Crawford's Corner

Library Hi Tech News

ISSN: 0741-9058

Publication date: 1 March 2000

Citation

Crawford, W. (2000), "Crawford's Corner", Library Hi Tech News, Vol. 17 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/lhtn.2000.23917cab.001

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited


Crawford's Corner

Perspective

Why2K? Because We Like You!

Maybe Mickey Mouse is as good a symbol as any for the whole millennium nonsense. I'm writing this on January 1, 2000--which is what Windows 98 said it was as I booted normally, using the power that didn't go off, after having breakfast using our normally working water system, and checking some Web sites through the telephone system that's working just fine. A few random observations seem appropriate:

  • The most remarkable thing about the turn of the year may have been the international TV broadcasts that began a little before midnight in New Zealand or Kiribati. Peter Jennings tried to continue Walter Cronkite's "Old Iron Butt" tradition by hosting 22 hours of special television, particularly special because it was all about celebration and cultural differences. I can't remember when so much television time and technical expertise has gone toward a positive end rather than towards covering war and disaster. Live television from the South Pole. Live television from Easter Island, the Parthenon, the pyramids at Giza, Bethlehem, Las Vegas, Auckland, Beijing, and dozens of other places. A consortium that included ABC and PBS (frequently showing the same coverage) as well as the BBC and networks around the world. It was wonderful, and I'd love to see it happen more often.

  • How did your local metropolitan daily do? The San Francisco Chronicle had several lengthy first-rate reports covering various aspects of the events, with dozens of reporters and consistently interesting writing and editing. It was a fine example of what makes good daily papers special: a package of news and perspective offered faster than any magazine but with enough time for background.

  • Then there's the International Fearmongering Consortium, otherwise known as the Big Y2K Consultants. The only really downbeat story in today's paper was (surprise, surprise) a set of comments from Y2K consultants assuring us all that we just hadn't seen the disasters yet. Expect transportation to be disabled on Monday, skyscrapers with no heating or internal communications, frogs raining from the sky...well, OK, I made that last one up. Are there big consultancies desperate to keep getting the easy money they earned all last year? I would hate to be so cynical, but there's a gulf between the truth (that glitches in computer software will turn up from time to time--just as they always have) and the fearmongering. Almost unbelievably, one Top Authority said that by the end of March we might know whether we're pulling out of this or whether we're getting in deeper. Pulling out of what? Continued prosperity and the willingness to solve problems as they arise?

  • Too many commentators decided to show how much smarter they are by informing us that the millennium really begins on 1 January 2001 - as does the twenty-first century. The craziest among these know-it-alls will even claim that this year is the last year of the Nineteen Hundreds, which is just plain stupid. One of the best comments I saw was from Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog Science Fiction and Science Fact, and I'll use that quote to end this perspective:

    "A millennium is just a thousand years - any thousand years..... The "Second Millennium" is almost universally understood to mean "those four-digit dates beginning with 1," i.e., 1000-1999. Sure, that means that there's one anomalous 'millennium' that's one year short. That doesn't bother me any more than the fact that a 'month' is commonly considered a unit of time but can have four different actual lengths.... If it bothers you, celebrate whenever you like."

PC Values: January 2000

January's standard configuration includes 64MB SDRAM, 24x or faster CD-ROM, AGP (128-bit) accelerator with 8MB SGRAM, V.90 modem or Ethernet adapter, a 15.9-16" viewable display (usually called 17"), and wavetable sound with stereo speakers. Unfortunately, some systems don't meet that long-standing standard (which is unusual), and values have generally declined since December 1999.

That's partly because of fluctuating RAM prices. For "other" computers, it may also be related to a phantom vendor in some earlier listings: CrossLine has apparently disappeared without a trace. This is one of those interesting months when top-vendor values are distributed across all three of the top direct vendors.

  • Top Budget: Dell Dimension L433c: Celeron-433, 4.3GB HD. Minuses: 13.8" display, no specified display RAM. Extras: MS Works Suite 99, Harmon-kardon speakers. $899, VR 9.55 (+6% since 10/99, +8% since 7/99).

  • Top, Midrange: Gateway Performance 550: Pentium III-550, 20GB HD. Pluses: 128MB SDRAM, 16MB display RAM, DVD-ROM, Boston Acoustics speakers with subwoofer. Extras: MS Works Suite 99. $1,899, VR 8.68 (+2% since 10/99, +15% since 7/99).

  • Top, Power: Micron Millennia Max 733: Pentium III-733, 27GB HD. Pluses: 128MB SDRAM, 18" display with 32MB SGRAM, DVD-ROM, Monsoon speakers with subwoofer. Extras: MS Office 2000 SBE, Zip-100 drive. $2,692, VR 7.87 (-4% since 10/99, +18% since 7/99).

  • Other, Budget: Quantex M500c: Celeron-466, 8GB HD. Minuses: no stated display RAM. Extras: WordPerfect Office 2000. $899, VR 11.41 (-4% since 10/99, +21% since 7/99).

  • Other, Midrange: CyberMax Enthusiast K7-700: Athlon-700, 20GB HD. Pluses: 128MB SDRAM, 18" display with 16MB display RAM, DVD-ROM, Altec Lansing speakers with subwoofer. Extras: WordPerfect Office 2000. $1,999, VR 9.09 (-17% since 10/99, +8% since 7/99).

  • Other, Power: Quantex SM733/677: Pentium III-677, 27GB HD. Pluses: 128MB SDRAM, 18" display with 32MB SGRAM, DVD-ROM, Altec Lansing speakers with subwoofer and surround. Extras: MS Office 2000 SBE, CD-RW drive. $2,499, VR 8.15 (-3% since 10/99, +11% since 7/99).

Perspective

A Mediocre Magazine Gets Worse

When PC/Computing began (a dozen years ago!), it looked promising. The first few issues seemed to offer fresh insights into personal computing, a brash complement to the same publisher's PC Magazine. As long-time readers will know, it didn't take long for me to become disillusioned. PC/Computing moved to an editorial stance that always crowned a single winner in every review roundup, worked on the assumption that readers didn't want to make their own judgments, and seemed to favor snideness over perspective. I continued to read it, but rarely cited much from its pages except as an object of ridicule.

That's all changed. As of December 1999, PC/Computing is no longer a snide, mean-spirited personal computing magazine for people who just want to be told what's best. Now, it's a snide, mean-spirited business magazine for the kind of people who talk on cell phones at restaurants - or who, following the December 1999 issue's advice, work on their laptop computers while driving. (I'm not kidding. One of their blurbs is for the Go Office AutoExec portable desk, which attaches to the steering wheel and lets you put your notebook computer and related papers on the passenger seat. To quote the article, "Go Office warns that the AutoExec's steering wheel attachment is meant for use only when the car is parked, but like most rules it's superseded by your need to squeeze every ounce of productive time out of your day." And, one sentence later, "While suburbs and strip malls zoom past, you tap out e-mail.")

Another article touts the idea of copying your CDs to hard disk in MP3 format. "You never have to mess with the original disc again - go sell it to the local used record store." If you've copied and retained the contents of the disc, selling it is a form of piracy. Of course, it becomes clear that piracy is only a bad thing if it happens to you, the reader. If you're doing it to someone else - well, that's the breaks.

I would say that it's sad to see a good magazine go bad - but PC/Computing hasn't been a good magazine (by my standards) for years now. It's astonishingly successful (more than a million circulation), which suggests that there are a lot of people who want to be told what to buy and who think they're more important than anyone else. This is the magazine for them. The "A List," formerly an enormous waste of space tabulating the magazine's One Best Choice for all kinds of PC hardware and software, has now expanded to cover business services and other areas wholly outside the apparent knowledge base of the magazine's editors. Did you know Delta was the best airline (Delta?) and Marriott the best hotel chain? That Qwest should be your long distance company and FedEx your delivery service? Now you know.

I'm not opposed to private enterprise. I work for a private company. My wife and I own stock, both directly and through our retirement plans. I also know that "business" does not automatically equate with the kind of me-first, "screw ethics and everyone else," "destroy the competition at all costs" attitude in the new and improved PC/Computing. I've been reading Industry Standard since it first appeared. For some reason I'm now getting Fast Company free. Both magazines are entirely devoted to business affairs with a technological bent. In both cases, I see more humanity, more awareness that life usually isn't a zero-sum game, more emphasis on doing things well than on crushing competitors, and better writing.

A millennial postscript (written on 1 January 2000). I went through the second issue of the redesigned PC/Computing yesterday, which took me 20 minutes. It was no better than the first. Finally, as perhaps the only New Year's Resolution I'll keep, I said, "I'd rather waste time on things like good fiction and TV shows than on bad magazines," and resolved that I'd be rid of Paul Somerson's eternal sneer, and canceled my subscription. It will take a lot longer to read Fast Company than the time I save not skimming through PC/Computing, but it's a good tradeoff.

Press Watch

Dwight, V. (1999), "A guide to raising kids in the information age," FamilyPC, November, pp. 87-102.

I have mixed feelings about this whole section--but then, I don't have children. The eight pages of article text offer commentary about development, appropriate computer use, and "toys that teach" for four different age groups: 0 to 3, 3 to 5, 5 to 7, and 7+. One encouraging factor is that they admit that toddlers (0-3) shouldn't be using computers at all - they should be learning to use their bodies and exploring the real word around them. Even so, a sidebar suggests a piece of "lapware" to get the little nerds started early.

For the next age group, I almost feel that the magazine is arguing with itself. Increasingly, sensible advisors say that kids should spend more time playing with each other, not sitting at a computer--and yet, one paragraph here ends, "Chances are your child will find the computer pretty fascinating, but if not, it's no big deal. Try again at a later time." They do go on to say you should limit computer time--but shouldn't preschoolers still be enjoying real life?

Naturally, any kid five years or older should be putting in those keyboard sessions and learning that what really counts is what's on the little screen. After all, this is FamilyPC (emphasis on "PC"). (That's not entirely fair; one paragraph in this section does say, "You should still monitor computer use, of course, and make sure kids who spend an hour with a favorite CD-ROM counter that by running around outside rather than hopping in front of the TV.")

Some advice is consistent: don't choose software that just offers flashcard equivalents or rote learning; do work toward real-world problem-solving capabilities.

I said "mixed feelings" - there's a lot of good advice in this section, and maybe every kid really does need lots of PC time. There's one other aspect of the article that bothered me, and I can't tell whether it was accidental - although I've never questioned the editorial ethics of Ziff Davis. To wit, the eight pages of article are interlarded with eight full-page ads, all for the same company (kbkids.com) - and the combination almost makes the whole section look like an advertorial. A greater diversity of ads might have been less unsettling.

Dvorak, J. (1999), "One child, one laptop," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 20, p. 83.

If you stop right at the headline, you've got most of the story. Dvorak really believes that "each child in the country should be equipped with a ruggedized laptop that will be upgraded every three years, beginning in the fourth grade." Why? He doesn't say. The kiddies will take these computers everywhere - all classrooms will, of course, be Ethernet-equipped to every desk. "All tests, writing, and note taking would be done on the keyboard. There is no question that one day a classroom will look like this." Of course, with the open laptop hogging each desk, there may not be room for books or creative materials - but hey, this is the computer generation!

As far as I can tell, Dvorak has never heard the growing questions as to whether childhood education should be heavily computer-based. Would kids who do all their writing and note-taking on laptops ever be able to write legibly? Does it matter?

I wonder. When I've tried to take notes on a laptop while listening to a presentation, it hasn't worked well: I don't pay full attention to the presentation. But then, I'm an old fogey--sort of like John Dvorak, but without his willful immersion in the Wonderful World of Computers.

Wise, N. (2000), "PC reliability & service: no safety net," PC World, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 143-52.

I continue to have problems with PC World's survey methodology, but this article does provide a long discussion of 1999's results with loads of anecdotes. Ratings only appear for 15 companies, but that includes most brands you'd be likely to consider.

The good news is that none of the 15 brands ranked Poor this time around: Acer's performance has improved to Fair for home PCs. Thus, if "fair" is good enough (and given today's reliability, it may be), any name brand may do.

If you want good or better, you probably know the drill: forget Compaq and NEC across the board. Among work PCs, Dell gets the sole Outstanding, while Gateway, HP, IBM, and Micron rate Good. For home PCs, Dell gets another Outstanding; CyberMax, Quantex, and Sony join Gateway, IBM, and Micron in the Good ranks while HP falls to Fair. Finally, nobody rates Outstanding for notebooks; Dell, Gateway, IBM, and Micron are the only ones to merit Good ratings.

Perspective

Five Years On

This series began just over five years ago, with Trailing Edge Notes in Library Hi Tech News 120 (March 1995). Back then, the section was somewhat less than five pages and always appeared at the end of each issue. As space permits, I'll look back at those first issues, noting some of the changes.

The lead perspective for March 1995, "The cost of color," noted that color printing finally made sense for anyone with use for it. Prices for the best inkjet printers have only come down a bit, but the quality has improved substantially. Plain paper works better (and 24-pound inkjet paper is now reasonably priced), print resolution has gone up (for both inkjet and laser), and some printers now offer quality that's so close to photographic that it's good enough for most uses.

Tricky speed comparisons between PowerPC Macs and Pentium PCs are nothing new: they were hot news even then. I made fun of an article that suggested $1 per megabyte as a good price to look for in IDE hard disks, saying that $0.60 to $0.75 was more reasonable; now, of course, good disks cost around a penny a megabyte.

Moving on to April 1995, I started with a pessimistic discussion of CD-ROMs as circulating items for libraries - an essay that I could rerun today with almost no changes. "PC watch" included definitions for top, 2nd-tier, and other companies, which I've refined every year (finally dropping "2nd-tier" in 1999). Companies below the top group haven't all done that well. February 1995 best values for the 2nd tier came from Insight and Acer, while Midwest Micro and USA Flex provided the best "other" values. Acer's still around, and Midwest Micro still distributes PCs, but not with its own brand name.

The closing essay for April was partly self-promotion for Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness, and Reality and included a paragraph that still makes sense to me:

"If you were counting on Project Xanadu, Project Gutenberg, the Universal Scholar's Workstation, or any equally grand scheme, you're in for loads of disappointments. If you want to integrate new media with old, build effective collection-sharing mechanisms (from book vans to Ariel and beyond), make open borrowing meaningful, and do things with digital media that can't be done traditionally, you should have fascinating and frequently satisfying years ahead."

Finally, consider the humble PC and how it has changed. I can't do a direct value comparison, but let's look at the best-value "midrange" system for February 1995 (when I established criteria for "top" vendors) and how it compares to an identically priced system from the same vendor in January 2000. (The system described here isn't the best value "midrange" system, but is closer in price to the January 1995 system.)

Then: Gateway 2000 P5-60 Family PC: Pentium-60, 256K cache, 8MB RAM, 540MB hard disk, 2x CD-ROM, 13"-viewable display with 1MB graphics RAM, 16-bit sound card, speakers, V.32bis fax/modem (28.8K), Microsoft Works and Encarta, and Windows 3.1: $2,099.

Now: Gateway Performance 600: Pentium III-600, 512K cache, 128MB SDRAM, 20GB 7200RPM hard disk, 8x DVD-ROM, 18"-viewable display with 16MB graphics RAM, SoundBlaster Live! Sound card, Boston Acoustics speakers with subwoofer, V.90 (56K) fax/modem, MS Works Suite 99, and Windows 98 SE: $2,099.

The CPU has ten times the clock speed, but is significantly more powerful per cycle. You get twice the cache, 16 times as much (faster) RAM, 37 times as much disk space (with much faster access), seven times the "CD" capacity and probably 12 to 16 times the speed, a much bigger display (92 percent more display space) with 16 times as much display RAM, a faster modem, and a much better sound system. While both systems come with MS Works, Works Suite 99 is a far more impressive product that includes the full Microsoft Word, Encarta Deluxe, and other software as well.

The P5-75 was a good computer for January 1995. The Performance 600 is a barn-burner. Times do change.

Product Watch

That's not an iMac; it's an eOne

Sure, it's an all-in-one desktop computer with a translucent blue case and a 15" (14"-viewable) display. Yes, it has two USB ports, Ethernet, a modem, and a CD-ROM drive. But it also has a diskette drive, external controls for the CD-ROM, video inputs, a home network adapter, and a lower price: $849 before a $50 rebate. It comes from eMachines, it runs Windows 98 on its Celeron-433 with 64MB SDRAM, and Apple's suing. (Gateway has introduced a similar all-in-one unit, but is not using a translucent blue case. Will Apple sue the larger Gateway? Only time will tell.)

Or is it an iBook?

Is translucent plastic really what Apple needs to make a computer insanely great? Maybe not, based on Macworld's surprising January 2000 review of the iBook. The phrase immediately below the product name may be all you need to hear: "Big, heavy portable offers lots of style but limited substance."

It's certainly flashy, with its white translucent cover and bright bumpers - although more than one commentator has noted that it looks a lot like a toilet seat and cover. The housing is apparently impact resistant, and the computer turns on automatically when you open its clamshell case. And $1,599 is a "breakthrough price for a Mac portable." But it's also slow, underconfigured (32MB memory, 3GB hard disk, no PC Card slots), and both big and heavy. While the 12" screen is apparently quite good, it's in a case that should be big enough for a 15" screen.

If you're waiting for an invidious comparison to comparably priced Windows notebooks, you'll have to keep waiting. $1,599 is a tough price for a notebook computer; I don't find any name-brand Windows notebooks at that price that offer substantially better configurations. It's the portability penalty, and neither Apple nor its competitors have found ways around it.

Webcentric Computing

Ready for Web apps? That's the title of Jim Seymour's 2 November 1999 PC Magazine column - and it's the theme of that issue's cover story, "Send out for software." I think both are worth reading, but take the latter with a small bushel of salt. "Rentable and even free applications over the Internet are going to change the way you acquire and use software." That's the teaser sentence for the big story. I find some odd assumptions in the article - for example, it seems to assert that you don't need training or support if you're using a Web-based word processor or database, while you do if it's on your own PC. Why exactly would that make a difference?

Still, do read the article, if only so you're prepared to deal with the nutcases who say you can toss your PCs, buy thin clients, and save a bundle. Then look at the byline on the article and go back to Jim Seymour's column--where he's arguging with himself! He wrote the big story, but he takes his own platform to say why he would hate to be dependent on Web applications for word processing, spreadsheets, graphics, and the like. In this case, I'm on the side of Seymour the columnist rather than Seymour the article writer.

Net Appliances

I don't quite get it. The January 2000 PC World offers a two-page article introducing four "Net appliances" and touting them as better choices than PCs for those cases where you just want to access the Net. They describe the laborious process of checking a stock on the Net: "Better boot up the PC, wait for Windows to load, dial in to your ISP, launch the browser...you get the idea." Of course, they've been pushing high-speed "always on" access, and if you're so hot for stock prices you could have your PC running all the time-but never mind.

Here's the Netpliance Iopener with a small (presumably passive) color display, keyboard, and $199 price (plus mandatory $22 ISP contract with Netpliance). You're stuck with a proprietary browser, an undersized screen, no sound, no way to download anything, no printer-and somehow I still think the Iopener will have to dial up when you want to use it. It's only a little more compact than an iMac, Astro, or Profile, but it's a whole heck of a lot cheaper and less capable than those machines.

Qubit's Web Tablet costs more ($350 plus an ISP contract) and isn't necessarily a lot more compact, but it's wireless. Vtech offers a couple of cheap handheld units (one with a base unit as well) that are far too small for Web browsing but might be adequate for e-mail-and, of course, you're required to use Vtech as your ISP.

Jupiter Communications assures us all that US households will have 37 million Net appliances in 2002. Maybe.

Review Watch

Desktop Computers

Apiki, S. (1999), "A PC named desire," FamilyPC, Vol. 6 No. 12, pp. 183-92.

The subtitle is "lavish computers for large allowances" and features the top home-oriented computers from six major computer companies (and one lesser-known outfit). Features change fast at this level: the fastest Pentium III units were 600MHz, but by the time the review reached print comparable models used 700MHz CPUs. (There is one 700MHz CPU in the roundup, but it's an AMD Athlon.) The median price in the roundup is $3,300, with one selling for almost $4,000. These are overconfigured and overpowered for average users, but show what's plausible for home use.

Five of the seven units reach the 85 rating that represents FamilyPC's traditional cut-off level for Recommended status; none reaches an "Outstanding" 90. Sony's $2,998 VAIO Digital Studio comes closest at 89 for its video editing features, great monitor and (presumably) low cost, although it's slower than most competitors and has mediocre speakers. It's one of three units with IEEE-1394 (FireWire) support (Sony calls it i.Link); oddly, the other two are the lowest-rated units. It includes a fine Sony 18" Trinitron display and CD-RW drive, but its hard disk is a little smaller than most (a "mere" 17GB) and its ATI Rage 128GL graphics aren't quite today's best.

Tied for second place with 87 points are Dell's $2,649 Dimension XPS T600 and HP's $3,439 Pavilion 8500. Both include 600MHz Pentium IIIs, 128MB RAM (as do all seven PCs), 20GB hard disks, nVidia RIVA TNT2 graphics with 32MB RAM, DVD-ROM, three-part speaker systems, and Zip drives. The HP includes a CD-RW drive and uses a 15" LCD display; the Dell offers low price and a good 18"-viewable display.

The lesser-known $3,999 Falcon Northwest Mach V and Gateway's $3,295 Performance 600xl tie for fourth with 85 points. Both stick with the top-performing nVidia RIVA TNT2 graphics, 18" CRTs, and DVD-ROM, and both provide four-channel name-brand speaker systems (plus a subwoofer) and can feed output to a TV. Falcon uses the 700MHz Athlon and includes a Zip drive, 22GB hard disk, surge protector, and a joystick; it's touted as the best gaming system (at the highest price). Gateway's Pentium III-600 unit includes CD-RW, a 27GB hard disk, and the only full software suite in the roundup (Microsoft Office 2000 plus game software); it also comes with an HP DeskJet 812C.

Apiki, S. (2000), "Penny pincher's paradise," FamilyPC, Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 110-14.

Where the review above covered the high end of home PCs, this one comes in at the bottom: not the cheapest PCs you can buy, but five systems that don't cost much and offer a lot for your money. Prices range from $800 to $1,050, including displays and not including any Internet rebates. While these aren't systems for gamers or video editors, they're all powerful enough for most home uses.

Only two of the five systems score 85 or better. Highest, at 88 points, is Dell's $964 Dimension L400c. It offers a 16"-viewable display (unusual in this price range) and Dell's highly regarded technical service along with a decent configuration. Second, at 85, is Gateway's $1,079 Essential 400c, the fastest system they tested (although it and the Dell tie for "slowest" CPU). The Gateway includes a larger-than-usual hard disk for this class system (10GB) and a powerful enough graphics card for some gamers. It slips behind Dell mostly because surveys don't rate Gateway's tech support quite as highly (and you get a 14"-viewable display).

Breitzer, F. (2000), "The iMac is back," Macworld, January, pp. 70-7.

Apple did well with the original iMac, at least well enough to stop losing market share. (For the first half of 1999, Apple appeared to have four percent of the home computer market.) The first encore added four more colors. This time around, Apple offers three new models, all more powerful and two with significant new features. This lengthy description should tell you almost everything you'd need to consider in choosing an iMac, if that makes sense for you.

The new base iMac is cheaper ($999), has enough RAM (64MB) and hard disk space (6GB), offers better graphics acceleration, and uses two separate USB buses for the two ports rather than sharing a single bus.

Step up to $1,299 for the iMac DV, where "DV" stands both for DVD-ROM drive and for digital video. This unit and the $1,499 DV Special Edition include FireWire ports and iMovie software for basic video editing, as well as 400MHz G3 CPUs, larger hard disks (10GB and 13GB respectively), and video output ports. The Special Edition includes 128MB RAM, and a case that seems entirely transparent-for those who get a kick out of staring at the back of a CRT and some circuit boards.

There are still some problems. Apple seems wedded to the clunky keyboard and awful mouse of the iMac, there are no writable removable storage devices on any models (no diskettes, no Zip, no CD-RW), and, frankly, a 14" screen strikes me as an odd match for a video editing computer.

Metz, C. (1999), "A PC for every budget," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 22, pp. 148-73.

How much should you pay for a home computer? This roundup covers sixteen models, roughly grouped into budget systems costing around $800 (with 14"-viewable displays) and midrange systems selling for roughly $1,600 (with 16"-viewable displays). PC Magazine invited submissions from the leading home-computer brands, giving the top four the chance to send two models each. Oddly, Gateway sent only its all-in-one $800 Astro, although one would think the Gateway Performance 500 would be a strong contender in the $1,600 field.

The reviews and performance tests should let you make your own decisions as to which of these systems, if any, suit your own needs. Editors' Choice among the midrange systems is Micron's $1,584 Millennia Max 533; Dell, HP, and Quantex systems all receive honorable mentions. Among the budget systems, HP's $800 Pavilion 6530 gets the nod, with both Windows-based all-in-ones (the Gateway and emachines' $800 eOne) getting honorable mentions.

One fascinating graphic shows who shipped the most home PCs in the first half of 1999-setting aside the fuzzy definition of whether a PC is a home, small office, or home office system. Compaq still leads the pack, but just barely, with 15 percent as compared to Gateway's 13 percent and HP's 11 percent. Astonishingly, the newcomer emachines is now fourth with 9 percent, and NEC Packard Bell is in free fall, from its former first place to fifth with 8 percent. Trailing are IBM with a surprisingly low 5 percent, Dell and Apple with 4 percent each, Sony and Microworks with 1 percent each, and everybody else making up 29 percent of home PC sales.

CD Writers

Bennett, H. (1999), "Elite eight no more," EMedia, Vol. 12 No. 11, pp. 56-64.

This extensive roundup includes ten CD-R and CD-RW drives that claim to burn CD-Rs at eight times normal speed. That offers the possibility of creating a 640MB disk in just over eight minutes. Two of the five CD-RW drives even create CD-RW disks at four times normal speed. Given EMedia's primary audience (people in "the industry"), it's hardly surprising that the detailed remarks don't offer explicit winners and losers: you need to determine what drive is best for your needs.

Personally, I'd restrict my search to the five CD-RW drives, particularly since they're no more expensive than those that can only burn CD-Rs. For home use on typical Windows machines, I believe the first choice is pretty obvious: HP's $299 CD-Writer Plus 9100, an internal IDE drive that uses a solid Sony drive (the only one in the roundup to support 4X CD-RW), includes a bunch of good software, and just incidentally costs less than any other unit (possibly because it's the only IDE drive tested). How much regular CD performance do you give up to get write capability? Not much these days: the HP offers 32X (max) CD reading-also the fastest in the roundup (except for the other HP).

Digital Cameras

Brown, B. and Brown, M. (2000), "Meet your megapixel match," PC Magazine, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 45-8.

The five cameras in this "first look" review capture at least two million pixels, and only one costs more than $1,000. Two megapixels still isn't quite equal to the best 35mm resolution (usually considered to be 2000x3000 pixels or six megapixels), but it's in the ballpark. You should be able to produce handsome full-page prints from these cameras, and they offer the usual digital conveniences when you need instant results, want to modify your pictures, or need to use the results in digital form.

The article offers detailed comments on each camera but doesn't offer an Editors' Choice.

Jones, M. (2000), "New year's resolutions," PC World, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 156-70.

Twenty digital cameras reviewed in two price ranges, including seven under $500 and 13 above that line. All but five of the cameras capture at least one megapixel; four break the two megapixel mark (although, given the vagaries of model changes, none of the five cameras reviewed by PC Magazine are included here). There are reasonably good commentaries on each camera and a two-page features comparison behind the simplistic single Best Buy in each price category. Olympus' $499 D-450 Zoom gets the "low cost" honor for its vibrant pictures, 3x optical zoom, and svelte design (a little like the marvelous Olympus Stylus). The other Best Buy costs just twice as much: Nikon's $999 CoolPix 950, chosen for its versatility and picture quality.

E-Mail Systems

Derfler, F. (1999), "Outsource or host your own," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 19, pp. 122-72.

Need to improve your e-mail capabilities? This in-depth article considers two sets of possibilities: outsourced e-mail through message service providers, and in-house e-mail servers. The article deserves careful reading if you need to make this decision. If you're outsourcing, do you need IMAP or will POP3 do--and do you know what those terms mean? If you're doing it in house, do you just need an e-mail server or should you go the groupware route?

Editors' choices for in-house solutions are Gordano's NTMail as an e-mail server and the Domino R5/Lotus Notes R5 combination for groupware. NTMail costs $495 for 50 users; the Lotus combination costs $1,795 plus $69 per user.

Graphics and Displays

Case, L. (2000), "It's in the cards," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 1, pp. 127-44.

Graphics cards just keep getting faster and more powerful. The remarkable nVidia TNT 2 may be showing up in all the mainstream PCs, but it's already a generation old: nVidia's GeForce 256 offers power formerly found only in high-end graphics workstations. It's not the only hot new chip, although it sets a new standard for 3D performance. This extensive article notes the various graphics chips and their advantages, as well as reviewing a dozen cards. That's not as many cards as in previous years because the graphics hardware industry has been consolidating.

There don't seem to be any real losers in this roundup, and the editors offer three Editors' Choices and one honorable mention. For business users, Matrox' $250 Millennium G400 MAX gets the nod. As an entertainment card, the award goes to Matrox' $300 Marvel G400-TV, which includes a cable-ready TV tuner, hardware-assisted DVD playback, high-quality video recording ability, and built-in dual-monitor support. (The G400 MAX also offers dual-monitor support.) Gamers want speed more than anything else, and the fastest card is Creative Labs' $250 3D Blaster Annihilator, powered by the nVidia GeForce 256: "its performance on our benchmark tests was like nothing we've ever seen." Finally, ATI's $210 All-in-Wonder 128 gets an honorable mention for stellar DVD playback and strong multimedia functionality at a relatively low price.

Notebook Computers

Padilla, R. (1999), "Triple play," Computer Shopper, Vol. 19 No. 12, pp. 212-16.

Here's an oddity. This review covers the same three Pentium III notebooks as in the Yegyazarian review below, but the Dell comes with less memory in this case and costs $3,769. Most of the comments below apply here as well-except that Computer Shopper's battery test yielded just over four hours for the Gateway, a full hour less than PC World and a few minutes less than the Dell. The Best Buy award goes to the Gateway because it "practically matches" the other two systems in performance (although certainly not in hard disk size or DVD capability) for roughly $1,000 less than the Dell and $1,350 less than the HP.

Yegyazarian, A. (1999), "Pentium III notebooks: speed, power to spare," PC World, Vol. 17 No. 12, pp. 63-4.

Intel took some time to make the Pentium III work for notebooks, making the chips smaller, lower powered, and cooler running. The three systems reviewed here show significant speed gains over earlier Celeron and Pentium II notebooks. Fastest of the three (by a trivial margin) is Dell's $4,209 Inspiron, which comes fully loaded with a 25GB hard disk, 15" display (with excessively high resolution), DVD-ROM, and Zip drive--but it weighs 9.4 pounds. HP's $4,149 OmniBook 4150 is a lot lighter at 6.9 pounds but is a bit less well equipped, with a 14.1" screen and 12GB hard disk. Both systems use Pentium III-500 CPUs and get roughly four hours of battery life. The third unit, Gateway's $2,799 Solo 9300, is a little slower (its CPU runs at 450MHz), just a bit heavier than the HP, and has a relatively small 6.4GB hard disk and no DVD-ROM drive--but it also offers more than five hours of battery life, remarkable for any fully-equipped notebook.

Printers

Brown, B. and Brown, M. (1999), "Picture-perfect printers," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 22, pp. 45-7.

Just three inkjet printers, but each one is interesting in its own way - and they all produce "remarkable photo prints." Canon's $400 BJC-8200 Color Bubble Jet Photo Printer appears to be designed for people who will be printing more photographs than anything else.

HP's $500 PhotoSmart P1100 is a fast everyday text and graphics printer combined with high-quality photo printing and, remarkably, a duplexing attachment so you can print on both sides of paper. HP has finally gone past its enhanced 600x600 resolution limit; this printer tops out at 2400x1200 dpi. It also has an unusually high duty cycle for a moderately-priced inkjet: 5,000 pages per month.

Finally, Kodak's $200 Personal Picture Maker PM100 is cheap ($150 after a current rebate), sturdy printer that also produces great photos-but it's not as versatile as the other two and doesn't include much software. The Kodak and Canon top out at 1200 dpi, still higher quality than any plausible requirement for inkjet printing. As always, claimed speeds for color printing are a trifle optimistic. In fact, printing an 8x10" photo took anywhere from 6.5 minutes (Canon) to almost 9 minutes (Kodak)-but in every case, using buck-a-sheet coated paper, the results were apparently spectacular.

CD-ROM Watch

Here it is - April, and once again I'm reviewing some CD-ROMs for kids. Only two this time around, because that's what I have on hand. That's partly because the Codie Awards either disappeared last year (as the sponsoring organization merged with another group) or they didn't invite me to be a judge: whoops, there goes 15-30 miscellaneous CD-ROMs. It's also partly because the whole CD-ROM field has narrowed and I don't go out of my way to obtain these titles (which are reviewed in several other publications).

I held an informal contest last year with the following question: "If I do another set of "Kidstuff" CD-ROM (or DVD-ROM) reviews next year or the year after, what will I call the article?". I'm sorry to say that nobody answered the question correctly. I'm even sorrier to say that nobody answered it at all. So, in the hopes that somebody out there is reading this stuff, here's a new question: "Where did I get the idea to use Kidstuff Too and Kidstuff Also as sequels to Kidstuff?". The first correct answer from someone outside RLG (email only to wcc@notes.rlg.org), will win both of the discs reviewed here, and possibly a third Very Good or Excellent CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. The deadline is June 30, 2000. Any answer that clearly identifies my source will do; that answer could be as short as one word. (I feel like David Macaulay on The New Way Things Work, tapping on the computer screen and saying, "Is anyone out there?") Meanwhile, on to the reviews.

My First Amazing Diary
***: Very Good [82]
Windows/Macintosh, ISBN 0-7894-3892-5
$20
DK Interactive Learning
http://www.dk.com

You can't review CD-ROMs double-blind: the publisher is almost always evident as soon as you install the product. I generally like DK's approach, but some consistent weaknesses have become fairly evident. DK products almost never scale above 640x480 and almost always use AutoPlay after installation in a way that activates installation monitors. Some complain about color settings greater than 256 colors even though they'll run perfectly well at higher settings, some lack adequate user control, and some insist on opening screens (that apparently can't be bypassed) that offer samplers of other DK products every time you run a title.

This disc has all those flaws. It's also surprisingly slow to load and has unexpected delays in operation, given that it uses no video, almost no animation, and relatively simple screens. All text in the system is the same childish "handlettered" face (apparently Kidprint, since that's now in my installed typeface list and wasn't there previously--quite similar to the "Kids" typeface used for "Kidstuff Also"). That includes the help screens on solving technical problems, and it gets tiresome after a while.

Since I'm starting with the bad points, there are two others to note. The diary text entry system doesn't wrap text from one page to the next; if you write more than the 20 to 30 words that fit on a page, the text just disappears. Not a great way to encourage continuity, and terribly disappointing if a precocious youngster types ahead of the screen (not all that unlikely by age 8). I found that portions of the "describe yourself" section wouldn't allow changes, and actually ignored the choice I made in favor of a different choice. That's just rude.

On the positive side, the program is easy to understand and does a good job of carrying out its own three-step process to encourage writing. (Start with pictures, learn to use words, and write about life.) The process of building your own face (and body) and building friends' faces is amusing, most of the selection and description processes are fine (although setting your age by moving one candle at a time would probably frustrate even an 8-year-old), and the vocal talent used so that you hear words as you read them is charmingly varied. (Most voices have British accents, but not so heavy that they're hard to understand.) As always, the graphics are charming and appropriate.

I seriously doubt the comment about saving memories you'll keep for a lifetime; the diary itself is just too limited for any but the earliest steps. But it does seem true that writing to read is an effective part of building literacy, and - with all its flaws - this may be a worthwhile tool toward that end.

My First Amazing Science Explorer
****: Excellent [92]
Windows/Macintosh, ISBN 0-7894-5096-8
$30
DK Interactive Learning
http://www.dk.com

Why is grass green? How do batteries work? If you could invent something, what would it be? This wonderful CD-ROM answers the first two and invites kids to answer the third. As you explore eight interactive environments, you encounter 72 narrated pop-up screens (each one answering a scientific question related to the item you clicked on), 24 multiple-choice questions to test your understanding of what you're learning, and six games that you win by categorizing things properly (and rapidly). Once you've answered the questions, won the games, and read all of the screens, you're a Science Explorer.

That's not all there is here, but it's enough. The environments, pop-up screens and games all have DK's magnificent graphics (cartoons for the environments, illustrated text screens for the pop-ups). Whatever you click on will usually become animated, generate an appropriate sound effect, or both before going to the related screen or activity. Key words have glossary entries; many screens have "see also" options, and there's an index for direct access to any topic in the program.

The usual DK weaknesses apply here as well, and this disc doesn't offer a choice of folder for its icons. As with a couple of other DK interactive discs, this one complains if you wait more than 30 seconds without doing anything--amusing, but eventually annoying. There's no way to turn off the continuous musical background on some screens or to turn off narration of the text screens (but you can always stop the narration by clicking on something). That's it for the drawbacks.

Aimed at children aged 5 to 9, the program seems well suited for the older part of its audience (although I enjoyed it quite a bit). I think a child should be a reasonably good reader to appreciate this fully. The explanations are brief but not too simplistic, and introduce quite a range of scientific principles. Some of the questions are classic puzzlers - why is ice slippery? - and a secondary function offers 20 printable science experiments for kids to do at home.

I went through the whole thing (except the experiments), taking the time to earn my Science Explorer award. It took me two fast hours; I'd expect a kid to do it over several sessions and several hours. I also found myself wishing that I'd had something like this 48 years ago: it would have helped me understand a lot of things earlier than I did, and might have encouraged focused exploration.

But then, I'm the son of a professional engineer and grew up in a scientifically literate household. How much more helpful would this be for kids whose parents are cloudy on scientific principles? Another first-rate DK CD-ROM.

The Details

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 wcc@notes.rlg.org. CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs for review should be sent to Walt Crawford, c/o RLG, 1200 Villa Street, Mountain View, CA 94041-1100; Windows only. Visit my Web site: http://home.att.net/~walt.crawford.