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New Technologies

New technologies that were simply new and interesting a year ago are starting to really show up in computers today. A couple to look for are the new DVD (Digital Video Devices) and the wave of sound coming with the new MP3 audio players. 

DVD is gaining a lot of momentum as we move further into a digital age and in fact, in the next year or so, you will see more and more digital television broadcasting and even digital movies in the theater with the release this year of the long awaited Star Wars movie.  We have had a chance to put several DVD systems together and I am impressed with the clarity of picture and sound that they are delivering. You might remember that at the last couple of Comdex shows, I had a chance to look at some rather monster screens and projection units playing DVD movies and was really blown away by what I saw. Both in the quality and in the price of the equipment. Today, you can get a DVD CDROM drive and encoder card to connect to your video adapter for under $400. The problems here is that you need some serious horsepower to play these. I would recommend no slower than a Pentium II computer running at 350MHz and at least 64MB of RAM. You also better have an AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) graphics  accelerator card with at least 8MB of RAM. In fact, some of the new video cards will have DVD decoding capability on board the card and if so, it is worth buying as then you can simply buy a DVD drive for under $200. For new systems, that would be the way to go. As to performance, we have been running one on a 19 inch Viewsonic monitor and if I run it full screen, I discover, that it doesn’t really look that much better than a home television. I have also noticed that the picture will pause and jump occasionally which means that the computer is not really keeping up with it. Now that could be either the CD ROM drive isn’t fast enough or it is sending too much data to the computer to process. Not sure at this point. 

Another problem is that most people today have computers pretty loaded down. Just the other day I saw a new Pentium II 450 that had over 22 tasks running that were automatically started up when you turn the computer on. Now while this is a bit excessive in my view, what that means is that you have all those tasks and programs actually sitting there either doing something, watching for something, or waiting for something to happen. It can be the kiss of death if you are trying to do something sensitive like creating a CD with a CD writer system. Most of the time you won’t notice the difference but playing DVD movies takes a lot of resources out of your computer and having a number of silent processing going on will certainly impact performance. 

Getting back to the DVD picture, you have a lot of options in showing the DVD movies. You can see it in the original “letter box” mode or standard TV aspect ratio. What also makes a difference is if you have some high quality PC Speakers connected to your system. You then get good theater quality sound right in front of you. Course for me, I would still rather watch a good movie on my television set and I guess I will just have to wait for the digital TVs to come down in price. 

The other technology worth watching is the MP3 players. What they are, are portable digital sound systems using a new MP3 compression technology to compress audio. Selling for around $150 today, they use solid state memory to hold just a few minutes of recorded music but soon will be available with 60 minutes and more of music. They play the new MP3 music format audio tracks that have been digitally compressed to hold about one minute of music per megabyte of storage. Imagine rather than walking around with a CD player and a bunch of CDs, you have one of these MP3 players, which will fit into a shirt pocket, and a pocket full of chips. This is quite a drop from the current wave file storage of music. With MP3, you can store 60 minutes of music on 60MB of storage. Today’s music CDs usually hold up to 74 minutes of music and take around 650MB of storage. think of how much music you could put on a standard audio CD at that rate. In fact, today one of the most popular sites on the internet is Lycos’ MP3 page where you can look for thousands of already recorded songs in MP3 format. The music industry is also quite interested in this issue because of the ease of copying music that is copywrited. There is a whole underground culture appearing to upload illegally copied music. What it will do is to spawn another industry of home grown music as well and you see more and more of these sites on the internet as well. Software is now available to play the downloaded MP3 music files and to convert them from Wav to MP3 formats and back as well.  As to quality. The industry says it is “near CD quality music..” and I haven’t seen any real comparisons of the music side by side. When played on most computer speakers, you probably will notice no difference. MP3’s web site is at www.mp3.com The current player comes from Pontis at www.pontis.de and has two memory sockets for the chips. It uses a new MultiMedia Flash type memory cards.  While today’s cards are only 16mb each, SanDisk, a maker of such cards, is projecting a 128MB card in the future. The industry insiders are predicting that 1.3 million of these players will be sold in 2000. 

While all this technology is quite interesting, there is one trend that is starting to irritate me. That is the multitude of different memory cards coming out on the market. I really wish that they would standardize as for those of us using digital cameras, we already have conflicting standards in the SmartMedia memory cards used by companies like Olympus, and the Compact Flash cards used by some others. They are not  interchangeable. Now add a MultiMediaCard for the MP3 player.  

Short Takes 

USB (Universal Serial Bus) connections are still a pain. Despite the fact that new products are coming out on the market daily, it is still a hit or miss proposition. Take scanners for example. While connecting USB scanners from both Visioneer and Umax recently, we discovered that if the AC adapter is plugged into a power strip or surge protector, you will greatly increase the likelihood of the scanner not connecting. In fact, calls to both their technical support lines tell you to plug the scanner into a wall outlet and not a surge strip. Also, we have also found that in a lot of computers, the two USB ports on the back of the computers are not really that identical. It seems that the scanners and other devices we use seem to work a whole lot better in one port than they do the other. Another problem is the difference in USB cable connections. If you are using some Compaq computers with APC’s uninterruptible power supplies, you will need an upgraded cable. You just need to tinker with the settings.

Robert Sanborn

Last Update:08/16/01


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