December 2009


More WFAA Blogs

Windows 7: Should you make the switch?

7:52 AM Thu, Oct 22, 2009 |

 Windows 7 — Microsoft’s seventh incarnation of its market-leading computer operating system — is now available, and like each previous version of Windows, it is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

So if you’re part of the 92 percent of computer users whose PC is powered by Windows, should you make the switch?

First, let me say that I’ve not yet had a chance to use Windows 7. I tried installing a pre-release version on an ailing Vista-based PC, but the installation didn’t work.

Everything I’ve read in credible technical publications would seem to indicate that Windows 7 is a worthy upgrade because it addresses some shortcomings of Windows Vista and it is designed to operate smoothly on a wider variety of hardware.

If you’re buying a new Windows PC, chances are you won’t even have a choice; it will come with Windows 7 installed.

If you’ve purchased a new computer in the last few months, there’s a good possibility that the manufacturer has included an offer to get a free or low-cost copy of Windows 7 for you to install yourself. If this is the case, I suggest that you take advantage of the deal, but hold off on installation for a few months in case there are any major problems that have to be fixed after the software is widely deployed.

When you get the upgrade from the manufacturer of your computer, you can have some assurance that it has been tested on your specific computer configuration, and that it comes equipped with any necessary software and hardware “drivers” needed for everything to work smoothly. You also may qualify for free technical support in case you run into problems.

But what if you have an existing PC and want to upgrade to Windows 7? Microsoft has developed an upgrade advisor tool that will evaluate your hardware and software and make a suggestion.

Generally speaking, the older your computer, the less likely it is to be a Windows 7 candidate, although Win 7 is designed so that some of its more advanced functions can be dialed down to accommodate PCs with slower processors and less memory.

Almost any computer running Vista should be a safe bet, because Windows 7 is derived from Vista. If you have Windows XP on your computer, it’s a trickier situation because — even if your machine has the necessary horsepower — you can’t perform an “upgrade.” You are limited to a “clean install,” which means you’ll have to reinstall all existing software after Windows 7 launches (do you know where all those disks are now?). Not an appetizing proposition for most users.

There is one other thing to consider if you’re tempted to upgrade to Windows 7: Which version to get?

Should it be Home Premium ($120), Professional ($200) or Ultimate ($220)?

Microsoft’s handy chart outlines the options. Home Premium, as the name suggests, should be satisfactory for most families. Professional includes some networking options suitable for business users, and Ultimate incorporates data security functions and multiple language capabilities.

My recommendation for everyone is really just common sense: If your computer is working well for you, there is no compelling reason to switch to Windows 7 immediately.

If you have an older computer that has is hovering around the minimum specifications for Windows 7, you might consider applying the cash you would invest in the operating system toward a new PC with Win 7 built-in. You might be surprised at how much computer you can get for $400 or less, especially if you already have a suitable monitor.

My work computers continue to run Windows XP, but I just purchased a new home computer that came with a Windows 7 upgrade option. I’ll be using this to evaluate the installation and operation of Microsoft’s new operating system in the weeks and months ahead.

Watch this space.


I was going to build a new computer, but…

3:24 PM Wed, Oct 21, 2009 |

A couple of weeks ago, I told you how I was planning to build a new computer to replace the one I had been using with my TV set.

I provided a list of the specifications I was seeking, including a fast processor and lots of memory. My budget was between $300 and $400.

 Then I saw the Gateway DX4300-09 at MicroCenter, and it gave me a good excuse to buy a new desktop computer with a one-year warranty.

I simply couldn’t buy the parts and build anything like this for the price: $350.

The DX4300 comes with a dual-core AMD processor, not the quad core model I had been eyeing for a homebuilt machine, so its computing power isn’t as great. However, the motherboard is capable of supporting a quad core processor, which means I can always drop one in if I want to later on.

It has six gigabytes of memory; I had been shooting for four.

This computer also comes with Windows Vista Home Premium, a new hard drive, a new DVD drive, a new power supply and a new case. I was going to recycle old components for those purposes.

The case, by the way, has a handy “tray” on top where you can plunk down a cell phone or music player and plug it right in to a top-mounted USB port.

There is also a memory card reader that includes a dedicated spot for the microSD cards so popular in mobile phones (another thing I would have had to buy for a home-brew machine).

If that’s not enough, this DX-4300 is also equipped with a digital HDTV tuner; used with the included Windows Media Center software (and the included remote control), that means this computer is also a digital video recorder.

It sports a digital HDMI connector for easy one-cable hookup to a TV set for sound and picture.

Gateway also provides a free copy (by mail) of the new Windows 7 operating system that will be released this week, so that will be entirely up-to-the-minute as well.

The price doesn’t include a monitor, but since I’m using my flat screen TV for that purpose, I consider this to be an excellent buy.

The first computer I bought here at Channel 8 back in the early 1990s was a Gateway. I’ll never forget its arrival in the company’s iconic cow-spotted box, reflecting the company’s roots in the rural Midwest. It had a blazingly fast 386-DX processor and probably an 80 megabyte hard drive (that’s megabyte, not gigabyte!).

These days, Gateway is a cog in the wheel of Asian computer giant Acer, which apparently has such economies of scale that they can manufacture an extremely powerful PC for a relative pittance. And it still comes in a cow-spotted box.

I’ll keep you posted on my adventures with the DX4300, especially when I install Windows 7.

So far, I’m quite pleased. And while I was looking forward to the challenge of building a new computer, buying something that’s already put together with all-new parts removes a lot of anxiety from the equation!


Update: Better news for Sidekick users

3:11 PM Wed, Oct 21, 2009 |

Since my last post on this topic, T-Mobile has released some hopeful information for users of the carrier’s popular Sidekick mobile phone.

The original issue was that Danger, the Microsoft-owned company that manages the online database storing contact information and other data on behalf of Sidekick users, lost that data.

T-Mobile went so far as to alert users that it might not be possible to recover the information.

Danger has come a long way in its effort to get that data back.

T-Mobile now says only a “minority of users” have not yet had their data restored. Affected subscribers can now access a tool on the T-Mobile Web site to resurrect lost photographs, notes, to-do lists, marketplace data and high scores.

Phone users find data is here today, gone tomorrow

10:21 AM Mon, Oct 12, 2009 |

The Internet has a “cloud.” That’s the word tech types use to describe the place where millions of us now store our e-mail, our photos, and other important personal information.

Like a real cloud, the Internet “cloud” is (at least to us) rather ill-defined and ever-changing.

When you use Gmail or Hotmail or Yahoo to look at your electronic mail, you don’t know where the computer is that is storing all that information for you. It could be anyplace on Earth; you have just come to expect that typing the correct information into your Web browser will let you read your mail.

Similarly, users of Snapfish, Picasa and Shutterfly entrust their precious photos to these Web sites for sharing and storage.

 That’s why it’s extremely disheartening to learn that users of T-Mobile’s Sidekick cell phone who relied on the “cloud” to store their contacts and other personal data just got some bad news: The data — managed by the Danger subsidiary of Microsoft — is apparently gone.

“Regrettably, based on Microsoft/Danger’s latest recovery assessment of their systems, we must now inform you that personal information stored on your device — such as contacts, calendar entries, to-do lists or photos — that is no longer on your Sidekick almost certainly has been lost as a result of a server failure,” said a statement to users posted on T-Mobile’s Web site.

The statement indicated that while engineers are continuing to try and resolve the problem, “the likelihood of a successful outcome is extremely low.”

One user of the popular messaging phone summed up his feelings this way on a T-Mobile online forum: “I am devastated … I can’t even begin to tell you what I’ve lost.”

The original Sidekick wasn’t sophisticated enough to store all this information in memory contained within the handset, so it transmitted that data to the Microsoft/Danger computers in the “cloud.”

And that’s the danger of the “cloud.”

Unfortunately, because of the Sidekick’s design, owners had limited options for making backup copies of their personal information.

But if you’re using the “cloud” for storing your photos, e-mail, names and numbers using other smartphones or your computer, let this be a warning: Make backup copies of important information on memory cards or USB drives or CDs or DVDs.

It can take some time, and it’s not always convenient, but try to imagine life without your favorite photos, or without that list of 1,000 contacts you’ve carefully cultivated over the past several years.

T-Mobile says it will credit Sidekick users with one month of service “to address any inconvenience.” That’s a small gesture, however, for many loyal customers.

“I just want to give hell to whom is responsible for this,” another user said on the T-Mobile forum.


An experiment in pocket-size photo viewing

6:45 PM Wed, Oct 07, 2009 |

The wallet has never been a good place to carry your favorite photos around. Sure, it’s a convenient spot; always handy, instantly available — but the content of most wallets is competing for an ever-decreasing space.

Cash comes and goes (mostly goes). There is always a driver’s license and insurance document; often a spare key or two; and always credit cards.

After a while, you find the keepsake photo of your favorite person is permanently embossed with an expiration date because it got a little too cozy with a neighboring credit card.

There must be a better way. Can’t technology help?

The digital key chain could be the answer. Designed to store wallet-size photos in much the same way that digital picture frames solve a larger problem, I’ve seen these pocket-size devices at prices ranging from $10 to $25.

 But there — in a display at Costco — was a digital key chain for less than five bucks! That’s an irresistible price point for a gadget nut like me.

I took the bait.

So let us now take a quick look at my new Virtual Reality Sound Labs Automotive Digital Photo Key Chain (Model VKC-180).

It appears to be solid enough; the housing — about the size of a box of Tic-Tacs — is fashioned out of extruded aluminum.

On the front panel, there’s a 1.8-inch color screen (more on that later); on the top, there’s the key chain part (you can unscrew and detach it if you wish); on the bottom, (surprise!) a twin-LED flashlight and a USB connector to link the device to your (Windows-only) computer so you can upload your photos and recharge the built-in battery.

Plugging the VRSLADPKC in to your PC also launches the software needed to transfer photos to the device. The program includes some rudimentary editing capabilities to reformat your pictures to the dimensions of the screen. It’s a bit balky and the operation isn’t entirely intuitive, but a pamphlet is included that outlines the basic operations so that you can cram about 100 photos inside.

So, does this $5 gizmo actually work? The answer is “yes.”

It will display your photos as either individual frames or as a “slideshow” with a variety of transitions. There’s even a built-in clock (although why you’d want to shuffle through the on-screen menu to find and display the clock is a mystery to me). Plus, don’t forget about the handy flashlight.

It’s hard to quibble with a device that offers such a relatively big bang for your hard-earned buck, but it is my professional duty to inform you about the shortcomings of the VRSLADPKC.

 First, the “KC” part: Use this as a key chain at your own risk. Most users would expect to be able to pop a key chain in their pocket or purse, and that would be a big mistake. This could, in fact, be a serious little weapon. Four corners of the VRSLADPKC’s metal enclosure are seriously, skin-slashingly, pants-shreddingly sharp — almost razor-sharp.

And “sharp” is not a word I would ascribe to the 1.8-inch LCD screen. In this age of cell phones and iPods, we’ve all come to expect much more from a tiny display than the muddy, washed-out image this portable picture frame presents to the user.

Alas, even at $5, it is difficult to recommend the VRSLADPKC. Because of its potential for use as an inadvertent weapon, don’t even think about giving one to a kid.

It’s really something that would be of interest to only the hardest of hardcore gadget fans, and even then perhaps only to those who might be curious enough to undo its four tiny screws and take a peek at what’s inside.

I think that’s what’s next for me.

A portable digital photo frame is really a good idea, though; I suggest you go directly to the cell phone or iPod you probably already have and take advantage of its superior display to share your treasured (and un-embossed) pictures.


R.I.P. Acer Aspire L100

7:38 PM Sat, Oct 03, 2009 |

 After about two years of good service followed by a puzzling demise, I’ve decided to raise the white flag over my Acer Aspire L100 home computer.

Regular readers of the Computer Corner Blog will recall my previous two posts about this problem (Aug. 5 and Aug. 11). To summarize, the compact size computer (running Windows Vista) would boot up but then would just shut itself off.

Thanks to everyone who sent in helpful comments and e-mail messages with suggestions. I tried just about all of them, including:

• reseating the AMD Athlon 64 processor and memory chips

• applying fresh thermal compound between the processor and heat sink

• providing additional cooling

• testing the memory for defects

• reinstalling the operating system (both Windows Vista and Windows 7)

• reformatting the hard drive and trying again to install the operating system

As previously noted, I was able to run the Linux operating system from a USB memory stick successfully on the L100, but Windows would consistently shut things down.

There may be a solution to this, but I’ve run out of patience! So I’ve decided to build a new replacement computer that will be used as a multimedia machine hooked up to a widescreen TV in the living room.

If you’ve never assembled a PC before, this isn’t as daunting as it might sound; there’s no soldering or programming required; it’s basically just fastening boards and drives to the case and then plugging in a bunch of color-coded cables.

I already have a computer case and power supply for this new project (something that was used for my previous home-built PC). I will re-purpose a DVD drive from an older computer and will see if the hard drive from my ailing L-100 can be resurrected for this project.

Three big items are still required for this project: a motherboard (the guts of the computer), a processor (its brains) and memory.

Because I want this computer to provide good service for at least a couple of years, it will have a “quad core” processor — as the name implies, it has four “brains” inside a single chip (the L100 processor was a “dual core”).

My previous PC had 2 gigabytes of memory; the new one will have at least 4.

That leaves the motherboard; it will have built-in video with digital outputs for HDMI and AVI for optimal TV hookup. It’ll have plenty of USB connections (because that’s how almost all accessories plug in).

I’m not trying to build the world’s fastest computer, just something that’s fast and reliable. My budget for all this is under $400 and I’m aiming for $300 (which is about what I paid for the L100). That’s probably going to mean an AMD-brand processor instead of Intel, and memory chips that are a step or two below the best in class.

But then, top-of-the-line components are generally only necessary if you’re playing the most demanding video games. I’ll be using this for watching online TV, video recording and editing, photo editing, and also for my work at

More to come…


The quest for a cooler lap

7:10 PM Wed, Sep 30, 2009 |

If you have occasion to use a modern full-size laptop computer — on your lap — you already know that extended use can make said lap feel a little toasty.

The processor chip that gives the computer its smarts is called on to do a lot of thinking in a very short time, and that generates an ample supply of heat.

 Until recently, I’ve had a good solution to the problem: The original Laptop Desk ($25). It has been shielding my thighs since the turn of the century, and it outlasted three or four notebook PCs along the way.

The Laptop Desk is made out of lightweight plastic and is hinged so it can fold for storage or transport. It is an elegant design that has some shallow ridges to give the bottom of the computer some breathing room in order for it to passively help dissipate the heat.

Alas, after years of almost daily use I finally managed to break the hinges (well beyond the product’s six-month warranty, it should be noted) and computing was starting to get uncomfortable.

LapWorks, the company that developed the Laptop Desk, has introduced other models over the past decade — some smaller (for tinier notebooks), some bigger (to accommodate models with king-size screens or to provide a platform for your mouse). I’ve not sampled any of them, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend LapWorks products based on my experience.

There are other designs professing to deliver heat relief for the road warrior, and I saw a lot of them in local computer stores over the last couple of days.

Several manufacturers offer up a high-tech design that incorporates fans (powered by your notebook’s USB port) in a plastic casing that goes between your lap and your computer to exhaust the hot air. I rejected that outright; I don’t want to be bothered by yet another cable (the power cord and the mouse are quite enough, thank you).

Other options include something that looks like a plastic tray tilting the keyboard up to provide some clearance between the laptop and your legs. My preference is for a horizontal keyboard.

 Then I saw the answer.

It was already in my home, something I had purchased a couple of years ago at Ikea.

It’s the Inreda DVD Rack, a flat, gray, synthetic rubber mat with thin but sturdy vertical ridges spaced about a half inch apart and about a half inch high. It was designed to organize DVD cases in a drawer or on a shelf, but it didn’t really work as well as I had hoped for that purpose, so it had been languishing on a shelf… until my Eureka moment.

I popped it under my blistering notebook and found that it provided just enough clearance to insulate me without being obtrusive. The mat is flexible enough to be comfortable while the ridges provide the necessary stability.

The Inreda DVD Rack is about four or five inches too wide to be perfect for my Dell computer, but the Ikea catalog suggests that it “can be cut to desired size to fit in different spaces.”

 While this product does not appear in Ikea’s current online catalog, I found an ample supply in the company’s giant Frisco store for $7 (check the second floor in the section that has TV furniture).

This exercise should serve to illustrate that it’s always best to keep an open mind when trying to solve a problem.

Have you found an offbeat or unexpected solution to a computer problem? Please share it with us by leaving a comment below!


MORE: Computer Corner Blog

Do-it-yourself radio station

7:09 PM Wed, Sep 23, 2009 |

Last month, I told you about the new Grace Wireless Internet Radio that has replaced my old clock radio. It lets me tune in a virtually unlimited variety of radio stations from around the world. I love it.

But one person wrote in to chide me for failing to mention what he considered to be the most alluring feature of this radio: Pandora.

Pandora is a little bit hard to pigeonhole. Yes, it’s another Internet music radio station, but it doesn’t play the same songs for everybody. That’s because it’s truly interactive; tell it what you like as you listen and it will play music that is tailored to your musical tastes.

It’s almost chilling how accurately Pandora can deliver a stream of music from its library of half a million tunes that sounds like it could be coming from your turntable (or CD player or iPod).

I enjoy listening to “smooth jazz” music that disappeared from the local airwaves when The Oasis was silenced three years ago (it lives on if you have an HD Radio, and you can also hear it on the Internet with a computer, but, alas, not on my Grace radio).

I am now able to concoct an Oasis-like experience using Pandora.

And because I can orchestrate the sound by giving a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on what Pandora plays, my station is (at least to my ears!) much closer to what I enjoy hearing.

The reason it works so well is because Pandora breaks down each song into hundreds of musical attributes, so its computers can easily match up the songs I like with other tunes that share similar signatures.

This is not a new idea.

Pandora’s Music Genome Project has been working on the technology since 2000, and there are competitive services like Slacker that are based on a similar concept.

But I find Pandora’s free service hits just the right notes, with a minimum of banner ads on its computer-based player and infrequent (and brief) audio ads between songs. Only the audio ads appear when using my Internet radio because of its limited display capabilities.

My Grace Internet radio does lets me interact with Pandora by sending “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” feedback via its front panel buttons. It’s not as easy as clicking your mouse on the computer-based player (and you don’t have to do it), but it does help ensure that what you hear adheres to your musical tastes.

You can skip songs that you don’t like, but Pandora puts a limit on how many times you can hit the button; that encourages you to actively participate in the song preferences feature. But it doesn’t take long before Pandora “learns” what you really want to hear; you’ll find a diminishing need to click the skip button.

You can even “bookmark” songs as they are being played for later reference.

The free Pandora service has a 40-hour monthly limit; you’ll have to cough up 99 cents for unlimited listening beyond that (although you’ll automatically get another 40 free hours the next month). There is also a $3 monthly Pandora service (billed at $36 per year) that offers no-limit listening along with a higher quality audio feed and no ads. (I’ve been happy with the free version so far.)

To help pay the bills, Pandora makes it easy for you to purchase and download any music that strikes your fancy from Amazon and iTunes (here’s where the bookmarking feature comes in handy); Pandora gets a small cut from the transaction and you discover new music.

You’ll feel a real sense of power when you “program” your own radio station. When Internet radio is available in your car (as I predict it soon will be), it’s likely to change broadcasting in a big way.


Taking the tedium out of Web browsing

4:23 PM Tue, Sep 15, 2009 |


For years, some Web sites — particularly those linked to newspapers — have tried valiantly to mimic the familiar columnar “style” that is the hallmark of printed publications.

The goal, of course, is to make a Web page “browse-able” in the same way a newspaper or magazine is.

But even though screen sizes have increased since the early days of the World Wide Web, it’s still tough to beat a newspaper or magazine page for density of information that’s digestible at a glance.

You’ve probably encountered attempts to replicate the paper-based experience online at sites that use animated “page flips” to let the user navigate through a document or story or advertisement. I’ve always felt this defeated the more traditional “click and scroll” navigation that is more suited to readers at their computer.

Now Google Labs has just introduced a simple hybrid page design that lets you quickly scan a wide variety of content while maintaining the familiarity of the Web browser.

Google Fast Flip indexes “snapshots” of individual Web pages from about 40 sites, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The Fast Flip home page (see the image at the top of this blog post) resembles a photographic “proof sheet” — you can read many headlines and see photos, but it’s really just enough for a visual index. See something interesting? Just click the image; alternately, you can select a subcategory like “most viewed” or “health insurance.”

 Once you’re in a category, you can “flip” from one page to another by clicking on the large arrows to the right and left of the page (or simply by using the right and left arrow keys, if you’re more keyboard-centric like me). It is a surprisingly fast way to digest a lot of information in a very short time, because you’re not waiting for all the bloated code of a traditional Web page to load into your browser. Yet you can see the content of the page as it originally appeared, with photos and graphics.

Since you’re just viewing a snapshot, you must still go to the original Web site if you want to see the full story or to take advantage of any links or multimedia content — and that’s as easy as clicking on the Fast Flip image.

It’s not perfect, but that’s only because the Web can change so quickly. A snapshot is, by definition, something that’s frozen in time. I clicked on one story and found it was apparently no longer available on the originating Web site (at least I was unable to locate it).

There’s even a mobile version of Fast Flip for use with iPhone and Android handsets; I don’t have either, so I was unable to test that option.

Kudos to Google for trying to take the tedium out of Web browsing. Assuming that more sites agree to be a part of this service, it could quickly emerge as the best way to explore the World Wide Web when you don’t really know what you’re looking for.


Steve Jobs is back with new iPod products

1:19 PM Wed, Sep 09, 2009 |

 Steve Jobs is back after nearly a year out of the limelight.

Apple’s maestro received a standing ovation when he appeared before an invitation-only audience at the company’s new product launch event in San Francisco today.

Jobs, 54, is recovering from a liver transplant earlier this year, and he looked strikingly gaunt in his trademark collarless black, long-sleeved shirt and jeans. He used the platform to urge everyone to become organ donors; then it was down to business.

VIDEO: Steve Jobs talks about software update for iPhone users

As has become the norm, Jobs used the stage (and his personal showmanship) to demonstrate a range of improvements to existing products, focusing this time on Apple’s iPod lineup.

The iPod touch music and video player now has a new $199 starting price for its low-end model with 8 gigabytes of storage, a $30 price cut. The touch — which mimics most of the non-phone features of the popular iPhone — is being offered up as a cool music and video player and as “the most affordable gateway to Apple’s revolutionary App Store,” according to a statement from Apple executive Phillip Schiller.

As long as you’re within range of a wireless Wi-Fi connection, you can use the touch to download from a selection of 75,000 applications expanding its usefulness as a portable computing device. Other models of the touch include a 32 gigabyte model for $299 and 64 gigabytes of storage for $399; that’s enough to hold more than 14,000 songs or 80 hours of video.

 The popular iPod nano line has added a camera that shoots video clips; curiously, there is apparently no way to snap a still photo. For the first time, the nano also comes with a built-in FM radio, an option common to other portable music players. But Apple has added a twist: A TiVo-like ability to pause and even rewind the live broadcast (up to 15 minutes). You apparently cannot record radio programs for later playback, however. Throw in a new pedometer, and the two nano models — 8 gigabytes of storage for $149 and 16 gigabytes for $179 — offer a lot of function for the money.

Some observers figured that the iPod classic — the “full size” music player that started the iPod craze — might be finished given the focus on the touch and nano lineup. But no; the classic lives on, with more storage (160 gigabytes) than ever. The feature set appears to be unchanged from previous models; there’s no camera, no Wi-Fi. The price is $249, unchanged from the previous 120 gigabyte model.

And if you’re just looking for a tiny, basic music player, Apple has dropped the entry price for its 2 gigabyte iPod shuffle model to $59; that’s enough to hold about 500 songs. The 4 gigabyte version is $79.

It’s hard to argue with Apple’s success, although I continue to quibble with its “sealed box” philosophy. Why not give these music players a slot for a micro SD storage card to easily boost capacity and maintain multiple libraries of music and video? And how come there’s no way for the user to change an exhausted battery?


New study evaluates cell phone radiation

9:47 AM Wed, Sep 09, 2009 |

 How safe is your cell phone?

We all know about the very real danger of trying to talk or text while driving, but there is another potential health hazard — radio frequency radiation from the tiny transmitter inside that sends your voice or data to the nearest cell phone tower.

CTIA, the wireless industry’s lobbying group, offers this reassurance to consumers: “The scientific evidence and expert reviews from leading global heath organizations such as the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, World Health Organization, and the United States Food and Drug Administration reflect a consensus based on published scientific research showing there is no reason for concern.”

The CTIA concedes that some studies have “suggested” that there is a connection between low-level radio frequency exposure and “negative biological effects,” but that additional research has been unable to substantiate those findings.

The wireless industry further points to the FCC radiation limits that all cell phones must meet before approval by the federal regulatory agency.

The Environmental Working Group has been looking at the issue and raised an alarm in a study released today.

“We would like to be able to say that cell phones are safe, but we can’t,” the organization’s senior scientist Olga Naidenko said in a news release.

She said the most recent science “raises serious issues about the cancer risk of cell phone use,” and urged consumers to reduce their exposure to radiation.

A ten-month EWG study of more than 200 studies, advisories and industry documents concluded that existing FCC radiation standards are outdated and “permit 20 times more radiation to penetrate the head than the rest of the body.”

EWG said part of their concern is based on the fact that cell phones are increasingly used by young people whose brains may be more susceptible to radiation.

The EWG study generated a database of more than 1,000 cell phones sold in the U.S., ranked by radiation. This report has generated a lot of online buzz, because I’ve been unable to access the data after a number of tries. It’s a problem that’s likely to be resolved in the days ahead (or perhaps even by the time you read this).

EWG’s top 10 list of phones with the lowest emissions includes five models from Samsung and two from Motorola. Motorola is also represented on the bottom ten list of phones with the highest radiation, with five models.

The BlackBerry Bold 9000 from AT&T; is said to be the worst of the bunch when it comes to radio frequency radiation.

Pending further studies, there are some common-sense ways to reduce your exposure to cell phone radiation.

• Use a wired headset. This lets you keep the handset away from your head and the rest of your body. While cordless Bluetooth headsets operate with a much lower transmission power than a cell phone, they still do create some radiation.

• Use the speakerphone function. Many handsets have this capability, which lets you use the phone at arm’s length.

• Don’t use a cell phone for extended calls. Longer exposure creates bigger risk (think about what happens when your skin is exposed to the sun), so keep wireless calls brief and use a wired phone (or at least a wired headset) for those marathon chats.


Happy 40th anniversary, Internet

12:40 AM Thu, Sep 03, 2009 |

Richard Nixon was sworn in as president of the United States.

A wooden bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass. was the scene of a fatal accident involving Sen. Edward Kennedy.

And man took his first steps on the surface of the moon.

But something else happened in the year 1969 that would change just about everything in the years to follow.

 Forty years ago this week — at Len Kleinrock’s lab in Los Angeles at the University of California — scientists linked up two computers with a 15-foot cable — the crude beginning of what we know today as the Internet.

Later that same year, computers at UCLA and three other West Coast universities were interconnected as part of ARPANET, a Defense Department project to improve communications between research teams, but it was 1972 before the network was demonstrated to the general public.

Electronic mail became the primary application of ARPANET and its variously-named successors, but that system remained closed to the masses.

CompuServe, a private network, began offering public e-mail service in 1979 and a rudimentary online “chat” function the following year.

Meanwhile, the progenitor of AOL went live in 1985; America Online was launched late in 1989, 20 years ago.

 It was not until 1991 that someone named Tim Berners-Lee at the CERN European physics lab figured out how to harness the power of interconnected computers while making it easy to navigate. He developed the concept of the World Wide Web and the Web “browser,” based on the ideas of other scientists and writers dating back to the pre-computer era.

But the Internet didn’t enter the public consciousness until the early 1990s, when it became possible for regular folks to get a dial-up connection to the Web.

It took Gutenberg’s printing press several hundred years to have a worldwide impact on society, something the World Wide Web has achieved and surpassed in an eyeblink of human history.

While the Internet is scorned by many for delivering spam, spreading viruses and peddling porn, its role in providing a global conduit for the exchange of ideas and information could yet prove to be the factor that brings us the answers to the biggest problems facing mankind like hunger, disease and conflict.

Happy anniversary, Internet; I can’t begin to imagine what the next 40 years will bring.


Windows Mobile set for refresh next month

2:09 PM Tue, Sep 01, 2009 |

 While iPhone and BlackBerry models tend to get most of the attention, there are a lot of us who depend on smartphones powered by the Windows Mobile operating system.

So if you’ve got one in your pocket, circle October 6 on your calendar. That’s when Microsoft says Windows Mobile 6.5 will be released.

It doesn’t appear that there’s that much to be excited about, though.

As the naming convention would indicate, Windows Mobile 6.5 is an incremental update from the current 6.1 version.

The home screen (which is what you see when you pull the phone out of your holster or pocket) will now be capable of hosting dynamic content like news, scores and stock prices without having to click on e-mail or your browser.

I am looking forward to seeing improvements in what is currently an extremely lame Internet Explorer Mobile browser, which is almost unusable unless you access Web sites specifically designed for cell phone use.

I’ve come to rely on third-party browsers from Opera and Skyfire when I want to view a big-screen site on my pocket-size screen.

But the WinMo 6.5 version of IE is said to incorporate a version of Adobe’s Flash technology that could make it friendlier, especially when accessing multimedia content.

The new Windows Mobile will also be the first edition to have access to Windows Marketplace for Mobile, which will give users the ability to download and install new software from the handset, in much the same way Apple’s App Store is available for iPhone users and the BlackBerry App World is available for fans of that product.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has designed the Marketplace so that it will only work on version 6.5 devices and above, which will severely limit its initial impact.

The phone I’m currently using — the Samsung Jack — was sold with the promise that it will be upgradeable to WinMo 6.5, so I’ll give you a report after it becomes available.

It is not likely that Windows Mobile 6.5 will be an option for handsets prior to version 6; and it’s unclear how many of the more recent WinMo phones will qualify. That’s because upgrades are up to the phone manufacturer and the mobile carrier.

Since both are in the business of selling you new hardware, I wouldn’t hold my breath.


‘Crowdsourcing’ could give you a traffic advantage

8:54 AM Wed, Aug 26, 2009 |

This may be the first time you’ve heard the term “crowdsourcing,” but it won’t likely be the last.

There are various technical definitions, but essentially, crowdsourcing means getting reliable information from a “crowd.”

Let’s think about how that might work. Perhaps you magically have access to all the text messages that are being sent out from the new Cowboys Stadium during a game. Without being there — and without watching or listening to a broadcast — chances are you would be able to accurately determine when a touchdown was scored based on nothing more than those messages.

A real-world example of crowdsourcing came recently in Iran, during the often violent street demonstrations following the disputed presidential election. Foreign correspondents were not permitted out of their hotel rooms, so they were unable to witness what was happening.

Networks and news agencies instead relied on a flood of messages, photos and video clips posted to Twitter, Facebook and other Internet message boards.

This is relatively new territory for newsgathering organizations that traditionally like to employ their own trained journalists to observe and report. But when there is so much information coming in from a street demonstration — and when the “crowd” is in agreement about what is happening — CNN, AP, the BBC and others are increasingly likely to report it as fact (at least with an asterisk about the story’s origin).

This week, Google took crowdsourcing to a new and useful level that could directly help you on your drive to and from work.

 It’s all tied in with the handy (and free) Google Maps for Mobile application that’s available for a wide variety of smartphones with a built-in global positioning system (GPS) chip, including Windows Mobile devices, the Palm Pre and BlackBerry models (iPhones with Google Maps for Mobile don’t yet have the crowdsourcing tool enabled).

How does it work? Simple. If you authorize the map application’s Latitude function, it will anonymously report your speed and position back to Google’s traffic computer, which then aggregates that real-time data with information from other motorists and sends it back to the map on your phone as green, yellow and red legends to visually indicate where traffic is flowing and where it is stalled.

If your regular route is lined with red, you’ll want to consider another option.

The more drivers who have Google Maps for Mobile activated, the more accurate the traffic picture will be.

Google acknowledges that some users may be reluctant to dispatch their driving data to a central repository, but says the Latitude function that enables the crowdsourcing feedback is an option that must explicitly be turned on. You can still use Google Maps for Mobile and benefit from the traffic information provided by others without contributing to the “crowd.”

 Google says it permanently deletes the information about your route after the instantaneous data is digested.

I have my Samsung Jack cell phone mounted in a dashboard holder in my car where I can easily see the screen (and where I can keep it plugged in to a power supply so the battery doesn’t drain). Latitude is turned on, and in the last week or so I’ve noted how much more accurate the speed information appears to be (at least on the routes that I travel).

Another bonus of the crowdsourcing data is that Google can now provide traffic information on roads and streets away from the fixed speed sensors along main highways (as long as there are enough users to generate reliable results). See this for yourself by going to Google Maps on your home or notebook computer and clicking the “Traffic” button. Zoom in for a close-up view and you may see color-coded lines along local routes thanks to motorists willing to share their position data.

Google’s new mapping function seems to me a terrific, very democratic way for motorists to help each other get from Point A to Point B more efficiently. If your phone is compatible, why not join the crowd?


Nokia to offer featherweight netbook PC

8:25 AM Mon, Aug 24, 2009 |

 A big name in mobile phones is getting ready to marry 3G technology with a netbook-size computer.

Nokia said today its new Booklet 3G will offer up to 12 hours (!) of battery life while providing a high-speed connection to the Internet (with an appropriate subscription to a cell phone provider, of course).

Nokia calls this a “natural evolution” of its core business. The company has made a stab at computer-related products before, most notably with its N800 series tablet-style computer. It never really caught on — perhaps because it it didn’t use the industry-standard Windows operating system.

The Nokia Booklet 3G will have Windows, along with a 10-inch screen, a full keyboard and the Intel Atom processor chip — just like all the other red-hot netbook models out there from the more familiar names in PCs like Dell, HP and Acer.

Nokia apparently hopes to set itself apart from the pack with its mobile technology know-how, not-to-be-believed battery life and a sleek aluminum chassis cradling the Booklet in a package said to be under three pounds.

Nokia isn’t yet saying how much the Booklet will cost; I imagine it will command a premium over competing netbooks, but because of the 3G connection, it’s likely that cellular carriers will offer it at a subsidized price with a two-year commitment — in the same way that you get a “discount” on a cell phone.

Once a dominant name in cell phones, Nokia has seen its U.S. market share for mobile handsets fall below 10 percent while companies like Apple, Samsung and LG now dominate. The Booklet could help the Finnish phone giant get back in the game.

More information is promised at Nokia World 09 in Stuttgart, Germany next week.

I’m interested.


Review: Scanner digitizes memories from slides, film

5:09 PM Wed, Aug 19, 2009 |

On a swing through the neighborhood Wal-Mart to pick up a few grocery items this week, I looked around in the photo department. There was a handwritten note at the counter alerting customers that this store no longer offered one-hour film processing; from now on, all developing requests would be sent out for off-site service.

It’s the inevitable fallout of our shift to a digital world, where memories are preserved on cards and disks as ones and zeros instead of on strips of celluloid as chemical grains.

There are probably some people reading this right now who have never taken a non-digital photo!

Nevertheless, many households still have a closet, a cupboard or a shelf stacked high with trays chock full of 35mm slides and glassine envelopes stuffed with strips of negative film. It would be nice to be able to share these analog images with far-flung friends and relatives on Facebook or an online photo album like Picasa — but how?

There are businesses that will transfer your slides and negatives to a digital format. The aforementioned Wal-Mart will take 50 slides and save them to a DVD for $30 — about 60 cents each., which specializes in work like this, charges between 68 cents (for a 2000 dots-per-inch scan) and 88 cents (for a 4000 dpi scan) per slide.

In either case, you would have to entrust what could be priceless images to faceless services. And you’d probably be very judicious about which slides and films you selected for transfer because of the price.

That’s why I was intrigued when I saw a product called Memor-Ease the last time I was at Costco. The box looked promising, describing how the device made by Pacific Image Electronics can scan your film negatives (black-and-white or color) and slide transparencies to your Windows computer. As a bonus, it is bundled with Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0, a very capable image editing software package (yes, it’s two versions behind the current 7.0 product, but I am quite happy using 5.0 on my computer at work every day).

The price for all this was just $50 — that’s less than what Wal-Mart would charge me for popping 100 slides on a DVD — so I plunked down my membership card and took the Memor-Ease home for a spin.

My expectations were low; how good could it possibly be at this price point (and with a name that sounds more like an over-the-counter brain tonic than a precision photographic device)? The specifications listed Memor-Ease output as the equivalent of an 1800 dpi, 5 megapixel photo — about the level of quality for which ScanDigital charges 68 cents per slide.

The Memor-Ease unit itself did not inspire great confidence when I unwrapped it. It is a featherweight, seemingly unsubstantial box about the size of half-a-loaf of Wonder Bread. There’s a single button on top of the unit and a vertical slot on either side. The rear panel has a USB connector to link to your PC (USB 2.0 only), which also supplies power for the scanner.

A CD with the necessary driver software for the Memor-Ease is included; installation and hookup is very easy.

All that’s left now is to scan (after first pressing a button to calibrate the device).

Memor-Ease supplies two plastic film holders — one is for slides, the other is designed for strips of film.

It’s a simple matter to pop slides into the holder, four at a time. It’s a bit trickier to insert strips of film into the other carrier, which can accommodate up to six frames. One must be mindful of indentations at the top and bottom of the holder that are intended to flatten the unmounted celluloid, which often has a curve to it.

I recommend using a soft brush and/or a burst of compressed air to remove dust from the slides or negatives before scanning. Software can deal with some image defects, but it’s best to start with the cleanest possible film for best results.

I also wear latex gloves to keep skin oil and fingerprints away from the surface of the film (you can get those at any drug store; make sure you get the “powder-free” variety!).

The CyberView software interface pops up and wants to know what type of film you’re scanning: transparency, negative, or black-and white. Now manually slide the carrier into the slot; it snaps into the correct position for each frame. The image, illuminated by a cool LED light source, appears almost instantly on the computer screen. If you like what you see, push the button on top of the Memor-Ease (or click its on-screen equivalent) and the photo is transferred to your image editing software in a flash.

If the photo is rotated the wrong way or needs some basic color or contrast adjustment, there’s an option to make those changes using CyberView (although a much wider variety of fixes is available in Photoshop Elements).

With a little practice, you can be converting dozens of pictures to a digital format in minutes without the need to let them out of your sight. Your primary impediment will be the time it takes to insert and remove film or slides from the carrier.

Note that the Memor-Ease is only designed for 35mm film; if you have any oddball formats, you’ll need another solution.

So how good are the digital images? To the right is a reduced-size copy of a photo I took in Taxco, Mexico in what was probably 1976. Click on the image and you can view the full 1755 by 2568 pixel version; it’s a 878 kilobyte file, so it’ll take a few seconds to appear with a slow connection.

The photo retains a good bit of detail. You can read some of the lettering on the cardboard boxes stacked by the curb, and the colors of the red, green and blue plastic jugs appear to be realistic.

But when viewed at full size, you’ll notice some hallmarks of digital processing that give the image the look of an impressionist painting. After all, Memor-Ease delivers a relatively low resolution when compared to the capability of the original film, which has an estimated pixel equivalent of as much as 4000×5000.

The fencing material leaning against the building looks fine in the thumbnail but it’s pretty “mushy” when blown up.

The black lettering on the sign is very clear, but it has a bit of fringing attributed to digital processing.

I don’t have access to a film scanner with better specifications (or a microscope) to make a direct comparison, but I’m certain that the original image is a lot sharper than this. With all the talk about high-definition this and that, it’s easy to forget that any pictures you have on film are inherently high-def!

I do have a snapshot-size print of this photo that was made when the film was originally developed, and the scanned version 33 years later is very close in appearance.

So I think you’ll find the Memor-Ease output more than satisfactory for sharing on the Internet or for making snapshot-size prints (up to about 4×6 inches). You could try for an 8×10, but the quality might begin to disappoint at that scale.

There are higher-quality film and slide scanners available at prices double, triple and beyond the $50 I paid for the Memor-Ease at Costco (it has a list price of $120). If you have some serious scanning to do and you are interested in enlargements and precise detail, I would urge you to look beyond the basic functionality of this device. Pacific Image Electronics makes a range of higher-performance scanners; you can find other models from Nikon, Epson and Canon.

But there is another way to look at all this.

Why not use the Memor-Ease to inexpensively digitize all of your images, then pay the price for someone else to provide higher quality scans for those “special” photos?

You’ll probably feel better about sending a handful of slides or negatives to a third party knowing that you at least have your own copy of the original securely stored away on your discs or memory cards.

And since you probably won’t have much need for the Memor-Ease after you’ve finished with your own library, you can sell it on eBay or donate it to a friend or family member who has their own closet full of non-digital images.


Update: My disabled computer

3:12 PM Tue, Aug 11, 2009 |

Back again with an update on efforts to resurrect my ailing Acer Aspire L100 home computer.

I’ve been overwhelmed with helpful suggestions from Computer Corner Blog and Newsletter readers; if I haven’t yet replied personally to your submission, I apologize. I do read all my e-mail!

Briefly, the L100, running Windows Vista, started spontaneously rebooting itself after about two years of use.

Several of you suggested this could be a heat-related problem. Since my last report, I have disassembled the computer, which is not easy because as an ultra-compact desktop model it’s designed more like a notebook — everything is really scrunched together inside.

I vacuumed the air intake and exhaust ports on the case, around the cooling fins and wherever I could find dust inside.

I removed and re-seated the two 1 gigabyte memory chips.

I tested the integrity of the memory using both the utility on the Windows disc and a DOS-based software utility.

The hard drive has been checked out by a software program from the model’s manufacturer.

No USB peripherals are plugged in (except for the keyboard and mouse that came with the system).

But even after all that — and my willingness to sacrifice the contents of the built-in hard drive (all my data is always stored on an external USB hard drive) — I still can’t get Windows Vista or Windows 7 to install or run, even though the open source Ubuntu Linux operating system loads and runs right along without any problems.

In desperation, I did contact Acer by e-mail, only to be informed that I would have to part with $60 for a half-hour of time with a telephone tech support representative to get any official help.

No thanks.

My quest continues. I may eventually have to invest that $60 in a new computer, but for now I think I’ll continue puzzling over the L100.

I enjoy challenges.


Home computer acting strangely; what next?

12:27 PM Wed, Aug 05, 2009 |

When you work with computers for a living, it’s — well, it’s embarrassing when something goes wrong that you just can’t seem to right.

Here’s my story.

I had grown quite fond of my Acer Aspire L100 mini computer. It packed a reasonable amount of power into the space of a desktop dictionary.

The L100 was (and still is) hooked up to my LCD TV set in the living room. With a wireless keyboard and mouse, I could sit on the sofa and surf the Web, watch Internet TV, even update the content on

A couple of weeks ago, however, the L100 started acting strangely. It would spontaneously reboot itself without warning.

My initial diagnosis was that the mysterious shutdowns may be heat-related. After all, the L100 has a dual-core AMD processor tucked inside a tiny, crowded chassis. The computer has adequate ventilation, but it sits behind my TV set and is often in direct sunlight from a nearby window.

Letting the computer cool didn’t seem to resolve the issue; nor did rolling back to earlier updates of the Windows Vista operating system that it came with.

The L100 kept shutting itself down.


Then I had an idea. What if this problem was somehow associated with Windows?

Linux is an alternative operating system that is freely available. I had squirreled away several discs (bonuses from British computer magazines) that let you boot up to Linux from a CD without the need to actually install it.

Guess what?

My computer ran with Linux and didn’t shut down.

That would seem to indicate that the computer hardware is just fine, right?

I had a copy of the new Windows 7 operating system ready to go; perhaps whatever incompatibilities my L100 had with Vista would be rectified with Windows 7!

So, I started installing Windows 7, and things seemed to go pretty smoothly… at the start.

But after 51 minutes, guess what? The installation shut down!

When I pressed the power button, the “Windows Error Recovery” screen popped up.

After following all the directions (and attempting to load Windows 7 several more times), I finally stopped trying.

So now, I have a nice computer that’s pretty much a doorstop unless I install Linux on it. Unfortunately, not all the applications I need to do my WFAA job will work with Linux, so I’m still searching for an answer.

Now I have a fairly strong background in computer problem-solving dating back to the days of DOS, so when I run into a problem like this, it’s very frustrating.

I can only imagine that most people faced with a challenge like this just throw up their hands and get a new computer, figuring (probably correctly) that the cost of any necessary repairs to an out-of-warranty, two-year-old box would better be invested in a faster PC with more memory, better graphics and a bigger hard drive.

To me, though, this is like a Rubik’s Cube puzzle; I know if I spin it around enough times, all the colors will match on all six sides. Patience, Walt; patience.

So I haven’t given up on my Acer Aspire L100 just yet. I’ll keep you posted.


Review: Grace Wireless Internet Radio

10:50 AM Tue, Aug 04, 2009 |

It was tucked away in a forgotten corner of a little-used guest room at my grandparents’ rural home — and I was drawn to it like a magnet.

The Zenith console radio and phonograph was once the centerpiece of a 1940s home entertainment system. Like today’s big-screen TV, the mahogany cabinet was designed to occupy a prominent place in the living room, delivering the sounds of Benny Goodman, Bob Hope and Jack Benny through a single massive speaker.

As a child, I was most intrigued by the dial on this radio. In addition to the familiar AM frequencies (there was no FM back then), it also had a shortwave band inscribed with the names of intriguing faraway places (England, Germany, Holland, Canary Islands, and more).

My curiosity was piqued. I hooked up an antenna wire to the connection on the back of the radio and warmed it up. Along with the pops, cracks and whistles on the shortwave band, I remember spending hours tuning in my first overseas transmissions. It contributed to a lifelong love of broadcasting and led to a career in radio, television and the Internet.

It was admittedly a lot of work to hear these voices from other places on a shortwave set. Even with today’s best receiver, reception is hit-and-miss — dependent on atmospheric conditions and external factors like appliances that generate electrical noise.

The tuning on the Zenith set was by a pointer on a dial, and the dial wasn’t very accurate. It could be difficult to find the same station from one day to the next, and most shortwave stations were (and still are) extremely difficult to receive during the daylight hours.

Almost 70 years after that Zenith radio was built, we have a better way to listen to the world — one that combines the best of Internet technology with traditional radio broadcasts.

A Grace Wireless Internet Radio (model ITC-IR1000B) has just replaced an AM/FM clock radio on the nightstand next to my bed. It is among the first devices of its kind and an amazing portal to almost any radio station anywhere in the world (along with hundreds of Web-only broadcasts). Unlike satellite radio, there are no subscriptions involved; this is free radio.

When I first saw a picture of the Grace, I was immediately reminded of my first police scanner from the 1970s. The Grace has a rectangular black plastic chassis about the size of a short shoebox. The left front panel of the radio is dominated by a large grille with a 3-inch speaker behind it; the right side has nine buttons, two dials, and a glowing alphanumeric display.

There’s a stubby antenna that folds up from the back.

Unlike a regular radio, you can’t just turn on the Grace and use it right out of the box. As its name implies, it requires a wireless Internet connection in your home or office. Power it up and it searches for available networks and then the display prompts you to select the correct one.

If your network has security enabled (and it should!), you’ll have to enter the correct code by turning the larger knob to select each character, then pressing it to confirm the choice for each letter or number. It’s not as convenient as a keyboard, but you should only have to do it once as long as you’re on the same network.

Now select [Internet Radio] from the display (again, using the larger knob), and you can immediately browse stations based on criteria like "location" or "genre" — or you can "search" for a station.

The search function is useful if you know the exact call letters of a radio station, for instance. You can also use it to zero in on a specific geographical area. Entering "DALLAS," for instance, pulled up more than 25 stations, including one that offers National Weather Service weather information and another that relays police and fire scanner traffic.

When you hear something you like, five of the buttons on the front panel can be used to immediately store your favorites for instant recall, not unlike the buttons on your car radio.

But the most mind-blowing part of the Grace for anyone who has ever struggled with a shortwave radio is the "location" selector. It presents you with a scrolling list of countries — from Afghanistan (four stations) to Zimbabwe (six stations) — and about 16,000 stations in between.

Just now, I’m listening to a news summary on station 3AW from Melbourne, Australia. With the press of a preset button, I can bounce around to the BBC in London or CNN in Atlanta or KTCK in Dallas. There is a slight delay when switching between stations (averaging under 10 seconds) while the Grace locks in to the datastream.

I’m very impressed with the sound from the Grace Wireless Internet Radio. The ported cabinet imparts a rich, mellow tone that makes even the lowest-quality broadcasts sound great.

The 3AW transmission, for instance, is being sent out at 10 kilobits-per-second (kbps) — an audio stream that could easily be received over a dial-up phone line. It sounds better than an AM broadcast on my old clock radio.

Most Internet broadcasts I’ve received so far use at least three times as much bandwidth, and they sound much closer to an FM-quality transmission.

I just punched over to the AOL Radio Smooth Jazz channel, which uses a 128 kbps stream that’s very easy on the ears. An audiophile wouldn’t confuse the sound with a CD, but again, it’s better than anything I ever heard coming out of that clock radio! As a bonus, the clock inside the Grace synchronizes with an Internet time standard, so it’s always accurate.

Grace utilizes the Reciva online database as a portal between your radio and the sound sources on the Internet. Reciva organizes and validates the available stations, making it much less likely that you’ll be tuning in to an outdated source.

By registering your Grace radio on the Reciva Web site, you can also easily manage the "My Stations" list using your computer. That means you have a scrollable list of personal favorites to offset the limitation of five preset buttons on the front panel.

If you are interested in the Grace, I’d recommend you take look at Reciva (it’s free) to make sure that the stations you want to listen to are included in its database.

OK, it’s not headline news that you can use a computer to access these stations from around the globe; the technology has been around for about 20 years now. Only recently, however, have manufacturers like Grace, Sangean and Aluratek combined computing power with a traditional radio form factor to create this type of evolutionary audio device.

There are a few things I’d change about the Grace Internet Radio. The monochromatic display — four lines of 16 characters — seems like a throwback to the 90s when compared with even the most basic screen on a cell phone. When you turn the radio off, I wish the digital clock would fill the screen instead of being restricted to a single line. It was a lot easier to check the time witout my glasses on the old clock radio.

The controls on the Grace take some getting used to; I would have preferred a more traditional numeric pad arrangement that would provide more presets and make data entry easier. The buttons — all flush to the front panel — are also hard to use by touch alone. Backlighting the buttons would have helped.

I’ve seen some complaints that the Grace doesn’t have stereo speakers, but I’d much prefer that a unit of this size has one good quality speaker pointing at you rather than two smaller ones on the side. It does deliver stereo audio, but only through the headphone jack on the back panel.

It also lacks an input jack that would let you play your iPod through the speaker. That limitation is somewhat mitigated by the Grace’s ability to link up with other computers on your home network to play back music and other audio files stored there. I’ve not tested that function yet, though, because there are so many other things to listen to!

Others have griped about the lack of a remote control; that’s not a problem for me, because I use the radio within arm’s reach.

Grace also has other models that have addressed most of the limitations of the ITC-IR1000B, which is their most basic receiver.

It seems to me only a matter of time before Internet-capable radios become as common as AM and FM. Forget satellite radio — can you imagine a car radio that can tune in 16,000 stations with digital clarity from all around the world?

If my bedside tabletop radio can do it, there is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to enjoy the same features while I’m driving.

I can, in fact, plug my cell phone into my notebook computer today and tune in any radio station on the Internet. As broadband wireless networks become more widespread, I predict you’ll see Web-enabled car radios begin to emerge within the next two years.

That will be a real radio revolution.


BLOG: Computer Corner Blog

Review: USB device lets you listen to worldwide radio

2:45 PM Wed, Jul 22, 2009 |

It’s all but impossible to get good radio reception in an office building. Steel, metal and concrete conspire to do everything they can to seal your receiver off from AM and FM radio waves.

So if you’re consigned to a cubicle for eight hours every day, it can be difficult to keep up with your favorite news, sports or music.

Hundreds of enlightened radio stations, understanding this listener dilemma, are sending out their audio signals on the Internet so that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection (anywhere in the world) can tune in.

The problem is that broadcast radio stations have a fixed frequency; tune in to 104.1 FM in Dallas and you can listen to the sports talk station KTCK. Unfortunately, there is no consistent naming convention for online radio stations; heck, there are even a variety of “streaming” audio formats that can be used.

Can anyone help simplify and streamline the reception of online radio?

Aluratek’s USB Internet Radio Jukebox comes to the rescue in the familiar form factor of a flash drive that can hang on your keychain.

Plug it in to a Windows computer (Windows 2000, XP and Vista are supported), and within a minute you can be listening to your favorite stations.

Inside the USB Internet Radio Jukebox is a software player that links to a database of more than 13,000 radio stations in over 150 countries. The simple interface lets you browse the “Top 10” stations by genre, and with more than 65 choices — including tango, techno and trance — you’re sure to find something of interest. “Happy” and “sad” icons give you a reading on how satisfactory other users have found each station’s online service and reliability.

The Aluratek player also lets you search for a favorite station. I was able to track down local stations WBAP and KRLD in seconds, but it failed to find KLIF (even though its sister station, The Ticket, is in the database).

The player window does offer a handy function to request that a missing station be added.

There are some thoughtful touches to the Aluratek player. In the same way your car radio lets you assign buttons to your favorite stations, the USB Internet Radio Jukebox lets you preset your most listened-to channels as “My Favorites.”

I set up the player on my Windows XP notebook computer, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the station I was last listening to began playing back automatically when I plugged the Aluratek device into my desktop PC at work.

The Aluratek does not install any software on the host computer, so it should be especially useful for users at work who have limited privileges, but I have read some reviews from consumers who have had problems getting it to work on XP and Vista computers. I was going to test it on a Vista machine, but that computer crashed before I could give it a try (and that is a story for another day!).

The Aluratek USB Internet Radio Jukebox carries a list price of $40, which I think is a bit steep. However, I had no trouble tracking down the product for less than half that price from online merchants like Amazon and Users who left comments seem generally satisfied.

There’s no real magic to the Aluratek device; you can locate most of the stations in its database on your own and listen to them if you have the correct player. But it’s hard to top the variety of content from the U.S. and around the world. And there is no subscription involved because you’re accessing freely-available audio streams.

So as I listen to WGRV, an upbeat smooth jazz station broadcasting from Melbourne, Fla., give some consideration to a software product that simplifies the often-confusing task of tuning in online.


Blog: Computer Corner Blog

Harlingen newspaper to start charging for online news

1:35 PM Mon, Jul 13, 2009 |

Later this week, the Valley Morning Star newspaper in Harlingen will begin charging visitors to its Web site 75 cents a day (or $3.95 a month) for full access to its news content.

“It will allow greater value to our many loyal print-edition subscribers by not giving away the news to non-subscribers,” the newspaper’s publisher, Tyler Patton, said in the story announcing the shift away from free Web access (although subscribers to the print edition will not have to pay).

This is an understandable move for the newspaper industry, which is struggling to maintain print circulation when news consumers have so many other options online and in the electronic media. It is a business model that’s certain to be studied closely by both newspapers and other online content providers.

So far, The Wall Street Journal seems to be the only major newspaper that’s been able to make a subscription plan stick. Similar to the Valley Morning Star’s plan, the Journal offers free access to the home page but requires a subscription to view the full range of its content, which is widely regarded as top-notch business journalism.

The Valley Morning Star will likely suffer an inevitable decline in online readers as a result of its pay-for-news plan; the question is whether revenue from subscribers to the electronic edition will compensate for that loss. And the number of subscribers will be directly linked to whether there are other, comparable sources of free local news online in that market.

For a time, The Dallas Morning News offered a subscription-based section of Cowboys-related news, a model that it later abandoned.

The reality of the situation is that Internet users like you are accustomed to things being free. It’s an ad-supported model that was established by radio and television decades ago and has been the hallmark of the Internet since its inception.

It’s always surprising to me when I have to answer e-mails and phone calls from users who complain about advertising on our site. I try to explain to them that I’d be unable to reply if I wasn’t getting a paycheck, and our only source of online revenue (at least right now) is advertising.

So what do you think? Would you be willing to pay for local news online from a newspaper (or a television station)?

Google wants to run your netbook

11:00 AM Wed, Jul 08, 2009 |

I am a big fan of the Google Chrome browser. It’s fast, it’s reliable, and it provides maximum screen room for Web content.

Chrome hasn’t been a huge success for Google since its introduction last September. I just checked the statistics for this month that show fewer than two percent of visitors to our Web site use it. Some flavor of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer remains the browser of choice for the vast majority of computer users (about 73 percent of our visitors).

But Google has big plans for Chrome. How about a new operating system to compete with Windows?

As outlined this week in the Official Google Blog, the Chrome OS is “an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks,” diminutive computers that have smaller screens than a traditional laptop (7 to 10 inches, typically). Even though netbooks don’t have a DVD drive, sport slower processors and have less storage capacity than their larger cousins, their distinct size advantage has made them the hottest trend in computers.

Google’s use of the term “lightweight” is in contrast to the term often used when describing Microsoft Windows: Bloated.

Most netbooks, limited by design and budget to one gigabyte of memory, are equipped with Microsoft Windows XP, an operating system that was introduced nearly eight years ago. Windows Vista, launched in 2007, requires more resources than netbooks can handle.

So Google is planning for the Chrome OS to do the things most users want to do with a netbook — check e-mail, browse the Internet and use other Internet-based applications without the need to worry about the “legacy” software programs that any Windows-based PC must be able to run.

“We’re designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds,” Google’s announcement said. “The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web.”

It will be at least a year before we get a chance to see what Google Chrome OS can do. By that time, Microsoft will have introduced Windows 7, the successor to Vista, which may be made available in a “lite” version designed for netbooks.

So it remains to be seen whether Google — a name that most everybody associates with Internet searching — can parlay that identity into a product that could pose a genuine challenge to the world’s most popular computer operating system. Others have tried and failed.

Even Apple, with its solid OS X operating system and unparalleled marketing acumen, has been unable to unseat Microsoft as the primary personal computer OS.

Success for Google will depend on two big factors.

Google says Chrome OS will be free to the user, like so many other Google products. But netbooks based on the open-source Linux operating system have not sold well at all; if you see a mini-computer on clearance, chances are it doesn’t run Windows.

So can computer users feel comfortable with what will essentially be a browser-based operating system that has no ability to run all those software applications and games you are most familiar with? You will be able to get work done; Web browsing, e-mail, messaging, documents, spreadsheets and presentation software will all be part of the system.

I tend to think of a netbook as kind of a glorified smartphone (with a more reasonable screen and a keyboard), so if Google’s version can accomplish those basic tasks without that legendary Windows overhead, it could be worthy of our consideration.

We’ll see what happens next year.


Review: Flip UltraHD camcorder

9:14 PM Tue, Jun 30, 2009 |

If you haven’t looked recently, camcorders have changed.

A lot.

Seems like it was just a couple of years ago that all portable video cameras used either 8mm (analog) or DV (digital) tapes for storing your moving pictures. This necessity made them both bulky (for the motorized tape-handling mechanisms) and power-hungry (for the same reason).

For a short time, DVD-based camcorders flowered. These used smaller discs than the familiar movie-size platters but had two distinct advantages: They could store a lot of video in a relatively small space and you could pop the mini-discs in most home DVD players. It’s still essentially a mechanical and motorized process, however, and most DVD camcorders were still bulky as a result (and good luck finding the blank discs when you need them!).

Camcorders were waiting for an elegant storage solution, and it arrived when the price of solid-state flash memory began to plummet, making it a viable alternative to tapes and discs.

The original Flip camcorder wasn’t the first to take advantage of flash memory, but it did have a big impact on the marketplace. The user-friendly design, ultra-simple controls and computer-friendly interface gave it the flexibility consumers were seeking. The Flip concept eschewed a lot of standard camcorder features like a zoom lens and autofocus. Heck, the first model didn’t even have a tripod mount.

But you could pop the 2007 Flip in your pocket or purse and keep it with you everywhere. It was a camcorder anyone could use.

 Fast forward two years and Flip has evolved, but it’s not much different.

In fact, Pure Digital Technologies, the company that makes the Flip line of camcorders, has come out with two new models that are more like the original product than last year’s incarnation.

Let’s take a closer look at the Flip UltraHD, at a list price of $199 the more advanced of the new models.

As the name implies, it shoots widescreen 1280 x 720 pixel footage and can store up to two hours’ worth in the built-in memory that comes with the camera.

 The six-ounce UltraHD sports a two-inch diagnonal viewing screen on the back. It measures about an inch thick, about four inches tall and about two inches wide.

Flip has addressed several shortcomings of its first-generation high definition camcorder, the MinoHD, which — while weighing half as much as the UltraHD and sporting slightly sleeker dimensions — was designed with an iPod-like sealed rechargeable battery system, which meant that a user could not pop in a new power source when the charge was running low.

 Part of the UltraHD’s additional bulk is the battery compartment, where you’ll find a replaceable battery pack that recharges when you plug it into the USB port on a computer (or a separate USB power supply; the unit does not come with a charger). You can also use standard AA batteries in a pinch, a bonus.

With the MinoHD, there was no option to view your HD video creations directly on an HD televison set; you’d have to settle for your computer screen. UltraHD rectifies that omission by adding an HDMI port that lets you connect the camcorder directly to a flat screen TV with a matching connection. That cable, however, is an optional accessory ($25), and UltraHD offers no analog output for playback on older TVs or direct transfer to a VCR or DVD recorder.

 UltraHD does mark Flip’s welcome return to more tactile controls on its rear panel. The MinoHD sported high-tech “touch-sensitive capacitive buttons” that offered no user feedback apart from “beeps.” Most of the UltraHD controls have a satisfying but subtle “click” to provide reassurance to the photographer. The exception is the spongy four-way pad that surrounds the red “record” button and is used for secondary camcorder functions.

Flip’s recording process itself remains blessedly unchanged. Just turn on the camera and before you can say “high definition,” the screen displays a reassuring “Ready” message along with an estimate of the recording time that remains. Press the big red button on the back of the camera and you’re rolling; press it again and it pauses, ready for your next scene.

Like most camcorders in this price range, the UltraHD makes better pictures when you are outdoors or have a good source of artificial light. It will, however, give you a reasonable image in low-light situations (but not in near-total darkness like some higher-end models).

 The UltraHD retains the fixed memory of its predecessors; there’s no way to physically remove the storage card inside or to supplement it with a removable and inexpensive SD card. For this camera, it means you’re stuck with a two-hour recording limit before you have to attach the UltraHD to a computer and transfer files. If you’re thinking about this as a vacation camera, make sure you tote your notebook along.

Flip’s namesake feature, the flip-out USB connector, is retained on the UltraHD. When you first plug it in to a PC or a Mac, the camera offers to install its FlipShare utility software that now has some new features (go to for an upgrade to the latest version). FlipShare transfers clips from your camcorder to your computer and, once saved, lets you erase the content from the camera to free up more memory.

FlipShare 4.5 features are rudimentary but are designed to be simple to use (click the image for a larger view of the software).

• You can play back your clips, of course (in a window or full-screen)

• You can share them via e-mail or online sites like YouTube and MySpace (FlipShare creates a lower-resoluton version of your HD video that’s more suitable for Internet streaming)

• You can create an online FlipChannel to showcase your work

FlipShare has improved its ability to “trim” clips that can then be assembled into very basic “movies,” but don’t expect to create the next viral video with it; you’ll need full-featured editing software for that.

Likewise, you can use FlipShare to generate standard definition TV content suitable for A DVD, but you’ll need third-party software to actually burn the DVD.

Another FlipShare function is an improved snapshot generator that makes it easier to select individual frames from a video clip to save and print out as photos. While the camcorder is high definition, even low-end point-and-shoot digital cameras will give you better results for stills.

Bottom line? The Flip UltraHD is hard to beat as a simple, inexpensive, but effective do-it-all camcorder to preserve family memories in high definition. There’s a reason the Flip series has — almost overnight — gained a reported 20 percent share of the consumer camcorder market.

And that success hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the past year, better-known names have come out with similarly-sized high definition camcorders that sport more features at comparable prices.

Kodak’s Zi6 ($160) and Zx1 ($150) both have removable storage and can shoot 3 megapixel still photos along with three different resolutons of video clips.

Sony recently introduced the Webbie HD model ($200) that shoots 5 megapixel stills and has a 5X optical zoom lens.

And the Sanyo Xacti VPC-CG10 ($200) also has a 5X optical zoom lens, autofocus, a digital image stabilizer, 10 megapixel stills, and a number of manual controls.

Let’s hear it for competition.

• E-mail

Answering viewer questions about digital TV reception

11:02 AM Wed, Jun 17, 2009 |

Thanks for all your comments about digital TV reception problems.

We can’t recommend specific antennas other than to say you need a model designed to receive both VHF and UHF channels in the area where you live. A good resource for that is AntennaWeb, which generates a fairly conservative list of what TV stations you should be able to receive at your address with the right antenna (and it provides antenna suggestions).

If you are a bit more “techie,” you’ll want to try the TV Fool Web site, which offers a similar service but provides more detailed information about projected reception. It ranks the stations in the order of how easily they should be received and includes technical information regarding signal strength.

The information from AntennaWeb and TV Fool is based on computer projections of reception in your location, and I’ve not yet seen the computer program that can be 100 percent accurate in evaluating every variable that’s involved. Generally speaking — as long as you are solely interested in reception of Dallas-Fort Worth channels — an outdoor directional antenna is best (aimed at Cedar Hill, where all the local stations are based). An attic antenna is next best (as long as you don’t have foil-backed insulation on your rafters or exotic roofing material that could impair reception).

An indoor antenna is least likely to provide full coverage (just as it would come up short in reception of analog stations). If that’s your only option, however, I’d first try the most basic model with the two “rabbit ears” for VHF channels and a loop for UHF channels; you should be able to find one for around $15. RadioShack has a “budget” model that fits this description (catalog 15-1874) for $11.99. Adjust the antenna rods and move the antenna as described in the story above. Always be sure to perform a re-scan after any antenna changes. If that doesn’t work, try an amplified antenna model with the same basic design; they’re generally $40 or less. Make sure that you can return any unit that is unsatisfactory.

If maps are your thing, check out the FCC’s digital TV information site. Enter your address and you’ll see a list of the stations you should be able to receive on the left-hand side of the map. Click on the call letters of a station and the map will display a line showing the direction of the transmitter along with additional information about the station. Now click the link for “gain/loss map” and you can see an outline of the station’s estimated coverage area (the solid line) along with color coding to indicate changes from the analog signal.

WFAA’s digital signal map is at the right; click on the image for a full-size version. It shows that Channel 8 should gain about 117,000 viewers after the switch. Other stations gain coverage in some areas and lose it in others.

Someone asked about reception differences based on the time of day. This could be related to atmospheric and environmental conditions or technical issues as broadcasters fine-tune their transmissions. I am not aware of WFAA making any changes to its signal since Friday’s changeover, however.

Any variances will be mitigated by having an antenna that exceeds minimum reception levels. If your antenna delivers a stronger signal to your TV set or converter box, that signal is much less likely to dip below the reception threshold when the signal is compromised.

For homes with one antenna that serves multiple TV sets, it is important to note that every time the antenna signal is split, the signal level is diminished. An RF amplifier can compensate for the splitter loss. The best place for an amplifier is as close to the antenna as possible (where the signal is strongest) and before any splits.


‘Double-rescanning’ may help digital TV reception

11:57 AM Tue, Jun 16, 2009 |

It’s now been four days since WFAA switched off its analog signal forever as part of the nation’s conversion to an all-digital television system.

I’ve been hearing from a handful of frustrated viewers who — despite their best efforts — haven’t been able to tune in favorite stations (including WFAA) since Friday’s changes.

The FCC today issued a Consumer Alert to viewers who are having reception problems, and they outlined a technique called “double-rescanning” that could help in some cases.

Last week, we pointed out that WFAA and two other TV stations in the Dallas-Fort Worth market were changing channels as part of the digital conversion. For digital TV sets and converter boxes to recognize the changes, it was necessary to employ the “rescanning” function of the receiver.

But if you continue to have problems, the FCC suggests that you utilize a more robust technique to make sure your digital receiver isn’t confused by all the changes. Here is a step-by-step guide to double-rescanning:

1. Disconnect the antenna from the converter box or digital TV

2. Re-scan the box or digital TV without the antenna connected (as with any scan, follow the on-screen instructions or owner’s manual for your device)

3. Unplug the box or digital TV from the electrical outlet for at least one minute

4. Reconnect the antenna to the box or digital TV and plug the unit into the electrical outlet.

5. Rescan the box or digital TV one more time.

The FCC suggests that this procedure can clear your converter box or digital TV of potentially incorrect data that could keep you from tuning in all available stations.

In Tuesday’s Consumer Alert, the FCC also said that some reception problems can be resolved by double-checking and relocating the antenna.

You’ll need a VHF/UHF antenna to get all the station available in North Texas. “Some antennas marketed as HDTV antennas don’t perform well on VHF channels,” the alert said. For best reception of the three VHF digital stations in this area, the FCC recommends using a “rabbit ear”-style antenna with the rods extended 12 to 18 inches.

The FCC says indoor antennas should also be located:

• near a window

• as high in the room as possible

• away from other electronic gear, including computers, VCRs, DVD players, converter boxes, and the television itself

An attic-mounted or outdoor antenna will generally provide superior reception, the FCC said.

I hope this will help some of you who have had a problem with digital reception. If viewing Channel 8 continues to elude you, we want to know about it! Please e-mail me — being as specific as possible about your antenna, your receiver and where you live — and I’ll try to help.

The FCC is also maintaining its hotline number for consumers, 888-CALL-FCC, which has fielded more than 900,000 calls in the past week. “We are committed to staying on the job to help,” said acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps.


An ode to analog TV

8:31 AM Thu, Jun 11, 2009 |

Let’s say you were rummaging through an attic and stumbled across a vintage TV set built in the late 1940s.

You plug it in, the screen glows with static.

Until the 12th of June 2009, if you hook up an antenna to that old set, you’ll still be able to tune in a picture.

That’s really an amazing testament to the endurance and versatility of a television broadcasting standard that was actually outlined before World War II — before transistors and integrated circuits — before screens were much bigger than 10 inches in diameter.

TV was strictly black-and-white as the industry blossomed in the post-war years and millions of sets were sold. That legacy forced the industry to be creative in the early 50s, successfully piggy-backing red, green and blue information on top of the monochrome signal so that existing equipment wouldn’t become obsolete with new color TV receivers.

About 20 years later, broadcasters utilized another slice of the TV signal to add closed captioning to broadcasts. Then engineers figured out how to shoehorn stereo audio into the signal.

Along the way, television has delivered incredible images and unforgettable moments to hundreds of millions of Americans, from the Kennedy assassination to the first men on the moon to Super Bowl drama.

Finally — after more than six decades as the nation’s primary source of information and entertainment — broadcast analog TV will vanish on Friday, giving way to digital technology with its improved picture and sound quality and the extra channels and features it offers.

Some viewers ask: “Why do we need to make this switch at all? I like my TV just fine as it is.” After all, we’ve been broadcasting both analog and digital signals for a decade now. The answer is complicated, but some of it surrounds public safety.

After the September 11 attacks in 2001, police, fire and emergency agencies concluded that they needed better ways to communicate and coordinate by radio. When analog television ends on Friday, many of those now-unused channels will be allocated to modern emergency networks to help keep you safe.

Digital is also a much “greener” way to broadcast. Sending out a digital TV signal that’s comparable to its analog cousin requires a lot less transmission power and a lot less electricity. It also gives TV stations a total of 16 different ways to send you a picture, including multiple channels (WFAA has three!).

But digital television doesn’t necessarily make any analog TVobsolete. You can still take that 1940s-vintage TV set, hook up an inexpensive digital TV converter box and continue to use it as we approach the second decade of the 21st century.

• What’s your favorite analog TV moment? Feel free to leave a comment!


Digital word of the week: ‘re-scan’

6:23 AM Mon, Jun 08, 2009 |

The week is finally here. Broadcast television goes all digital this Friday, June 12.

The FCC says stations can turn off their analog transmissions any time during the day. WFAA will make the switch at noon.

If you’re already watching Channel 8 via cable or satellite, you’ll need to make no changes, although it is possible there will be a minor interruption at midday.

But if you are receiving WFAA using an antenna, Friday is D-day for you. Traditional analog broadcasting will end, and older TVs will cease to function without an inexpensive digital converter box, widely available at retailers for about $50 to $60.

Even if you have a converter box or are using a TV with a built-in digital tuner, you still have an important function to perform on Friday: Re-scan your channels!

One of the counter-intuitive things about digital TV is that the channel numbers no longer have a direct relationship with the advertised channel.

For instance, Channel 8’s digital signal has been broadcast on Channel 9 for more than a decade because we can’t send analog and digital on the same channel. Other TV stations have also been broadcasting analog and digital programs on two different channels.

But that will end on Friday, and some stations — including WFAA — will be moving their digital transmissions to a permanent channel. In our case, the digital signal will shift from Channel 9 to Channel 8. We’ll be using Channel 8’s superior transmitting antenna, and the FCC has given us permission to broadcast with a 50 percent higher power, which should help our signal punch through to viewers who have had reception problems.

Two other local stations (KFWD 52 and KTVT 11) will also be shifting to new digital channels on Friday.

That’s why viewers who rely on off-air broadcasts must re-scan digital channels on Friday. The procedure is specific to each converter box or digital TV, but it is almost always buried in a menu that may be labeled as “channel setup” or “channel scan.” Refer to your instruction booklet or go to the manufacturer’s Web site for a step-by-step guide.

We have assembled a wide range of helpful information related to the digital switch at the WFAA DTV Countdown site, including a map of the WFAA coverage area, hookup diagrams for converter boxes and VCRs and antenna reception tips.

Please let me know if you have any last minute questions or problems!


Bing bids for your search requests

9:49 AM Mon, Jun 01, 2009 |

For People of a Certain Age, the name “Bing” conjures up the image of a crooner who presided over a golf tournament.

For others, the word is the second half of a catchphrase (“bada bing!”) made popular by “The Sopranos.”

But starting this morning, Bing takes on new meaning as Microsoft makes a fresh bid to compete with Google’s venerable search engine.

While I’ve only had a short time to give Bing a spin, I am already impressed with its user-friendliness.

Unlike Google’s austere home page, Bing greets the user with a colorful image background that changes every day; today’s theme is hot air balloons. (You can also choose a plain background, if desired). Click the image for a larger view.

There’s an obvious box into which you type your search requests, and — like Google — you’ll see an automated list of suggestions appear instantly to help you zero in on your target.

For instance, typing in the word “Titanic” generates a list that includes “titanic movie,” “titanic survivors” and “titanic facts.”

Bing’s main list of results is designed to appear almost identical to Google’s display. But in the left-hand column, you’ll find other helpful ways to drill down to important information. The search page for “titanic movie” offers up a sub-search heading with topics including “images,” “cast,” “DVD,” “trailer,” “poster,” “quotes” and “videos.”

Speaking of video, Bing will also help you find online clips of interest. Its results page is a matrix of thumbnail images; hover your mouse over an image and a snippet from the clip starts playing back! It’s a rich, fascinating and interactive way to browse, and I was surprised at how smoothly it worked. Click the image for a larger view.

In the first hours of its official existence, Bing seems to be responding quickly to requests from its archive of millions of Web pages. I find it interesting that Microsoft does not choose to play a numbers game by trumpeting how many pages Bing has in its index; rather, it is focusing its marketing on making it easier for computer users to search for and find what they’re seeking — a “decision engine.”

Bing isn’t likely to put Google out of business any time soon, but it’s clear that this effort puts a real 21st century spin on Internet searching.

Windows Vista update is ready

8:26 AM Wed, May 27, 2009 |

As Microsoft gets Windows 7 ready for prime time, it has quietly released its second major update to Windows Vista.

Windows Vista Service Pack 2 is a BIG download (more than 300 megabytes). Depending on how fast your Internet connection is, it could take an hour or more for your computer to receive the update. Microsoft warns that the installation of SP2 can also take an hour or more, with multiple reboots during configuration. Don’t try this while you have a project on deadline!

Also keep in mind that you can’t install SP2 unless you’ve already installed Service Pack 1.

So the big question, then, is how are you rewarded for all of this work?

The main reason is to ensure that your installation of Windows Vista is up to date with a wide variety of tweaks and fixes that have been developed since the operating system was released. Microsoft says Vista SP2 will give your computer improved compatibility with a wider range of software; it improves support for new types of hardware; and it boosts indexing capabilities and improves media functions.

SP2 is not mandatory; your Vista computer will continue to work without it (although Microsoft says the Service Pack will eventually be downloaded automatically for installation as long as you have Windows Update turned on).

First impressions: Microsoft My Phone

2:00 PM Wed, May 20, 2009 |

Cell phones are such tiny little things. One slip of the hand and your do-it-all communications device can wind up in a tub full of water or down a sewer grate; leave it on a counter at the bank and it can disappear forever.

Of course, you’ve been meaning to archive all the phone numbers, appointments, messages, photos, video clips and music downloads you carry with you on the mobile.

Now they’re gone.

 That’s why if you have a smartphone that operates using Windows Mobile 6.0 or greater, you’ll want very much to try Microsoft My Phone, a new (and free) service that works in the background to send a copy of all your text messages, photos, contact and calendar information to a password-protected database. Depending on how much is stored on your phone and the speed of your wireless connection, this procedure can take several hours.

The My Phone software works in the background, so you can continue to use your handset for calls and e-mail. The phone I’m testing it on, a Samsung BlackJack, got a bit sluggish during the My Phone transfer, but it did continue to work.

While you can command the software to synchronize at any time, it may be most convenient to let My Phone work its magic during hours when you’re not using the phone. The menu gives you an option for daily or weekly automatic synchronization, at an hour of your choosing.

Because you could be sending a lot of data, why not let it work when you’ve got the phone plugged in to a charger? It’ll be easier on your battery. Once everything is synchronized, you can always use the manual sync to transfer new photos you’ve taken or messages you’ve exchanged.

By default, My Phone does not mirror the contents of any removable storage card , so if you have one, you’ll want to be sure to check the appropriate box on its menu on your phone. You also have the option of adding or subtracting categories from your backup (contents, calendar, tasks, text messages, photos, videos, music, documents). I elected to backup my photos, but since I know my music is preserved on two other computers at home, I unchecked that box.

If you connect with a Microsoft Exchange server for your e-mail and calendar functions, My Phone won’t intrude, because Exchange essentially does the same thing.

So now the contents of your cell phone are preserved. The My Phone Web site is fairly basic, with a menu on the left side of the screen that lists categories and an area in the center of the screen displaying messages or thumbnails of photos.

You can access your replicated database from the My Phone Web site using the browser of any computer with a connection to the Internet.

As a bonus, as long as your next handset is a Windows Mobile device, you can use My Phone to send contacts, calendar items, text messages and photos from the Web to your new phone. Neat.

Text messages show up on your My Phone Web page intact along with the time and date they were received. But for some reason, My Phone fails to retain the time stamp of your photos; it instead reverts to the time that they were transferred from your phone to the Web. (Click the image to the right for a full-size view)

That shortcoming cuts way down on the utility of this feature. Like most people, I prefer to organize my photos by the date they were taken. If I pull the MicroSD card out of my phone and plug it into a computer to transfer photos, the date information stays with the photo. Why can’t My Phone do the same thing?

Aside from that gripe, it’s hard to complain about this service. While you will find some advertising on the My Phone Web site, it seems a reasonable price to pay for some real peace of mind when it comes to information that can be so easily lost.


Pocket-size help at D/FW Airport

3:23 PM Mon, May 18, 2009 |

 It’s an hour before your flight is scheduled to depart. You got stuck in traffic on the way to D/FW and now you’re on the shuttle bus schlepping you to Terminal C.

For once, you’re hoping your flight is running late.

You could call someone to double-check the time and gate of your flight, but you just know you’ll wind up in phone tree hell (“Press or say ‘2’ for departures before 6:45 and press or say ‘7’ for departures after 6:45 … unless it’s Tuesday”).

Now there’s another option for harried travelers flying in or out of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Whip out your cell phone and tap in into the browser. It will detect that you’re mobile and will display a version of the airport’s main Web site that’s optimized for a small screen.

From there, you’re not more than a couple of clicks away from most of the same helpful information, including flight arrival and departure information, a guide to the 18 airlines at D/FW, and connecting information — whether you’re inside or outside the security zone.

 One of the handiest features is something called Within 5 Minutes of My Gate. Select your terminal and type in your gate number, and your phone will instantly display a list of ATMs, food and drink options and newsstands within walking distance.

The site also has a Just For Fun section, where you can download a series of background images suitably sized for popular cell phone screens along with one (at least as I write this) ring tone that reproduces the Skylink Train alert that sounds when a train arrives at the platform.

This all might be overkill for casual travelers, but the mobile Web site certainly merits a bookmark if you have more frequent flier miles than you know what to do with.


Days are dwindling until digital TV switch

2:50 PM Wed, May 13, 2009 |

We’re now down to fewer than 30 days until TV stations around the nation pull the plug on analog transmissions.

I’m sure that you’re as weary as we television people are to see the incessant reminders about the digital switch. If you’re reading this on a computer, chances are you are technically savvy enough to be already squared away with either a digital-capable TV set, a satellite or cable connection or a digital converter box (or some combination of the above).

But even with all the publicity surrounding this technology shift, we know that there will still be some people who push the power button on their remote control on June 12 and don’t see a thing on the screen.

For the most part, those who suffer a TV blackout are likely to be the poorest members of our society who can’t afford cable or satellite — folks for whom even a $10 or $20 commitment to a subsidized converter box would take away from food on the table or rent money to the landlord.

“The DTV transition — because it’s technical — can be intimidating,” said Melissa Palacios, who is part of an outreach team in San Antonio that is trying to make sure no one is left behind because of poverty or a language barrier. The Alamo City is believed to be one of the nation’s metropolitan areas that is least-prepared for all-digital TV.

Palacios illustrated the challenge she faces every day by telling the story of an older woman who just didn’t seem to “get” the digital TV switch until she was told that she wouldn’t be able to view her novelas (Spanish language soap operas) without a converter box.

In another case, a shady or perhaps uninformed retailer told a woman that the only way she could continue watching TV is to purchase a new set. Palacios and her associates set things straight with the consumer, got her a converter box for her existing television and sent the new set back to the store.

Palacios’ group is working to get bilingual information about DTV on city buses, banks, and even at all 120 local McDonald’s restaurants.

“It’s not too late to apply for a coupon,” said Erica Swanson, who is directing a seven-city DTV awareness campaign for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, speaking about the $40 vouchers provided by the government to subsidize the purchase of up to two converter boxes per family. She said that the federal agency charged with distributing the coupons is now delivering them within nine days — a big improvement over the lag time encountered by original applicants.

“The most important thing people can do is to help others,” Swanson said. “To make sure friends, family, community members are ready.”

Perhaps you have an unexpired coupon that you don’t need. Swanson urges you to donate it to a relative, a neighbor, a community center or a church that can provide it to a a person facing life without digital television.

And if you are already set up for DTV but are having problems with reception, the FCC has established a special help line for North Texans: 866-202-4596. The service is free.

Please don’t forget about WFAA’s comprehensive online section that has the answers you need for a successful digital transition:


I’ve personally addressed hundreds of viewer questions about DTV over the past year, and I’d be happy to hear from you about any last-minute concerns. Write to me here:

• E-mail

Save stamps with electronic banking

10:59 AM Mon, May 11, 2009 |

 The U.S. Postal Service today raised the price of a first class stamp by two cents, from 42 to 44 cents.

While traditional letter-writing has given way to phone calls, e-mail and instant messaging, a lot of you probably still pay your bills by popping a check into an envelope, slapping on a stamp and dropping it into a mailbox.

My suggestion: Try the electronic bill-pay services now offered by most banks.

In many cases, the service is entirely free to the customer. Cost-cutting banks have long realized that physically processing a check is a burdensome exercise in bureaucracy. In addition to the cost of the check and postage, some banks even charge extra to physically return canceled checks.

So if you haven’t already, what better moment than this to try paying your bills by computer?

Many merchants, utility companies and credit card firms will even cut down on the clutter in your mailbox by offering to deliver your statements electronically. I choose to continue getting bills in the physical mail for record-keeping purposes. But I can only think of one bill in the past year that I’ve had to pay by actually writing a check and mailing it.

There’s no need for you to switch away from checks initially; first go to your bank’s Web site to see what it offers. Pay close attention to any fees or limitations for their online service — particularly the amount of time it will take to deliver funds to your creditors. My bank offers one-day service to nearly all major merchants by transferring payments electronically. It still sends a physical check to my water company, but the bank is buying the stamp (and licking it), not me.

Then schedule one or two bills to be paid electronically to see how it works; call your bank if you have any questions, and check whether using a competing bank might have advantages.

Some people will argue that paying bills by mail offers more control over when the check is delivered, but I think just the opposite is true. With electronic banking, you can sit down at your keyboard just once or twice a month and schedule each payment individually for dispatch at times that are advantageous to your monthly cash flow. You may even be able to download a record of your transactions that can be saved to a spreadsheet or to a financial software package like Quicken or Microsoft Money.

“Pay your bills this way and avoid one of the most common reasons bills are paid late: forgetfulness,” says the American Bankers Association, which estimates that you can save more than $400 a year in postage and late payment penalties by making the switch.


Amazon’s Kindle DX: A revolution for readers?

10:03 AM Wed, May 06, 2009 |

 Could this be the savior of newspapers and magazines?

Amazon today unveiled a new model of its popular Kindle electronic reading device with a screen that’s two-and-a-half times larger than the current version.

Priced at $489, the slim Kindle DX features 9.7-inch “electronic paper” screen that’s unlike what you’re accustomed to on a notebook computer — it really does provide an experience that’s close in appearance to a printed page.

Kindle’s other big innovation, continued from previous models, is its built-in wireless Internet access that lets you effortlessly download more than 275,000 books and subscribe to magazines and newspapers. Pick it up in the morning and it’s already got The New York Times or The Washington Post “delivered.”

Three textbook publishers announced today they will let students buy “copies” on Kindle.

“Carry all your documents and your whole library in one slender package,” said Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. He said the Kindle DX will be available this summer.

There would seem to be only two things that can hold Kindle (or something very much like it) back from revolutionizing the way we all read.

First is the price; you can get a fairly decent notebook (or netbook) computer these days for $489 or less. For most people, that’s going to be a lot more useful way to spend that kind of cash.

The second problem is the screen; while Kindle’s electronic ink display is extremely readable, it does not currently offer a color option, nor does it have a backlight; just like a “real” book or magazine, you can’t use it in the dark.

It has been suggested that newspapers and magazines might be able to offer a Kindle-like device to subscribers at a subsidized price. You probably signed a two-year contract to get a good price on your last cell phone; why can’t publishers copy that model?

Considering all the production, printing and delivery costs that evaporate by distributing their products digitally, this is certainly something to think about for beleaguered print publications struggling to survive in an Internet world.


Windows 7 unleashed by Microsoft

4:43 PM Tue, May 05, 2009 |

 You can download a lot of free things from all the nooks and crannies of the World Wide Web — some legal, some not so much.

But here’s a free download you might want to consider if you’ve got a spare computer and you are keen to check out the next version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system:

• Microsoft Windows 7 Release Candidate

That’s right; our pals up in Redmond, Washington have bequeathed unto us something that should look very much like what Dell, HP, Acer and other computer manufacturers will soon be installing on their new machines instead of Windows Vista. Microsoft hasn’t announced a release date for the commercial version of Windows 7, but most of the pundits seem to think it will be available in time for the holiday season this year.

Microsoft has been testing Windows 7 for quite some time now as part of a beta program with information technology professionals. Today they opened the floodgates on the release candidate (RC) to anyone who wants to sign up for a free Windows Live account (which is necessary to download and install it).

You’re going to need some patience to play with Windows 7. I’m downloading the software right now, and it’s a big file — more than three gigabytes. Even with a relatively fast cable Internet connection, it’ll be more than an hour before the transfer is complete.

Trying out Windows 7 RC is not for the faint-hearted. “Your PC could crash, you could lose data, and there’s no technical support,” the installation guide explains. On a scale of “1” being a novice computer user and “10” being a computer expert, I’d say you should consider yourself at least a “7” or an “8” before considering this project.

If installing to an existing computer (as most people would be doing), Microsoft strongly suggests that it’s not your primary PC (you know, the one with all your financial data and family photos), and be certain to first back up everything that’s already on it.

You’ll also want to track down the “recovery disk” (or discs) that came with your computer (you know exactly where they are, right?), because you’ll need them to fall back to your original operating system (or to your paid-for version of Windows 7) when the release candidate expires in March 2010.

One more thing you should know if you decide to give the free version of Windows 7 a spin: Because you’re a high-tech guinea pig, the software will be sending back telemetry from your computer to Microsoft engineers for their analysis of how your specific PC is working. You’ll certainly want to glance at the privacy statement if you have concerns.

I do plan to try this out once I make sure that my test computer — a two-year-old Acer L100 mini-desktop which currently runs Windows Vista — is ready to go.

Some users of the beta version have reported that Windows 7 seems to be the operating system Windows Vista should have been, providing a lot of the same features without using as many resources. Microsoft says the primary goal of Windows 7 is ease of use, with a lot of little time-saving tweaks.

I’ll report back when I have it up and running!


An open letter to electronic gadget manufacturers

10:11 PM Wed, Apr 29, 2009 |

Dear Electronic Gadget Manufacturer:

I am a frustrated electronic gadget user. Don’t get me wrong: I salivate over cool new cell phones, MP3 players and digital cameras. But what’s up with the battery thing?

Let me explain.

Once upon a time, just about every battery-operated product that I purchased used one or more of these types of cells: AA, AAA, C or D. That was it. It was easy to set aside a drawer with a collection of replacement batteries.

All rechargeable products can eventually benefit from a battery swap (if they last long enough in the first place, of course). But some products — most infamously Apple’s iPhone and iPod — are sealed up so users can’t exchange the battery. And even if they could, there’s nothing resembling a AAA cell inside.

That’s understandable enough; as consumer products slim down, there’s not enough room for “standard” batteries.

But instead of working together to come up with a new generation of universal cell sizes, what have you manufacturers done instead?

It seems that your designers first come up with a new, “must-have” product; then engineers are tasked with figuring out how to squeeze a power source into an impossibly tiny space.

Even though a cell phone from Brand X may need the same power and voltage as another from Brand Y, each uses a battery with a slightly different shape and has its connectors in different places.

But today’s chaotic battery scene isn’t limited to competition between manufacturers. A battery for Samsung’s original BlackJack cell phone won’t fit in Samsung’s BlackJack II; and a Razr V3 from Motorola needs a different battery pack than a Razr2 V9.

And then there are notebook computers, where — once again — the word standardization does not appear to be in your dictionary.

All this makes it especially difficult for those of us who like to hang on to aging but still-useful tech products, because it’s nearly impossible to find a handy replacement for these specialty batteries without resorting to mail order services. .

I’d like to refer you to a model that seems to be a step in the right direction.

The GSMA trade group, representing 17 mobile phone operators and handset manufacturers, announced earlier this year that they aim to implement a universal charging solution for all new cell phones by January of 2012.

That means I won’t need to maintain a crazy array of different chargers for each device; a standard micro USB connector on one charger will fit any new phone from LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung or Sony Ericsson. And there’s no reason why the makers of portable music players and other small rechargeable devices couldn’t play along.

Batteries are a different matter entirely, I know. And ending the proprietary grip that each manufacturer has on its power cells would eliminate a revenue stream.

But think of the inventory expenses each manufacturer could save if there was a standardized stable of, say, ten tiny battery packs. Designers could simply choose the size and shape that best fits their next vision and craft a new product around it. Consumers like me would be able to easily grab a replacement at the RadioShack or Wal-Mart — they’d be hanging on the rack right next to the C cells.

This arrangement would be better for the environment, and the economies of scale involved would mean lower manufacturing costs for you and cheaper products for me.

Give it some thought, and I’d be honored if you’d name one of the new batteries after me: The Z cell.


Walt Zwirko Computer Corner


Review: Kodak Zx1 pocket-size camcorder

8:28 PM Tue, Apr 21, 2009 |

Let’s give credit where it’s due: The pocket-size digital camcorder craze started a couple of years ago with The Flip, a video recorder about the size of an ice cream bar (minus the stick). It wasn’t made by a Sony or a Samsung; it was from a small Silicon Valley firm, Pure Digital Technologies, that stumbled upon just the right mix of form factor, features, simplicity and price.

Its trademark is a flip-out USB connector that lets users plug The Flip (and a line of increasingly-capable successors) directly into any computer to transfer video clips.

The Flip quickly rose to the top of the charts in camcorder sales, an achievement that did not go unnoticed by more traditional names in the world of photography — like Kodak. Last year, the company that made its fortune with traditional film-based products introduced the Zi6, a pocket camcorder that frankly borrowed a lot of good ideas from The Flip, but added a significant bonus: wide screen, high definition video recording. I was so impressed with its capabilities that I bought one for myself. It’s in a bag on my belt at all times and I was especially pleased with its versatility during a recent vacation.

 Kodak has just introduced the second generation of its Z-series camcorders, the Zx1. It maintains most of the benefits of its predecessor — including the ability to shoot both HD video and still photos — but throws in a few tweaks and changes.

The first thing that’s apparent is that the Zx1 has become trimmer, slimmer and even more pocket-friendly. That’s a natural progression, but I was surprised to find that this new model still runs on easy-to-find AA batteries instead of exotic, expensive and proprietary battery packs like many other camcorders. Kodak supplies the necessary pair of pre-charged rechargeable batteries; also in the box is a charger. You can purchase extra rechargeable cells for backup power; and you always have the option of using garden-variety AA alkaline cells from a 7-Eleven or a gift shop when you’re on the go.

Don’t underestimate this feature. Manufacturers have never standardized on power packs, and they seem to develop a new size and shape for every new product. Just try to find a handy replacement in a year or two!

The Zx1 adds another power option — a connector for an external (and optional) AC supply for extended use without worrying about the batteries.

But back to the more important matter of using the Zx1 in the field. It has a solid, rugged feel, in part due to the vaguely rubbery coating and a vertical ridge on the front (lens) side of the camera that make it grippable. Each side of the camera has a form-fitting rubberized cover to protect the SD memory card slot and the other connectors, adding to the secure feeling when you hold it. It’s not waterproof, but Kodak calls it “weather-resistant.”

Press the power button and the Zx1 comes to life almost instantaneously. The 2-inch color LCD view screen on the back of the camera lights up and the camera is ready to begin shooting within two seconds. Press the big red button under the LCD and recording is under way.

 There are eight other backlit rubberized buttons arrayed around the start/stop control. Their functions are not entirely clear at a glance because the icons are too tiny. Any confusion is quickly resolved through either trial and error or with a quick glance at the user guide.

Like its Kodak predecessor, the Zx1 has four different shooting modes: Widescreen HD at 30 frames per second; widescreen HD at 60 frames per second; VGA video mode (a lower resolution suitable for Internet streaming); and a still photo mode capable of the equivalent of 3 megapixel images.

This versatility means that the Zx1 serves well as an all-purpose video and still camera when you only want to carry one device in your pocket or purse.

The Zx1 has dropped one nod to the camcorder that inspired it — there’s no flip-out USB connector. You’ll need to tote a separate cable to link up with a notebook or desktop computer (PC or Mac), but since many computers now come with a built-in SD card reader, you always have the option of popping the memory card out of the camera and into a computer to transfer photos and video clips.

When you do connect via USB, PC users have the option of installing ArcSoft Media Impression software (which is built-in to the camera) to organize and edit video clips and photos. There’s no corresponding software for Mac users, but Apple computers can deal natively with the QuickTime movie files generated by the Zx1.

While the Zx1 does come with 10 megabytes of internal memory for storage, that’s only enough for a handful of photos or a very brief video clip; you’ll have to add the expense of a card to the camera’s very reasonable $150 price tag. I recently purchased an 8 gigabyte SD card for under $20; that’s sufficient for an estimated 2.5 hours of HD recording or more than 7,000 photos. The camera is designed to use cards up to 32 gigabytes.

 This second-generation Kodak pocket camcorder has a significant upgrade to its playback abilities — it comes with an HDMI cable to connect digital audio and video directly to most high definition television sets. That means you can view your recordings in the living room on the big screen without the need to first go through a computer or burning the images to a DVD. Kodak says the Zx1 is compatible with an accessory remote control which is not included (and which wasn’t yet available when i last checked).

Kodak’s Zi6 also had HD video output, but via a cumbersome analog component cable that required a total of five plugs to make all the necessary connections. Both cameras also have a composite video output for playback on a standard definition TV set (or to input to a VCR or DVD recorder for making copies).

Is this the perfect little camera? It depends on what you need.

 The Zx1 doesn’t have an optical zoom lens, so it’s not the answer if you’ll be shooting a lot of long-range footage like a ballet recital or baseball game.

It doesn’t offer the “shake-reduction” technology that many traditional camcorders have, so a steady hand (or a tripod) is needed for best results. A wider-angle lens would help in this regard, but the lens is neither interchangeable nor does it have auto-focus.

Like other cameras in this price range, low-light performance leaves something to be desired, but you’ll get acceptable results shooting bright interiors or outdoor scenes.

And if you like the macro lens capability of the Zi6 that lets you focus just 2 inches away, be aware that that option has been omitted from the Zx1.

In other words, this camera can’t replace other still and video cameras that have more sophisticated options, better image quality and correspondingly higher price tags.

The Zx1’s size and utility are the major factors to be considered. The Zx1 is so easy to tote and use, you’re much more likely to have it handy when priceless and fleeting moments are at hand.

The Kodak Zx1 ($150) is available directly from Kodak’s Web site, from, and from other online retailers. It comes in five colors: Red, black, yellow, blue and pink.


YouTube adds full-length movies, TV shows

8:42 AM Fri, Apr 17, 2009 |

 YouTube has now entered the battle for the hearts, minds and eyeballs of Web surfers who thirst for TV and movie entertainment.

The online video giant yesterday announced it was adding long-form television and movie content to the site that has until now focused primarily on material that is not professionally produced.

The feature film lineup on YouTube is fairly limited right now, but it includes art house classics like Koyaanisqatsi and Fitzcarraldo and mainstream features Carrie and The Mod Squad.

You’ll also find TV shows like Golden Age favorites like You Bet Your Life, Jack Benny and Dick Van Dyke along with an assortment of other programs that range from Star Trek (the original) to Fantasy Island.

In case you were wondering, yes, just like on broadcast TV, there are commercials interspersed with the playback to pay for the programs and movies you’re watching. And YouTube’s long-form content is pretty spare right now when stacked up against sites like (with more than 1,000 TV titles) and (which claims more than 20,000 shows in its online catalog).

I was mildly surprised to see that YouTube does not appear to be offering its motion picture content with the the “HD” viewing option now available on many of its shorter clips. That could limit the appeal of streaming TV shows and movies, especially for computer users with larger screens, or who actually connect their computer to a TV set for living room presentation.

Another problem is that users might not have the patience to watch a 30-minute television show or even a two-hour movie on their computer in one sitting. There is no way to “bookmark” a program in the middle and return to viewing it later from the same spot.

YouTube’s advantage, of course, is that it is much more widely known than either Hulu or, and its ease of sharing clips with other Internet users should help give it a viral boost. Its fate over the longer term will hinge on YouTube’s ability to negotiate deals with more networks and movie studios.

But as Internet connection speeds get faster and faster — and as more set-top boxes (like Roku’s $99 Netflix Player and Vudu’s $149 option) are developed to easily deliver Web video directly to your TV set with no computer required — it’s inevitable that online content will attract an increasingly larger slice of your attention every week.


Get money for used gear

8:20 AM Wed, Apr 15, 2009 |

We had an item on the Computer Corner Blog last week about recycling your old electronics gear. That’s a great environmental option, of course, but it doesn’t necessarily put any money back in your pocket.

You can always try to unload your old cell phone, laptop or MP3 player on eBay or craigslist, but there’s a certain amount of hassle involved in finding a buyer, agreeing to terms and getting your money.

 Enter RadioShack, the Fort Worth-based electronics retailer that probably has a shop in your neighborhood. They’ve just expanded a trade-in program to 4,400 company-owned stores.

You can’t unload everything here; my old Averatec brand notebook, for instance, isn’t listed as eligible on the RadioShack Web site (where you can do your own appraisal, by the way).

 I have a vintage Audiovox SMT5600 smartphone sitting in a drawer at home; that product does qualify. If in “excellent” condition (er, probably not), it’s functional (it is) and has a charger (it does), I can get — drumroll, please — $14.34.

As a point of reference, I looked on eBay and found several SMT5600 models on offer at a “buy it now” price ranging from $22.87 to $79.99.

RadioShack’s trade-in program does offer as much as several hundred dollars on high-demand items like certain notebook computers and cameras. While you’re unlikely to get the best deal for your gear here, it is a low-hassle way to get a few extra bucks to spend on new stuff (stuff that you’ll have to buy at RadioShack, by the way, because your trade-in bonus comes in the form of a RadioShack gift card).

Whatever you get back, it’s still more money than you’d get by throwing something out or letting it collect dust in a drawer. And you’ll know it’s being recycled instead of piling up in a landfill somewhere.


Countdown to tax time

11:47 AM Mon, Apr 13, 2009 |

 Attention, procrastinators: your taxes are due this week. That means it’s time to throw it into high gear sometime before midnight Wednesday if your Form 1040 is still a blank sheet of paper.

The IRS isn’t particularly fond of paper, however, and so preparing your taxes online is a great last-minute solution. You may be surprised to learn that many taxpayers qualify for the IRS Free File program.

As the name suggests, it lets you fill in all the necessary information on your computer and zap it to the feds without so much as a postage stamp. Your 2008 adjusted gross income (AGI) must be $56,000 or less to qualify for Free File, which is administered by a consortium of private-sector tax software companies. I’ve used it in previous years to file returns for my children, and it’s a great alternative to the traditional paper-based scheme.

 If you don’t qualify for Free File but still enjoy (?) doing your own taxes, the IRS has another way to go: Fillable Forms. While tax preparation software like Free File, Turbo Tax and Tax Cut all prompt you to enter information and then calculate the totals for you, Fillable Forms is strictly old school with a digital twist. It does perform some computations on your behalf, but there’s no over-the-shoulder guidance or tax advice.

As with Free File, Fillable Forms also lets you electronically transmit your return to the IRS via the Internet, no postage necessary.

I used H&R; Block’s Tax Cut software (the kind you buy in a box down at the Wal-Mart) to file my taxes along with the return of a family member this year, and I used E-File (electronic filing) to dispatch the data to the government. (Both Tax Cut and arch-rival Turbo Tax are offering up to five free E-Files per software purchase this year; previously they charged extra to those who didn’t want to print-and-mail). There were refunds involved in both my returns this year, and both were directly deposited to the appropriate accounts within two weeks.

Tax Cut and Turbo Tax also offer online versions of their traditional disc-based software. The primary advantage is that you can work on your return from any computer with an Internet connection. To me, the disadvantage is the need for your most personal financial data to be stored on a computer other than your own.

Of course, if you’ve waited this long and won’t have time to complete your return, there’s always the option to file a six-month extension, which you can do electronically using either Free File or Fillable Forms.

If you think you owe money, however, you’ll also have to send a check along with your extension request by April 15. Sorry, no bailout for you.


Don’t need it? Get rid of it!

10:39 PM Tue, Apr 07, 2009 |

Let’s face it: We’ve all got at least one hunk of electronic junk collecting dust on a shelf, in a closet or piled up in the garage.

 It could be an obsolete computer, an old cassette tape deck or even some sort of crazy barcode scanner that hooks up to your PC.

Most communities have specific rules about throwing away stuff like this, and you don’t want to get in trouble, do you?

Your Dallas Mavericks are coming to the rescue this Thursday, April 9 by hosting an Electronics Recycling Drive as part of their new Guard the Planet initiative.

The event at American Airlines Center F Parking lot (on the north side of the arena at All-Star Way and Houston Street) runs from noon until 8 p.m. They’re ready for all of your e-waste, including monitors, laptops, keyboards, mice, cell phones — heck, they’ll even take power cords off your hands. Mavs players Antoine Wright and Matt Carroll will be there from 6 to 7 p.m. to add some star power to the recycling effort.

There’s no charge for you, and you’ll walk away with something for your efforts: A coupon for a free meal at Genghis Grill and a chance to win tickets to a Mavericks game on April 13.

(Now, where did I stow all those Cue Cats?)


Pricing for iTunes gets a little more complicated

1:13 PM Tue, Apr 07, 2009 |

 Apple today changed the pricing of content on its iTunes Store.

If you’re a regular user, you know that individual songs have been 99 cents each since the service launched in 2001; Apple didn’t give record labels an option as a nod to simplicity.

Starting today, though, you’ll see a three-tiered pricing arrangement on iTunes:

Some catalog items like Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” “London Calling” by The Clash and “Baby I Need Your Loving” by The Four Tops are now available for the reduced price of 69 cents.

Most of the music on iTunes appears to remain at the 99-cent level.

But now record labels have the option to charge $1.29 for the most popular tunes, like The Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow” and “Poker Face” by Lady GaGa.

The good news for music buyers is that Apple’s entire library is now free of copy protection; once you buy a song, you can play it back on an iPod or any other portable music device or computer (as long as it is capable of decoding the Apple-specific AAC format; many non-Apple portable devices don’t have that as an option).

Just my two cents here, but I’ve always contended that all downloadable music for sale on the Internet is overpriced. That’s based on the simple fact that Web distribution cuts out all of the manufacturing, packaging, shipping and retail store expenses; why shouldn’t music users benefit?

The reality is that we’re paying a “piracy tax” for all the users who pilfer their tunes from friends or illegal Web sites.

What if iTunes priced a song at 25 cents? Or a dime? Would you even think twice about the risks involved in obtaining illicit copies if Lady GaGa’s latest hit was a quarter or less?


Get your (almost) free digital TV converter box

9:10 PM Sun, Apr 05, 2009 |

If you’ve been putting off the purchase of a digital TV converter box (the new and final deadline for analog signals to go away is now June 12), here’s a way to get the well-designed Dish Network DTV Pal for just $40 (plus shipping), which makes it effectively free with a $40 government coupon.

At its official DTV Pal Web site, Dish Network says it has run out of the units, although they’d be happy to sell you a DTV Pal Plus model. It is claimed to have a more sensitive digital receiver, but otherwise sports the same features as the original DTV Pal, including the most user-friendly on-screen program guide of any converter box I’ve seen and the only built-in timer that can switch digital channels for those of you who want to use your old VCR with a converter box for unattended recordings.

In looking through the list of approved digital converter box retailers, I was surprised to see that a company called BSAT of Elmhurst, Illinois has the Dish Network TR-40 (a re-branded DTV Pal) in stock for $40, a great price if you need to buy one or two without a government coupon, and free if you’ve got a coupon (plus a few dollars for shipping and handling).

A reminder: If you’re having any problems with your digital TV conversion, be sure to check out the DTV Countdown page, chock full of helpful information and links.

USB gizmo improves the sound of your PC

7:42 PM Sun, Apr 05, 2009 |

I’ve got a PC hooked up to the TV set in my living room. It’s handy for looking at Web sites on a big screen, adding to the Computer Blog (as I’m doing right now!) and especially for watching video clips on the Internet.

One problem, though: The audio output of my Asus Aspire L100 PC is a little low for the input of my TV set, and cranking up the TV audio introduces unwanted noise into the listening experience.

While that’s tolerable for brief YouTube clips and such, with the advent of Web sites like Hulu that let you view complete TV episodes and even full-length movies, I wanted to improve my computer’s audio output.

Unfortunately for me, the L100 is a mini-desktop, about the size of an encyclopedia volume and with no room inside for a replacement or supplemental audio card.

 Then I found the Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Micro USB Sound Card at the CompUSA Outlet Store in Plano. As the name suggests, it plugs into your USB port and effectively provides you with a new sound card.

The Audio Advantage is about the size of a USB memory stick and almost as easy to use (you do have to install some drivers to make it work, but it is designed for Windows XP, Windows Vista and Mac OS X computers). It’s powered by the USB connection; no AC supply or batteries are needed.

There’s just one output on the Audio Advantage Micro, a 1/8 inch stereo headphone-style jack (the same kind you’ll find on every PC), but the AAM also comes with an adapter that lets you plug in a standard optical digital cable to a surround-sound receiver.

I don’t have one of those, but the Control Panel software provided with the Turtle Beach device lets you select from a variety of simulated surround sound effects that can improve the listening experience with a standard two-speaker setup. I tried them, but was well satisfied with the default settings. Turtle Beach says the effects are especially effective with headphones, but my goal was to get better sound on my TV.

And I did.

This $30 upgrade was all I needed to create a more cinematic audio experience with my viewing setup. It makes all the difference when watching program-length clips on the Web; the Audio Advantage Micro boosts the volume level and generates a noiseless soundtrack. As a bonus, I can detach it from my living room setup and pop it in my computer bag for improved mobile listening with my laptop.

Be sure to check out this product if you have a PC that needs a sound boost.

It’s new from Yahoo

2:04 PM Wed, Apr 01, 2009 |

Yahoo is making another attempt to position itself as a primary destination for mobile phone users.

The new Yahoo Mobile service provides search functions along with news, e-mail and RSS feeds tailored to your personal preference. There’s an iPhone App available for those who carry the Apple product in their pockets; a mobile Web version works with some other phones, and a smartphone edition is promised for the end of May.

I tried to use the Mobile Web version on my Samsung BlackJack smartphone, but it is apparently not compatible, so I can’t give you my first impressions.

Yahoo Mobile is taking the place of Yahoo Go, which we first told you about back in 2007. Yahoo Go is an application that gives compatible phones (like the BlackJack) some of the whiz-bang functionality of an iPhone. While it was a nifty interface, I still found it to be klunky and slow compared with the other tools that were already built-in to my handset, and I used it only occasionally.

If your cell phone is Yahoo Mobile-friendly, try it out and give us your review!

PlayStation 2 price cut

10:09 AM Wed, Apr 01, 2009 |

If you’re still kickin’ it old school, you’ll be pleased to know that Sony has just made PlayStation more affordable.

Not PlayStation 3, mind you; we’re talking about the venerable PlayStation 2 console that Sony unveiled more than ten years ago. After all that time, what is now the world’s best-selling game machine has finally broken the $100 price barrier (but not by much) with a $99.99 suggested retail price starting today.

“Demand for PlayStation 2 remains strong throughout the world,” said Jack Tretton, the chief of Sony Computer Entertainment America. “The new $99 price point will bring in new consumers who will discover how PlayStation platforms are an outstanding choice for their gaming and home entertainment needs.”

Many gamers are still waiting for the price tag to drop for PS2’s more powerful sibling. PlayStation 3 remains at $399 in its basic configuration, which is still not a terrible deal if you’re into games and also want a Blu-Ray player for HD movies (considering that basic standalone Blu-Ray players start at about $200).

Google’s April Fools’ gag

6:43 AM Wed, Apr 01, 2009 |

The creative minds at Google have come up with a clever amusement for April 1st.

It’s CADIE’S HOME PAGE, which is purportedly produced by an advanced automated artificial intelligence system.

It borrows from all the worst-case MySpace pages you’ve ever encountered: Distracting background image, annoying music, incoherent sentence structure and transparent appeals to “Be my friend. PLEASE.”

Check it out and have a chuckle!

Should I worry about the Conficker Worm?

9:07 PM Tue, Mar 31, 2009 |

It’s now been more than nine years since the dreaded “millennium bug” threatened to topple the world’s computer networks that were allegedly unprepared to deal with the date rolling over from 1999 to a year that started with a “2.” The panic led to hundreds of articles and even books on the subject.

Some people elected to move to remote areas and arm themselves against the Armageddon they were certain was about to ensue.

Fast forward to April 1, 2009 and we are now confronted with the scourge of the Conficker worm, a lurking computer virus that is timed to go off on April Fool’s Day. It is poised, we are told, to infect innocent Windows-based computers around the world. Norton experts say it creates a “secure infrastructure for cybercrime,” allowing nogoodniks to remotely install software on infected machines that could be used for nefarious purposes like stealing confidential information and distributing spam.

Click here for Microsoft’s explanation of how Conficker works.

So should you be worried if you use a Windows computer?

Probably not, as long as you are employing an antivirus software package to protect your computer. All the major security suites including Norton AntiVirus, McAfee and AVG have been well aware of this pest, and users who keep their virus definitions up-to-date have already been immunized.

While an estimated 3 to 12 million computers are believed to be infected, experts said Wednesday that there appears to be little impact on users.

“One thing we’re not seeing is any mass malicious activity,” Joris Evers, an analyst with McAfee, told the Associated Press. “The Internet today is
working just as well as it was working yesterday.”

It was last October when Microsoft issued Critical Security Bulletin MS08-067 which addressed the vulnerability that Conficker uses to wedge its way into unsuspecting PCs. Your computer should already be taken care of as long as you utilize the automatic Windows Update tool. Not sure?

Using the Internet Explorer browser, get on the Internet and go to the Windows Update page to make sure you have all the latest patches and fixes installed.

If, despite your best efforts, you feel your computer may have been compromised, Norton offers a free Conficker removal tool you can download to an uninfected computer and then run on a tainted system.

And if you know who’s responsible for this latest scourge, get in touch with Microsoft. They’re paying $250,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the Conficker criminal.

Welcome to the Computer Corner Blog!

2:55 PM Tue, Mar 31, 2009 |

Since Computer Corner has been covering high-tech stories at WFAA for 16 years now, I thought it’s time we finally have a blog to serve up fresher, more timely content on

I’ll be writing about all sorts of things (including computers, of course), but continuing to focus on related content like cell phones, HD and satellite radio, Web sites, and accessories that can help make your daily life a little easier.

As always, your input is most welcome and is often the spark for future topics. Please come back often to see what’s new!