Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Connectors Are Key In Digital Audio & Video World

The move to high-definition television and digital audio has brought with it a huge expansion in the number and types of video connectors seen in audio and video equipment.

The importance of understanding these connectors was driven home to me recently when I saw a major retail chain advertising a name-brand upconverting DVD player for $30, a new low in retail pricing for a player that converts standard DVD's to something closer to high-definition video.

However, the cable required to connect the cable to a high-definition TV was $35, and if you wanted to add a coaxial digital audio cable for output to a surround sound system (provided the receiver had the correct input), you would have to fork out another $10-20.

So as you ready yourself for holiday electronics purposes, here's an idea of what to look for:

Composite Audio/Video – These connectors, known commonly as “RCA Plugs”, have been the standard audio and video connectors for decades for most equipment. They were only designed, however, for analog signals. RCA connectors remain what you'll find packed, in many cases, with most DVD players and televisions, leaving you to have to buy additional connecting cables. And this is where things begin to get tricky.

– Around twenty years ago the first attempt to improve video was made through S-Video connections for the video portion of the signal. While still in the analog realm, these connectors kept the red, blue and green signals separate until they reached the television, allowing for higher-quality video at somewhat greater resolution.

DVI – With the advent of digital video, things began to get trickier. The first commonly used digital video connectors were DVI connectors. These look like a larger version of the VGA connector that computer monitors commonly use to this day. DVI connectors are now almost exclusively digital, but some early connectors were actually DVI-A (for analog), making things even more confusing.

Coaxial Digital Audio – This single cable uses RCA plugs, but is substantially different (and not compatible) with regular RCA cables. It is most used to output true digital audio to receivers used in 5.1 and other digital surround sound environments.

Component Video – Yet another variation on the video cable and connector maze is component video. These connectors also use RCA-style plugs, but keep the video separate in red, green and blue like S-Video. Because of their design and heavier construction, they allow for high-definition signals to be passed to monitors which have the correct inputs.

Optical Audio – These light fiber connectors use light to transfer digital audio signals, and are some of the best cables available in terms of issues like noise. Their connectors tend be be somewhat fragile however, and they are not commonly used as a result.

HDMI – These simple but expensive cables are among the easiest to connect and carry both digital audio and video, and are the best choice for large monitors that have their own built-in surround style-systems. However, be prepared to add another type of cable to output digital audio to a receiver, unless the DVD in question has multiple HDMI outputs and your corresponding equipment has the required inputs.

It's also common for a DVD player to have an HDMI output, while a monitor may only have a DVI input. An HDMI-to-DVI adapter cable can handle the job.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at adayincyberville@gmail.com.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Travel Sites Provide Genuine Discounts With Smart Shopping

The major holiday travel season is here, and millions of Americans are looking to the Web for travel bargains. The number of travel sites that have useful information has grown in recent years – here are some of my favorites to help make traveling a more cost-effective experience.

There are two major online discount travel providers, Priceline (www.priceline.com) and Hotwire (www.hotwire.com). Each takes a slightly different approach to offering sometimes substantial discounts to travel bargain seekers.

Priceline is the better known of the two for offering discounted hotel rooms, car rentals and air travel.

Priceline's biggest saver is usually in hotel rooms. Select a destination and dates through the “Name Your Own Price” option, and you'll be presented with a list of available room types according to a grading system between one and five stars, and a map showing the general area where the hotels are located.

Major metropolitan areas often have several areas defined, such as “Airport” and “Downtown”, so it's usually possible to find hotels in the area you're seeking.

Enter a date range and price along with the star level you desire, and in a few seconds you'll receive an answer as to whether your price was accepted.

Priceline also offers a bid your own price service for airfare, auto rentals and cruises. The airfare service is usually for travelers who have the most flexibility, as you must be prepared to take any flight offered on a given day in order to have a chance of winning. Car rentals on Priceline are by days, location and vehicle class.

Hotwire offers specific hotels according to grading and location at a specific price without bidding. Hotwire also offers discounted car rentals by car class and location.

Neither service reveals the specific hotel, flight or car chosen until after a bid has been received, accepted and charged to a credit card. Both add a small additional booking fee to hotel rentals, and both add taxes as required to whatever the base amount charged is.

Travelers will also need to contact the hotels directly to insure they receive bed and smoking preferences. In most cases, hotels are willing to accept such requests, but they are not guaranteed at the time of payment.

The biggest issues with each service most travelers have is the fact they are not guaranteed a specific hotel, and this is indeed a limitation.

However, two user forums often provide information that with a little research, can provide both the likely hotel to be received, as well as the lowest amount to bid on Priceline likely to be accepted.

BiddingForTravel.com is often an excellent resource for hotel pricing information. With some practice you can often know ahead of time what hotel you'll receive in a given zone at a given star level, as well as the total cost with taxes and fees.

From my experience when using BiddingForTravel, I receive the specific hotel I am expecting about 70% of the time. However, any traveler has to be prepared to accept a different hotel than the one expected when using Priceline.

BiddingForTravel also contains feedback about car rentals and airplane rates, although air travel feedback is often very limited.

Another site offering user feedback on Priceline and Hotwire is BetterBidding.com. This site is especially useful for Hotwire, as travelers can often tell the specific hotel offered based on the amenities shown in the Hotwire description.

With a little practice, using these services can usually save travelers hundreds of dollars on hotel and other charges on a week-long stay.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at adayincyberville@gmail.com.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Web Browser Wars Return To Surfer Benefit

The world of the Internet browser has been a pendulum, of sorts, since the Internet first started to become a factor in people's lives in the early and mid-1990's.

Back then, Netscape's Navigator software ruled the Web browser world for PC's, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer was looked upon as a poor stepchild in comparison by most users.

This lack of focus was in large part due to the vision, or in this case lack thereof, of founder Bill Gates, who in 1993 was quoted as saying “The Internet? We are not interested in it”.

It didn't take long for Gates to realize his mistake, and by the time Windows 98 was released, Microsoft had developed and integrated a Web browser into Windows.

Internet Explorer had also rapidly became more functional, while Netscape's Navigator seemed content to largely hold its ground, largely failing to see the impact multimedia would eventually have on the Web.

In 1999 Netscape was purchased by America Online, who many thought made the purchase to switch its then-dominant AOL Internet access service away from using an integrated version of Internet Explorer.

However, that effort was stillborn, and AOL was never released, short of a single Beta version, with Netscape as the integrated browser.

For several years, Internet Explorer continued as the unchallenged leader in Web browsers, but also failed to do much additional development. Again, this lack of focus created an opportunity for other players to gain a foothold, which has now become a full-fledged competition again.

As Web pages have become more complex and media intensive, the pressure on the Web browser to use as few system resources as possible while rendering as much content as possible has grown considerably.

One of Microsoft's biggest problems has become its overriding goal of security, which has led it to hamstring Internet Explorer's functionality, and make the process of acquiring Internet content both cumbersome and resource intensive.

The reality has been that this security has become so onerous as to cause some users to switch it off almost entirely, while others have set out in search of a less difficult browsing experience.

The biggest winner in all of this has been Mozilla's Firefox, which has grown in three years from near-zero to nearly 15% of the browser market as of October, 2007.

Firefox was the one of first to offer tabbed browsing, allowing users to open tabs, rather than new windows, for each Web page visited. It also integrated an anti-phishing scheme to prevent browser redirects and takeovers.

Firefox was born of developer desires to strip down the browser and let users add on specific features as needed, rather than bloating the browser with more and more features many users didn't need, and slowing the entire experience as a result.

My recent experiences have been that certain Web sites including GMail and MySpace often render faster, and better, with Firefox than they do with Internet Explorer.

Internet Explorer 7 had a ton of bugs when it was released, and although many of those have now been resolved, it still often has trouble with certain Web sites, especially those with lots of content it sometimes fails to properly cache.

So, if you're looking for an alternative Web experience, try Firefox. It too has its quirks and issues, but it's a worthy add to most PC's.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at adayincyberville@gmail.com.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

64-bit Windows Vista A Largely Empty Promise

For the last several months I have been using a laptop computer designed for Microsoft's new top-of-the line operating system, Windows Ultimate 64-bit. I have actually ended up using the system more than first planned because of a concurrent hardware failure in a Windows XP laptop.

Doing so has given me more of a taste of Vista than I first imagined, and as a long-time Microsoft Partner, I wish I could say the news is better. In all fairness, it is not.

When Microsoft launched Vista almost one year ago, expectations were high that PC users were about to enter a world of vastly improved multi-tasking, multimedia, security, and computer performance.

The unfortunate reality is that Vista has mostly failed to deliver on all of those fronts, with 64-bit computing and all it promises largely left behind, while Microsoft pushed forward an operating system that failed to capitalize on nearly every advantage originally touted.

I spoke with Microsoft representatives in Redmond several months ago about what the realities of 64-bit Vista in fact were, and then decided to give Vista 64 more of a chance than what my original conclusions had led me to believe.

The interim period has in fact only affirmed what I first concluded – that nearly all the promises of 64-bit computing, the original reason a switch to Vista made potential sense, have been left behind to be adopted at some unknown point years away in the practical future.

Let me be frank here – a viewing of the User Support Forums at any of the major PC manufacturer Web sites will show hundreds, if not thousands, of people desperately seeking Windows XP drivers for new machines in the hope of returning computers to a more usable state. The number of persons seeking help in this area borders on staggering.

The reality is that many new machines only have Vista drivers available, and users are scrambling to make systems work with older applications.

One PC tech in a major office supply store I spoke with reported a customer buying a new top-end desktop was incensed after being quoted a $300 charge to load XP onto his new machine, with no promises everything would in fact work properly after same.

Microsoft claims that the vast majority of Vista users are in fact very satisfied with their new computers. While that may be true for many basic users, more sophisticated users have often found Vista lacking.

What's more remarkable, and less reported, is the fact that, according to Microsoft, less than 1% of machines being sold at the retail level are loaded with 64-bit Vista.

Let me repeat that – less than 1%.

There is nothing inherently safer about 32-bit Windows Vista than 32-bit Windows XP. While Vista may do a better job of using more RAM, its touted Aero interface, especially when used with the Sidebar feature, is a tremendous resource gobbler in and of itself.

My experience with most users is that they are far more concerned with having a system that is usable, reliable, and easy to maintain than they are how pretty the interface might be. Microsoft lost the pretty interface crowd to Apple years ago, and Aero isn't about to bring Mac users back.

What Microsoft should have done, rather than spend a fortune touting Vista as the "next big thing", which it only can be in a true 64-bit environment, was to devote some of the gigantic marketing budget to providing developers incentives to write native 64-bit applications, and then sold users on the idea of truly enhanced performance, rather than a prettier shell.

What should have been the next major advancement in computer performance has instead become the latest, and by far the largest, empty promise in the recent history of personal computing.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at adayincyberville@gmail.com.