Personal Tech Live

Mar 05, 2010

Rob Pegoraro answers your questions on recent gadget reviews, technology news and provides personal tech buying and fixing advice.

Good afternoon, folks. Today's big tech headline is probably Apple's announcement that it will start taking pre-orders for the iPad on March 12, with the device itself appearing in stores on April 3. (If I see anybody lining up in front of an Apple Store this afternoon, I will point and laugh.) 

What should we talk about today? 

I'm trying to figure out what smartphone to get next. I started reading reviews about the Eris, and people either love it or hate it. The haters seem to outnumber lovers because of battery life and OS. I guess all the amazing technical stuff I have been hearing about the droid doesn't match up on the Eris. it has an older operating system version, a weaker processor, touchscreen is really touchy and messes stuff up a lot. Not sure how the Droid or iPhone compare here. What has been your experience? What would you recommend?

I'll start with this, since I got a variation of the question from a friend two days ago. I haven't tested the HTC Droid Eris, but I did review Sprint's equivalent model, the HTC Hero, and liked that in the fall. (For what it's worth, my colleague Mike Rosenwald also liked the Droid Eris but didn't like its reception in his house.)

The basic tradeoffs between the Eris and the Droid are physical vs. onscreen keyboards and thinness--the Eris, since it only has an onscreen keyboard, is a good deal slimmer. The processor difference is real, but I don't know that you'll notice it so much in routine operation. As for the OS versions, remember that the Eris is in line for a free update to Android 2.1 sometime this spring (as are pretty much all existing Android phones). 

The iPhone is an entirely different animal, confined to one network (AT&T).  It's a lot simpler to sync with Outlook or a Mac's Address Book and iCal (not to mention iTunes), but you do have to be OK with AT&T's coverage. 

So you know, I've got an Android phone on order. 

Has this MS update yet been found to be safe following the rash of BSoD that occurred after its release on February's "Patch Tuesday?" Do we know for sure that problems from the patch were due to malware already on the computers of users who had reboot issues after installing it? I have still not installed it, yet my system is clean as far as I know. What are my risks from not having this patch?

This was the subject of Help File two weekends ago; since then, Microsoft has shipped an updated version of this patch that checks for the Alureon trojan and removes it if necessary.

Remember, though, what you need to be worried about is not having this update go bad, but having your computer infected in the first place. If that happens, you've already lost--patch or not.   

I baby this machine, rarely leaves the house, no kids, 2.5 yrs old, just off warranty. I turned it on the other day and got a black screen. I thought complete failure so I did a couple of hard restarts. Finally realized it was on and booted and, if I shined a flashlight at the very edge I could see all my icons. Changed outlets, ran on battery, no change. It's in the hands of a tech person but...it runs fine using an external monitor for testing. Tech is having a hard time duplicating the problem. Any ideas from the collective brain trust? The diagnostics have been run, it comes up fine, reinstalled a chipset driver...grrr. Household outlets are fine. Power brick supplies power, battery tests ok. Ideas?

Your screen backlit's shot. You'll need to get a technician to replace this fluorescent lamp, which will probably run a few hundred bucks. 

Rob said: Like Quicken 2010 and Mint.com -- but unlike the 2007 Mac release and iBank -- Essentials tries to categorize your expenses automatically ("groceries," "travel," "auto" and so on) to ease your record-keeping. The word *unlike* is misleading. When I download expense items into Mac Quicken 2006, Quicken categorizes everything from merchants I've used before. Very few items are not categorized. I haven't used 2007, but it's likely that it works the same way.

The difference is that with older versions, Quicken categorizes things (and relabels them from all-caps "bank puke"--I believe that's a technical term--to plainer English) after you tell it what to do. It's a memorization approach, in other words. Essentials and Mint.com do this on their own, without prior coaching from you.

Verizon is peddling this warranty that would cover cable lines inside a person's house for an extra $5 a month or so? Is this warranty worth it?

No.

Is led hdtv worth the price differential? If so, under what conditions?

It's an improvement--you should get better contrast, deeper blacks and lower power consumption--but not necessarily worth it. At the current price differential, for example, you will take a long time to recover the premium for an LED backlight in the form of lower operating costs. But this differential will decrease over time--LED is becoming a standard feature among higher-end laptops. 

Note that "LED TVs" are really just LCDs; the LEDs are in the backlight, where they replace the usual fluorescent backlight. 

Rob, Would you recommend buying a used laptop from a company that rents computers? I have been without a computer at home for about two years now, using my work computer to do essential personal business and correspondence online. But, as you can imagine, going without can be so very inconvenient. But again -- funds will be tight for another couple of years. Which way do I go? Pros and cons? Thanks for your advice. Arlington

Laptops get beat up a lot, and rental models probably more so. I'd be skeptical. Is there a desktop they have available? You could buy used from a private seller too. And don't forget refurb models with a factory warranty either. 

Now that the Apple Inc rumor sites are predicting a launch on Friday, Mar 26th, could you please give us your take on the device now that you've had a few weeks to think about how it will likely be used. What are the pros and cons from where you sit and is it likely to be a good alternative to the "typical" netbook; albeit at a higher price point?

I have no new insights on the iPad since my brief hands-on experience with the thing at its premiere in San Francisco in late January. Sorry...

A few weeks ago you advised that Microsoft Security Essentials disables Defender. I installed MSE some time ago on a Windows XP laptop, and Defender appears to be still functional: it shows pop-up warnings when something changes, and it accepts definition updates. Is it really disabled? How can I tell for sure whether it's doing what it's supposed to or not?

I'm going to have to follow up with Microsoft on this--they say MSE disables Defender, but I've now gotten so many conflicting reports that I have no idea what's really happening. From my perspective, the only part of Defender I'd want to keep around after installing MSE would be the Software Explorer, which lets you regulate what runs at startup. MSE by itself already stops spyware. 

 

Most laptops seems to have integrated video. Is it really necessary to get a laptop with discrete graphics (i.e. a video card) if I plan to go to a lot of sites with HD video?

No, because the video card generally doesn't handle playing back video--only 3D graphics. And most processors already handle HD video fine, though the low-powered Atom chips in some netbooks can have issues with it. 

Tech-heavy q here. What's a reasonable real-world transfer speed for USB 2.0? I bought an external USB hard drive and returned it because it couldn't get past 5-6 M/bps (took 8+ hours to transfer 350 GB of data). The motherboard in my desktop is from 2005, and I'm wondering if that was the bottleneck, or is USB 2.0 just much slower than advertised in real life. I have two internal hard drives, and I noticed copying files from one to another isn't much faster (15 m/bps).Should I install an eSATA card and hope for faster speeds, or do you think my motherboard is too old and there's not much I can do?

USB requires a computer's processor to do more work than FireWire, and there the age of your computer holds you back. On a new machine, you shouldn't see much difference--as Macworld found in a series of tests last year

If the light is going, would it be intermittent? Like bad at my house but working at his? The work around, I guess, would be to run an external monitor but, then it's not a laptop.

I'd think so--put another way, I don't see how a software fault could cause that kind of malfunction.

Hi Rob I wrote in 2 weeks ago about getting a Studio 17 laptop with multitouch. It was supposed to have arrived by now but has been delayed TWICE because they claim demand is so high and they've had to up production on it. I hope when it finally does arrive it won't have any technical problems but I'm starting to get apprehensive. On one hand, I want them to build it properly and reliably. On the other hand, I want it NOW. So have you heard anything regarding reviews of this line of laptops? What are your thoughts on Dell laptops as a whole?

I haven't gotten much feedback at all about Dell's multi-touch tablets. As for their laptops--the Post buys quite a few, and I can't say our IT people are in love with their reliability. I do think their designs have gotten better over the past few years, though. 

Any thoughts on which income tax preparation software is best, as in easiest to use, most likely to provide accurate results, cheapest to buy, etc.?

You'll find out my answer on that a week from now. (Right: I'm going to have to prepare my taxes twice. Pray for me.) 

My wife and I are going to Italy, Greece and Egypt this summer for a long-overdue vacation. We want to be able to keep in touch with family but don't want to get an international cell, either as a rental or a long-term commitment on our current plan. Can we use an iPod Touch to make Skype calls via wi-fi, as well as use it for local maps of where we are? I've looked for the answer and I can't find anything definitive. Thanks

My capable producer reassures me that her husband had no problem using Skype over WiFi on his iPhone in Europe. Map usage should be fine too--again, as long as you can find a WiFi signal.

I've decided to take the plunge and buy a netbook. Most netbooks these days are coming with Windows 7 Starter edition. I know that this version of Win7 has been hampered a bit, but I'm just wondering if you or my fellow chatters can give me any insight into how much that really bothered them while using their netbooks. Other than not being able to change the desktop image, am I going to miss anything or find anything bothersome if I go with Win7 Starter over XP? I really don't want to pay the $80 premium to upgrade on a computer that is only $400 to begin with.

What I dislike most about Win 7 Starter is not so much its limited features as the... jerk mindset behind them. But in the month or so I had the Win 7 netbooks around, the software itself seemed OK. If you can get a Win 7 Starter netbook that lets you expand its memory beyond the arbitrary 1 GB limit Microsoft imposes, you should be OK. 

Win XP, on the other hand--look, it's been around since 2001, and I'm sick of it. Its security, power management and user interface all annoy me. 

Hi Rob, I'd like your recommendation on an entry level DSLR. I'm thinking about the Canon XSi /450d, but would appreciate your input in this crowded field.

You're asking the wrong guy... but maybe your fellow chatters have some insight on this point.

I recently visited a friend who works in a small 5 person office and discovered that all the computers in the office have a strange quirk. If someone enters a URL into the IE (or Firefox as I recall) address bar, even with the "http:..." bit, the browser does a Google search, and the user then must click on the link in the search results for the site they want to visit. None of these people are all that computer literate, and didn't think that this was strange behavior until I pointed it out. The computers all had up to date antivirus (AVG), but their former support person was less than ethical. He installed a pirated version of Windows on one of their computers and did other stupid things too numerous to mention. I suspect that he must have installed a trojan as well, either accidentally or on purpose. I've done my own bit of googling, and I've found information about several viruses and trojans that do search redirects, but nothing yet that matches the symptoms my friend and her colleagues are seeing. I replaced their AVG with Microsoft Security Essentials and did a full scan, but found nothing. Do you have any suggestions?

That sounds very suspicious to me as well. I would try running a portable version of Firefox or Chrome off a USB flash drive to see if that helps. If you see the same defect there, then you've got a deep-seated problem. In that case, I advocate the "nuke the site from orbit" approach: back up any valuable data, than reinstall (legimate copies of) Windows on all the PCs. 

Rob -- I'd love to find out from other shuffle owners whether they, too, experience anger at their 3rd gen iPod shuffles cutting out during their workouts because their sweat causes the shuffle to go beserk. I know I'm not the only one out there that experiences this (as evidenced by this thread). What are others out there doing to overcome this design flaw? Is this the first chink in the Apple armor we're seeing? I'm surprised this wasn't caught in product testing!

Hmm. Eww. I suppose I can ask if other chatters are experiencing this issue.

I am in the market for a new smartphone. I am seriously considering getting an Iphone but I would be mad at myself if I got an Iphone now if a new one came out this summer. Do you have any information about whether Apple is going to introduce a new Iphone or just an update to the current Iphone 3GS OS? Also, do you know if Blackberry is going to offer something new this spring/summer to better compete with the new Android/Windows 7/Iphone 4g phones that are making their way to store shelves?

Apple has introduced a new iPhone in June or July every summer since debuting the first model in 2007. Nothing suggests this year will be different. And that is all I can tell you about the possibility of an upcoming model--well, except that it won't run on Verizon.

Any thoughts on the TiVo Premiere announced earlier this week? It it enough to keep TiVo going for a few more years?

I would point you to the "that's it?" evaluation of veteran TiVo observer Dave Zatz--the new interface seems nice, but the un-improved capacity and unchanged monthly fees don't impress me. Unfortunately, TiVo seems to be on its way to litigating other DVR manufacturers into submission or out of existence--it just had a patent-infringement verdict against Dish Network reaffirmed, which may result in the satellite broadcaster having to disable its customers' DVRs. (See Zatz's summary of the news.)

Hi Rob. A while back you wrote about ditching paid-TV (ie. cable) for free over-the-air HD broadcasts plus using sites such as Hulu. Can you give an update on how your experience has been, suggestions, problems, etc? I'm a Verizon FiOS customer and have been looking to make such as switch using a Mac Mini as a media server with an Elgato Hybrid TV device to inport signals. My idea is to use a combination of over-the-air, Hulu, Netflix streaming and Boxee plus maybe some iTunes purchases. The Mac Mini would be connected to our main TV. Another would use Apple TV to share recorded shows plus over-the-air. A third older HDTV does not have a built in tuner, so we'll probably use it for video games, use Wii to access Netflix and maybe add a used Apple TV. My only concern is children's programming since Disney, Nickelodeon, etc seem to have limited shows online. And I need to have an antenna installed in the attic. Any thoughts or suggestions about this setup as well? Thanks

So far, it's been going better than I'd thought--at some point, I will devote a blog post or maybe an entire column to the topic. What I'll say here is that:

* We're generally happy with our reception, but it puzzles me why WETA's signal can be so flakey. I'm not sure that I've found the "perfect" spot for our set of rabbit ears; I may just put an antenna in the attic so I can stop worrying about this, assuming I can find an easy route for the coax to run from there to the basement.

* I'm not happy with the daily experience of using a DVD recorder to time-shift. The Elgato EyeTV I tried was much better for that task.

* It helps if your Internet provider carries ESPN360.com (as Fios does). 

* It also helps to have an Internet connection fast enough for HD streaming. 

When cable first came out it took years to move to cable-ready TVs so that we could finally get rid of those annoying cable boxes. Now with the switch to digital TV, even though most sets are clear QAM ready Comcast and other carriers are forcing us back to the bad old days of using their equipment. Is there any chance that this is going to change? Is there anything consumers can do to help push change?

The Federal Communications Commission is paying renewed attention to what I can only describe as a cluster... well, it's a serious mess. That is probably your best hope, as cable companies don't seem to think this is a problem.

Hi Rob, I currently own a 7 year old iMac and am thinking about getting a new Mac laptop. What is the best (easiest) way to transfers my files from the old to the new? Thanks

The wonderful Migration Assistant software Apple includes with Mac OS X; run a FireWire cable (400-t0-800, a cheapo purchase at monoprice.com) from the old Mac to the new one, boot the old Mac into "target disk mode," and the Assistant will do everything for you. In a few hours, you should have your documents, settings and even applications transplanted over. 

Seriously, I love this feature. 

Hi, Rob -- I'm trying to use Leopard to interact with the Coldwell Banker True Forms webware. Apparently it only works with Windows 7 and/or the lower versions of Windows, as my colleague is unable to work it with Vista either. Is there a workaround you could suggest? Thanks!

Tell Coldwell Banker to hire real Web designers? An app that works with Windows 7 and XP, but not Vista, demonstrates some serious programming incompetence.

You could try using Codeweavers' CrossOver to run IE inside Leopard; unlike virtual-machine software, this doesn't require its own copy of Windows.

What has been the reaction from the Post regarding your review of the Post's new iPhone app?

Nobody's squashed a grapefruit in my face, if that's what you're asking. Remember that we also have a reporter on staff, Howard Kurtz, whose job requires him to cover the media's mistakes--including our own. We're all grownups here. 

My 5 yr. old laptop has been infected with the worm.win32.netsky and the trojan spm/lx and the js/fakealertkriptic. I've since replaced it with a new laptop but would like to try to remove all malware from the old one (for use viewing NetFlix streaming etc. on TV). Since I only use Gmail, does the cloud thing protect my inbox from being co-opted to spread spam and malware (the way some trojans do)? I'll have to log on to download software to wipe out the malware. If I format my hard drive will it likely rid my laptop of all malware? How would I know what drivers to re-install so my wireless card and other features would still work post-format? Long since misplaced my restore disks. Thanks.

You can't trust a compromised computer with anything--not your files, not your settings, not Web applications. Your only safe option is to wipe out the existing system, which you should be able to do by booting off the laptop's system-recovery partition and doing a complete reinstall.

Once you do that, you'll want to do another complete system scan to make sure the virus didn't infect the recovery partition--some can do this--and then download every security patch available. 

I have a basic mistrust of having my financial information out there in the "cloud". Tell me why I should switch to using something like Mint now that Money is going away.

Because in a worst-case scenario, your exposure if Mint's computers were hacked is quite limited. Mint is a read-only application: It doesn't let you move money anywhere, nor can it change passwords at your accounts. And it does let you download your data in spreadsheet formats. 

Skype does have an app for the Touch, but you will need to purchase a headset with a microphone since the Touch does not come equipped with one. Apple has microphones on their website if you need a reference.

Thanks!

My brother had the same problem. He took it back and is looking for a replacement. FYI... I'm rather incredulous...

Me too.

Rob, thanks for the column on that this week. But why can't I get Thunderbird to deal with an embedded image correctly? It can't seem to handle a "file:///" image tag at all. Do I need to push my image up to a hosting site? Thanks!

Yes. A locally hosted file--which is what the file:// address indicates--will, by nature, not be visible to anybody else. You'd need to attach the file itself using the usual paperclip icon, so it becomes part of the message. 

I think the Canon Rebel series is a great DSLR entry-level camera. It's what I started with to learn the ropes and manual functions until I outgrew it. When you move up, the lenses are compatible with the bigger models (mostly). But once you head down that road (Nikon or Canon), you're pretty much stuck with the brand because of the lenses.

Thanks for the tips!

I let Windows 7 apply an update last weekend, and it moved documents out of my secure user folder into a "public documents" folder. I had to track them down manually. I'm the only one who uses my computer, so whether they're "private" or "public" isn't that important, but it seems quite arrogant for Microsoft to make that decision (on systems with multiple users, how does MS know what a given user wants to make "public"?). If there was a warning that this would occur in the update information, it wasn't sufficiently differentiated from the usual yada-yada-yada. It should have been in a big dialog box of it's own, and allowed users to specify what they wanted done.

I haven't heard of this happening, and I seriously doubt the update was supposed to do that. As a general rule, never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by random Windows glitches. (Wikipedia tells me that the saying I just rephrased is Hanlon's razor. The more you know...) 

Not sure if it would be considered entry-level, but I love my Nikon D-5000.

$630 list isn't out of line for entry-level--in the D-SLR space. Thanks...

Rob wrote: "it puzzles me why WETA's signal can be so flakey." I've also seen this with the PBS affiliate in another market. Is it possible that running 4 digital channels in the same bandwidth that other stations use for only two degrades the signal strength?

But I haven't seen that problem with MPT, even though their transmitter is much farther from my home than WETA's.

Maybe more a thought exercise than a question, but between Apple's touchscreen patent and Google's micropayments patent, are we nearing a point where the breakneck pace of innovation of the last few years is going to run smack in to the reality of the tech patent quagmire? I guess this is what happens when software patents effectively allow you to patent an idea, not an invention.

That's about what I've written myself.

Which two are you reviewing? Those of us who are already finished with our taxes might have input that you could use. I know I have complaints!

I will be testing the usual big two, the Web versions of Intuit's TurboTax and H&R Block's TaxCut. (Here's last year's review.) I may try out TaxAct, but historically that has been so expert-oriented and forms-centric I haven't found it at all competitive.

This may sound weird, but...I like my Sony DSLR a lot. If you have older Minolta AF lenses, they work with Sony cameras. You can find these lenses relatively cheap on the secondhand market, too. Nothing wrong with the Canon or Nikon DSLRs, just something to consider if you already have Minolta lenses.

The lens issue is a big deal with D-SLRs, since--as somebody noted here earlier--your choice of camera body binds you to that vendor's hardware down the line.

Re: the Tivo Premiere. I'm planning to purchase one, since I just bought my first HDTV and currently only have a Series2 Tivo. With my Series2, I bought the lifetime subscription in 2004, so I've come out ahead financially. Would you advise buying the lifetime subscription with the Tivo Premeire, or are there concerns that Tivo won't be around long enough to make it worthwhile? (By my calculation, the lifetime subscription will pay for itself in about 30 months.)

I think the company will be around--the Dish verdict alone should see to that, plus it's got deals with DirecTV, Comcast and Cox that will have them ship its software or hardware. (I should put a big asterisk next to the Comcast item, since the Comcast TiVo DVR has been in the world's longest test cycle and is still only available in some New England markets.) 

You just recommended using Firefox on a flash drive to deal with a potentially infected computer. Others have recommended doing the same when using an internet cafe or other unfamiliar machines. But how does that actually work? When I plug in the flash drive does it take the place of the computer's OS? Does email work through the flash drive? If I want to store documents, do they stay on the flash drive? This sounds like a great idea, but I'm not tech-savvy enough to grasp the details.

A virus on the host computer could copy itself to the flash drive, yes--but even so, you run a lower risk than if you used the browser from the infected computer. To get around that, you could bring a Linux LiveCD, or a bootable USB drive with Linux installed; either way, you're bringing not just a browser but an entire operating system. But: At a lot of Web cafes, you can't access the DVD drive or USB ports. 

There are other tricks you can try using to keep your login safe at a strange computer; take a look at the post I did on this a few years ago.

Just a warning about DSLRs and older lenses. Those older lenses weigh a ton as compared to lenses designed for DSLRs. If not handled properly, the older lenses can break the DSLR where they connect. I've seen too many people try to save money that way, but end up spending more to replace the camera body.

Hadn't thought of that issue. Thanks!

Rob, I'd like a DVR to record my cable TV, but i'm way behind on consumer electronics. I want something where I can add capacity (like plug in a USB hard drive), and not have to pay a monthly fee. Is this sort of thing out there?

Yes, but your cable company may not tell you about it. See the comments in the Help File item I wrote a few weeks back about DVRs with small hard drives.

So, I just got my first laptop, and it's my first new computer in several years. what's the difference between sleep vs. hibernate?

Sleep is what you want--the computer uses a tiny amount of power to keep its memory refreshed. In hibernate, it writes the contents of memory to a file on the hard drive and then shuts off completely; that involves a longer wakeup process and isn't necessary in most cases. 

I have an old iPod that will not hold a charge. Unfortunately, I also had an old laptop that held the iTunes library that is now nonexistent. Is there something I can load on my new laptop that I can use to reverse load my iPod onto? A blank copy of iTunes?

I don't mean to make fun of you--but this is not a difficult thing to look up.

Here's my latest Help File item about copying songs from an iPod. It's the third time I've covered this topic. 

Any thoughts on Cox DVR vs. Tivo? My wife wants one for her birthday.

Not really, aside from the general observation that the Cox model will be a lot cheaper but probably won't be as easy to use as a TiVo. (I've never lived in Cox territory.) 

Rob, you may recall I had pointed out a usenet thread where posters were discussing cable's efforts/nonefforts to implement the cablecard. Well, here's something I just picked up from a usenet post, a device the cable company could put in the line coming into a home that decodes QAM cable signals and outputs analog, enabling TVs, VCRs and DVD recorders with analog tuners to continue to work without that darned cable box. 

Nice huh? Well, I don't think the cable companies will be so great as to provide those for free, or even at all, unless the FCC makes 'em. Cable user in Madison, WI

Thanks for the link. Interesting...

I didn't realize we'd run 20 minutes over until just now (see what kind of time-suck value-add this chat provides?). That means I need to turn my attention to, in order, lunch and writing this weekend's Help File. Thanks for all the questions, folks! I should be back here in a couple of weeks. 

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Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post's Fast Forward columnist Rob Pegoraro, writes about computers, the Internet and consumerconsumer electronics. His latest tech thoughts and tips are cultivated daily on his blog Faster Forward.
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