HP has a brilliant idea

After last year’s flip-flopping on getting rid of its not-quite-as-profitable-as-they’d-like PC business, and the resulting self sabotage, HP needed a good idea to try to undo the damage.

Their idea is completely unoriginal, but it’s tried and true and more likely to work than anything else they could possibly do: Bundle their premium PCs with premium-level customer service and charge a little more.

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Microsoft: No x86 apps for ARM

So, The Register reports that Windows on ARM will not have compatibility with apps compiled for x86. Intel has been saying this for a while, while Microsoft has been mum. So now we know.

There are arguments both for and against having an x86 emulation layer.
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Cheap laptops and tablets: September 2011

My brother in law told me he saw an 8-inch Vizio wifi-only tablet running Android at Costco for $285. Its reviews aren’t exactly stellar, but if you just want a basic tablet, it seems to be OK. I’d wait a few months and see what Amazon’s tablet plans are, though.

He also asked about laptops. And there’s some good stuff going on in the low end there too.

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HP or Dell?

Dr. A is disenfranchised with his Dell. Seeing it, I understand why. It frequently interrupts his work with Dell-branded system optimization programs that scour his hard drive for shortcuts to fix and other mundane things that only need to be done once a year, if ever. It does no harm–other than interrupting him of course–but who wants an OCD laptop? So he said he’s considering switching to HP. The only problem with that is that if you’re not careful, you can end up with an HP bundled with similar stuff.

So is there a difference? Read more

Nonstandard configuration on a vintage PC? Maybe it was gray market

Nonstandard configuration on a vintage PC? Maybe it was gray market

I saw an interesting question about the configuration of mid-1980s (pre-PS/2) IBM PCs on a vintage computer forum this week. The question regarded how various machines came from the factory, especially when some collectors have PCs they bought from the original owners, including an invoice, showing the machine didn’t match known factory configurations. This made me think of the gray market.

The gray market referred to the practice of discounters getting genuine IBM PCs and reselling them, sometimes modified. The most famous gray marketer was Michael Dell–the “Dell” in Dell Computer Corporation–who got his start by upgrading bare-bones IBM PCs and selling them out of his dorm room and later, out of a condo. Eventually he decided he wanted a steadier supply, and started manufacturing, becoming the company we know today.

But Dell was far from the only one. Read more

If I had to buy an off-the-shelf PC, what would it be?

I got a question today. A someone who knows someone who knows someone kind of thing. Basically, wanting to know what to buy if, you know, they wanted to buy a computer rather than build something.

They’d had bad experience will Dell, so Dell wasn’t on their list. I did not argue.

Here’s an edited version of my response.
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The rise and fall of Shack, and how to fix it

Wired has a nostalgic piece on the not-quite-late, not-quite-great Radio Shack. I think it’s a good article, but it glosses over part of the reason for the store’s decline.

It blames computers.But blaming computers ignores Tandy’s long and successful run in that industry. Most Apple fanatics and other revisionist historians conveniently overlook this, but when Apple launched the Apple II in 1977, Tandy and Commodore were right there with competing offerings. I don’t know about Apple, but Tandy and Commodore were selling their machines faster than they could make them.

As demand for home computers with color and sound grew, Tandy released its successful Color Computer line. And after IBM got into the PC market, Tandy became one of the early PC clone makers. They made businesslike PC/XT and PC/AT knockoffs, but their most successful machine, from a sales perspective, was the Tandy 1000. The Tandy 1000 started off as a clone of the IBM PCjr, but whereas the PCjr lasted about two years in the marketplace, the Tandy 1000 became a lasting standard for home PCs that could run IBM business software as well as entertainment titles with color and sound. It was everything the PCjr should have been, and it resulted in IBM software often being relabeled “IBM/Tandy” in stores.

In the 1980s, Tandy was definitely one of the big five companies. The first computer I ever used was a Tandy, in 1982. But the next year, I changed schools, and that school had Commodore 64s, so my allegiance changed. But I really think it was Tandy, more than any other company, that was the undoing of my favorite company, Commodore. Tandy’s computers weren’t any better than what Commodore had. And Commodore computers were sold at Kmart, but Tandy computers were sold at Radio Shack, and the prices were comparable. You had to go to St. Louis to buy a Commodore 64 or Amiga, or order it through the mail. But even in tiny Farmington, Missouri, which was a town of about 8,000 in the middle of nowhere, there was a Radio Shack on the edge of downtown where you could walk in and buy a computer.

Admittedly, the computer industry did change, and eventually it outgrew Radio Shack. By the early 1990s, when I did my stint selling computers at retail, the computer section of the store where I worked was larger than the typical Radio Shack store. Just the computer section. We sold four or five brands of computers and generally had at least four models of each brand, with an entry-level machine, something near top-of-the-line, and a couple of mid-range models in between.

If you wanted cheap, we had Packard Bell and Acer. Tandy couldn’t compete with them on price, though its machines were generally of better quality. But if you wanted quality, we had Compaq and IBM, which generally were better quality than Tandy, and by the mid 1990s, they’d gotten religion on price too.

And on the odd day that we couldn’t beat Radio Shack on price and or selection with the computers themselves, we had a much larger selection of monitors and printers, not to mention the aisles and aisles of books and software.

And if you didn’t live in the big city, another alternative sprung up in the early 1990s. You could pick up the phone, dial an 800 number, and order a computer from Dell or Gateway 2000. Just like ordering pizza, they’d build a computer to your specifications and deliver it to your door. You wouldn’t have it the same day like you would by going to Radio Shack, but you’d pay less, and you could get exactly the processor speed, hard disk capacity, and memory that you wanted.

There just wasn’t any way for the Tandy/Radio Shack model that had worked so brilliantly for about 15 years to compete with those two new models.

Eventually Tandy sold its factory to AST, a mid-range brand that fell by the wayside late in the decade but for a while was a retail juggernaut. Initially Radio Shack switched over to selling AST PCs, and later replaced them with Compaq and IBM, but there was never enough room in the store for more than one or two models.

In retrospect, I think the best thing Radio Shack could have done in the late 1990s would have been to go back to its DIY roots, selling computer components like cases and motherboards to people who wanted to build their own PCs rather than settle for what larger retailers offered off the shelf. It’s not a large segment, but it’s a niche that the large retailers have never had much success catering to. (The exception being regional chains like Fry’s and Micro Center.) And while the independent clone shops almost without exception can offer better advice, better selection, and, probably, better prices, Radio Shack is almost always closer, and the clone shops can’t compete with Radio Shack’s hours. Radio Shack is open on Sunday, and it’s open until 9 PM on other days.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I was tinkering with a PC in the evening or on a Sunday, needed something, and Radio Shack was the only place open. So I went, whether I thought they’d have what I needed or not. Sometimes they actually had what I needed.

If Radio Shack wants to reverse its sagging fortunes, I’m not sure that it’s too late to take that DIY road. Stock a book on building PCs and a book on upgrading and repairing PCs in order to grow that market. Limit the selection in order to accommodate the limited space in most stores, but carry one or two of everything that’s needed to build a PC, or to upgrade or repair a PC when the competition is closed.

Deciding exactly what to carry could be difficult, but a safe and non-creative approach would be to just pick a couple of price points and sell whatever they can find at that particular price point while remaining profitable. Keep it simple, using multiples of $25. Have computer cases priced at $50 and $75. Have power supplies for $25, $50, and $75. Have hard drives for $75 and $100. Have a motherboard for $100, and CPUs for $50 and $100. AMD or Intel? Carry both, or see if one or the other is willing to cut a deal to have an exclusive.

And this also opens the door to oddball gadgets and adapters, like 20/24-pin ATX converters, ATX power supply cable extensions, USB cable extensions, USB hubs, serial, parallel, and PS/2 to USB converters, and other small, profitable niche adapters. And if there’s room, of course they can carry an Ethernet switch, Ethernet cables in a variety of lengths, and perhaps even cable and DSL modems.

They can take the same approach to selling computer components as they’ve always taken to selling discrete electronics components. When I need a resistor or an LED, I can get it a lot cheaper by ordering it online or by driving to an electronics supplier. But I can be at Radio Shack in five minutes, and they’re open late and on weekends, so I usually end up going to Radio Shack and putting up with their cellphone pitches.

If they’re still able to eke out a profit selling resistors and heat sinks by virtue of being the most convenient option, I think they can do even better selling computer components the same way.

And that would still leave room in the store for cell phones, the odd adapters and components that no other major retail chain sells, and cheap R/C toys.

I think it’s a better plan than officially unofficially renaming itself to Shack (next door to Hut, where you buy pizza) and harassing customers about cell phones at the checkout.

Things to look for in a flatbed scanner

David Huff asked today about scanners, and I started to reply as a comment but decided it was too long-winded and ought to be a separate discussion.

So, how does one cut through the hype and get a really good scanner for not a lot of money?The short answer to David’s question is that I like the Canon Canoscan LIDE series. Both my mom and my girlfriend have the LIDE 80 and have been happy with it.

For the long answer to the question, let’s step through several things that I look for when choosing a scanner.

Manufacurer. There are lots of makers of cheap and cheerful scanners out there. Chances are there are some cheap and nasty ones too. Today’s cheap and nasty scanners will be a lot better than 1995’s crop of cheap and nasties, since the PC parallel port was a huge source of incompatibilities, but I want a scanner from a company with some experience making scanners and with good chances of still being around in five years.

Driver support. Much is made of this issue. But past track record isn’t much of an indicator of future results. HP and Umax infamously began charging for updated drivers, for example. But at least I could get a driver from HP or Umax, even if it costs money. My Acer scanner is forever tethered to a Windows 98 box because I can’t get a working driver for Windows 2000 or XP for it.

Umax used to have a stellar track record for providing scanner drivers, which was why I started buying and recommending them several years ago. I don’t know what their current policy is but I know some people have sworn them off because they have charged for drivers, at least for some scanners, in the recent past. But you can get newer drivers, in many cases, from Umax UK.

But that’s why I like to stick with someone like Canon, HP, Umax, or Epson, who’ve been making scanners for several years and are likely to continue doing so. Even if I have to pay for a driver, I’d rather pay for one than not be able to get one. Keep in mind that you’ll be running Windows XP until at least 2006 anyway.

Optical resolution. Resolution is overrated, like megahertz. It’s what everyone plays up. It’s also a source of confusion. Sometimes manufacturers play up interpolated resolution or somesuch nonsense. This is where the scanner fakes it. It’s nice to have, but there are better ways to artificially increase resolution if that’s what you’re seeking.

Look for hardware or optical resolution. Ignore interpolated resolution.

Back to that overrated comment… Few of us need more than 1200dpi optical resolution. For one thing, not so long ago, nobody had enough memory to hold a decent-sized 4800dpi image in memory in order to edit it. If you’re scanning images to put them on the Web, remember, computer screen resolution ranges from 75 to 96dpi, generally speaking. Anything more than that just slows download speed. For printing, higher resolution is useful, but there’s little to no point in your scanner having a higher resolution than your printer.

I just did a search, and while I was able to find inkjet printers with a horizontal resolution of up to 5760dpi, I found exactly one printer with a vertical resolution of 2400dpi. The overwhelming majority were 1200dpi max, going up and down.

Your inkjet printer and your glossy magazines use different measurements for printing, but a true 1200dpi is going to be comparable to National Geographic quality. If your photography isn’t up to National Geographic standards, megaresolution isn’t going to help it.

Bit depth. If resolution is the most overrated factor, bit depth is the most underrated. Generally speaking, the better the bit depth, the more accurate the color recognition. While even 24 bits gives more colors than the human eye can distinguish, there is a noticeable difference in accuracy between scans done on a 24-bit scanner and scans from a 36-bit scanner.

If you have to choose between resolution and bit depth, go for bit depth every time. Even if you intend to print magazines out of your spare bedroom or basement. After all, if the color on the photograph is off, nobody is going to pay any attention to how clear it is.

Size and weight. Some flatbed scanners are smaller and lighter than a laptop. If they can draw their power from the USB port, so much the better. You might not plan to take one with you, but it’s funny how unplanned things seem to happen.

Some day…

It was some day. And someday I’ll get a clue. I had a major confrontation at work today, though it was with someone who never did like me all that much. Everyone who’s heard the story says she was being unreasonable. But I just can’t help but notice one thing: Every major confrontation I’ve ever had in the workplace during my professional career has been with an older woman. By “older,” I mean 20+ years my senior.
I don’t like that pattern.

On a brighter note… I was quoted on CNET! It’s Linux’s 10th birthday, so CNET solicited some opinions. A lot of people said Linux can overtake Microsoft, an equal number said no way, but I don’t think anyone said what would have to take place for it to happen.

Essentially, I said someone with an anti-Microsoft chip on its shoulder would have to bundle Linux and StarOffice, already configured and ready to go (meaning it boots straight to a desktop when you turn it on–no setup questions or license agreements whatsoever), price it at $349, and make it available in places people normally shop.

That’s not the only scenario that I see working, but it’s the one that’d work best. History states people will sacrifice the status quo if the price is right–Commodore and Atari mopped up the floor of the home market with Apple and IBM for most of the 1980s, because they gave you twice the computer for half the money. It’d be impossible to do that today, but if someone with name recognition (say, Oracle or Sun) stamped its name on Taiwanese-made clones (made by, say, Acer or FIC) and got into the distribution channel, pricing it below an eMachine and using an ad campaign like, “We made performance computing affordable for big businesses. Now we’re making it affordable for you,” they’d stand a chance. They’d probably need to go outside the company to run the operation. Maybe Jack Tramiel, a veteran of both Commodore and Atari, could be coaxed out of retirement.

What about applications? An awful lot of home users live with Microsoft Works. StarOffice is better. Internet access? Take a cue from the iMac and stick an icon on the desktop that signs you up for Earthlink. Games? There are tons of open-source games available for Linux. Include any and every game that doesn’t crash XFree86. Cut a deal with Loki to include demo versions of all their games, and maybe the full version of an older title. Loki needs the exposure anyway. Digital imaging? Include The Gimp, along with drivers that talk with a certain type of digital camera. Include a coupon for a decent-sized discount off that camera.

It won’t dominate the market, but I can see it grabbing a decent-sized chunk. It’d do everything a small percentage of the population needs to do, and it would do it cheaply and reliably and quickly.

Will it happen? I doubt it. It’s a risk. For a company to be able to pull this off, this operation has to have little or nothing to do with the company’s core business. Shareholders don’t like ventures that have nothing to do with your core business. As much as Scott McNealy and Larry Ellison hate Microsoft, I don’t think they’re willing to risk hundreds of millions of dollars just to try to steal a couple million sales from Microsoft each year. The company that does it would have to have name recognition, but it’d be best if the general public didn’t know exactly what they sell. A company like IBM or HP couldn’t do it, because they can’t afford to offend Microsoft, and the general public expects an IBM or HP computer to run Windows apps.

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