The Geek?EUR(TM)s Pickings

Published Date
13 - Mar - 2007
| Last Updated
13 - Mar - 2007
The Geek’s Pickings

Some heads here at Digit fumble when asked to name the Prime… umm, Chief Minister of our own state. But we sure know our E3 and U3 from our T3. So, even as magazines with important-sounding names like "Time" and "India Today" are gearing up for their yearly round-up, covering such topics as... umm... actually, we're not sure... we're doing our own round-up of the year that's been, in terms of what really matters-storage, sound, software, and such-in seven categories.

We've graduated from obsessing over frogs and snails and puppy-dogs' tails, but we're still little boys deep down. We're so innocent, things like terabyte hard disks and potential pod-party-poopers excite us. Here's our list of Stuff You Care About-you can always Google "chief minister of (your) state" later!

We've been inching ever so much closer to terabyte territory. And we're more than halfway there: 500 GB hard disks are available at your local store. We knew in 2005 that this would come to pass this year, courtesy perpendicular recording.

That technology was pioneered by Seagate, and as you might know, it promises considerably higher areal densities. In perpendicular recording, the magnetic "domains" that hold the bytes are oriented perpendicular to the plane of the platter, as opposed to the old way, where they were on the plane. Such a seemingly small change paves the way for a goodish upgrade-up to ten times the capacity! The first 750 GB drive shipped this year in May. Kudos to Seagate!
Samsung surprised us with "hybrid" hard drives for laptops: they showed off prototypes in April. These hybrids have 1 GB of Flash goodness, and the drive is asleep most of the time-cutting down on power consumption by something in the range of 50 per cent! What happens is, the Flash works while the drive sleeps, and when it fills up, the drive wakes, copies the data, and happily slumbers again.

We're just dying to get our hands on one of these for our Desktops, too! And we won't have to wait long, it seems-January 2007 for the developed world, and sometime later for us Indians.

Jaded as we've become with price drops, Flash is one area that hasn't failed to surprise. Prices are dropping so rapidly, we're wondering when they'll begin giving out thumb drives for free with hard disks! Capacities have gone up to levels that make us double-check our decimal points: for example, in the RED ONE camcorder we touched upon in our November issue, the Flash memory is upgradeable to 128 GB!

For thumb drives, 256 MB, which was considered pretty OK in the beginning of the year is a sorry figure now, and any drive below a gig is most certainly small. Two GB is more like it now for any one of us.

The hard drive is inching ever so closer to death. We were happy with 40 GB disks just yesterday, it seems, and how much longer can it take for 40 GB of Flash to become de rigueur? And we'll be pretty happy with that much, until…
Until the hard drive catches up again. They're talking about HAMR (Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording), for instance, which will boost capacities to a gazillion gigabytes or whatever it is we've come to expect.

Cell Phones
2006 saw cameras on phones go way beyond the VGA and 1.0 MP mark, touching 3.2 MP. Naturally, we're talking affordable models, not those for the rich. March saw an interesting entrant, the Sharp 904SH. It did away with fingerprinting, looking at your face via a second camera instead to decide it's you who's holding the phone.

Next step: video recording. Why not? The SE P990i and the Nokia N93, as examples of what 2006 has had to show off with, support video recording at 30 fps-and video calls over 3G networks. Don't ask us whether these phones have so-and-so feature… yes, they do. And are the cameras good? Yes, they are. Good enough for a band to have recorded an entire video on the N93. To view that video, head to https://music.

Talking about 3G, the latest evolution of CDMA, called EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) had come out sometime in 2005, by network providers such as Sprint, but deployment was much more widespread by the early part of this year. EVDO was there for the asking in several areas such as North America, Australasia, and Japan, offering desktop-like broadband speeds on cell phones and laptops-typically in the range of 1 Mbps and lower; no need for Wi-Fi coverage. Since we don't get that much even on our broadband lines, and since there's no point you getting an EVDO-enabled phone, and since envy is one of the seven deadly sins, we won't go on about how cool EVDO is!
"Designed to be" an oxymoronic "indispensable luxury" as Nokia calls it, the 8800 is one of the latest in the not-so-new series of "lifestyle phones."

The emphasis here is on design, the next frontier: the ad goes, "Created for your ultimate pleasure, its graceful looks and seamless functions will leave a lasting impression. Every aspect has been meticulously considered… from the laser-cut curves of its body… this phone is a masterpiece. Let the exquisitely composed ringing tones evoke your innermost emotions." What, a phone created to give us pleasure? That's a new one. The "ringing tones" should evoke our innermost emotions? That's even newer! And here we poor slobs are, with polyphonic ringtones that jar at worst and charm at best!

Along similar, narcissistic lines, the Motorola RAZR V3i Dolce & Gabbana is gold-plated. (For your pleasure, naturally.) You did expect some tie-ups somewhere with design houses of fancy-sounding names, didn't you? Well, we think "Dolce and Gabbana" is as fancy-sounding as it gets. Expect more of this neo-urban phenomenon in 2007!

And yes, the next "version" of Bluetooth-UWB (Ultra Wide Band) promises 40 Mbps to 1 Gbps transfers-and though people are asking if UWB will soon be coming to a cell phone near you, we wonder if we even need such speeds, but then again, someone will call us stupid in '07 or '08 for having said this.

Portable Media Players
If 2005 was the year of the pods and their clones, 2006, too, was the year of the pods and their clones. Only, the pods had grown screens. No, actually, it wasn't a revolution or anything: they'd had screens before, but 2006 saw them become much more part of standard equipment.

You know you're in an age of something when more of that something doesn't strike wonderment: today, new, convergent gadgets don't make us go "wow." Product after product came out this year only to have us mull ponderously over the spec sheets rather than go "wow." If we saw FM and AM radio on a portable media player, we took it in our stride, and lived our lives.

As of today, when you go looking for a personal media player (PMP), it's pure mix and match. Tick-mark the features you want and there's a product waiting for you. A 100 GB disk device with no screen and with FM radio, which can play back video and record TV and has a remote. Something with a 3.5-inch TFT, which is an MP3 and MP4 player, DVD recorder, e-book reader, and a photo album. Perhaps it's got a camera as well. It's all good.

With hard drives being the biggest consumer of power in these gadgets so typical of 2006, and with Flash all poised to get bigger like we said, all we can expect is more battery life-the most obvious bottleneck to ultimate portability. Flash apart, too, the batteries are getting better-various i-things from a company called iLuv boost the iPod Video's battery life to something that would have sounded ludicrous last year-50 hours!

You've heard quite enough about Zune, we presume, and how it'll create wireless communities of music-oriented people. But this is an official year-end report, so we can't leave the Zune out-Microsoft finally got in. As of this writing, the jury's still out on "iPod-killer or still-born." Then someone "attacks the Zune-For Good Reason," in the 2,128,319th such blog post. Why is everyone writing so much? It's just a PMP, and yet, the Internet is still agog with iPod vs. Zune.

Or is it just a PMP? Turns out it's not! Going by the Xbox roots of the gadget, it'll probably be more… one indication is that the Zune could be part of Microsoft's Live Anywhere network. Zune might therefore extend the PMP into the gaming realm. And what is Live Anywhere? Space doesn't permit a full discussion, but Live Anywhere is about accessing online games as well as digital multimedia "anywhere," whether on Xbox 360, Windows Vista, and… probably Zune. You get something called a "gamertag," a set of "achievements," and a "list of friends." These are synced between devices, and one player on an Xbox 360 and the other at a PC can play each other as easily and seamlessly as two players at two Xbox 360s.

Getting all newsy, "Will The iPod Fight Back?" is our question. There's supposedly an iPod with a touch-screen in the works (it's rumoured to be released next year). Apple has been hiring game programmers as well for the iPod, and NVIDIA recently announced it will be supplying video chips for the iPod-so 3D gaming on the iPod may not be far away, either.
Touching upon the Archos 04 series, these are ridiculously-multifunctional do-it-alls. The Archos 604-WiFi gives you Web access via the Opera browser, a touch screen, a widescreen display, audio and video recording, an inbuilt speaker, and can be used as to stream movies and music. Optionally, it can record TV, and it is also IPTV-compatible. And it can be used as a camcorder. Etc., etc., etc.

Those et ceteras define PMP evolution in 2006.

Optical Media
When we spoke about the Blu-ray / HD-DVD war in The Battle Of The Blue, in our December 2005 issue, there were several "D"s wanting to come up. We thought China would do something about its EVD (Enhanced Versatile Disc). Somehow, things seem not to have worked out, and it's hardly in the news now. Blu-ray and HD-DVD have, of course, arrived, as expected, on-time. Blu-ray, in fact, has even made it to Indian shores, with the recorder priced in the range of half a lakh.

It's happening because of HD movies, of course, and when you realise what Blu-ray discs will be used for besides backups-about six hours of HD movies on a 50 GB Blu-ray disc-suddenly, the capacity doesn't seem so mammoth any more, and it seems like a virtue has been made of a necessity.
March, Toshiba launched the world's first HD-DVD player in Japan, beating Blu-ray to market, and also the first laptop to feature an HD-DVD drive. April, Toshiba's players hit US store shelves. Later, in May, Sony unveiled a line of notebooks, the first to include a Blu-ray drive: the Sony VAIO AR can display movies at full 1080p resolution. September, Panasonic unveiled the world's first Blu-ray Disc (BD) recorders. These support both BD-RE (recordable) and BD-R.
Now, they were planning hundreds of movie titles for Blu-ray by year's end, but that's hardly happened. The titles were few and far between, hardly compelling reasons for getting a player: August 31, MGM Home Entertainment announced four BD releases slated for release in November. Twentieth Century Fox, too, announced its first Blu-ray releases the same day. November, Twentieth Century Fox released X-Men: The Last Stand on BD.

The real point is, the readers came, the recorders came, a few titles came. But nothing really seems to have come of it. Why would one invest in an (expensive) Blu-ray laptop for backups? Or for a few movies? And what if Blu-ray turned out to be the wrong choice? When would the right time to upgrade be? Or, what if a new format were to trounce the other two?
That new format might well be HVD, Holographic Versatile Disc. We've spoken about holographic storage technology several times before, and now we find there's even an HVD Alliance ( A TB of data on a regular-sized disc. Twenty times Blu-ray's capacity.

Why not just wait for HVD? The future's anything but crystal-clear.

"Booming sales of flat-panel television displays is leading to unprecedented research and development in the sector with the promise of new technologies designed to capitalise on market demand." That's from a business news article, and pretty much sums up 2006 where displays are concerned.

From a forum: "I feel that LCoS and DLP both have better pictures than Plasma or LCD sets. The picture just seems warmer." Typical 2006. Too many choices. Everyone's being too subjective. In fact, the LCD vs. Plasma battle seems never-ending-just try Googling "lcd plasma" and you'll get 14 million results as of this month-which is certainly indicative. ("crt lcd" gives only a million and a half!) 2006 was the year of choices; the year of new technologies, as in new technologies being advertised and sold; and in India, the year of the LCD beginning to gradually replace the CRT. 2006 was also the year of widescreen making it big. Even big made it big: the idle rich in India were able to shop right here for huge displays. Even we simple folk had 20-inch and 24-inch flats-screen aspirations.

So what are all those choices we're talking about? As of today, if you want to buy a display, you can choose between CRT, LCD, LCoS, DLP, SED, and Sony's offering, SXRD.

One thing that mildly surprises us is that nobody seems to be doing anything to make CRTs-even flat CRTs-any better!

Now consider ad pitches like "virtually no motion artefacts or image streaking." "Strikingly clear, non-pixelated images with perfect geometry." What are these for? Any of the above-mentioned technologies, is the answer! Well, LCDs do suffer from streaking, but the degree has been decreasing so rapidly, LCDs are now a very viable option for gaming, too.

Space doesn't permit a technical discussion of the different technologies, so here's about Sony's SXRD. We can't lay our hands on one, so all we can say is… over 2 million pixels per panel mean superior clarity. Smooth, film-like images are possible: there's a true sense of depth and dimension. Watching sports is like looking through a skybox window.

That was from an ad… we did that just to show you that they all seem to be saying the same thing! "Choices" certainly is the buzzword in 2006 display technology-apart from, of course, "HD."

So what do we do apart from gawk? A few things. First, remember that graphics cards and gaming consoles are sporting HDMI (a high definition, digital interface, with a single cable for video and audio), so you can use your LCD panel to its full potential. Second, remember that you might want to upgrade to a good-quality display panel soon, because Vista will demand it (we know you'll upgrade anyway). And third, take comfort in that essential fact of human nature: you get used to what you have.

Multi-core is the new gigahertz, at least in war-speak. Dual-core was a fancy term even in mid-2005; in 2006, dual-core processors became so cheap, it made no sense to go with a single-core any more. Dual-cores, once thought of as hype, turned out to give significant performance gains when multi-tasking, and even with single tasks like video encoding.

And why stop there, once the first power of two had been breached? Intel's quad-core Xeon 5300 and Core 2 Extreme QX6700 were unveiled in November, making it to the second power much before AMD. Some software-such as Adobe Premiere Pro-can already take advantage of four cores, but as you'd expect, there are far fewer such programs than can put two cores to good use. The QX6700, however, in tests, showed it could spread the workload when handed two or three processor-intensive tasks. Enthusiasts-those of the deep-pocketed persuasion-were happy.

AMD will reveal their own quad-cores-currently called "Barcelona"-sometime in mid-2007, so there's no reason to get excited yet. But anyway, AMD is never to be left behind, as the phrase goes, and has figured out how to offer bleeding-edge performance by placing two Athlon 64 dual-core chips in one machine: the "4x4", which will probably have begun shipping by the time you read this.
The big surprise merger of the year (apart from Google and YouTube) for us was, of course, AMD taking over ATI. The effects? Delightful twists in the AMD/Intel saga, of course. "Fusion" technology is already in the works: this new kind of processor integrates CPU and GPU at the silicon level, which could mean… a lot of things. Better frame rates, anyone?

Perhaps more than that. AMD indicated that it is developing more than just one CPU/GPU platform, which will make for "step-function increases in performance-per-watt relative to today's CPU-only architectures." In press releases, AMD didn't describe the new chips as high-end graphics solutions, but as solutions that provide the "best customer experience." Fusion is expected to debut in late 2008-quite a while off, so no point getting excited, again.

But they're already talking about "Stream computing" for now. From the new "Introducing the AMD Stream Processor-the first, dedicated, GPU-based solution to address the needs of high-performance computing users. Featuring the AMD R580 GPU, and a 1GB memory buffer… the AMD Stream Processor… (enables) the most direct access to GPU resources in the industry."
Yes, the CPU and GPU are engaged in some major billing and cooing. GPUs are taking on a more generic role-you can already offload calculations onto the GPU, which could traditionally only be done on the CPU. For example, Stanford University has announced new software that will enable the use of graphics cards-not just CPUs-in their Folding@Home distributed computing project.

Breaking away from the powers-of-two rule, Intel is talking about an 80-core CPU. They call it a "terascale research chip": 80 cores on one piece of silicon. Who'd need that and why is a question for another day, another year. Will the GPU become a core-or a few-on the CPU? Or the other way round? Who's to tell?

Operating Systems
It's been an eventful year, well filled-out with people gushing over Vista all through its (very) public beta testing programme. Overall, a good idea for the big M-with the whole community getting in on testing, more bugs have been reported and fixed than would ever have been with in-house testing.
As we write this, the news is all over-Windows Vista has "gone gold"-it's ready to hit the markets in the end of January, and anticipation fills the world.
Vista comes with a whole lot of bells and whistles-notably the pretty Aero interface-beyond that, the Vista user experience is going to be much friendlier, and the new ReadyBoost feature will let you use your flash drive to kick up performance as well.

There are still plenty of kinks to be ironed out-especially the impact on gaming performance and the ongoing battle with antivirus companies over the blocked kernel-but 2006 was easily the Year of Vista, for not a month passed by without it being discussed.

The Linux population hasn't been resting either. The ever-increasing popularity of the newbie-friendly Ubuntu has given hope to the community-perhaps there's a lasting place for Linux on the desktop after all. GNOME seems to have taken the lead in the battle of the Desktop Environments, with both SuSE and Fedora Core (which formerly came with KDE) switching loyalties.

To combat the growing threat of Aero being overly pretty (huh?), Novell came up with their own 3D Desktop-called XGL, it brought an OpenGL-based prettiness never before associated with the Penguin. You can now flip between desktops on a cool 3D cube, in addition enjoying to a truckload of special effects with your windows.

Apple went the Intel way, and naturally, Mac OS X followed. The x86 compatible OS X Tiger meant a lot to hackers (not the malicious kind), who went about happily installing it on their PCs for dual-boot joy, which also led to the release of BootCamp-Apple's way of saying "Don't hack, just use this to get XP on your Intel Mac". Genius!

Rounding It Off
Excitement is accelerating exponentially, if that were possible. We're hedging our bets on the idea that exciting though 2006 was, '07 will be more so. (The extra broadband we're going to get will help.) The general idea is, time today is Internet time. At this rate, there's got to be a new law to state that each period of time will appeal to the geek's will, wish and wisdom more than the previous one did.

Team DigitTeam Digit

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