Computers

Lower-end high-tech is key in '09

CorrespondentJanuary 7, 2009 

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CORRECTION

Paul Gilster's Computers column Wednesday in Triangle & Co. included an incorrect Web site for a company that makes glasses designed to reduce eye strain in computer users. The site is www.gunnaroptiks.com.

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My New Year's resolution this year is to give my eyes a break.

Work on a computer screen all day, and you wind up with headaches and eyestrain, but the machines are so compelling that many of us find ourselves tweaking needless settings just for the fun of it long after the workday has closed. Resolved: Get up from the desk more.

And with the Consumer Electronics Show coming in Las Vegas (it will be about to open as you read this), I'm thinking about gadgets that can make daily life easier.

For the past six weeks, I've been trying out a pair of Gunnar computer glasses, designed to ease the strain of looking at digital screens. Gunnar's lenses reduce glare markedly. They give the screen a yellowish tint, but they also increase contrast. The screen, in short, becomes easier to read, and my unscientific tests left me feeling better after using them.

The catch: A prescription pair will set you back $200 to $400. You can read more about these lenses at www.gunnaroptiks.com.

After more than two decades of more or less full-time computer work, I might be able to justify their expense, but I'm also weighing whether a midafternoon walk might help my eyes without the strain on my wallet.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking small rather than large, looking for helpful tools rather than major purchases in 2009.

The wave of innovation continues despite economic downturns, and anyone who takes lots of notes, in school or business, will find the Livescribe Pulse interesting (www.livescribe.com). It's a digitized pen that lets you take notes while simultaneously recording what you're hearing via built-in microphones. No more trying to figure out the cryptic meaning of what you wrote. You write on special paper that allows you to touch any word you've written, at which point the recorded audio synchronizes with the written text to clarify your jottings.

Work smarter via technology? Now that's a resolution I can live with.

The $150 Pulse lets me take notes the way I prefer, by hand, while offering all the utility of recorded audio and a useful PC component that categorizes all my notes.

For me, a leaner high-tech year is going to mean concentrating on the smaller things that can really make a difference, rather than opting for yet another system upgrade driven by manufacturers to support bloated operating systems.

Fewer upgrades

If the PC industry makes its own resolution, it should be to take a few more breaks, too, and readjust to what's happening in the real world.

We've been pushing Moore's Law to the limit with ever faster and more powerful machines, but Microsoft's Vista experience demonstrates that forcing relentless hardware upgrades to justify unnecessary eye-candy is a thing of the past. Value will be the key in 2009, and it dismays me to hear Microsoft describing its new Windows 7 operating system as "a fixed Vista." Not good enough.

What I'd like to see from Windows 7, which in an early version is making the rounds of developers right now, is some serious regard to downsizing. Give me a machine that boots faster, drains system resources less, makes consumer choice simple (no more trying to figure out which version gives what choices on your PC) and gets out of my way when I'm trying to get work done.

And enough is enough -- can we get back to a familiar user interface, instead of tempting consumers, absurdly, to choose the older XP version instead of Vista?

More netbooks

Intel's fortunes in 2008 show what happens when a company aims at smaller devices and reasonable expectations. Its Atom processor was being adopted across the board by PC manufacturers as the year wore on -- surely a harbinger of things to come for the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo and others, who must see that the market for notebook machines in the $500-and-below category will continue to surge.

Take a look at Dell's Atom-powered Inspiron Mini 12, a 12.1-inch display coupled with 1 GB of RAM and a 40-GB hard disk. Minimal gear, or all you really need for most portable work?

At $549 for the XP version, the new Dell has me thinking it's about time we started seeing more rational pricing in the industry, even as our devices get more resilient. Microsoft hears this: A light version of Windows 7 is said to be in the works that will run on "netbook" specs.

Meanwhile, those specs themselves are evolving.

Toshiba will introduce a 512-GB solid state drive at the Consumer Electronics Show, ramping up solid-state, or SSD, storage close to the level of conventional hard disks. The key for SSD: Can lower-capacity drives drop enough in price to become competitive? Surely not in 2009, but Toshiba expects 25 percent of the market by 2012.

Google's efforts

We'll see how this plays out as 2009 develops, but I notice that Google already is taking the "downsizing" theme seriously in its online applications.

Google Reader, which allows you to subscribe to sites for automatic updating via RSS, sports a new, minimalist look that gives users options for simplifying what they do online. Customizable menu enclosures that can be collapsed to save space clean up the program and let you concentrate on what you're doing. And, as in Google's suite of office tools, access to Reader is free.

Are we headed for a new rationality in the way we approach tech? Everyone's needs differ, but ask yourself the next time you ponder a new PC purchase whether a memory upgrade or a new hard drive wouldn't be just as effective at solving your problem.

Meanwhile, let's keep an eye on the gadget-makers, who in 2009 have a remarkable opportunity to deliver time-saving tools to support existing computers. Lower-end high-tech is where you want to be this year.

COLUMN ROTATION

TODAY: Computers * JAN. 14: Stump the Geeks * JAN. 21: Computers

Paul A. Gilster, the author of several books on technology, lives in Raleigh. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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