AnswerTips: No Longer Just for NYT.com

Over a year ago, I wrote about a feature on the New York Times website.  The feature works as follows: the reader double-clicks on a word, and a new window opens with a dictionary lookup of that word.  I called it a killer feature.

Today I find that the same feature, powered by the same company (Answers.com) is present on CBSNews.com.  Not bad.

AnswerTips: No Longer Just for NYT.com

There’s No Flagship iPod

Two days ago, Steve Jobs unveiled updates to the entire iPod line, including the brand-new iPod Touch. Other changes include iPod Shuffle with different color choices, iPod Nano with a more squat form factor and video capabilities, and the iPod Classic, formerly called just iPod, with a new metal face and larger capacities.

iPod Classic? Do I smell New Coke? Why not just leave it with its old name of ‘iPod’? Oh, that’s right — the new device is the iPod now. Isn’t it? No, the new device is ‘iPod Touch.’

Why is it that no device gets the one-word name? It’s because no device can stand alone as the elite option. The iPod Touch is close. But 16GB of storage just isn’t enough. Doubling its capacity to 32GB would do the trick. After all, it was only three days ago that the more popular capacity choice of the flagship model was 30GB. 32GB would be enough for most consumers. (It’d be enough for my 25GB music collection.)

Apple knows that 16GB is not enough storage for a flagship device. That’s why the fifth generation iPod lives on today as the iPod Classic. More than keeping it alive, Apple has updated the capacity of the Classic. The base model has gone from 30GB to 80GB, and the upper model has jumped from 80GB to a massive 160GB.

One hundred and sixty gigabytes. That’s a lot. I’d guess that’s more than enough space to hold the entire music collection of all but a fringe group of consumers. So what to do with the remaining space? Use it as an external hard drive? Not likely. The answer? Fill it with video. But the Touch has that big, beautiful screen! In other words, one device has a holds-my-music-collection-twice-plus-several-seasons-of-tv-shows capacity, cursed to be played back on a two-year-old, small-by-Wednesday’s-new-standard screen; and one device has a big, beautiful, reorients-the-content-when-I-rotate-the-device-ninety-degrees screen with a maximum of won’t-hold-my-music-collection, don’t-even-talk-about-multiple-full-length-movies capacity.

There’s no flagship device.

In six months, Apple might release a 32GB flash-based iPod Touch. At the same time, Apple might provide video content on the iTunes WiFi Store.  But who wants to wait at a hot spot while At World’s End downloads?

There’s No Flagship iPod

New York Times.com Killer Feature

So I’m reading an article I find via Digg. The article’s on the New York Times website. While reading, I run across a word I am not familiar with.

Automatically, I want to put this word into Google. Firefox (and I suppose IE) allows users to highlight text, right click, and choose “Search Google for” the selected text. If Wikipedia is the currently selected search engine in the toolbar search box, the right click allows the user to “Search Wikipedia for” and so on.

Of course, the easiest way to highlight a single word is by double-clicking on it. So that’s what I do. I double click on “abstemious.”

Suddenly a new window appears. While it’s loading, I think I must have done something wrong. Then the page loads. It’s a New York Times.com-powered dictionary lookup of “abstemious.” This is like the coolest thing ever. Well, maybe not ever.

Examining the URL of the newly opened window, we see a few things (with some line breaks to reduce ugliness).

http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?
srchst=ref&
query=more%20valuable%20to%20abstemious%20Martins%20than%20to&
fw=3

The query string includes, from the article, three words before the highlighted term and three words after the highlighted term. The field fw (focus word?) at the end of the query string indicates which word to pass to the dictionary, using a zero-based array. (I tried double-clicking other words in the article and changing the value of fw to test this.) I can only imagine that including surrounding words might provide context to generate an even more accurate definition. Why the target word is variable, however, eludes me.

Oh, and srchhst=ref sounds like search history = reference. Whatever that means.

Please, test this feature out for yourself. Head over to the New York Times site, click on any story, then double click on any word. (The feature doesn’t appear to work from the front page.) Awesome!

New York Times.com Killer Feature

A Week With Vista

So I got my copy of Windows Vista the day of release. FYI, I went after work, not midnight the night before. I give it some pluses and some minuses so far.

For starters, you know how every time you buy a new piece of hardware it says “use this CD before installing hardware!”? Don’t you hate those CDs? They usually just install a bunch of crap on your computer that you don’t need. Recently I bought a wireless router which included such a CD. I never used it, and I’m using the router. After I got the wireless router I got a wireless PCI card for my desktop computer. I skipped the CD and just put the card in the box. No big deal. Except no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get Internet access. So finally I broke down and put the CD in. The wizard launches, asks me to type a few things in … and in less than five minutes I’ve got Internet.

So a big question I had was, “Will Vista allow me to skip the CD?” Hey, less extraneous software launching at boot is always a good thing. And I recall from when I got the Dell in college that XP didn’t need user input for DHCP configuration — it just worked. Well sure enough Vista didn’t need any additional drivers to get me wireless Internet access. It asked me to type in some text and I had access pretty quickly. One point for Vista.

Next thing. You can download an upgrade advisor from Microsoft, but when you run the Vista installer it makes kind of a big deal that you can use it to make sure Vista will work on your system. I ran the advisor months ago — it led me to upgrade my video card — but I figured what the hell. The advisor told me that there were no drivers for my sound card, and therefore it would not function correctly. I quickly decided that a nonfunctional sound card would not stop me from upgrading. After I got Vista installed and it booted for the first time, it told me that it had downloaded some updates. I restarted, and on the second boot I had sound. One point for Vista.

Next thing. The sidebar. It’s where Vista keeps its gadgets. By default, there’s an analog clock, an RSS reader, an image viewer, and one other thing I seem to be forgetting. A couple right clicks will bring you to a gallery on Microsoft.com where you can download new gadgets. I got a couple that measured processor usage. After a day or two I noticed that, even while completely idle, my processor was running at about 15% usage. I killed a couple gadgets, and the usage dropped. I killed all but one processor meter, and usage dropped to about 1%. I killed the sidebar entirely, and the machine does boot a little bit quicker — noticeable so. (Killing the sidebar was harder than I thought. Closing it will make it disappear, but it leaves an icon in the system tray. Just today, I right clicked that icon, got a preferences dialog, and deselected the box to start the sidebar when Windows starts.) Yeah, my processor is five-plus years old, but I think that the sidebar was too much of a resource hog to be worth it. I definitely plan on putting Vista on my MacBook in the near future. I’m interested to see the sidebar on it — partly because the MacBook is widescreen — and to see what kind of hit it puts on the Core 2 Duo. I’ll call this one half point against Vista.

Next thing. We have to go way back to start this one. Way back … to the Compaq. I got a Compaq Presario in 1998 — my Freshman year of college. It came with Windows 98 Second Edition. It was a piece from the day I got it until … well, until now. I believe it’s in my closet back in Chipmonk. I can’t think of a better place for it. Anyway, when XP came out I bought an XP Upgrade disc. In order to perform a clean install of XP on a machine, it demanded that you insert an Windows 95/98(/2000?) install disc early on in the process. I believe I used one of my Windows 95 CDs from back in the day when my dad got our IBM Aptiva — which came with Windows 3.1, but somehow got us 2 Windows 95 CDs in the mail when it came out. Where the hell was I? Upgrade. Right. The point is, with Windows XP you could do a clean install (meaning you format your c: drive before installing the OS) with a Windows XP Upgrade Disc. With Windows Vista, if you want to do a clean install, you’ll need a Full Edition Disc. For me, that meant about 80 bucks more — $260 instead of $180. Yes, you can say yikes. I recall that XP Upgrade Disc putting me back only about $100. So that’s … a point against Vista.

Here’s the big thing. Before the Xbox 360 came out — we’re talking Summer 2005 here — I knew that when Vista came out, the Xbox 360 would be waiting with features that the new OS could hook into. Specifically, a Media Center PC could do a whole lot of sharing with the Xbox 360. One feature that particularly interested me was TiVo-like functionality, from your couch, using your Xbox 360 — assuming you had Windows Vista (or XP Media Center). At the time I believed that every copy of Vista would include Media Center functionality. Turns out only Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate include it. So I went with Home Premium.

It’s funny, but it was about two days before I even tried any Media Center or media sharing stuff in Vista. I suppose I spent those first two days tweaking performance, poring over changes to the Control Panel. You know — looking under the hood. So I got off work early that Friday, read an article on Xbox.com, followed the instructions … and got an error message. “Extender not found.” See, with Windows Media Center you’ve got Media Extenders — set top boxes that give you nearly 100% of Media Center functionality on your TV. (It’s worth noting that of all the Media Extenders that are compatible with Windows XP Media Center, Xbox 360 is the only one that is compatible with Windows Vista Media Center. I’ve heard conflicting reports of updates to enable Vista compatibility.) After about two hours of that, I fell asleep for 13 hours. It was a long week.

Since then, I’ve tried going through the steps in different order, and still get the exact same error message. I’ve contacted Microsoft, and their suggestions have ranged from “update your drivers” to “disconnect your USB devices” to “uninstall your drivers.” I haven’t tried that last one. Frankly I feel like they’ll next tell me to try it while standing on my head. See, when I’m sitting at my PC, running Media Center, trying to add a Media Extender, I’ve got to hit the Next button about five times. Then a list of steps appears on the screen. “Changing settings on your computer,” “Locating Extender on the Network,” then there are something like four more steps. Well, the first checkbox appears, then it gets stuck, then it goes to a new screen that tells me, “Extender not found.”

The thing is, I have a feeling that there are about a million things that need to happen between the first checkmark and the second checkmark. So when I tell Microsoft that the second checkmark doesn’t appear, they can only narrow it down to about a million things. When the truth is, I need a more detailed error message! Tell me what’s not happening. I can stream music from my Vista box to my 360 (just like I did with Windows XP). In Vista, the 360 is visible in Network Neighborhood. The devices can see each other. What do you mean Extender Not Found? You found it! It found you! You found each other!

As you might guess, I’m frustrated. This is a point against Vista, and I believe this takes the score down to … 0.5. I also like the UI changes, so I’ll give it another half point. That brings the score to 1.0. At this point in time I should be raving about how great the Media Extender functionality is. But I’m not. I can’t get it to work. I’ve looked online but haven’t found a magic bullet. Microsoft support hasn’t helped, but I think the error is just too vague. I’m hoping for an update in the next week or so that will allow me to figure out what the hell the problem is, so I can fix it. Until then, I give Vista a very slight, very close, very cautious thumbs up.

A Week With Vista

Vista in XP

Windows Vista comes out in January, but there are currently three Microsoft applications (that I know of) that boast the Vista look.

These are: Windows Live Messenger, Windows Media Player 11, and of course, Internet Explorer 7.

Immediately, I find it strange that of the three, IE7’s interface is the least Vista-fied. Media Player 11 looks exactly how I expect it to look in Windows Vista. Messenger is a little tougher, because although its appearance falls between those the XP versions of MP11 and IE7, I can’t tell if it will look any different in Vista. I can’t tell if its interface has stayed a bit more traditional because it’s generally a small window or because it’s the XP version.

Why would Microsoft hold back the visual progression of its most ubiquitous application? My first thought was that the age of the average IE user might be a bit higher than the age of the average Media Player user or Messenger User. By leaving the traditional title bar and corner buttons (minimize, maximize/restore, close) the same as those found in most XP applications, Microsoft may be trying to minimize intimidation experienced by older users — users who are already intimidated enough by computers. (As an example, I can imagine my dad clicking on a link that opens in a spawned instance of Media Player 11, then saying, “What the hell is this?”) Younger users — teenagers and twentysomethings — might be more appreciative of the glossy new MP and Messenger windows.

However, this morning I used Google to look for the release date of Office 2007 (Is anyone else excited about Excel 12?) and ran across this article on Ars Technica. Author Peter Pollack speculates as to how Microsoft chose Office 2007’s ship date. One sentence from his article bears repeating here:

Sending Office into the world early also runs the risk that some users may install it, discover it works well enough on XP, and hold off on the operating system upgrade.

Might the same logic apply to Internet Explorer? On my computer, the most commonly used application is my web browser (which is Firefox 2). I’d bet it’s also the web browser on most people’s computers, and the numbers tell us that most people’s web browser is still Internet Explorer. If all those people get the Vista visual upgrade on the application they use more than any other — for free — might they be less inclined to run out and buy a new operating system? It’s food for thought.

As a side note, I’ve barely used any of these three applications since Microsoft most recently updated them. Of the three, I use Media Player the most, but since I got my (second) iPod, I’ve been using iTunes a lot. I’m not in love with iTunes, but I’ve been listening to podcasts more lately and as far as I can tell iTunes is the best end-to-end solution for finding and subscribing to podcasts and syncing (which is easier than dragging) them to my iPod. In order to make sure that my iPod is as up-to-date as possible, I make sure that my iTunes is as up-to-date as possible — by leaving it running all the time.

Vista in XP

I Ordered a New Camera

Earlier this week I placed an order on a website for the Sony Cyber-shot® DSC-H2 Digital Camera. I initially placed my order with Royal Camera, a business that has an online store through store.yahoo.com. I chose Royal Camera because the price this business offered on the DSC-H2 was roughly one hundred dollars less than what most other online retailers offered.

After placing the order, I received no confirmation email and began to feel nervous. However, the final screen that loaded into my web browser after I entered all of my personal information included a phone number in case I wanted to track my order. I called it the next day and discovered a few things:

  • Royal Camera must have no more than two customer service reps, because I waited on hold for a while
  • Royal Camera really wants me to buy a memory stick, or batteries, or a case
  • The camera I ordered will take 6 to 8 weeks to ship — because
  • It’s being shipped from Japan — because
  • It’s the international version — oh, and
  • The international version does not come with cables, batteries, or a charger — so
  • To use the camera, I’m going to need batteries, cables, a memory stick, and what do I mean I don’t want a case?
  • Yes, Royal Camera offers the camera with the standard USB cable, batteries, and charger included, but that will be another $180, which means this is no longer a bargain

I cancelled my order with Royal Camera. Before I finalized my order, Royal Camera’s website told me that the camera was in stock and that it would ship in 1-2 days. Remember: Don’t ever buy anything from Royal Camera’s website. They are part of the store.yahoo.com system. Some merchants on store.yahoo.com might be honorable. Royal Camera is not honorable. Avoid it.

Anyway, to get off of Royal Poopy, I’m looking forward to the new camera. It’s six megapixels (yes, I could have had more megapixels for another hundred bucks), has a 12x optical zoom, and will not slip easily into a jeans pocket. But I don’t really want a camera that will fit easily into a pocket. I want a camera that will let me zoom in on Michael Vick or Jeff Francouer or a skittish deer. I believe a 12x zoom will allow me to do that.

Also, this may force me to pull a Lewis and get a Flickr Pro account.

I Ordered a New Camera

My iPod Died

I purchased an iPod almost exactly two years ago. About one month ago, it began failing intermittently. Within a week, it no longer booted up at all.

When I turn my iPod on, the Apple logo appears, and I can hear the hard drive trying to rev up, but then it clicks. Then I can hear the hard drive again trying to rev up. But then it clicks. That happens five or six times until this guy shows up:

ipod-folder-icon.gif

It’s very easy to find the help page that corresponds to this icon on Apple.com. Unfortunately, it didn’t help me at all. After a few misfires I got an appointment today at the Genius Bar at my local Apple Store. (I shudder whenever I call it the “Genius Bar.”) I can pay Apple roughly three hundred bucks to repair my iPod. I can pay someone else as little as $125 to repair my iPod. I can sell my iPod to one of several websites that buy dead iPods, for an unpredictable sum. Or, finally, I can give my dead iPod back to Apple in exchange for 10% off my next iPod. How about 50% off?

Seriously — Are these things designed to last two years after normal wear and tear? I paid 400 bucks for two years. That’s 200 dollars per year. I’m tempted to buy a Nano with its lack of moving parts and ultra small size, but a 4GB is $250 and a 30GB iPod video is only another fifty bucks! But $300 just to get back to where I was a month ago?

PS — Maybe this story has a happy ending. Two weeks ago I bought a Nintendo DS Lite for $130 and it came with a game … F iPod. I’ve got something to do on plane rides.

My iPod Died

ClearType

ClearType. It’s great. If you have an LCD monitor and Windows XP, you should without a doubt enable it. It might cost you some performance, but in my experience the hit is unnoticable. Supposedly it may improve readability on CRT (old, traditional, not flat panel) monitors.

To enable it, right-click your Desktop, choose Properties, click on the Appearance tab, click the Effects button, put a checkmark in the second box and select ClearType. (Even if you don’t use ClearType, you should be using standard font smoothing.)

The one problem I have with ClearType — and I can’t believe Microsoft hasn’t addressed this, seeing as how it takes advantage of LCD monitors which can be so easily repositioned — is that it won’t work if you have your monitor positioned in the portrait orientation. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, think about when you print a document, and you get the option to print it as portrait — 8½ wide and 11 tall — or landscape — 11 wide and 8½ tall. By default, computer monitors are positioned in the landscape orientation — like a TV.

Here’s what is most frustrating. Microsoft offers the ClearType Tuner PowerToy as a free download, and it fixes ClearType if you use a rare BGR monitor, as opposed to the much more common RGB. (Read about it at the first link.) The thing is, such a fix enables users to use ClearType on a monitor that is upside-down — say, ceiling-mounted. So Microsoft’s free tool allows for 180 degree rotation, but not 90 degree rotation. This is laughable. This has got to be a fix that would require something like 80 characters of code, and I have to believe there is demand!

ClearType