Mini Movie Machine Almost Breaks Into the Big Time

Dell pushes the upper echelons of netbookitude with the Mini 10. It’s a little laptop whose Atom processor marks it as a populist ultraportable, but whose 10-inch, wide-format display and HDMI port reveal more aristocratic ambitions.

Want to catch the last episode of Battlestar Galactica while hanging out in the local java joint? Going to download a season of The Simpsons for viewing on the plane? Giving an impromptu screening of your vacation photos at a friend’s house? The Mini 10 is your machine.

It’s not all for show, either. Although powered by a relatively anemic 1.6-GHz Atom Z530 processor (a 1.3-GHz Atom Z520 is also available, for $50 less), the Mini 10 actually does a pretty good job at video playback — on its own screen. While the screen’s 1,024 x 576 pixels are too few for even 720p HD playback, the 16:9 aspect ratio and vivid colors are enough to make you think you’re watching high-def video, and the difference is barely perceptible on a 10-inch screen, anyway. Playing videos from Hulu.com was perfectly acceptable at Hulu’s “standard quality,” but became jerky at the “high quality” (480 lines) setting.

Playing video over the HDMI out port is another matter, though. While the Mini 10 can drive large screens, it just can’t keep up when delivering video to them, so playback becomes choppy. For plugging into a second monitor or for showing off slideshows of your favorite photos (using the integrated SD card slot), that might be ok — but forget about making this puny portable the centerpiece of your home entertainment system.

The 160-GB hard drive gives you plenty of room to store your supersecret cache of BitTorrent porn — ahem, legitimately purchased network TV shows from iTunes — and the keyboard is ample and gives lots of tactile feedback, so when you’re ready to turn off the shows and get down to work, the Mini 10 is ready, too.

But there are infuriating shortcomings to the Mini 10. The trackpad is one of the worst we’ve seen. Dell’s decision to integrate the buttons underneath the pad itself makes using it both unpredictable and challenging. When you click on a button, the cursor may hit the target, wiggle off an centimeter or two, or teleport off into a remote corner of your screen. While it got easier to use after a week of practice, our advice is to invest in a cheap travel mouse.

Also, our unit exhibited frequent problems connecting with secure Wi-Fi networks, although it had no problems with unsecured hotspots. (Those still exist?) And the screen, while bright, sports a highly reflective, glossy surface that makes using it in high-contrast environments a real drag.

Worse, the 3-cell battery only lasted an average of 2 hours and 16 minutes in our battery rundown tests. That’s far less than the longest-lasting 10-inch netbooks, the Asus Eee PC 1000HE and the Samsung NC10 (both 5 hours).

Unless you absolutely adore Dell’s customer service, wait for the company to iron the kinks out of this promising but not-fully-cooked media-friendly netbook. There are other tiny portables that are more deserving of your money.

WIRED Bright, responsive screen. Integrated 1.3-megapixel webcam. Not gunked up with crapware. HDMI-out port shows charming, if unwarranted, optimism about the netbook’s video capabilities. Light weight: Just 2.6 pounds.

TIRED Infuriating trackpad with integrated buttons hidden underneath. Excessively glossy screen produces distracting glare. Windows XP is starting to look pretty tired. What, no solid-state option? Despite the HDMI port, the netbook can’t deliver HD video without fits and starts.

* Style: Netbook
* Operating System: MS XP
* Processor Manufacturer: Intel
* Manufacturer: Dell
* Price: $470 (as tested)
Release Date: March 25, 2009

Rating: 5 out of 10

Link: Mini Movie Machine Almost Breaks Into the Big Time

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Mini Movie Machine Almost Breaks Into the Big Time

What a Wired.com editor does.

I’ll be a guest speaker at Racepoint Group, a PR firm, during the lunch hour today.

I’ll be talking about a few things Here’s what I planned on talking about. For what I actually said, see this summary by Caroline Kawashima: Dylan Tweney visits Racepoint.

If I get a chance, I’ll try to flesh some of these ideas out more. In the meantime, if you’ve got questions, ask away. I know these notes are pretty brief.

  • My background and how I ended up at Wired.com
  • Wired.com and WIRED magazine
  • Short answer: Owned by separate companies from about 1999 until 2006. Now both owned by Conde Nast, but with separate staffs. We’re friendly and cooperate with one another on many things. But we produce different kinds of stories. Wired.com = news site, primarily

  • How Wired.com is forging new approaches to online journalism
  • How we’re faring with the difficult economic environment for journalism
  • Well. Traffic and revenue are up.

  • New projects / experiments
  • Wikis: eg our Data.gov story
    Photo pools: Gadget Lab Flickr group
    Reader comments: We’re trying to moderate/interact to a greater degree to get past the spam and the hate and focus reader intelligence on our stories. Journalists as conversation starters, not the definitive word on something.

  • How Wired and PR people can work with one another
What a Wired.com editor does.

Scratch Lowers Resistance to Programming

Originally published on Wired, March 2009.

SAN JOSE, CALIF. — A new language from MIT’s Media Lab makes it easy for kids to develop programs that interact with things in the real world: Pencils, paper, water, and even vegetables.

Called Scratch, it’s not so much a procedural language as an environment for creating interactive animations, annotated stories, slideshows, prototypes and games. It’s designed to be as simple to use as possible, so kids as young as 8 can get started building their own animations with minimal preparation.

“Our design philosophy is, don’t design something for kids that you don’t also find engaging and interesting,” says Jay Silver, one of the researchers who created Scratch. Silver works in the Media Lab’s “Lifelong Kindergarten” group. So it’s not surprising that the environment is fun for adults, too. At the Emerging Technology conference here Monday, a roomful of grownups were playing with the program, creating bouncing kitties and a simple golf game.

To create programs in Scratch, you simply drop “sprites” onto a canvas. You can then attach actions to the sprites in sequence, making them move, change color, bounce off other objects on the canvas, and make sounds. The software has been available since mid-2007, although the MIT crew released a new version, 1.3.1, in February 2009.

Scratch now comes preloaded on all XO laptops sold by the One Laptop per Child project.

Scratch comes ready to interoperate with an external sensor kit called a PicoBoard. This $50 circuit board includes a microcontroller, a button, a slider, a light sensor, a microphone, and four ports for measuring the resistance of circuits. It connects to a computer using a serial-to-USB cable, and immediately starts delivering data that can be used by Scratch programs.

For instance, a sprite can be made to grow or shrink based on the electrical resistance of a circuit connected to one of the PicoBoard’s ports. Silver demonstrated the kit by attaching one lead to a pushpin stuck into a #2 pencil, and the other lead to a line he scribbled on a piece of hotel note paper. Because graphite is somewhat conductive, touching the tip of the pencil to the line completed a circuit. The Scratch software was able to read the resistance of that circuit and make a cartoon cat grow or shrink in proportion, depending on where on the line Silver placed the pencil.

Total programming time: About 20 seconds.

Other attendees at the Scratch session used the PicoBoard to control the behavior of a golf game, adjusting the power of the stroke based on what vegetable was used to complete the circuit between two alligator clips. A scallion was approximately equivalent to a 9-wood, one of the project members quipped.

Silver is also the instigator of Drawdio, a $20 kit that makes different musical tones based on the resistance of a circuit, enabling kids (or adults) to make music by touching conductive objects, water or each other.

The idea is to get kids to explore with the real world by translating one property (such as resistance) into another (sound) in a way that encourages fun and experimentation, says Silver.

“My projects are about exploring the urban environment and trusting yourself as a scientist,” says Silver.

In addition to programming, Scratch also lets kids upload and share their projects through an online community at the Scratch website. The hope is that children will use the language to learn and interact with one another, forming clubs and learning the techniques of programming, mathematics and logic.

Scratch is available for Mac OS X and Windows, and can be downloaded for free at scratch.mit.edu.

Photo: Scratch team member and MIT grad student Jay Silver holds a Scratch-compatible PicoBoard. Photo by Dylan Tweney / Wired.com

Scratch Lowers Resistance to Programming

Online journalism and the First amendment.

I’m speaking tonight at the Green Arcade in San Francisco (1680 Market St. @ Gough, 7pm) together with Karl Olson, an attorney with Levy, Ram & Olson who specializes in media law. The topic of our talk is online journalism and the first amendment.

Here are some notes for what I’d like to talk about.

First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Online journalism: We’re making it up as we go along. Wired.com has explicitly and enthusiastically embraced blogs as the medium through which we publish. The majority of our traffic is now through our blogs. But we’re organized like a traditional newsroom and we think (and try to work) like newspaper journalists.

What’s the same: Sourcing, the hunt for scoops, serving the reader (not the subjects you cover or your advertisers), sourcing, attention-getting headlines, ledes that grab you, nut grafs that give context, picking up the phone, getting “on the ground” with and among the people we cover. Did I mention sourcing?

What’s new:

Speed of publishing
Reader engagement and community. We could be doing this a lot better
Multimedia opportunities – photos, audio, video, Flash animations
Linking
Photo usage opportunities (and risks — pay close attention to copyright & Creative Commons licenses)

Some stories/examples:

Why the Japanese Hate the iPhone
Very popular story – went popular on Digg, Reddit, Slashdot. Then went popular *again* on the same sites later in the weekend, after readers pointed out problems with one of the quotes. We corrected the problem but not clearly enough, or early enough, to forestall a firestorm. Also, AppleInsider attacked the story with a 3,000-word diatribe.
Tip: Make it crystal clear when you’re making a correction, and say exactly what you’re changing.


Gadget Lab Video: Running OS X on a Netbook

Video pulled in response to a complaint from Apple.
Tip: Don’t advocate — or admit to committing — a crime or civil violation in a video report.
Linking to torrents / violating tools is also verboten.

Wired.com’s iPhone 3G Survey Reveals Network Weaknesses
Excellent example of computational journalism: We collected data from thousands of iPhone users and assembled everything into an interactive map, plus drew conclusions from the data. The report was widely cited (and was even mentioned in a class action lawsuit against Apple and AT&T). Tools used: TestMyiPhone.com and Zeemaps

HD DVD Battle Stakes Digg Against Futility of DRM
Code to help you circumvent the copy protection on HD DVD and Blu-Ray discs got posted to Digg. Digg initially took it down in response to C&D letters, but then got overwhelmed by community members posting it to the site and voting it up. Eventually the entire homepage of Digg was nothing but the code. Live by the community, die by the community.
We covered this and even ran a gallery of the HD DVD code.

Request for Urban Street Sightings: Submit and Vote on the Best Urban Images Captured by New Google Maps Tool
More reader mobilization: In May 2007, we asked readers to submit images they found in the then-new Google Street View. We used a tool developed by sister company Reddit, which lets readers submit photos and then vote them up or down. Works very well for collecting user submissions and ranking them — though much moderation is required!

Online journalism and the First amendment.