Buffalo LinkStation HD-H120LAN

No network is so perfect that it couldn’t be improved by the addition of a few hundred gigs of storage. But until recently, only system administrators have been able to lay their hands on easy-to-configure network storage appliances. Buffalo’s LinkStation puts excessive amounts of storage in the hands of ordinary folks.

At its heart, the LinkStation is a 120GB hard drive with an Ethernet interface. Plug it into a power source, connect the included cable to your network, and run the setup wizard on your Windows machine. The LinkStation then shows up on your network as a drive; anyone on the network can connect to it, add and remove files, and in general treat it just like any network file server. No client-side software is needed, although the LinkStation’s utilities make it considerably easier to map the network drive to drive letters on a PC.

In our tests, the LinkStation proved fast enough to stream MP3 audio files over a Wi-Fi network to three separate clients simultaneously with no noticeable problems. When connected directly to a notebook, the LinkStation transferred files at an average speed of 6.1MB per second — not as fast as a USB hard drive, but respectable for a network device.

The LinkStation’s semiautomated setup wizard walks you through the configuration process, including plugging in the device, and includes helpful photographs for each step. In contrast with most network devices we’ve tested, this wizard actually worked better than the device’s standalone utilities, which have an unfinished appearance (including misspellings in dialog boxes) and which frequently failed to configure the device properly. The wizard, on the other hand, worked every time.

Once it’s up and running, you get to the LinkStation’s management console by entering the IP address of the device into your browser. Through this interface, you can see how much storage is being used, configure the IP address and network settings of the device, and other basic tasks such as data integrity checking and formatting. This console also lets you create users, passwords, and groups, then restrict access to the LinkStation (or to certain folders on it) to the users or groups you specify.

The LinkStation includes two USB 2.0 ports, one on the front of the device and one on the back. If you plug a USB hard drive or flash memory device into either of these ports, it also shows up on the network as a second shared hard drive. Through the management console, you can back up the contents of the LinkStation to this attached drive, either immediately or on a set schedule. (You can also configure the LinkStation to make attached USB hard drives unavailable as shared storage, in case you want to use them exclusively for backup.) In our tests, this feature worked well, although occasionally the USB drive’s folder information — including directory listings — remained available on the network even after the drive had been unplugged.

The LinkStation can also act as a network print server. When you connect a printer to either of the LinkStation’s USB ports it becomes available to any computer on the network. However, you can’t connect two external drives or two printers — the LinkStation supports only one of each.

Conspicuously absent from the LinkStation are utilities that help users take better advantage of its storage — such as remote audio-video access or automated backups from your notebook or desktop. We’d also love to see a version of the LinkStation that included its own wireless network card so that you could connect it directly to Wi-Fi networks without any cabling; or a version that integrates a Wi-Fi router so that you could use a single device to provide storage and wireless access. That said, the LinkStation is a useful addition to any small network, wired or wireless. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Easy expansion and backup via USB port
Worst Feature: Unfinished-looking utilities

SPECS:
Buffalo LinkStation HD-H120LAN
$349
Weight: 3.1 pounds
Size: 7.3 x 6.8 x 2.7 inches (with stand)
Specs: 120GB of storage; Ethernet; USB 2.0; integrated print server
www.buffalotech.com

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Link: Buffalo LinkStation HD-H120LAN

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Buffalo LinkStation HD-H120LAN

Canon ZR-90

Tiny video cameras that record to flash memory cards are cute, but their lack of power, low image quality, and limited storage capacity mean they’re really just expensive toys. For quality video recordings of any substantial length, you need to use miniDV tape. Canon’s ZR-90 is a good choice, with an excellent balance of portability and power. It’s nearly as small as a digital video camcorder can get without jettisoning the tape entirely, yet it boasts many of the features of larger, higher-end camcorders.

At just over a pound, this petite video cam is easy to hold and control with one hand. The ZR-90’s gray and silver case isn’t much to look at, but its size alone will attract plenty of attention. We’re not going to lie to you and say you can fit it in a jacket pocket, but you could easily hide it inside a lunch bag with room left over for a sandwich and an apple. More practically, its light weight means you can hold it with one hand throughout long shots without fatigue.

The ZR-90 boots up in just three seconds. The foldout LCD, at 2.4 inches, is small, but it’s sufficiently clear and bright. You can also peer into the flip-up eyepiece just as with video cameras of yore, but you’re unlikely to enjoy the experience much; it’s useful primarily when bright sunlight washes out the LCD or when you want to conserve battery life. Using the LCD, we got an hour and 10 minutes of recording time on the standard battery.

To achieve the ZR-90’s small size, Canon has dropped some of the user-friendly controls found on its higher-end cameras, such as a recording-mode selection dial and a manual-focus ring. Instead, the ZR-90 makes you use menus for most settings, including exposure, white balance, and special effects. The ZR-90 includes preset modes for sports, portraits, spotlights, and low light. For the most part these modes work well, although the fully automatic “easy recording” mode delivers excellent video in almost every situation.

The ZR-90’s low-light setting does wonders at pulling detail and color out of dimly lit scenes, but at a price: Moving objects look blurry and jerky. A special night-mode button illuminates a miniature headlight on the camera’s front, which can help if you’re shooting nearby subjects in deep darkness.

The ZR-90 includes an SD slot and can capture still images at up to 1,024 x 768-pixel resolution as well as 320 x 240-pixel, 15 fps AVI movies. If you’re recording to tape, you can simultaneously snap 640 x 480-pixel stills to the SD card, but you first have to turn the function on in the camera’s settings — inexplicably, this feature is not enabled by default. When shooting still images, shutter lag is 0.8 seconds, or just 0.3 seconds if you’re simultaneously recording video. It takes the ZR-90 two to three seconds to recover between shots.

The ZR-90 includes a USB port and a Digital Video (FireWire) port for connecting to your PC, as well as software for transferring and editing still images. With a DV cable (not included), you can also use the ZR-90 as a webcam. However, you can’t transfer video from the tape to your computer unless you get additional software. (There is one unsatisfying workaround: You can use the ZR-90 to copy video from the tape to an AVI file on the SD card, then upload this file to your computer via USB — but you’ll need an extremely expensive high-capacity SD card, and you will lose image quality.) That’s a disappointing oversight in a camcorder that is otherwise so well connected.

The ZR-90’s sibling, the $499 ZR-85, has 20x optical zoom and lacks the night-mode headlight; the $399 ZR-80 lacks an SD card slot and the night-mode headlight and has just 18x optical zoom. With its strong complement of features, light weight, and low price, the ZR-90 handily earns our Mobile Choice rating. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Miniature size and price
Worst Feature: Can’t transfer video directly to your computer

SPECS:
Canon ZR-90
$599
Weight: 1.3 pounds
Size: 5.7 x 3.7 x 2.5 inches
Specs: 0.3-megapixel video recording to miniDV tape; 0.7-megapixel still image capture; 22x optical zoom; SD slot (8MB card included); USB; FireWire; S-video; lithium-ion battery
www.canonusa.com

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Link: Canon ZR-90

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

Canon ZR-90

LG LX5450

LG’s sleek new flip phone, the LX5450, aims to prove that camera phones don’t necessarily have to take crummy photos. It doesn’t quite deliver that proof, but it gets closer than most. As a bonus, it’s got advanced Web browsing and data features that make it an entertaining and even passably useful companion, although it falls short of having full-blown organizer and synchronization features that would make it a truly smart phone.

In appearance, the CDMA-based LX5450 is a fairly generic plastic clamshell with three shades of metallic gray plus a bit of chromelike trim. The antenna housing juts awkwardly three-quarters of an inch above the top, and you can extend the flexible antenna another two and a quarter inches to increase reception. A standard monochrome LCD on the outside of the phone displays the date, time, and basic service information such as signal strength, battery level, and whether you have messages waiting.

It’s inside that the phone shines most, however, with a bright 160 x 120-pixel TFT display. It’s not as big or beautiful as the display on the NEC 525 HDM (see our April 2004 review) but its image quality is better than most, and it’s well suited to showing photos. The phone ships with a collection of highly saturated, animated wallpapers.

The LX5450’s 0.3-megapixel camera isn’t likely to win you any photography awards, but it does produce decent 640 x 480-pixel images. The lens rests in the back of the phone, just below the hinge. If you hold the phone in your right hand, there’s a good chance your index finger will land directly on top of the lens and obscure the image, unless you take care to hold the phone in a lower, somewhat less comfortable grip.

Like most camera phones, the LX5450 lacks a flash and its lens is set to a fixed focal length. It doesn’t do well in low-light or high-speed situations, but when the light is good it can produce entertaining shots of still objects and people. Unlike most camera phones, however, this LG includes options for adjusting brightness, white balance, and file quality, and for adding color effects such as sepia tones and monochrome — all on the fly. This can make a substantial difference to image quality, turning a yellowish interior shot into something that actually looks right.

Once you’ve snapped a picture, you can send it to friends (assuming they’re also using an Alltel phone) as an MMS message or save it to the phone’s memory. It’s got enough storage to hold 20 snapshots.

The LX5450’s built-in Openwave Web browser renders ordinary websites fairly readable. The Alltel version of the phone we tested also includes a link to Axcess Apps, a mall of online applications and content featuring goodies such as downloadable games, cartoons, and ring tones, all available for small fees. It took us two minutes and 79 cents to download a week’s worth of current Dick Tracy cartoons from Axcess.

The phone’s easy-to-use menu system contains a variety of other quasi-useful features including an address book with a 500-name capacity (with up to five phone numbers and one e-mail address per entry), a calendar, voice memo, and more. Since it lacks an easy way to synchronize these apps with your computer, however, this phone won’t come close to replacing your PDA. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: On-the-fly photo quality adjustments
Worst Feature: Middling battery life

SPECS:
LG LX5450
$150 with a one-year contract
Weight: 4 ounces
Size: 4.4 x 1.8 x 1.1 inches
Specs: 800/1900MHz CDMA/PCS; 800MHz analog; 1xRTT; 160 x 120-pixel TFT; exterior 96 x 28-pixel LCD; 0.3-megapixel camera, lithium-ion battery; AC adapter
us.lge.com; www.alltel.com

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Link: LG LX5450

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

LG LX5450

PCTEL Segue Soft Access Point

The ravers at Burning Man will be impressed when you turn a single satellite connection into a Wi-Fi hotspot providing free Internet access to a couple hundred square feet of playa. But wait, you left your Wi-Fi router at home? No problem. Just use PCTEL Segue Soft Access Point software to turn your notebook into a de facto router, and you’re off to the art-car races.

Segue Soft Access Point, which is included with some Wi-Fi cards and motherboards, runs on any Wi-Fi-ready Windows notebook. Once running, it uses the computer’s Wi-Fi adapter to create an ad hoc network. If the computer has a separate connection to the Internet (via a cable or a second Wi-Fi card), you can share that over the Segue network.

The situations where you’d need to do this are admittedly few — apart from Burning Man, Segue Soft AP might be useful to a team of consultants visiting a client’s office where only a single Ethernet connection is available.

The status screen for Segue Soft AP lets you monitor how many devices are currently connected and how long the network has been active. Switching the network on or off is a one-click process that takes about 15 seconds. Segue supports WEP and WPA encryption and MAC address filtering.

Apart from the security settings, Segue Soft AP doesn’t do much that you can’t do already in Windows XP using Internet Connection Sharing and Windows’ ability to create an ad hoc wireless network. However, setting this up in Windows is an extremely finicky process. Segue Soft AP is simpler, faster, and more reliable. For that reason, it’s a fine solution for the fairly narrow range of people who are likely to need it. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Easier to configure than Windows Internet Connection Sharing
Worst Feature: Fairly limited range of uses

SPECS:
PCTEL Segue Soft Access Point
$20
Specs: 802.11g; DHCP; WEP and WPA encryption; supports VPN pass-through
System requirements: 1GHz Pentium III or higher; 128MB of RAM; Windows 98, ME, 2000, or XP; PCTEL-compatible Wi-Fi adapter
www.pctel.com

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Link: PCTEL Segue Soft Access Point

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

PCTEL Segue Soft Access Point

Sony smoke and mirrors.

Jeremy Horowitz at iPodlounge has a pointed critique of Sony’s PlayStation Portable demos earlier this month at E3. The bottom line: the PSP is far from being ready to launch, and Sony’s strategy surrounding it and the Vaio Pocket media player (a supposed “iPod killer”) is confused and contradictory.

I got to fondle a PSP prototype at E3, but Jeremy’s right: Access was carefully controlled, I couldn’t actually hold the PSP or play any games on it, and it’s not clear how fully baked these prototypes were. By contrast, Nintendo’s DS is much further along, with games you can actually play.

Sony smoke and mirrors.

Pretend it isn’t there.

If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist, right? That’s what Rumsfeld must be thinking: He’s banned camera phones in U.S. Army installations in Iraq. A total ban on camera phones in the military is coming up next, the news reports say.

You can slash at the waves but you can’t hold back the tide….

UPDATE 5/25/04: There’s some speculation that this news report is fake, since every outlet is running the same Agence France Presse item and there’s no independent corroboration. Xeni Jardin asked the DoD directly, and found that the ban is not new (it dates to April 14), but it is being newly enforced.

Pretend it isn’t there.

Portable gaming.

Impressions from E3: The coming year will be pretty interesting for mobile gaming. The Nintendo DS (dual screen) is a somewhat goofy concept, but there are a lot of games in development and some of them look pretty cool. I got a chance to play with a few of the new games and was fairly impressed. Developers can use the two screens for different views: e.g. first-person view on the top, map view on the bottom. Or you can use the touch-sensitive bottom screen to draw notes, and see other peoples’ notes on the top screen. My vote for the most fun new game: a Pac-Man variant, where little ghosts run around a piece of “note paper.” You have to draw Pac-Man, and as soon as you finish, your drawing animates and goes off munching the ghosts. Fun! But do you really need two screens for this game? Not really.

The Sony PSP is very slick-looking, with an absolutely gorgeous industrial design. I got to fondle it but not actually play with it at all. Hard to tell how far off this product really is, since Sony was playing pretty close to the chest with it — listing lots of developers who had signed on to the platform, but not actually showing any games. Sony has created a new data cartridge format for the PSP — a kind of minidisc in a case.

The Nokia N-Gage QD is a big improvement over the original N-Gage. It’s smaller and sleeker, so it will actually fit in your pocket. Battery life is better and the screen seems brighter. Much to my surprise, Nokia claims that “tens of thousands” of people sign on to the N-Gage multiplayer environment, the Arena, every week. Eighteen games already on the market (not too many); Nokia claims there will be 40-50 by year’s end.

Finally, I got my hands on some prototypes of the upcoming Gizmondo. It looks vaguely N-Gage like but with a bigger, brighter screen; it has GPS built-in as well as GPRS data capabilities — so it can exchange data over the cell phone network — but it’s not a phone. Also plays audio and video files. It looks very slick, but a lot depends on how well this company does marketing and distribution. It’s up against some real heavyweights.

Portable gaming.

Bigger than Hollywood.

Video games are now a $20 billion industry, making them bigger than Hollywood (as measured by box-office revenues, anyhow; the film industry actually makes more money from videos and DVDs than they do from movie theaters). No surprise, then, that the average age of video gamers is going up–it’s now 29–although half of gamers are still under 18.

I’ll be in LA the rest of this week to check out the video gaming industry’s main convention, E3.

And, I’ll be appearing on Dennis Miller’s show on CNBC, this Friday night at 9, to talk about some cool new gadgets for games and entertainment.

Bigger than Hollywood.