I'm Not Buying It

There are some pieces of hardware out there that are answers to questions nobody asked. I've gotten a few emails about them, and I wanted to pass on my warnings lest anyone else get suckered in.

Toshiba Satellite 1955

This is a powerful laptop with a removable wireless keyboard and a huge 16" screen. Place the laptop on a desk, then pop the keyboard and mouse to put them on a keyboard tray, and it purports to be a desktop computer.

The catch: the keyboard and mouse aren't Bluetooth. Why would users want another proprietary wireless device when Bluetooth is finally catching on? Even worse, you can't use newly available Bluetooth peripherals: when you find another Bluetooth mouse that you like better than the one that ships with the laptop, you can't simply switch it out. Heaven forbid the included ones break: you'll be forced to spend large sums just to get a replacement keyboard, when you could be using an industry standard off-the-shelf replacement.

Microsoft Windows XP Media Center

In Microsoft's endless push to expand their market, they've created a new version of Windows that acts as the centerpiece for your home entertainment system. You can watch TV, record shows directly to your hard drive, and manage it from your recliner with a typical remote control.

The first drawback is that you can't just buy this operating system and install it on your PC: you have to buy it with a special $2,000 (or higher) PC. The systems have impressively powerful equipment, but unbeknownst to buyers, the computer still bogs down when it's trying to record TV and do something else at the same time, and video quality suffers. You can just plain forget about playing games and recording TV simultaneously.

I've tried integrating my computers and my televisions for years, and this product made me flat-out give up. Instead of burdening your computer with something it's not designed to do, spend $200 and get a simple, powerful, user-friendly Tivo. The whole time I've had my ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon video card that can record TV shows, my girlfriend never touched it. In contrast, the day after I showed her how to use the Tivo, she was showing me features I didn't even know about! Usability is king when it comes to TV-related devices, and computers fail miserably here.

Microsoft Tablet PCs

Imagine half a laptop, just the screen part, with all of the processing and storage equipment stored in that part. Now make the screen a touchscreen, so that you can write directly on it. (No, not like the joke about the blonde who had White-Out all over the screen - these really work.) Users could carry it around in one arm like a clipboard, write directly on it, and interact with the operating system more like a pad of paper. That's a Tablet PC, and you've probably seen them on display at your local computer store.

There are some great applications for tablets: the medical industry adopted these rather quickly, because they're perfect for carrying around in the hospital. The survey industry uses them for touchscreen surveys.

The problem is that now they're being marketed directly to consumers at a $500-$600 price premium. Look at the processor, memory, and drive specifications for Tablet PCs, and then look up similarly equipped normal laptops. You pay through the nose for what ends up being the ability to doodle on the screen. Sony sold a desktop PC that had these capabilities, and discontinued it due to lack of sales. Tablet PCs won't die that same death, but within a year, they won't be marketed as heavily to consumers.

D-Link DSB-R100 USB Radio

If you've already invested $150 in a nice set of speakers for your computer, you might be tempted by the prospect of a $20 USB radio. You can control it onscreen, so the USB antenna can sit under your desk unseen while you listen to high-quality radio. D-Link even says you can record your favorite programs for later playback.

I have to confess, I actually bought this one based on that last point. I drive back and forth to Dallas at least once a month, and I envisioned burning audio CDs with my favorite NPR shows for the four-hour drive.

A great idea is ruined by poor execution: the D-Link radio software is a nightmare. With all of the processing power of a computer, D-Link should have designed a scheduling system so that you can simply tell it to record a certain station at certain times, directly to MP3. Instead, you can only record one show at a time (forget recording a one hour show, then going off for an hour and recording another show later) and you have to mess with a separate MP3 conversion program.

Even worse, the D-Link automatically starts playing the radio whenever your computer starts. If you reboot your machine, the radio starts up as soon as the machine powers itself back on, so you're treated to a minute or two of uncontrollable static while the operating system starts up. (It doesn't even have the brains to play the last station you were listening to.)

The only saving grace is that a guy named Miroslav Flesko has written free software to control most computer radios. Radiator is available online at flesko.cz/radiator.htmand it works with the D-Link DSB-R100, but I still wouldn't recommend purchasing the D-Link.