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The Burning of Iridium
Technology marches on in a sure, smooth path. You can either be on the technology bulldozer or be part of the road. What could be a more natural extension of computing and telecommunications than a true worldwide wireless telephone system? Put together the right funding and the right technology and you've got a sure hit. That's the Iridium story.
Motorola provided much of the funding, built the satellites, and operated them. Between $5 and $7 billion went into the array of 66 satellites and the phone design. Iridium went live on November 1, 1998; it was a technological marvel. With an Iridium phone, you could call from anywhere on Earth-the top of Mount Everest, the middle of the desert, all those places that land lines may never reach and there aren't enough people to justify matrices of cell-phone transmitters. The system worked. The Defense Department loved it: it had 3,000 registered users, with 800 in the Pentagon alone.
Note the tense here. Iridium entered bankruptcy in August 1999-nine whole months after starting operations. Nobody wanted to buy Iridium, and its service went offline on March 16, 2000. Iridium will "bring back" the satellites: that is, the last act of the company will be to aim the satellites so they come out of orbit and burn up over uninhabited areas. That's good corporate citizenship; there's enough orbiting detritus up there without an extra 66 satellites each weighing 1,460 pounds.
Iridium was an incredible achievement-but it met a need that very few people had. Nobody except the government can afford to operate something like Iridium to serve a few thousand government accounts, and it's not at all clear that the Defense Department would put its money there.
Iridium counted on businessmen wanting to stay in touch all day every day, no matter how remote their location. Sure, the phones were bigger than cell phones and cost a lot more ($3,000 initially, $1,500 at the end): after all, they were communicating directly with satellites orbiting 485 miles above the earth! Cell phones can only be as light and cheap as they are because the transmitter matrix is so dense: they don't have particularly long-range capabilities. The incredible range of Iridium phones (and the expense of the network) also helped explain the operating charges: about $7 a minute.
Most of the time, when businesspeople travel on business, they're in territory handled by cell phones. Most of the time, when sane businesspeople are in very remote locations, they're on vacation and don't want to be on the phone-or at least can let it wait for a day. Who needed Iridium?
Not very many people. John Logdon of the Space Policy Institute may have gone overboard in his statement, "It's not going to be too long before you can take a cellular phone anywhere in the world and have it work simply by throwing a switch." How would that happen in mid-desert, in remote mountain ranges, in mid-ocean (shipboard phone calls use different broadband satellite systems), or even in the middle of a river? It's important to have times that you're out of touch. It seems that most people agreed that for $7 a minute and a bulky phone, they could do without the ultimate in accessibility.
Why should you care? Only because this is one of the biggest, best funded, best designed cases of an inevitable winning technology that failed. It failed because it didn't meet a real need at an affordable price-or maybe it failed because it just didn't meet a real need, period.
How many people you know are hungry for an electronic device to replace the paperback novels they take on vacation? How many people hate the magazines they subscribe to and would cheerfully replace them with pixels on a portable screen? For that matter, how many regular newspaper readers of your acquaintance really just want the "Daily Me" and can't wait to unload all that other stuff?
Most new technologies flame out, although rarely as literally or spectacularly as Iridium. It's an old lesson, but one that's occasionally worth relearning. Witness another failure and one promising technology that may never make it.
When Push Comes to Shove: Another Sure Winner Bites the Dust
Remember PointCast? In March 1997, Wired Magazine announced push technology with one of that magazine's usual nuanced, cautious comments: "Remember the browser war between Netscape and Microsoft? Well, forget it. The Web browser itself is about to croak. And good riddance. In its place...PUSH!". That was the cover line for an article that proclaimed that push technology-news and information "pushed" to your desktop-was a surefire winner. For that matter, push would "penetrate environments that have been media free-work, school, church, the solitude of a country walk." Leave it to Wired to believe that sensible people would actually adopt a technology that would bring them announcements while they're on a country walk!
I thought push was an awful idea when I heard about it, even worse when I tried it briefly. Internet Explorer 4 and the Active Desktop provided a form of push technology; if that nonsense is still in IE5, it's well hidden and certainly not turned on by default. When corporate types turned on push techniques, corporate Internet connections became bogged down with all that stuff. That problem could be solved, but by that time people had gotten wise.
In its heyday, PointCast turned down a $400 million buyout offer. Last year, it was sold to EntryPoint for $7 million. On April 1, 2000, PointCast disappeared entirely.
Are there sensible ways to get specific kinds of stuff on the Internet without specifically asking for it? Absolutely, but the best way to do that isn't by popping up windows while you're working (although some such products are still around). The best way turns out to be the oldest way: e-mail. The stuff gets to you, but you only check it when it's convenient. What a concept! (Giving credit where credit is due, most of this information and all of the quotes-but not my opinions-first appeared in a March 29, 2000, story by Craig Bicknell on Wired News, part of the Lycos Network: http://www.wired.com/news/)
Is FireWire Doomed?
Peculiarity alert: I'm about to comment on a projection from John Dvorak as though it's worth taking seriously. I frequently make fun of John Dvorak (a lot more frequently than what appears here, I can assure you!), but sometimes he makes sense. This may be one of those times-or it may not.
In the April 4, 2000, PC Magazine he notes that "the commentary about FireWire and its future has dropped to nil." That's true enough. Only a handful of Windows PC models have IEEE 1394 ports and there really isn't any buzz about the many uses of this high-speed interface. Dvorak suggests that it will get worse when a new Serial ATA standard takes hold: it starts at 150MBps and could be extended to four times that speed. And the licenses won't require royalties-while Apple gets royalties for FireWire.
Dvorak's comment: "Once we see FireWire begin to be removed from camcorders, we'll know it's over." Then again, one big problem with FireWire is that it's never seemed particularly necessary except for video editing-and digital video editing just isn't a mass-market application.
PC Values: April 2000
April'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.
Top Budget: Dell Dimension XPS B600r: Pentium III-600, 20GB HD. Pluses: 32MB display RAM. Extras: MS Works Suite 2000, Altec Lansing speakers with subwoofer. $1,549, VR 11.12 (+16% since 1/2000, +24% since 10/99).
Top Midrange: Gateway Performance 800: Pentium III-800, 20GB HD. Pluses: 128MB SDRAM, 32MB display RAM, DVD-ROM. Extras: MS Works Suite 2000, Boston Acoustics speakers with subwoofer. $1,999, VR 9.44 (+9% since 1/2000, +11% since 10/99).
Top Power: Gateway Performance 850: Pentium III-850, 30GB HD. Similar to midrange, but with 18" display and home networking adapter. $2,499, VR 9.01 (+14% since 1/2000, +10% since 10/99).
Other, Budget: CyberMax ValueMax 4: AMD Athlon-600, 20GB HD. Pluses: 16MB display RAM, DVD-ROM drive. Extras: WordPerfect Office 2000. $1,199, VR 12.58 (+10% since 1/2000, +6% since 10/99).
Other, Midrange: Quantex SM733x: Pentium III-733, 30GB HD. Pluses: 128MB SDRAM, 18" display with 32MB display RAM, DVD-ROM. Extras: WordPerfect Office 2000, CD-RW drive, Altec Lansing speakers with subwoofer. $1,999, VR 10.88 (+20% since 1/2000, no change since 10/99).
Other, Power: Quantex SM800z: Pentium III-800, 40GB HD. Similar to midrange, but with MS Office 2000 SBE. $2,499, VR 10.25 (+26% since 1/2000, +22% since 10/99).
"Facts, figures, & findings" in the February 2000 EMedia serves as a useful reminder that trends don't always go as we might expect-"we" either being crazed industry analysts or, for that matter, me. The first squib notes that DVD-ROM drives just aren't taking off as expected, something that's been painfully obvious in watching popular PC configurations.
PC makers are still trying to trim configurations for competitive advantage, and they probably save $40-$50 by including a CD-ROM drive rather than a DVD-ROM. Most buyers don't spring for the upgrade; given the paltry availability of DVD-ROM software, why would they? The result is that analysts now expect more CD-ROM drives than DVD-ROM drives to be sold until 2002-while earlier projections had CD-ROM drives falling to a minority position by this year.
The other remarkable survivor is the humble microdiskette, Sony's durable replacement for the minidiskette. (For newcomers here or owners of iMacs and other new Macs: the microdiskette measures 3.5" in diameter and comes in a rigid plastic shell. If you still remember minidiskettes, they measured 5.25" in diameter and were somewhat flexible.)
The death of the 1.44MB microdiskette, or its replacement with a higher-capacity removable, has been predicted for years-unsurprisingly, given how long the diskette has been around and its relatively poor performance. I thought that Sony's newer high-capacity diskette would be a contender-but Sony was late to the party and the device has gone nowhere. To the extent that anybody buys high-capacity diskettes, they buy 120MB LS120 SuperDisks, but those aren't flying off the shelves either. The Zip survives in some quantity, but it's never really been a diskette replacement. Current projections are that diskette shipments will continue to grow until 2001, and then finally start to decline-and I wonder whether that's even plausible.
Sure, they offer tiny capacity: you don't find much software shipped on diskette these days. Sure, you can exchange your files over the Internet. For higher capacities, I believe the clear winner is the CD-RW: no other medium offers such low costs with reasonable performance. But much of the work we do doesn't involve graphics files and you can still put the text of two books on a diskette. I send these columns in on diskette-as I do my articles and columns for Online, eContent, and American Libraries. The lowly diskette still serves its purpose-and the drives are so cheap that most PC makers can't see the point in leaving them out.
Big Hard Disks
Speaking of disks, how big is big? IBM has a 70GB PC-level disk that may be on the market by the time you read this. Meanwhile, the April 2000 Computer Shopper reviews Maxtor's DiamondMax Plus 40: a 7,200rpm IDE disk with 40GB capacity-and an estimated street price of $349. That's less than $9 per gigabyte for a high-speed, fast-transfer drive (it supports the Ultra DMA/66 interface)-and in that same issue, I see this drive selling for $299, or less than $7.50 per gigabyte. (For those who still remember paying $100 or more per megabyte, that comes out to $0.0075 per megabyte: three-quarters of a cent, in other words.)
John Dvorak claims that IBM will have a 100GB hard disk on the market in 2001 for $100: $1 per gigabyte. Is that far-fetched? Not by much: the size is trivially larger than IBM's current plans and a midrange estimate would have per-gigabyte prices falling by about 75 percent in the next two years, to around $2 per gigabyte. (That's based on a doubling of capacity per dollar each year, which seems to be roughly what's happening.)
Online Office Suites
Who needs Microsoft Office when you can do it all online? That's the premise of online office suites, and the March 21, 2000, PC Magazine reviews three of them. One of the claimed advantages of these suites is that "their small footprint appeals to users who are fed up with Microsoft Office 2000, which can consume up to 650MB of hard disk space." That strikes me as a little bizarre for anyone with a reasonably current computer, since 650MB of hard disk space costs about $6.50 in today's market (less as you read this). A more plausible advantage is that you can get at your files (and applications) at work, at home, or in a hotel, since the files are also stored on someone else's computer somewhere.
That latter fact might make some people nervous-but it's not like hackers have ever penetrated computer systems or companies have ever mined user data for commercial purposes without informing the users. And since these services are provided by such mammoth long-established companies as MyFreeDesk.com Inc., NuoMedia, and ThinkFree. com, you can be sure that your files are safe for the long run: as we all know, start-up technology companies never fail.
There are slight disadvantages. You get ads with your apps; you get to wait while new functions are downloaded as you need them; and these suites can be a trifle slow. In MyFreeDesk, the testers "sometimes had to wait three seconds after typing a character before it appeared on the screen." With NuoMedia, they waited 30 seconds for most dialog boxes to appear over an ADSL connection. ThinkFree seems to work better-but be sure that its compact set of features meets your needs.
I'll pass, at least for now. I'm willing to pay a little up front so that I don't get ads with my applications, so that I get the range of advanced features I've come to know and love, and so that my files are on my machine-period.
Remote Controls for PCs?
Strange times. Would you pay $79 for an infrared wireless transmitter that lets you control your PC (that is, emulate certain keystrokes) from across the room? The Keyspan Digital Media Remote is for you! What about $249 for a radio-wave remote control that can "perform almost any function ... that you can with a mouse" (according to PC Magazine's astonishing five-circle rating) up to 100 feet away from the PC, even when the PC is out of sight? Order the Interlink RemotePoint RF today!
As Alfred Poor asks, "Why don't we have remotes that let us interact with our computers without having to reach for the keyboard or the mouse?" Well, we do-but I think the answers are fairly clear. If your PC is at all typical, the screen is roughly an arm's length away. Most of us have a keyboard and mouse within that arm's length.
I must be missing something here. Perhaps Library Hi Tech News readers can enlighten me. What do you want to do with your PC when you're across the room from it-or, with the Interlink unit, in some other room entirely?
We use remote controls for television sets and stereo systems-because we typically sit several feet away from these devices. But, as Poor says, we "interact" with computers. I'm not entirely sure how you interact with a PC when you're too far away from it to use the keyboard.
Long-suffering readers may recall that I've gone back and forth on system utilities. In the past couple of years, I became unhappy with the system overhead of Norton SystemWorks and intrigued by Mijenix' Fix-It, which incorporates the magnificent PowerDesk replacement for Windows Explorer. I switched to Fix-It, but found some serious problems, including incompatibilities that made its defragmentation utility an inferior replacement for Windows 98's defrag feature. More recently, I switched back to a newer, leaner, more integrated Norton SystemWorks 2000 (keeping PowerDesk), and I've been quite happy with it. I still use Fix-It at work: my work computer runs Windows NT, and SystemWorks doesn't do NT (at the moment).
What's OnTrack SystemSuite? Fix-It with a new owner and a new name-and with other Mijenix tools integrated nicely and virus protection added. If you don't care for Norton or McAfee Office 2000 (or if you need a utility suite for Windows NT/2000), there is an alternative.
Keeping That Notebook Running
Flying off to Australia with a need to keep computing all the way across? If you're lucky, your airplane might offer a notebook power outlet-but if not, Electrofuel Inc. has a $500 solution for you. The PowerPad 160 is a Lithium Ion SuperPolymer battery packaged as a half-inch rectangle just a little bigger than a sheet of American letter paper. It weighs 2.2 pounds and sits under your notebook. Fully charged and plugged in to your computer, it might add 12 hours or more to your computing time. PC Magazine ran an informal test using an IBM ThinkPad 600X with SpeedStep technology-a power-hungry notebook with an adapter that couldn't fully charge the PowerPad. The ThinkPad ran for four hours on its own; with the PowerPad added, the running time was almost 16 hours.
You don't want to hear my comments about planning to compute all the way from Los Angeles to Sydney (which this battery should allow). I understand that some of you are that driven. Personally, I'll take a pillow, some magazines, and maybe the in-flight movies.
Parker, D. (2000), "Copy this column: the truth about DeCSS," EMedia, Vol. 13 No. 2, p. 72.
Dana Parker discusses a little program called DeCSS, which makes it possible to store the contents of a DVD video on a hard disk and play it back, overcoming CSS encryption. A group of Norwegian hackers, Masters of Reverse Engineering, posted the program.
The Motion Picture Association of America went ballistic, with apocalyptic statements from Jack Valenti. The team planning to bring out DVD-Audio players announced a delay because DVD-Audio used CSS as a form of copy protection. Suits were threatened, with the Recording Industry Association of America being in the fray as usual.
But, as Dana Parker notes, copyright is not absolute. A case can be made that DeCSS simply restores the possibility of fair use. There are a number of circumstances in which copying is legal, as the Betamax decision made clear; DVD producers used CSS to try to undermine fair use (which RIAA and MPAA have always disliked).
In fact, CSS is only designed to prevent casual copying. Commercial pirates don't worry about CSS; they have ways to deal with it. Cries of "piracy" with regard to this little free program were absurd, as Valenti and his pack of doomcryers probably knew.
Parker ends: "It's time for the music and film industries to abandon their fruitless, costly, and consumer-alienating attempts to rewrite the copyright laws to their own purposes ... Make your content widely available, globally compatible, and reasonably priced, and you can eliminate the need and desire to make unauthorized copies. It's the only sensible thing to do."
A fine column, with a great deal of sensible commentary in a single page. As for the closing advice ... Dana's right, but I wouldn't hold my breath.
Sirapyan, N. (2000), "Internet reference guide to ...," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 6, pp. 169-81.
I love PC Magazine, but sometimes it makes me want to scream. This is an example. Not the article itself; it's a useful collection of their favorite research sites for news, technology, business, and government. But this is a nice little secondary story, six weeks after their annual "Best of the Web" story-which makes these sites appear to be less important. Let's ignore the comment that this guide copes with the fact that "most businesspeople don't keep a librarian in their briefcase or tucked away in a filing cabinet."
In the "Top 100," there were no categories for news, technology, business, or government-but most of the categories boiled down to business. The Library of Congress wasn't good enough for the Top 100, but THOMAS and LC's Country Studies site qualify for the Internet reference guide. Under business, you'll find the US Business Advisor, the World Bank's country-at-a-glance tables, FedStats, and the International Database operated by the Census Bureau-none of which made the Top 100.
What was so much more important for the Top 100? Instant messaging; shopping assistants; computer shopping; department stores; specialty shopping; person-to-person shopping; Web development. The stuff that really counts-not trivial stuff such as the status of Congressional bills, international economic trends, and the like.
Lest we forget: the Internet is about business, period. Anything else is wasted bandwidth.
Bass, S. (2000), "These discs are made for burnin'," PC World, Vol. 18 No. 4, p. 43
Several long-standing PC columnists have written items along this line: CD-Rs are fun, as well as being the logical high-density removable storage format today. This is one of the better examples. Bass uses his new CD-RW drive to make custom music mixes for the car or the PC-and also uses CDs to back up his system. He gets a little confused on compatibility, saying that "newly burned CDs may not play on older CD players." (More typically, most CD players will play CD-R but not CD-RW, while most DVD players will play CD-RW but not CD-R. "Multiplay" CD and DVD players can handle both CD-R and CD-RW.) The one-page column is a good read with sensible advice and genuine enthusiasm about his new toy.
Machrone, D. (2000), "How to stop DoS attacks," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 7, p. 97, and Dvorak, J. (2000), "A brick through a window," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 7, p. 99.
Many librarians would do well to read these two columns and consider how easy it is for people to lose sight of the Bill of Rights when they're being inconvenienced. Both columns relate to the recent spate of "Denial of Service" attacks by computer hackers, attacks that made Amazon, ZDNet, and a few other sites inaccessible for a few hours. What's surprising about the pair is how badly Machrone gets it wrong.
Machrone has a solution to the hacker attacks. First, secure the servers (good enough). Second, license the ISPs: have the government (who else?) force every Internet Service Provider to "conform to nationally agreed-to ethical and performance standards." (Set aside the global nature of the Net for now.) Third, make spoofed packets illegal. Fourth, "ban the scanners"-make any ping, prod, or probe impossible. (Do you use ping to see if an Internet connection is working properly or performing well? We do. Can Web indexes do their work without scanning? I don't see how. Never mind.)
Machrone, who should know better, drops it all to the bottom line. These wrenching changes are cheaper than potential damage in the future "when business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions are an order of magnitude larger than they are today." So we must have the government become massively more intrusive and eliminate huge chunks of legitimate activity so that we can protect potential Internet dominance of commerce. Got it?
Dvorak sees it a little differently-and his title may tell you all you need to know. Hackers are claiming that breaking into systems and bringing them down is beneficial: the hackers are exposing the weaknesses of the systems. As Dvorak points out, in almost every neighborhood and in most downtowns (other than some very large cities), you can throw a brick through a window to gain illegal entry. Most people have access to bricks, and a lot more people know how to throw bricks than know how to implement DoS attacks.
So do we outlaw bricks or have the government license brick sellers? Do we outlaw glass in favor of PVC, and is it reasonable for brick throwers to claim that they're just exposing the insecurity of glass windows? Oddly enough, that hasn't been suggested. Throwing a brick through a window is vandalism; a denial of service attack is vandalism. Neither offers justification for new government regulations.
English, D. (2000), "Easy listening," Computer Shopper, Vol. 20 No. 4, pp. 172-5.
Set aside the disturbing trend for writers to claim that almost nobody can hear the difference between 128K MP3 and CD sound: maybe we are all going deaf, or maybe it's limited to technology writers. This article doesn't make such claims; instead, it offers fairly detailed reviews of the current crop of MP3 "jukebox" programs-software to play MP3 files and usually do quite a bit more. The programs offer interesting variety, and you can get free trial versions of each one (usually missing some features). MusicMatch Jukebox Plus 4.5 gets the Best Buy nod for a variety of reasons; I use MusicMatch (and just downloaded version 5 at this writing) and like it, but have little basis for comparison. It does offer more flexibility and capabilities than most competitors; it can encode at rates as high as 320K (which should yield nearly-perfect CD equivalence), do so at unusually high speeds (as fast as 12x), play Windows Media files, and even function as a CD-R writer. As with any good MP3 program, it will download album track information from the Internet when you insert a new CD, but you can turn off that default if you don't have a full-time Net connection.
Broida, R. (2000), "Portables race into the fast lane," Computer Shopper, Vol. 20 No. 4, pp. 148-54.
When you read further in this episode of "Review Watch," you'll find another notebook computer review from the same issue. That's how timing works sometimes: this review of six "fast lane" notebooks (using 500MHz Pentium III CPUs) was ready to publish at the same time that early faster notebooks came out. Interestingly, the cheapest computer in this group (Sceptre's $2,849 Soundx S6900) is $450 more expensive than the cheapest of the other group, even though it's not as well configured and from a smaller company.
The two best buys, from the largest companies in this round-up, are two of the three most expensive systems in the group. Dell's $4,301 Inspiron 7500 R500YT offers high-end performance at a high-end price; Compaq's $3,149 Presario 1800T-500 has short battery life but decent performance.
Shim, R. (2000), "Stepping up," Computer Shopper, Vol. 20 No. 4, pp. 119-26.
Intel's latest trick for high-speed portable computing is SpeedStep technology. This combination of hardware and software allows a CPU to run at two different speeds and voltages; when stepped down, the CPU offers 80 percent full performance but draws only 55 percent as much current. That means longer battery life, and the default configuration for most SpeedStep computers will switch to the higher speed whenever an AC adapter is attached, lower when running on batteries. But there's an icon in the Windows taskbar: if you need more CPU power and can give up battery life, you can force the higher speed. SpeedStep shows up in Intel's Mobile Pentium III 600MHz and 650MHz CPUs.
This article reviews three early SpeedStep notebooks: 650MHz units from Dell and Gateway and a 600MHz unit from Quantex. Dell's Inspiron 5000 G650VT and Quantex' W-1410 are nearly identical (probably built by the same manufacturer), but the Quantex has a smaller screen with lower resolution, considerably smaller hard disk, slower CPU-and considerably lower price ($2,399 compared to Dell's $4,100). That price difference and somewhat better portability (the Quantex weighs about a pound less than the other two) are enough to earn the Quantex a Best Buy designation. If you want a big name and need to choose between the two others, pay attention to the review details: it's not obvious which system will suit which users the best.
Brown, B., and Brown, M. (2000), "Picture-perfect printers," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 7, p. 52.
The first two sentences tell the story: "Ink jet printers have come so far over the past few years that it's hard to imagine how they could get any better. But every year manufacturers somehow up the ante again." While this article only includes two printers, both of them receive the rare five-dot rating, meaning they should be Editors' Choices in any round-up.
As inkjets go, these are expensive: $500 each. They're also bulkier than most, with the smaller one measuring 8.5 x 22.8 x 25.5". But they also offer fast text printing, quiet operation, wide-format capabilities, and superior print quality. Epson's Stylus Photo 1270 is your best choice for top-quality photos: it's fast and the reported print quality is "breathtaking" when using Epson's new quick-drying dye-based inks and special photo paper. If you need a fast general-purpose printer that also produces beautiful photos, choose HP's DeskJet 1220C Professional; it's faster than the Epson for text documents (but slower for photos), printing a 43-page text-and-graphics document in 5 minutes 32 seconds and it's "nearly inaudible" except for paper advance. How good is the HP at printing photos? "If you didn't have the Epson Stylus Photo 1270 for comparison, you'd think it impossible to produce better photo output from an ink jet than the samples from the 1220C."
For most of us, what's great about this is that these advanced inks, superior print technologies, and quiet operation will filter down to $250-$300 models within a year or less.
Removable Storage Devices
Hill, J., and Poor, A. (2000), "Personal storage," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 6, pp. 182-98.
Get past the first couple of lines. "Let's face facts: Our lives are becoming completely digitized." Excuse me while I pet my Catz and go on that virtual cruise to digital Europe, clicking along the way for a nice meal of nutritious JPEGs.
Digiphilia aside, I agree with PC Magazine that optical discs now offer the most sensible ways to back up your PC files and share large files. This review includes 17 CD-RW drives and three DVD-RAM drives; unless your needs are unusual, CD-RW is probably the way to go. (CD-R drives have pretty much disappeared, although most CD-RW owners are likely to burn a lot more CD-Rs than CD-RWs.) One piece of good news for most of us: unlike previous round-ups, they found no significant performance differences between EIDE/ATA drives and SCSI drives. Apparently, the "buffer underrun" problem with CD-Rs has pretty well disappeared, so you're unlikely to produce many instant coasters. (On p. 99 of this PC Magazine, Jim Seymour discusses his recent experience with CD-Rs and why he relies on them for large file transfers.)
The CD-RW field has proliferated, and this group of 17 is far from complete. Can you generalize from individual models to brandmates? That's not entirely clear, but the general quality of CD-RW drives and software seems to be quite high. They only found one drive (AOpen's $210 CRW9624) that they couldn't recommend, at least partly because it doesn't handle the Universal Disk Format (UDF), so you can't use standard Windows tools to manipulate files.
Editors' Choice for a CD-RW drive is Hewlett Packard's $399 CD-Writer Plus 9210e, an external SCSI model with a good software bundle and first-rate support. Honorable mention goes to Ricoh's MediaMaster MP9060A, which combines DVD-ROM reading and CD-RW capabilities. If you need to write huge files and don't need compatibility, the Editors' Choice among DVD-RAM drives is QPS' $629 Que! DVD-RAM. It's also a SCSI device, but it includes a SCSI adapter.
If you're planning to add a CD-RW drive and you want to use your computer for something else while you're burning a CD-R or CD-RW, pay attention to another item in this PC Magazine, on page 68. PC Labs tested CPU utilization while burning CD-Rs using a variety of connections. What they found is one key variable: whether DMA (direct memory access) is enabled for the CD-RW drive. That's particularly critical for EIDE drives, where CPU utilization averaged 73 percent with DMA off, 4 percent with it on. In other cases-USB, FireWire, and SCSI-turning DMA on always improved the situation, but the non-DMA situation was never quite so awful. For EIDE drives, which most buyers will use, go to Control Panel, System, Device Manager, Disk Drives, Properties, Settings for your CD-RW drive; make sure DMA is on. In some cases, you may need to verify that the drive supports DMA.
Rigney, S. (2000), "Your server safety net," PC Magazine, Vol. 19 No. 7, pp. 154-66.
When you need to back up very large quantities of mission-critical data, your best choice is still tape. No other medium offers the sheer capacity of tape drives: one of the six drives reviewed here offers 60GB raw capacity and an optimistic 150GB compressed capacity. (If you're not familiar with computer tape ratings, be aware that tape is the only medium in which the storage capacity normally stated for a tape or a drive is the compressed capacity, not the actual capacity. Normally, compression is assumed to average 2:1 but the makers of some drives use a more aggressive estimate.) Tape drives are slow and pretty much useless for anything except back-up (on PCs, at least), but they just run.
Most devices here use digital audio tape (DAT), a format that failed in the consumer audio marketplace but offers high capacity and reliability for data storage. The article includes useful comments about organizing back-up cycles and explains each drive in some detail-which is good, given that they don't all use standard tapes or technologies. A sidebar reviews backup programs.
The Editors' Choice is Exabyte's $4,000 Mammoth-2. It has the largest capacity of any tested drive (cited above) and was also the best performer on all of their tests, and it's not the most expensive drive in the test. Honorable mention goes to Ecrix' VXA-1, a $1,000 drive that stores 33GB native, 66GB compressed. It uses a proprietary packet-writing technology that supposedly reduces wear and tear on the system and could allow data recovery from a damaged cartridge. It's not the fastest drive around, but it's relatively cheap.
Encarta Africana 2000
Buy this set. Your public library should have a copy. Your academic library should have a copy. You should probably have a copy at home. This is the highest rating I've ever given a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM and it's one of the rare titles that deserves an Outstanding (95 or above).
I never saw the first Encarta Africana, that 90-year-late realization of W.E.B. DuBois' dream of an encyclopedic work on Africa, the African diaspora, and its results in America and elsewhere. This is the second edition-with more original multimedia, some new features, and probably some updated articles.
If you don't have access to a computer running Windows 95, Windows 98, or Windows NT (which should include Windows 2000), you're out of luck. That's a shame, given the importance and value of this work-and given that it's a real pleasure to use. The Windows PC also needs multimedia features, but at a fairly minimal level: Pentium-equivalent processor (which includes Celeron), 16-bit color at 640x480 resolution, sound, and a quad-speed or faster CD-ROM drive. If you have enough RAM to run Windows comfortably, you have enough for Encarta Africana; it will need 27 to 60 MB disk space, depending on your system.
AutoPlay works for installation. You can select the installation directory, but installation forces a new Encarta folder with a single icon. Microsoft seems to insist on its own installation routines rather than the common InstallShield, but this one offers feedback and seemed to work well-with one significant exception: after I'd installed it and stopped using it, I could no longer contact ATT.WorldNet, my Internet Services Provider. The dialogue box said that dial-up networking was missing components. I was able to restore Internet service using the Windows 98 SE CD-ROM to locate and restore the missing components-but this should never have happened!
AutoPlay also works once you've installed the program, without activating set-up. That should be standard practice for all CD-ROMs, but it's rare enough to deserve comment. You can start from either CD-ROM (it's a two-disc set) and you can use most of the encyclopedia equally well from either disc. Text and indices are repeated on each disc; media files are split across discs. The first disc is nearly full (628MB, of which 400MB is video clips) while the second disc is two-thirds full (397MB, of which more than 200MB is video).
Encarta Africana scales automatically to fit any display 640 x 480 pixels or above, but you'll probably get the best results at resolutions between 640 x 480 and 1024 x 768. Everything ran well on my Celeron-400 system, with fast searching, smooth video and sound, and generally solid results.
Encarta Africana 2000 is a multimedia encyclopedia, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah, both of Harvard. It includes more than 3,600 articles and 2,900 "multimedia features." Those features include more than 100 half-screen videos (320 x 240 pixels); more than 100 maps; nine "virtual tours" (sets of navigable 360-degree panoramic images); some 400 musical segments; and more than 2,000 images. There are also 200 sidebars.
Big deal. An encyclopedia with a fair amount of multimedia. So what? Other encyclopedias have thousands of images, dozens of panoramic images (or even iPIX "bubbles"), lots more sound and music, many more maps-and 3,600 articles seems pretty scrawny compared to 36,000 in a good multimedia encyclopedia.
But this is a focused, scholarly encyclopedia, entirely devoted to the history of Africa and people of African descent. The writing is excellent, with a mix of factual description and labeled interpretative essays. Articles are signed, with pop-up credentials available. These are substantial articles: while I can't determine the total amount of text, I'd be surprised if it wasn't between four and seven million words. The pages you're reading now run between 750 and 800 words and are more cramped than good book pages-but I'd guess that Encarta Africana offers the equivalent of five to eight thousand comparable pages. (The print Africana from the same editors includes two million words and takes up more than 2,100 dense pages.)
It's one thing to have a hundred video clips in an encyclopedia. In this case, most of the video clips are either rare and historically important or offer original video, filmed either for this encyclopedia or for a related PBS series. Similarly, while dozens of the sound clips are the usual MIDI national anthems, many more offer substantial samples of important African and African-descended singers, musicians, musical styles, and political (and other) speakers. Some sound clips are in stereo; most musical clips run 45 seconds or so, long enough to present an entire verse and chorus of a song or to give you a solid sense of a jazzman's style. Performance videos generally offer lower-quality sound than the musical clips, but seeing the musicians perform makes up for this deficiency. The original video segments are impressive, both African explorations and three-minute commentaries on various topics. See Cornel West, Maya Angelou, and Colin Powell; see and hear Quincy Jones discuss music, Sir Mix-A-Lot show how modern rap artists prepare studio-quality demos using $2,500 worth of equipment, and Whoopi Goldberg discuss a number of topics with her typical high intelligence and down-to-earth style.
A library section offers access to 139 "books," most of which appear to be legitimate book-length texts, many of them rare. The library includes 22 biographies and autobiographies, 19 years' of W.E.B. DuBois' columns in The Crisis, 38 works of fiction, 16 poetry collections, 18 general non-fiction works, and 39 slave narratives-an impressive collection, all full-text searchable and easy to export or print. You can also copy or print all or part of any article in the encyclopedia. In both articles and the library, running text always appears as clean black text on a white background, widely spaced and easy enough to read in your choice of three type sizes.
Unfortunately, it's sans serif text and, to my eye, too heavily leaded for comfortable reading. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could select your own typeface, since the text is presented on the fly using TrueType? If you're counting, that's my second negative comment about this set and probably the most serious one: these are long articles, well worth reading, and they could be easier to read.
Extras and Access
Good CD-ROM learning and reference tools offer a variety of extras and ways to encourage exploration. Encarta Africana shines in this department. A narrated tour of the product as a whole has 16 steps and offers a good combination of brevity and thoroughness. The virtual tours offer well-labeled hot spots, pull-down lists of locations, and an overview window below the panoramic window that always orients you within the overall field. (Depending on screen resolution, the credit screens on these virtual tours may be unreadable: a defect, but a very minor one.) Virtual tours not only include images and text in popups, some also include appropriate musical selections-with lots of links to articles, to be sure.
A general timeline goes from early prehistory to the present. It's not a simple scrolling image with popups; it's a programmed environment that works remarkably well. The timeline doesn't attempt to offer every event or even a large sampling; it sticks to a few highlights, leading you into articles as appropriate. I didn't realize that the abolitionist movement in America began in 1688, although it's no surprise that the Quakers were involved: that's one of the facts I learned just skimming over the timeline.
Perhaps more impressive than the general timeline is a musical timeline, primarily related to African-influenced music in the United States. I found it nearly impossible to break away from this timeline without calling up each hot spot and its related video or audio clips. Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke singing a capella gospel, Sun Ra, Duke Ellington (in a lengthy color video clip), the miraculous voice of the Reverend C. L. Franklin-and, to be sure, his daughter Aretha asking for RESPECT. I think the musical timeline and accompanying video and music clips might be worth $20 all by itself, particularly with the related articles-but it's a tiny part of Encarta Africana.
Time for my third and final complaint, and it's a trivial one. The popup windows in the music timeline include a modest amount of text (serif text, mind you) and one or more media elements (some pictures but mostly music or video clips). If you expand one of the music or video clips, play it, then click on the Back button, you go back to the timeline-so you have to click on the highlight again to deal with other clips in the same popup. (And you have to change discs from time to time-but you expect that with a media-rich CD set.)
A civil rights chronology works differently than the timelines. It's vertical rather than horizontal, it covers a relatively small period, and it lists all the items as you scroll through. You expand items you're interested in (and can always branch to related items). You can also view the chronology selectively, e.g., concentrating on Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic video clips are used to particularly good effect in the chronology and, as with most of the encyclopedia, they can be played "in place" (without expanding to a separate window).
One map of Africa offers a group of views, each linking to articles as appropriate. You can see where tribes were located, where fauna and flora appear, and the like. Another map, "Africa to Americas," shows those regions and offers century-based views of the African diaspora: where they came from, where they went, and-in a final contemporary section-a selection of items that show direct relationships between elements of American life and their origins within specific parts of Africa.
If you haven't already spent a few days exploring articles and media through these devices, you can search the encyclopedia directly using two powerful methods. One, the Topic Browser, offers an unusually good topical approach to finding articles. You start out with 4,725 items; as you select a major topic from a list, then a subtopic, then other selectable aspects, the list of articles keeps getting smaller, with the number above it reflecting the current total.
Searching is simple and effective. You can search specific media types or everything at once. Key a few letters and you point to a place in the alphabetic list; key one or more words, and you get back a list of articles and items containing the words (with the words highlighted in the articles). The finding box accepts simple Boolean operators. When you select an article, it takes up the full screen, but simply clicking on the Find box brings back the results list as a partial overlay.
Longer articles have selectable outlines. Articles are rich with hyperlinks to other articles, along with selectable lists of related articles, multimedia, and appropriate Web sites (some 8,000 in all). Multimedia elements can be viewed separately or, typically, viewed in context. You always see full credits and captions for images, video, and music. Many articles offer brief bibliographies.
Just for fun, after trying a few obvious searches, I tried two slightly bizarre ones: names that I thought shouldn't have their own articles but just might be represented. To wit, Paul Simon (who's certainly worked with and benefited from African music) and Prester John, the mythical Christian African king of the Middle Ages. Immediately, I came up with four articles (two of them lengthy interpretative essays) that referred to Prester John and a dozen articles referring to Paul Simon (plus two more semi-hits, articles where "Paul" and "Simon" both appeared as first names-I hadn't put "Paul Simon" in quotes). I was impressed-particularly because the references to Paul Simon weren't counter-racist or degrading.
I had several screen shots to include with this review-but I'd rather use the space to say more about the set. The screens are clean, well designed, with few stunts and fine functionality.
It's clear that a lot of money and thought went into this product. The $55 price represents a remarkable bargain. Written by reputable scholars, this set is an approachable, comprehensive resource on a topic that will always be important. If you care at all about Africa, the African diaspora, and the results of that forced migration on the Americas and elsewhere-and you should-you will find this set essential and worthwhile. I believe you will also find it enjoyable to explore. I haven't seen the book Africana. I suspect it's easier to read but it obviously lacks the multimedia extras, full-text searching and rich internal links of the CD-ROM. You can buy both for less than $100: for any good library, at least, that should be an easy choice.
I don't impress that easily. I'm impressed. Buy it.
|Encarta Africana 2000|
|****: Outstanding |
|Windows 95/98/NT: ISBN 0-7356-0105-4|
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.