Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Checking Up: Looking Back at "Looking Ahead"
Time to face the medicine. It's not quite the end of 1999 as I write this, but let's look at the predictions I made in January 1999. In some cases, I'll have to say "not yet known" or "unknowable," but the best predictions aren't disprovable in any case.
Books and Ebooks
Predictions: At least one of four ebook readers announced in 1998 would not make it to market in 1999, none of the readers would sell more than 50,000 units in the open market, and total sales of "books" for all four platforms would be less than one percent of physical book sales in the U.S. Reality: True in all cases. Three right of three predictions.
Predictions: More than one futurist would assert the death of printed books and magazines, at least one pundit would change his or her focus to the "death of physical stores" instead, and at least one person who'd previously predicted the death of books would now assert that nobody ever really said print books were going away. Reality: The first is true (as always), the third is unprovable, and the second turns out to be wrong (in general): pundits are now seeing the virtues of physical stores and talking about "clicks and mortar." One right of three.
Predictions: Revenues for print publishing would grow faster than inflation but slower (in percentage) than digital distribution or PC sales, that fact would be used as a sign of the "inevitable" death of print, and my new book would be published. Reality: true, unclear (and probably false), true. Two of three; six of nine for the section.
Predictions: Quite a few public libraries would get big budget increases, several major new main libraries would be built, public libraries would generally use technology effectively and economically, some libraries would go overboard on new technology, and some would come under attack for moving too rapidly. Reality: true, not yet known, unclear, almost certainly true, and generally false: most attacks on library technology this year have been filter-related, not general. Two of four, one too early to tell.
Predictions: Some public libraries would begin to circulate DVDs, at least one college administration would decide that libraries did need expansion, and dozens of campus administrations would still treat libraries as expensive dinosaurs. Reality: all true, unfortunately including the third. Three of three.
Predictions: Libraries would build new digital collections and would understand them to be entities, not steps toward complete digitization. Reality: true on the first, and the second seems to be a growing trend. Two of two.
Predictions: RLG would introduce new kinds and sources of scholarly information, new ways to make those resources easy to use, and some of the best user interfaces in the library field. Reality: Yes, this is self-serving, but I'll admit that the new Eureka interface continues to be controversial. We did introduce new kinds and sources of information, but haven't yet completed work on making them even easier to use. One of three; eight of 12 for the section.
PCs and Technology
Predictions: Sun and Oracle would proclaim the death of personal computing, twisting the English language in the process, and Network Computers would be worthwhile in niches but wouldn't replace PCs to any significant degree. Three of three, but too easy.
Predictions: PC sales would grow at a healthy rate, at least four of the biggest six desktop PC brands (U.S. revenue) would be among the top six in 1999 but with at least two changes in relative position, and Compaq, Dell, Gateway, and HP would be among the top six U.S. desktop sellers. Reality: true, true, unclear, true. If "changes in relative order" means among the four (actually five) carry-overs, that may be false: Dell passed Compaq, but that may be the only change (with Gateway, IBM, and HP trailing). Three of four.
Predictions: 95% of PCs would still ship with 3.5" microdiskettes, at least 5% and fewer than 10% would ship with other removable drives, Zip drives would continue to be important, LS-120 SuperDrives would not become dominant, Sony's HiFD would become interesting, and at least two removable storage options would essentially disappear. Reality: true, probably false, true, true, false (HiFD hasn't become significant yet), true (Syquest and others). Four of six.
Predictions: CD-RW drives would make strong inroads, CD-RW blanks would drop to $10 each, one to two million CD-RW drives would be sold, and CD-RW might be the most widely installed high-capacity removable drive. Reality: false (inroads, but not strong ones), true and absurdly conservative (CD-RWs have dropped to $2.50), probably true, almost certainly false. Two of four.
Predictions: At least 10 million DVD-ROM drives would be in use, as would two to four million DVD-TV players, and there would be at least 50 but fewer than 200 DVD-ROM titles available for sale by the end of the year. Reality: apparently true, true, false. A fairly exhaustive search turns up 26 total DVD-ROMs available for sale in late November 1999. Two of three.
Prediction: "Divx will disappear like a bad dream." Reality: That was a hope, but unexpectedly it was on the money. One of one.
Predictions: Flat screens would be plausible, would still cost three or four times as much as same-size CRTs, and would be chosen by 5% to 10% of higher-end buyers. A 15" viewable LCD would sell for $600 to $700, while a 16"-viewable Sony Trinitron would sell for $300 to $350. Reality: unclear, true, probably false, false, true. Two of five.
Predictions: Cheap (sub-$1,000) PCs would get half the market, many cheap-PC buyers would move up to midrange PCs, USB peripherals would finally take off, at least two million iMacs would be in use, and people would become aware of the "dark side" of USB's shared bandwidth. Reality: true, apparently false, false, true, true. Three of five.
Prediction: The standard internal mass storage technology would still be magnetic disk, incremental pricing for large IDE disks might drop to a penny per megabyte, and 10GB disks would cost less than $200. Reality: true, true, true but conservative on the last two. Incremental prices are now as low as six-tenths of a cent per megabyte, and 10GB hard disks go for $125 to $135. Three of three.
Prediction: The configuration for the best-value midrange PC from a top maker in November 1999 would include: Pentium-II 500 or faster, 128MB SDRAM, 20GB hard disk, 12 to 16MB display RAM, 18"-viewable CRT or 15"-viewable LCD, S-video TV output, DVD-ROM, choice of CD-RW or Zip drive, high-fidelity speakers with surround sound, V.90 modem and Fast Ethernet, two to four gigabytes of preinstalled software, and either a second-edition Windows 98 or Windows NT5; it would have a Value ratio between 8 and 10. Reality: See "PC Values" below; I'll call this false. Call it Zero for one and 23 of 34 for the section.
When I summed up the predictions, I said that some of them were semi-plausible hopes or unlikely dreams. I count 37 of 55, even calling my overall PC configuration wrong. That's two-thirds. I was hoping to break even. This mostly shows how cautious my predictions were.
PC Values: December 1999
The standard configuration for December includes 128MB SDRAM, 16x or faster CD-ROM, AGP graphics adapter with 8MB SGRAM, V.90 fax/modem or 10/100 Ethernet adapter, wavetable sound card, speakers, and a 15.6-16" (viewable measure) display. (Note the increase in "standard" system RAM.) "Pluses" and "Minuses" are shown where applicable, along with hard disk size and software.
Top, Budget: Micron Millennia C500: Celeron-500, 13.6GB HD. Minuses: no speakers. Extras: MS Office SBE. $1,291, VR 10.28 (+10% since 9/99, +17% since 6/99).
Top, Midrange: Gateway Performance 600: Pentium III-600, 20GB HD. Pluses: 18" display with 16MB display RAM, DVD-ROM. Extras: MS Works Suite 99, Boston Acoustics speakers with subwoofer. $1,999, VR 8.67 (+12% since 9/99, +27% since 6/99).
Top, Power: Gateway Performance 700: Pentium III-700, 27.3GB HD. Similar to midrange, but with 32MB display RAM, home network card. $2,599, VR 7.97 (+14% since 9/99, +21% since 6/99).
Other, Budget: Compaq Presario 5700N-500: Celeron-500, 10GB HD. Minuses: 14" display with no separate display RAM (4MB of system RAM is shared). Extras: MS Home Collection, JBL Pro speakers. $1,099, VR 11.06 (+17% since 9/99, +22% since 6/99).
Other, Midrange: Compaq Presario 5700T-650: Pentium III-650, 13.4GB HD. Like budget, but with 16" display, 32MB display RAM, DVD-ROM. $2,049, VR 7.84 (-5% since 9/99, +5% since 6/99).
Other, Power: Quantex SM667: Pentium III-667, 27GB HD. Pluses: 18" display with 32MB display RAM, CD-RW drive, DVD-ROM. Extras: Altec Lansing Dolby Pro speakers, MS Office 2000 SBE. $2,499, VR 8.46 (+15% since 9/99, +10% since 6/99).
Where's the CD-ROM?
Sometimes the story that isn't being told is more interesting than the intended message. Take, for example, a little graph and paragraph in the October 1999 PC/Computing. The intended message was pretty clear:
"Compact discs are quickly replacing floppies as the ubiquitous removable-storage medium. These days, you can play a CD-ROM on just about any PC you come across; according to ZD InfoBeads, 22.8 million of the 39.1 million PCs purchased in 1998 include a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive."
The graph repeats the same message. I could take issue with "quickly," since CD-ROMs have been around for 15 years now. But I would read the graph and that last clause very differently, as in this alternative quote (which I just made up):
"Astonishingly, even though most important software ships on CD-ROM, more than 40% of the PCs sold last year couldn't read CD-ROMs."
Exactly the same figures, and you could use exactly the same graph. But then, "just about any PC" is a stretch for "not quite three-fifths of the PCs sold last year" by any reasonable standard.
Somogyi, S. (1999), "Where's the fire?," Macworld, November, pp. 108-12.
Whatever happened to FireWire, IEEE-1394? This high-speed external bus was supposed to be a great replacement for SCSI and usher in an era of easy video editing. FireWire offers ten times as much bandwidth as Narrow SCSI (50MBps) and lets you connect 63 devices on one chain. Some Apple computers and some Intel-based computers have had FireWire ports for a couple of years. But, to date, it hasn't meant much of anything.
This article discusses FireWire itself and some of the reasons that it hasn't taken off. It's worth reading if you're interested in high-performance peripherals like digital video cameras. If you're a Sony user, you may know yet a third name for IEEE 1394: i.Link, the same technology but without the power supply that FireWire can include.
Heffernan, C. (1999), "You say you want a revolution," PC World, Vol. 17 No. 11, pp. 199-207.
This lengthy article seven pages of text, with only one two-page ad. in the middle discusses MP3 in some detail with the by-now usual "inevitable" conclusion:
Don't doubt it: The way you purchase and listen to music is about to change radically. The only question is when, and we suspect that it will happen a lot sooner than you think.
Why? You certainly can't figure that out from the article itself. It even says that "few observers think major industry players will make much of their catalog available for digital download anytime soon" but maybe we don't care what we listen to, as long as it's MP3. Who needs the Beatles when you can have the Kansas Cockroaches for free? (If there is such a band, my apologies.)
Naturally, the usual internal contradictions abound. The article pretty much admits that MP3 at typical encoding rates does a lousy job with such rare items as "clarinets, violins, and human voices" but it's just fine for "noisy pop tunes." But then, it continues, "most PCs deliver mediocre sound at best anyway, so if that's what you're working with, you probably won't notice the shortcomings of compressed music." Fine, but then a sidebar claims that 32 to 64MB "translates into a full hour of CD-quality compressed audio." Note the lack of a "near-" there; the sidebar flatly states that 160K or lower MP3 encoding is CD quality. I'll state, equally flatly, that it's not and somehow I'm not willing to limit myself to noisy pop music without human voices.
Bortman, H. (1999), "Mac OS 9," Macworld, December, pp. 70-8.
Waiting for a Mac OS with competent memory handling and true multitasking? You'll have to wait one more version, although Mac OS X may be out by the time this appears. OS 9 seems to be a classic interim release and you have to wonder why it rates a whole-number upgrade.
This detailed article discusses the features that might make OS 9 worth $90 as an upgrade. I found it remarkably unconvincing, but then I'm a Windows user. Bortman doesn't assert that everyone should run out and buy OS 9, and he does give Mac users enough information to let you know whether you should.
Mobile CD-RW Drives
If you think that CD-RW makes more sense than most high-capacity removable formats, here's good news. Several drive makers are now producing CD-RW drives small enough to fit into notebook computers. Gateway is first off the block: they'll offer CD-RW for $200 more than DVD-ROM, $300 more than CD-ROM. Everybody else will follow and it may be this summer before customers outside Japan can get the drives easily.
Is this the Palm-killer? Possibly not, but several magazines have run highly favorable reviews of the Handspring Visor. It was developed by the same people who originally developed the PalmPilot, and it uses the same operating system, CPU, and applications. But it's cheaper ($250 with 8MB memory, as low as $150 with 2MB) and offers a special expansion slot to add modems, programs, and specialized peripherals. It also comes in a variety of colors. One of the best writeups is on pages 41-43 of the 19 October 1999 PC Magazine.
Norton SystemWorks 2000
When Fix-It Utilities 99 came out, PC Magazine's review said that it was more contemporary and better integrated than its competitors. Now Symantec is out with a new SystemWorks, and a couple of reviews suggest that it may be back on top. (Both PC Magazine and PC World praise the integration and general quality of the new version.) In my experience, Fix-It uses fewer resources than the older SystemWorks but is much slower on defragmentation and disk checking, and the virus scanner isn't as sophisticated. If you're already a SystemWorks user, the upgrade sounds sensible (and less intrusive than the old version). As for me ... I've switched back from Mijenix' Fix-It to Norton SystemWorks, and it was the right decision. More on that next month, maybe.
... But not for the Mac!
The Norton Utilities have been almost as important for Macintosh owners as for Windows folk. There's a new Norton Utilities for that platform, 5.0, and it costs as much as (or more than) SystemWorks 2000 but it's a smaller and less impressive package.
Apparently, the previous version was buggy and this one is more stable. The key components are Norton Disk Doctor, Speed Disk, and a group of file and data recovery programs; there's also a disk sector editor that no ordinary user should even consider using. (True on the Windows side as well: direct disk editing is incredibly dangerous work.) Crash Guard disappeared: it may have caused more failures than it prevented. (That was how I felt about Crash Guard in the old SystemWorks, so I believe it.)
That's about it, apparently. Even at $100 ($50 upgrade), Mac owners don't get Norton AntiVirus as part of a bundle: it's a separate program. It does seem to have less system overhead than before again, similarly to the new SystemWorks. A December 1999 Macworld review says it's too expensive as an upgrade but reasonably priced for new users.
Works Suite 2000
"Many home users running Microsoft Office would be better served by Works Suite." That's the final word in Edward Mendson's review of the new Works version in the December 1, 1999 PC Magazine. He may be right.
There's little question that Works Suite is "an amazing bargain" at $100. It's the cheapest way to buy the complete Word 2000, for one thing-but you also get Money 2000 Standard, Home Publishing 2000, Encarta 2000, Expedia Streets and Trips 2000, and a special version of Picture It! Wasn't there something else? That's right: Works, or what's left of it, namely a modest spreadsheet module, database module, calendar, and hundreds of templates, along with a task launcher to integrate everything.
If you need serious spreadsheet power, you need Excel but for most household uses, the combination of Works and Money may offer more than enough power. If Works Suite isn't just the starter program that Works used to be, it's also not modest about space requirements. A typical installation uses 785MB disk space; a full install requires 1.4GB. The set comes on seven CD-ROMs. That may be a bit overwhelming for a homeuser but most of the CDs are for Encarta, Expedia, and the like.
Metz, C. (1999), "Fast PCs," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 21, pp. 100-64.
If you're power-hungry, this roundup is for you. Fifty-one PCs appear here, including half a dozen of the real barn-burners and 45 units ranging from 550 to 650MHz. On average, using ZD Labs' Business Winstone 99 test (which claims to measure performance on typical business applications), these PCs performed about 80% faster than the average power-user Pentium IIIs reviewed in December 1998. Those systems typically ran at 450MHz, so the increase isn't just CPU speed. Some of the new systems have a 133MHz bus; some use newer, faster forms of RAM; most use hot graphics processors, including the new nVidia GeForce 256.
Companies were asked to send the fastest desktop that would still be on the market through the end of 1999; makers using both Pentium-III and Athlon CPUs were allowed to send two models. Minimum specifications included 128MB RAM, 18GB hard disk, 2D/3D graphics card, 16" or larger CRT (or a 15" LCD), V.90 modem or Fast Ethernet card, DVD-ROM drive, and speakers.
Editors' Choice at the highest possible speed is Micron's $2,676 Millennia Max PIII 733/133. It's the fastest machine they've tested, it's easy to set up and upgrade, and it's well priced for the configuration and performance.
Editors' Choice in the "slower" category is Dell's $2,809 Dimension XPS T600, which is just a little slower, includes features such as a CD-RW drive and a year of Internet access, and includes Dell's top-notch support.
Three units receive honorable mention. The $3,210 HP Pavilion 8500 Series (Pentium III-733) comes loaded as a high-end home PC. Gateway's $2,362 Performance 550 (Pentium III-550) is nearly as fast as most 600MHz PCs and attractively priced. Finally, Compaq's $3,330 Presario 5900Z (Athlon-700) is a "gamer's delight." If you're price-sensitive, they suggest the $2,100 ABS DVD Deluxe Edition and the $1,899 Millennia Max PIII 600.
Grotta, D. and Grotta, S.W. (1999), "Digital cameras," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 20, pp. 162-90.
Instead of a trickle, this review covers a flood of affordable digital cameras. The rules were that the cameras had to cost less than $1,000, include LCD viewfinders, macro capability, removable-media capability, built-in flash, and at least one million pixels. Nine of the 19 cameras reviewed broke the two megapixel mark. That's still nowhere near a good 35mm negative (typically scanned at 2000x3000, or six megapixels, on drum scanners), but it's good enough for high-quality full-page prints.
Indeed, the jury that added subjective comments to the objective tests actually preferred some of the digital-camera results to those of a traditional Leica. The Leica scanned image (on Photo CD) and traditional print rated higher on all traditional standards but the jury just loved the "artificially heightened colors of the digital images," as the article puts it. Paul Simon had it right, of course: one reason people loved the old Kodachrome was the "nice bright colors" that slightly heightened reality.
This is a thorough review with fairly detailed discussions of each camera or single-manufacturer's group of cameras. It includes detailed specifications, objective and subjective test results, and a set of output samples. There's enough information to let you draw your own conclusions, which might or might not agree with the two Editors' Choices.
For families and small business, they prefer the $690 Kodak DC280 for image quality and uncluttered design; it's a 2.1-megapixel camera with good battery life and ample storage. The Editors' Choice for enthusiasts and professionals is Olympus' $900 C-2000 Zoom, with a rich set of features, very long battery life, image quality a bit behind the Kodak, and overrides for those who need them. Honorable mention goes to Sanyo's $700 VPC-Z400.
Displays and Graphics Cards
Poor, A. (1999), "The big picture," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 18, pp. 134-48.
This roundup of 19" (18"-viewable) CRTs is unusual in a couple of respects. First, while 36 displays were tested, only 14 are reviewed here. Although all of the displays performed well, DisplayMate measurements were used to choose the "objectively" best group for subjective evaluation.
Second, and most astonishing, none of the "final 14" are either aperture-grille (Trinitron and DiamondTron) or true flat-screen displays (e.g. the most expensive aperture grille displays). Apparently, all of these displays have tiny flaws in screen geometry that knocked them out of consideration although, to many users (including myself), the color quality and other strong aspects of Trinitron displays far outweigh any trivial geometry problems.
So you won't find Sony or Mitsubishi in the winner's circle here: they weren't fully evaluated. Instead, Editors' Choices go to MAG InnoVision's $400 800v and LG's $470 Studioworks 995E. The MAG was liked for its image quality, the LG for its high resolution.
I have the greatest respect for PC Magazine, but this is one case where I'd urge you to look at the displays themselves before deciding.
Silvius, S. (1999), "Eyes on the price," PC World, Vol. 17 No. 11, pp. 187-96.
This roundup began with two dozen so-called 17" (16"-viewable) displays; as usual for PC World, only the top ten are reviewed in any detail. Their two favorites are Mitsubishi's $349 Diamond Plus 71 and Dell's $374 UltraScan P780 both of them aperture-grille displays, as are all but one of the other eight. All but three of the top ten have near-flat tubes.
All ten displays rated well. Four displays tied for third place, barely behind the Dell: Iiyama's $429 VisionMaster Pro 410, Samsung's $359 SyncMaster 700p Plus (the only traditional display in the group), Compaq's $469 P700, and ViewSonic's $398 PT775.
Grotta, S.W. and Grotta, D. (1999), "Easy photo editing," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 19, pp. 60-1.
Reviews of three updated low-priced photo editors, all with improved Web-oriented capabilities. Microsoft's $55 Picture It! 2000 is best for novices, with decent depth for most casual users. Ulead's $50 Photo Express Platinum 2000 has a steeper learning curve and a "kludgy interface" but powerful code, optimized for the Pentium III. MGI's $50 PhotoSuite III Platinum Edition offers a simpler interface than its predecessor, but while it's powerful, it's more difficult to use than competitors. All three programs have more power than you might expect for $50; the first two are $20 cheaper as upgrades.
Muse, D. (1999), "Homeward unbound," FamilyPC, November, pp. 180-8.
This group review deals with "desktop replacements" for family use powerful notebook PCs with big screens and fast CPUs. These aren't systems for road warriors they weigh in at seven to nine pounds but they do offer mobility within the household.
Eight notebooks are reviewed, including most of the biggest names (Compaq, Dell, Gateway, Micron, Toshiba) and some lesser lights (Acer, WinBook, and the unknown Trogon). All of the units use the 400MHz Mobile Pentium II, the fastest notebook CPU when this review was written.
Five of the systems rate 85 or higher (FamilyPC's old cutoff for its "recommended" seal), with three rated Outstanding (90+). All three Outstanding systems have 15" displays (the biggest you can get on a notebook), 8MB graphics RAM, DVD-ROM drives, 10GB or larger hard disks, and at least 128MB RAM. Highest rated is Compaq's $3,199 Presario 1800T-400, with 192MB RAM, an LS120 diskette drive (reading 120MB disks as well as standard microdiskettes), an internal V.90 modem, Ethernet, and a decent software package. Battery life is poor.
Gateway's $3,678 Solo 9300CL comes in second. It also has an internal V.90 modem and loads of other features, and it's lighter than most competitors, with decent battery life. Finally, Micron's $3,299 TransPort NX just makes the Outstanding cut. It comes with an LS120 drive and a larger hard disk than the Compaq and Gateway, but it's heavy and tall, and the DVD-ROM drive is a bit slower than the others.
Thornton, C. (1999), "Notebooks for cheapskates," PC World, Vol. 17 No. 11, pp. 162-82.
This comparison includes 14 notebook computers selling for less than $1,700, although (as usual) detailed information only appears for the top ten unless you go online. PC World's rigid formula only allows for one "Best Buy" in a review like this, and that goes to Compaq's $1,499 Prosignia Notebook 150. Three other first-tier notebooks follow: Toshiba's $1,499 Satellite 2595CDS, IBM's $1,699 ThinkPad I Series 1412, and Gateway's $1,699 Solo 2500SE. The Toshiba is the fastest of the lot and the lightest of the top four, but its screen although slightly larger than the other three uses a passive rather than active display.
Venezia, C. (1999), "The Pentium III goes mobile," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 21, pp. 45-8.
Intel's hottest CPUs are usually just that: "hot" and power-hungry, and inappropriate for notebook PCs as first delivered. The Pentium III has been around for a while, but the Mobile Pentium III just emerged, with low voltage and 256K of full-speed on-chip L2 cache. This early review covers four notebooks with the new CPUs and associated 100MHz bus. The three PIII-500 notebooks perform about 15% better than typical PII-400 notebooks; naturally, you pay a premium for that speed.
All four notebooks are from top vendors. Dell's $4,101 Inspiron 7500 R500VT gets the Editors' Choice for personal use: it's big and heavy (10.3 pounds travel weight), but it has an unusually high resolution 15" screen and is well equipped as a desktop replacement. For corporate users, HP's $4,050 OmniBook 4150 gets the nod, primarily for its management features.
Poor, A. (1999), "Personal printers," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 18, pp. 177-237.
These must be tough times for PC Magazine or maybe printers have improved so much that the old rules don't apply. You don't get print samples for each of the 55 printers in this roundup, which seems like a shame. Clearly, the glory days of the old PC Magazine Annual Printer Issue are gone.
What about the printers? "Personal" in this case includes all color inkjet printers, laser printers costing $1,000 or less, and multifunction printers designed for personal use.
A glance at the quality-speed graph and scorecard for inkjet printers shows that some things don't change very much. The upper right hand quadrant of the graph (best quality, fastest speed) is entirely populated by a scattered group of five Hewlett-Packard printers. On the scorecard, with three criteria and the latest service and reliability rating, the only printers scoring all "Excellent" and "A" for service are two Epson Stylus models and four HP models. You'll pay $200 for the cheapest all-excellent HP DeskJet, $280 for the cheapest all-excellent Epson, and it's rarely a good idea to pay much less than $200 for a color inkjet. The Editors' Choices are predictable: the $250 HP DeskJet 882C for homes and small offices, the $1,000 HP 2500Cxi for business use. Honorable mentions go to Epson and HP: the $80 Epson Stylus Color 440 for home use, the $280 Epson Stylus Color 860 for offices, and the $380 HP DeskJet 970Cse, the first personal-priced inkjet printer with automatic duplex printing.
HP's fallen a little behind in lasers. Here, the Editors' Choice is NEC Technologies' $800 SuperScript 1800, which prints 17 pages per minute and includes internal duplexing. Honorable mention goes to the $999 QMS magicolor 2 DeskLaser: a color laser printer for less than $1,000! Finally, if you want an all-in-one unit, the $800 HP OfficeJet R80 gets the Editors' Choice for overall excellence.
Speech Recognition Software
Alwang, G. (1999), "Speech recognition," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 21, pp. 167-88.
This roundup includes all four of the major continuous-speech recognition vendors. In each case, the software has been upgraded recently, and final accuracy has improved across the board. Even the worst program (and "worst" tester) achieved at least 92% accuracy over time, while the two top programs achieved 96% and 98% accuracy. If you're a touch typist without RSI, that's still not good enough to replace your keyboard: throughput (including corrections) averaged about 35 words per minute with Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the Editors' Choice. Then again, for quite a few people, 35 words per minute would be good throughput if they'll take the time to clean up the output from these programs.
While programs improved across the board, the final results will surprise few readers. Dragon NaturallySpeaking Preferred 4.0 gets the Editors' Choice for intuitive editing and very good accuracy. IBM's ViaVoice Pro Millennium Edition gets an honorable mention: it has the best accuracy, but it's much less usable.
Glinert, S. (1999), "Power talking," Computer Shopper, Vol. 19 No. 11, pp. 332-6.
Is speech recognition software nearing the limit for accuracy? That's not clear, but at 95 percent (Dragon NaturallySpeaking Preferred 4.0), it may not be far away. I believe the ambiguities of the language bar perfect recognition and if typing is troublesome or impossible, having to correct five words out of a hundred isn't bad.
This overview covers the latest versions of four major continuous-speech recognition programs, all priced at $150 to $180, all needing fairly powerful PCs with lots of RAM. The stated requirements aren't necessarily extreme (at worst, a Pentium II-233 and 48MB RAM), but you're much better off with fully contemporary hardware (400MHz or better) and 64MB RAM is minimal, particularly if you want to dictate directly into Word. Basically, any new PC with adequate RAM will do just fine; if your PC is more than a year old, it may struggle. Most of these programs will take advantage of the Pentium III's enhanced instruction set, but don't require those instructions.
The review awards Best Buy honors to IBM's ViaVoice Pro Millennium because it offers the best flexibility and command recognition but Dragon's program continues to be the most accurate on the market.
What of the other two competitors? Lernout & Hauspie's Voice Xpress Professional 4.0 had stability problems and never achieved better than 85% accuracy in these tests not good enough to be worth the trouble. Philips' FreeSpeech 2000 isn't as broadly useful as ViaVoice and NaturallySpeaking, although it was reasonably accurate and stable.
Think of this as Part I of a two-part report. The second part will appear in the June/July EContent Magazine, in my "CD-ROM Corner" column. With luck, you'll see the occasional DVD-ROM review here in future months; that depends on the publishers. Most of the DVD-ROMs I've received to date were forwarded by the editor of EContent and are a little out of date. The exception, reviewed here, is problematic in other ways.
|Encarta Reference Suite 2000 DVD|
|Provisional rating:***: Very Good |
|Windows, ISBN 0-7356-0102-X|
Take the vastly enlarged Encarta Encyclopedia 2000. Add Encarta's first-rate Virtual Globe, now called Interactive World Atlas 2000. Add the new Encarta World English Dictionary bundled with a reference collection similar to Microsoft Bookshelf. Put them all together, add crosslinks between the three products and you have a five-CD suite. What happens when you put that suite on a single DVD-ROM?
Ideally, you should have a first-rate reference product. Encarta's atlas is the best on the market (of those I've seen). While Encarta itself began with Funk & Wagnall's text, it's gone far beyond that. For example, the "Library" article in this suite is 50,000 words longand signed by 17 noted librarians. The new Encarta World Dictionary is controversial, but the set of reference works further enhances a good combination.
You actually get more than the "five CDs" that the box claims. PowerDesk sees the DVD-ROM as having 6.22GB of data: the equivalent of nine or ten CD-ROMs. The extra space is easy enough to explain: DVD videos take up more than 3.4GB, in addition to lower-quality videos from the regular suite. That comes out to 90 minutes or more of high-quality full-screen video.
This is an enormous product. Total text is now asserted to be 42 million words more than twice the bulk of last year's suite. The encyclopedia has become a much deeper resource, although some additions (such as all the articles from 30 years of Collier's Yearbook) seem a little odd. Many sidebar articles enrich already-rich articles, and media (25,000 illustrations, 3,500 audio clips, a few dozen videos) are well integrated. The DVD-quality videos range from very good to superb; much of the original footing is remarkable, and the historic footage is well chosen.
The atlas seems to have even better maps than the 1998 version, and they've upped the place-name index to cover 1.7 million places. Statistical views and background continue to be first-rate.
So what's the catch and, in particular, why the provisional rating? Because all of this doesn't help much if the suite won't install properly or crashes all the time. I had one fortunate session in which almost everything worked but any attempt to use the Find capability in the Atlas bought an immediate crash. The rating above is based on that session, with points taken off for a cumbersome, slow, and uninformative installation process.
That was the "fortunate session," however. After checking Microsoft's support site for hints about the atlas problem, I uninstalled and reinstalled the system. And reinstalled the system. After more than five hours of messing around, advice from Microsoft, trying two sets of patches, and two rounds of assuring myself that my PC was in good condition, I was never again able to get the applications to perform properly. The pieces that did work were spectacular but the sheer difficulty of getting it going was outrageous. For you, it may be troublefree and excellent.
|Funk & Wagnalls Unabridged Encyclopedia Deluxe DVD Edition|
|***: Very Good |
|Price unknown (OEM edition)|
|Community Network Systems|
I don't know whether this DVD-ROM has been sold at retail. It was bundled with some DVD-ROM drives and PCs, and although dated is copyright 1998. It's a prime example of just what DVD-ROM can do for an encyclopedia.
It's hard not to be familiar with the text. Encarta began with Funk & Wagnalls text, and InfoPedia uses Funk & Wagnalls text. Without the DVD material, this would be an adequate but not exciting product. AutoPlay works properly both for installation and operation. The interface follows Windows standards and scales automatically to any size screen. Articles appear in clean serif text, using your choice of several different sizes. The normal screen layout has a left pane for searches and result lists, a right pane for articles and media, but you can expand the right pane to fill the screen.
Media include some 13,000 photos, well chosen and presented in roughly half-screen size; 160 speech excerpts and quotations; 228 flags; and 637 maps.
There are also 63 animations, 333 pieces of music (decent MIDI anthems and a few dozen other musical excerpts), and 122 sounds (e.g. animal cries). Musical excerpts are in stereo, much better quality than has been typical for multimedia CD-ROMs, and they tend to run reasonably long some taking more than a minute.
Then there are the videos: 131 in all. Some are traditional PC videos, offered as half-screen but scalable (with artifacts) to fill a screen. The rest are DVD video with Dolby Digital sound; they appear in a separate 640x480 window, and they range from quite good to absolutely first rate. The DVD videos take up 3.2GB of the disc's total 4.1GB: they represent the major gain from using DVD.
There are two special features. One offers descriptions of a large number of inventions, displayed as Web pages (but with content stored as HTML files on disc). The other is a 19-minute "Space Basics" video, appearing as a true DVD video and using 500MB disc space. I watched the first third of the video; it's quite well done, and much of it appears to have been filmed during a Space Shuttle mission.
Take away the DVD videos (including "Space Basics") and you have a single CD-ROM, roughly 500MB in all. It would be an adequate home encyclopedia, with better sound quality than some but fewer multimedia features than the competition. DVD makes the video clips much more compelling and the "Space Basics" documentary would hardly be worth offering in a tiny little QuickTime window.
|Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1999 Deluxe DVD|
|****: Excellent |
|Windows 98: ISBN 0-7172-3434-7|
While this DVD-ROM has been replaced by the 2000 edition, it's worth evaluating and unless Grolier has messed up the next edition, it's probably worth buying.
First, the mechanics. The DVD supports AutoPlay and offers a polite set of options, including the choice of a very small install or a 75MB default install. It installed rapidly and without difficulty. Once installed, AutoPlay works without activating Setup: that's ideal. The interface scales to fit any screen, and it's a simple, extremely clear interface that devotes most space to articles.
The first time it starts, you see DVD in action: a striking video on "1998 in review," nearly six minutes of well-chosen full-screen video, narration, and stereo sound. On many computers mine included that means you should run this product at 800x600, at least the first time around: DVD video only contains that much information, and attempts to interpolate to a larger screen appear to require hardware MPEG2 assistance, more video RAM than I have, or both. (That's true for all DVD products, not just this one.) There's a straightforward setting to turn off the introductory video after the first session.
Grolier's is well regarded as a school encyclopedia. The articles aren't as lengthy as in Encarta but offer well-organized, well-written coverage. I didn't test the Internet options, but they offer unique expansion: you can link to both the Encyclopedia Americana and New Book of Knowledge online, as well as to 21,000 "Grolier-approved" Web sites and monthly article updates. The availability of Americana offers remarkable added depth, if you need it.
The weakest part of this encyclopedia, in my opinion, is also one of the most important: text display. You can choose type sizes from 6 to 30 points, making it particularly useful as a large-type product, but the typeface used seems crude. It would be wonderful if you could select your own TrueType typeface but then, Encarta's type (while crisper) is no great bargain either.
Encyclopedia articles don't integrate media as effectively as Encarta; instead, there's one box to click through available elements, or you can click on a tab for a list of all available media. All articles I checked were signed, with brief author credentials, and major articles included bibliographies. Pictures (some 15,000) are presented beautifully when enlarged, and seemed crisp even when expanded to full screen at 1280x1024. Maps (1,200) are plentiful, well made, and (in many cases) interactive.
There's a lot of video content (163 videos in all). It's not all DVD, but with 2.5GB of DVD data (mostly repeated in different chunks for easy use), there's more than an hour of full-screen video along with useful smaller video essays. One DVD video is astonishing: a nine-minute tour de force on Apollo 11, starting with Kennedy's relevant speech and including beautifully organized historic footage.
The box claims 15 hours of sound, and that's probably true, but it's a mixed bag. Classical music is remarkably well represented, with some pieces offered as MIDI arrangements and others in stereo recordings. A fair sampling of world music appears in true stereo; while there's nowhere near the variety of Encarta, the quality of presentation is better. Speeches, MIDI national anthems, animal sounds, and others round out the audio offerings. Uniquely, national anthems include scrolling lyrics. There are also 100 panoramas, scrollable "virtual reality" images of Stonehenge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and similar sites.
Ten timelines offer introductory video essays, textual essays, and many individual elements, and can be switched to lists of events that can be searched by year. Interactivities invite you to explore a high-interest topic in considerable depth, while the "knowledge tree" offers a hierarchical subject index for articles, media, or both. Naturally, there's a full-scale dictionary. The box includes an interesting study guide for home and classroom use, offering some 60 topical research activities.
This appears to be another dual-layer disc, totaling 7.1GB. Roughly 4.6GB of that is DVD content, but that still leaves more than 2GB the equivalent of three full CD-ROMs. I suspect that audio clips and some non-DVD videos have been upgraded for the DVD version; it's even possible that the graphics are more detailed, although I haven't looked at the CD version to test that theory.
This is a less ambitious product than the Encarta Suite. I believe there's a little less video (and considerably less original footage); there are a lot fewer pictures (although more than anyone would reasonably need); and, while the sound quality of musical excerpts is better, Grolier's lacks substantial samples of contemporary nonclassical music. The "Rock" article has lots of photos but no sound.
But it all works, and it's impossible to get lost or confused. The interface is simple and clear, the pictures are superbly presented, all of the extras relate back to the primary encyclopedia and it never caused my system to complain. I didn't find myself rushing to uninstall it.
I suspect that, if the Encarta Suite had installed and worked properly on my system, I'd like it even better than this one but I'm sure I'd appreciate the simplicity and clarity of Grolier. It's a fine product.
Crawford's Corner is written by Walt Crawford, an information architect at the Research Libraries Group, Inc. (RLG). Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG or MCB University Press. Comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs for review should be sent to Walt Crawford, RLG, 1200 Villa Street, Mountain View, CA 94041-1100; Windows only. Visit my Web site: http://home.att.net/~walt.crawford