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The Test Bed

The latest news on all the hottest products passing through the PCW Labs

Published: Thu, 03 Dec 2009 16:09:34 GMT

Last Build Date: Thu, 03 Dec 2009 16:09:34 GMT

Copyright: Copyright 2011

Traditional computing versus the app store

Fri, 05 Feb 2010 13:18:57 GMT

What will computers be like in ten years time? The answer is harder to predict now than if the same question was posed ten years ago. Currently, two competing models of operating system design and software distribution are emerging, and it's quite possible that one will fall by the wayside.On one side is the traditional design model of Microsoft Windows and Mac OSX. The operating system is big, and lets you tinker away with the PC to your heart's content. You are able to do what you like, download and install whatever software you choose and if you break your computer, or become infected with a virus, well, that's your fault.On the other is the model of the iPhone, iPad and Google Chrome OS. The operating system is designed to not get in your way. You either purchase and download applications from a central app store, one that's managed, regulated and controlled, or you use applications on the web such as Google Docs instead of desktop software. This has its benefits. If you can't freely install software on your device, neither can a potential hacker, which makes the experience a lot safer. With an operating system that doesn't do much, there's less likelihood something could go wrong, and less obscure error messages.Which will prevail? On one side, some argue that the Windows approach is outdated, that users dont need full control of their devices, that it makes computing more complicated than it needs to be, and that it allows for hacking and piracy. Supposedly, what we all want is a slim operating system that boots quickly, applications that download and install themselves with no potential problems and a system that's impervious to hackers.On the other, some feel that the iPhone and Chrome OS approach is too limiting, that the idea of not being in complete control of your own device is a terrible one, and an app store where the available content is controlled, is an afront to the principles of open computing. iPhone owners who wish to install applications on their phone without using the Apple app store have to 'jailbreak' their phone first, which means they can no longer recieve official software updates. The Android approach is similar, while Chrome OS gives users nothing more than a web browser.Could this model eventually usurp Windows completely? Perhaps not, Microsoft may simply evolve Windows to match people's changing needs, blending the software we use now on the desktop into its Azure cloud computing platform. One thing's certain, computing and access to the internet is now part of mainstream life. The overwhelming majority of people who now use computers don't know the first thing about them, why they go wrong, or how to fix them. This is even more true now than it was ten years ago. They dont care either, it doesn't matter, as long as their computer just works, and this is the market every company now needs to cater for. [...]

Jumping on the HD bandwagon

Thu, 03 Dec 2009 16:09:34 GMT

HD is getting a lot of press at the moment, especially with the launch of the new Freeview HD service, which I've written about elsewhere.So, it's a perfect opportunity for canny marketing folk to spread their own unique blend of confusion and misinformation, slapping logos like "Full HD" on everything. Today's pile of press releases included one announcing a new indoor TV aerial from OneForAll.But it's not just any indoor TV aerial. Oh no, it's a "powerful new Full HD indoor aerial" which rather seems to imply that somehow you need a Full HD aerial to receive an HD picture, "Full HD" often referring to the 1080p resolution, rather than a 720p picture.Leaving aside the fact that no one has plans to broadcast in 1080p in the UK, let's be absolutely 100% clear - the aerial has nothing to do whatsoever with the resolution of the picture. It picks up the signal, or it doesn't pick up the signal. And not having a "Full HD" label on the box the aerial comes in doesn't mean that you'll see fewer pixels.There's a nod to the launch of Freeview HD, with a claim that the SV9380 is "offering crystal clear pictures to those who can already receive HDTV via Freeview." That would be no one, then. The launch on 2nd December was a technical launch, and there aren't any receivers available to consumers, with none expected until next year.Never mind; you might still need one of these, perhaps. After all it gives "perfect reception of Full HD television, DVB-T television and DAB radio." And here we were, thinking that perfect reception depends rather on the strength of the signal in a particular area. Yes, FreeviewHD uses something other than DVB-T, but it's not called "Full HD" it's called DVB-T2. And if your aerial can receive one, it can receive the other.In the "technically minded" section, OneForAll's press release explains that the aerial "ensures maximum reception for higher density information streams such as the DVB-T2 and HD MPEG4 transmission."It's enough to make you weep, if you understand how these things work. An aerial isn't like a fishing net, requiring a finer mesh to capture the more detailed bits of information for HD. There's nothing special, in radio terms - which is all the aerial cares about - about Freeview HD's radio waves, compared to those for SD services.Please, OneForAll - and other companies - stop the pseudo-science. It's meaningless mumbo jumbo. When you slap terms like "Full HD" that were designed for display resolutions, on devices like aerials, or make ridiculous claims that aren't backed up by the science, you make it easier for the sharks and chancers out there to persuade the less technical to spend money on things they don't really need.It's this simple: if you have a TV aerial that will receive Freeview, it will also receive Freeview HD. It doesn't need badges, or stickers. There's no such thing as a "digital aerial" either - but perhaps that's another post, another day. [...]

The UK gets left behind.

Mon, 16 Nov 2009 11:54:18 GMT

Monday morning, back in the office after a two week holiday. You may know how it feels. After reading 1,000 emails and deleting about 900, I finally have time to write a blog post.I've spent the last fortnight in Hong Kong, and in addition to having much nicer weather than the UK at this time of year, I was amazed at how much better the technology infrastructure is. Most noticeable was the metro (MTR) system - cleaner and more efficient than the London Underground, with no stations closed due to engineering works. You can also use your mobile on the tube. This might seem like an extravagence to some, but in many countries it would seem bizarre that you can't use a mobile on the underground. Of course, that means having 3.5G data connections as well, making it easy to catch up on email on your way in to work. Is it really too expensive for the UK to install a mobile infrastructure in underground stations and on trains?There were also lots of people, young and old, playing on handheld games consoles. People playing on either a Playstation Portable or a Nintendo DS were everywhere, noticeably more than in the UK.The Octopus Card, Hong Kong's equivalent of our Oyster Card, allowed you to do far more than just pay for train tickets. In all 7-11 shops, you don't need to hand over any cash to pay for groceries, a simple swipe of your Octopus card will do. This exact thing has been talked about in the UK for a while but you have to wonder why it's taking so long to move beyond talking and become reality.The Computer Arcade, a giant market where many small computer vendors peddled everything from cheap USB memory keys, to netbooks, games consoles and desktop PCs was something you dont see in the UK. Big name brands like Samsung and Dell weren't to be found there, but the majority of equipment on sale was from Chinese manufacturers, and the prices were considerably lower. One item that caught my attention was a fake iPhone. It looked almost identical to the real thing, from the interface to the Apple logo on the back. The touch-screen display didn't work quite so well, it was laggy and less precise, but at the top of the phone was a small antenna to pick up TV (and this also worked in some metro stations too). The use of the Apple logo would of course, make the device completely illegal.Broadband is also far more advanced. My friend had a very modest connection - 30Mbit/sec downstream and 10Mbit/sec upstream. He said that if you want it, a 1GBit/sec connection is alreader available. Considering we have to wait until 2012 for 100 per cent broadband coverage, and then only a guaranteed 2Mbit/sec, it's fairly obvious the UK is lagging behind in this area too.Of course, there are important differences between the UK and Hong Kong. Our greater landmass means ensuring broadband coverage everywhere is more difficult, and our underground system is much older, and therefore more difficult to keep updated. However, the real difference was to do with the attitude towards new technology, and it seems the UK has shied away from the required investment for far too long. [...]

Let's get physical

Wed, 14 Oct 2009 18:11:03 GMT

You would have thought, after over a decade of people grabbing music and video via the internet, that companies would have realised that there is a benefit in downloads. And one of those benefits is surely that digital versions of products can be cheaper. You'd think.Not so, all too often. I'm a great fan of the Sony Reader, and I can have lots of books on it. But why on earth does the eBook edition cost so much more than the paperback? Yes, that's right - for something that can be prepared by doing not much more than 'File, Save As...' once the book's already been laid out for print, and that doesn't involve dead trees, or lorries trucking it around the country, or fees to booksellers for placing it on the prominent tables and shelves in their shops, you actually pay exactly the same as the hardback in some cases.And, frankly, even paying the same as the paperback seems a bit excessive as far as I can see, especially when you have to buy an eBook reader too - you might save space, but you'll certainly not save money.Have publishing companies really learned absolutely nothing from the problems faced by the music industry over the last decade?In the case of a book written by my next door neighbour, the eBook is £1.20 more than the paperback. He does, admittedly, get 5% more in royalties for the electronic edition, but as any author will tell you, royalties are a mug's game, unless you're a really big seller. The people making the most out of electronic editions are the publishers, by a long way. There are far, far lower overheads.Of course, there is some infrastructure for digital downloads, and licensing costs for Adobe's Digital Editions system (we'll come back to Adobe later), but it surely seems that, in a rational world, the marginal extra cost of a single digital version of a book must be a lot less than the marginal extra cost of all that paper, shipping and all the other things that go into a printed one. Hell, with many eBooks, they even skimp on paying for the cover illustration again, and you just get a page of boring type.And, of course, it's not just the world of eBooks. Looking to buy a new copy of Dreamweaver today, I wandered along to the Adobe web store. And since I have the demo already downloaded, and really just need the licence key, wouldn't it make sense to just purchase the download edition, not actually bother downloading it, and using the key from the email receipt?It would, in a rational world. But not in the world of Adobe Store United Kingdom, where a full version of Dreamweaver CS4 will cost me £408.25 including shipping, apparently. A download will cost £431.32, a situation that appears even more lunatic when you click the 'Download instructions and FAQ' link to see a pop up that tells you "Skip the shipping and save money"Now, I don't know what sort of mathematics are being used here, but in my world, that's actually an additional cost of £23.07, for a download that surely has a marginal extra cost of close to zero. No box, no DVD, no shipping, no UPS man to drag me out of the bath. (And let's not look too closely at the fact that US users would pay only the equivalent of £249 for the same download or purchase; taking out VAT, that's £126 more for a download in the UK than the US; is bandwidth so scarce on this island?).Why on earth do companies do things like this? Do they have a bizarre obsession with the physical? Or are they just hoping that we won't notice the way downloads cost more than physical product, until they've dug themselves out of the recession with a bit more of our cash?Can anyone think of a way to explain to the people who make these decisions that they're really not making sense?Or perhaps we need to get physical - give up buying the downloads while they're priced higher than the printed books or duplicated CDs. Buy physical products, get them shipped. The companies must surely be making less money on them, and it'll serve them right.Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I don't believe ever[...]

Is Apple slowly preparing us for its tablet launch?

Fri, 02 Oct 2009 12:11:25 GMT

The end of O2's exclusive iPhone contract this week is a sign of major change in Apple's product lineup. The addition of the smartphone to the product catalogues of Orange and Vodafone is sure to start a price war between the three networks that will carry it. Apple's flagship money spinner is certain to become cheaper, but if it finds its way into even more people's pockets, it'll also lose some of it's appeal.

Part of the phone's desirability comes from its relatively high price. Human psychology dictates that we see a more expensive product as higher quality, and the iPhone has always carried a larger price tag and longer contract period than more bog-standard phones. Two years and 25 million worldwide sales later, the phone doesn't cause quite the same buzz it did when it launched. Apple's lineup is now missing a single, ultra-desirable product, worth camping for in a queue outside their store for weeks on end. But if the rumours turn out to be true, and Apple is poised to release a lightweight, touchscreen tablet PC, the throne of desirability which the iPhone once occupied wont be empty for long.

Although Apple hasn't actually confirmed that it is to produce a tablet PC, analysts and Apple followers are certain it will. There are unconfirmed reports from some who claim to have already used it. Engadget has mentioned a rumour that Apple spoke to some US magazine publishers about possible formats for e-publishing, a sign that the company could offer Ebooks for the device alongside its music on iTunes, hoping it to be the 'killer-app' that sells the device. Of course, Ebooks haven't quite taken off in the same way digital music has, so if the Apple tablet proves popular, it could be the device that sell Ebooks to the general public, rather than the other way around.


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Converting to the cloud, one app at a time

Tue, 25 Aug 2009 13:06:07 GMT

Unusually for a gadget-obsessed tech writer, I can be something of a stubborn luddite at times. It took a good few years for me to completely abandon my ISP's POP email in favour of using webmail as my main point of contact. Until now, I have made every effort I can to avoid using Google Docs over Microsoft Word. I prefer the interface in Word, I'm comfortable with emailing files ending in .doc between my email accounts or to copy editors, or putting them on a USB stick to take home with me.

However, yesterday I decided to take some quick notes about a website I was looking at. I jotted them down using the Stickypad application built into Windows 7, and as they were just notes, needed no formatting or really even a proper spell check, which are two things I think Microsoft Word does better than Google Docs.

However, I wanted to send those notes to a friend, and while I could have copied, pasted and emailed what I had written to him, instead, I pasted the entire thing into a new document in Google Docs. Then with the handy "share this" icon in the top right, I just emailed it to him. This process requires less clicks than the usual way in Outlook, where I select File -> Attach then locate my document on my hard disk.

The fact that I use gmail, and therefore I can view my documents by clicking a single icon in the top left makes it even easier. So much so, that I now use Picasa so I can access my photo collection by clicking another link in the top left. I will soon convert my spreadsheets to Google Docs and I can see myself eventually using a Google cloud app for anything I might have previously done on my local machine.

All this makes Google's Chome OS even more intriguing. While I staunchly argue that an OS that makes use of the power available in modern computers is better than one that would turn my quad-core into a dumb terminal, my usage habits are naturally leaning that way. I may change my mind before long.

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Don't blame the W3C

Fri, 21 Aug 2009 15:05:35 GMT

It's not their fault. Really. 

It's not their fault when you receive spam, or when you receive annoying pop-up adverts. You might think that's self evident. But not, apparently, to some internet users, according to a friend I know who works for the W3C.

He's recently found that he's been spending time fielding comments and complaints from slightly annoyed internet users who've received junk emails, or unwanted pop-ups. They look at the source code of the page, and right at the beginning, they see the Document Type Definition, or DTD line, with it's reference to W3C and a URL.

And then they leap to the conclusion that because there's a URL from in the spam, or pop-up, then they must be the people who made it appear. Some are particularly insistent, and one only relented when it was suggested he look at the source of his own website, and ponder whether or not the W3C had created it for him.

So, before you look for URLs to complain to in spam and pop-ups, think and don't vent your spleen at the wrong people.

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Living with 50Mbit broadband

Wed, 12 Aug 2009 10:33:02 GMT

Welcome to the future. Yesterday afternoon I had my cable broadband internet speed upgraded to the fastest available in the UK - 50Mbit/sec. This is a lot of bandwidth, 100 times faster than my first 512Kbit/sec broadband connection that I was using nine years ago and over 10,000 times faster than the best dial-up speeds.I like it a lot. Knowing I have (practically) unlimited bandwidth changes how I use the internet completely. If a large file is downloading in the background and I want to watch an HD video on Youtube or Vimeo at the same time, I know that the video will still play without any stuttering, something not always possible on even a 10Mbit/sec internet connection. If a trial application or game demo looks interesting, but the file is a few gigabytes in size, previously I would have had to think twice before clicking the download link. Now, it doesn't matter, even if the software is naff. A 3GB file takes less than ten minutes to download.Many of my colleagues have questioned Virgin Media's ability to deliver this speed, especially when other ISPs are facing criticism for not being able to deliver the 8Mbit/sec speeds they advertise. The connection is absolutely capable of 50Mbit/sec, which translates to 6MB/sec. However, a server that can deliver such speeds is rare thing. A test download of drivers from Nvidia's website gave me 4.5MB/sec, while other sites were even slower.  Often, the only way to get the full speed is by using software (such as Get Right) that opens multiple connections to a server.Coincidentally, yesterday Microsoft pushed its update to the Xbox 360's operating system, which adds (apparently exclusive) support for Netflix HD video streaming to the console. Sadly this service is limited to Xbox 360 owners in North America.HD video-on-demand services are touted as one of biggest potential applications for superfast broadband speeds. Even smaller 720p HD video will push most slower broadband connections to their limit, and I definitely wouldn't want to try using such a service with a 2Mbit/sec connection, which the Government seems to think is a satisfactory target for its goal of 100 per cent UK broadband coverage by 2012.However, there aren't that many other applications I've found that really take advantage of it. The monstrous connection usually sits unused, as if I find something I want to download, it's done in a matter of seconds.I'm the only heavy internet user in my house though, and if I had a large family, I would certainly want a connection like this. It could easily cope with lots of videos being played, files downloading and standard web surfing concurrently, which is not uncommon when multiple family members are online at the same time. As the internet is more pervasive than ever, with multiple PCs and gadgets in the average family home that can go online, the ability to share a fast connection between users could be the driving force behind superfast broadband, rather than any single application. [...]

Lets have a technical support hotline disco

Mon, 10 Aug 2009 10:07:25 GMT

Great news, for me at least. I'm finally getting Virgin Media's 50mbit broadband installed in my house. I can really put my friends to shame when I mention how big my pipe is.

An interesting anomally I noticed while on the phone to Virgin is the music they now use to keep you entertained while you wait for the next available operator - The Greatest Hits of Michael Jackson, played at extreme volumes.

It first struck me as a slightly cynical move. Michael Jackson, The King of Pop, has died. There is a lot of public interest in anything Michael Jackson related at the moment, so Virgin got in there quick, struck a deal to license his back catalogue, and hey presto, you get Thriller while waiting twenty minutes to find out why the TV doesn't work. It's a clever tactic: the initial rage when first calling a technical support line is abated thanks to the sweet and nostalgic memories conjoured up by hit songs of the 1980s.

Then I was thinking of a great theme for a party. Put your telephone on speaker mode and dial a technical support number, and let your guests dance around to the holding music. One call to Virgin Media and your entire evening's entertainment is sorted. You may be able to mix and match songs with other organisations' holding music. Call Greenpeace for a bit of Earthsong, Barclay's Bank for Smooth Criminal, The Body Shop for Man In The Mirror.

Be careful though, many technical support numbers still mistakenly believe that Enya is a great way to calm irate callers, and Orinoco Flow simply isn't good party music.

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Storm clouds gathering over MMO games

Wed, 05 Aug 2009 11:08:43 GMT

Some disappointing news this week, at least for rabid gamers and fans of science fiction. Sony Online Entertainment, publishers of the ambitious massively multiplayer online RPG, The Matrix Online, has announced the game is to close.It isn't the first MMO to close this year, as Tabula Rasa, the over-hyped project of Richard Garriott, had only celebrated its first birthday before NCSoft pulled the plug. Two other promising MMO titles released last year - Warhammer Online and Age of Conan - have both seen dwindling subscription numbers and the developers have had to reduce the number of servers to ensure the game world remains populated.While nearly every recently released MMO is struggling to survive, the venerable World of Warcraft continues to pick up subscribers, having passed the 10 million milestone, while other games are lucky to retain 100,000 subscribers six months after launch. Its publisher, Blizzard, has made more than a few gold coins from the title and its recent merger with Activision makes it the largest games company in the world.So what's the problem? The Matrix is a great science fiction license, with a trilogy of extremely popular films under its belt, and a legion of fans. The game promised to continue the Matrix storyline after the third film, with plenty to whet the appetites of fans, including live events where the player would interact with famous Matrix characters, whose roles would be played out by real people, employed by the game's publishers. There's an excellent insight into how these events panned out by Steve Williams, one of the original gamesmasters.Ever since I first played Planetside, a massively multiplayer first-person shooter, I've consistently argued that persistent game worlds with dynamic content are the future of gaming. However it seems more difficult than ever to produce an MMO that works. There are plenty of factors involved, each of which could provide enough subject material for a lengthy essay. Most of these boil down to MMO projects being simply too expensive, in the face of a PC games market that's becoming dwarfed by the consoles, which are not a good platform for persistent-world gaming. WoW is the single example of a blockbuster-selling PC MMORPG, a large part of its success being down to lower system requirements,  while the experience of playing many other games is hampered if you haven't spent £1,000 on a high-end PC in the last six months.Two highly anticipated new MMORPGs are due to hit the PC soon, based off what are undoubtedly the two biggest film licenses ever. Star Trek Online has fans of the series dusting off their uniforms, stroking their portrait of a bearded Commander Ryker that hangs over the fireplace, while repeatedly practicing the immortal phrase "make it so" in front of the bathroom mirror. You can see why they're excited: the screenshots of the game look gorgeous, and could finally give fans the game they've dreamed about.Meanwhile Star Wars is going to receive its second MMO incarnation, with The Old Republic, an MMO game set long before the events of the films, and produced by Bioware, a company with plenty of classic PC RPGs under its belt. However, whereas I once would have bet the keys to my house on the success of these two games, I'm adopting a wait-and-see approach for now. Games in general are becoming more expensive to produce each year, and MMOs require a great deal of continued investment after they hit retail. The more ambitious the design, the more expensive the game is to run, and without enormous numbers of subscribers, most MMOs simply aren't viable. If the game design is flawed, with gamers becoming frustrated, they simply leave, or (ahem) return to WoW. [...]

Is it time to change how broadband speed is advertised?

Tue, 28 Jul 2009 10:23:04 GMT

Ofcom's latest report into Britain's broadband speed, released today, reveals no surprises. Virgin Media's cable service takes the top spot, beating other ISPs, including BT, Tiscali and AOL, in some cases by a large margin. Ofcom has used the report to slam some ISPs because customers are receiving far less than the 'up to 8Mbit/sec' service they are paying for.The figures only tell a small part of the story though, becuase broadband speeds are affected by many factors, some of which are under the control of ISPs, and some aren't. The two biggest reasons someone may not be receive the full speed their Internet connection is capable of are the quality of the line between them and their ISP, which includes the wiring not just in their house but also in the streets all the way to your telephone exchange, and contention with other users in the local area who are trying to access the Internet at the same time. A third is server load, since during busy times, a web server may have trouble handing out pages fast enough to everyone at once. Another is whether a broadband provider has placed a cap on download speed, which normally comes into effect once someone downloads a set amount of data over a given time period.These issues aren't going away any time soon. The issue of line quality is the reason Virgin Media's cable service can deliver faster broadband than any other provider. ADSL is limited because it uses phone lines, many of which still use copper wiring, and in some rural areas  of the country these were installed a long time ago. Until these are replaced, ISPs will never be able to provide the full advertised speed to all their customers all the time, and future speed reports will continue to look remarkably like this one.Contention is an issue that can affect cable broadband as much as ADSL broadband, as it arises from an ISP not having enough network capacity in a given area to satisfy all its users. The issue can be resolved by an ISP digging into its pockets and upgrading its network and equipment. However, some ISPs cannot afford this, as retail prices for broadband have been driven down by cut-throat competition and price wars. Would people pay more for a service that can deliver advertised speeds more often than a cheaper provider? No, not everyone.In truth, we're stuck with most of these problems for now, at least until fiber-optic cabling is installed to every home in the country, by which time we'll all have a few extra gray hairs, and the London Olympics will be a distant memory.So if the problems cant be completely solved, a change in thinking may be better, and ISPs should sell and advertise packages that better reflect what they can actually provide rather than what they would like to. Why sell an 8mbit/sec service in an area where such a speed simply isn't possible? Why should someone living in that area who only gets half the advertised speed pay the same amount, for the same advertised service, as someone who does get the full speed in another part of the country? The simple solution is to stop advertising speeds altogether. Perhaps pricing could be based on how much data you consume (like our electricity, gas and water supplies) rather than speed. Charge a small amount for light users, who may download email, surf the web and view a few videos. Power users who want to download considerable amount of data should be able to continue paying more for unlimited services. In all cases, the emphasis on speed in marketing literature should be changed. Is it beyond ISPs to simply tell you the estimated average speed for a given postcode area, and not be tied to this legally, rather than dangle the carrot of unattainable download speeds in front of your face?By simply selling 1, 10, 50 or unlimited gigabytes of data per month, without e[...]

Why we may never see a Core i7 Apple machine

Thu, 02 Jul 2009 12:11:22 GMT

With the recent crop of new Apple desktop hardware - The Mac Pro, iMac and Mac Mini (all of which we reviewed in Personal Computer World) - we noted the use of Intel's older Core 2 Duo processor rather than the newer and more powerful Core i7 chip. The Mac Pro is an exception, but Apple's high end workstation doesn't use Core i7 either, as it's built around Intel's Xeon 5500 processor (which is similar, but not identical, to Core i7)It's a certainty that Apple will upgrade its range to use Intel's newer processors at some point, but it may be the recently announced Core i5 and Core i3 that it chooses rather than Core i7.If you haven't been following Intel's roadmaps, Core i5 will use a completely different socket to current Core i7 processors, using 1,156 pins rather than 1,366, meaning if you want to use a Core i5 processor, you need to fork out for yet another new motherboard. Intel's decision to bring another socket to the market has been met with confusion and some disappointment from those who have already invested in Core i7. The good news is that Core i5 processors and components should be much less expensive than Core i7, but still offer high performance, partly thanks to an integrated memory controller that gives better memory performance than its predecessor.This leaves Apple with a choice of processors for its next mainstream desktop line. We'll bet on them choosing Core i5 for the iMac, Core i3 for the Mini and sticking with Xeons in the Mac Pro, meaning LGA 1366 Core i7 processors end up never used in an Apple computer.Of course, Apple hasn't even announced a new desktop line, and Core i5 processors aren't on the market yet, making this little more than speculation on our part. However, as long as Core i5 is relatively affordable and offers a reasonable performance boost, we'll call this an educated guess on what Apple's next move will be. [...]

Rays Per Pixel - the new benchmark for graphical realism?

Mon, 29 Jun 2009 12:13:10 GMT

While reading New Scientist's summary of how computing power is being used to create more realistic virtual worlds, I stumbled across a term that could be a major discussion topic over the next few years.Currently, the majority of software that creates and draws a 3D scene in real time (games being the main example) uses a technique called rasterisation. This involves splitting complex 3D objects into triangles, which can be easily processed by a graphics card. The visual complexity of a 3D scene depends on the number of triangles used, while the performance of graphics hardware can be measured by how many triangles it can draw per second. The more triangles, the more detail and realism in a scene.However, the next decade could see rasterisation thrown out of the window, as real-time ray tracing could become possible. Ray tracing is a rendering technique used by film studios (such as Pixar) which produces far more believable visuals than rasterisation. Ray tracing a 3D scene involves calculating the paths of individual rays of light, and how each ray affects the appearance of objects. The amount of calculations a computer has to perform for any ray tracing algorithm is phenomenal, especially when taking into account how multiple rays can bounce off objects onto others.During the early 1990's, films such as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, which made heavy use of ray tracing (more commonly known as CGI, or computer generated imagery) became the most expensive films ever produced, partly because ray tracing required super computers that cost millions of dollars each. Even with these monsters of graphical computing, such as Silcon Graphics' workstations, rendering a single frame would take a very long time, and the idea of ray tracing at 30 frames per second was pure fantasy.Computers are far more powerful now, and computer hardware design is currently on the verge of a renaissance, which could potentially see both CPU and graphics card merge into a single entity. One of the advantages of such new hardware, such as Intel's Larrabee, is that it will allow games to be drawn using ray-tracing, in real time, with a massive improvement in visual quality and realism.Although this is still some way off, and may not even be possible with the first generation of Larrabee cards, the metric for measuring ray-tracing performance is already in place. In the same way that increasing the number of triangles raises graphical detail, so too does increasing the number of rays (which adds an enormous amount of calculations for your poor computer to keep up with).Intel's Daniel Pohl states that the number of rays used, per screen pixel, determines how realistic the appearance of a scene is. He argues that photorealism (where a computer generated image is indistinguishable from a photograph) would require 100s of rays per pixel. Intel's demo of real-time ray tracing, including impressive reflection and refraction effects, uses around 10 rays per pixel and is only a 512 pixel-wide video. Even then it doesn't run at 30 frames per second. [...]

Can't live without Aero Peek

Fri, 26 Jun 2009 15:03:28 GMT

Of all the new additions to Windows 7, Aero Peek and the new taskbar are the biggest change from previous versions of Windows. If you haven't tried Windows 7 yet, then the new interface could use some explanation.

In Windows Vista, XP and all other versions of Windows since Windows 95, if you have multiple windows open for the same application, such as two Word documents, or three Firefox browsers, they each appear as individual entries on the taskbar. Windows 7 does away with this, in favour of a tidier taskbar where only a single icon appears, even if you have multiple documents open. Hover the mouse over the icon and it pops up visual previews of each window, so you can select which one you wish to view.

The new approach takes some time to get used to, and some early adopters found it confusing and immediately disabled it. However, after using Windows 7 for a few weeks, I now hover my mouse over the Quick Launch icons on Windows XP without even thinking about it, subconciously expecting the preview windows to pop up in the same way as they do in Window 7.

I find these visual popups improve my workflow, as there's little chance I'll forget which of my open Firefox windows has the tab open that I want to refer to, a problem I found with the old interface.

It's important to mention Firefox though, on Windows 7, it doesn't make use of Aero Peek as well as Internet Explorer. In IE8, if you have a single browser window with multiple tabs, Aero Peek will show each tab as a preview, so you can go straight to the open page. Firefox doesn't support this yet, so a single browser window with multiple tabs will only show as a single preview. It doesn't sound like much, but Aero Peek is a very useful tool and we think every  Windows application should support it as much as possible.

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The web is your shrink

Mon, 15 Jun 2009 14:16:06 GMT

A new Australian study showing that web-based therapy programmes can be as effective as human therapists at treating depression comes as little surprise. Programs simulating the work of cognitive therapists have been around for nearly two decades, to my knowledge - I reviewed one called Overcoming Depression way back in 1991.

It was inspired by the old Eliza natural-language processing program which was capable of holding a semblance of conversation with you. Eliza often goes wildly awry but is humbling in how often it can sound rational and human - you realise how much conversation consists of ritual exchanges.

Sometimes Overcoming Depression functioned uncommonly well as a cognitive psychotherapist, whose job (as I understand it) is to talk you out of you depression, or get you to talk yourself out of it. One technique is to throw what you have said back at you for examination and comment - something Elisa can do with rather mixed results. You can try an online version here

All these electronic techniques are designed to complement contact with a "real" therapist, rather as a substitute, but they might still help people who hesitate to seek professional advice or can find nowhere to get it.

I am not a depressive but I know people who are, and that there are not always easy solutions. Some depression may have pathological roots and can be alleviated only by drugs, if at all. Some people's lives are so dreadful there is no way they can be happy.  But if you are unhappy out of habit, which appears to be the case with many people, anything that snaps you out of your mindset is worth trying.


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Symantec in the doo-doo again - but Apple remains unbitten

Thu, 11 Jun 2009 16:03:12 GMT

News that Symantec and McAfee have been fined for billing customers for upgrades without their consent will resonate with many users who find themselves having to stay alert for dubious practices by well-known brands.

PCW regulars may remember Test Bed had issues with Symantec early this year about misleading screens and messages that could lead desperate virus-hit users to pay for support they should have got for free.

I have stopped using Apple's Quicktime on my PC since it tried to get me to buy software to replace functionality it had itself disabled in Windows;  if I have to watch a Quicktime movie, I fire up my Mac on the assumption that Apple, even at its most arrogant, would not risk antagonising its core users. For the record, more than a year after posting two blogs on the subject, and writing a piece in PCW, I have yet to have a whisper of apology leave alone an explanation from Apple.

Perhaps I should have taken up Britain's Advertising Standards Authority's invitation to submit a formal complaint so that the issue could be officially investigated. But I did not want to engaged in an unseemly feud and it is tiresome fighting off flames from Mac users who believe the company can do no wrong.


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In the sun with the Cool-er ebook reader

Fri, 05 Jun 2009 00:01:08 GMT

Yes, it may be raining today, but last weekend we tried out the Cool-er ebook reader in the blazing Surrey sun to see how it performed. As you can see fairly convincingly from the pictures, the E-ink Vizplex display technology is pretty impressive compared to real paper, and perfectly readable in bright full-on sunlight.What's quite weird is that is mimics paper a bit too well - backlighting isn't possible with E-ink, so you need good ambient light to read it. So don't throw away your torch or booklight for those late night reading sessions in bed.Although the E-ink display is outstanding, unfortunately we can't say the same about the quality of the literature on show in these pictures. But purely in the interests of science we were wading through Dan Brown's atrocious Angels & Demons, downloaded from the Coolerbooks ebook website that's run by the Cool-er's UK manufacturer, Interead.  [...]

Vista SP2 frees up disk space

Thu, 04 Jun 2009 23:38:38 GMT

After running Vista SP2 beta on one of our test systems since March, we decided to remove it and install the final release version that appeared last week. To our surprise, after the tediously long process, we found that about 30GB of extra free space was available on the 250GB C: drive - it had increased from 58GB to 88GB, a handy amount of useful space.

We know that SP2 comes with a service pack cleanup utility (compcln.exe) that can clear out previous service pack uninstall information and duplicate system files, but we're not sure whether this is involved. 

Whatever the reason, it's nice to see a service pack that actually gives you back some disk space. We're fairly sure this isn't an isolated case, as we're seeing similar reports from the US.

If you've had a similar experience, or encountered any problems while installing SP2, let us know in the comments box below or drop us an email at


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Moonwalk One: Classic Apollo 11 documentary restored to DVD

Thu, 04 Jun 2009 12:41:38 GMT

Great news for space buffs - on 21st June, a fully-restored DVD version of Moonwalk One - The Director's Cut will go on sale at Amazon UK for £19.99. This contemporary documentary about the 1969 Apollo 11 mission was commissioned by NASA and filmed by Theo Kamecke, and is widely regarded as one of the best documentaries about the Apollo moon landings ever made.  This newly restored 2-disc DVD version includes both the original 4:3 version and a widescreen 16:9 version with full 5.1 surround sound and includes several extra bonus features. The original film won awards at Cannes, but to date the only DVD version available is a warts-and-all copy sold by the US National Archives. This restored version was made from Kamecke's own copy of the original film. The restoration was carried out as part of the celebrations to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the moon landings in July. It can be pre-ordered by phone on +44 (0)845 053 0323. [...]

First Looks - The Athlon is Back

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 11:35:28 GMT

AMD have announced two new dual core processors, both built on a 45nm process with the surprising news is that one of them carries the Athlon name. The first member of the new Athlon II X2 family is the 250 which has a clock speed of 3.0GHz. Based on the Regor core the 250 has no L3 cache which makes it smaller (117.5mm²) and cheaper to manufacture, but to make up for this AMD have given it 1MB of L2 cache per core. Launched at the same time is the first dual core Phenom II, the Phenom II X2 550 based on the 410mm² Callisto core. As the flagship of the new line, the X2 550 is a Black Edition meaning that it's unlocked so it can be overclocked past its 3.1GHz reference clock speed.  It comes with 1MB of L2 cache and 6MB of L3 cache shared between each core. Both cores have a 2.0GHz HyperTransport bus frequency and support both DDR2 and 3, up to DDR2-1067 and DDR3-1600. The TDP of the Phenom II X2 550 is 80W while the Athlon II X2 250 is rated at 65W We managed to overclock the Phenom II X2 550 to a stable 3.958GHz with ease, while the Athlon II X2 250 was more problematic, but eventually we got it to run stably at 3.72GHz. UK pricing for the Athlon II X2 250 is around £69.99 while the Phenom II X2 550 costs approx. £80.99 For full test results see our results database [...]

Sony Ericsson keeps us in the dark

Wed, 27 May 2009 15:54:32 GMT

(image) Sony Ericsson tells us it has set up a gig on June 15 featuring a group called Friendly Fires who will play in absolute darkness. The idea is to "heighten the senses of the audience and increase their listening experience." The location is secret and we have not been invited; tickets are available via competitions and a MySpace channel. But their press relations people have asked whether we want "post event" pictures of the gig. We can go one better by heightening your senses with this exclusive pre-event picture (click to enlarge).(image)

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£200 Atom-powered XP netbook

Wed, 27 May 2009 11:38:15 GMT

Supermarket chain Netto is offering an 8.9in netbook with 1GB of RAM, a 1.6GHz Atom N270 processor and 60Gbyte hard disk for £199.99 from June 4 "while stocks last". The Hercules eCAFÉ, which originally cost £279.99, comes with Windows XP Home Edition, and the office suite.


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First Looks - Cooler Master HAF 922

Tue, 26 May 2009 15:17:34 GMT

Cooler Master's HAF 932 is a popular case amongst enthusiasts but only if you have the room for it, so Cooler Master have launched a case based on the design of the 932 but in a smaller form factor, the HAF922.Solidly built from steel, with a well executed black finish, the HAF 922 has some nice design features including a separate tool free PCI slot situated to the side of the seven main tool free expansion plates. This spare slot is handy if you are using multi graphic card setups and run out of access to the main plates. The motherboard backplate includes a cut out for the base unit of a third party CPU cooler and cut out's at the top and bottom of the plate and help with tidy cable runs. There's plenty of cooling built into the HAF922 with two 200mm fans, one sitting behind the front bezel, the other housed in the roof while a third fan, a 120mm unit sits on the rear panel. A third 200mm fan can be fitted to the side panel if needed and all the 200mm fans can be replaced by twin 120mm fans if needed All of the drive bays are tool free with the five 5.25in bays using a locking  button, while the five 3.5in bays have locking latches which when opened allow the whole drive bay to be slid out, making the fitting of hard drives a doddle. Each of the four pins that hold the drives are rubber mounted which helps keep drive vibration and therefore noise down. Disappointingly there are only two USB ports, housed in the top of the front bezel along with two audio ports and an e-SATA port. Coolermaster have even included a button to turn off the fan LEDs which is a great idea as sometimes they can get very annoying and distracting.Priced at £89.99 Coolermaster's HAF922 represents very good value for money and is well worth looking at if you're in the market for well featured midi tower   [...]

Netbook confusion remains as Microsoft backtracks on Win7 Lite

Tue, 26 May 2009 14:34:14 GMT

Confusion still reigns in the netbook arena, with Microsoft reported to be backtracking on its decision to limit the devices to three running application under the Windows 7 starter edition. The same site also says Microsft had made it impossible to change the Windows 7 wallpaper but has thought better of it. Techarp, apparently drawing on information from computer manufacturers, says there will be starter editions designed for two categories, a netbook and a small notebook PC, as well as a special edition for China. Microsft defines a netbook as having a screen diagonal of 10.2in or less. Techarp says limitations on graphics and touch capabilities on netbooks have been removed. Microsoft is keeping mum on the subject but with at least three open-source projects - Android, Intel's Moblin and Ubuntu - targeting the new formats it must be wary of allowing its rivals to gain critical mass in a potentially huge new market. The fixation on categories - netbook and small notebook - has more to do with software pricing than technology. The cheaper the hardware gets, the higher the software costs as a proportion of the selling price, and the more likely it will be that people will choose open-source if Microsoft does not cut its prices. Hence the idea of a Windows 7 Lite, which allows the company to undercut its own products on price. Microsoft has no option but it's a risky strategy, especially as people may have different expectations of emerging true portables and don't necessarily want a "pocket Windows". This is especially so as first generation non-x86 formats  are likely have the edge over Wintel products on portability and battery life (see below).  Apple, which broke one mould with the iPhone but has so far ignored the new formats, could also spring a surprise; but it is not chief executive Steve Jobs's style to go downmarket and any Macnetbook is unlikely to be challenging on price. Meanwhile, Lenovo has launched a 12.1in machine using nVidia's Ion platform, which couples a GeForce 9400M graphics processor and Intel Atom processor on a Pico-ITXe motherboard.  Ion gives the IdeaPad S12 (pictured above left) the performance of a gaming machine capable of playing HD movies to an external display using an HDMI link. It is described as a netbook, contrary to Microsoft's definition, which just goes to show that where the marketing men lead, the public is not always sure to follow. [...]