Another year is coming to an end and so as it is again time to think about what I really would like under the Christmas tree.
How about a new email program that really takes care of spam and the like? You now have a couple of options that look pretty good including Outlook, which is part of the new Office 2003 from Microsoft. Took a look at it the other night and I am impressed with the features. I tend to group my emails by topic in folders and Outlook makes this much easier. One really good feature is that graphics are not turned on by default so you can actually look at email messages without having the fear that a web pixel will phone home with your email address. What is also new there is a safe list to put known email addresses and help you distinguish the good from the bad and truly ugly.
For a really good graphics program, take a look at the newly updated Paint Shop Pro from JASC Software. Some of the new features include an image distortion correction where you take a picture from a wide angle lens where the objects are rounded on the sides and it straightens them. How about the ability to half tone an image for printing on newsprint. You can now set black and white points on the image to help rebalance the image for better control and exposure. A magnifier to bring out an image and more web improvements really make this a terrific update to my favorite graphics program. www.jasc.com
Last time, I complained a bunch of the problems I was having with Wireless systems and it still isn’t getting much better. Windows XP doesn’t help much in that if you try to connect to an encrypted (WEP) wireless router or access point, you have to enter in all the characters of the encryption key rather than using the simple pass phrase that both Linksys and Netgear let you use on older computers. Go figure.
Something else to put under the tree would be a new mouse. If yours is more than a couple of years old, get a new optical mouse. Never have to worry about the mouse ball getting clogged with junk or having to worry about having to use a mouse pad. Also, get one that is comfortable.
Is this the year to get into DVD drives? Hard telling but Sony has come out with a model that is very reliable, quick, and versatile in the DRU-510A. It handles all types of DVD including the DVD-R, DVD+R, and both RW formats. You should be able to find it for around $220.
It seems like it has been quite a while but the major CD and DVD burning software packages have all finally come up with new versions. For years I had used Adaptec (and now Roxio) EZ CD Creator and when I was making copies of albums and records, the program was great to use. Unfortunately, it has taken them a while to catch up to Nero’s Burning Room (www.ahead.de), which is a great tool for burning CDs but lacked some of the audio features I liked with Roxio. Well, both of them have upgraded their versions so it will be fun taking a closer look at both
New for 2004
New things to look for in 2004 will be another round of changes for mainboards and processors. As a result, you will find the new power supplies coming with computers different from what we have been using with the Pentium 4s in the power connector to the mainboard will require 24 connectors in two rows rather than 20 we have today.
Along with the new power supply requirement, look for new packaging for the Intel processors to consist of 775 pins compared to the 478 pins used in today’s systems. We should see new chipsets for these mainboards as well as support for the Serial ATA2 standard which will support 300mbs throughput for high speed hard drive performance. Intel also tells us that they expect the new Hyperthreading Technology to be in half of all processors sold in 2004.
How about laptops with 5 to 7 hours of working battery life on a single charge. Look for this with the new low power technology coming in notebooks. We should see a whole selection coming in 2004 that will finally make it easier to work away from the power plug. With that, look also for around 70,000 wireless hot spots early in 2004 so if you are thinking of getting a new notebook, get it with wireless built in and preferably, the “G” standard for faster connections.
Big Hard Drives
Well, I have seen one of the dream drives and it is a Western Digital 250Gigabyte drive that comes with its own Parallel ATA drive card for your computer. It blew through ZD Nets drive testing so it is fast. Problem is, we have a wall we are bumping into and that that how most computers drives are connected, has an upper limit of 137 Gigabytes because of the addressing standard. Most of today’s computers use the IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics) connector to plug in our hard drives. That connector uses a transfer standard called ATA (AT Attachment) which currently has that 137 gigabyte limitation. To get beyond that limitation, efforts are underway to upgrade the addressing specifications and when that happens, the sky will be the limit. If you are wondering, SCSI Drives don’t have this limitation.
One of the best newsletters I read is from Fred Langa, www.langa.com. In a recent letter, he tells us of a danger facing CDs that we have burned over the years. The life of CDs has been estimated to be anywhere from 6 years to 100 depending on a lot of factors related mostly to the chemical makeup of the disc. What Fred found was disturbing was that CDs that he has been burning have been failing far sooner. His investigation showed that the ones that were failing were those that had paper labels glued to the CD. Don’t know about you but I certainly made a few CDs of my own with the fancy labeling packages that came with the drives. The funny part is that I pretty well gave up doing it because it took more time that it was worth for me to design the label and print it. So today, I just use a magic marker to write on the CD itself. There is a product you can get to test your CDs for at www.cdspeed2000.com. You first test your drive with the CD Speed program, then click on Extra, and Scan Disk. Choose the surface scan and it will test the disc for you. What I found matches Fred’s comments in that those CDs that had the paper labels put on by me (or someone else), had a very high failure rate and showed damage during the surface scan. In fact, so far, I have not run into an unreadable CD that had no label on it. I also tested a few CDs that are “factory”, in other words, came with a software package I purchased, and all of those tested so far are just fine.
It seems that people have gotten used to the idea that you can only use your one copy of Windows XP once. The product activation while a pain sometimes to deal with is actually pretty straight forward unless you wait till past the last minute to activate your copy of Windows and then have to call them. I have a copy running on my test computer and about every six months, need to reformat the hard drive and reinstall Windows. What happens is that Windows sees it is a new install and forces me to make a phone call to Microsoft to get it activated because it looks like I am installing it on a new computer every six months or so. When Intuit tried to do the same thing with Quicken, there was such an outcry that they abandoned the project pretty quickly. It seems that Symantec has decided it was time to do it also and so with the 2004 version of their products, have introduced product activation. I have not seen much grumbling about it in the papers and magazines as I did with Intuit. Could it be that more people copied the product and so have let their guilt take over and just keep quiet and buy the extra copies? What software company will be next?
Windows XP Upgrades
One of the things about windows XP is the fact that there are a ton of updates and critical patches available. For those of you who got an early copy like I did, you will have at least 29 patches, hot fixes, and the like listed in your Add Remove Programs part of Control Panel. The good news is that if you recently purchased your copy of Windows XP, either the upgrade or full version, you will have already had many of them built in because Microsoft has included many of these as well as the first Service Pack in the more recent releases. This saves a lot of downloading time and effort to keep your system up to date but the problem I am seeing is that many people that are connected to dial up, never stay online long enough for Windows to download the updates. And this can really leave you vulnerable to all sorts of evil doings out there. The good news is that while we wait another couple of years for the upgrade to Windows XP called Longhorn, Microsoft will be issuing a second service pack for Windows sometime in the next few months.
For dial up users, you might want to take a peek and see if you are up to date. Go online like you normally do and then to see if your computer is up to date, you should click on Start, go to “All Programs”, and then look at the top of the list for “Windows Update”. You may be quite surprised to see a lot of updates, including the critical ones that need to be applied. If so, be prepared to sit online for a very long time.
Robert Sanborn is an Independent Personal Computer Consultant and a contributing editor for the Indy PC News. Reach him through the net at email@example.com
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