No matter what your opinion is about the dangers of driving while using a cellular handset, one fact is undeniable: You can be fined if you do it. In New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, fines range from $100 to $250.
There are plenty of hands-free options available, especially for phones with wireless Bluetooth, of course. Wireless earpieces, however, can be awkward to use in a car, making it difficult to listen to the radio, for example. And many car kits require professional installation, which can cost more than $100.
An easier solution is to use a portable Bluetooth speaker phone. One of the best we've tested so far is Motorola’s T305 ($80), which is slightly bigger than a Fig Newton. It clips onto a visor and comes with a cigarette lighter adapter to recharge its battery.
Despite its diminutive size, the T305 delivered plenty of volume to overcome the cacophony of heavy traffic. To place a call, you simply push a large flashing button, making it easy to operate without taking your eyes off the road. Furthermore, if your phone or cell service supports voice dialing, you can dial simply by saying the person’s name. The T305 confirms your choice by repeating the name before placing the call.
While it's not chock full of cutting-edge technology or as sexy as the latest MP3 player, the T305 is useful, inexpensive, and works like a charm. And it could save you from an expensive ticket.
by John R. Quain
HeartStart device from Philips could help you save a life
The most dramatic moment on most doctor dramedies is when the MD holds the paddles of a defibrillator against a dying patient’s chest and yells, “Clear!” But in reality, most heart attacks don’t occur under klieg lights—or in a hospital. About 80 percent of cardiac arrests occur at home.
After a sudden heart attack, every minute that passes without a victim receiving treatment decreases the person’s chances of survival by as much as 10 percent. So it’s essential that patients receive CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), defibrillation—and professional medical attention--as soon as possible. The Philips HeartStart Home Defibrillator is designed to help.
Philips recently demonstrated the product for us and showed us how the lunch box-sized device takes users carefully through the process of reviving and maintaining a patient until medical personnel arrive. The HeartStart gives spoken instructions, for example, reminding you to call 911 immediately and then takes you through the steps necessary to check the victim’s breathing and pulse. Of course, it also tells you where to place the electrode pads on the person’s chest.
Once the pads are in place, HeartStart can determine whether or not the patient needs defibrillation to jolt their heart into a regular rhythm. If a shock is needed, the HeartStart machine doesn’t yell, “Clear!” but it will instruct you to step back before pushing a button on the defibrillator to deliver the shock. Furthermore, the device tells you how to perform CPR until help arrives.
HeartStart is extremely simple to use, even in a panic, and it’s available without a prescription. However, at $1,300 it’s not a discretionary purchase. But if you live far from a hospital or own a small business—and you are not a doctor—it could help you save a life some day.
If you do decide to purchase the HeartStart, we recommend that you and your family take a course in CPR and familiarize yourself with the device’s operation.
Blow It Off
by John R. Quain
Dyson introduces a hand dryer that's a blast
This week, Dyson, the man and the company behind the vacuum that really sucks, introduced the Dyson Airblade, which really blows.
The wall-mounted device is a high-speed air blower that pushes moisture off your hands when they are inserted and slowly withdrawn from the device. Dyson’s machine is different from existing hand dryers in the U.S. and elsewhere in that it doesn’t require any hand wringing and doesn’t use heat.
World travelers will probably compare the Airblade to hand air dryers in Japan (an amazingly civilized country where there are even computers in the toilets). However, as one Dyson engineer explained, the Japanese models rely on air volume, whereas the Airblade utilizes air velocity—400 mph versus the 180 mph stream from Japanese models--to push the water off and vaporize it.
So what does it feel like? It’s remarkably gentle, given the air velocity involved, and it does make your hands feel softer (please, no “you’re soaking in it” jokes). It’s tad loud, at about 85 db (normal conversation is about 75 db), but it’s relatively quick, taking about 12 to 15 seconds on average to dry your hands. Just don’t try to stick your face in it.
Expect to see the silver Airblades first in select AMC theaters around the country. Initially, it will be marketed to restaurants and similar venues, but you can order one for your own home online for $1,400.
Oh, and the Airblade is green. According to the company, the machine uses 80 percent less electricity than traditional dryers, and of course, no trees are harmed in the process.
by John R. Quain
Lying in the sun with your radio....
We’re fans of HD Radio, but it has been slow to catch on, in spite of the fact that over 2,000 stations will be broadcasting in the pristine digital format in the U.S. by the end of the year. However, new products from consumer electronics companies may give HD Radio the final push it needs.
The biggest boost will come from Sony next month when the consumer electronics behemoth introduces its XDR-S3HD, a $200 tabletop AM/FM radio. The radio will pull in traditional analog stations, as well as the new HD versions, which offer superior music fidelity. For the car market, Sony will also introduce an add-on HD tuner box that can be connected to existing car radios. The new tuner, the XT-100HD, will cost about $100.
Other recent HD Radio introductions include Sangean’s tabletop HDT-1X, for $250, and Radiosophy’s HD100 for $160. We’re betting that high-end tabletop radios, such as those from Tivoli, won’t be far behind with announcements.
Admit it. You’re not thinking about work, you’re thinking about the long weekend and getting away. For most of us, that means getting behind the wheel…and having to call folks to tell them you’re stuck in traffic.
But before you do that, make sure you’ve got one important electronic tool in your car: a wireless headset that lets you talk on your cell phone, hands free. It won’t completely prevent you from being distracted by a conversation, but at least you’ll have both hands on the wheel.
Bluetooth wireless headsets and earphones are the easiest solution. Headsets cost as little as $25, and most cell phones have the Bluetooth wireless feature. However, many earphones are uncomfortable to wear and are not designed specifically for in-car use. The $130 Plantronics Discovery 665 Bluetooth Headset is an exception.
The pinkie finger-sized device is small enough to put in your pocket yet delivers excellent sound quality, including the ability to cancel out distracting wind and road noise thanks to a built-in digital signal processor. It also includes something most headsets don’t: a charger that works in a cigarette lighter socket. Most models require you to plug them into a standard power outlet when the rechargeable battery runs dry—which isn’t very convenient when you’re bombing down the road, miles from home.
If you need further impetus to go hands free, remember that many states have laws against using a cell handset while you’re driving. For a list of such municipalities and more on headsets, see “Avoiding a Ticket.” J-Q.com
Entertainment (May 2007)
Monitor Madness in New York
by John R. Quain
A whole new welter of HDTVs will be released in the coming months
Spring in New York is the time when the major television manufacturers take their last shot at impressing reviewers and critics with new TVs the companies plan to debut in late summer and early fall. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve squinted at new monitors from Westinghouse, Panasonic, Pioneer, and this week, Mitsubishi. So what is likely to be the next set you’ll buy?
Westinghouse has made a name for itself—or rather re-introduced the name for itself—by offering relatively inexpensive but solidly built LCD-based, high-definition TVs. And it continues to apply price pressure on all the other companies. Within a few months it will offer, for example, a very sharp and very bright 52-inch LCD set, the TX-52F480S, for just $2,400 (list). That price may still sound high, but it will strike fear into the hearts of companies like Sony and Sharp; and it represents a good value (if you happen to have the money to spare).
At the other end of the scale, Pioneer continues to push the technical envelope in plasma HD sets. The company has improved the resolution—pushing it up to 1080p in some sets—black levels, and color fidelity of its models. However, Pioneer sets are still for the well-heeled, with its high-end, 50-inch HD plasma models coming in at around $5,000 (now the Westinghouse set sounds cheap, doesn’t it?).
Meanwhile, Mitsubishi—once the king of large, traditional CRT sets—has moved from emphasizing rear-projection DLP-based TVs to underscoring its fleet of impressive flat-panel LCD monitors. On the DLP side, new features in some models will include a special 3-D gaming mode for connected computer games (yes, you’ll have to wear silly glasses). The effect is a little gimmicky, but gamers will appreciate it.
More impressive are Mitsubishi’s top-of-the-line LCD displays, which feature not only the hallmark of LCD sets—superior brightness—but also better motion tracking and improved performance in dimly lit movie sequences (a.k.a., contrast ratios). The last two items are thanks to 120Hz image processing (which is twice the rate of standard 60Hz LCD sets) and dynamically adjusted brightness, which changes depending on the scene. Mitsubishi isn’t likely to threaten bargain builders, but its 144 Series 46-inch LCD monitor will list for just $3,899—and it delivers a stunning picture.
So what should shoppers look for this fall? Lower prices again, of course, with many of the numbers I’ve quoted falling further still before Christmas. For what Panasonic is pushing, and for advice on how to choose between the competing HDTV technologies, see below. J-Q.com
Microsoft Wants to Save Your Life
by John R. Quain
The company will soon introduce a simple home network storage system
As more of our daily lives transpire in the digital domain—financial records, kids’ birthday pictures, calendars and contact lists—the problem of protecting it all gets more acute. Consequently, there are a growing number of options for saving and sharing that essential data. And Microsoft is about to offer yet another solution: The Windows Home Server.
According to Microsoft, there are 34 million households in the U.S. with more than one PC, and many of those are networked together using a Wi-Fi network or router. But because of the hassle and complexity, few of us use that network to do more than simply share a high-speed Internet connection. The Windows Home Server is supposed to change all that by delivering a simple box with lots of storage that just plugs into a network router and allows everyone on the network to share files and do automatic backups…without hassle.
Initial demonstrations conducted again in New York last week look promising. The software is relatively easy to follow, with straightforward options to back up all photos, music, and videos (it will even recognized duplicate copies and only back up one version). Folders can be shared across the network (after all, how many copies of your daughter pulling Santa’s beard do you need?), and systems can be completely restored with a few mouse clicks.
For travelers, Microsoft will also offer a free online service that will allow you access your Home Server online from any location. Forgot an important report or spreadsheet while away on business? No problem. Just log on and download it to your laptop on the road. Want to show grandma all those photos you took at spring break? Just log on and show her the pictures from your Home Server.
Windows Home Servers, as the name suggests, will work only with Windows XP and Vista machines, and are strictly for sharing and backing up files—they cannot be used to share applications. (In other words, you cannot put a rarely used application like Photoshop on the server and share it among all the computers on your network.) The first model to appear in stores will be HP’s MediaSmart Server (pictured above), available in late August or early September. According to HP spokespeople, the system will hold up to 6 terabytes of hard disk storage space. The company isn’t sure how systems will be configured (possibly with a couple of drive bays filled and a couple of empty bays so you can plug in more drives later). However, HP says it’s aiming for prices well under $1,000.
Such price points may be too steep for many consumers, but if a lot of your daily life relies on a computer, it could be worth it. (If you’re looking for less expensive solutions now, see Preserving Your Digital Treasures.) J-Q.com
Fun & Games
Barbie is Going Digital
by John R. Quain
A virtual world for little girls with a forthcoming music player
Do you remember when the toy every girl wanted was the Easy Bake oven? These days, girls are into IMing, avatars, and digital music. So Barbie is changing with the times.
At a black and pink event in Manhattan, Mattel announced a new generation of Barbie Girls for tiny digital divas. The launch includes two main components, a Web site and an MP3 music player with a replaceable Barbie Girl doll façade.
The Web site is sheathed in pink (of course) and is a virtual world containing avatars girls design and dress themselves. There’s a café to visit, a mall, a park, a pet store, a cinema featuring behind-the-scenes Barbie documentaries, and girls can furnish their own apartments. Naturally, there’s a chat component that takes place in bubbles over the avatars’ heads. For security, certain words are not permitted (such as giving someone your specific physical address). Items, such as clothes, are purchased with B dollars, but rather than buying the online currency, girls “earn” dollars by playing games and watching videos (if life were only that easy).
The Barbie Girl music player won’t be available until August, but I tried out an advanced prototype. The player will retail for $60 and comes with enough built-in memory to hold about 120 songs. There’s also a slot for a mini SD memory card, so the device can be expanded to hold thousands of songs on a 2 gigabyte card (but you’ll have to purchase the card separately). The included Barbie Girl headphones can be accessorized with earring-like bobbles, and there are beads for the headphone wires and charms for the player (the first is a baby penguin).
The most inventive feature of the new player is that when it is connected to a Windows PC it will unlock new features on the Barbie Girls site. For example, girls can pick a pet to take care of and even make the poor little beast pink, if they so choose. So far, there are no announced plans for special music downloads, but you can be sure that’s coming.
Eight Tech Tips for Going Green
by John R. Quain
Earth Day isn't just for the Lorax
Yes, the water is rising, but there are plenty of ways to help stem the tide, and there’s no better time to start than by celebrating Sunday, April 22nd, Earth Day. (You missed it? No problem, just follow these tips anyway.)
1.Pay Bills Online: Paying online not only saves you money (many banks will transfer payments electronically for free), but also helps the planet. According to the electronic payments organization NACHA, for
every 38,000 bills paid over the Web:
- 1 ton of paper is saved
- 2 tons of trees are preserved
- 16,450 gallons of water is saved
- 1,941 pounds of solid waste is avoided
- 5,058 pounds of greenhouse gasses are avoided
2. Use a Laptop: Laptop computers consume less electricity than comparable desktop PCs. The downside: notebook computers cost more than desktop machines.
3. Refuse to Fax: I know lawyers and agents love them, but faxes are wasteful and completely unnecessary. So ask to have contracts sent as electronic documents that can accept a digital signature. An example: Acrobat PDF files can be created with open boxes you can electronically fill in (leaving the rest of the document, such as a contract, locked out and protected).
4. Go Fluorescent: Compact fluorescent light bulbs are designed to replace standard incandescent bulbs. They cost more up front, but save money in the long run because they use two-thirds less electricity. Fluorescent bulbs no longer have that annoying flicker (so-called high frequency bulbs solved that problem) but the different shade of light can be difficult to get used to.
5.Power Off Your Gear: Home theater systems and televisions eat power even when they are turned off. So put your TV and sound equipment on a power bar that you can use to cut off the electricity with one button. Caveat: If you have a DVR, put it on a separate power outlet so that you don’t miss any scheduled recordings.
6. Quit Printing: Send photos over e-mail. Save your documents in electronic form. Just remember to backup, backup, backup.
7.Use a Timer—Or More: If you habitually leave lights on or like to have lights on for security reasons, use timers to save electricity. You can also use relatively easy to install systems such as those based on the Z-Wave standard that allow you to coordinate different lights and appliances.
8.Ecycle, Baby! We love electronic goods at J-Q.com, but the endless upgrade path means we toss out a lot of e-junk. It can be particularly tricky to recycle heavy metals and other toxic elements in electronics, so before you plant that monitor or VCR on the curb, check with the company you’re buying that new computer from to see if they have a recycling program (examples, Dell andHP). Also look for a local ecycling center where they will take care of consumer electronics devices properly. Here’s a handy list of ecycling centers at the EPA. J-Q.com
Banking is Going Mobile
by John R. Quain
But carriers continue to hamper advanced mobile services
Citibank announced this month that it will start rolling out a mobile banking service intended for cell phone users. However, at a fog shrouded news conference at the top of Rockefeller Center, the future popularity of the Citi Mobile service seemed cloudy-- but not due to any lack of effort on part of the nation’s largest financial institution.
To underscore just how important the bank views this introduction, Citigroup CEO Charles Prince was there to kick things off. Citi Mobile, he said, would launch this month in southern California and was expected to expand to other markets later this year.
To use the free service, customers must download software to their handsets (it will work with over 100 different models). AT&T/Cingular, Sprint, and Verizon will also support Citi Mobile, which allows clients to conduct the sorts of banking activities currently available online. (Cingular has also announced plans to promote banking services from the likes of Wachovia and SunTrust.)
The snag is that in order to use Citi Mobile, you’ll incur additional data usage charges from the carriers. This harkens back to the day when we were charged by the byte to send e-mail. The problem is that in addition to standard monthly voice charges, there are charges for ring tones, downloadable games, Internet access, text messaging, and streaming video. The result: advanced services that require additional fees aren’t likely to take off any time soon. When there are lower flat fees for all-you-can-eat data service (see T-Mobile), then services like Citi Mobile might enter the mainstream.
Safer Driving Through Technology
by John R. Quain
The New York Auto Show (April 6 to 15)
Before its doors open to the public, the New York Auto Show traditionally runs a couple of press-only days. Last week was no exception with the requisite final auto announcements before the 2008 models hit showroom floors this fall. The dog and horsepower show ran from the pedestrian to the exotic, but the most interesting announcements had to do with technologies designed to improve the driver experience, to wit:
• Infiniti debuted its EX Concept “personally sized” SUV (in other words, it's small). The vehicle is no longer just a concept; it will appear as the EX35 before the end of the year and includes two interesting, first-of-their-kind technologies: Lane Departure Prevention, which uses a camera sensor to detect when a driver drifts out of a lane (without signaling) and then applies brakes to correct the problem if the driver fails to do so, and the Around View Monitor, which uses four individual cameras to give drivers a bird’s eye view of the vehicle when parking (more on this in a future story).
• Ford hyped its Microsoft control system, dubbed Sync. It is designed to reduce driver distraction by putting hands-free phone operation, voice-activated music player controls, and text-to-speech software for reading back text messages into a single package. Perhaps more important, there’s a USB port, which brings some measure of standardization to the fragmented car market. No more cigarette lighter adapters; just get a charge via the USB port.
Naturally, there was a bevy of car introductions, as well.
• While playing the Mission Impossible theme and firing off plenty of pyrotechnics, Mercedes-Benz introduced its CLK63 AMG Black Series, a street legal version of its F1 Safety car. The CLK63 has 500 horses under the hood and does 0 to 60 in a snappy 4.1 seconds, but what’s really amazing is how, well, how ugly the car is.
• Volvo showed off its rather impressive XC70 wagon. The company has taken nearly every design suggestion and customer desire and put it all into a single vehicle, including two-level booster seats, Bluetooth, hidden cargo nets, a push-button powered hatch (with safety sensors), fold-flat rear seats, a sliding cargo floor, and hidden cup holders galore. Of course, the car also has a panoply of safety features, including adaptive cruise control, collision warning, blind spot warnings, and swiveling headlights. Hopefully, the vehicle will drive as well as it looks. J-Q.com
The Other Inevitability
by John R. Quain
Legal Help Online
“In this world,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “nothing is certain but death and taxes.” So now that you are facing the latter (and if you’re not, read Online Tax Prep), you might as well face the former—with a little online help.
Writing up a will is something nearly everyone realizes they should do, but few of us ever take the time. However, you can create a will relatively quickly and painlessly by doing it online. At LegalZoom, for example, all you have to do is complete an online interview. The company then reviews your responses, creates the appropriate documents, and sends it to you within 48 hours for signing. A basic will is just $69, and remember you’ll need two witnesses to validate your signature. If you need it sooner, the company will e-mail the will to you the same day for another $20. And if you’re worried about the document being lost or destroyed, LegalZoom will store it in a virtual safety deposit box for a total cost of $119.
Some wags may add other certainties to Franklin’s original two (divorce, law suits, etc.). And LegalZoom’s attorneys can help you with those, as well, including living trusts, incorporation, and small claims lawsuits. Hey, it’s got to be easier than doing your taxes. J-Q.com
Going Mobile in Disney World
by John R. Quain
Paucity of Cool Phones?
In case, you were wondering why there seems to be a preponderance of stories about cell phones and wireless communications this week, it’s because the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) trade show is on in Orlando.
Casting a pall over the show is Apple’s forthcoming, uber expensive iPhone, which is slated to go on sale in June now. AT&T (nee Cingular) says it’s received about 1 million customer inquiries for the phone. Of course, the iPhone won’t improve call quality or lower your text messaging charges (or deliver high-speed wireless Internet access, for that matter), but it has given other handset makers something to shoot for (or at). One item reporters are jumping on is Helio’s new phone called Ocean (Helio founder Sky Dayton likes to surf, okay). Helio is a mobile reseller targeting hipsters, but until now its phones have been too straight-laced. The Ocean may change that.
Also of note from CTIA:
• Intel continues to push WiMax, a wireless format that could solve the lack of broadband Internet service in rural areas where no cable or DSL is available. Sprint promises to start rolling out services within the next 12 months...in cities!?.
• The Bluetooth wireless specification is getting an upgrade to make it easier for handsets to connect to headsets and other devices.
• Former presidents Bush and Clinton will appear at the show to deliver a speech about philanthropy (so I guess we are being overcharged for cell service).
Next week: A preponderance of car news. Why? The New York Auto Show will be in full bloom. J-Q.com
Skype's New Revenue Stream
by John R. Quain
Hello Western Union...and MasterCard
When eBay bought Skype in 2005 for $2.6 billion, many analysts ridiculed the purchase. But this week, no one will be second-guessing the idea. On Tuesday, one of the founders of the free voice-over-IP phone service revealed that the company would soon allow users to electronically transfer money from one PayPal account to another over Skype. In effect, the move will instantly create a global bank with over 171 million potential customers (that's the number of current Skype users).
It's a stunning but expected move. eBay owns both Skype and PayPal, and the company has been looking for a way to capture more of the money transfer pie. Western Union, for example, makes billions enabling such transfers (even I've used it to pay contractors halfway around the world). By making it even easier to send money over Skype, eBay may quickly cut into Western Union's business. The company can easily undercut WU's charges, and it will appeal to Europeans, many of whom already use Skype to place video and phone calls.
Another company that should be nervous is MasterCard. While some business comes its way when PayPal customers fill their accounts using a credit card, Skype's foray could stymie MasterCard's nascent electronic payments business overseas. One can envisage many people transfering money online without ever picking up a phone or visiting a store...directly from PayPal. The only caveat about this scenario is that for many people PayPal is extremely awkward to use. But if eBay can clean up the interface and make the whole process more understandable, it may just have something there. J-Q.com
Quain's World (3/21/07)
by John R. Quain
A Touch of History Online
In a world of disposable blogs, ezines and wikis, it’s easy to forget about one of the best sources of information: the newspapers. Indeed, one hundred years ago, newspapers were the main source of knowledge for millions, chronicling the important events and people of the day. Today, those old newspapers are sadly inaccessible to most of us. Consequently, a laudable effort is underway at the Library of Congress to digitally preserve the newspapers of the past and make them available online.
The Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers site officially launches this week. At the site you’ll find 226,000 searchable pages from newspapers from 6 states and the District of Columbia. The collection comprises issues published between 1900 and 1910. It’s a wonderful research tool and entertaining historical snapshot of a tumultuous decade. Check it out by starting with a search for the Wright Brothers and then read about the dawn of powered flight from rapturous first-hand accounts by reporters.
Consumer Electronics (March 20, 2007)
The JVC Everio GZ-HD7 .
by John R. Quain
A High-Definition Camcorder Worth Buying?
High-definition televisions are all the rage and electronics companies have been pushing new high-def DVD formats (Blu-Ray and HD-DVD), but for the most part consumer camcorders have yet to join the HD party. And that’s a problem for anyone who has invested in a sleek, flat-screen HD set because once you start watching movies in HD, those home videos of the kids romping on the beach that you shot on a standard camcorder look dismal (no matter how cute your little ones are).
The first generation of HD camcorders for consumers were expensive and often criticized for delivering a generally disappointing picture. But the next generation of HD camcorders is coming out this spring, starting with the JVC Everio GZ-HD7. The JVC high-definition camcorder, which should be out next month, uses a built-in hard drive for recording, rather than a tape or mini DVD disc, and it can hold up to 5 hours of video at a maximum 1080i HD resolution. It makes for a very pleasing, crisp picture that you won’t be ashamed to view on the family wide-screen TV.
The JVC camcorder is the company’s only high-def consumer model so far and will be priced at around $1,800. Yes, that’s still very expensive, but as models from other manufacturers appear this summer and fall, expect to see prices drop quickly.
To create the high-definition video, the Everio GZ-HD7 uses three 1/5-inch CCDs – one each for red, green and blue, and a Fujinon lens. It also boasts optical image stabilization, which can prove very helpful to those of us with less than perfect camerawork. And the camcorder has an HDMI port so that it can be plugged directly into an HD television. Initially, most people will want to download the video to their PCs, where clips can be stored in an HD data file format. However, if you want to burn a high definition disc of the family vacation, you’ll need to add a Blu-Ray DVD recorder to your computer. There are such recorders available now, but expect to pay another $500 to $600 for the drive. J-Q.com