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Technology Today July 2006
by Robert Sanborn

In many of my travels, I have taken to wearing the noise reduction headphones that I got from Targus. They worked pretty well until one day I switched them on and the noise reduction circuitry had gone bad. Fortunately, still under warranty, they are off to Targus for replacement. But while they worked pretty well, there were several things I didnít like about using them. One was they were a bit bulky and ended up taking up a lot of space in my backpack. The second was the case they came with is near worthless because it was so flimsy to offer no protection for them. A zip lock bag would have done just as well. But when you only pay $50 for them, you really canít expect much. So when they failed, it gave me a good excuse to do more research and with that, I went looking and found a new set from Sennheiser, www.sennheiserusa.com.

The model I got was the PXC300, around $200, and I have to tell you, they work great. Sitting here at my desk, I have a computer that sounds like it was from a wind tunnel and now I can barely hear it at all. What a great change.

The headphones are a collapsible type in that they fold up quite compactly for traveling and one of the nice features is the very rigid case that comes with them. Quick straps inside to hold the adapters for airline plugs and for the mini to RCA plug in case you still happen to have one of those old stereos hanging around. Great case for traveling as it actually protects the headphones inside.

What surprised me is that these phones are not the complete cover your ear type that I had with the Targus model and others I have seen but it doesnít matter as the adjustable headband has a set of nubs inside that really hold it in place when you adjust it.

One complaint I have about it (and all the others I have looked at) is that there is no easy way to get rid of the excess cords when you donít need them. For instance, when I travel, often I donít bother to listen to music, same when I do things like mow the lawn for which these headsets are great for cutting back on the noise. The battery holder/active noise generator has a very handy clip on it for clipping it to your shirt, or a pocket and it adjusts if you want to hook it to your belt.

The way it works is that the headphones are connected through an active noise cancellation technology called NoiseGardô. What it does is through a separate set of microphones, detects the ambient noise around you (including things like the constant hum of computer fans, jet engines, and so on), and then creates a sound wave that is just opposite of the noise you hear to cancel them out. To do all this on this and most other units require two AAA batteries. Really strange technology but it works great and is the same technology used by aircraft pilots for which Sennheiser makes a number of them. The cool part is that if you plug your MP3 player into the unit, you donít hear any difference in the music.

For specifications, this is one of the first I have seen that give you an indication of what it can do for you. When you wear the headphones without activating the noise cancellation circuitry, you are in what they call "passive noise reduction mode". Put on any headphones and they cut out the outside noise some but these will do it to the tune of about 26 decibels. Hit the switch and it is good for another 15 decibels.

I like how they fold nearly flat for traveling and the case protects them very well. Keep a spare pair of AAA batteries handy and you will be good to go for many hours of use. Canít wait to take them on my next trip to China.

Windows Vista

Microsoft, as you know, is gearing up for the next generation of Windows and they call it Vista. It will be a new step up they tell us and is not an upgrade but a change in lifestyle like it was when we upgraded to Windows XP. It has been long coming, there will be zillions of comments and pundits telling you what to look at, when to buy it, and when not to. So, I took the plunge and downloaded my copy of Vista. All 3.5 Gigabytes of it but you know, with a cable modem speed, it went pretty quickly. There are several different versions of Vista coming and what I got was the "Ultimate" edition and of course, since it is a beta copy, you should expect to see some bumps in the road and I have.

While it is not really at all like Windows XP, you will find enough in it that work the same to be comfortable using it. This by no means is an upgrade, it is a replacement for Windows as I said like XP was a replacement for Windows 98/ME. Some things look the same, much doesnít, but it works very well and the more I use it the more I like it.

I decided to install it on my new laptop. The first thing you do is to make sure it us up to snuff. Microsoft has an advisor page and program that you can run to see if your machine meets all of the requirements. The only snag to running this is that you have to have the Microsoft .net framework program also installed on your computer. The advisor is pretty straight forward in that you answer some questions as to what you will need to be doing with your computer. Things relating to graphics, video, television, and so on and it then tells you what you need to do about the computer. Plan on having a Pentium IV with a minimum of 1 gigabyte memory and at least 40 gig of free space.

Since this is a beta copy, that means that things might go wrong so my first piece of advise is to make sure that you are using this on a computer that you donít mind blowing away and starting from scratch again. What that means is that it is a great time to make sure you have all the software and drivers for that computer handy so when you will need to restore and reset, you should be able to. If you were smart to have kept everything in one single place, you should be able to land your hands on that stuff pretty quickly. One reason is that you may need to give Vista the drivers for exotic hardware like your video card, sound card, network card and the like. On my laptop, it ended up needing the video, modem, network (wireless though it found the wired connection just fine), and maybe even the USB ports.

Vista will give you pretty much the installation options you had with Windows XP if you every bothered to install it. Most people get XP on a new computer and never have to worry about installing it and that is a nice feeling. Since Vista uses the same file structure, NTFS, as Windows XP, you can take the upgrade option and just install it over your current system. I wanted to really see how things worked from the beginning so I took the DVD (and if you donít have a DVD drive on that computer you were thinking of using, forget it), and started the computer with the disc so it would boot from it. In my case, when the system started, I needed to have Vista install in advanced mode because I wanted to change the disk partitioning on the hard drive back to a single drive and Vista took care of that just fine for me.

As I said, I like the looks and feel of it. There is a welcome center that comes up to help you get started. I suspect once you are comfortable with things, you will probably shut it off and just come up to your new desktop. Like XP, you can have icons all over the place if you like

One snag I found is trying to play DVD movies. It would crash, give me a "Cannot Play Program" message, and then hang there. But what is nice is that the "Ctrl"+"Alt"+"Del" still works to bring up the quick menu so you can get to the task manager and still have control over everything. More than likely, my computer needed a DVD decoder to play movies and I hadnít installed one yet. It would be nice to have it automatically built into Windows Media Player but we shall see when it comes out.

Like any new copy of software, you need to activate it before you can keep going for long. Usual internet activation process and it went smoothly. Interesting thing though was it still kept telling me I needed to active in 15 days. Beta softwareÖ but then again, once I shut it down and restarted the computer; it now tells me I am ok.

The Welcome screen I mentioned has lots of day to day information for you to check. Upper half tells you what it thinks your computer is as far as processor and memory, the computer name, manufacturer, and the video adapter.

Of course, most of us really spend nearly all of our time using our applications and that is where the next round of testing comes in. To load software that I will be using on a regular basis like my Norton Anti Virus, Zone Labs Firewall, Webroot Spysweeper, and then the stuff that I really use like Microsoft Office, Nero Burning Rom, Skype, Quicken, and Paint Shop Pro. It really is a matter of how these programs work that will determine how soon to switch over to the new operating system. I remember from other experiences that every once in a while you run into software that looks for certain operating systems and just wonít run at all so this will be something else to look for as I go along.

I know that for new computer users, you might not have much of a choice but I do remember that when Windows XP came out, you could still get copies of Windows ME, 98, and 2000 installed on a computer depending on who you bought it from.

As I said, you will hear much more about Vista in the months to come as while I sit here the first of July, Microsoft is not projecting its appearance till the into 2007.

More News for the Traveler

One thing I will be doing as the traveling season comes on is to take my Vista capable notebook and connect to the web as I travel. That means finding out hot spots and seeing if I can connect for free and that gets to be difficult. You might already know that when you hit a Starbucks you have to connect with their provider. But there is a lot of information out there. Three web sites here will tell you where to find a hot spot: www.wi-fihotspotlist.com/ is a directory of public hot spots; www.wififreespot.com/ is a listing of free Wi-Fi hot spots, and www.jiwire.com/ is a directory of over 117,000 hotspots in 128 countries. PC Worldís web site has a mobile computing guide to hot spots as well as pricing and services at www.pcworld.com/howto/article/0,aid,110415,00.asp

Short Takes

Hooked on the new puzzle game Sudoku ? Well, here is the place to get your fix anytime of day with billions of puzzles in a very easy to read and fill out format. Want to cheat a bit? Make a choice and then hit the "How am I doing?" button. www.websudoku.com

Robert Sanborn is a technology analyst for PC Lifeline. You can reach him through the net at robert@pcll.com







Last Update:06/26/2007


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