This page contains archived reviews of "life-enhancing gadgets," products that make life easier and more enjoyable for those in the SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) field. There is a great variety of products reviewed, from Belkin computer products to home and self-improvement software.

Current Reviews

Photography Product Reviews

VisibleDust Sensor Cleaning Products
Three High Dynamic Range (HDR) Products
ProMaster Off-Camera TTL Canon Flash Cord
Two Worthwhile Photography Cases
Tamrac 5690 Digital "Bridge" Camera Case
SanDisk 16 GB Secure Digital (SDHC) Card
Tamrac 5680 Compact Digital Camera Case
Epson Stylus Photo R1900 Printer
Kingston CompactFlash Ultimate 266X
Jobo SPECTATOR Photo Storage Device
Canon Digital Rebel XTi (400D)
Casio Exilim EX-Z1000 Portable Digital Camera
Hoodman HoodLoupe™
Sandisk xD-Picture Card™ Memory Card
Fujifilm FinePix S9000 Digital Camera
Canon Elura 90 Digital Camcorder

Computer Hardware & Software Reviews

CMS Bounceback Ultimate Backup Software
HP dvd1170e External Multiformat DVD Writer
Handy Software Tools: Wavepad and System Mechanic Professional
Collectorz.com’s Music Collector, Book Collector, and Movie Collector
Verbatim TUFF-CLIP USB Drives
BitDefender Internet Security 2009
Case Logic Compact Portable Hard Drive Case (PHDC-1)
Palm Centro Smartphone
Blow Up 2 by Alienskin
Garmin nüvi 260W 4.3-Inch Widescreen Portable GPS Navigator
PaperPort 11 Professional
ACT! by Sage 2008 (Version 10) and ACT! 2008 for Palm OS (Version 3)
Kinesis Freestyle VIP
Belkin N1 Wireless Router & N1 Wireless Notebook Card
Quicken 2007 Home & Business
Belkin Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) 750-AVR System
Samsung SyncMaster 205BW - 20" Widescreen Monitor
MonacoEZcolor Color Management System, Version 2.6
Primera Signature Z1 CD/DVD Printer
Rel Software's Web Link Validator
Kingston TravelLite SD/MMC Reader
Likno AllWebMenus PRO for Web Developers
Diamond Stealth S85 -ATI Radeon 9250 Graphics Card
Bargain Software: TaxAct2004
Palmone Zire 31 PDA
SmartDisk Firefly USB Hard Drive

Products for the Home

Duracell DPP-600HD Powerpack 600
Black & Decker Cordless 18 Volt Hand Vac
SanDisk E200R MP3 Player and Griffin Technology Case
LEVO Bookholder
Dorfman Pacific Eclipse Felt Hat
Three Aids to Video Editing:Sony Vegas, Vegas Companion DVD, Excalibur
A High-End Cat Scratching Post
Mastering AVID Liquid Edition
Belkin Hi-Speed USB 2.0 and FireWire PCI Card
Sansa MP3 Player from Sandisk
Two Hats from Dorfman-Pacific
Royal Sovereign Digital Coin Sorter

Archived Reviews

CMS Bounceback Ultimate Backup Software

bounceback

My first experiment with CDP (constant data protection) software a few years ago failed. But my new Bounceback Ultimate software looks like it’s succeeding. CDP, also called continuous backup or real-time backup, refers to backup of computer data by automatically saving a copy of changes made to that data, essentially capturing every version of the data that you save. It differs from traditional backup strategy in that no schedule is involved. Date is backed up as it is changed so there is always an up-to-date backup somewhere on another disc.

My previous foray into CDP failed probably because it was done on an XP system with limited resources and memory. System slowdowns were common. CMS’s Bounceback Ultimate’s CDP system now works for me because it just chugs along in the background (or seems to), so hits on system resources feel negligible.

I obtained the backup system on two media: on a CD and preinstalled on one of CMS .5 TB USB drives. The installation asked whether I wanted to do a “system backup” (i.e., set up a CDP backup) or set up a traditional data backup system. I chose system backup for my entire system, which was partitioned into three logical drives (C,  D, and E). Bounceback then backed up all three drives on its system (clearing itself from the drive in the process). It took a few hours, but every file was backed up. It created perfect copies of the three logical drives (naming them H, I, and J).

Later, I tested what would have happened had my main system drive crashed. I put the CMS Bounceback CD in the drive and forced the computer to boot from it. Bounceback presented me an alternative boot option, to boot from the attached USB drive. Had I done that, I could have then copied my entire system--including registry--to the ailing (or brand new) drive. That’s how it would work.

I set up a traditional backup for my logical drive E and Bounceback gave me the option of versioning my backup set. This means it would keep the last two (or three) versions of the backup on my USB drive. Such a strategy is wise, should you ever want to go back to an earlier version of a file you’d backed up. And since these files are not compressed, they’re easy to find and retrieve.
Unfortunately, versioning is not enabled for CDP backups. Your backup set is a perfect mirror of the current versions of each file. You cannot go back in time. You can, however, delay the CDP backup whenever there’s a change.

Bounceback allows you to set a delay from one to sixty minutes. For example, you have an hour to decide before that file you’ve changed on your source system is changed forever on the destination system. It’s something. But it’s not quite the same.

Nevertheless, I will continue to use CDP backup. The versioning I lose is a small sacrifice considering I

  • Can set up a CDP plan and forget about it
  • Do not have to worry to leave my computer on for a scheduled backup
  • Will not experience a performance hit when a scheduled backup occurs as I am working
  • Don’t have to worry about proprietary compressed backup sets that may not work someday

That last one is not exactly true. I do like the fact that some backup sets come with a compression option. Another program called Second Copy, while not true backup software, had a zip file option in its automatic copy program. For customers with limited storage space, this might be a good option for CMS to pursue, at least for Bouceback Ultimate’s data copy option.

For more information:

CMS

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HP dvd1170e External Multiformat DVD Writer

gigavu

We have tested many external dvd drives over the last decade, including several HP models. The HP dvd1170e is one of the best. It even beats the internal DVD drive that came with the test computer and recently gave up the ghost after months of poor performance. In contrast, the dvd1170e is quiet and burns video and data DVDs with no errors.

It is LightScribe-compatible, which means it uses a CD- and DVD-labeling technology that produces silk-screen-quality images on CDs and DVDs. However, be aware that it works only on special blank CDs and DVDs that will cost you more than those bargain 50-packs you purchase at Staples.

Using LightScribe, you can create your own custom label that is etched onto the front side of the DVD using the laser built into the unit. Although it can burn single layer DVD-R & DVD+R discs at 22x speed, we produced best results using a 16x burning speed. Tests showed an improvement in visual quality with this slower burning speed. It also records double-layer and rewritable DVDs, but at speeds up to 8x.

This is a good basic DVD burner, for those not yet ready for (or not needing) Blu-Ray burners.

For more information:

HP

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Handy Software Tools: Wavepad and System Mechanic Professional

wavepad

Wavepad Audio Editor

WavePad came as a surprise to me. This program has the features of larger audio editing programs, like digital effects processors and filters. You can also define band-gap envelopes for click and pop removal in addition to sampling white noise or tape hiss and removing it from recordings. for audio engineers, WavePad has command line batch file processing and FFT spectral analysis for capturing waveforms.

There is a free version that has an impressive array of tools, yet the paid Masters Edition allows access to a sound library, which is helpful when adding sound effects to audio tracks, mashes, remixes, video, and so on.

Here's a list of features:

  • Supports a number of file formats including wav (multiple codecs), mp3, flac, ogg, vox, gsm, real audio and many many more.
  • A wide range of editing capabilities including Cut, Copy, Paste, Delete, Insert, Silence, AutoTrim and others.
  • Effects including Amplify, Normalize, Equalizer, Envelope, Reverb, Echo, Noise Reduction, Sample Rate Conversion and more.
  • Sound effect and music library with 1,000 free audio clips included.
  • Supports sample rates from 6000 to 96000Hz, stereo or mono, 8, 16, 24 or 32 bits.
  • Ability to work with multiple files at the same time.
  • Includes a CD ripper to load audio direct from a CD-ROM.
  • Player includes Scrub/Cue control for precise editing.
  • Recorder supports autotrim and voice activated recording.
  • Support MDI (Multiple Document Interface), which allows displaying multiple files all on one screen.
  • Support for MME, DirectSound and ASIO playback.
  • Support for MME and ASIO recording.
  • Full support for VST plugins.

The instruction manual/help file is somewhat useful in describing the features, but unfortunately, it can't accurately describe what each does. Describing sound effects is a bit like describing colors for a graphics package. It's best to grab the free version online and play with it on your sample audio files, and then decide whether to purchase it or not.

While your at it, look up the bundled software NCH Software is selling on Amazon like the following: NCH Software Sound Studio (includes WavePad audio editing software, MixPad, Switch sound file conversion software, RecordPad and Zulu DJ software), NCH Software Sound Studio (includes WavePad audio editing software, MixPad, Switch sound file conversion software, RecordPad and Zulu DJ software), and NCH Video Suite.

wavepad

System Mechanic Professional

I first tested System Mechanic Professional in 2006 and was impressed by its ability to do batch system optimizations and repairs, ones you could schedule after hours. When I remembered to keep the machine on, the scheduled actions took place. When my machine began to slow down, I realized the Total Care batch program hadn't been run in awhile, due to my negligence.

Now, among the new release's impressive features is real-time optimization, which occurs as you use your computer (more accurately, when it's idle). This means that you can specify that it scan the system for such problems as restoring memory that sloppy programs failed to release, recovering space from temporary Windows clutter, and scanning the system for viruses and spyware. You don't have to do anything! There is even a System Mechanic gadget that sits on your desktop, showing you what it's monitoring and fixing (either always on top or only when the desktop is displayed), in case you're compulsive and need to fix manually something before the automation can set in. Through a Windows 7 configuration error, I've had it disappear a few times, but it's a simple matter to redisplay it through the Windows 7 gadget applet.

You can program the system to speed up system startups, but that becomes a moot point if you specify that you want your registry compressed and cleaned each time your computer is turned on. Unfortunately, there's no way to program System Mechanic to do this, say every fifteen days. It's either every day or never. If it makes you feel any better, there is some disagreement among techies on the Web as to whether registry optimization really helps much. I haven't noticed any notable speed improvement after a registry optimization, either by this program or any other, but maybe that's just me.

If you subscribe to the update feature every year, iolo technologies will upgrade your system daily, not just with virus updates but, like Windows itself, with program updates. It's probably worth subscribing to, particularly for the anti-virus protection. (It caught one Trojan horse trying to gallop in through a program on my USB drive.) I recommend System Mechanic for those who want to keep their system safe and efficient with a minimum of bother.

For more information:

Wavepad: NCH

System Mechanic: iolo

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VisibleDust Sensor Cleaning Products: My Battle with a Dust Mote

VisibleDust Artic Butterfly Sensor Loupe

DSL Cameras have two annoying design flaws that don’t seem destined for improvement soon. The first one is lack of sophisticated manual focus. The old analog cameras had ground glass and split screen focusing systems that put the DSLR focus to shame. Now all the technology is focused on auto-focus, so when you need to use manual focus . . . don’t get me started. The other is dust. If you change lenses often, you are acquainted with the dreaded dust-on-the-sensor devil. If it has struck you down, you’ll see it’s grimy footprints on the next picture of expansive sky you take.

Don’t think you’re immune if your camera gently shakes the sensor to dislodge dust. It may get rid of some of it (on average, only a third). The rest clings for life like a cat held over a soap-filled sink. So how do you get rid of it?

You have to get your hands dirty, and that means getting over your fear of exposing and peering down at the multicoloured plate of your sensor. One way to remove dust is to blast it off with a heavy duty dust blower. But sometimes even that doesn’t work. You may need the heavy artillery.

VisibleDust makes a kit that contains these weapons in the dust eradication battle.

The Sensor Loupe. This is a very cleverly designed loupe designed to fit over your exposed sensor and reveal the dust. It does this via a series of small LEDs around its perimeter. Since they are placed at an angle, they reveal the dust and its shadow. It comes in two sizes: 5X and 7X. I tested the 7X. It showed that I had two dust motes on my sensor.

The Arctic Butterfly. This curious device is an electronic brush designed to pick up the dust that you spot with the Sensor Loupe. When you turn it on, two events occur: it spins around, developing a static charge so that the dust is picked up. And it turns its own little light on, to aid you in relocating the dust mote you spotted with the loupe. I didn’t find the light strong enough to easily relocate the motes—perhaps I need to get used to it or it needs a second LED. But I did relocate them with the loupe. And it did the job—for one of them.

Cleaning Swabs. Since I could not get the second mote, I had to assume it was a daub of grease. According to the Visible Dust web site (and others), grease can appear on the sensor of even new cameras, due to the mechanical aspect of the shutter and its mirror. I didn’t care how it got there, I had to get rid of it. So I moistened the swab and dragged it across the 1.6 Canon APS sensor, then swiped it back. (It was a tight fit; perhaps a smaller size would have been better.) It didn’t work the first time, so I tried again. And again. It took EIGHT times to dislodge the grease blob. This meant a new swab each time. I later found out that this kind of protracted grease battle is not that uncommon. I also found out that it’s not a good idea to use the Arctic Butterfly until the sensor has thoroughly dry, or it will smear.

I did finally win the battle, thanks to these three products. The alternative would have been to send it to a specialized service and pay up to $100 for a cleaning. And it would have knocked the camera out of commission for—what? Two weeks? If I was lucky!

Like basement sump pumps, these tools are in that odd category of products you hope you don’t have to use, but are glad to have when you need them. Who knows? If you get good at sensor cleaning, you can clean your friends’ DSLR sensors and make enough money to make back the cost in a few short months.

Tips: Mount your camera on a tripod while cleaning the sensor. That way you can tilt it down slightly to allow the dust to escape. Also, don’t clean your sensor unless you have to. Take an out-of-focus picture of your ceiling if you suspect dust infestation, then examine the photo for tell-tale specs.

For more information:

VisibleDust

Back to Photography Reviews

Collectorz.com’s Music Collector, Book Collector, and Movie Collector

Verbatim

We reviewed the previous versions of these three cataloguing systems several years back and were impressed. Not only did they offer easy-to-use, logical data organization, they also made it easy to acquire data. With an inexpensive bar code scanner, you can easily import bar codes for these three products and then perform an internet search for detailed listings. Locations like Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and the Library of Congress dutifully find the information and the Collectorz program sucks it into its database. Of course you don’t even need the bar code scanner, if you want to manually type the search parameters. The products are a worthy addition to the collectors’ arsenal. Not only are they good for the amateur collector, but the small business owner, such as the local used bookstore owner and the Amazon merchant. There is even a “For Sale” sorting category, although oddly, no “Sold” category. Sellers will have to be content with the more pedestrian “Not in Collection” category.

There are many improvements to these three products. Here are a few: (unless marked with an asterisk, the improvements apply to all three products):

Music Collector:

  • Completely redesigned Filter screen and advanced filtration options using brackets, AND, OR, NOT, equal, not equal, greater than, less than, contains, starts with, ends with, wildcards
  • The ability to save your sort order definitions and activate them
  • Artist and composer are separated into two field (a boon for the classical CD collector!)*
  • Improved add-album wizard, with retrieved purchase price and new resizable screen New details view templates, for prettier screens
  • Export to HTML, for those who want to put their collections online Book Collector Export to iPhone / iPod touch, Palm, Blackberry, and other handheld

Book Collector:

  • Search by LC (Library of Congress) Classification Number: Find older (pre-ISBN era) books by entering their LC Classification Number*
  • Uses the Collectorz.com online book database to get book information. If not found, the Collectorz.com server automatically searches multiple online sources.*
  • New Print screen with improved layout, making it more logical and easier to use. Your insurance agent will thank you.

Movie Collector:

  • New "Most Popular" tab page, showing last week's most popular movies*
  • Video View for Detail Page Actor Search Page. Also an actor selection to list all of their movies.*

Here is one of the best reasons for updating all three programs, which affects Amazon sellers and those who access its database. Amazon recently changed its authorization algorithm (the code that releases information to engines like Music Collector). Previous versions of these programs will no longer retrieve data from Amazon.

One more intriguing feature: You can even carry your databases around —if you can accept a certain level of limitation. Collectorz has a strategic alliance with Ilium Software, which makes ListPro for PCs and handhelds. I was able to export my Music Collection database to a format that ListPro can read, and then sync it with my Palm Pilot. However, the predefined fields exported to ListPro number only about eleven. Unless you learn how to program ListPro to accept other fields from your Collectorz database, you won’t be able to specify, for example, the”Location” of those CDs. Collectorz will soon have in place its online cataloging tool, which offers a mobile version that may be more user friendly than the ListPro export. Note, however, that this is a subscription service.

If you are serious about your collections or you want to sell them, check out these software aids (and the barcode scanners they support). They’ll make life easier for you.

For more information:

Collectorz

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Dorfman Pacific Eclipse Felt Hat

Dorfman

t may seem odd, but these days it is very hard to find a brimmed hat—outback style—that also has ear flaps. I don’t understand it, for the combination is unbeatable. It makes a perfect hat for a sunny windy wintry day, but so few hat manufacturers make such a beast. Fortunately, Dorfman Pacific has one: The Eclipse DF55EL has a three-inch brim and a set of ear flaps that effectively keep out the cold. It is made of "crushable" felt but I wouldn’t want to crush it to stuff it into a coat pocket. It’s too stylish for that, with a rakishly curved brim and thick felt. However, it does not offer an outré headband; instead, it comes with a piece of black rawhide that penetrates the fold of the brim and turns into a chin strap with a wooden draw bead. Offered in both black and khaki, the hat seems to be built sturdily. I have no doubt such a hat will last for years. Its sizes run from medium to extra large. Although the listing claims it is made of ”water resistant felt,” you’d do well to periodically waterproof it with a few sprays of Scotchguard or similar solution. Who needs those heavy, inflexible, expensive leather brimmed hats, with such a sturdy felt hat available?

For more information:

Dorfman Pacific

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Verbatim TUFF-CLIP USB Drives

Verbatim

It is as sturdy as it looks. The Verbatim TUFF-CLIP USB drive is made of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic, which is stronger than pure polystyrene. It’s the same stuff that kid-resistant Lego bricks are forged with. The drive’s retractable slider is a nice draw; I don’t know how many USB caps I’ve lost over the years. It protects the sides of the USB connector from damaging impact, but its exposed end may be susceptible to dust. Another useful feature is the V-Safe100 password security software that it comes bundled with. With it you can define protected and public sectors of the drive. The drive is also rated highly enough to qualify as a ReadyBoost drive. ReadyBoost1 is a component of Microsoft Vista that allows you to use the TUFF-CLIP as a drive for disk cache, in an effort to speed up computer operation. TUFF-CLIP also has an integrated carabineer clip that can be fastened onto a backpack, key chain, belt loop or notebook. I really like this carabineer clip; it’s an advance over the lanyard rings that previous USB drives come with. You can clip and unclip this one with ease.

Verbatim’s TUFF-CLIPs come in 4GB and 8GB capacities.

1 We weren’t able to test ReadyBoost as part of this review. However, pcstats.com did and found it most effective with Vista systems containing less than 1GB of memory.

For more information:

Verbatim

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Three High Dynamic Range (HDR) Products

HDR

Love it or hate it, high dynamic range (HDR) photography (along with its post-processing feats) is here to stay, at least for now. Wherever pictures display blown out highlights or murky shadows, HDR offers its aid. Properly applied, it opens up the dimmest shadows and tones down the most glaring highlights. The bugbears that have plagued us for centuries, those high contrast vistas and cityscapes, have been swept into to the same dustbin as Kodachrome film. HDR is particularly useful for photographs taken at dusk, during the magic hour just before sunset. It can also impart unusual, even surreal effects to a photograph, if you have the right software. To those who practice this arcane art, that software is Photomatix Pro. Let's back up a bit. Most of the time, HDR requires that a photograph be a blend of three or more exposures, typically -2EV, 0EV and +2EV. Single-image HDR is possible, but it doesn't produce the same effects as a blend of images. Photoshop has the capability of merging shots into one 32-bit high dynamic range photograph, but you really can't let loose with your creativity. Enter Photomatix. For $99 ($119 with Photoshop Plugin), you receive a package that offers dizzying levels of control to your newly constructed HDR photograph. It's called Tone Mapping and this process allows you to display and prepare HDR images (for later touchup and printing) that incorporate many types of adjustment. Here are a few:

  • Strength: Controls the contrast enhancement strength.
  • Colour Saturation: Controls the color saturation.
  • Smoothing: Controls smoothing of light variations throughout the image.
  • Luminosity: Controls the compression of the tonal range.

Yes, it's a bit complex when you first encounter it. If you ignore the obsessions with legacy processes that photographers sometimes latch onto, like wet plate glass negatives, HDR is perhaps the most complex photographic post-process out there today (beyond straight image editing of course). Luckily there's some support out there for it.

To begin with, HDRSoft.com, the makers of Photomatix Pro, has a helpful set of video tutorials (theirs and links to others) and an exhaustive FAQ. The FAQ even gets into such details as what to do about color noise, should it appear in your HDR image. (The newest version of the product even has a noise reduction feature.)

Then there is Photoshop Café's 19-part video tutorial, HDR and Photoshop CS3. The style is very breezy and the instructions easy to follow. The author covers both Photoshop's HDR feature and Photomatix Pro. He uses real-time screen captures that document his alterations and covers problems that may occur such as haloing and grain. He tends to think on his feet, however. Such an approach can result in his telling you to do one thing, then backtracking to make an adjustment to the feature a few minutes later. That aside, he is a good teacher, his tips are helpful, and his topics are a solid introduction to HDR in general and Photomatix Pro in particular.

The third source is a book, The Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Digital Photography (Lark Photography Book) by Ferrell McCollough. More than the other photographer-authors, McCollough presents plausible scenarios and recommended configuration settings, particularly with Photomatix. He gives helpful hints, like what to do about night scenes, which can present their own problems with extremely wide dynamic range. (He recommends starting at -2EV and bracketing around that exposure, then moving to +2EV.) He also provides a wealth of intriguing images, both from his and other photographers' experience. They readily show that the picture needs to be unusual or eye-catching to start with, even before HDR is attempted. Don't expect to pretty up a mediocre picture.

For more information:

Photomatix Pro

Photoshop Café Video Tutorials

The Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Digital Photography

Back to Photography Reviews

BitDefender Internet Security 2009

BitDefender

"What's a good anti-virus software to use these days?" I'm often asked. It used to be Norton Internet Security. But in my opinion, that software got too unwieldy over the years and tended to slow my system down as it was protecting it. Effective most of the time, true, but it was not fun to use. I also found it rather bloated and ultimately difficult to deinstall.

 I tend to recommend BitDefender Internet Security these days. It doesn't consume system resources as egregiously, nor does it take up a faction of the space of its rivals. Its real-time scanning picks up problems and possible intrusions, without questioning everything that pings your computer. Scans pick up viruses well and offer the alternative to delete them. It won't allow you to delete a piece of malware that's tucked inside an archive, but that's no big thing. It will tell you where that archive is so you can delete it yourself. It's also eminently configurable. You can specify what level of protection you want from each of its modules: antivirus, spam protection, parental controls, firewall and antispyware. You can go the full gamut, from paranoid to laid back. It helps to have some computer knowledge, at least during the learning phase.

You can schedule full system scans and they will even pick up phishing expeditions, which are attempts to get your vital personal data by posing as a bank or other institution. Out of the box, the software takes an hour or two to ramp up for most users, particularly those who have performed configurations before for other packages. But to tweak it comprehensively, be prepared to spend some time with the often complex documentation.

Recommended. For more information: BitDefender

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Case Logic Compact Portable Hard Drive Case (PHDC-1)

Caselogic

If you've purchased an external USB hard drive lately, you might have noticed that it didn't come with a case. "So what?" you say, while stuffing it into your traveling case. Four months later, it crashes, possibly from all the jostling around it's received from your roller backpack.

You probably could have prolonged its life with a Case Logic Compact Portable Hard Drive Case (PHDC-1). Although not as padded as a camera lens case (no fall-protection guarantee), the PHDC-1 has a sturdy cover and an elastic strap across the bottom half of the clamshell that keeps the drive from rattling around.  The top half has a convenient net that does a great job of holding a USB cable in place. And if you don't have a cable, this pocket could possibly double as storage space for yet another drive.  The case comes in an assortment of colors, like black, blue, and (my favorite) cranberry red.

For more information: Case Logic

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ProMaster Off-Camera TTL Canon Flash Cord

ProMaster

If you've purchased an external flash for your DSLR camera, you have made a step in the right direction, in producing good flash pictures. Yet don't get smug! You've probably discovered that on-camera flash shots are not ideal. Ugly shadows still appear in back of your subjects, particularly those you pose in back of light-colored walls. What you need is an off-camera flash cord. The ProMaster Off-Camera TTL Canon flash cord is an excellent choice. If you attach one end to your camera's hot shoe, and the other to the flash, you can move it an arm's length away from your camera and take better shots than before. This is because they can be varied; for example, you could extend your arm up in a "Statue-of-Liberty" pose and bounce the light off a ceiling, causing a natural lighting look to your subjects. You can also turn the flash sideways and throw strong light on one side of your subject's face.

One thing you will notice in taking these shots. It can be quite tiring to hold the flash with one hand and a bulky two-pound DSLR with the other. My advice: make use of one of these ProMaster features: the tripod screw hole or the bracket "foot." If you have an ancillary tripod, attach the flash to it. If you have a flash bracket, attach that to your camera and slide the ProMaster foot onto it. You'll get the flash far enough away from the camera for good shots. In either case, you've freed up your hands for taking pictures.

For more information: ProMaster

Back to Photography Reviews

Palm Centro Smartphone

Palm Centro

The Palm Centro is sexy and efficient. It comes with a full qwerty keyboard. This means that rather than have a slide-out keyboard, the keyboard instead comprises the lower half of the device, with keys packed in quite tightly, each only a fraction of a millimetre apart from its neighbor. It takes a bit getting used to and you may never learn to touch type on this device; however, you do get used to it over time. Just don’t pare your fingernails too short.

Applications seem to load quicker than they did in previous Palm and Treo models, but maybe I’m imagining it. All Palm legacy programs work on it, including ones I’ve used on ten-year old Palm models. If you decide you don’t want to continue your phone service, you can still use the Palm Centro as a PDA. There is a Date applet that allows you to disable its receiving the current date from the network. Bear in mind that Verizon and Sprint phone service will incur a higher monthly cost with the Centro than that of a typical non-smartphone. You will not have the choice to disable internet service but still maintain phone service, because the two features are inextricably linked in this phone. Verizon, for example, offers smartphone service for the Centro that costs $30 more a month than a bare bones cell phone. Is it worth it? Yes, if you have to be online more frequently than the twice daily average of most internet surfers. While it may be a little disconcerting to scroll through messages at about 30 characters width,  you will be able to access your e-mail accounts any time you like to find that restaurant in South Portland, Maine or make sure that stock purchase went through before the latest dip/rally episode.

Reception is terrific; I’m not sure that is due to those  high speed EVDO wireless data networks or the presence of extremely powerful Sprint towers in my area. I was able to carry on a conversation with someone in a closed computer lab surrounded on all sides by several layers of shieldedconcrete  walls. There was never a single moment of dropout.

Don’t expect award-winning pictures from the 1.3 megapixel digital camera, or stunning videos you can burn to a DVD. The quality is just not there. However, they are both more than adequate as recording devices; for example, you can take a picture of that new sink at Home Depot and e-mail it to your mate for approval. Or photograph white boards at work meetings before they get erased.

And yes, the Centro has built-in Bluetooth v1.2 wireless. With it you can use wireless gadgets such as GPS navigation kits and Bluetooth headsets.

Battery power could be better, but these 3G "radios" are power hogs. If you are a moderate user, expect to recharge every two to three days.

These are but some of the most notable features of this splendid device. I haven’t even touched upon the included software, like the many e-mail programs you can subscribe to. The Centros are often on sale at Verizon (like they are as of this writing, Dec. 2008), but I suspect similar deals in the offing at Sprint. No one advises this, but do get a clear protector for the touch screen, despite the advertisement that there’s one already there. (I couldn’t find it.) It’s amazing how quickly these things can accumulate scratches over the months.

For more information: Palm

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Epson Stylus Photo R1900 Printer

Epson r1900

The Epson Stylus Photo R1900 printer is one of the latest wide format photo printers in the market that can accommodate 13" x 19" prints or wide rolls of paper for panoramic shots (with a maximum height of 13")  It  is also able to print special coated white inkjet printable CD/DVDs.

This printer is modestly priced at about $500, obviously aimed at the serious amateur/frugal professional market. I found the printer and the enclosed printer profiles produce quite accurate results, using both Epson paper and Ilford semi-gloss Pearl paper. The printer driver offers a fine set of color management  options under the Advanced tab.

epsonmenuUnder the ICM radio button, there is an option to turn off color management, which I recommend all users of Photoshop to do. The driver's color management is only truly useful for applications that have no native color management features, like Epson's Print CD software.

Printed without the High Speed option checked is the best option. (I hope I'm never in such a hurry to choose High Speed.) An 8.5" x 11" print took only about a minute and a half. The colors were quite vibrant, based on the supplied printer profile. Very little saturation through Photoshop was necessary.  Printing in black & white was somewhat trickier, since there is always some metamerism, or color bleed. You may need to make adjustments in additional prints, particularly when printing larger  10" x 15" photographs.

I did not test the roll paper feature, because I don't have the patience for it, particularly when the paper always curls so annoyingly.  It's a technology that demands nerves of steel I don't possess.

Speaking of the Print CD/DVD option, how did it work? We tested it with the white-coated CDs included with the unit and they took the ink admirably. But bear in mind that inkjet printable CDs and DVDs cost a bit more than  standard blanks (about 50% more, if Staples is a reliable indicator). Just for kicks, I did try printing on a standard blank. The ink didn't take. The printer really needs the white-coated CDs.  Epson's Print CD software is easy to use and will produce good results. I wouldn't use this feature as a bulk CD printing operation, but as a once-in-a-while nicety. 

We did notice some bronzing in one black & white print, which can occur with pigment inks when the printer's "gloss optimizer" is turned off. The gloss optimizer feature took care of most of it, offering two options: (Auto -  the optimizer is applied only to the parts that need it, and Full - the optimizer coats the entire photograph with the optimizer ink.) A print that uses optimizer  has a minimum, bronzing effect.  There was no other bronzing in the other prints we tested.

This printer is highly recommend.

For more information: Epson

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Blow Up 2 for Enlarging Photographs

Blow Up 2

Blow Up 2 by Alien Skin solves a problem that has dogged photo retouchers for years. How do you retouch a 4 x 6 snapshot a client has given you from a shoebox, and then enlarge it to an 8 x 10 photograph they can frame? Or harder still, retouch a small photo, crop a chunk off, and then enlarge it to four times its size? 

We were faced with this problem recently and Blow Up 2 solved it. The program uses a heuristic algorithm to extrapolate the “missing” bits in an enlargement. Of course, you say, Photoshop’s Bicubric feature in the Image Size command does that too. But Photoshop’s results are not so impressive. There is a lot of fuzziness in its results, much more than in Blow Up 2. So what does Blow Up 2 offer? First, the plugin allows you to sharpen the picture after enlarging it. This is virtually essential, as any enlargement done electronically usually results in a softer image. Blow Up 2’s sharpener is quite a bit easier to use than Photoshop’s notoriously counterintuitive Unsharp Mask command. However, it comes with a slight price: it’s not as powerful. Use Blow Up 2’s if you want a quick sharpen and don’t want to mess with Unsharp Mask’s complex options. 

Blow Up 2 also has a series of presets so you can scale images up for paper sizes and types; recently, the Alienskin forum included presets for the European market like A4. A similar competing product, OnOne’s Genuine Fractals 5, performs some (but not all) of the same functions (such as sharpening). It is, however not as fast. I also like Blow Up 2’s batch-processing feature, which resizes of the images in a folder. Genuine Fractals 5 can’t do this impressive bit of time saving. Finally, Blow Up 2 also supports 32-bit HDR images, although I’m not sure many people will be rushing to use that. Thirty-two bit HDR images are huge enough to start with; you’d have to want a poster-sized picture to use Blow Up 2 on it—and supply the disk space to store it! 

We highly recommend Blowup 2.

For more information: Alienskin

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Two Photography Cases Worth Considering

Tamrac 5690

Case Logic SLRA-7 Large Tripod Case

This padded tripod case protects full-size tripods up to approximately 27.5-inches (70cm) when folded. It also protected me from being banged about by my tripod while traveling. There is a strap for this purpose and it worked perfectly as I trekked up a large hill. Too bad the strap wasn’t padded, but that’s an extra probably found on bags costing twice as much. The zipper works quickly and efficiently and the bag fully contains my Bogen Manfrotto 055XDB basic tripod with 486RC2 compact ball head. This case also has attachment loops that allow you to connect the tripod case to a bag or backpack, as well as a mysterious orange bungee cord surrounding the seam. Is it decorative? I’ll probably remove it, as it will undoubtedly snag on something. The internal dimensions are: 27.5-inches x 5-inches x 4.25-inches. A good buy.

Tamrac 5690

Lowepro Rolling CompuTrekker Plus Backpack

Equally impressive is the Lowepro Rolling CompuTrekker Plus backpack. Capacity seems to be its middle name. It contains enough room for the following: a notebook computer (up to 15.4" screen); a digital SLR; 35mm or compact medium format system, 4-5 lenses (up to 400mm f/2.8); and flash and accessories. However, that much equipment will pack the pounds on. The pack weights 10.65 lbs. empty. It has a front moveable tripod mount (which seems to work with small to medium-sized tripods, but alas, not my Manfrotto 055XDB  tripod). The wheels seem more designed for airports and smooth pavements, rather than for rough patchy macadam roads. After a few drags along the streets of Boston, they showed definite signs of wear. Time will tell how long they'll last. I do like the retractable handle. And the padded removable bags (both for the laptop and small sundries) are a definite plus. My SLR and zoom lens weren't quite wide enough to rest snugly in the T-shaped enclave--it slipped down to the bottom of the T—but when the bag was zipped shut, it didn’t wobble. If you don’t carry a laptop, you may be able to stuff a pillow or jacket in the front compartment. If you’re packed with dorsal strength, you can use the back straps to carry the bag through snow, making it sort of an all-terrain vehicle. Don’t worry about rain, it has a built-in All Weather Cover™ you can slip over it. The 14” X 10” X 20.9” dimensions seem to just about fit into the 45-inch airline carry on standard (Delta’s is  x 14" x 9" x 22"), but check out your airline before travel. Still, the bag is well padded, so there is a good chance your equipment would be safe if you had to undergo the dreaded check-in. Consider getting this bag if you a) have a lot of equipment, or b) have a lot of non-photographic equipment you need to bring along with you.

For more information: Caselogic and Lowepro.

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Garmin nüvi 260W 4.3-Inch Widescreen Portable GPS Navigator

Garmin 260W

Prior to using the Garmin 260W, I had been using a Lowrance IWAY. I gave up on it in Florida, when it steadfastly refused to lock onto a satellite. So finding satellites within a reasonable time period was one priority. Another was ease of use. I am okay with complex technical devices, but my wife is not. She is a technophobe, so any machine of this sort would have to be as easy to use as an ATM machine. I'm happy to report that the Garmin 260W succeeded with both of these requirements-for the most part. The menu structure is so intuitive you can navigate through it without the manual. (Note that the "W" stands for "widescreen"; it's wider than other models.) It is easy to find locations and enter them into a favorites list, as it is easy to find info about the current trip, such as the maximum MPH clocked during the trip. It also recalculates routes quickly and tells you on what side a turn or ramp is on.

About finding satellites: in some locations, like the St. Louis, MI area, it finds them quickly, particularly in the country. In the Boston area, where there can be many tall and close-together buildings, it seems to take longer, sometimes up to ten minutes. In other words, the unit may pick up a signal quickly or slowly, depending on where you travel. To adapt to this situation, I've learned to turn the unit on before getting into the car and let it do its thing for several minutes. The detour feature is an advance over the competition, yet it doesn't present you with a list of detours to choose between. It also doesn't come with a USB cable you can use to plug into your computer for updates. However, it does use a standard cord and you may have one hanging around anyway, if you have a digital camera for example. And although it doesn't come with an AC cord, its fully charged battery should last you from 3 to 5 hours. To summarize: for the money, this is an excellent and generally quite reliable device.

But remember several things about it (and most GPS units): Don't depend on it thoroughly. Keep a map in your car when you're travelling in new territory. That may sound like foolish redundancy, but it's actually sensible backup. Think twice before using the windshield suction cup. These things can become unstuck, depending on weather conditions. Also, register your unit on garmin.com. I found the company's customer service to be excellent. In addition, it has a well-designed website that you can visit for additional features, some with free downloads, such as different vehicle icons, different voices, and so on.

For more information: Garmin.

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Tamrac 5690 Digital "Bridge" Camera Case

Tamrac 5690

A bridge camera is classified as midway between a compact digital camera and an SLR. They've recently gotten smaller, so we tested the Nikon Coolpix P5100 with the new Tarmac 5690 case 5to see how well it fits. For a case that's not specifically designed for this Nikon camera, the Tarmac 5690 case is a surprisingly good fit. Like an SLR case, it has special accessory pockets for batteries and SD cards. Thankfully, it uses Tarmac's handy "EasySqueeze Buckles," rather than Velcro. And it is also amply padded, should you have the misfortune of dropping the case with camera. One caveat: If you decide to attach a neck strap to your camera, you had better use a thin one, else you will have a rather tight fit. Speaking of neck straps, note that the 5690 also comes with a neck strap, for those who prefer to carry the case around the neck rather than on the hip.

For more information: Tamrac.

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SanDisk 16 GB Secure Digital (SDHC) Card

Sandisk SDHC

There is now a new reason for purchasing an SD card. Backup. Even though the 16 GB SanDisk Secure Digital Ultra III Flash memory card is capacious enough to store 4,000 JPEG images from a typical 10-megapixel camera, it can also serve as backup for a SD-port-ready computer. How important is this? Here is a quote from the Consumer Electronic Association’s article, CONSUMERS FAIL TO PROPERLY BACK UP LARGE DIGITAL LIBRARIES:

Americans are failing to regularly back up their digital photos, music, documents or other types of files, according to a new study released by the Consumer Electronic Association. According to the report, “nearly a quarter of Americans are not consciously backing up their files because they think that it’s too time-consuming.” Yet there is a simple way around this dilemma: insert a 16 GB card like Sandisk’s, activate an automated backup scheme, and forget about it. There are literally dozens to choose from, like Acronis’ excellent True Image Home or Second Copy by Second Copy Centered Systems. These two handy programs can be set up to copy your data on schedule. Memeo offers Autobackup, a real-time backup system that creates backups as you save new files so that you’re never more than a few seconds away from a backup copy. (Of course it is a bit resource intensive, but that’s a small price to pay for security.)

Because the SanDisk card has a 16 GB capacity, you can fit most of your vital data files onto it, whether from a laptop or desktop computer. Typically any files older than a few months can be archived onto DVD discs. The SanDisk card is also useful for amateur photographers taking trips longer than a weekend. Even with 9 or 10 MB per picture, you can fit 1600 of them on one card. You won’t have to carry an unwieldy “digital safe” or other such portable card copier to Paris. Just throw a couple of these cards in your pack and you’re all set. Even if you film with a camcorder, make sure you buy one that records its data onto an SD card, like several Sony camcorders do now. You’ll get more than a half hour of video onto a 16 GB card.

Because this card’s list of possible uses is so extensive, we highly recommend it for anyone concerned about their digital data.

For more information: Sandisk.

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Tamrac 5680 Compact Digital Camera Case

Tamrac 5680

The Tarmac 5680 camera case is an ideal choice for an ultra-small digital camera. Rather than Velcro, its cover uses a magnetic snap, which is always a better choice for closure. Rather than a belt clamp, which can cause the case to leap off your belt if you sit an an unfortunate angle, it uses a belt loop. And it is also amply padded, should you have the misfortune of dropping the case. I tried it with the Casio EX-Z1000, a popular camera in recent years, and it fits nice and snug. One caveat: If you decide to exchange the wrist strap with a more voluminous neck strap, you will have a rather tight fit. In that case, you should probably move up to Tarmac’s 5686 model, which will easily accommodate such an addition. Speaking of neck straps, note that the 5680 also comes with a neck strap, for those who prefer to carry the case around the neck rather than on the hip.

For more information: Tamrac.

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PaperPort 11 Professional

PaperPort 11

For those who’ve never used it, PaperPort Professonal is a document and photograph storage & retrieval, conversion, and enhancement program. It is used with your scanner; in fact, it can be programmed to load when you press your scanner’s scanning button. As an archiving application, it allows you to acquire documents from many sources and store them into neat folders that you have defined. You can also tag each document with information that can be later used as search items in your retrieval. For example, if you tagged each document with the keywords “insurance” and “auto,” a subsequent search would bring up only those documents. Very useful at tax time.

As a conversion program, PaperPort allows you to convert scanned documents or those acquired from the Internet such as PDF documents. If you acquired a JPEG file for example, you could convert it into a TIFF or PDF file. A PDF can be converted into a Microsoft Word document, using PaperPort’s internal OCR engine. (It even preserves the formatting.) You’ve probably had the experience of acquiring a PDF application via e-mail that you need to fill out. With PaperPort’s Form Typer, you can just drop the PDF file onto the Form Typer icon whereupon it first converts the PDF to a PaperPort MAX file, then drops editable lines on top of the form’s lines. Within the Form Typer application, you tab from one field to the next, typing in the data. When you’re done, you can then create a new PDF and send it to your insurance agent, impressing her mightily.

As an enhancement program, PaperPort’s editing tools can clean up any document you scan. Most notably, it can straighten tilted documents, remove annoying page edge lines, and eliminate stray dots and speckles. This is a new feature in this release called SET (Scanner Enhancement Technology). For photographs, it can enhance and correct color and contrast, as well as adjust lightness and darkness. This component is not designed to restore badly damaged photographs, for example, or perform sophisticated photo editing work like Photoshop. It’s a quick fix solution for those who need a nice picture in a hurry and don’t have or want to mess with Photoshop. Using a system tray applet called Web Capture, you can scan the Web page you’re displaying and it will end up on your PaperPort desktop. If it’s a long scrollable page, you can specify that PaperPort capture the whole page. One page I scanned came into PaperPort as an eight-page document. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any way to stitch the pages together within PaperPort. I know it can be done in Photoshop, and some screen capture programs have scrolling capture features. Also, with the version I tested, Web Capture only works with IE; so if you use Firefox, keep your IE up to date.

For those who have been using PaperPort, Release 11 has other notable improvements besides SET. Prior to scanning a series of related documents, you can specify document tags that apply to all of them, such as “Fidelity fund.” This is an excellent feature for batch scanning. You can also fully index each scanned document by its contents. The contents become instantly searchable. Naturally, this indexing feature may slow down processing time a bit, particularly in older computers. For those new to PaperPort, the program also has some helpful how-to guides that explain how to do the tasks described above. Also included is a copy of PaperPort Watson. This provides a single search solution covering the Web, email and desktop search indexes. I would recommend trying it as a substitute for programs like Google Desktop Search. Add these features to improved speed and this release of PaperPort Professional is well worth obtaining.

For more information or to order: Nuance.

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ACT! by Sage 2008 (Version 10) and ACT! 2008 for Palm OS (Version 3)

ACT! 2008The new release of ACT! by Sage 2008 (Version 10) contact manager has many new features, many of which will prove to be of use to small business owners. Among these is a mail merge feature that can work with both Microsoft Word and e-mail systems like Outlook; the ability to export information to Excel; a robust sales opportunities window; and the sharing of Notes and History between contacts. (This last feature seems like it would be useful if two contacts were at the same company.) One feature we would have liked is a mileage window for a contact, one that would list the various mileage trips for a given period and present a total at the bottom. There may be a way to jerry-rig Excel into forging a makeshift mileage service, but time prevented us from delving deeply into it.

This review concerns ACT! integration with the Palm Pilot handheld. How efficiently does this occur? Are there any caveats or limitations? We installed ACT! by Sage 2008 and its companion software, ACT! 2008 for Palm OS (Version 3). We loaded an old ACT! database and converted it to the newer database format by following the prompts. After the conversion, we had some trouble getting the converted database to sync with our Palm Tungsten E. It would copy the data, but not finish the synchronization. This meant that future copies would continue to go only one way (from desktop to handheld) instead of the two directions of true synchronization. In other words, we could not sync any new data entered on the Palm to the desktop. A lengthy session with a Sage tech support representative reached this conclusion: the conversion of our contacts database had not been entirely successful. There was a glitch somewhere in the converted database. We were told to create a new blank database and import the data from the old database. After saving this newly forged database under a different name, we were able to complete a full synchronization. Now everything works as designed.

What about the ACT! 2008 for Palm OS application itself? View the database on the Palm handheld as a stripped-down version of the desktop database. It cannot, for example, accept and display attached files. (Why would you want it to?) It does, however, allow you to add and edit contacts, and insert notes as well as appointments. The important stuff. (Note that you cannot have more than one database on the Palm handheld at a time.)

The people at Sage have released two products that ultimately integrate well with each other. It is far better than the software that comes with Palm and its companion desktop version. But bear in mind my experience with the conversion of my old database. I'm not saying it will happen to you, but if it does, try the savvy tech rep's solution: import the old data into a fresh database and start anew.

CAVEAT: Unlike ACT! for Palm 1.0, this current version does not let you keep your Palm's native Contacts and Calendar conduits. So if you have important contacts in either of these Palm applications, be prepared to import them into ACT (although I'm not sure you can import Calendar items). In other words, once you've installed ACT! for Palm 3.0, you cannot synch the contents of your native Contacts and Calendar applications. The conduits are gone. You're in ACT!'s world now.

For more information: ACT!.

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Duracell DPP-600HD Powerpack 600

Duracell PowerPackHave you ever left your car lights on at work and needed to call AAA or enlist a coworker for a jump? You know how time-consuming and humiliating that can be. I once had to wait two hours for AAA. The Duracell DPP-600HD Powerpack 600 is designed to nip that situation in the bud. After an overnight trickle charge, it's ready to be stored in your car trunk or RV and be used for power emergencies. You can also use it to hook up electronic equipment (like a portable TV) and play it for an evening's entertainment. It holds a passive charge for months, but I would recommend checking it once in a while. Its gauge will tell you what percent of the charge is left.

The previous model, the 400, also had an air compressor (for inflating tires) and was a few pounds lighter. This unit comes with a basic radio that is handy in emergencies like power outages. We uses the Powerpack during one power outage and plugged a small lamp into it. We were able to read a book when everyone else's electricity was out.

This is a very useful unit , one that I would recommend to anyone needing an emergency jumper or power source. Just don't take it up and downstairs too often if your arms are weak!

For more information: Xantrex Technologies.

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Kinesis Freestyle VIP

Kinesis Freestyle VIPAre you tired of your traditional PC keyboard? Or perhaps you're more than tired--perhaps you're even sore. Traditional keyboards are not known for their ergonomic qualities. But Kinesis has been in the business of making ergonomic keyboards since 1991, so perhaps they're doing something right. Their Classic keyboard made typing much easier than even the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard did. Its sloping design was radical, but once you got used to it, it made keyboarding fun. But it had a steep learning curve. You had to be dedicated and patient to learn it.

The new Freestyle VIP is, in my opinion, a welcome advance in keyboarding technology. Its keys are more traditionally placed than on the Classic, so a beginner can jump in and begin using it right away. The "break" between the left and right hand is not only logical and ergonomic, it is highly adjustable. For the VIP model, you can set the peak in one of two positions, shallow and steep. And, if you want, you can adjust the distance between the two keyboard components. An optional model of the VIP has a longer cord separating the two components, so you can move them even further apart if need be.

Typing for long periods was not a problem with this model, as with the Classic. I have found that I could get more work done with virtually no wrist stiffness or pain. Note that Freestyle line comes in two other models: the Freestyle Solo and the Freestyle Incline. (See the Web site address listed below.) All Freestyle models have driverless hot keys for mouse intensive actions and the quietest tactile keys I've ever used. If your hands hurt from repetitive strain injury (RSI) and you're thinking of abandoning keyboarding for voice actuated data input, hold off until you try one of these models. You may not have to teach your computer how to recognize your own name.

For more information: Kinesis Corporation.

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Kingston CompactFlash Ultimate 266X

Kingston UltimateMonday, 14 January 2008

From a review published on dpreview.com on Monday, 12 April 2004:

The 1 MB Elite Pro provides a write speed of up to 5.2 MB per second and a read speed of up to 6.1 MB per second.

It sounded mighty impressive back then, so I bought one.

Now Kingston Technology’s CF card-flagship is the CompactFlash Ultimate 266X. It has a transfer rate of 45MB/sec. read and 40MB/sec. write. My Canon Digital Rebel XTi camera has a burst mode limit of 10 pictures in RAW mode and 27 in “Large/Fine” JPEG mode. Can it achieve Kingston’s write goals with the Ultimate 266X? I had my doubts, so I tested a 4 GB Ultimate 266X. It kept up with the burst mode, writing ten 8MB RAW files to disk. If the Canon burst mode had accommodated more pictures per burst, I think the Ultimate 266X could have probably kept up.

It was not long ago that cameras took eight or nine seconds TO SAVE ONE IMAGE to disc.

The card comes with a listing to a MediaRECOVER Web link. MediaRECOVER is a handy utility designed to help you recover lost or deleted files and restore corrupt files on Windows or Mac systems. I haven’t had a disaster of this sort lately, but it’s comforting to know there’s a tool out there that can take fix it.

One more thing: As of this writing, the Kingston Ultimate 4 GB 266x is currently selling on Amazon for about $80. Back in 2004, the 1 GB Type I CompactFlash Elite Pro card (I could find no comparable review of an Ultimate) had a MSRP of $349.00. Aren’t you glad you’re not living back then?

For more information: Kingston Technology .

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Jobo SPECTATOR Photo Storage Device

Belkin N1 Wireless Router

Hard to believe in this digital age, but there are photographers who do not yet know about what I call “photo safes.” Some manufacturers call them “storage devices,” “picture viewers;” some—like the Jobo Spectator—aren’t labeled at all. So what are they? Essentially, they are flash card reader/portable hard drives designed for backing up data saved on CompactFlash and SD cards. They take the place of lugging a laptop along with you on your vacation trip. They provide added security for your pictures, which you painstakingly took at great trouble and expense.

Jobo AG makes the Spectator, which is one of the more sturdy entrants in this category (although I haven’t dropped it). It certainly feels solid in the hand. After an initial twelve- hour charge, it’s ready to copy those memory cards that have accumulated so many of your photos. Its battery allows for multiple sessions, although it’s difficult to say how many it will do before you need to recharge it. The manual’s “basic data” specifications don’t specify. I recommend bringing the AC cord along with you. If this presents a dilemma in a foreign country, bring a reputable voltage converter. Or make friends with someone who has a computer. According to the manual, the unit can charge via the USB cable. It uses a Li-Ion battery, which is lighter than AA batteries, but cannot be changed or replaced.

The Jobo AG has a 1.5x2” LCD that displays files you’ve uploaded (although it’s not a touch screen). This is useful, but only for JPEGs. (TIFFs aren’t mentioned in the manual.). The Jobo does not display RAW files in any camera format, although it cheerfully copies them to its drive. That it does at about 1 MB/second, which may seem slow if you’re waiting to free up a card with photo-ops passing you by. However, it is a fairly standard transmission rate for these devices.

I don’t believe it’s possible to order the unit to automatically delete files on the card after it’s copied them to its drive. Most likely, you must do it manually. Each copy operation creates a new folder on the hard disk, and it picks up the camera name and assigns it to the folder (like “954Canon”) If you want to copy files to your computer directly, you can use the unit as a card reader and pass through it entirely, without using the Jobo’s hard drive. Just attach it to your USB port.

Two quirks I noticed:

  • After a copy, the Jobo prompts whether or not to navigate to the new directory. If you choose yes, the directory appears empty, with no filenames. If you try to display the directory using another method, the filenames appear.
  • I could not you abort a copy. I could not even turn the device off in the middle of a copy.

This is a fairly easy-to-use and efficient product. It hasn’t destroyed, crashed or otherwise munged a file in two dozen test copy sessions. I wish the manual had been translated into English a bit better. It reads as if a computer program did it, with fractured syntax, poor organization, and sloppy noun-subject agreement. But if you’re technically adept enough to navigate your digital camera’s menus, you should be able to crack the Jobo’s relatively simple structure. Just give yourself a little more time with the manual than usual.

For more information, visit Jobo AG .

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Belkin N1 Wireless Router & N1 Wireless Notebook Card

Belkin N1 Wireless Router

Setting up a home network, at least in the PC Windows environment, can be a daunting task for a home computer user, even if he or she is a power user. There are so many items to consider: Wi-Fi firewalls (tip: WPA rather than WEP), WAN firewalls like ZoneAlarm, internet access, file sharing. My advice is to read up on these items as much as possible before ordering a router and network card. Also, if you haven’t installed a DSL or cable modem, do that first and get it working (you may need to call your ISP’s support department). Then when you decide to network your PC with, say, a notebook computer located elsewhere in the house, you will have to call ISP support a second time. I found that out the hard way. The modem had to be adjusted for a pass-through mode that recognized the router. If you want the two or more computers to share files, that’s a separate capability from having them access the same DSL or cable modem.

I can’t give you all the information you need before connecting these pieces of Belkin hardware. But unless you educate yourself on home networking, you will find that you cannot get your Wi-Fi network working because you’ve left out some trivial item, like the notebook client’s IP address in your list of ZoneAlarm trusted sites.

Now to the goods:
The Belkin N1 Wireless Router (F5D8231-4) is a compact piece of equipment based on the 802.11n draft (the 300 Mbps one). It uses smart-antenna technology to enable multiple receivers and transmitters to send and receive data wirelessly. If you install it according to the instructions, and configure it correctly with your DSL/cable modem, you will be online within the hour. The router has its own hard-wired software (accessed by typing its IP address in your favorite browser). The options are many, but probably the only item you’ll need it for is configuring the Wi-Fi security settings. That task is well-documented and goes without a hitch.

The Belkin N1 Wireless Notebook Card (F5D8011) connects your notebook computer to a wireless network. My wife’s Vaio notebook stores her photo files that need to be edited and printed on my upstairs PC, so we figured the N1 technology would be an ideal solution. It operates at the fastest speed available, so it loads large image files quite nicely. The one problem we encountered is probably due more to the Vaio’s quirky PCMCIA slot than any inherent flaws in the N1 product. We found that initially the notebook would sometimes boot up without making a wireless connection to the PC server. We had to remove the card and reinsert it firmly about four times before we could get consistent connection results. Like any other networking configuration problem, it was maddening until this simple solution was discovered.

Try the Belkin route for home networking. You won’t be disappointed, if you educate yourself first!

For more information, visit Belkin.

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Canon Digital Rebel XTi (400D)

Canon Rebel XTi

The new Digital Rebel XTi, introduced by Canon August 24, 2006, is quite an improvement over the previous model, the 8- megapixel Digital Rebel XT from 2005. It has a 10.1 megapixel CMOS sensor, a larger continuous shooting buffer, an integrated image sensor vibrating cleaning system, a more precise 9-point auto focus system, improved grip, and a bigger 2.5-inch LCD. It’s a near perfect entry-level digital SLR. It has a near instantaneous turn-on time (.2 seconds), and a new “Display Off” sensor, which turns off the display when the photographer places her face against the viewfinder. With a shutter speed of 1/4000 to 30 seconds, what’s not to like?

The kit lens. (I said it was near perfect.) It’s the unimpressive, mostly plastic EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and it produces pictures that are on the soft side. And, more importantly, it is not an anti-shake lens like the kit lens with Canon’s next model up, the 40D (which is also a soft lens). My advice: buy this camera body, then buy a third-party zoom with anti-shake technology, like the Sigma AF 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS. Even though the camera w/kit lens costs only about $100 more than the body alone, you will rue making that decision.

Photography pundits are comparing the XTi with the more advanced Canon 40D. Bear in mind several facts from Canon’s specs: the 40D is heavier (26.1 oz. vs. 18 oz.). While a half pound doesn’t sound like much, it can feel pretty heavy when you’ve added a telephoto zoon lens to the mix. Also, for some mysterious reason, the sizes of the corresponding RAW file formats (both 3,888 x 2,592) are different. The 40D produces 12.4MB RAW files while the XTi produces 9.8MB RAW files. This 27% increase in size can also make a difference, if storage space is an issue for you.

For the money, there is not much to quibble about with the Canon XTi. It’s a good product and produced fine pictures on an old Sigma analog lens I borrowed from a colleague. It will probably serve you well—until a higher pixel count version becomes available.

For more information, visit Canon.

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Black & Decker Cordless 18 Volt Hand Vac

Black & Decker Cordless 18 Volt Hand Vac

Cordless Hand Vacs have been criticized for not having enough power, certainly not enough to challenge their corded cousins. The recently released Black & Decker Cordless 18 Volt Hand Vac may tip the scales on that imbalance. Its suction power is certainly impressive, particularly on carpeted stairs, where dirt and pet hair often gets embedded. Another feature worth noting is the unit’s “cyclonic action.” In previous models, dust became embedded to a filter or holding area, necessitating scraping with soft implements like plastic knives. But if the captured dirt continuously moves (like a cyclone) during cleaning, it stays free and is easily emptied. Unfortunately, the vac still has a nicad battery, which will probably wear down with repeated use faster than a nickel metal hydride one would have. Such batteries also have the “memory effect,” which degrades the recharging over time. But Black & Decker have designed the recharging cradle, either intentionally or not, so that you can rest it without recharging it after every minor job. Good advice: Use it until the battery wears down, then recharge it; as a result, the vac may provide better battery life. This small flaw aside, this cordless vac is the most convenient, easily cleaned, and powerful one yet so far.

For more information: Black & Decker.

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SanDisk E200R MP3 Player and Griffin Technology Case

SanDisk E200R MP3 player

SanDisk appears to have come up with another winner, and it’s a real iPod Nano-killer. The Sansa E200R is cheaper than the Nano and has an extra 2 GB of storage you can add via an expansion slot. This slot can be populated with the amazingly tiny MicroSD card, pioneered by Sandisk. (If you purchase this optional card, it comes with an SD card adapter, so you can use it on cameras, etc.) If you purchase the flagship unit with 8 GB, that’s a potential 10 GB of storage for you.

The included Rhapsody music subscription service is comparable to Apple’s iTunes service, with more than 2.5 million tracks at 99 cents. (They are recorded at 192Kbps versus iTunes' 128Kbps.) If you become a subscriber, you can buy tracks at a 10 percent discount. It also has a streaming radio network, so you can download whole “stations” to your unit. The E200R comes preloaded with a hefty selection of songs, none of which were in my demographic age group, so I deleted them. But for those who enjoy this type of music (and acquiring it this way), the Rhapsody service has many advantages.

In other respects, the E200R is superior to a Nano. It has an FM radio w/recorder, as well as a voice recorder. I wouldn’t use the voice recorder to capture board meetings, but it’s sufficient for dictating “to self” memos. I keep it on my bed stand to capture those fleeting midnight thoughts. It also has superior battery life (about 20 hours to Ipod’s 14). And here’s a real benefit: you can change the battery yourself a year or two after purchase, when it goes to battery heaven.

The unit contains features like the ability to handle low-resolution video and pictures. However, you must install bundled conversion software to experience this dubious thrill. Isn’t displaying video and pictures a reason why you have a digicam? Or a cell phone? Still, it’s nice to have for impressing your friends at parties.

On the downside, the power button is also the main menu button, which I found confusing. Tap it for the menu, but press it for a little longer than a second and off it goes. There is a proprietary USB dock connector and no AC adapter. Finally, those earbuds have got to go. Their sound is inferior to virtually any aftermarket pair costing more than $25. To be fair, I didn’t expect much and this shortcoming is common with most MP3 players, including Apple’s.

Consider investing in a hard case for this unit. The player’s body may be “scratch resistant,” but carrying it with you on trips or connecting it to your car’s MP3 port may eventually take its toll in nicks and even dents (if you drop it). I highly recommend the case sold by Griffin Technologies. Simply snap it on and forget about it. All the ports are cut out, including the slot for the micro SD card. I haven’t tried dropping the unit on cement yet, but I strongly suspect that the case would protect it even then.

For more information: Sansa

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Casio Exilim EX-Z1000 Portable Digital Camera

Casio EX-Z1000 Digital Camera

The Casio EX-Z1000 currently has the most megapixels of the ultra compact on the market. It produces excellent results, primarily at ISO 50 and 100. It's easy to use, with a fairly intuitive menu system that amateurs can learn quickly (particularly if they're second-digital camera owners). It's responsive, turning on fast so you can catch most fleeting shots. Out in bright sunlight, its results are as good at prosumer cameras one notch higher in the price scale. Its handy compact size make it a good choice to carry with you at all times. And it has an excellent macro feature. The other day my wife took a picture of the bottom of my toe to see how a recent procedure had healed. I knew more than I needed to about my toe scar!

It uses an impressive multi-function cradle. It functions as a charging station; as a slideshow runner on your LCD; it connects to your computer via USB, and finally (and probably least frequently) it can be used to connect your camera to a video source like a TV to project your images. Unfortunately, with its proprietary battery, the charging station is the only way to you charge this camera. So either bring it along on your trip or don't forget a spare battery.

Don't expect miracles in a package this small. The flash is about the same as its immediate competitors: if it can't illuminate the subject satisfactorily in auto mode, it may jack up the ISO to 800. You may not want that, because resolution quickly degrades at that high a rating.

But if you want an excellent everyday camera with a bright screen (even outdoors) and a fairly good anti-shake mechanism, go for this one. You won't be disappointed.

For more information: Casio.

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LEVO Bookholder

LEVO BookholderDo a lot of reading? How’s your neck and upper back? If you’re like me, you’ve experienced stiffness and headaches after long bouts of reading. The reason? Most of the time you’re looking down to read, a stressful angle! Happily there is a solution for your tired neck. The LEVO BookHolder is a book-reading easel that accommodates books up to five pounds. You attach the book by the covers with two Velcro straps, then hold it open with two ball-tipped clamps. About 15 years ago, I had a similar product, but it was so ugly and bulky (as well as hard-to-use and easily scratched), my wife persuaded me to discard it.

The Bookholder is constructed of black metal and plastic. It has wheels and a heavy base. There is “some assembly required,” but if you can handle a Philips screwdriver and pliers, you’ll be all set. The set bolt that holds the pole to the base is not stainless steel, so you may want to grease it before installation to prevent oxidation.

This is an excellent and easy product to use. I have placed heavy hard-cover books in it as well as flimsy paperbacks and it works equally well with both. You can adjust it to any height and angle and can even swing it out of the way when you get up from your chair. I didn’t warm up to the Velcro attachment straps, so if you’re constantly changing your reading material, prepare yourself for that telltale rrrripp! sound. After years of use, Velcro tends to accumulate lint, but it’s easily replaced.

Turning pages is not hard to do. You simply flip the right clamp up, turn the page, flip the left clamp up and place it down on the turned page (see illustration). After a while, you can do it all in one sweep.

For a time you may have to adapt yourself to looking at a book like a computer or movie screen, but once you do, your neck will thank you. I certainly experience less stress and consequently enjoy reading more. A shame it’s too small to accommodate newspapers, although I have fit magazines into it. Note that MTM also sells a battery-operated clip on lamp for the Bookholder, as well as a desktop model.

For more information: Bookholder .

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Quicken 2007 Home & Business

quickenSometimes one is all it takes.

Intuit provides a multi-page list that details the changes that distinguish Quicken 2007 from the 2006 version. There's a newly designed home page, improved charts and graphs, a calendar that lets you see upcoming bills and scheduled transactions, etc. All welcome additions.

However, in my opinion, there is only one change you need to know about, and this one should send you scurrying with your credit card to buy Quicken 2007 right now. That is the ability to attach image files to individual transactions (like cancelled checks) and PDF files to accounts. The paperless office is finally here. This new feature is brilliantly timed with the service that banks like Bank of America offer--scanned copies of checks and PDFs of your statements, both downloadable from your bank's server . This Quicken feature effectively eliminates your hard copy bank transaction folder from your file cabinet. You can now safely throw it away. Stick your old statements in the attic and free up space for those other forms that still haven't made the plunge into the digital era.

But make sure you back up that Quicken file!

For more information: Quicken.

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Kingston TravelLite SD/MMC Reader

Kingston TravelliteThe first flash drive (a.k.a., "thumb drive" or "memory stick") that I got earlier in the decade had 16 M of capacity. That's megabytes! Now the capacity is typically 8 G, fifty times the capacity! Over the years I had to keep getting updated flash drives to keep up with my data transfer and backup requirements. What if I had a flash drive container that I could populate with any sized memory card I needed, one that didn't need such frequent replacement?

I can now. Kingston has such a device. The TravelLite SD/MMC Reader allows any sized popular SD or MMC card to be inserted. You then connect the reader to a USB port and you're ready to go. Your system only needs to recognize the reader once, then you can change the cards. If your PC has several USB ports in a row that are filled, it's probably a better idea to attach the reader to a USB cable, which you then connect to a USB port. I found it more convenient that way. I tested it with their Elite Pro Memory card and got speedy and efficient results.

Does your camera's USB connector no longer work? (That happened to my Nikon, of all cameras.) No problem. Just take the SD card out and insert it into the TravelLite and upload your pictures. It's good to know you have a second option, just for a backup in case it fails. The same holds for your MP3 player. Why bother lugging a proprietary cable to your relative's house? Just bring the player's SD card inserted in the reader. It's possible the reader can also read mini and micro SD cards, if they're housed in their own SD adapter shells. It seems logical, but I haven't tested it.

The TravelLite SD/MMC Reader's an elegant solution to an old problem.

For more information: Kingston.

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Belkin UPS 750-AVR System

Belkin UPS 750Of all the computer tasks you should do, power backup doesn't rate high on the fun list. But you should worry about dirty power lines or ones that habitually drop or go to sleep. Not every program can be configured to backup your data every minute like Microsoft Word. You could be working on a file for fifteen minutes and suddenly have your computer reboot itself because of a momentary power surge or drop. It happened to me a while back and I decided to do something about it.

Uninterruptable power supply (UPS) systems are essentially batteries with pass-through outlets. The Belkin Battery Backup with Broadband Surge Protection (F6B750-AVR) features 4 battery backup outlets with surge protection and 2 surge only outlets. The unit also features surge protection for broadband applications such as cable modems or other coaxial connected components. It has built in line conditioning known as AVR (Automatic Voltage Regulation) that cleans up dirty (unstable) power flowing through the utility lines. You plug your computer's monitor and CPU cabinet into one side, then plug the unit into the wall. You can then monitor its activity using the software. Specify how often you want it to test its battery or at what voltage drop or rise you want the battery to kick in. For example, I have mine set to 90 volts for low and 136 for high. If my power goes to 89 or 137, the UPS cleans up the power and issues an audible warning until the power is clean. So it's not only a UPS, it's also a line conditioner. You can also specify a computer shutdown or startup time (even in hibernation mode). There are many other options and features, including one to protect the phone line. The manual advises you against attaching a printer or scanner to the UPS grid, since they consume too much power in the event of an outtage. So no printing during a blackout.

In an age when blackouts and brownouts are occurring in every major city, more people need to use UPS systems. The Belkin model is one of the best.

Note: As with much computer equipment, the cost of replacement batteries can run high. The cost of replacing the 750 AVR's battery is $45, about a third of the price of the unit.

For more information: Belkin Components.

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HoodLoupe™ Professional

Here's a nice device that solves two problems at once:

Hoodloupe

  • It fits over the viewer and stops glare cold--great for outdoor shots where you can barely see the image because of bright sunlight.
  • It adds an element of stability to holding your camera. No longer are you holding the camera at arms length with two wobbly arms. You're holding it with two arms and your eye socket. Three points of contact are better than two, no matter how much anti-shake your camera has. It is a decent solution for those units without SLR style viewfinders.

For those with digital SLRs and legacy-style viewfinders, feel free to continue using the viewfinder for focussing and framing. It may be adequate if equipped with an eyecup. But remember this: it's still better looking at your results through the rear LCD screen than through a tiny viewfinder. And for doing that outside, you'll need a tool like the HoodLoupe™ Professional. It even has a diopter knob to adjust to your vision, like a binocular eyepiece.

This gadget comes with a handy carrying case. Its only problem is the belt clip. Even with my thin belt, the clip-velcro closure just doesn't work optimally. A belt loop would have been a better design choice.

For more information: Hoodman HoodLoupe

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Samsung SyncMaster 205BW - 20" Widescreen Monitor

If you're thinking of upgrading from your clunky old Dell Triniton CRT monitor, look no further than the Samsung SyncMaster 205BW. This flatscreen, widescreen monitor has full vertical height adjustment, which may mean that you won't have to buy an aftermarket stand for it. You can easily position the screen to accomodate your height and working conditions.

Samsung 205BW

How does it connect? Two ways: You can use either the old style D-type connector or the newer Digital Visual Interface (DVI). If you choose DVI, good news! It's HDCP compliant so you can play those new HD DVDs on it. Its 8-bit panel has 16.7 million colors to use on your graphics projects.

There are six buttons on the bottom right. The first notable one is an Auto Configure button for when you’re using the analog D-SUB and need, for example, to adjust the position of Windows' Start menu after a resolution change. There is also a Menu button, up and down buttons, and a Select button. The down button doubles as the MagicBright shortcut, which gives you five defaults to choose from – Text, Internet, Game, Sport and Movie. I found the MagicColors bright to the point of oversaturation, but you may like them. Without them, I played a DVD with good results and witnessed only minor problems with details in low light scenes. While I tested for video and photo editing (good results), I did not test for gaming because, well, I hate games. It's enough of a game to get computers working troublefree from week to week, isn't it? At any rate, the Samsung SyncMaster 205BW is definitely a good deal for the budget-minded, with fairly well-translated documentation and a more than adequate gaming ability (as colleagues have told me).

For more information: Sanyo

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MonacoEZcolor Color Management System, Version 2.6

MonacoMention “color management” to someone newly entering the field of digital photography processing, and the eyes may begin to glaze over. “How do I do that?” the poor soul moans. Before the age of colorimeters, the answer would have been, “for cheap, not much. Try eyeballing it, then print again, print again, print again.” A colorimeter is a device for calibrating your monitor, making sure the precise white and black points are set, as well as the correct colors. If you don’t have a correctly calibrated monitor, there’s no chance what you see on the screen and what you print will resemble each other.

The MonacoEZcolor system, true to its name, does indeed make this process relatively easy. After installing and loading the software, you are then prompted to place the colorimeter (kind of an oddly shaped hockey puck) on your CRT or LCD screen, as the software calculates the information mentioned above. (Make sure you know how to adjust your monitor buttons first.) In relatively little time, it has built a fairly accurate monitor profile for you. This profile will then load each time you turn your computer on. You can then move on to calibrating your printer profile. This is a bit more complex and involves scanning a profile target that MonacoEZcolor supplies. You then have to make adjustments based on comparing what you printed from the scanned target vs. thetarget provided through the software. We undertook this process twice and did come up with a fairly accurate printer profile. There are a few caveats to this process. One, make sure you’re fully familiar with the color management features of your photo processing software. For example, Photoshop requires you to enter the printer profile several times during the process of evaluating a photograph. You are well advised to use the View-> Proof Setup command for viewing what a photo would look like when printed. Note that the software also allows you to build scanner and digital camera profiles as well. Also, be aware that this process is not perfect. You may still have to tweak the colors of a print to get it the way you like it.

The MonacoEZcolor system provides an excellent way to start you along the path of color management and will probably get you most of the way there. Best of all, it will get you thinking more about this tricky component of digital processing.

For more information: Monaco Systems

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Three Aids to Video Editing

If you're thinking of jettisoning the the simplistic video editing program that came with your camcorder, consider acquiring a true VLE program like Sony Vegas. But be aware that while the features are astounding enough to produce a rock video, the learning curve can be steep. This compound review covers Vegas+DVD Production Suite, The Vegas 6 Companion and DVD Authoring with DVD Architect 3.0 Training Videos, and the Excalibur 5.0 - A Script for Sony Vegas®.

Sony VegasVegas+DVD Production Suite

I’ve had frustrating experiences with VLE video software. ArcSoft's ShowBiz failed to burn reliable, non-jittery DVDs. Roxio 7 had sparse features. Avid Liquid Edition was depressingly unstable. I acquired Sony Vegas 6.0d, having heard glowing reports about it. Finally a program that didn’t disappoint! Nearly everything about this program is intuitive. The windows are laid out logically and the various utility menus, like the Explorer and the Media Manager, are tabbed for easy access and can be undocked so that you can position them.
Editing on the timeline, a common feature with VLE software, is a breeze. To create a slow-mo effect, you do the logical thing: you select the “event” (the av fragment) and stretch it by Ctrl-dragging it. Fast-mo is just the opposite. With Liquid Edition, you had to enter another window and apply several different parameters. On this timeline it’s easy to do crossfades and transitions. You simply drag one event onto another; when they overlap they give you a visual clue and that’s the transition. You can also separately edit the sound and video of an event by ungrouping them and Vegas lets you know when they get out of sync.

Working with audio is also easy. Vegas started life using Sonic Foundary’s sound editor, so the sound editing features are quite sophisticated. By simply dragging a portion of the sound file on the timeline, you can create a fade-in or fade-out. Other programs use complex icons and thin envelope lines that you must catch just right to engineer a fade.

Unlike ArcSoft and Liquid Edition, Vegas does not contain an integrated DVD-creation module. For that you need another Sony program, DVD Architect. (The two come together in this package, but Vegas can be purchased separately.) At first, this bothered me, as I was used to moving from one window to the next when my workflow changed to DVD creation. But when you think about it, it isn’t that much of a pain to have both programs running on your machine. When you invoke DVD Architect, you place your rendered Vegas project onto its timeline, and you’re off and running. If you want to change something about the Vegas project, you can right-click on it within DVD Architect and bring it up for editing. So the two programs are as closely integrated as you need them to be. DVD Architect is also elegantly designed, with abilities to create full motion menus and use layered masks (even enlisting Photoshop as graphics provider. It even provides the ability to import files from non-copy protected DVDs, and since VOB files don't need to be rendered, there is no loss of resolution.

Both programs have HDTV features as well as multi-cam effects, but since I didn’t test them, I can’t comment on them. But if the rest of this program’s stellar features are any indication, they are probably more than sufficient for your needs.

For more information, visit Sony.

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Vegas Training and ToolsThe Vegas 6 Companion and DVD Authoring with DVD Architect 3.0 Training Videos

No matter how swift of an autodidact you are, you can save yourself a lot of time and trouble learning these products via an AV tutorial. Gary Kleiner has put together two excellent sets of training videos. The Vegas 6 Companion contains almost twelve hours of instruction, designed for the beginner through expert. He begins by explaining, in a straightforward and personable style, how to capture DV and still files into Vegas. He explains the advantages of the Media Manager, which references media on the system and media no longer available to the system (but can be reassessed or recaptured). He details the keyboard shortcuts, which are multifarious and highly useful, but hard to remember without a flash card. Other basic editing tasks are delved into with considerable depth, such as nested projects and ripple modes.

If he sometimes seems to be going too fast, don’t worry! That’s the big advantage of this medium. You can always go back. When Gary covers something, he doesn’t leave out steps. You may have to listen closely at times and take notes. The examples are simple and you can run them on your PC as you’re doing similar operations on your copy of Vegas or DVD Architect. The twelve hours of instruction that the Vegas 6 Companion offers may be more than you ever need. For example, you may never do Bezier masking, network rendering, or work with DeckLink. But it’s there if you need it. As a bonus, he includes rudimentary indexes on both sets of DVDs to help you find things. Although these indexes could have been twice as long, it’s a surprise they exist at all. Few DVD instructional videos have one. And you can pencil in your own additions, as I have done. The DVD Authoring with DVD Architect 3.0 set follows the same model as the Vegas 6 Companion: it starts out simple, then moves into more complex --even baroque -- tips and techniques. He does it gradually, so you hardly notice. One suggestion: Gary uses Adobe Photoshop as his photo editor. He assumes the viewer has more than a beginner’s familiarity with this product. Perhaps he should recommend DVD videos or books to get you on track with some of his examples. That said, these fine DVD sets are some of the best I’ve seen in any field. They will get you up to speed with these Sony products faster than plugging away via books and hard experience ever will. They’re worth the time and cash investment.

For more information, visit Vegas Training and Tools.

ExcaliburExcalibur 5.0 - A Script for Sony Vegas®

As good as an NLE software package is, it still needs help with complex or repetitive tasks. There have been a number of scripting packages released that simplify working with Sony Vegas, but not all of them are creative, both in conception and execution.

Excalibur is. It provides many macros, grouped into a dozen handy categories, like Timeline, Multi-Cam, and Event. Several scripts are notable. Excalibur was the first multi-cam scripting program for Vegas, providing multi-cam funtionality long before other NLEs introduced multi-cam. It has unique features not found in other multi-cam products; for example, Sync Media, which synchronizes multiple cameras or audio feeds. It also lets you place markers on the timeline to indicate sync points. Another notable script is the DVD Asset Collector. It helps you render a project so that it can be read by DVD Architect (or similar menu programs). Sony has made this process very circuitous, involving multiple steps and several glaring defects. While you can select custom audio and video templates for batch rendering, you do not get to save your markers or your regions. DVD Asset Collector not only lets you do this, but you also can save your defaults so that they come up time after time; you can even save the script as a button on your desktop, making rendering only a click away. This is the way life should be! Another script, Video Wall, creates a “Brady Bunch” style video wall that can be used as an opening menu item. I can’t imagine building such as complex structure without this script. There’d just be too much trial and error involved. With Video Wall, I built a four-paneled wall that came out right the first time and works perfectly as a menu background video. Other scripts span the gamut from quirkily inventive (like Sstttuttering Video) to workaday tools like Set Duration, which lets you set multiple events in one operation. I highly recommend this package to all users of Sony Vegas.

For more information, visit JETDV Scripts

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Sandisk xD-Picture Card™ Memory Card

Sandisk xD cardIt was almost three years ago that we were awed by the 36.4mm x 42.8mm x 3.3mm, 26-gram CompactFlash 1 GB card. It seemed ideal for the cameras of the time, like the Nikon 5400. Now there is a new memory card format for cameras like the FujiFilm S9000 and it is an awesome piece of technology. Weighing just over a gram and measuring 20mm x 25mm x 1.7mm (about the size of your thumbnail), the Sandisk 1 GB (or 512 Mb) xD-Picture Cards™ are probably (hopefully) the smallest they're going to get. If they get any smaller, they'll be hard to handle and easy to lose. So how do they stack up?

The most important consideration is, of course, speed. We tested one of these babies on the FujiFilm S9000 digicam and it worked like the proverbial charm. Did it save the picture any faster? Yes. We clocked the saving of an 18 megapixel RAW file onto an older CompactFlash card and it took nine seconds. The xD card? 6.5 seconds. For smaller 2 megapixel JPEGs, the results were more spectacular. The xD took only a second, compared with 2.5 seconds for the CompactFlash. If catching that second motion shot is important to you, save the CompactFlash for stills and go xD. (Note that if you need 4 GB of storage instead of 1, you'll still need CompactFlash; xD isn't up there yet.)

For more information, visit Sandisk.

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Fujifilm FinePix S9000 Digital Camera

Fujifilm FinePix S9000Film may not be dead yet, but it has lost the war. The current generation of prosumer digital cameras has seen to that. Two years ago, with cameras such as Nikon's Coolpix line (like the 5400) it was still possible to say that digital cameras "weren't quite there yet." Now with Fujifilm's FinePix S9000, they are. You can now get better pictures with this 9.1 megapixel camera than with an analog 35mm SLR. Together with Sony's 10-megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-R1, the S9000 has set the bar for near-SLR cameras and it's pretty damn high.

Yet unlike the Sony, the S9000 has a 28-300 zoom lens in a fairly compact 1.5 lb body. Less than ten years ago, a Canon EOS Elan IIe analog camera weighed twice as much and its 28-200 zoom lens was considered de rigeur. And--happy surprise--The zoom lens on the S9000 is manual! While this may seem to be a step backwards, it really isn't. Electronic zooms, with their slow, battery-draining one-speed zooms, are the actual step back. Nice move, Fuji! Another fancy feature is the viewfinder option. You can use either the LCD monitor or the EVF viewfinder for your picture taking, post-picture viewing, and options settings. Personally, I prefer to configure it this way: EVF for picture taking, LCD monitor for viewing. This way you get to use your nose as a stabilizing aid when taking pictures.

How are the pictures? In RAW mode, the camera takes 9 MP pictures that, when set to 300 dpi print size in Photoshop, print 8.5" x 11" pictures with astounding clarity. You can easily enlarge them to 11" x 14", or even 13" x 19" (although that's pushing it a little). Since Fuji's unique Super CCD HR structures the pixels in hexagons, which interlock more efficiently than other CCDs, the color saturation and apparent resolution is greater. Of course so is the size: 18MB for a typical RAW file. There are seven other quality modes for JPEG pictures and two for AVI movies.

Here's another nice feature. The camera runs on 4 AA batteries, instead of a proprietary rechargable CR5-compatible battery you have to purchase at a specialty store. (Try finding one of those when you're photographing the wheat fields of Manitoba.) Another nice design decision is the incorpation of both the older CF/MD card and the newer xD-Picture Card formats. As of this writing, 1GB xD-Picture Cards are $100, but prices will drop and capacities will increase as sure as the sun will rise.

The camera has a standard 10-foot-limit attached flash. You can use a portable manual flash, but oops! The S9000 only has a dumb hotshoe. It can't sense when you're six or sixty feet away, so you must do your own calculations. That can get dicey, since the S9000 (and most prosumer cameras) don't tell you how far away you are from your subject so you can adjust the manual flash. Why should you need to know, the designers think. It's autofocusing for you, isn't it?

Speaking of focus, the autofocus works like a charm in dim-lit situations, sending out a nice healthy sensor light. In manual mode, little yellow triangles tell you when you're in and out of focus, a digital equivalent to the old split-image rangefinders of bygone days.

The lens acts enough like a detachable SLR lens without allowing dust to come in when you change it, since you cannot change it. (For 98% of the time, why would you need to?) You can attach a filter to it if you want, like a neutral density filter.

The professional modes--like manual, aperature-and shutter-priority auto, and programmed auto--work well as advertised. Here is where the cutoff between prosumer and professional SLR occurs. They only stop down to f/8 (f/11 for manual mode). Normally this presents no problem to most users, but if you are used to the depth-of-field potentials of f/22, look elsewhere. And be prepared to spend lots more money.

I could go on for pages about this quite fine digicam. It may be all the camera you will ever need in your amateur picture-taking career. There are only a few suggestions I have for the designers.

  • Put a smart flash shoe on the camera.
  • Allow users to reactivate the camera (when turned off by auto-off mode) by gently depressing the shutter. This is becoming a standard. Users aren't used to turning a switch two clicks counter-clockwise, then two clicks clockwise to reactivate the camera.
  • Work on saving large files to disk faster. Since everyone else has this problem, faster write speeds would give Fuji an advantage.
  • Improve the manual a bit. An index and better explanations of file format modes would be a good start.

Keep up the good work. This is a fine camera, good enough to be on our five best consumer electronics products list for 2005!

For more information, visit Fujifilm.

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Primera Signature Z1 CD/DVD Printer

Signature z1If you've ever wanted to print directly on a CD or DVD--and who doesn't hate handwriting a label with a Sharpie pen?--then you have about three choices. The first is peel-off stick-on labels. Have you heard? They've been known to detach while being played in slot-style auto CD players. Ouch! The second is purchase a DVD-ROM player that slowly and expensively etches your label onto the DVD. The third is Primera's Signature Z1 heat transfer printer. In my opinion, it is the best (but not perfect) solution.

Installation is fairly easy. You run the software installation program and attach the printer to a USB port on your PC. I wouldn't recommend a USB hub, however. I tried and was flummoxed for a few weeks with dropped connectivity. Connect it directly to the PC USB 2.0 port.

How does it print? Quite well. It is dependent on a rather thin and fragile-looking ribbon, and if you're not careful, you can wrinkle it during installation. But once you've got the knack, ribbon changing occurs without incident. The software presents an image of a CD with printable areas. Unfortunately, it's not exactly WYSIWYG, so you need to experiment to get just the right size. Generally, the software won't indicate that your font size is too big for the ribbon to handle. Plan to ruin a few blanks before you have it down perfectly.

Once you've tamed it, this a good product. Don't look for replacement ribbons at Staples, however. You must get them from the manufacturer. The ribbon colors come in blue, black, red, and green. At $19.95 a cartridge, that comes to $.10 a printing quadrant.

For more information, visit Primera.

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Web Link Validator

Rel Software Web Link ValidatorCall me a cynic, but I don't believe there is any way to author a Web site or a CD-ROM with external links, and then expect them to be valid in a few months. People are always tinkering with their links and PDF file locations, so it comes as no surprise that the link you inserted at the beginning of authoring a site doesn't work when you launch the site a few short weeks later. You have to stay on top of external links. But how?

Happily there is a product that checks all of your links (internal and external), divides the broken ones by category, and even compiles an HTML report you can share with others, like clients. Want to know what actually stopped your link? Rel Software's Web Link Validator tells you whether it's the infamous 404 Not Found or the 403 Forbidden, or a few other common rejections. You can even add ones of your own, based on the text of the Internet message.

The program is filled with configurable options. You can specify the maximum time to wait for a server (like 300 seconds if you're patient). You can even change the amount of timeouts beyond the default of 1. A page optimization screen allows you to specify how old you consider the "old pages" WLV finds or how slow (in size) they can be. These last two items are useful tools for those who want to optimize their Web sites.

The report is quite thorough and easy to read. A reports option page allows you to specify how many items you want the program to include in the report, such as "orphan analysis" and "bad bookmarks." It tells you what line in your HTML file contains the broken link. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell it to produce the text context around a broken link. Some clients demand this, because they don't know what the devil "www.ixlg.com/2323z.pdf" refers to. So you must manually search for them in a text editor copy the surrounding text, and paste it into your own handmade report to appease fussy clients. That would be my only suggestion for a future version of this product: an option to specify how much accompanying text to include around a broken link.

The program is generally fast at finding broken links. However, how quickly it trolls a Web site largely depends on you. You must tell it how long you want it to try to resolve difficult pages. The other day, it took the full 300 seconds before the program returned two feisty broken links. I quickly changed the time period to 200 seconds.

There are other programs that search for broken links. (Dreamweaver even does, but only local ones.) However, I have yet to encounter one that has as many customizable features as Web Link Validator.

For more information, visit Rel Software.

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A High Quality Cat Scratching Post

Apart from putting your kitty through a painful declawing or a problematic tendonectomy, you cannot stop her from sharpening her claws. It's a natural activity. The best you can do is give her a good scratching post. While there are many models available in pet stores, I have found that most fail to engage the cat's attention. Simple carpet-covered poles aren't ideal for two reasons: (1) They are flimsy, (2) They feel too much like the object you're trying to protect, like your new oriental! Sisal rope-wrapped poles are okay for a while, but when they start to fray, the fibers stick out like barbs. Ouch! Many cats quickly abandon them.

Purrfect Post

The best posts I have seen are made of sisal fabric. The Purrfect Post manufactures a post in this style. It is 31.5" tall, which is good because you want a tall post that gives them a full stretch. It is secured to a wide base; one model has a sisal covered base and one has a bare base. I recommend spending the extra $10 and get the covered base. Cats love stratching both horizontally and vertically. If you get the enhanced model, you will not be disappointed, in my opinion. Purrfect Post sells a replacement post, which you may not need for several years, depending on how many cats you have. Purrfect Post also comes in two styles of wood trim: dark and light (on top and bottom).

I have found that this post is effective at attracting cats, far more than any other fabric. I recommend you purchase either of these fine post models, depending on your taste and surrounding furniture. (Note that Dr. Christianne Schelling, designer of the Purrfect Post, donates posts to animal clinics.)

For more information: Purrfect Post

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Mastering AVID Liquid Edition

Adita Mastering Liquid EditionVideo editing can be complex and frustrating. Most semi-pro/professional video editing software is far from intuitive. Avid Liquid Edition (formerly Pinnacle Liquid Edition) is no exception. While it respects the software grammar of most video editing packages like Adobe Premiere (timelines, importing MPEG files, authoring DVD menus), the specifics are hard to do without help. Liquid has its own idea of terms like "rack," and has buried so many keyboard commands you can't make much sense of them at first. What can you do? You can either take a $600 course, purchase a densely written reference book (hint: there is only one), or you can shell out $79 for Adita Video's well-designed tutorial DVD-ROM. Notice I said DVD-ROM. This will not play on most home DVD players. It's designed, and rightly so, to be viewed on the computer while you are following its steps with your edition of Liquid.

Weighing in at about 16 hours, this seminar teaches you virtually everything you need to know about squeezing the juice out of Liquid. It even tells you configuration tips I've never heard suggested anywhere. One example: if you only have one computer and still want to use your workaday drive, rig up the computer with a removable rack-mounted hard drive system. Get two or three of them and put Liquid and the operating system on one drive with nothing else. Liquid is a resource hog that hates interference so much it will punish you with its slow crawl if it senses any other software in the room. Use another rack drive for your daily, non-Liquid work. That way you don't need to unload firewalls and virus/spyware killers, as well as disconnect your internet connection, each time Liquid is fired up.

The DVD-ROM's narration and writing is exemplary. Each module walks you through examples, illustrating topics like transitions and logging until you feel you know them. You may find yourself getting impatient as you watch multiple repetitions of a procedure, but don't skip over anything! The tutorial is designed for people who don't like to spend time on review questions, so it does the reviewing for you, both at the end of each module and throughout the steps themselves.

A word of warning: Don't try to bite off more than one or two modules at a time. This tutorial is both powerful and enlightening. Some modules are over 90 minutes long. After each one, take some time to digest the information and try it out on your system. Since this is a computer tutorial, with only a captured Liquid interface staring back at you, your eyes may glaze over after a few hours. Don't let them. Take breaks and come back later if you have to.

This product comes with a money-back guarantee, so there really is no risk in trying it out. Other alternatives involve afternoons of fumbling around and being stuck on hold with tech support.

For more information, visit Adita.

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Canon Elura 90 Digital Camcorder

Canon Elura 90 CamcorderThe Canon Elura 90 camcorder is an excellent consumer-grade camcorder. With a body that weighs only 1.1 lbs., it's perfect for lugging around to Disneyworld and other outdoor locations. With a 20x optical zoom--better than most camcorders (which top out at 16X)--long telephoto shots are possible. Yet for extreme telephoto shots, you really need to turn on Canon's built-in image stabilization system, which keeps most shots steady. You also might want to consider using a lightweight tripod, or at least a monopod. Your arms will thank you during long dance recitals featuring your teenaged daughter. Speaking of such indoor shots, the Canon Elura 90 is not really strong in that department. It may have trouble auto-focussing. Make sure that there is plenty of light in the auditorium or buy a self-powered video lamp to attach to the camera's cold shoe. In future models, it would be nice to have a hot shoe or at least an outlet on the camera into which to plug a video light accessory. That said, the assist light on the front of the Elura 90 lights up dim scenes for low-light recording, but works satisfactorily only in setups closer than about 10 feet. The camera must also be in "night mode," which tends to increase grain.

The Elura 90 features a host of intriguing special effects under the D-Effects menu. These are primarily transitional effects like wipes and fadeouts and creative effects like sepia, black & white, and mosaic. All work well for those consumers who have an experimental streak.

There is also a digital camera feature, complete with SD card slot. It works as advertised and Canon supplies computer software that is more than adequate. Still, I would not recommend taking too many pictures with it, since the resolution is fairly low at 1.3 MP. However, it's good to know it's there for emergencies.

Speaking of computer interfacing, you can use the Firewire port on the camera to upload video to your computer, provided you have a Firewire card installed in your PC. (Most MACs come with them, but not PCs. For information, see the review of the Belkin Firewire card.) Once you've established a connection with third party software such as Pinnacle Liquid Edition (not included in this package), you can actually control the camera from your computer.

This camera would be a handy item to have in your glove compartment in your daily drives. Who knows? You could witness a newsworthy event, get it on tape, and have your video aired on the 6:00 news! Just make sure you keep the batteries charged. Unlike replacable batteries, rechargables tend to loose their charge over time.

For more information, visit Canon.

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Belkin Hi-Speed USB 2.0 and FireWire PCI Card

Belkin Firewire USB CardYou've just bought a new camcorder that uses mini DV tapes. You've filmed little Jimmie's birthday party and want to edit out the part where he sticks out his tongue. You've fired up your video editing program, connected your camcorder's USB port to your computer's and -- nothing happens! That's because most camcorder USB ports are for transferring photos, not videos. You need to hook up your camcorder's FireWire port to the one on your PC. What's that? Your PC didn't come with a FireWire port? Don't feel special. Most don't.

Your best bet would be to spring for Belkin's Hi-Speed USB 2.0 and FireWire PCI Card (F5U508). It has three USB 2.0 and three FireWire ports. You may think this is more ports than you need, since most computers these days average four USB ports. But like hard disk space, you can never have enough USB ports.

The product comes with the card and a six-foot IEEE 1394 4-pin/6-pin FireWire cable. Conveniently, that's exactly the configuration you need for most camcorders. Of course Apple recently (2003) released FireWire 1394b, which is twice as fast as its prececessor, but few devices have moved up to it yet. And a camcorder can't save to disk any faster than the mini DV tape runs in real time.

As always for Belkin products, installation was a breeze. There are no switches to set and if you run WIndows XP, you don't even have to insert the CD-ROM. I was up and running soon after I closed the computer case and turned the beast on. You may be hard-pressed to find additional FireWire devices to use on those other two ports. But FireWire devices also include TV sets and speakers. Keep your eyes open!

Highly recommended.

For more information, visit Belkin.

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Likno AllWebMenus PRO for Web Developers

Likno AllWebMenus PRO

Let's face it, it's a pain in the posterior to design your own drop-down menus for Web pages. Either they don't come out quite right, or the JavaScript code you need is too time-consuming to produce. You're left with fending on your own with prosaic-looking links on the side or worse, wrestling with the unpredictability of CSS.

AllWebMenus PRO comes as a pleasant surprise. Not only does it take the sting out of tricky JavaScript coding, it also provides a handy preview pane so that you can view your results of your drop-down menu creation before compiling it.

I particularly like the product's ease of use. Each step of your drop-down menu creation contains not one, but two forms of help. For example, if you want to know more about the "Target Frame" option, you click the "Live Example" link and get this text:

"Specifies the frame where the <URL> opens. If you don't use frames then just leave this field blank or type new to open the URL into a new browser window."

This text is then followed by a graphic depiction of the procedure. If that information is not enough for you, click "More Help" and an entire help page appears.

The software also allows you to specify different (or the same) effects to Normal, Mouse Over, and Mouse Click actions on your drop-down menus. If you are a Web designer, your job has just gotten easier with Likno AllWebMenus PRO.

For more information or samples, visit Likno. If you want to see how we used AllWebMenus PRO on our mother site, visit www.batescommunications.net.

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Diamond Stealth S85 -ATI Radeon 9250 Graphics Card

Diamond Stealth S85 video cardWith both 128M and 256 MB capacities, the Diamond Multimedia Stealth S85 -ATI Radeon 9250 graphics card is a winner. We tested the 256 MB model because we were disappointed in the performance of our IBM ThinkCentre A50 PC's integrated graphics card.

First, a word about the integrated graphics card. According to Diamond Multimedia spokeperson Terry Hamm, this component was designed by computer makers as a cost-and space-saving measure. Rather than fit in a dedicated PCI or AGP slot, the integrated graphics card (actually more of an IC) resides within the computer system board. In order to run, it must take memory from the system, typically about 32MB. But as any gamer or graphic designer will tell you, 32 MB is not a whole lot of memory for graphics-intensive applications like video editing. However, it may be fine if all you are doing is basic word processing, sending e-mail, and surfing the internet.

This was not our situation. We had been doing some serious video editing with Pinnacle Systems' Liquid Edition 6.1. The program was loading slowly and took way too long to render a change to a project, such as the insertion of a simple dissolve. Sometimes the dissolve didn't take at all. When we installed the Stealth S85 -ATI Radeon 9250 PCI graphics card, the problem melted away like ice in summer time. We noticed other changes. Screens redrew faster, the sample game included with the package played smoothly without a glitch, jump, or jitter. If you are doing serious editing, even still pictures in Adobe Photoshop, you will see a significant performance boost from the Stealth video card. Highly recommended.

For more information, visit Diamond Multimedia.

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Sansa MP3 Player from Sandisk

Sandisk Sansa MP3 PlayerWith both 512M and 1GB internal memory capacities, the Sandisk Sansa MP3 player belongs to a newly emerging mid-capacity. low-priced style. The storage is no longer a multi-GB hard drive like the IPOD, but one based on flash memory. As SD storage both drops in price and becomes more capacious, such machines become more attractive. As of this writing, the maximum storage possible for the Sansa is 3GB (1GB internal and 2GB external card memory). That's about two days worth of music. Unless I were going away for a long time, I can't imagine needing more.

The sound is good, but if yours isn't you can massage it with standard canned equalizers (rock, jazz, classical, etc.) and a custom five-band equalizer. It also has other sound enhancers like SRS WOW (similar to Dolby), SRS 3D, and Trubass. Alas, battery power is not rechargable, but a single AAA alkaline battery should carry you through one work shift. When connected to a computer USB port, it uses the computer's power for downloads. The player is uniquely equipped with an FM radio, sporting fairly decent reception. This device is small: you can enclose it between your hands.

This is a vast improvement over Sandisk' last year model, the MP3 Companion that operates with a proprietary Cruzer flash drive and is no longer on the Sandisk Web site. The Sansa comes with an attractive (and rugged) clear plastic case and fair-but-not-great IPOD-style white earphones.

For more information, visit Sandisk .

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Two Hats from Dorfman Pacific

Royal Sovereign FS-3D Coin-sorterThese two Dorfman-Pacific hats--a summer Pamana and a spring/fall/winter "Indiana Jones" outback style hat --are both winners. The IJ6 outback style has a unique feature you should know about. It's made with oilcloth. Oilcloth has been around for centuries, beginning when sailors drenched their hats and coats with oil to repel water. The threads on this hat have been coated with a special amalgam of oil and wax, making it highly water resistant. You'll never have to Scotchguard™ this hat! It is, however, not waterproof. Light rain will bead off it, but heavy rain may drench it and you'll need to dry it out.

The second hat, the P102 grade 8 Panama, is also coated for the rain. The material is called Weatherall™, a clear stain similar to the kind used to protect wood. This hat will also probably not need to be waterproofed, at least for the first season. Both hats are sturdy, non-crushables that keep their shape even when perched atop a hat rack with heavy coats leaning against them. A word about sizing. It appears to have gone up in some cases in the past few years. What used to be classified large is now a medium-large (or even a medium!). This appears to be a trend in the clothing industry, as people get larger.

If you're looking for spring or summer hats with 3-inch brims, look no further!

For more information, visit Dorfman Pacific .

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Royal Sovereign Digital Coin Sorter

Royal Sovereign FS-3D Coin-sorterWe've received a number of e-mails about a bargain-hunter coin sorter we'd reviewed, skeptically, a few years back. You know the kind: usually advertised on late-night TV. People complained about it jamming and not depositing the coins in the paper rolling tubes consistently enough. "Isn't there a better device out there?" these consumers moaned. Happily, there is. The Royal Sovereign FS-3D Fast Sort Three Row Coin Sorter is designed for the small business or store that needs to sort the daily or weekly collection of coins. It has three rows for each of the four standard American denominations. For example, when one penny roll tube fills up, the machine pauses until you slide the penny tray forward to enlist the second one. As it's filling the second tube, you can be removing the first one to insert an empty wrapper in the plastic tube. The "D" in the name stands for "digital": the digital counter keeps a running tally of the coins, presenting a dollar and cents display as it is sorting. In one test, the machine sorted $21.05 worth of coins in less than a minute.

Did it jam? Only once, when a wax-covered coin tried to sneak through. Hardly the fault of the machine. How about the wrapper problem? I've always considered paper coin wrappers the Achilles Heel of coin sorters. If one of them is mishapen--oval instead of round, for example--that's it for the sorting process. Coins all over your desk and floor. However, the paper coin wrappers that came with the Royal Sovereign unit are high grade and packed in boxes (not bags) to ensure they stay perfectly cylindrical. According to a company representative, that is the only kind they sell.

Other models are also available for different budgets. The CO-1000 sorts one row of coins and the FS-2 sorts two. Although neither have digital counters, they sort with the same speed as the FS-3D.

These are the most efficient coin sorters I've ever used and they restore my faith in this thankless task. Royal Sovereign doesn't appear to be resting on its laurels. Later this year, the company plans to release an enhanced model, the four-row FS-4DA. Designed for higher volume businesses, this unit automatically rotates the tubes as they fill up. Now that I would like to see.

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Bargain Software

Recently I've discovered some software that I consider "bargain software," not necessarily because of low price, but because its value to price ratio is so high. Check them out.

TaxAct 2004. This $19 program allows you to enter your taxes guided by friendly wizards (called "Q&A's")that clarify much of the IRS gobblygood that passes for instruction. If you're stuck on a concept like Profit or Loss statement, click to display the accompanying IRS form in a split window or something called J.K. Lasser's Tax Help, an online book that not only explains complex deductions, but also offers links to other sources for expanded discussions. The TaxAct people also have online tax technical support for their program. The program's Federal module is free, but if you want to use the state module --and who wouldn't?-- it's $19.95. That's bargain software.

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Palmone Zire 31 PDA

Palmone ZireI know, what new can you say about PDAs that hasn’t already been said? They’re handy, compact, and can store numbers and agendas, and synch up to your PC to save all your jottings. As they used to say in the Ginsu knife commercials: “Stop! That’s not all!” Now a full-featured, attractive Zire 31 by Palmone is available for as little as $138. That’s not bad, considering earlier models went for $300-400, and the Tungsten models go for about twice that. The Zire 31 is fully functional and has built-in Graffiti 2, which allows you to not only write on the screen itself (rather than the slim writing area at the bottom), but uses a more intuitive recognition scheme than Graffiti 1.

What else does this PDA have? An MP3 player—and not a bad one at that. The sound is decent and can be adjusted via the built in RealOne MP3 player. It uses “Powersave,” which dims the screen when the songs are playing, and features a background player, which allows you to play music while using other applications. The RealOne player takes a little getting used to and songs synchronize better when you use the RealOne media player on your desktop, which I’ve always found an annoying dialer program. With the capacities for SD cards going way up—as of this writing SanDisk drives are topping out at 2 GB (enough for 500 songs)—there is no reason not to use it as an MP3 player.
Battery power is decent, far better than earlier models. I have found it only needs charging about once a week for fairly heavy use. The cover is made out a heavy duty rubbery substance, and doesn’t appear to crack with heavy use like earlier models.

For the price, this baby is an excellent bargain.

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SmartDisk Firefly USB Drive

Smartdisk FireflyImagine this scenario. You have a large amount of media or database files to bring to a client, say twenty gigabytes of them. What's the best way to transport them? Forget tiny thumb drives. They're not quite there yet. Last time I looked, their highest capacity was 5 GB. Don't bother with a stack of DVD-RWs. The client needs special software (like Roxio's restore utility) to read them. Try SmartDisk's 20 GB Firefly drive. Smaller than a PDA palmtop (2.5 in x 4 in x 0.5 in), this little wonder plugs into your USB port and is ready to go, awaiting your copy commands. It doesn't even need an AC power cord, like those hefty Maxtor USB external drives. It weighs 3.3 ounces and appears rugged and durable (although I haven't given it the “bounce” test yet). Its small size makes it easily transportable and any machine with a USB 2.0 port can read it. I tried the Firefly on a client's machine and uploaded 15 GB of files in forty seconds. One caveat, however. If you have a USB hub, don't expect the Firefly to work properly with it. It may light up, but most likely your system won't recognize it. The power necessary to access the drive is just not available from a hub. You should plug it into the USB port on the back of your computer . And for that, I recommend a USB male-female extension cord, so you don't have to reach under your desk each time you plug it in.

For more information, visit SmartDisk.

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