Casio Exilim Pro EX-P505

Casio EX-P505Most of Casio’s Exilim cameras have been trim, low-profile units that fit easily into a pocket. Not so with the Casio Exilim Pro EX-P505, which is about as slim and elegant as a sock full of golf balls.

In fact, it’s hard to know what name to give this oddly shaped camera, which looks like nothing we’ve ever seen. A stocky lens barrel, about the width of a can of Red Bull and half as long, is grafted on to the left side of a compact body. A bulging hand grip swells on the front right side, while a foldout screen takes up most of the back. The whole thing is asymmetrical and lumpy, yet also somehow vaguely cool-looking — but maybe that’s just because it’s black.

Unfortunately, the EX-P505 is not small enough to fit into a pocket, which leads us to wonder: If you’re going to carry a camera that requires a bag, shouldn’t you get one that takes decent pictures?

The promise of that elongated lens barrel is a quite good 5x optical zoom. Combine that with 5 megapixels of resolution, and you’d think the EX-P505 would be able to take some great shots. You’d be wrong: Although it’s a reasonably fast shooter, with shutter lag of 0.5 seconds, pictures are frequently out of focus, indoor shots with the flash off are consistently underexposed, and our clarity score of 1.9 is appallingly low for a 5-mexapixel camera. About the only situation in which the EX-P505 produces good-looking shots is outdoors on a sunny day.

The EX-P505 does a bit better as a compact video camera. Its ability to zoom while recording video — something that very few still cameras can do — means that you’ll have an easier time zeroing in on that really cute individual you just noticed in the beach scene you’re filming. Because of its small size and swiveling screen, it’s easy to hold the camera in unusual locations, such as near the ground or over your head. And it delivers good 640 x 480-pixel video with 30 frames per second.

The only real limitation is that the camera’s small mass means that video will be much shakier than with a full-size camcorder, unless you use a tripod or brace your arms against something.

The EX-P505 has a few other tricks up its sleeve. A “past movie” mode lets you capture past time (up to eight seconds before you press the shutter button) by continuously buffering video until you’re ready to shoot, but this is mostly a gimmick and not useful for much more than running the batteries down. For still photographers, the camera offers a variety of options for shooting manually, and its Best Shot mode lets you pick from among 22 different preprogrammed settings, for shooting fireworks, sunsets, flowers, documents, and more.

Overall, the Casio Exilim EX-P505 is an easy-to-use camera with a novel design and substandard still-image quality. It might make a good addition to the movie kit of a well-heeled digital journalist, but otherwise it’s a little hard to know what to do with it. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Decent video in a compact package
Worst Feature: Disappointing, fuzzy still image quality

Casio Exilim Pro EX-P505
Price: $485
Weight: 8.4 ounces
Size: 3.9 x 3 x 2.1 inches
Specs: 5 megapixels; 5x optical zoom; 640 x 480-pixel, 30-fps AVI video recording; 2-inch LCD; SD card slot; 7.5MB of internal memory
www.casio.com

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Casio Exilim Pro EX-P505

Google Picasa 2

You know them: annoying Mac users who are always going on about Apple’s supposed “usability,” its “elegant design,” and all its “great applications.” Well now you can scratch one item off your Mac-using friends’ brag list. Google’s Picasa 2 is more elegant and usable than Apple iPhoto, it has more photo-managing and editing features, and it’s faster. It’s also available only for Windows — so put that in your bongs and smoke it, Mac hippies!

After you install Picasa, it scours your hard drive (including any, ahem, hidden folders) for still images and movies. In addition to most common file formats, it supports RAW files taken by Canon, Nikon, and other cameras. It’s amazingly fast: It took less than four minutes to index 1,973 pictures and videos on our test system. When it’s done, you have an easily browsable, well-organized, and self-updating gallery of pictures and movies.

Picasa offers 11 simple tools for repairing or enhancing photos with crops, color fixes, red-eye removal, straightening, or special effects. Also, an “I’m Feeling Lucky” button enhances photos automatically. Every edit happens almost instantaneously, and you can undo anything; the underlying files are not modified in any way, so you can always go back to the originals.

Picasa includes tools for sharing photos online, ordering prints, creating interactive gift CDs, and backing up. In all, Picasa is amazingly complete, fast, and usable. And best of all, it costs nothing. That should shut up your iPhoto-using Mac friends for at least five minutes. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Fast, easy, reversible photo enhancements
Worst Feature: Instantly unearths any porn hidden on your system

Google Picasa 2
Price: Free
Requirements: Windows 98 and higher, Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 and higher
www.picasa.com

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Google Picasa 2

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 vs. Kodak EasyShare Z740

Whether it’s because of fear, prudence, or a restraining order, sometimes you just can’t get close enough for a decent photo. And a 3x zoom lens, standard on most digital cameras, doesn’t help much if you’re trying to get a shot of your surfing buddy thrashing around in the waves or of your neighbor undressing in the window across the street.For situations like these, where your subject is more than 10 or 20 feet away, you need something more powerful — like the 12x zoom lens on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 or the 10x zoom on the Kodak EasyShare Z740.The downside of these cameras is that they aren’t easy to pocket, unless you’re a safari-vest-wearing dork, and they will put an awkward bulge in a shoulder bag. But if you’re serious about taking good photos — and don’t want to give up the simplicity of a simple point-and-shoot camera — these two are excellent choices.LASERLIKE FOCUSThe Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 has a powerful 12x Leica zoom lens, offering the equivalent of a 36mm-432mm focal length with an aperture of f2.8-3.3. Those specs are impressive for a camera that weighs just 11.4 ounces, and while the Lumix FZ5 is bulky and lacks the elegance you’d expect of a camera with the Leica logo on it, it does take beautiful, sharp pictures.One key to that image quality is the FZ5’s optical image stabilization. When engaged, the camera’s electronics jiggle internal lenses slightly to compensate for your hand motion, and the result is a much clearer image — especially with photos taken with the lens fully zoomed.Shooting in the camera’s “simple” mode is easy — just point and shoot — and usually results in excellent pictures. There are also nine preprogrammed scene modes. The four-way controller lets you scroll through exposure, autobracketing, white balance, and flash compensation settings, adjusting each one as you go with ease. One nice touch: a control that lets you tweak the preset white balance settings to compensate for odd lighting.The FZ5 is outstanding at close-ups, too — its macro mode lets you get within an inch or two of your subject for extreme detail shots. That might be handy when you finally get a bit closer to that attractive neighbor.KEEP IT SIMPLEKodakEasyshare.jpgThe Kodak EasyShare Z740 is marginally heavier but slightly more compact than the Lumix FZ5. It has a 10x Kodak zoom lens, with the equivalent of 38mm-380mm focal length at f2.8-3.7.The Kodak Z740 lacks image stabilization but delivers terrific photos in most circumstances. On the whole, the Kodak produces slightly warmer, richer colors than the Panasonic. When zoomed out all the way, hand shake can be a problem, so for your long shots use a tripod or brace the camera against a wall or table.The Kodak Z740 lets you adjust exposure, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO film speed equivalent settings with the four-way controller, but the display showing these settings is tiny and unintuitive. To adjust other settings, you’ll need to delve into the menu system.Both cameras take great photos, are easy to use in automatic mode, and weigh less than half what a digital SLR would. Sure, they’re compromise cameras, and we wish they had bigger LCDs — but for great shots from a distance, the compromise is well worth it.Between the two, the Kodak Z740 is a better choice for beginners — and, at $100 less, it’s a much better value. But if you’re serious about taking control of your camera and demand the very best quality images, the Panasonic FZ5 is the way to go. -Dylan TweneyPanasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5Best Feature: Image stabilization for extra-crisp shotsWorst Feature: Somewhat sluggish startup and focusingPrice: $450Weight: 11.4 ouncesSize: 4.6 x 3.4 x 2.6 inchesSpecs: 5 megapixels; 12x optical zoom; 1.8-inch LCD; SD card slot (16MB card included); 320 x 240-pixel, 30-fps QuickTime video recordingwww.panasonic.com* * * *Kodak EasyShare Z740Best Feature: Ease of use in automatic modeWorst Feature: Manual settings are too difficult to adjustPrice: $342Weight: 12.2 ouncesSize: 4 x 3 x 3 inchesSpecs: 5 megapixels; 10x optical zoom; 1.8-inch LCD; SD card slot; 32MB internal memory; 640 x 480-pixel, 12-fps QuickTime video recordingwww.kodak.com* * * 1/2

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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 vs. Kodak EasyShare Z740

Death by Tech Support

waiting ... waiting ...Ready to end it all? Believe us, nothing will suck the life out of you like spending an hour on hold listening to endless repetitions of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” reading serial numbers off the bottom of your new notebook for five minutes, going back on hold for another 10 minutes, spending 20 minutes describing your problem, and then finding out that the company that just sold you a $2,500 state-of-the-art system refuses to help you get it working right.

Then again, maybe it’ll just make you mad. After spending more than 13 hours on the phone trying to get tech support from the top 10 notebook manufacturers and a handful of third-party tech-support services, our fists were clenched in rage, a rage that subsided only after a few extra-large Sapphire martinis and a trip to the shooting range.

Granted, the job of a support technician isn’t easy: It’s a bit like trying to fix a car, blindfolded, by giving someone else directions on what tools to pick up and how to use them. We’d almost feel sorry for these guys — if they hadn’t inflicted so much pain on us.

To test tech support, we made three calls to each of 10 major notebook manufacturers (we’ve added three additional vendors since last year). We also called three third-party providers of PC help. On the whole, what we found was a sea of ignorance — and annoying fixation with pinning down our name, address, and serial numbers.

Just how bad is tech support? Things haven’t gotten any better since our 2004 test — and most of the vendors we tested have actually gotten worse. Read on to see our report cards on each manufacturer. And don’t miss our review of three third-party tech support providers, plus our tips on how to fix PC problems yourself and avoid tech support altogether.

The Tests
We subjected each vendor to three increasingly difficult support tests designed to simulate frequent real-life technical problems. In each case, we used an actual notebook from the corresponding vendor, and made three separate calls.

Call 1: Device driver trouble
We disabled our optical drive in Device Manager.
Easy fix: Uninstall the relevant device driver and reboot. Windows heals itself.

Call 2: Wi-Fi misconfiguration
We turned off TCP/IP routing for our wireless adapter, so we could connect to the router but couldn’t browse the web.
Easy fix: Check the properties for the relevant adapter to make sure the correct protocols are installed. Or, uninstall the device and reboot.

Call 3: Corrupted operating system
We overwrote a critical Windows file (Explorer.exe), a problem that let Windows boot up but made all of our desktop icons and the Start menu disappear.
Easy fix: Use System Restore to revert to an earlier configuration. Or, use the operating-system CDs (if provided) to reinstall Windows without reformatting the hard drive.

For Apple, we corrupted a key preferences file for the Mail application, misconfigured Wi-Fi, and induced an extremely slow boot by setting the Mac to boot from a nonexistent network drive.

In all cases, we counted the support session as a failure if it resulted in a wiped hard drive or required us to send the entire computer back to the manufacturer. You don’t want your tech-support reps destroying your PC in order to save it from a trivial issue.

At a Glance: Notebook Tech Support

Vendor Call Time Problems Solved (of 3) 2004 Grade 2005 Grade
Acer 0:53 0 NA F
Apple 0:48 1 A- D
Dell 2:45 3 C- B+
Fujitsu 0:29 2 NA B
Gateway 0:40 2 A B
HP 2:17 2 C C
IBM 1:07 1 F D
Panasonic 0:36 1 NA C-
Sony 1:12 2 D B
Toshiba 0:52 3 B- A

* Note: Several companies cravenly refused to divulge the locations of their call centers. In the following report cards, the lists of call center locations marked by asterisks are not complete and represent only confirmed locations.

Acer

worst.jpgThe one good thing we can say about Acer is that we never spent more than 90 seconds on hold before speaking with a tech. After that, it was all downhill. Acer’s customer-support representatives have little apparent training, are ignorant of basic configuration issues, and are quick to throw in the towel.

Acer’s representative flat-out refused to diagnose our CD problem, insisting that we send the computer back. When it came to our Wi-Fi problem, the second rep was downright ignorant. Without checking our system, he insisted that the problem was with our router. “Some units, if they have a ‘DCPH’ [sic] IP range turned on in their router, or have any kind of encrypted data, you will not be able to send or receive data to that router,” he told us. “As long as the unit is connected to the router, sir, it means that it’s sharing files. And you’re sending and receiving packets. So if you’re not able to connect, then you should not be receiving no packets at all [sic]. That’s as far as we’re concerned, sir.” We still don’t know what he was talking about.

With a zero-for-three track record, it’s not surprising that Acer hides its tech-support phone number so well — it’s not published online or even in the manual. Instead, we had to look in the System Properties applet in the Control Panel to find the support number. If you’re really that desperate, we recommend calling a third-party support service instead. Or try poking your Acer with a sharp fork a few times — it couldn’t hurt.

Report Card: Acer
Total time on phone: 53 minutes
Success rate: 0/3
Typical hold music: Chamber music selection, endlessly repeated
2004 grade: Not tested
2005 grade: F

Stats
Tech-support phone number: 800-816-2237
Tech-support web site: www.acersupport.com
Location of call centers: Temple, Texas

Apple

tumble.jpgGive Apple credit for one thing: OS X is such a robust operating system that it’s actually difficult to make it not work. But when we finally did succeed in mucking up our PowerBook G4, Apple had a hard time getting it back on its feet.

Our first test was a corrupted Mail preferences file — a common enough problem. The tech quickly recognized the source of the problem and led us through the process of re-entering our mail server settings. “We always like calls that were successful,” he smugly clucked at the end.

Subsequent support representatives weren’t nearly so canny. With our Wi-Fi problem, the tech looked into our network settings just long enough to see that we didn’t have an IP address, and deferred us to the manufacturer of our router. “That’s generally not what people want to hear,” he acknowledged. Apple couldn’t fix our slow-boot problem either; and when we were able to boot normally one time (by holding down the option key), the tech declared the problem solved, even though it hadn’t been, and signed off.

With a success rate of one out of three, Apple earns a mere D. Maybe you’d have better luck dropping in at the Genius Bar in their stores — you sure won’t find many geniuses on the phone at Apple.

Report Card: Apple
Total time on phone: 48 minutes
Success rate: 1/3
Typical hold music: Roxy Music, sugary new-age instrumentals
2004 grade: A-
2005 grade: D

Stats
Tech-support phone number: 800-275-2273
Tech-support web site: www.apple.com/support
Location of call centers: Baltimore*

Dell

Dell’s customer service center has an unhealthy obsession with serial numbers, so when you call the company, you’ll wind up feeling like a number, not a name. You’ll have plenty of time to rage against the machine, too, as Dell kept us on hold more than any other vendor. During one particularly long call, we got transferred three times (to call centers in New Delhi, Bangalore, and finally Panama), without anyone ever actually asking what our problem was. Finally, when we were almost in tears, a kindly Panamanian support rep took pity and offered to help solve our wireless problem. Her solution: Windows XP’s System Restore feature, which brought our network connectivity back. We waited an hour to hear that?

Subsequent calls were almost as long, although they too ended happily. The corrupted OS test was the most difficult of all, and required two calls, three techs, and almost 40 minutes on the phone to fix. One tech sagely informed us, “It is very clear there is something wrong with Windows.” Well, duh.

With a success rate of three out of three, we would have given Dell an A — but bumped it down because of the excessively long hold times. In the two hours and 45 minutes we spent on the phone with Dell, we could have done so many things: Completed three or four missions in Grand Theft Auto, received almost six half-hour massages, eaten a dozen bagels … alas, that time is lost forever.

Report Card: Dell
Total time on phone: 2 hours
Success rate: 3/3
Typical hold music: Perky instrumentals, frequently interrupted with advice and tips
2004 grade: C-
2005 grade: B+

Stats
Tech-support phone number: 800-624-9897
Tech-support web site: support.dell.com
Location of call centers: Panama City, Panama; Manila, Philippines; Bangalore, India*

Fujitsu

Fujitsu’s Canadian techs are, for the most part, friendly and effective — but perhaps a bit overconfident. When diagnosing our optical-drive problem, our tech did some basic tests, then seemed incredulous that the drive still wasn’t working: “You’re sure it’s not showing up in My Computer?” When we reassured him that no, we weren’t kidding, he had us uninstall the driver, remove the drive from its bay, plug it back in, and restart the computer. Windows reinstalled the drive and everything worked.

With our wireless configuration problem, the support rep had us remove the wireless card’s driver using Device Manager, then right-click on another device and choose “Scan for hardware changes” — a quicker, more efficient way of reinstalling the driver than by rebooting. The problem was solved in nine minutes, but the tech’s enthusiasm for tweaking various settings meant that it took another three minutes before he realized his job was done. “OK, we got ya all fixed up there then?” he said proudly.

When it came to the corrupted OS file, however, Fujitsu’s tech couldn’t handle it and eventually directed us to the System Restore discs, which wiped out our hard drive.

Overall, though, Fujitsu’s support is competent and efficient, and the company had the shortest total call time in this test, earning the company a solid B. Good day, eh?

Report Card: Fujitsu
Total time on phone: 29 minutes
Success rate: 2/3
Typical hold music: None at all—what a relief!
2004 grade: Not tested
2005 grade: B

Stats
Tech-support phone number: 800-838-5487
Tech-support web site: www.fujitsu.com/us/support
Location of call centers: Memphis, Tennessee; Mississauga, Ontario

Gateway

Gateway’s hold times are short and its support reps identify themselves by name and badge number, with almost military crispness and efficiency. The support it provides nearly lives up to that promising beginning.

When faced with our optical-drive problem, the technician’s warm Jamaican accent and friendly manner quickly put us at ease. He had us uninstall the driver, then reboot so that Windows would reinstall it automatically. Problem solved, he said goodbye with a hearty “Stay cool!”

With the Wi-Fi problem, Gateway was equally effective. But the support rep had a tougher time with the corrupted system file. He had us reboot into safe mode, which didn’t help. His next step was to send us in search of our yellow operating-system CD. Unfortunately, our system didn’t come with that — instead, we had a stack of CD-Rs and instructions on how to create our own recovery discs using the notebook’s CD burner. Since we’d blithely ignored these instructions until it was too late, we were, in a word, hosed. D’oh!

The lesson? If your notebook vendor gives you blank CDs and a utility for creating recovery discs, do it. Gateway earns a B. We’re giving ourselves a C for irresponsibility.

Report Card: Gateway
Total time on phone: 40 minutes
Success rate: 2/3
Typical hold music: Bruce Springsteen and other heartland-friendly vocals
2004 grade: A
2005 grade: B

Stats
Tech-support phone number: 605-232-1352
Tech-support web site: support.gateway.com
Location of call centers: Tallahassee, Florida*

HP

We almost couldn’t test HP’s service and support, thanks to their Bangalore, India-based call center’s obsession with checking and double-checking our notebook’s serial number. Since we were using an evaluation unit with a nonstandard serial number, most customers won’t have this problem. But if something does get screwed up with your account, you better start praying to the heavens for help.

Even with the right serial number, HP keeps you on hold longer than almost any other company. Consider amusing yourself with mumblety-peg while you wait — it will add an extra frisson of danger and excitement to the hours ahead.

Once you actually get to talk to a service representative, HP’s support is adequate. The tech solved two out of three problems.

But the wireless configuration problem was a real stumper for HP. After waiting on hold for 40 minutes (we got cut off after 20 minutes the first time and had to redial), we finally spoke with a tech. He asked us at least three times whether our wireless card was turned on. We got used to long silences as he pondered the significance of our answers. After going to get a comparable notebook, he hit us with the admission: “I’m having some trouble getting this unit to power on.” Ha! Why don’t you call tech support, buddy?

Overall, HP solved two out of three problems. Not bad, but we haven’t wasted this much time since study hall.

Report Card: HP
Total time on phone: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Success rate: 2/3
Typical hold music: “A Time for Us” from Romeo and Juliet, endlessly repeated
2004 grade: C
2005 grade: C

Stats
Tech-support phone number: Pavilion: 800-474-6836; Presario: 800-652-6672
Tech-support web site: www.hp.com/country/us/en/support.html?pageDisplay=support
Location of call centers: Ottawa; Bangalore, India*

IBM

The first IBM tech we called, for our wireless problem, was gregarious, enthusiastic, and almost totally ineffective. He kept insisting that the problem wasn’t with the computer and that IBM couldn’t help us with it. He had us delete all of our cookies from Internet Explorer and switch to using IBM’s network configuration utility instead of Windows’ built-in Wi-Fi utility. But, despite all of his enthusiastic talk, he proved helpless in solving the problem.

For the CD test, IBM’s service rep seemed even less clued in. Instead of checking basic Windows settings first, he directed us to IBM’s hardware diagnostics utility, which took 24 minutes to run and found no problems. When we called back to report the results, the technician asked no further questions, and instead sent out a replacement optical drive, which fixed the problem.

Our operating-system test flummoxed IBM completely. The rep first had us reset the BIOS to its defaults, then had us reboot to safe mode twice. After having us reinstall the hard drive, he informed us that our only recourse was to use the recovery utility included with the computer. Unfortunately, this utility destroys all data on the hard drive. His parting words, as we started the process of wiping out our precious data: “Thank you, sir, and have a great afternoon!”

Fortunately, IBM’s support representatives were universally friendly and solicitous. We’ll probably call the company the next time we just need someone to talk to.

Report Card: IBM
Total time on phone: 1 hour, 7 minutes
Success rate: 1/3
Typical hold music: Unknown—we never heard any
2004 grade: F
2005 grade: D

Stats
Tech-support phone number: 800-426-7378
Tech-support web site: www.ibm.com/support/us
Location of call centers: Atlanta

Panasonic

Welcome to boot camp! Panasonic’s support department makes you feel as if you don’t deserve the paltry service you’re getting, you pathetic maggot. On our first call, the tech sent a new drive out by next-day air and got us off the phone — on the double. Installing the new drive failed to solve the problem. When we called back, Panasonic’s next offer was to replace the computer entirely. Nice, but overkill.

When it came to our network problem, the technician was surly — but more effective. “We really can’t tell you how to set your network up,” he told us. “The only thing we’re supposed to do is make sure your wireless card is working. Beyond that we can’t really help you.” Then he proceeded to fix the problem by directing us to uninstall the wireless adapter, reboot, and let Windows reinstall the driver.

With our third call, about a corrupted OS, Panasonic’s rep was no-nonsense but ineffective. After trying to reboot in safe mode, he directed us to the recovery disc included with the notebook. Unfortunately, that would mean destroying all the data on the hard drive. He did suggest we find a friend with Windows XP installation discs, which would let us repair the problem nondestructively. What, and violate the license agreement? What do you take us for, scofflaws?

Report Card: Panasonic
Total time on phone: 36 minutes
Success rate: 1/3
Typical hold music: Excessively loud, perky Muzak
2004 grade: Not tested
2005 grade: C-

Stats
Tech-support phone number: 800-527-8675
Tech-support web site: www.panasonic.com/business/toughbook/support.asp
Location of call centers: Secaucus, New Jersey; Leewood, Kansas

Sony

improved.jpgThe first time we called Sony, a computer named Max (“your automated assistant!”) took some basic information before placing us on hold for 23 minutes — not a good sign. Eventually a technician in Florida quizzed us about software we might have installed recently and asked us for bootable CDs. (A curious question, given that the CD-ROM drive wasn’t working.) He had us insert a couple different CDs, and finally turned to System Restore, which fixed the problem. In a rare moment of honesty, he told us, “Instead of fighting the answer, I just took a shortcut to the System Restore.” You should try that more often, bub.

Max’s powers became clearer the next time we called. Before we had even identified ourselves, he said “I can see you recently called about a … notebook computer.” Ninety seconds later, we were talking to a real live human being who fixed the Wi-Fi problem in 15 minutes.

On our third call, regarding the corrupted operating-system file, Sony finally met its match. Instead of trying Windows’ System Restore, the rep insisted we use Sony’s system-recovery utility, which deleted all data and programs on the hard drive.

Sony wins points for having an automated answering system that actually works, and for having hired technicians that diagnosed two out of three problems. The company nets a B.

Report Card: Sony
Total time on phone: 1 hour, 12 minutes
Success rate: 2/3
Typical hold music: Noodly jazz guitar; department store Muzak
2004 grade: D
2005 grade: B

Stats
Tech-support phone number: 888-476-6972
Tech-support web site: esupport.sony.com
Location of call centers: Fort Myers, Florida*

Toshiba

champion.jpgJust when we had given up on ever finding decent customer service, Toshiba came along. This company’s support department was like a tall drink of water after a long, forced march across the desert. The tech-support reps really know what they’re doing.

After a couple false starts, the first customer-service rep easily solved our CD-ROM problem by uninstalling the driver and rebooting. With the wireless problem, the tech was even more on the ball, working his way through Windows XP’s network connection settings, and eventually reinstalling the driver.

It was with our corrupted operating system that Toshiba really shined. The Toronto-based tech ran through basic diagnostics, including rebooting in safe mode. “Have you removed any part?” he asked us, with what we thought was a touch of suspicion. He then had us try to run Explorer.exe from the Task Manager. When it became clear that Explorer was gone, he transferred us to a “Level 2 Agent,” who led us to Windows XP’s System Restore feature, which brought the computer back from the dead.

Overall, Toshiba’s representatives are savvy, well trained, and efficient. Their three-out-of-three success rate is matched only by Dell — but we spent almost one-third as much time on the phone with Toshiba as we did with Dell. The next time we have a problem with our Dell, we’ll probably call Toshiba’s tech-support line.

Report Card: Toshiba
Total time on phone: 52 minutes
Success rate: 3/3
Typical hold music: Trippy tunes that would be well suited for a massage spa
2004 grade: B-
2005 grade: A

Stats
Tech-support phone number: 800-457-7777
Tech-support web site: support.toshiba.com
Location of call centers: Istanbul, Turkey; Toronto; Irvine, California

Third-Party Support

When your computer manufacturer’s tech-support line is failing you, you might be tempted to turn to one of the for-fee tech-support services available online. In most cases, that’d be a mistake, since you’ll pay for the same crummy service you could get from your computer’s manufacturer for free. But one vendor — PC Pinpoint — really shined. To test these vendors, we posed our Wi-Fi configuration problem to each one.

Lightfrog.com
Lightfrog’s representative seemed a bit surprised by our call, answering, “Hello?” in a casual way. When we asked if we’d reached Lightfrog, he said, “Oh, oh, yes. I was expecting another call,” and then moved rather slowly to diagnose our wireless problem. Since we couldn’t get online, he wasn’t able to use Lightfrog’s remote-access application, and that really took the wind out of his sails. Eventually, we connected to our router via a cable, installed the Lightfrog software, and let him control our computer remotely. He then uninstalled our network adapter and rebooted our computer, which fixed the problem — after 49 minutes.
866-585-3764
www.lightfrog.com
Rate: $35 for a single help session ($17.50 for the first session); or $35 to 50 per month plus a $50 setup fee
Grade: C

888-Geek-Help
These geeks aren’t much help, if our call is any indication. Over the course of 16 minutes, the technician had us check various network settings, ping our router, reboot, and power-cycle our router. When that didn’t work, he gave up, suggesting that we physically remove our notebook’s internal Wi-Fi adapter. He didn’t seem interested in pursuing it much further than that — but, to give him credit, at least he didn’t cost us too much money.
888-433-5435
www.888geekhelp.com
Rate: $1.75 per minute
Grade: D

PC Pinpoint
Like Lightfrog.com, PC Pinpoint requires you to sign up online and download a special utility. Unlike Lightfrog, PC Pinpoint’s technicians can actually fix problems without the help of this utility. When faced with our wireless misconfiguration, the tech’s first step was to use the System Restore. Bam! Problem solved. Next?
877-434-9697
www.pcpinpoint.com
Rate: $18 for a single help session;
$75-per-year subscription
Grade: A

Fix It Yourself

Unless you have a real hardware problem, don’t bother calling tech support — you could save yourself hours of grief by following these quick tips. In many cases, these techniques are exactly what successful tech-support reps will have you do anyway.

1. If you’re having trouble with a device, reinstall its driver.
Right-click on My Computer, select Properties, click on the Hardware tab, and press the Device Manager button. Find the troublesome device, right-click on it, and choose Uninstall. Then either reboot, or right-click on another device and choose “Scan for hardware changes.”

2. If you’re having trouble getting Windows to start at all, reboot into safe mode.
As your computer is booting up, press F5 repeatedly until you get a menu. Then pick safe mode. From there you may be able to uninstall troublesome devices or programs, and reboot normally afterward.

3. Remove programs from your startup sequence until the notebook reboots normally.
Choose Start > Run, enter msconfig.exe, and click on the Startup tab. Uncheck any programs that you don’t know to be essential. Try rebooting and see if the problem goes away.

4. Run System Restore to bring your computer back to a happier time.
From Windows, choose Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > System Restore. Or, choose Start > Run, enter msconfig.exe, and then click on the “Launch System Restore” button. Can’t get to the Start menu? Hit Control-Alt-Delete to get the Task Manager, then click on the New Task button and enter msconfig.exe. -Dylan Tweney

Link: Death by Tech Support

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

Death by Tech Support

It’s my Daddy.

clara\'s picture of daddy
This is a picture Clara drew last week at preschool. Teacher Sheila wrote down the story Clara told to go with it:


It’s a person. It’s my Daddy. It’s an angry Daddy. Because I did something bad that he didn’t like. I was throwing things at him. I threw markers at him. They had a top on. I threw toys at him. He said, “You May Not Do That.” I cried when he said that. Then I calmed down. If he holds me I calm down. Then he gets happy. I’m happy too.

Clara
6-21-05

I am so proud!

In other news, Clara learned how to jump into the pool without holding my hand for the first time this past Saturday.

It’s my Daddy.

Thimerosal nightmare.

One of the big medical mysteries of the past decade is the alarming rise in the number of autism cases among children. In 1991, autism hit one kid in 2,500. It was rare enough that it lurked in the background, a spooky but not terribly immediate possibility for most parents. Since then, the rate has risen fifteen times, so that it now strikes one out of every 166 children. There are half a million autistic children in the U.S. right now. With the amount of effort, care, and cost that it takes to raise an autistic child–not to mention continuing costs and support required throughout adulthood–this is an enormous, looming public health crisis.

It’s also a tragedy — a tragedy because it could have been prevented. While many causes have been proposed for the rise in autism (including, incredibly, geeky parents), none have really stuck. Until now.

Robert Kennedy Jr. reports in Salon on what seems to be a very clear linkage between thimerosal and autism. Thimerosal is a preservative that, until recently, was used in many vaccines. It also contains mercury, which has been shown to have dramatic effects on the brains of infants and young children. In small doses, it may be no big deal. But since 1991, the number of vaccinations children in the U.S. get has risen from 3 to about 22. That’s a sharp increase in mercury exposure–and it correlates extremely well with the rise in autism.

Shockingly, the Centers for Disease Control has known about this link since before 2000. The FDA reports that thimerosal has been greatly reduced if not eliminated from most vaccines — at least the ones used in the U.S. — since then. Yet the federal government has done nothing to publicize the effects of thimerosal–in fact, it covered up research confirming the autistic effects of thimerosal. Even worse: Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (who has received $873,000 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, by the way) keeps trying to put riders on various bills to protect thimerosal’s maker, Eli Lilly, from legal liability.

I’m not eager to join the freaky ranks of the anti-vaccination crowd, but the research on this seems quite specific and quite scary. (More details.)

Fortunately for babies currently being vaccinated in the U.S., thimerosal is no longer an issue. But if Kennedy is right, this is a huge scandal–and because it should have been identified and corrected years ago, it’s especially shocking. If I were a reporter this is the story I’d be chasing right now.

Note: One reporter, Dan Olmsted, has been doing just that (more Olmsted links here).

Thimerosal nightmare.

Tables in Movable Type entries.

Thought I’d post a quick tip on this, since I couldn’t find it published anywhere else: If you’ve got a table you want to put inside an MT entry, you’ve got to put all the HTML table code on a single line. Otherwise, MT will add <br /> tags after every line — and when the page is published, these line breaks will add up to a huge, inexplicable white space just above the table.

Tables in Movable Type entries.