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Heading back to Way Back When for a day

Someone I know house-sat this weekend for a couple who are slightly older than my parents. Their youngest daughter, from what I could tell, is about my age, and they have two older daughters. All are out of the house.
It was like walking into a time warp in a lot of ways. There’s an old Zenith console TV in the living room. My aunt and uncle had one very similar to it when I was in grade school, and it spent several years in the basement after it lost its job in the family room. First there was an Atari 2600 connected to it, and later a Nintendo Entertainment System. My cousin and I used to spend hours playing Pole Position and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and various baseball games down there.

The living room housed a modern JVC TV, armed with a modern Sony DVD player and RCA VCR. But in the other corner was a stereo. The Radio Shack Special 8-track player was the stereotypical 1970s/early 1980s brushed metal look, as was the graphic equalizer. The tuner was also a Radio Shack special, styled in that mid-1980s wanna-be futuristic style. If you lived through that time period, you probably know what I’m talking about. But if you’re much younger than me, you’re probably shrugging your shoulders. Beneath it was a Panasonic single-disc CD player in that same style, and a Pioneer dual tape deck. A very nice pair of Fisher speakers finished it off. It was definitely a setup that would have turned heads 17 years ago. (I have to wonder if the Fishers might not have been added later.)

It seems like there are only two genres of music capable of being emitted by an 8-track player. Once genre includes Led Zeppelin and Rush. The other includes John Denver, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow and The Carpenters. Their collection was on the latter side, which sent my curiosity scurrying off elsewhere.

But I had to try out that stereo. I kind of like The Carpenters, but I have to be in the mood for them, and I’ve heard enough John Denver and Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow to last me forever. So I checked out the CDs. Their CD collection was an interesting mix, but with a good selection of contemporary Christian (albeit mostly pretty conservative contemporary Christian). I popped in a CD from Big Tent Revival. I don’t remember the title, but the disc was from 1995 and featured the song “Two Sets of Joneses,” which I still hear occasionally on contemporary Christian radio today.

About three measures into the disc, I understood why they hadn’t replaced that setup with something newer. It blew my mind. I heard a stereo that sounded like that once. In 1983, we moved to Farmington, Mo., which was at the time a small town of probably around 6,000. We lived on one side of the street. Our neighbor across the street owned the other side of the street. Any of you who’ve lived in small midwestern towns know what I mean when I say he owned the town.

Well, in addition to owning the biggest restaurant and catering business and tool rental business in town and a gas station, he also owned a mind-blowing stereo system. Hearing this one took me back.

I almost said they don’t make them like that anymore. Actually they do still make stereo equipment like that, and it costs every bit as much today as it cost in 1985.

And Big Tent Revival sounded good. If I’m ever out and see that disc, it’s mine.

Upstairs in one of the bedrooms, I spied a bookshelf. It was stocked with books of Peanuts cartoons, but also tons and tons of books I remember reading in grade school. Books by the likes of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, and books by other people that I remember reading 15 or even 20 years ago. The only things I didn’t remember seeing were S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel, but as I recall, those books hit me so hard at such a period in my life that I didn’t leave those books at home. Or maybe Hinton and Zindel were a guy thing. I’m not sure. But seeing some of the names that made me want to be a writer, and being reminded of some of the others, well, it really took me back.

Next to that bookshelf was a lamp. Normally there’s nothing special about a lamp, but this lamp was made from a phone. This reminded me of my dad, because Dad went through a phase in life where there were exactly two kinds of things in this world: Things you could make a lamp from, and things you couldn’t make a lamp from. Well, this was a standard-issue wall-mount rotary phone from the pre-breakup AT&T Monopoly days. One just like it hung in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen well into the 1980s.

The computer was modern; a Gateway Pentium 4 running Windows Me. It desperately needed optimizing, as my Celeron-400 running Win98 runs circles around it. Note to self: The people who think Optimizing Windows was unnecessary have never seriously used a computer. But I behaved.

I don’t even know why I’m writing about this stuff. I just thought it was so cool.

But I remember long ago I wrote a column in my student newspaper (I’d link to it but it’s not in the Wayback Machine), which was titled simply “Retro-Inactive.” Basically it blasted retro night, calling it something that people use to evoke their past because their present is too miserable to be bearable.

Then I considered the present. Then I thought about the 1980s. We had problems in the 1980s, but they were all overshadowed by one big one–the Soviet Union–that kept most of us from even noticing the others. We had one big problem and by George, we solved it.

So I conceded that given the choice between living in the ’90s or living in the ’80s, well, the ’80s sure were a nice place to visit. Just don’t expect me to live there.

I’m sure people older than me have similar feelings about the ’70s, the ’60s, the ’50s, and every other previous decade.

And I guess I was just due for a visit.

Work miracles on your photos and scans with Qimage Pro

A little over a month ago, reader Gary Berg suggested I give a program called Qimage Pro a look and see what it would do for my digital camera output. And I finally got around to doing it.
If you’ve got a scanner and/or a digital camera, I’ve got just five things to say to you: You gotta get this thing.

OK, OK, I’ll elaborate a little.

I took a few design classes in journalism school, and I remember one cardinal rule when it came to dealing with images: Reductions are fine, enlargement is a feature you should never use. If you’ve got a 5×7 image at 300 dpi, it’ll get pixelated if you try to enlarge it. You can go smaller, but you can’t make something from nothing.

Qimage Pro is supposed to work miracles. So I threw the worst-possible test at it.

I took a 640×480 image taken by a Sony Mavica digital camera. I blew it up to 8×10. Then I printed it on my 600 dpi laser printer. On cheap office-grade paper (not even the highest grade available).

Now I’ll gladly admit, the resulting picture shows a little bit of pixelation. A little. But from a slight distance (I’m talking two or three feet here), I wouldn’t know the difference. That picture would look fine hanging on my wall, and I’m not just saying that because I’m supposed to like looking at the subject matter.

I’m amazed. Based on previous experience, I wouldn’t dare try printing a 640×480 image any bigger than three inches across.

I suspect printing in color might give me less leeway. I plan to test that theory on my girlfriend’s color inkjet later today.

That test knocked my socks off, but there’s more to Qimage than just giving high-quality enlargements that look better than anyone has any right to expect. Photo paper is expensive, and it will arrange photos on the paper to maximize the available space on it. Depending on how you’re currently printing your digital photos, it might pay for itself in paper savings.

I also like its redeye reduction and blemish removal. To take out redeye, you click on the center of the pupil and drag your mouse to the right. To do a digital makeup job (or fix other problems–I swear that Sony Mavica must have had dust on its lens at some point), click on the center of the spot you want to remove and drag left. It sounds weird, but it took me about two tries to get the hang of it.

And the autocorrect functions are pretty intelligent. You don’t want to go blindly turning all of them on. On some pictures, it looked pretty good when I did that. Others took on a really artificial look. So experiment to get the hang of the tools, but be selective.

If you want to crop an image, it has a Crop Wizard. Who needs a wizard to help you cut out a piece of an image? Don’t worry, this isn’t a worthless wizard like Clippy from MS Office. Its recommendations, believe it or not, are intelligent. This wizard really does help you.

If you have a scanner, Qimage Pro will give you an easy way to make quick-and-dirty enlargements and reprints. Scan the picture at your scanner’s highest hardware or optical resolution (check your scanner’s manual). Load the scan into Qimage and size it however you want, do any touchups and/or cropping you want to do, then print. You’ll definitely want this if you ever get to spend an afternoon with the stash of photographs your grandmother kept under her bed in a Russell-Stover candy box.

It’s not a serious photo manipulation tool like Photoshop. If you want to cut out your head and put it on the body of a supermodel, Qimage Pro won’t do it. But most people are just interested in touchups and printing and don’t want to spend an hour futzing around with each image. For those kinds of people, Qimage Pro is perfect and it costs 40 bucks.

The only downside to any of this is that the quality of most inkjet printers is anything but archival–the ink fades fairly fast. But Qimage can’t do anything about that. It does an amazing job at everything else.

End of the road for CD burners?

I know it wasn’t more than a couple of months ago that I read the Taiwanese manufacturers of CD burners and media were leery about going above 48X. And now Asus has released a 52X burner. There’s a very favorable review here.
So now the fastest write speeds have reached parity with the fastest read speeds, which means burning a 650-meg disc (with this drive, at least) takes two and a half minutes. Rewrite speeds are at 24X, which doesn’t sound as impressive, but is very nice.

Not everyone needs this drive. I burn CDs rarely enough that I’m perfectly happy with my 20X unit (in fact, I’ve still got a quarter-spindle of CDs that will only burn at 12X). Personally, I’m more interested in rewrite speeds than in write speeds these days, since most of the stuff I burn is stuff like Linux CDs with a shelf life measured in months. In two years I won’t give a rip about Debian 2.2 or 3.0, so it’s nice to be able to erase and reuse old discs rather than keeping them around, taking up space.

But people’s needs vary. I’m sure some people are very excited about this drive.

Since I keep drives until they either die or are too slow for me use them and keep my sanity anymore (I have a Sony 2X unit and a Yamaha 20x10x40x unit, both in working order, which should tell you something), I’m definitely going to wait for a 52x52x52x unit. Maybe the industry will surprise us with a 56X write speed, but they’re not going to get much higher. At these speeds, the CDs are spinning at 27,500 RPM–nearly twice the speed of the very fastest hard drives on the market. I’ve read about the theoretical possibility of discs shattering at 50x+ speeds, though I’ve never actually seen that. I have seen discs crack though, which is irritating–even more so if you don’t have a backup copy.

I think this market is about to stabilize.

My first lengthy exposure to digital photography

Well, I took the plunge. I’ve entered the world of digital photography.
Panasonic lowered the retail price of its Lumix DMC-LC20 digital camera to $249. That, along with a promotion that threw in some memory cards, made me bite.

It’s a 2.1-megapixel unit (2 megapixel usable, according to the sticker on the front of the camera–kudos for truth in advertising) and its main selling point is its Leica lens. Leica, for those who aren’t hard-core into photography, is a German camera maker known for its high-quality and very expensive lenses.

I’ve been playing with it a little, and here’s what I’ve found (besides my need to practice some more).

You’ll probably have to take precautions for the included single set of charged AA NiMH 1600mAh batteries to have enough juice to take more than 16 meg worth of pictures. That’s not a lot. They aren’t the bottom-line batteries available (an awful lot of people seem to be selling 1400mAh batteries), but you can get 1800mAh or even 2000mAh batteries. The 1800s are a proven, mature technology. Buy at least two pair of 1800s, charge them up and take them with you. This thing munches ’em fast.

The included 8-meg SM card doesn’t hold a lot of images. Of course, people go ga-ga over the Sony Mavica cameras that use floppies, and a floppy is less than 1.5 megs. Be glad that Panasonic is throwing in a couple of bigger cards.

USB transfers from the camera’s SM cards are quick and easy, which really makes me wonder what the big deal is about Mavicas.

Image quality is very good. I’ll share some images once I’m not posting over dialup.

Professional photographers aren’t too keen on consumer-grade digital cameras, because a 1600×1200-resolution image is only enough to print a 4×5 print with acceptable quality (and it’ll look better smaller). But the only way to get good at taking pictures is to take a lot of them. An inexperienced photographer is going to take a lot of bad images. With digital, you don’t have to pay to process and print all the bad images. And digital gives you instant feedback. You’ll find youself compensating immediately for the effects of lighting.

The downsides of printing your own photographs are the cost of the prints (no less than the individual cost of a print off film, by the time you figure the cost of the ink cartridges and the special paper), and the longevity, or lack thereof. Inkjets aren’t known for producing long-lasting images. Inexpensive color laser printers will eventually give great strides in the right direction towards solving both problems, but right now “inexpensive” means $1,000. It’ll be a year or two before they hit the magical $499 mark.

But if you figure $1 per print, it won’t take long for a digital camera’s savings to pay for itself and for that printer.

It’s very easy to increase the Lumix’s exposure time for taking night shots, and I got some good ones. But I was missing my tripod. My hands aren’t steady enough to take sharp images without one once you lengthen the exposure time.

I’m not feeling any tinges of buyer’s remorse over this thing. Especially not after a night on the town with it. (Kansas City on the night after Thanksgiving offers lots of interesting subjects.)

Transferring VHS movies to VCD or DVD

Mail from Maurie Reed about VHS home movie transfers to digital formats.
MR: Dave, I’ve read all of your threads on video editing with interest. I’m not claiming to have understood everything but I’m less in the dark than I was before ( a 20 watt bulb as compared to a 10?).

DF: Remember, there are people who get 4-year degrees in this stuff. And graduate degrees after that.

MR: My question is: does the Pinnacle DV500 work in conjunction with a regular AGP video card or is it the sole video device in the system?

DF: It works in conjunction with another card. The DV500 does the heavy lifting and then sends its display over to the other card. So if you’ve got a DV500, any video card on the market today will be way more than enough. I used an S3 Savage4 card for a long time, and it was fine.

MR: Maybe better yet, what I’d lke to do is take the VHS tapes that we have made of the family over the years and transfer them to DVD. The first reason is to archive them for safety. After that’s done I’d like to edit them for quality, i.e., clean up, lighten,etc.

DF: PC Magazine’s Lance Ulanoff has done some columns on that. His approach, using Sonic MyDVD 4.0 (though Dazzle DVD Complete gets better reviews), is simpler than mine and eliminates the DV500, though you’ll still need some way to get the analog video into your PC. An ATI All-In-Wonder card would be good for that. I know Newegg has the less-expensive All-in-Wonders sometimes but they tend to sell out quickly so you’ll probably have to use their notify feature. Then you can spend the money you’d spend on a DV500 on a DVD writer instead (I suggest one of the Sony drives that can do DVD+R/+RW and DVD-R/-RW, that way if one format works better in your DVD player, you’re not stuck.

Keep in mind that Ulanoff used Firewire to get his video in, but that’s because he used Hi8 as his source, and those tapes will work in a Digital8 camera. If you’re using VHS, you’re limited to using analog inputs.

What you gain in simplicity you lose in power, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

MR: Toward this end I’ve been slowly building up a new machine: P4-2.4, Asus P4-533E, 512M PC-2700 RAM, 120G WD HD (SCSI’s not quite in the budget right now although I do have some Adaptec 2940 cards). I’m running an old S3 8M video card in it right now to test components (all from newegg…thanks for thesuggestion!) and I have no DVD-ROM drive or DVD burner yet (I do have a LiteOn CDRW). I thought I’d work on the video first. I’m sure at some point down the road we would like to do more video but never anything professional (read – making money at it). It would probably be my wife and daughters working with it anyway as I’m more of an audio person then video.

DF: You’re off to a great start. Add a DVD burner and an All-In-Wonder card (or a similar nVidia card with analog inputs–if your camera or VCR supports S-Video, use that, since its picture quality is noticeably better) and you’re ready to go. You might want to grab a smallish drive to hold your OS and apps so you can dedicate the WD drive just to video. Watch the post-Thanksgiving sales. For VHS-to-DVD transfers, IDE is sufficient.

Since you do have a CD burner, if you want to get started right away, get the All-In-Wonder and the software and start making VCDs, then get the DVD burner later.

As for being an audio person rather than a video person, I come at it from a magazine/newspaper background. I think it’s a shorter step from audio to video than it is from print to video! (And you knowing what it takes to make the video sound good is a very good thing. The audio quality on some of my projects has been positively awful.)

MR: I understand you’re very busy and NOT in the free advice business so I’ll understand if you decline to comment.

Thanks (no matter what the answer) in advance and have a great Thanksgiving!

DF: Thanks for the good questions. You have a great Thanksgiving too.

Picking out a camcorder

I had someone ask me for some advice in picking out a camcorder yesterday. I know I’ve talked a little bit about that before, but this field is always changing, so it doesn’t hurt to revisit it.
I’m going to link to a bunch of stuff on Amazon here. Amazon’s not the only place to buy this stuff, of course, but their selection is good, and I have an affiliation with them. If someone clicks on one of these links and ends up buying something, I get a kickback. But my primary motivation is informational.

Second things second: I know they’re cheap, but think twice about analog camcorders. A Quasar VHS-C camcorder will run you $200. You get a nice 20X optical zoom and a few digital effects, and it’s nice to be able to play your tapes in your VCR, but those are the only benefits you get. The image resolution is a lot lower than with a digital camcorder, and it’s a lot less convenient to dump video from an analog camcorder into a computer for editing. Since any computer you buy new today will have at least some editing capability (current versions of Mac OS and Windows include at least rudimentary video editors, so all you’d need to add to a PC is a $25 Firewire card if it doesn’t have built-in Firewire), you’ll probably want to be able to take advantage of it. If you don’t have Windows XP or ME, you can pick up a $65 Pinnacle Studio DV, which will give you the Firewire ports, rudimentary editing software, and most importantly, slick capture and titling software. The capture software is especially nice; it’ll detect scene changes for you and catalog them. Even if you do have editing software, you might want this. It saves me a lot of time.

Digital8 cameras are getting hard to find. Their chief selling point, besides price, was the ability to use analog Hi8 tapes, which was nice if you were upgrading. If you have some Hi8 tapes and want to continue to use them and want an easy way to move them to a computer for editing, look for a Digital8 camera. But there’s a good possibility you’ll have to buy online. And the resolution isn’t as high as MiniDV–Digital8’s selling points in the past were price and backward compatibility. The price advantage is evaporating, leaving just backward compatibility as a selling point. MiniDV is the future.

Panasonic has a digital 4-in-1 device that does video, still, voice, and MP3 duties. I don’t recommend it. The image quality is substandard, its fixed focus will make it even worse, and you can’t mount it on a tripod. Its list price is $450 and I saw it at Amazon for $340, but it’s a toy. Given a choice between it and a $250 analog camcorder, I’d go analog every time.

MiniDV is pretty clearly the way to go. It’s the emerging standard, as it’s become inexpensive, the tapes are compact and reliable, and the resolution and picture quality is fantastic.

You can spend as much as you want. An entry-level MiniDV camera, such as the JVC GRDVL120U, will run you about $400. For $400, you get 16X optical zoom, S-Video output for TV playback and a Firewire connection to dump your video to computer for editing, image stabilization, the choice between manual and autofocus, and the ability to take still shots and dump them to tape.

Pay no attention whatsoever to digital zoom. Using digital zoom to get much more than double your maximum optical zoom is completely worthless. There’s enough fudge factor in NTSC television that you can get away with using a little bit of digital zoom, but with this camera, once you’ve zoomed in to 32X, you’ve cut your effective resolution from that of DVD to that of VHS tape. Zoom in much more than that, and your image will look very pixelated. This particular JVC advertises 700X digital zoom, but you definitely don’t want to use it.

You can spend three times as much on a Sony DCRPC120BT. For your money you’ll get a better lens, so your image quality will be a little bit better. Whether that makes a difference will depend mostly on the television you’re displaying on. You’ll get much higher-resolution still shots, and the ability to store your stills on a memory stick. That’s a very nice feature–no need to advance and rewind your tape to find shots, and no need to interrupt your video sequences with stills. You actually get less optical zoom. You get less digital zoom too, but that’s not important. You’ll also get a microphone jack, which is very important. The microphone built into the camera will pick up some motor noise and won’t necessarily pick up what’s happening across the room. It’s very nice to have the ability to wire up a microphone to get away from the camera motor and possibly get closer to the sound source, to keep the sound from being muffled. You probably won’t buy an external mic right away. But chances are it’s something you’ll eventually want.

Personally, when I’m on a project, I’d much rather have the inexpensive JVC (or something less expensive that offers a microphone input) because the $800 more I would spend to get the Sony would let me buy a digital still camera with much better capabilities than the Sony offers. And when I’m shooting a video, having two cameras is an advantage–I can set them both up on tripods and shoot, or hand one camera off to someone else and tell them to get me some shots. Having two cameras can get me a whole lot better picture of what’s going on. But not everybody’s shooting documentaries like me. For travel, the Sony is a whole lot more convenient and more than worth the extra money. And if you’re recording your child’s birthday party, you probably just want one camera in order to avoid turning your living room into a TV studio.

So you need to figure out what you plan to do with it.

As far as accessories go, you absolutely want a tripod. Again, you can spend as much as you want. Amazon offers a Vivitar kit for about $40 that includes a bag and a tripod. With image stabilization, you can run around shooting birthday parties and vacation scenes and have a reasonably good-looking image that won’t give you the shakes. But if you’re recording Christmas morning, then set the camcorder up across the room, then go over and open presents with your family. I know, I hate being on camera, and you might too. But I wish I had some home video footage of my Dad. I remember his laugh and I remember how he loved to joke around, but I can’t show that to anyone.

If you just want to set the camcorder up at a fixed angle and run across the room, a cheap tripod will do the job nicely. If you’re going to be standing behind the camera and panning the scene, buck up for a fluid-head tripod. You’ll be able to move the camera much more smoothly. My Bogen tripod wasn’t cheap, but I wouldn’t be without it now that I have it. I think some people with arthritis have steadier hands than I do, but even I can do good-looking pans and zooms with that tripod.

Sometimes people ask me about brands. I learned on JVC equipment, so I’m partial to it. But it’s hard to go wrong with any of what I call the Big Four: JVC, Panasonic,
Sony, or Canon. Professionals use all four brands with excellent results. Sure, every professional has a preference. But the differences among the Big Four will be pretty slight. I’m less comfortable with offerings from companies like Sharp and Samsung. They haven’t been in the business as long, and they’re consumer electronics companies. The other companies sell to professionals. Some of that expertise will inevitably filter down into their consumer products as well. And the difference in price and features between a Sharp or a Samsung and a JVC, Panasonic, Canon or Sony isn’t very much, so a top-tier offering is a better bet for the money.

Good things come to those who drag their feet

A month ago, I was looking to buy a fridge and a washer and a dryer. My family came in to help me.
Mostly I got frustrated. I went into Sears and liked their prices, and the salesperson offered six months’ free financing. But you never buy the first place you look. We went to a Maytag dealer. The salesperson was extremely nice and helpful and offered me a year of free financing, but the prices were high. I had checked Best Buy a few days before. Pricing was comparable to Sears, and they offered their standard six-month free financing, but I could save a little at Sears by buying Kenmore, which was being made by Whirlpool last month.

I decided that for the price difference, I could go to Sears and pay off the appliances in half the time. So we went back. The salesperson who had helped me was gone. I told another salesperson I’d need financing. He offered me rates that were comparable to a typical exploitative rent-to-own joint. “It’s just 1.9 percent a month,” he said.

A 22.8 percent APR? In this day and age? With my credit rating? You’ve got to be kidding me. I might as well just put it on the Discover card I already have and avoid having yet another credit check done. Or watch the mail for a card with a really low introductory rate, for that matter. I told the guy that earlier in the day I could have gotten free financing. He said that must have been a mistake. I told him I wasn’t interested and left him with a half-filled-out ticket.

By then I wasn’t in the mood to go spend four figures on a bunch of stuff and have to deal with delivery arrangements. So I went home and took a nap. I closed on the house. I started moving. The appliances task sat. And sat.

A week ago, I mentioned to some friends that I still needed to go buy my big appliances.

“Gas or electric dryer?” one of my friends asked.

“Gas,” I said.

“You want one?” she asked.

“You’re trying to get rid of one?” I asked.

“It came with my house. It’s not very old but I had a set that was less than a year old, so I wanted mine. So it’s just sitting in my basement. Yours,” she said.

Nice. That saved me at least 300 bucks. Good things come to those who drag their feet.

So last night I went into Best Bait-n-Switch to try my luck. I couldn’t remember if the dryer she was giving me was a Whirlpool or a Frigidaire. A lot of people want a matching set, but I don’t care much about that. Look at my stereo: My receiver is a JVC and my CD changer is a Sony. And nobody’s going to look at my washer and dryer.

The salesman said he saw fewer returns on Whirlpools and that Whirlpool customer service was easier to deal with. Pricing was comparable. Unfortunately, you never know with this place whether he was being sincere or whether Whirlpool was running some kind of incentive to move inventory. I remember in my retail days it seemed like there was a promotion with some vendor or another every month. I still remember my manager sitting us down at a meeting one day. “IBMs are the best. I don’t know why,” she said. “Make up something. They’re running a promotion this month.”

I’d spotted a $379 Frigidaire washer on the Web. Whirlpool didn’t have a direct equivalent, but there was a $399 Whirlpool that had better features. And then there was a $459 Maytag, discounted to $429, that had more features still. And it was a Maytag. Maybe I should have stuck to my guns and bought the Frigidaire. But I bought the Maytag.

Then I went and looked at refrigerators. He started me out in the $699 aisle. But the fridge in my first apartment was a bottom-end model that didn’t even work right. The fridge in my current apartment is a bottom-end GE that does work. I could buy the same thing for 350 bucks and be content with it, if not happy. Mom’s been trying to talk me into an icemaker. So I told the guy I wanted a fridge that had an icemaker, or could have one added.

There was a $399 Frigidaire that fit the bill. Very basic. But it was everything I needed, really. I glanced over at the fridges next to it. There was a $499 model that had nicer shelves, a third drawer, and all the drawers were clear. I liked it better. I’ll like having clear drawers. I have this nasty habit of buying produce, putting it in a drawer, and then forgetting I bought it. A couple of months later, I remember. So clear drawers will save me some big money over the life of the fridge.

There was a $459 model that had a third drawer but didn’t have the nice shelves. And then there was a $429 model. It had the nice shelves and clear drawers (three of them) and everything else I wanted. I couldn’t understand why it was priced lower. The salesman didn’t know why it was priced lower. I bought it.

I skipped the extended warranties. Ask the salespeople about the warranty terms sometime and then ask the customer service people. You’ll get different stories from them. I learned that the hard way about 10 years ago. A lot of it is discretionary. Why should you pay $100 per appliance to get to go to different stores and talk to different people until you get what you want? It’s better to pay a little extra to get equipment that’s less likely to need service in the first place, which is what I did in the case of the washer. Losing a fridge is a bigger deal, but I also know it isn’t all that common.

Then I asked about financing. He said 12 months, interest-free. Nice. I’ll take it. I filled out the application, got everything in order, and then I got the bait-and-switch, in the form of the magical words “unadvertised special.” How about 18 months of interest-free financing?


Good things come to those who drag their feet.

You are looking at a genu-ine inventor

In yesterday’s comments, I suggested you take the David Crowder Band’s CD, Can You Hear Us?, and put it in your CD player and glue it shut because you won’t want to change it anyway. (I really ought to write up a proper review. I’ve managed to graduate to their other disc. It’s good. Not glue-worthy though. Unless you’ve got a changer.)
Well, I should have patented the technique. Maybe I could still file. A method of protecting intellectual property, I’ll call it. Why?

Because Sony’s in the habit of sending out review CDs in Discmans that have been glued shut to prevent unauthorized bootlegging. They also permanently attach the headphones–no copying out the headphone jack, naughty naughty.

I guess they didn’t count on a journalist being handy with snips and a soldering iron, did they? Oh, wait. I’m not exactly a practicing journalist anymore. Well, not professionally, anyway.

I smell a way to make some money and stick it to an RIAA member, don’t you?

Honest, the money was burning a hole in my pocket!

I went out shopping yesterday for a white gold rope to go with a white gold cross pendant I bought a month or so ago. I’m no expert on jewelry, but my sister knows as much about jewelry as I do about computers and baseball combined, and she said I shouldn’t buy silver unless I was going to wear it all the time. I don’t wear jewelry all the time, so I took her advice and bought white gold.
I found the chain.

Then I wandered over to the electronics aisle. I saw a $129 KDS 17″ monitor. Pass. I saw other monitors of varying sizes and qualities. Then I walked down the next aisle, where I saw HP Pavilion and Sony VAIO computers. Nothing earth-shattering. Then I saw something that made me do a couple of quadruple takes. A Lexmark color laser printer. Price? Seven hundred bucks. I was shocked. I’m pretty sure the last time I looked, the cheapest color laser you could find was $1500. I remember in the summer of 1994 selling a number of color inkjet printers for $649. So $700 for a color laser printer is a significant milestone, and it’s reason not to pay more than $100-$150 for a color inkjet. If you’re serious about color printing, that laser will give far better output, much faster, and at a much lower cost per page.

Yes, I’d love to have one. But I’ve got a Lexmark 4039 I bought in 1996. It still works fabulously. It also still has the toner cartridge that came from the factory in it. Needless to say, I don’t print a lot. So I really don’t know how I could justify a color laser printer.

So I walked on. I spied some DVDs. I flipped through them. Just a bunch of mediocre movies, most of which I’d never bothered seeing, so I wouldn’t have any inclination to pay $12.99 for them either. Then I turned around. Camcorders! I saw some Sony and Hitachi models, VHS-C and Digital-8, priced very nicely. Very nicely. At $200, I don’t understand why camcorders aren’t as common as VCRs were 10 years ago. You can get a nice camcorder now for what a nice VCR cost then. But that wasn’t what I was looking for.

Next section: JVC and Sony camcorders. Much pricier, but they had the magic word I was looking for: miniDV. I looked at the price: $480 on the entry model. That was about half what the entry models cost the last time I looked. I played around with it. The picture was awfully nice. I played around with the more expensive models. The picture wasn’t any nicer. So I wrote down the model numbers. At $480, I was almost ready to buy right then and there. But $480 is too much to spend casually, so I did a little research online.

Camcorder tip: Go ahead and search the Web for camcorder specs and reviews, but expect not to find much. Searching the web gives the impression the JVC GR-DVL805 doesn’t exist. The low-end JVC GR-DVL100 did have some positive reviews. I searched Google groups and found lots of good insights on both models. (If I find a consensus amongst a bunch of hobbyists who bought a product with their own money and used it long enough to get an opinion on it, I generally trust them. I certainly trust them more than a salesman, and there are problems these people will notice that a video magazine won’t due to lack of time with the unit.)

The DVL100 is lightweight, does a great job of gathering light (most JVCs do, in my limited experience), reasonably easy to use, and the price is right. Only complaint I could find: the tape motor is close to the mic, so you’ll get some motor noise. That’s not much concern for me.

The 805 is essentially the same camera, but it can double as a 0.8-megapixel digital still camera. Other than that, it has the same strengths and weaknesses as its cheaper brother. Since a 0.8-megapixel digital still camera is essentially worthless unless you’re shooting pictures for the Web, that feature isn’t useful to me.

Both camcorders had a few other weaknesses: You can’t plug an external mic into them, and while you can dump video from the camera into the computer via a firewire port, you can’t dump edited video from the computer back to the camera. Those are higher-end features. Neither of those matter much to me either. When I’m doing really serious work that requires those, I’ll be borrowing my church’s professional-grade JVC camera, which does everything but autofocus and make coffee. For projects where I record the audio separately (which is common), this camera will be fine. And as a second camera, it’ll be great.

So I bought it.

I’m amazed at how much video recording and editing power you can buy for $2,000 these days. For 2 grand, you can get a Pinnacle DV500 editing board (with Adobe Premiere bundled) and a low-end digital camcorder and still have plenty left over to buy a computer to connect it all to.

Building an inexpensive PC

Building an inexpensive PC. An old out-of-town friend I don’t hear from often called the other day. He wants to buy a computer and dabble in audio production. Some local guy quoted him $2,500 to build a system. He read me the specs, and all I can say is this guy had better be using Lian-Li cases and PC Power and Cooling power supplies (or I guess I’d settle for high-end Enermax), but I doubt it. I do know he’s using a top-end Athlon XP processor and an Abit motherboard, but he wasn’t pairing it with DDR, so he was totally killing the chip’s performance anyway. For two and a half grand, you’d better be getting DDR, and lots of it.
“You need a 32-meg video card because when the computer is drawing the waveforms, it has to be dead-on. You can’t afford for it to lag,” he said.

I got news for this idiot. When it comes to drawing simple line graphics like a waveform, the ancient ET4000 chipset in my 486 will have no problem keeping up with it. Even if you use a fill to make the waveform look pretty. And that video “card” (it was integrated into my motherboard) had 512K (K, as in kilobytes) of memory. Although anyone who wasn’t born yesterday knows that the amount of memory on a video card has nothing to do with its speed, outside of the realm of 3D gaming. Knowing kids these days, some of them may even know that at birth.

In other words, the guy’s a moron. Either he knows nothing about computers, or he knows how to skimp but he’s not a convincing salesman.

I know for a fact that audio editing doesn’t need a supercomputer. If I can do video editing on a 700 MHz Duron, I know a Duron CPU, paired with a decent supporting cast, is going to be adequate for multitrack audio recording and editing as well.

I asked him how much he could spend. He told me $800, not counting a monitor and the editing card/package. I squirmed. I spent way too much time shopping around. Here’s what I came up with (not counting the operating system):

1 GHz AMD Duron
FIC AZ11 motherboard (on closeout, so it was cheap)
ATI Xpert 2000 Pro AGP video card (with a blazing 32 megs–ahem)
Maxtor D740 20-gig 7200 RPM IDE hard drive
Maxtor D740 60-gig 7200 RPM IDE hard drive
512 MB Crucial PC133 SDRAM
Mitsumi 3.5″ floppy drive
Plextor Plexwriter 12/10/32A CD-RW
Enermax A1QX-6 mid-tower case with Enermax 300W power supply
US Robotics 2977 controller-based PCI modem
Closeout Dell-branded Logitech mouse and Dell-branded keyboard

I told him there are two brands of CD-RW I trust, especially for audio work: re-labeled Plextor, and Plextor. In all honesty, I would have much prefered to build an all-SCSI system, but for this kind of budget, that’s impossible. All-SCSI would have given much better disk performance, and it would have given access to the Plextor UltraPlex 40max CD-ROM, which is the only drive I trust for extracting digital audio. I imagine he’ll be doing a little of that. The Sony drive will do a decent job, but I’ve seen the Plextor work miracles. But the Plextor is $100, while the Sony cost around $25. I’ll definitely take a Sony over a Cyberdrive or Lite-On (which probably would have run $19).

I couldn’t get PC Power and Cooling on this budget. The price on the Enermax combo was good (less than a PCP&C 300W power supply alone) and the quality is respectable. The Japanese steel is a little lighter gauge than I prefer, but I didn’t cut myself on it. The fit is good, and it’s a good-looking case. Not show-off good like Lian-Li, but better-looking than most of the stuff in its price range. The cobalt blue trim compliments the lettering on the Plextor drive.

Finding a place to put the hard drives is a bit of a challenge. Modern 7200-rpm drives don’t run very hot, but I still don’t want them running directly above one another. I finally settled on putting a drive in the lowest 3.5″ bay and the other in the lowest 5.25″ bay.

The USR 2977 is the secret weapon here. A $20 no-name Winmodem would be a royal pain to set up, and chew up lots of CPU cycles. The 2977 was under $50 and won’t be a load on the system. That’s a speed trick I’m sure that local guy doesn’t know.

The 1 GHz Duron is still overkill, but that’s the slowest chip I could talk him into. I was starting to get annoyed with him. I don’t just know about computer speed, I literally wrote the book on computer speed, and my friend didn’t know what I was talking about when I said something about a boot floppy. And this year’s hot chip is next year’s budget chip, so if the budget chip is enough to get the job done this year, you can go buy more CPU next year. Besides, there was no way to cram any more CPU power into this tiny budget, other than sacrificing disk speed, which is more important unless he’s running Windows XP, which he won’t be. (I’ll drive 200 miles and take his computer away from him if he does.)

As for the two drives, any time you do multimedia work, you want to make sure your application and swap file are located on one drive, and the audio you’re working with is on a second drive. I probably could have gotten by with a 5400-rpm drive to hold the OS, but there isn’t much price difference between a 5400 RPM 20-gig drive and a 7200.

As for how the system runs, I’m sure it’ll smoke. The motherboard isn’t here yet. In all fairness, I ordered it Monday and it was shipped UPS Ground from California on Tuesday.

I ordered the motherboard from Just Deals and the memory came from Crucial. The rest of the stuff came from Directron and New Egg, who as always gave me great prices and fast delivery.