Palm Today, Gone Tomorrow

Palm lovers, get out your hankies. Thisstory is a real tearjerker.

The company that single-handedly createdthe personal digital assistant with the Pilot 1000in 1996 is at a crossroads. Down one path liesWindows. Down the other path: stagnation,decay, and perhaps death.

If you buy a Treo next year, there’s a goodchance that it will be based on the WindowsMobile operating system, not the venerable PalmOS that has powered all prior Treos and PDAs.At press time, Palm had made no announcementabout a Windows-powered Treo, and Palmrefused to comment for this story. But all signspoint to an imminent platform switch.

FOCUSED ON PHONES
Let’s get one thing cleared up right away: Palm’sdays as a leading vendor of PDAs are over. Infact, the company’s share of the worldwide PDAmarket has been steadily shrinking from its highof 68 percent in May 1999; it currently stands atabout 18 percent, according to Gartner.

What’s more, the PDA market is increasinglyirrelevant. Today’s phones are more capable andcan hold more data than 20th-century phonescould. Why carry two devices when one will do?Palm has seen the writingon the wall. “There’s noquestion that the traditionalPDA business has declined,”Palm CEO Ed Colligan saidin a June teleconference.Accordingly, the companyis putting its most intenseefforts into the smart-phonebusiness.

“Ever since Palm acquiredHandspring, it has reallyfocused its resources onbecoming a stronger playerin the smart-phone market,”says Todd Kort, a principalanalyst for Gartner.

PALM TUCKERED OUT
While its PDA market founders, Palm’s smart-phone businesshas taken off. The Treo has been a tremendous success, drivingPalm to a whopping 50 percent of the U.S. smart-phone market(though it holds only 5 percent of the market worldwide)and helping propel the company through two solid years ofunbroken revenue growth. In retrospect, it’s lucky that Palmbought Handspring, the developer of the Treo, in 2003.

Unfortunately, the underlying operating system isn’t doing sowell. Palm OS 5.4 is a dead-end street. It has poor support formultimedia features and lacks multitasking capabilities.Windows Mobile, by contrast, has been multitasking foryears. It’s also got a built-in web browser, extensive support foraudio and video, and corporate-friendly security features.

Palm OS developer PalmSource (which was acquiredby Japanese software developer Access in September)attempted to bridge the features gap last year with a brandnewoperating system, Cobalt, which was multimedia- andmultitasking-friendly. But the OS was a fl op, requiring toomuch memory and processing power to be practical, and nocompanies ever released a Cobalt-based device.

Implicitly acknowledging the failure of Cobalt, PalmSourcehas stated its plans to switch to a Linux-based architecture. Buta commercial version of the new Linux OS won’t be availableuntil late 2006, with devices based on it unlikely to be readyfor sale before 2007. Palm can’t afford to wait that long.

END GAME
M:Metrics senior analyst Seamus McAteer predicts that Palmwill announce a Windows-based Treo by January 2006.Over the long run, that will spell the end of Palm OS-basedTreos. “Who wants a Palm-based Treo when the company hasannounced that it’s migrating?” says McAteer.
Without a major upgrade to Windows, the company maywell be dead in the water, increasingly unable to compete withsmart phones that offer more whizbang features.
But it’s a risky move. Many of Palm’s customers have stuckwith the company simply because it’s not Microsoft. “Goingover to a Microsoft operating system will not win the companyany friends among its current customers,” says Gartner’s Kort.And with Palm accounting for 60 percent of PalmSource’srevenue, losing even a fraction of that business would be aserious blow for PalmSource.

Still, Palm’s executives aren’t likely to spend a lot of timeworrying about the fate of their sister company. Palm has towalk a delicate line between a dying operating system and apack of anti-Microsoft zealots. Whatever decision they make,they’re likely to piss off somebody. -Dylan Tweney

Link: Palm Today, Gone Tomorrow

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SanDisk Sansa e130

SanDisk MP3 playerIf you prefer the McDonald’s dollar menu to dining at the Ritz, Friday night TV movies to Broadway shows, and big blocks of Velveeta to imported French Brie, then the SanDisk Sansa e130 is the perfect audio player for you. Just don’t ask it to deliver top-drawer audio quality or usability.

There’s a lot to like about the Sansa e130. It’s among the lightest players we’ve tested. It handles a wide variety of file formats. There’s a built-in FM tuner. And despite its low price, it comes with accessories that most manufacturers make you pay extra for, including an arm strap, a cheap protective vinyl pouch, and a variety of different-size tips for the earbuds.

An SD slot lets you expand the player’s capacity beyond its internal 512MB, and if you’ve preloaded a card with music, the Sansa will automatically create a new playlist that includes audio files on both the card and the internal memory.

Unfortunately, sound quality is not great, with slight but noticeable background hiss and a tendency to distort higher frequencies. Bass response is lightweight, despite the audio-enhancing electronics. The interface is clunky and occasionally slow, and the Sansa e130’s lightweight plastic casing screams chintz at the top of its lungs.

Still, for just $75, you may be willing to overlook these limitations. Stuff the player in your thrift-store corduroys, jam the white headphones into your ears, and from a distance you’ll look just like any other iPod-wearing poseur. Unless you’re spotted standing in the soup kitchen line, that is. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Easily expandable via SD slot
Worst Feature: Flimsy construction and substandard audio

SanDisk Sansa e130
Price: $75
Weight: 1.8 ounces
Size: 2.9 x 2.1 x 0.5 inches
Specs: 512MB; 1.3-inch LCD; plays MP3, WAV, and WMA audio; SD slot; FM tuner; USB 2.0; uses one AAA battery
www.sandisk.com

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Link: SanDisk Sansa e130

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IBM ThinkPad X41 Tablet

ThinkPad X41 TabletTo some, the Tablet PC operating system ranks right up there with Microsoft Bob, Clippy the Office Wizard, and Steve Ballmer as one of Microsoft’s most obnoxious, useless creations. The IBM ThinkPad X41 Tablet is unlikely to change the minds of the haters. But for more open-minded folks, the X41 shows that it is possible to make a tablet that’s usable, functional, well built, and even attractive.

Granted, IBM is late to the tablet game, and the X41 may not break the Curse of the Tablet: high prices, slow sales, and general public apathy. But IBM has clearly been watching and learning from the missteps of earlier tablet manufacturers.

For starters, the X41 Tablet doesn’t look goofy, and it’s not flimsily put together. At first glance, it’s black, serious, and a bit on the dull side — a typical ThinkPad. The keyboard is stiff and slightly cramped, but solid. The swiveling hinge is the first hint that something’s different. Spin the screen around, fold it back, and the notebook converts to a slab. Tablet-specific controls, including scroll and rotation buttons, line one side of the 12.1-inch screen’s bezel. And the X41 is light, tipping the scales at just over 4 pounds (4.9 pounds with the charger), although its lack of an optical drive is a big drawback.

The display is where the X41 really stands out. Though it’s small, the screen is clear and has remarkably wide viewing angles in all four directions. This is what makes us miss the optical drive more: Watching DVDs on this sweet screen would have been great for cross-country flights, especially since you can lay the tablet flat so that it doesn’t get crushed by the lummox in front of you when he reclines his seat all the way back. The screen also has just the right degree of friction for comfortable onscreen writing and scribbling with the stylus.

In one corner of the display is the X41’s other secret weapon: A fingerprint scanner. IBM’s security software makes short work of scanning your fingertips and then, optionally, tying them into the Windows login. It works well, correctly identifying you with just one or two swipes of your finger and denying access to your evil nemeses.

The X41’s performance is decent for a tablet, with a middling Sysmark score of 134 and a surprisingly good Unreal benchmark score of 60.4 fps. Not that you’re likely to take it to any LAN parties — but if you did, the X41 would at least let you stay in the game.

Honestly, though, this is a tool for browsing the web, reading e-mail, and taking notes, and for that, it’s a dream machine. The icing on the cake is its five-plus hours of battery life, enabling the X41 to go the distance on most jobs — unless you’re taking notes at a Castro speech or trying to work all the way through a flight to New Zealand. Add in the great screen, security, and performance, and you’ve got a machine that’s a pleasure to use as a tablet and as a more conventional notebook. If it were about $300 cheaper, we’d love it all the more. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Terrific display for viewing and writing
Worst Feature: No optical drive for watching DVDs

IBM ThinkPad X41 Tablet
Price: $2,058
Weight: 4.1 pounds
Size: 10.8 x 10.5 x 1.3 inches
Specs: 1.5GHz Pentium M; 512MB of RAM; 40GB hard drive; integrated graphics; 1,204 x 768-pixel, 12.1-inch TFT; SD slot; 802.11g; fingerprint reader; Windows XP Tablet 2005
www.pc.ibm.com

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Link: IBM ThinkPad X41 Tablet

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Sony DSC-T7 Cyber-shot

Sony DSC-T7 cameraSony’s slimmest Cyber-shot, the DSC-T7, is more than just a camera. It’s skinny enough that you could use it to shim up a wobbly kitchen table or to wedge a door shut. Or you could weld on a little extra hardware and wear it as a belt buckle.

The DSC-T7’s body is barely 0.4 inches thick, making it easily the thinnest digital camera we’ve seen. A sliding lens cover increases the overall thickness to a bit more than half an inch. To turn the camera on, just slide this cover down. If you’re a hipster, you’ll do it using one hand, like a street tough flicking open a pocketknife. Shooting one-handed is similarly easy, thanks to a simple zoom control and shutter button on top.

To change among the nine preset shooting modes or to adjust the camera’s settings, you use the menu button plus a five-way controller on the back face. That’s it — there are almost no other buttons to worry about on this camera. If you’ve got big fingers, you might find the DSC-T7 a bit awkward to manipulate, but otherwise this is one simple point-and-shoot camera.

The DSC-T7 captures 5-megapixel stills or 640 x 480-pixel video with sound. Although the videos are ostensibly 30 frames per second, their quality falls far short of what you’d expect. This camera’s movies are as jerky and jumpy as an old Charlie Chaplin flick, except blurrier, and without the piano soundtrack. You can’t zoom while filming, and the focus has a disturbing tendency to drift in and out. If you want to feel nostalgic for last weekend’s pool party, these old-timey videos are just the ticket.

No matter: The DSC-T7’s best and highest purpose is taking still images, and it does that like a natural. And unlike other supercompact cameras, the DSC-T7 has a 3x optical zoom, so you won’t sacrifice image quality when you zero in on distant celebrities at a movie premiere.

Pictures look very good in a variety of lighting conditions, from low light to full sunlight, although the camera has the most trouble with very dark and very bright scenes. The flash is adequate, despite its small size, and yet it won’t blind your subjects when you point it at them. The clarity score of 2.3 is better than any other ultracompact but the Fuji FinePix F450, so you aren’t trading image quality for portability with the DSC-T7.

The DSC-T7 uses Sony’s somewhat expensive Memory Stick Duo media and lacks standard cable connectors (you must use the included dongle to connect the camera to a computer or to a TV for image playback). Also, its onscreen menus can be cryptic, and the manual is confusingly organized. But these are small prices to pay for having the skinniest camera on the block. With cameras, as in Hollywood, the thinnest starlets get the best parts — and get to go to the most exotic locations. We predict a brilliant career for this streamlined newcomer. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Amazingly small size
Worst Feature: Amazingly crummy video

Sony DSC-T7 Cyber-shot
Price: $475
Weight:
Size: 3.9 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches
Specs: 5.1 megapixels; 3x optical zoom; 640 x 480-pixel, 30-fps video recording with audio; 2.4-inch LCD; Memory Stick Duo slot (32MB card included)
www.sony.com

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Link: Sony DSC-T7 Cyber-shot

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RIM BlackBerry 7100g

Blackberry 7100Disconnecting for the weekend? Forget about it — your neurotic urge to stay online won’t let you. And besides, your inbox is a cruel mistress. But the Treo 650 costs too much, and, frankly, you spend more time reading e-mail and web pages than writing.

Meet your new phone: The BlackBerry 7100g, which combines the slim profile of a candy-bar phone with all the e-mail and internet savvy of other, less stylish, BlackBerrys. Granted, the 7100g is a bit wider than most phones, but it fits comfortably in a pants pocket, and you won’t feel like an idiot holding it to your ear in a bar — or the office.

The 7100g’s compressed QWERTY keyboard sports two letters per button. The phone’s SureType software does a good job of figuring out which letter you intend for each button press, so you can type fairly quickly. However, we found the keypad disorienting at first, and URLs are tricky to enter. The screen is bright and crisp, making reading web and e-mail a pleasure.

As a phone, the 7100g is solid, with decent if somewhat crunchy sound and a respectably loud and clear speakerphone. The keypad is extremely easy to use for dialing numbers; and combined with the excellent BlackBerry contact manager (which syncs with your PC), the 7100g is a top-notch communicator. Add a calendar, USB for syncing, Bluetooth for wireless headsets, and 36MB total of memory for holding data and running Java applications, and you’ve got a sleek, powerful, portable organizer, too. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Bright, readable screen
Worst Feature: No built-in camera

RIM BlackBerry 7100g
Price: $250
Weight: 4.4 ounces
Size: 4.5 x 2.3 x 0.8 inches
Specs: 850/900/1800/1900MHz GSM/GPRS; 36MB of memory (32MB flash, 4MB SRAM); 260 x 240-pixel, 2.3-inch color TFT; Bluetooth
www.blackberry.com
www.cingular.com

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Link: RIM BlackBerry 7100g

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JVC GR-D295u

Judging by its name, you’d think the JVC GR-D295u was a futuristic cambot with a remorseless drive to destroy all living beings. In fact, the GR-D295u is more like the guy who hangs out on the last bar stool next to the door, nursing a Schlitz: friendly, easy to like, and a bit clumsy. That’s why we’re calling it Norm.

There’s a lot to like about Norm. He’s a compact MiniDV camcorder with impressive specs, including a 680,000-pixel CCD and a 25x zoom.

Norm’s straightforward shooting controls are easy to manage. But we don’t like Norm’s Power/Function switch, as it’s too easy to overshoot the setting you want and put the camera in manual recording mode instead of automatic, or playback instead of off.

Norm’s video quality is not bad, especially considering his rock-bottom price. You’ll see a few crunchy edges, and colors are a slightly oversaturated, but the quality is good enough for home movies.

Our biggest problems with Norm have to do with the clumsy way he’s put together. The plastic covers over the SD card slot, and the AV and power jacks are flimsy, floppy, and they get in the way even when opened. And the menus in general are too difficult to figure out, thanks in part to the lack of a four-way joystick controller.

Still, that clumsiness is easy to overlook in a camcorder that is otherwise so capable. And at $373, you’ll probably still be able to laugh when Norm takes a drunken tumble into the pool. You can’t say that about your fancy, high-class video cameras. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Solid performance + thoughtful features = sweet machine
Worst Feature: Battery – life = not so sweet

JVC GR-D295u
Price: $373
Weight: 1.1 pounds
Size: 4.9 x 3.6 x 2 inches
Specs: MiniDV; 25x optical zoom; SD card slot; 1,024 x 768-pixel still images
www.jvc.com

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Link: JVC GR-D295u

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Tiger Telematics Gizmondo

Behold the Gizmondo!Rocky Balboa. The Jamaican bobsled team. Ross Perot. We can’t help but love our scrappy, endearing underdogs. OK, maybe not Ross Perot. But definitely the Gizmondo.

With a gaming market utterly dominated by the Sony PSP and the Nintendo DS, the odds of an independent console making it are slim at best. Sure, the Gizmondo has a great design; loads of features; a popular, extensible operating system; and the support of lots of game developers, including powerhouse Electronic Arts.

Unfortunately, all that won’t guarantee success. Just ask Tapwave, whose Zodiac fizzled out this year despite having an excellent design; loads of features; a popular, extensible operating system; and the support of lots of game developers, including EA.

That said, we wish the Gizmondo luck. Competition for the PSP and the DS? Bring it on. Better second-generation consoles? Hell, yes. Price war? We can only hope!

Based on the preproduction unit we tested, the Gizmondo has a lot going for it. It’s well designed and fits comfortably in two hands. On the back is a camera capable of snapping camphone-quality images.

The 2.7-inch LCD is even smaller than a Game Boy Advance’s, but it’s very bright and clear. The Gizmondo plays Windows Media video files but chokes on AVI and MPEG videos. It also plays MP3 audio, and while the tiny speaker is crummy, playback through headphones is excellent. Getting video and audio on the device is as simple as copying files to the SD card (in stark contrast to the PSP). Unfortunately, playback controls are a little clunky, and using the onscreen volume control obscures the video you’re watching. There’s also no hold switch to prevent accidental button-pressing. The battery lasted for two hours and 49 minutes of continuous video playback.

The Gizmondo has GPRS data capability, so it can exchange SMS messages and e-mail as well as browse the web via compatible cellular networks. The preproduction unit we reviewed did not have GPS capabilities, but this feature will be included when the final version ships in August. The Gizmondo connects to your PC via USB to sync Outlook contacts, but there’s no calendar function.

But the Gizmondo really stands out as a gaming platform. Its controls are simple and ergonomic. We tested it with a variety of racing and puzzle games, and found that it was eminently playable. Tiger Telematics says that developers have lined up to create 90 games for the platform.

What’s more, the GPS and integrated camera give those developers opportunities for real innovation. In one demo shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the camera was used to sense motion, so you could look around in the game by moving the unit up, down, or around. Future games may also use the camera and GPS to superimpose virtual objects over real places — such as ghosts in Central Park or a spaceship over the Statue of Liberty, which you could see only through your Gizmondo.

Despite some rough edges in the preproduction model, the Gizmondo is promising and innovative. Tiger Telematics has even held the cost down creatively by slashing the price for customers willing to receive three ads per day on the unit. But lacking the PSP’s huge screen and the DS’s enormous game library, the Gizmondo is, unfortunately, a long shot. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Remarkably ergonomic design
Worst Feature: LCD is smaller than its competitors’

Tiger Telematics Gizmondo
Price: $399; $299 with advertising
Weight: 6.6 ounces
Size: 5.4 x 3.2 x 1.1 inches
Specs: 400MHz ARM processor; GPRS; 64MB of RAM; 320 x 240-pixel, 2.7-inch LCD; audio and video playback; 0.3-megapixel camera; GPS; SD slot; Bluetooth; Windows CE 4.2
www.gizmondo.com

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Link: Tiger Telematics Gizmondo

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Fujifilm FinePix F10

FujiFilm FinePix F10Even gadget-heads like us occasionally get tired of fiddling with dials, knobs, and buttons to get our devices working right. Sometimes, in the sleepy, alcohol-infused predawn hours, we just want to snap a picture of our new Reno friends without having to worry about whether we’ve picked the right white balance setting or adjusted the freakin’ autofocus properly. And yet, control freaks that we are, we don’t want to give up such options during our more lucid moments back in the Mobile offices, after the annulment has gone through.

That’s why we like the Fujifilm FinePix F10, a straightforward compact camera that produces excellent shots without requiring you to get a PhD in photography — and yet offers a wealth of easy-to-access options for shutterbugs who refuse to loosen their deathlike grip on their camera’s exposure settings.

With 6.3 megapixels of resolution, the F10 is bumping up against prosumer camera territory, yet it’s still small and portable. The F10’s no-nonsense silver case is about an inch thick except for a slight bulge on the right side of its front face. The display is a generous 2.4 inches, and it’s clear and bright. Fujifilm left out the optical viewfinder, and we didn’t miss it, except when sunlight was drenching the display.

The mode dial encircling the shutter button is simpler than most, with just four positions. In “scene position” mode, you choose between five different preset configurations.

In automatic mode, the F10 is fairly intelligent at sussing out exposure, white balance, and focus settings — and it does so very quickly, with a shutter lag of just half a second and a shot-to-shot recovery time of 1.2 seconds. It powers up quickly, too, and can take a decent shot within 1.8 seconds. If anything, the F10 is a little too eager to get going — it’s easy to turn the camera on accidentally by brushing the power button. Image quality is very good, with accurate color and fine detail; the F10’s clarity score of 2.1 is average for a six-megapixel camera.

For more control, switch into manual mode and use the “F” and “menu” buttons on the camera’s back to adjust film-speed equivalent (there’s a wide range, from ISO 80 to ISO 1600), exposure compensation, and so on. The menus are very easy to use, in combination with Fujifilm’s intuitive onscreen display. Strangely, there’s no autobracketing option for taking three shots in quick succession with different exposures.

In movie mode, the camera shoots videos that, at 640 x 480 pixels and 30 frames per second, look as good as anything you’re likely to see from a pocket still camera.

It’s hard to find fault with the Finepix F10. Its use of xD cards, instead of the more common (and somewhat cheaper) SD cards, is annoying, and we’d like a macro capability that would let us get closer than 3 inches. But overall, the FinePix F10 is an excellent, flexible companion that’s willing to go anywhere with you and won’t put you in the poorhouse. We wish we could say the same about our Reno friends. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Easy to use, even in manual mode
Worst Feature: LCD easily washed out in bright light

Fujifilm FinePix F10
Price: $366
Weight: 7 ounces
Size: 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.3 inches
Specs: 6.3 megapixels; 3x optical zoom; 2.4-inch LCD; 640 x 480-pixel, 30-fps AVI video recording; xD card slot (32MB card included)
www.fujifilm.com

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Mobile Choice

Link: Fujifilm FinePix F10

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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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Link: Google Picasa 2

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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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Link: Casio Exilim Pro EX-P505

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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

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