Sep 03, 2010

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

In my case, the answer is no--I'm typing this from not-yet-sunny Santa Monica, Calif., where I'm staying with friends after a missed connection yesterday. I'm heading home this afternoon, which ensures that my weekend won't really start until about 10 tonight.

But anyway, it's time to talk technology. It's been a busy week, what with Apple's news; what would you like to discuss first?

Concerning the iPad, will the projected update in OS include Flash (or deal with it's lack of)? Will Apple ever make a camera/mic attachment that makes it Skype friendly?

No. I won't say you'll never see Flash on the iPad or the iPhone, but it would be a Nixon-goes-to-China moment for Steve Jobs to take back all the nasty things he's said about Adobe's product.

But the odds are excellent that you'll see a front-facing Webcam on the iPad. Apple spent too much time Wednesday talking up the appeal of FaceTime videoconferencing on the iPod touch for it not to add that to all its iOS mobile devices.

I want to do video conferencing among 4-5 people and need to know what equipment to get and what software is recommended. Thanks

Speaking of video chats--Skype has a new 5.0 beta release for Windows that does free videoconferencing for up to 10 people at once. But you need some serious bandwidth and processing power, and everybody needs to be running the same Skype beta.

Sony increased it's cheapest price to $179 but made it touch screen; Kindle dropped its price to $139. Countless free books at www.Archive.org. Which is a better value for basic reading , the Sony or the Kindle or would you wait until either pre or post holiday price drops?

The Kindle hardware looks pretty old and is due for a replacement with a touchscreen (see this NYT piece from Wednesday). But I'm unsure about the prospects of any current e-readers; if they 're not going to get wiped off the map by tablets like the iPad, they're going to need to get cheaper still but also acquire screens that can display color as well as black-and-white. 

I signed up for Clear home service with a desk modem partly based on your positive review and have had good service for a month or so. But last Saturday when there were two large demonstrations on the Mall, Clear internet was shut down, at least for me, from early morning until about 7 p.m.

When I called Clear, I got a recording that announced technicians were working to repair a service interruption "in your area" (obviously identifying the location of the caller's phone), then when I pushed through to a live person I reached a clueless guy who didn't know that there was an outage, let alone when it started or when it might end.

Question: Did the demonstrations have anything to do with the outage? Could Clear have transferred capacity to its cellphones to meet demand on the Mall (which might raise questions about the system's reliability in a crunch)? Or is it just a coincidence?

Also, the signal strength meter on the modem (positioned near a window) seems to bounce regularly between 1 and 3 lights, without me touching or even getting close to the modem. It doesn't seem to have much impact on download speeds, but definitely affects uploads. Anything I can do to stabilize or enhance the signal?

Clear doesn't have a phone service at all--and the 4G spectrum it uses isn't shared with any wireless carrier besides Sprint. So unless the protesters were all carrying Sprint Evo or Epic 4G phones, or if they were lugging laptops with Clear modems, I don't see what the connection could have been.

About uploads--I don't know. I didn't notice that kind of variation myself when I tested the service. It doesn't seem like the kind of thing you could do much about it except maybe look into getting your modem replaced.

Hi, Rob. As fate -- and the computer world -- would have it, my son ordered a new MacBook Pro last Sunday, just days before Apple's big announcements Wednesday. He's a college senior so he also took up Apple on its offer of a free iPod Touch after rebate. The Touch arrived, ironically, on Wednesday. Any chance Apple will replace/substitute the one he got (still unopened) with the new one? Just hoping....

The odds aren't good, but he could try taking it to an Apple Store and seeing if they'll let him exchange it for a new model. I have heard from at least one reader in a similar spot who was able to get such a swap.

Hi Rob, what do you do when apps that come built into your smartphone stop working? I'm having problems with the Facebook and Peep (Twitter) apps that came with my Droid Incredible. They worked fine for several months, but recently Peep stopped updating completely and I get an error when I try to update the Facebook notifications.

I tried turning the phone off and on (even removed the battery). I cleared the cache for Peep and logged out, and now when I try to log in it gives me an error (first attempt erroneously says username/password is wrong, second attempt hangs). After that experience I didn't mess with the Facebook app because at least the wall posts are working.

I updated the phone upgrade last night, but the problems persist. So is there any solution other than taking it to the Verizon store and hoping someone there can help? Thanks!!

You could use the official Twitter Android app--it's very good--instead of Peep and Facebook's smartphone site (touch.facebook.com) instead of the app.

But you might do better to try the "Factory Data Reset" option under the Privacy category in Settings. Use a backup tool like the trial version of MyBackup to save your data and your (working) apps first.

Last weekend I was prompted to update my iPod Touch. I'm now on 4.something.something and its awful. It won't hold a charge even when I'm not using it much, the home button isn't always responsive, other things don't work like they did. Is this a known problem or is there a way to go back to a previous version? I've got a 2nd generation I think. Bought it in late 2008.

Sure - plug it into your computer and use the "Restore" command in iTunes to take it back to factory condition. Or you could see if the iOS 4.1 update, due next week, fixes your issues.

Do you believe that there is going to come a period of time which we may be rapidly approaching that technology will reach a limit as to what functions a phone can perform or what features they can have? Do you think we are rapidly approaching that time? Short of embedding communications and processing chips into our brains, it seems that soon every phone will pretty much have the same things. The wrappers may change but the guts will pretty much be the same.

I don't know about that--we keep finding new ways to use our phones. I mean, when people added GPS to phones, not many people thought how many apps would arise to exploit that data, from cameras that geotag pictures to check-in services like Foursquare.

The more interesting issue to me is the size of devices. With the new iPod shuffle and nano, for instance, it's hard to see how each could be further miniaturized--each one is nothing but its interface. So the Shuffle has now shriveled to a box just big enough for a ClickWheel dial, while the Nano is now a watch-sized touchscreen just large enough to accomodate simple two-finger gestures.

So, the iPod nano loses video recording and playback functionality, has a smaller screen, but is "multi-touch" and the size of a shuffle so it's a great improvement?

I'm confused. If someone took a car, removed the power windows, cruise control, and shrunk it down, but wanted the same amount of money for it, people would rightly recognize they're getting ripped off. But, because it's Apple it's progress?

Depends. Are you saying people used the video functions on the nano as often as they use cruise control in cars? Playback, maybe--though I rarely see people watching video on iPod nanos in Metro or on planes. But I doubt video made much headway.

As a longtime user of an iPod Shuffle (the retangular model), I am intrigued by the new Nano, because it seems to adopt the Shuffle's useful "form factor" (i.e., small and retangular with a clip on the back) with the added convenience of a display, which would make selecting what to play easier. You article, however, indicates that you have misgivings about the new Nano. You say, "The new Shuffle looks easier to use than its predecessor, but I'm not sure about the revised Nano." Would you please elaborate, and do you have any further thoughts on the Nano?

With any sort of touchscreen UI, you have to look at it to use it; you can't tell what button you're about to push by how it feels. And because the Nano rotates the screen orientation if you flip it around, you run the risk of having buttons be elsewhere than expected. I won't know for sure until I get one to try out.

Rob, my wife has a older flip-phone great for talking. She doesn't text or web -- tried it with a blackberry; hated it. But she has "screen envy" especially now she wants to show off pixs of our baby (you must understand, congrats). But I don't want to get a smartphone and pay the higher monthly rate for stuff (text/web) she won't use. I'd rather pay upfront than monthly. Could I buy an iPhone 3GS from eBay/Amazon, never activate it w/AT&T, just connect it to computer, transfer pixs? Or an iPod Touch? Your thoughts? Thanks.

Most carriers will require you to buy a data plan if you bring a used smartphone to them. The iPod touch wouldn't have that issue,  but it's a little pricey. You could just get the old or the new iPod nano--or, for even less, buy one of those keychain LCD picture frames.

I hook up my MacBook to my TV now and watch MLBTV on my TV. Of course this ties up my laptop. Will AppleTV allow me to watch from that and free up my laptop? That sounds just too good to be true, but I am hoping that you say yes. I'll get one for the next baseball season. I love all the new iPods, especially the Nano. Wow! Thank you

Nope. There's no option for watching sports streaming of any kind on the Apple TV--I don't think Steve Jobs even said the word "sports" during the keynote. As I noted in my column yesterday (it ran in Style, if you were looking for it in A), sports are a big unsolved problem for people looking to switch to Internet viewing. But Apple is doing much less to try to solve that than other companies.

Rob: Have you tested the Cisco valet, which promises to quickly and painlessly turn your home into one big hot spot? It looks so easy I'm skeptical.

And have you tested, or written about, Clear the internet and voice service? I got an offer in the mail for home and on the road Internet service for $50 a month, which is certainly a good deal,but of course I worry about coverage. Thanks.

I should try the Valet--though it's hard for me to imagine "easy wireless networking" coming from the same place as Cisco's Linksys routers.

As for Clear, you should know that I'm doing this chat over a 3G Clear connection. The service has been generally fine on the road, though its lack of 4G service in the Bay Area (and here, though 4G worked well in LAX yesterday) is a major issue.

Let me preface my critical remarks about Ping by saying that I'm a pretty devoted Apple fanboy. But I note that when I tried to download something from the iTunes store (app updates), the store required me to fill out a Ping profile and automatically turned it on. I had to go turn it off. That's irritating. And I, like you, got some "recommendations" even before I connected with anyone that don't exactly jibe with my musical tastes. I've been skeptical of the "Genius" feature in the past, and Ping seems like another, more advanced but possibly also more insidious way of (paid) music promotion. I don't know how useful it would be for me even if it works as advertised, but if it's just a way to try to convince me to like Ke$ha, that stinks.

Yeah, I'm a bit skeptical of Ping too. The recommendations and follow suggestions look as randomly chosen as ever today. I'm also unsure that I need yet another social network to tend--another profile picture to choose, another friends list to assemble, another set of friend requests from people I don't know to ignore, another batch of privacy settings to guard. I may be out of personal bandwidth on that front.

We're leaving for two weeks in Italy. Will this service handle calls from there to the US? Since it's VoIP it seems to me that it should unless there is a problem with rates.

Google says its service only handles calls from the U.S. and Canada to elsewhere. You'd want to use Skype for that purpose.

Hi, Rob! A couple of questions regarding Apple TV:

1) Is there a workaround for live sports, particularly cable college football and basketball? ESPN 360 is so compressed on the laptop that even on a decent monitor the full-screen looks like 1958.

2) Where we live, we would need to keep Comcast's broadband service. How much TV could we legitimately download from iTunes before Brian Roberts sends his thugs to my house?

3) What would we miss? Most of what we watch is Showtime series, live sports, and HGTV/TV Food/Discovery/Animal Planet. Thanks

1) No. Apple TV is best understood as a complement to a cable box, not a replacement for it.

2) 250 gigabytes' worth, at which point you'd exceed Comcast's usage quota and would receive some sort of nastygram.

3) You'd miss live sports. You can replace prerecorded content and series pretty easily through iTunes and Netflix (provided you're willing  to wait or pay a la carte).

Many of you have asked if Apple will offer a "season pass" discount on TV rentals like the one it provides for TV-show sales. The company isn't answering--the usual "we can't comment on possible future products." Seems like an eminently logical thing to do... but this is Hollywood we're dealing with.

Apple TV seems like a snoozer. I understand it can stream (certain videos) and music from IOS devices, but ultimately, its a rental video box + netflix. Everyone seems to have a netflix box. What am I missing here?

No, everyone doesn't have a Netflix box--or even an HDTV or Blu-ray player that can play Netflix streams over the Internet. It can be easy to forget this is you spend too much time at shows like CES, but the market for living-room viewing of Internet video remains fairly wide open.

Rob, Among the new Apple goodies, I was most excited about Apple TV. I think it will be great to be able to stream iTunes media on the TV without lugging my laptop over to the TV and connecting it via 2 adapters and an HDMI cord. The rental thing sounds nice too, as well as streaming Netflix on it, which I imagine will be HD, which Netflix through Wii is not.

I am concerned though about what might be happening with the iPod. I have a vast music collection and no interest on watching movies or TV shows on a tiny handheld device. The Classic iPod is the one for me, yet it got no overhaul and I'm hearing rumors it might go away. That would be a real shame for someone like me. Probably enough that I would start looking for another brand to be loyal too, as the Touch just wouldn't cut it.

My thinking with the iPod classic is that Apple has reached a rare state of stasis--it's got a design that works and a satisfied customer base, so it's not putting any more work into it. It doesn't need to, as long as it can keep buying hard drives in the right size.

At some point--maybe next year, maybe the year after that--flash memory will become too cheap not to use as a replacement for the classic's hard drive, and that's when Apple will have to decide if it keeps the highest-capacity iPod a music-first device like the current Classic (think of a nano with far more storage?), or if it allows the Touch to replace the Classic entirely.

Hi Rob- I have an old motorola phone that I no longer use, but want to take to South Africa and use a local SIM card while on vacation. I called AT&T and asked them for the code to unlock it and they said it was "not eligible" for unlocking. They couldn't tell me what this meant. I was looking online and I see all of these web sites that seem to charge a fee for unlocking a phone. I was wondering if any of these are reputable or should I just forget this idea and buy a cheap unlocked phone? Thoughts?

Great question. Anybody have a SIM-unlock service, site or shop they can recommend?

I'm in the market for a new tablet. Currently, I have a HP TX1000 which I use for e-reading and work sometimes. But the touch features are too limited.

I've looked at the new HP tablets - the TMT's - but they look pretty flimsy.

I'm not an Apple guy so the Ipad is out.

The Dell latitude is too expensive - the Toshiba products too heavy.

I keep hearing about some new PC tablets coming out to fight the Ipad and yet keep the PC aspect. Can you give me hope that there will soon be some new products out there?

The tablets you'll want to wait for will run Android or HP/Palm's webOS--both operating systems that, unlike Windows, are designed for mobile, touchscreen use. It's going to be another few months before we know what hardware, exactly, we'll have to choose from--but I expect that non-iPad, non-Windows tablets will be a big part of CES 2011.

(Sigh. I should start looking into hotel rooms and airfares for that show now, right?)

What do you consider the chief deficiencies of the Ipad as compared to a traditional netbook for general use while traveling? (I would think the fact that you can only have one page open at a time would be a big one.) In addition to the webcam you just mentioned, what else is Apple likely to change in the next version?

The chief deficiency is not the lack of a keyboard--you can use a Bluetooth one with it--but some software issues.

* It's a pain to get data in and out of the iPad unless you use a Web site or service (e.g., Dropbox). In some cases, you need to buy extra hardware, like Apple's Camera Connection Kit.

* You may not be able to read some files sent your way.

* You can't read or use most Flash components of Web sites. That's more the fault of bad Web designers (who should consult recommendation no. 7 on this handy list of tips), but it's still an issue if you can't get anything out of a site that might have useful info.

Ever since the last upgrade on my Driod Eris, it seems to constantly be running apps that I havent' launched - and every time I pick up my phone I run my app killer just to try to spare the battery - and it's always killing at least 4 or 5 apps. Do you know how I can get it to not run apps unless I tell it to? I have to charge the thing every night and I don't really use it all THAT much. I think I should be able to get 2 days of battery if it didn't keep launching all this stuff all the time.

Android is supposed to discipline apps on its own--you shouldn't need to run a task manager, contrary to what some techie types will say. Your task killer may be contributing the problem, actually.

I would try removing that and letting the phone handle itself. I don't think that'll give you two days of use without a charge--sorry, few Android phones can manage that. FWIW, I've always found that it's easier to recharge a phone every night than to have to remember if I did that last night or the night before.

I was kind of disappointed in Netflix's release of its new Watch Instantly content from EPIX. I was hoping it would get broken out in its own category the way Netflix does with Starz content. Now I have to dig around to figure out what is new. Any idea why Netflix didn't do a better job or promoting this on its site?

Most of their subscribers don't know and aren't interested in the details of their licensing agreements? It's not like Epix is a name brand on the scale of Starz.

I have read a lot about the openness of Android and to counter that, Android haters have pointed out that the service providers have loaded the devices down with their self-serving applications. What is your opinion on this and how difficult are these applications to remove esp. on Verizon. How does the openness of a Verizon device compare to the iphone and iphone unlocked?

We're talking about two kinds of openness:

1) The ability of developers to ship the software they want for a phone, and;

2) The ability of users to customize the phone as they wish, by adding and removing applications.

Android is far more open on the first point. On the second, Android phones have a problem that the iPhone does not--Apple doesn't let AT&T bundle any junk apps on the device, while all the carriers are at liberty to exercise their bad taste with Android phones. It's true that you can't remove some core iPhone apps. But nobody is going to argue that, say, Sprint's NASCAR app is anywhere as essential as the Mail app on an iPhone.

If you want to compare jailbroken iPhones, though, you also need to factor in Android units that have been "rooted" and updated with homebrewed variants of Android like CyanogenMod.

I've seen confusing messages about when the new upgrade for iPhone OS will be available for download. Can you help me out? Is it next week or in November? Thanks!

iOS 4.1 ships next week, 4.2 in November.

Rob, You might want to recommend the ROKU box to the person who doesn't want to chain their MacBook to their TV to watch MLB streaming. I think the HD version is only $99 plus you can get Netflix, etc. But the MLB streaming is definitely a part of that set-top streaming service.... What I was wondering (without busting your chops) is if you have changed your odds of Apple having a Verizon iPhone (in early 2010 from what I've heard on the Internets)?

True--here's my review of Roku's MLB option from last year. But remember that MLB.tv inflicts location-specific blackouts; I can watch a Dodgers game if I live in D.C. and a Nats game if I live in L.A., but I can't either if the Nats are playing the Dodgers.

Have you ever reviewed phone repair services? I have a cracked screen Storm that I'd like to get fixed, and I'm guessing that I could find a place that would do it for less than VZ will charge, but I can't tell the good guys from potential fly-by-night ripoffs.

I have not. That's another item on my to-do list (after getting some insight on SIM-unlocking services).

FWIW, if you're close to getting out of your contract or getting an upgrade discount, you should limp along with the Storm until then. It's not a good phone compared to what's out now--you can do much better.

I note that the output resolution of the new Apple TV is 720p as opposed to 1080p. Was any discussion of why the lower resolution? And will there be a future update to 1080p? All of the Blu-Ray player output at 1080p. So this seems to be a competitive disadvantage for Apple.

For videophiles, yes. But most people don't care about that. I can't guarantee that I could tell the difference between 720p and 1080p from my couch (my HDTV does 1080p, but I didn't buy it for that reason).

I have a digital TV tuner in my new PC, and I have two FIOS set top boxes for my regular TVs. My outside antenna connected to my PC does not get that good a signal (does not get channel 9 and occasionally not 7). Can I hook up the FIOS to my PC without renting another set top box?

Not likely. If your PC's DTV tuner can also receive unencrypted QAM signals, you can watch the local channels. But for everything else, you'd need a CableCard-compatible tuner. I only know of one for the PC, Ceton's $399 add-on.

Apple's community boards are ablaze with complaints from iTouch owners, especially the iTouch 2g model, and how OS 4 bricks the iTouch. I had to go back to 3.1 to get mine to work. The general consensus is that OS4 just doesn't work for the 2G. I and loads of others are very disappointed that Apple seems to be abandoning the 2G.

If you know Apple, you know they don't place the highest value on backwards compatibility. That said, usually the company simply makes older hardware ineligible instead of shipping an update that (some iPhone 3G owners tell me) bogs down their phones.

Steve Jobs cited improved iPhone 3G performance as a benefit of iOS 4.1. I look forward to hearing from you about whether that's true.

Would like to hang out and chat further, but I need to get Help File done before heading to LAX (and picking up lunch at In-N-Out along the way, of course). Thanks for all the questions--and for those I didn't have time to answer, some of which I'll try to address in a future episode of Help File.

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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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