as well.]

The Tecmar drive used in tests here came with Seagate backup software, in an OEM version which included the requisite drivers for Wintel systems. I am a fan of this software, have used it since before Seagate bought the company that originally produced it. I found it easy to configure both local and workgroup-wide backups. This drive has also fared well in tests with Unix.

Obviously, how long a backup takes depends on a number of factors: Compression is generally a good thing, since this shortens the write-time (uncompressed backups take up to twice as long). Travan-NS drives use hardware, drive-based compression (Tecmar appears to use IBM’s excellent ALDC, also used on $5,000. drives). This is reliable in ways software compression commonly isn’t and should be used.

Interestingly, testing suggests that system age, processor speed and whether the system is idle or in use has little to do with backup times. What did make a difference was when we tested backing up workstations across the network. This crawled – apparently more a matter of the network’s limitations than of the Tecmar Travan NS drive. But, since this ran as a background process, while all the systems being backed up were in use, there was no incovenience involved, so no special reason not to perform a cross-network backup even during business hours. [You’d think there could be issues of file access. We had all the stations in use when doing the cross-network backup, and this must have entailed some file access. There were no noticeable problems.]

Travan-NS drives currently come in 10gb (native)/20gb (compressed) capacity. The technology appears to be scalable, so that 30gb and even 50gb capacities are predicted in the foreseeable future. Since comparably sized 8mm drives start at $1,900 (14gb Mammoth-LT) and rapidly rise to $5,000 — prices not consistent with the SOHO environment, drives like Tecmar’s NS20 and its follow-on products look to be winners for the most dynamic part of the small-systems market.

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Learning to Master the Machine

Everybody wants training. Where do you go to learn to use a computer: “I’m going to buy my first computer, and then I am taking a course.” I hear this aw awful lot. Inevitably, it is coupled with a plea for advice. Given that even my wife’s hairdresser claims computer expertise — complete with computer-consultant bizcard — getting good advice is generally harder to find than one might expect.

There is no easy answer. I have seen folks go into this program, or attend that school. Sometimes the result is really very good; equally often, the result is a disaster.

Categorize computer schools this way:

There are the schools that grew out of a consulting business, that focus on certification-oriented training. You’ve seen the ads. You study for A+ certification or various Microsoft or Novell programs, and you build a PC which you get to keep. Courses are taught intensively in a matter of a few weeks, commonly offering evening and weekend time-slots.

These schools are fine for people with substantial experience in the DOS/Windows world — people who pretty much know the subject, in short. Teaching is aimed squarely at a particular test, rather than at providing a solid foundation (which is, or should be, assumed). Be wary about the instructors in such schools; I’ve been in the unpleasant spot of having had them apply for jobs, yet be unable to answer fairly obvious tech-interview questions. Younger instructors especially may have an inadequate background in earlier operating system software (DOS) and other kinds of OSs (e. g., Unix); this cripples their ability to explain aspects of currently popular systems software. Similar lack of hardware background can result in plainly wrong answers to student questions.

At the other end of the scale, training institutes offer one- and two-year programs, some leading to two-year lower-division college undergraduate diplomas. These are costly, very demanding and generally, fairly new programs.

My experience with one such program suggests that, if the teaching staff has been especially recruited to teach current PC subjects, that staff can readily rise above program inadequacies. They have their own resources and foundation knowledge upon which to draw. The classroom material will “short-cut” the learning process for people with limited experience. If the program also provides adequate hands-on time, and students also invest out-of-class time effectively in practice, these provide solid career-foundations. But this takes time.

There is also a real problem, if the school is long-established and relies on current teaching staff with limited PC experience. Current staff most suited to teaching issues arising in a PC world are already engaged teaching such things as networking. Current staff available for reassignment may well be coming out of something vastly different.

In the training institute division of a major financial services company, for example, day-program staff previously charged with instruction in mainframe operations were moved to teaching PCs. The problems were substantial: The teachers were not provided with nearly enough time to develop new skills in networking (especially, Internet issues); many lacked the personal knowledge and experience to pick out and avoid errors that pervaded the instructional materials developed by the training institute in-house. These were competent teachers asked to teach in a domain outside their competence, without adequate resources and support at the institutional level. The result was frustrating for both teachers and students.

[Interestingly, the evening division in the same location, having hired staff specifically to teach this new curriculum, had substantially fewer problems, even though they taught the program first, and had to “debug” seriously flawed instructional milieux and materials. Equally interesting: The manager for that successful implementation was sacrificed to the ineptitude of higher echelon management in the overall program.]

The best schools stick to things that can be demonstrated, and provide a book of handy hints and reminders. They are out there, but finding them is more a matter of luck, than turning to the Yellow Pages.

The real issue: Using a personal computer is almost entirely a matter of mastering skills. It needs practice. There is no way to get around using the software, playing with the machine and so on. Once the basics are understood, most things are learned on the job. In short, buy an “X for Dummies” book, and give the newbi a chance to practice. It’s cheaper, and it works as well as a couple-thousand-dollar “course”.

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