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Tracking the Web's Best
The lead article in Crawford's Corner 99.4 considered the Web's "top 100 sites" as judged by PC Magazine in its February 9, 1999 issue. After some pointed comments about the business-heavy orientation of the list, I attempted to judge the home pages of each site, based on a set of criteria that was roughly half objective, half subjective.
Nine sites scored 90 points or better out of a possible 100: an "A" by my lights. Another 28 scored 80 to 89 ("B"), with half of those in the 85-89 area; another 29 (unnamed) came in with an acceptable "C." Unfortunately, 34 of the sites ranked lower than 70: 16 "D" grades (60-69) and an astonishing 18 "F" grades, with ZDNet at the absolute bottom.
A year has gone by, and the February 8, 2000 PC Magazine has this year's 100 top sites. How have things changed?
From Too Commercial to Even More Commercial!
Last year, I objected that PC Magazine had joined that dreadful chorus singing "The Internet is all about business." There was no category for online magazines, no place for important nongovernment nonprofit sources, none of the riches that come outside the .com stronghold. Oh, sure, the Library of Congress was there, as were the US Census Bureau and the IRS, but that's not much.
Little did I know. The teaser for this year's article may provide some indication: "Surfing? How nineties! Don't waste time; use the Web to get things done." The lead paragraph suggests that they considered "The Top 100 Web Services" as a new title, and that would be a good change-albeit a sad one.
I felt it was a mistake when they went from 1998's five broad categories to 1999's 20 narrow ones, since it meant a forced diet of the Top Five Sites in each category. They've kept that narrowness, so that you're really getting five sites in each of 20 categories: not the "top hundred sites" by any rational definition. But the categories have changed, I believe for the worse. Gone are downloads, news, gaming, people finders. Instead, we have more shopping categories and business service categories.
The Library of Congress? Gone: how will they help you make a buck? Internal Revenue Service and US Census Bureau? There's not a single .gov domain this time around. New York Times? Gone. The Onion (still the best deadpan news satire on the Web)? Gone. TUCOWS (one of the biggest shareware and freeware download sites)? Show me the money!
In fact, 68 of last year's sites are gone-some because they've been absorbed or disappeared, a few that changed names, but several that just don't have that dot-com magic. Sad, really.
On the Other Hand...
This year's list does include some intriguing sites even if you ignore the plethora of shopping sites. You might find the article worth reviewing, keeping in mind that huge parts of the Web and the Internet don't fit PC's narrowing notions.
My primary focus last year was design-whether each site's home page "looked good" from a variety of perspectives. Here's an edited version of the methodology I used last year, which I also used this year. Changes are all in the first paragraph, noted at the end of that paragraph.
Last year: All testing was done on my home system-at the time, a Gateway Pentium-166 with 64MB RAM, a V.32 modem (33kbps maximum) and a 16" (viewable) display, running Windows 95, the full set of Norton utilities, CleanSweep, and Netscape Navigator 3.0. All connections were at 28,800 to 32,000 bits per second. The display was set to 1024 × 768, 16-bit color. I timed with an ordinary stopwatch, beginning when I hit Enter after keying the site name and ending when "Done" appeared.
Changes: The system is a Gateway Celeron-400 with 64MB RAM, a V.90 modem and an 18" viewable display, running Windows 95, CleanSweep, Norton AntiVirus, Crashguard, and Internet Explorer, always connecting between 49,666 bps and 52,000 bps. Resolution and color depth were the same; the Favorites pane was closed.
Every site starts at 100 and loses points based on 11 different criteria:
Ad Delta: the difference in time, when an advertisement turns up within the visible portion of the screen before the page is completely loaded. One point per five second difference (rounded), maximum five points.
Load Time: the time in excess of 15 seconds. One point per six seconds (rounded), maximum ten points (reached at 73 seconds).
Ads: one point for each advertisement, maximum five points.
Sectors: one point for each three sectors beyond nine (rounded). Maximum ten points (at 38 sectors).
Items: one point for each ten selectable items beyond ten (rounded). Maximum ten points (at 105 items).
Animations and blinking items: two points each, maximum 10 points.
The "objective" criteria above can result in a total of 50 penalty points. The "subjective" criteria that follow were judged on an A-F scale, which translated to point count as A=0, B=1, C=2, D=3, F=4.
Background: did the page impose its own partial or complete background, and if so how intrusive was it? Multiplier 1.5, maximum six points.
Banner: was the page's name distinctive and clearly the most important element at the top of the page? Multiplier 1.5, maximum six points.
Space: did the page make effective use of white space-which includes scaling to take advantage of high resolution screens? Multiplier three, maximum 12 points.
Clarity: was the page clear, both as to the site's purpose and to what you could (or should) do on the page? Multiplier three, maximum 12 points.
Aesthetics: was the page pleasant to look at? Multiplier of three, maximum 12 points.
The "subjective" criteria can result in a total of 48 penalty points (but never actually resulted in more than 29 points).
My new computer is more than twice as fast; I was consistently connecting at 60 percent higher speed; and IE5 is thought to be a faster browser than Navigator 3. Last year, the average load time was 27 seconds; this year, it was 17 seconds. Last year, only five sites loaded completely in ten seconds or less; this year, 19 sites achieved that admirable goal.
Of 31 sites in both years' lists, 16 went up at least one grade. The biggest single point improvement was an odd one, going from failing to mediocre: CNET went from 51 to 75. Nine got worse, but never more than a single grade. Unfortunately, last year's most nearly perfect site (Northern Light) is now a lot busier, more cluttered, and less pleasant: it moved from a winning 98 to a decent 82. The biggest point drop was also a case of increased clutter: InfoSpace moved from 89 to 70.
This year's list has 14 "A" results compared to last year's nine. Almost half the sites-45-scored "B" as compared to last year's 28, and 26 of those 45 scored 85 or better. Moving down, the "C" level has declined from 29 to 27-but "D" has gone from 16 to nine, and "F" from 18 to four.
Numerate readers will say, "but you only have 99 this year." One of PC Magazine's top Web sites, Networker.com, had suspended service by the time I looked at it (consistently over the course of a week). Not a good sign, particularly for a site that only works based on long-term trust.
The Envelope, Please
What would it take to get a perfect score? Load in 17 seconds or less; don't have ads or animations; have no more than ten selectable items within nine sectors or less. Don't impose a background (other than plain white or a light pastel), put the banner up top big and bold, leave lots of white space, make the page crystal-clear, and make it attractive.
No page scored a perfect hundred. Two sites, AnyDay.com and Google, came very close with identical 97 scores. Topica and freemerchant.com were right behind at 95. Rounding out the top group were Andale and Bigstep.com at 94, Stamps.com, Zkey.com, and Lonely Planet Online at 93, Gateway and eWanted.com at 92, GuruNet and NECX at 91, and Dell.com at a solid 90.
Twenty-six sites neared excellence with scores between 85 and 89. Productopia and Outpost.com hit 89. EXP.com, RemarQ, MyHelpdesk.com, Scour, seeUthere, Yahooligans!, BizRate.com, Lands' End, HotOffice, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) scored 88. Epinions.com and myTalk tied at 87. HotJobs.com, XpertSite.com, SuperFamily.com, About.com, Amazon.com, Netmarket.com, auctions.com, Furniture.com, and CenterBeam came in at 86, while Mercata, iQVC, and eFax.com just reached 85.
I won't list the 19 sites between 80 and 84 (still well designed) or the 27 so-so sites. As with last year, the C sites "tended to be a little busy, a little slow, a little ugly, or some combination."
It's a pleasure to find a mere 13 sites that didn't do well at all. Five sites rated "high D" grades, scoring 66 to 69: Internet Movie Database, Webmonkey, McAfee.com, CBS SportsLine, and MP3.com. Four others scored between 61 and 64: ICQ.com, Talk City, Slashdot, and SurfMonkey Kids Channel.
What to say of the remaining losers? ZDNet improved substantially, going from an atrocious 41 to a "best of F" 59. TheStreet.com rated just about the same as last year. The Palace and PowWow, both new to the list, are idiosyncratic sites; their low ratings may be appropriate to their functions.
Last year, I did a second set of ratings for some of my own bookmarks-library sites, online magazines, and a few others. They did much better, by and large, with one British library site being a single point short of perfection. I didn't do the second round this year, but I know the general story. Few of those sites have gotten worse and several have improved. The good news is that the commercial sites are getting better. The bad news is that too many people really believe that the Internet is about business-period. But that's the topic of several other essays.
Windows 2000: Time to Switch?
As I write this, Windows 2000 is finally in production. Should you be switching over to the new operating system? A fine examination in the February 22, 2000 PC Magazine says that the new OS was worth the wait-but that it may not be right for everyone. Home users may be better off sticking with Windows 98 (or the new Windows Millennium Edition, which seems to be Windows 98.2 or, really, Windows 4.3). Anybody planning to upgrade directly from Windows 98 should anticipate trouble and recognize that it's a one-way switch: once converted, there's no going back. For bigger users, the improved security, directory, and services in Windows 2000 make a lot of sense-but planning the migration could take months.
Tutorials on the Web
Not tutorials about using the Web-but Web sites offering "bland advice on everything from building a gingerbread house to coaxing a proposal from your significant other," as The Industry Standard puts it. A January 10-17, 2000 piece tries out three such sites, giving them the difficult questions people might actually pose to anonymous services-e.g. "How do I discuss the birds and the bees with kids?," "How do I use birth control?," "How do I fire someone?," "How do I get revenge?," or "How do I 'come out' to my parents?"
Learn2.com answered the first query by showing how to make peanut butter sculptures with your kids. It offered little help on coming out or firing someone, and its response on using birth control involved greenflies. Revenge? Squirt naughty puppies in the face with a spray bottle!
How2.com had some traditional (that is, "retro") suggestions on sex ed, doesn't mention homosexuality at all, offers lots of advice on avoiding getting sued for wrongful termination, thinks Montezuma's Revenge is worth discussing, and has the answer you might expect to birth control: just say no.
Best of the lot, on this set of tests, was eHow.com In four of the five cases, it gave responsive advice (including correct body-part terminology for the first question and actual instructions on condom use)-and, although it didn't suggest how to come out, it did offer advice on fighting housing discrimination.
This may be like Ask Jeeves: you'll get an answer, once you learn which questions are worth asking.
Why would you pay $75 for a computer mouse? Microsoft's IntelliMouse Explorer fairly begs that question, particularly when it's reviewed in Macworld. Surprisingly, the February 2000 review gives this mouse four mice, a very high rating. That seems to be mostly because it can't get clogged up with dirt on the mouse ball: there's no mouse ball.
Optical mice have been around for years, but they always required special tracking pads and tended to be finicky. This one scans any working surface (with an optical sensor) and tracks movement based on changes in that surface. Supposedly, it offers smoother cursor response as well as total resistance to dirt buildup (unless your environment's so dirty that the sensor itself is obscured). The Explorer is "futuristic" and offers extra programmable buttons.
It's been a while, so I'll repeat my recommendation for a cheaper fix for poor mouse performance: 3M's Precise Mousing Surface. I've seen it show up in more stores recently (e.g. Office Depot and CompUSA), for about $10. You may even have a choice of surface colors and patterns. I use this mouse pad at work and at home, and I've never had a problem with mouse performance since switching to the Precise Mousing Surface. If that doesn't do it for you, or if you just love the looks of the IntelliMouse Explorer, more power to you.
They never go away, and market researchers continue to tell us that We All Want Them Desperately. Call them Network Computers and even Sears can't sell them. So now they're something else-small, always-on, screen and keyboard devices that deal with e-mail and the Web. IDC projects that "55.7 million devices, representing $15.3 billion in sales, will be sold in 2002, up from 5.8 million in 1998." That's according to the January 18, 2000 PC Magazine.
Where are those 5.8 million Web appliances sold in 1998? I've never heard of any of them, unless you include WebTV and every other Web-connected device that isn't a full PC. Even then, it seems strange that there hasn't been much press for almost six million devices sold.
The QX3 Computer Microscope
Indulge me here. This one may not have much relevance for most librarians, but it's neat-and, now that I think of it, what a great addition to some children's sections. The full name is Intel Play: QX3 Computer Telescope, it costs $99.95, and you get it from Mattel Media. It's a microscope-but one that plugs into a USB port and displays its pictures (at 10X, 60X, or 200X magnification) on the screen. You can also capture magnified images as still images, short movies, or time-lapse sequences. FamilyPC's family testers gave it a 91 (Excellent) rating. It's even cute.
PC Values: February 2000
The standard configuration includes 64MB SDRAM, 24X or faster CD-ROM, AGP graphics accelerator with 8MB SGRAM, V.90 modem, a 15.7-16.1" (viewable) display (called 17" by some makers), and wavetable sound with stereo speakers. "Pluses" and "Minuses" are shown where applicable, along with hard disk size, software, extras, and brand-name speakers.
Because of peculiarities in advertising in February 2000 magazines, top systems were based on prices for recommended home systems on the Gateway, Dell, and Micronpc sites as of February 8, 2000.
Top Budget: Dell Dimension XPS T600r: Pentium III-600, 10GB HD. Pluses: 16MB display RAM. Extras: MS Works Suite 2000, Altec Lansing speakers with subwoofer. $1,299, VR 9.62 (+2% since 11/99, +4% since 8/99).
Top, Midrange: Gateway Select 700: AMD Athlon-700, 20GB HD. Pluses: 128MB, DVD-ROM, 16MB display RAM. Extras: MS Works Suite 2000, Boston Acoustics speakers with subwoofer. $1,899, VR 9.23 (-11% since 11/99, +16% since 8/99).
Top, Power: Dell Dimension XPS T750r: Pentium III-750, 27.3GB HD. Like budget, but with 128MB RAM, 18" display with 32MB display RAM. $2,479, VR 8.48 (+21% since 11/99, +20% since 8/99).
Other, Budget: Quantex M650s: Pentium III-600, 20GB HD. Minuses: Intel graphics, shares system RAM. Pluses: 128MB SDRAM, 18" display, DVD-ROM. Extras: WordPerfect Office 2000. $1,499, VR 11.03 (-5% since 11/99, +9% since 8/99).
Other, Midrange: CyberMax Enthusiast K7-700: Athlon-700, 20GB HD. Pluses: 128MB SDRAM, 18" display with 32MB SGRAM, DVD-ROM. Extras: WordPerfect Office 2000, Altec Lansing speakers with subwoofer. $1,999, VR 9.81 (-10% since 11/99, +1% since 8/99).
Other, Power: Quantex SM 733z: Pentium III-733, 27GB HD. Pluses: 128MB SDRAM, 18" display with 32MB SGRAM, DVD-ROM. Extras: MS Office 2000 SBE, CD-RW drive, Altec Lansing 3-part speakers. $2,499, VR 8.64 (+2% since 11/99, +18% since 8/99).
Pat Farrell sends a letter to PC Magazine in response to a Jim Seymour column about e-wallets and one-click Internet purchasing. Farrell worked for CyberCash, one of the top firms in the early e-cash field. In July 1997, CyberCash had one-click purchasing all figured out with InstaBuy, a "pretty cool product." But Farrell continues:
But the product failed completely.... I think InstaBuy failed for the same reasons that the SET wallets Visa pushed a couple of years ago didn't catch on. Each product offered a solution to a problem that consumers didn't think they had. (Italics mine.)
This is the "But why?" question in another guise. Yes, technology makes this possible. But do we want it? Pretty cool doesn't cut it, at least not for long.
More MP3 Oddities
I haven't been noting group reviews of the many new MP3 portable players, as I'm not sure they're particularly relevant for libraries. But it's hard to ignore some of the stuff that shows up about MP3. Take, for example, the February 8, 2000 PC Magazine, in which "PC Magazine labs finds the best encoding rates for rock, jazz, and classical music." They did this with listening tests, but with no notes as to the equipment used or whether the listeners understand stereo or music.
Here's part of their commentary:
Based on our listening tests, we found that a 128-Kbps MP3 clip...is almost impossible to distinguish from the music on a CD. This is the bit rate you should use for classical music. If you prefer pop or contemporary vocals without high-pitched instruments, then the 64-Kbps encoding...is likely to be just as good at preserving the dynamic range.
"But what about the music," I object. My own listening tests found it all too easy to distinguish 128K or even 160Kbps MP3 from CD, even using folk/pop music. I've heard 64Kbps MP3; it may preserve the dynamic range but it sure loses the music. Then again, "preserving the dynamic range" is an odd priority for most pop and contemporary vocals: most such music really doesn't have a particularly wide dynamic range.
I think the key here is their description of psychoacoustics, how MP3 achieves "perceptually 'lossless' compression": it cuts out "all the audio information that we can't perceive or that isn't needed."
By my lights, if you can perceive it, it's needed-and if MP3 is throwing away stuff that's perceivable, it isn't "perceptually lossless." But if your basis for comparison is a boom box, a portable player with cheap headphones, or AM radio, I guess you don't need very much.
Freedom of Speech: "A Big Nuisance"
That's the astonishing end of the first sentence of Robin Raskin's "Double Click" in the February 2000 FamilyPC. Here's the full sentence and the one that follows:
Upholding the principles of the First Amendment has always been, at the very minimum, a big nuisance. Whether it's the Ku Klux Klan marching down Main Street, smut-filled song lyrics, or offensive art, the First Amendment can sometimes get in the way of our personal tastes, agenda, and even our safety.
This is the editor-in-chief of a substantial publication writing, and I find myself horrified. The paragraph (and a few others) introduce comments from five "experts" on the issue of "whether protecting kids from viewing inappropriate sites denies the civil liberties of those sites or their viewers." (I just love that word "inappropriate"-who exactly gets to decide what's appropriate?) Interestingly enough, not one of the panelists takes such a grotesque view of our annoying civil liberties. Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels notes that crimes are crimes whether they're on the Internet or not, and we don't need new laws to make crimes illegal. The CEO of NetNanny stresses individual parental control and says, "it's important to show that legislation will not work."
In my mind's eye, I see Ms Raskin in Philadelphia in 1776: "We hold these truths to be a big nuisance at best, so let's all just go home. After all, asserting our inalienable rights could get somebody hurt!"
Then again, a couple of months earlier she asserted that monopolies are good for consumers. (The context was Microsoft, but in rebutting some angry letters she guesses that "we'll be looking closely at the Sherman Antitrust Laws in the upcoming months and assessing their usefulness in a world where banking is global and a monopoly no longer means a gallon of oil, a refinery, and a railroad.")
I like FamilyPC. I'm not so sure about the current editor-in-chief.
The Death of the PC
Phil Lemmons (editorial director of PC World) offers an amusing "Up Front" in the February 2000 PC World: "Serial PC Killers Strike Again." He begins, "The PC is dead again, the victim of a strange new breed of serial killer," and goes on from there. (Other serial killers are single killers with multiple victims; this time, it's multiple killers with the same victim: the PC.)
He notes how often the PC has been written off as dead, from the early 1980s, through the Newton and other PDAs, to Network Computers. Paul Saffo said it years ago: "The PC is dead. It's the horse and carriage of the Information Revolution." As with other futurists, Saffo continues to demonstrate that there are no penalties for being wrong as long as you're interesting.
Today, of course, it's the information appliance. And, as Lemmons notes, it's all over. "The PC is in a rare ascending death spiral camouflaged by double-digit annual growth on a huge base." To wit, worldwide PC sales went from 80.3 million in 1997 to 90 million in 1998-to roughly 111 million in 1999. It's an odd form of death, but that's the way the future works.
There's more to the single-page editorial, which I recommend reading. You may be able to download it to your Nokia or Palm to read, for all I know, since print is as dead as the PC.
Iwanchuk, R. (2000), "Windows 2000: network speed tests," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 4, p. 62.
Upgrading your servers from Windows NT 4 to Windows 2000 will improve performance-but upgrading your desktop systems may not do much good. This set of lab tests paired Windows NT 4 Server or Windows 2000 Server with each of three clients: Windows NT 4, Windows 98, and Windows 98 Professional.
The best throughput came from the combination of Windows 98 on the desktop and Windows 2000 on the server, with Windows 2000 on both platforms a close second. Windows NT 4 on the desktop didn't do nearly as well with Windows 2000 Server. The report notes that the NT combinations may have been hurt by a mix of older PCs on the test LAN-but then, doesn't your LAN have a mix of older PCs?
Essex, D. (1999), "PCs break the 700MHz barrier," PC World, Vol. 17 No. 12, pp. 58-62.
By the time you read this, most major PC makers will have Pentium III-800 models. Nonetheless, this is PC World's first review of any systems at or above 700MHz: one Pentium III-733 and one AMD Athlon-700. The $2,400 Micron Millennia Max PIII-733 offers remarkable value for a surprisingly low price. Compaq's $3,300 Athlon-700 doesn't measure up all that well-indeed, on most of their tests, the $2,648 HP Vectra VL600 with its Pentium III-667 outscored the Compaq.
Metz, C. (2000), "Corporate managed PCs," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 2. pp. 103-121.
You know what a managed PC is: a terminal with its own processor. Unlike a true personal computer, a managed corporate PC has the same software as every other PC in the company, and there's not much the individual user can do about it. These are tools; individuality has no place in the Modern Workplace (ca. 1950, but never mind). There's definitely a place for managed PCs-for example, public access computers in public libraries. This roundup includes seven systems from top vendors, all configured with Windows NT, 128MB RAM, at least 10GB hard disk, at least 8MB graphics RAM, high-speed Ethernet, CD-ROM, CD-RW, or DVD-ROM drives, and 16" or larger displays. Some of the largest suppliers were between cycles and did not respond.
I could argue with some of the system criteria-for example, how many locked-down corporate PCs really need 8MB graphics RAM or a 10GB hard disk-but that's beside the point. What may be to the point is that, as usual, winners in this arena aren't the usual choices. Hewlett Packard really understands corporate computing, apparently, and its $2,500 Vectra VLi8 MT gets the nod here, particularly for its remote management abilities. Honorable mentions go to the usual suspects (Gateway was between cycles): Compaq's $2,350 Deskpro EN 667 and Dell's $2,546 OptiPlex GX110.
McClelland, D. (2000), "Two-megapixel cameras," Macworld, February, pp. 34-5.
This roundup is too brief, with no output samples and very little descriptive text, but it does include features tables for the eight cameras (all but one costing less than $800, all capturing roughly two million pixels). All of these cameras should work equally well with PCs. The highest rating goes to the most expensive camera, Olympus' $1,499 Camedia C-2500L, which has higher resolution than most others and offers SLR viewfinding for much more accurate shots. They suggest the $699 Canon PowerShot S10 for more portability and a lot less money, albeit with slightly lower picture quality. Macworld's favorite high-resolution digital camera continues to be Nikon's Coolpix 950.
Derfler, F. (2000), "Chat goes to work," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 82-9.
If you love instant messaging, you'll adore this roundup: six programs for instant messaging within the business environment. It comes with one of those great market projection graphs: some hotshot firm says that instant messaging will go from about 50 million projected users in 1999 to 180 million in 2002. Hyperbole aside, the review describes individual programs with some care and includes eight-part ratings of their quality. Editors' Choice for a public IM system is Tribal Voice's PowWow 4.0 (free, and interoperable with both MSN Messenger and America Online's IM). For private networks, Lotus' Sametime 1.5 gets the nod, but expect to pay: $5,000 startup and $20 per user.
Berst, J. (2000), "Getting the word out," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 4, pp. 135-45.
The Web may get all the ink, but e-mail is still the most common use of the Internet-and e-mail publishing has a long, honorable tradition. Yes, it can be used for spam, but it's also the way Web4Lib, PUBLIB, and the many other list processors work. E-mailed newsletters add value to many Web sites: Jupiter Communications says that 65 of the top 100 ad-supported Web sites offer such newsletters. You may have good uses for e-mailed newsletters, either to do your own publications or to build library communities.
This review considers eight e-mail publishing services. If you don't mind ads attached to the postings, services such as eGroups and Topica will post your mailings for free; there are also fee-based services, most of them not terribly expensive. The Editors' Choice among free services is eGroups (you can figure out the Web site), while SparkList gets the nod among fee-based lists.
Howard, B. (2000), "Power portables," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 3, pp. 180-98.
It took a while for the Pentium III to make it to notebooks, but the dozen units reviewed here show the substantial gains from the Mobile Pentium III. These are corporate notebooks, and the ratings scheme stressed manageability and cost of ownership more than multimedia power and flexibility. All units came configured with Windows NT 4.0 and management software, and PC asked for at least a 10GB hard disk, exactly 128MB RAM, a V.90 modem, and either built-in Ethernet or an Ethernet PC Card. Most of the major notebook vendors show up in this review, but Acer, Fujitsu, and Micron were "between product cycles" and Sony doesn't build managed corporate notebooks.
All of the tested systems have strong points, and four of them rate a full five dots on PC's new five-dot rating scale. The two Editors' Choices are both from Toshiba: the $3,900 Tecra 8100 and the $3,500 Portégé 7140CT, for users who particularly value a light, thin notebook. There are no honorable mentions; the other two five-point ratings are for Dell's $4,141 Latitude CPx H5000GT and HP's $4,380 OmniBook 4150.
Venezia, C., and Metz, C. (2000), "A step up to 650 MHz," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 4, pp. 32-45.
The seven notebooks reviewed here are among the first to use Intel's new "Geyserville" Pentium III CPUs, running at 600 or 650MHz. Or, rather, running that fast on AC power-but at 500MHz when battery powered, thus using less power and generating less heat.
This SpeedStep technology makes testing a little more difficult: PC Magazine had to run their benchmarks twice. Normally, the only test run using battery power is the battery-life test. The results won't surprise you: the notebooks behaved just like 500MHz Pentium III notebooks on batteries, while running a little faster on AC.
All seven of the systems deliver excellent performance and each one has "distinguishing features that will appeal to users' varied preferences." If you're looking for the fastest notebook you can buy, you should read the complete article (and other reviews that will appear by the time you read this). For the record, the Editors' Choice for a thin and light notebook is IBM's $4,408 ThinkPad 600X 5FU, while Dell's $4,606 Inspiron 7500 gets the nod as a desktop replacement.
Klare, M. (2000), "Laser printers get personal," Computer Shopper, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 200-205.
Six laser printers that cost less than $400, claim at least six printed pages per minute, and offer at least 300dpi resolution. In addition to the vendors you'd expect (HP, Epson, Lexmark), the roundup includes printers from Oki, Panasonic, and Xerox. The Best Buy goes to Lexmark's $368 Optra E310 for output quality and high speed, along with low per-page toner costs. Epson's $399 EPL-5700i is called "noteworthy" for an extensive feature set and good output quality. HP's $353 LaserJet 1100 is a "real workhorse for text-based documents"-it and the Lexmark are the only units that do their own print processing. The HP was faster than any other printer on a multipage Word document (but slower on most graphics work) and uniquely offers a $100 scanning attachment.
Mitchell, K. (2000), "Multifunction peripherals," Macworld, March, pp. 30-1.
These four devices scan, fax, and copy-but they're based on printers. The review is brief and doesn't quite clarify whether Brother's $600 MFC-8600 uses a laser printer, but since it's monochrome, much faster than the others, and also much more expensive, that's a fair assumption. Two devices from Epson-the $349 Stylus Scan 2000 and $449 Stylus Scan 2500-both use Epson's Stylus Color 740 print engine and offer the best quality for a broad range of output; the more expensive unit uses a flatbed scanner rather than a sheetfed unit, yielding better copies, scans, and faxes.
The fourth unit, Canon's $379 MultiPass C635, is relatively slow, doesn't offer particularly good printing or copying, but will function as a stand-alone fax machine (as will the Brother). It's also quite compact.
Macworld doesn't find a winner, finding strengths and drawbacks in each unit. All four units receive three-mouse ratings (of a possible five), not a particularly sterling showing.
Poor, A. (2000), "Light and bright projectors," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 3, pp. 32-6.
If you must take a digital projector with you, it's getting easier. The first color projectors weighing six pounds or less showed up around September 1999; this review includes four newer units. Three of these have native XGA resolution (1024 * 768 pixels), while the fourth runs at SVGA (800 * 600). That unit, the Sony VPL-CS1 SuperLite, is by far the cheapest ($2,700), but there were convergence problems. Still, it merits an honorable mention, behind the Editors' Choice: NEC's $6,400 MultiSync LT140. Convergence isn't an issue with the NEC unit since it uses a single DLP panel (a panel full of tiny moving mirrors) and color wheel, rather than three LCD panels. One interesting feature of the NEC: it has a PC Card slot and comes with software so that you can download your presentation to a PC Card and use the projector without a PC-a neat trick! As of February 8, 2000, PC Magazine considers the NEC to be the best lightweight projector on the market.
Sound Processing Software
McDaniel, J. (1999), "Get into the groove," EMedia, Vol. 12 No. 10, pp. 40-7.
Does your library have locally made or rare recordings on media that are dying? Special acetates, rare LPs, tapes that may become unplayable? You may be planning to convert the recordings to CD-R, as a compact, durable format that should be around for at least another decade or two. But that raises another question: should you clean up the sound as you copy it?
A purist might argue that you shouldn't, and maybe you should do a straight analog-to-digital conversion and pressing for semi-archival purposes. But some of those recordings could be a lot more usable with some "restoration" work. The same goes for your old worn LPs at home that you're thinking of burning to CD-R, to be sure.
This review covers six programs designed to convert and clean up old analog sound sources. Prices run from $99 to $400, with plausible reasons for the variety of price points. The review lacks objective test results, but it makes interesting reading if you're considering a sonic restoration project. Do remember, though: whenever you "restore" an old recording, you're probably distorting it as well.
Brown, M., and Brown, B. (1999), "The right speakers for you," PC Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 20, pp. 60-1.
This isn't a proper comparative review, but it does include full descriptions and subjective comments on three moderately priced PC speaker systems. The $100 Altec Lansing ACS54 PowerPlay Plus for Gamers includes four little speakers and a subwoofer; if you have a sound card that supports positional sound on games, it's a good unit for the purpose. Cambridge SoundWorks wants $300 for the DeskTop Theater 5.1 DTT2500 Digital, but that includes an electronics unit with full Dolby Digital decoding and six channels of amplification, four satellites, a center speaker, and a subwoofer. It really needs digital input from DVD movies to do its full magic, but it can also generate pseudo-surround from normal stereo sources. Finally, Sonigistix asks $100 for the Monsoon MH-500, which uses two snazzy nearly flat speakers along with its subwoofer. The flat speakers aren't some newfangled technology; they're roughly 10 inches tall and combine planar tweeters and 2.5" midrange cone speakers. Planar speakers have been around high-end high fidelity for many years, although they're a bit exotic for the PC. These units provide good sound but not particularly high volume levels.
Seltzer, L. (2000), "System savings time," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 37-42.
You must know that PC backups are mostly to protect you from yourself. Modern hard disks suffer hardware crashes rarely if at all. PC users (and PC software) accidentally delete files all too often. But it gets worse: you install a new program or make some innocent change in your system, and all sorts of things go wrong. What if you could go back?
That's the theme of this group review: five utility programs for system recovery. The individual descriptions are good, but the reviewer didn't attempt to gauge the probable shortcoming of all such programs: the extent to which they slow down and interfere with normal Windows operation.
Editors' Choice is Wild File's $70 GoBack 2.1. It keeps a chronological list of system events that allows you to restore your system to any logged point in time-and it includes a DOS version for when you've really messed up Windows. It won't replace antivirus software or regular data backups, but if you're having problems, GoBack might help.
Two from the Toymaker
No real theme this month-just two new versions of old products, both from divisions of Mattel.
I reviewed the 1999 version of this two-CD package in the March 1999 Library Hi Tech News. It scored just short of excellence then, and it keeps the same score. I tried out the SAT/PSAT portion (the ACT portion is an entirely separate disc and program).
Fundamentally, this is the same system as last year: a lively combination of animation, overlaid video, narration, and interactive text. The program coaches you on ways to take the tests, techniques that come from extensive study of SAT tests. It also includes various sample tests and a personalized course of study and drill. The deluxe version includes downloadable college applications and college profiles as well as a paperback book on financial aid for college: the standard version lists for $25.
Obvious differences from last year are that the interface now scales automatically to fill any screen and that the primary menu includes an uninstall option. Less obvious differences include the personalized study system.
When I reviewed the 1999 version, I was a little nervous about the nature of some of the coaching; it seemed more intent on "teaching the test" than on actual teaching material. That's still true, to some extent, but I find that the advice in this version leans heavily toward good study and learning habits. When introducing the 300 words used most frequently in SAT tests, the overall commentary focuses on the benefits and pleasures of extensive reading.
This isn't really a library purchase, I don't believe; a student will probably use it for quite a few weeks, and much of the value of the Deluxe version comes in choosing colleges and applying to them. It's a good purchase for any high school student nervous about the SAT or ACT, or for the parents of such students. It's entertaining and sometimes a bit cynical, but all in all it's useful and a good value.
I wanted to like this product a lot more than I did. I've used Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia in the past, and felt that the 1998 Deluxe version was an excellent product. This time around, however, I was not impressed. This product seems more flawed than in past years, at a time when the standards for CD-ROM and DVD-ROM encyclopedias are rising. That's too bad, since the extras offered (and the $15 rebate sticker) make this a reasonably good bargain-but then, most digital encyclopedias are bargains these days.
The mechanics are generally good. Installation uses AutoPlay and is reasonably polite, although the offered 19 megabyte install actually took 24MB of disk space and you don't get to choose where icons should go. Once installed, AutoPlay works without looking like Setup, and (as with most encyclopedias) the interface automatically scales to any screen resolution. The search box, a small movable (and removable) box that overlays content windows, works well, and a menu bar at the top of the screen provides good overall control. Thumbnails of pictures and other media items appear within articles, activating popup viewers when clicked.
The standard interface consists of three parts that can't be moved or resized: an article viewer on the right, with the article outline and list of related items on the left. Each section has its own scroll bar.
Here's where the trouble begins. As with almost every encyclopedia (unfortunately), text is in a dull sans serif typeface; you can choose from three sizes of type. But the text appears on a dreary yellow-green background, reducing contrast and making long articles unpleasant to read. Worse, the left side of the screen has a fairly dark blue-green background with figurative illustrations, with far too little contrast between background and black text. It's one of the most depressing article interfaces I've seen.
While there are thousands of pictures, they're not very well presented. The popup viewer frames small pictures on a black background with minimal captions (and no credits); if you expand the pictures to fill the viewer, the pictures show serious compression artifacts. Video clips at the default size have so much pixelation that they're unpleasant to watch. There may be 20 hours of sound, but most of that sound is either narration or MIDI anthems and classical excerpts; there's not a lot of real-world sound here. Quite a few of the items flagged as movies are actually narrated slide shows.
Not that the multimedia is all bad. The increasingly ubiquitous IPIX Virtual Tours (scenes that you can explore, not only right and left but also up and down) are here as well, and while it's a quirky group of scenes, the technology works just fine. Special 20th century review sections encourage exploration of this century's history and the arts and sciences of the past hundred years. The timeline feature works quite well, as does the built-in planetarium.
There are fairly strong student-oriented features including a presentation maker and "report starter." Internet features include several thousand selected links but also two special features: Compton's "Ask the librarian" service, which offers research advice by e-mail, and a set of interactive explorations done in conjunction with the Exploratorium. The package also includes a one-month trial of Electric Library and CyberPatrol-and doesn't install CyberPatrol by default. A dictionary and thesaurus are included, and there's a built-in notebook feature so that students can combine encyclopedia text and their own notes while they're exploring.
How good are the encyclopedia articles? I'm no expert. The "Library" article is long but seems to be a little out of date. I'd guess that the text is generally comparable to other student-oriented encyclopedias.
For some users, the extras alone might justify buying this as a second encyclopedia. The box includes The Handy Science Answer Book, a neat paperback compiled by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and published by Gale's Visible Ink. You also get a CD-ROM containing National Geographic for 1997 and 1998, designed to update the original Complete National Geographic set (and packaged so that it will fit right into the last box in that set). Now, if only the encyclopedia had better text contrast (with lighter backgrounds), higher-quality video, music, and pictures, and maybe more updated articles. Meanwhile, it's not a bad encyclopedia, but it is a disappointing new version.
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 email@example.com 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