Friday, December 12, 2008

Versus Week Final Round: Satellite vs. Cable

All this week, Observer columnist Langston Wertz Jr. is writing about popular technology rivalries and trying to help determine which is best for you. The week concludes today with a look at satellite vs. cable TV for home entertainment.

Monday: PS3 vs. Xbox 360
Tuesday: Macs vs. PC
Wednesday: DSL vs. cable internet
Thursday: Wireless or wired home networking

Satellite or cable TV for your home? This is one of the oldest technology arguments out there. If you do not own an HDTV and don’t plan on buying one, both services are about equal and will allow you to watch TV after the digital transition early next year.

But if HD is your bag, or if you think it might be soon, there are a few things you should know.

Cable advantages: “No contract, no equipment to buy” is the cable man’s mantra. Time Warner Cable has superior video-on-demand services and specialized local programming from CMS and News Channel 14 that you can’t get on a dish. There’s also a new feature called “Start Over’’ that will allow viewers to restart shows already in progress so they don’t miss a minute. You don’t need a clear line of sight to the southwest, like with satellite, to get service. And best of all, you can bundle cable, phone and Internet for a discounted price.

Satellite advantages: The picture looks better, especially on non-HD channels (though some cable companies are starting to convert to all digital, like satellite). The selection and variety of high-def content is currently much wider on satellite. The two major satellite providers, DirecTV and DISH, offer more than 100 HD channels, and both carry the NFL Network, which you can’t get on Time Warner. Overall picture quality, especially on non-HD channels, is better locally off the dish.

Knockout Blow: Time Warner’s equipment problems are frequently talked about on message boards, and I’ve experienced them myself. The HD-DVRs, particularly, can be troublesome. DISH and DirecTV equipment tends to run better, be more reliable and the HD choices those companies provide are hard to beat. For sports fans, DirecTV also has NFL Sunday Ticket, giving you access to out-of-market NFL games. Plus, both sat-casters are starting to offer 1080p high-definition movies on pay-per-view, mimicking the sound and advanced picture quality of Blu-Ray. Oh, and satellite prices are cheaper in the long run, too.

Winner: Satellite. Embrace your dish.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Versus Week, Round IV: Wired or wireless networking for your home?

All this week, Observer columnist Langston Wertz Jr. will write about popular technology rivalries and trying to determine which is best for you. The week continues today today with a look at wired or wireless networking.

Monday: PS3 vs. Xbox 360
Tuesday: Macs vs. PC
Wednesday: DSL vs. cable internet

So you’ve got multiple computers and everyone in the family wants to get on the Internet at the same time. You need a network. But what kind?

Wireless Advantage: Portability. With the advent of Wireless-N routers, you get much faster speeds than ever before (provided your computer is new enough to have an N card built in or you’ve purchased an outboard card). Securing your network is pretty easy, and the measures should be enough to thwart any normal user from trying to access your network. And with wireless, you can get Internet access from anywhere in your home, or even in your backyard.

Wired Network Advantage: Security, security, security. And speed. Wireless networks sometimes work great, and sometimes just don’t. And if you don’t secure your network, your next-door neighbor could be downloading something using your account that you might not approve of. But wired systems can be expensive (hiring someone to run wire in your attic and crawlspace and walls), or a serious DIY job. Still, once you’re plugged in via the Ethernet cable, speeds can be blazing-fast.

Knockout Blow: Either system has its cost. Buying a new N router and new cards can set you back several hundred dollars. Wiring a system is expensive, too. But products like Netgear’s Powerline HD Plus Ethernet Adapter Kit make setting up a cheap wireless network easy. Simply plug one into an AC outlet near your router and the other near the device you wish to network and voila! – it’s connected. You can set up the device in the front or back yard, in the office or kitchen. I got speeds as fast as those I would normally get directly off my router, speeds faster than any wireless-N get-up I’ve tested.

Winner: This one’s a draw. If I were building a new home, I’d have it wired – but I’d still have a wireless router for ease of use. If I had an existing home with, say, a Wireless-G router, I’d keep it and add a Powerline adapter for places where I needed dedicated, faster connections (like a home office, or a satellite box that downloads movies). The Powerline is one of the best consumer gadgets of the past five years.

Coming up:
Friday: Satellite vs. cable.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Versus Week Round 3: DSL vs. cable high speed internet

All this week, Observer columnist Langston Wertz Jr. will write about popular technology rivalries and try to determine which is best for you. The week continues today today with a look at wired or wireless networking.

Monday: PS3 vs. Xbox 360
Tuesday: Macs vs. PC

High-speed internet has changed our lives. Long gone are the days of the logging into America Online and watching that blue login bar slooooooooowly fill up along the bottom of the screen.

Today, we download high-definition movies and video games and music, sometimes in seconds. But all high-speed Internet is not created equal. If you’re considering satellite-based Internet services, I’d rule them out – they’re spotty and can suffer from slow upload times. That leaves you with DSL or cable.

DSL Advantages: Unlike cable, which sometimes forces a neighborhood to share a “node,” DSL is one wire to one home (though homes far away from the central server may not receive the same quality service as those closer). DSL is generally more readily available to customers in outlying areas than cable Internet. Some of the newer DSL services, like Windstream in Charlotte, are offering increased download speeds.

Cable Internet Advantages: It’s easier to connect. DSL users often need to add filters to their phone lines to prevent interference with regular phone usage. Not a terribly big deal, but a small nuisance (especially when the filter doesn’t work properly). Also, in real-life applications, cable tends to be a lot faster. In Charlotte, Time Warner Cable’s Road Runner service – both the standard and turbo versions – is the fastest high-speed Internet service I’ve ever tested.

Knockout Blow: It’s all about speed. Locally, Road Runner (the standard version) is fast, reliable and you never need to log in, as some DSL services require. Road Runner also comes with free anti-virus software and free parental controls to keep the young ones off sites you don’t want them to see. (Windstream offers a similar security suite, but charges $2.99 a month for it after a free three-month trial.)

Winner: Beep-beep. Go cable.

Coming up:
Thursday: wireless vs. wired network
Friday: satellite vs cable

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Versus Week Round 2: Mac Vs. PC

All this week, Observer columnist Langston Wertz Jr. will write about popular technology rivalries and try to determine which is best for you.

Monday: Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3.
Today: Mac Vs. PC

The home computer market has long been dominated by Bill Gates, whose Windows software powered many of the systems we’ve known so well. But thanks to a user-friendly operating system, cool gadgets like the iPhone and a smart ad campaign (“Hi, I’m a Mac”), Steve Jobs’ Apple brand of computers is making a big run.
Last quarter, Apple accounted for nearly 10 percent of all U.S. computer sales, selling 1.64 million machines, a 29 percent increase over the same period in 2007. That put the company in third place in computer sales in the U.S. behind Dell and Hewlett-Packard, which both sell Windows-based machines.
But which should you buy?

PC Advantages: By now, most everyone knows how to click “Start” on a Windows machine. Using a PC is just familiar, and there are tons of programs and applications that work with Windows software. Since PC prices have plummeted, you can buy entry-level machines for as little as $299. You can also design a pretty powerful PC – complete with a Blu-Ray DVD burner and dual processors – for under $2,000. PCs are better for gaming, and there’s more software available for them than for their Mac cousins.

Mac Advantages: The Mac uses the Leopard operating system that is simply better, faster and easier to use (though there’s an initial learning curve). A new version, Snow Leopard, is due in January. The Mac starts up faster, runs programs faster and doesn’t slow down as much as a PC when handling multiple tasks. Macs are generally more expensive than PCs, but don’t tend to have as many problems with spyware and viruses. Macs will usually last longer. There’s much more Mac software available than two years ago (you can even get Microsoft Office for the Mac) and if you really need to run Windows, you can install something called Boot Camp that allows you to run Windows on your Mac. In my tests, Vista ran faster and smoother for me on a Mac than on a fairly new PC.

Knockout Blow: You can run Windows on a Mac. And Macs tend to outperform PCs. Once you get the hang of the Leopard operating system, you’ll love it. We only wish there were more affordable Mac towers available. At least Apple offers refurbished models on its web site at big discounts.

Winner: Mac, by a mile.

Coming up:
Wednesday: DSL vs. cable Internet
Thursday: wireless vs. wired network
Friday: satellite vs cable

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Versus Week Round 1: Xbox 360 vs. PS3

All this week, Observer columnist Langston Wertz Jr. will write about popular technology rivalries and try to determine which is best for you. The week begins today with Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3.

Everybody knows the Nintendo Wii is the hottest-selling video-game console right now. The tiny white unit is great for families, with lots of fun games. The wireless Wii-mote can mimic guitars, ski poles and even golf clubs pretty darned accurately. That brings a new dimension to video gaming, and it gets you off the couch.
But for gamers into hardcore sports and fighting titles – for hardcore gamers of almost any kind, really – you’re probably going to be choosing between the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.

Both systems can deliver stunning high-definition graphics, which the Wii cannot, and both are more powerful machines. Games look more realistic and come across as, um, more serious on those two machines.
So which one to choose?

Xbox’s Advantages: Nothing in console video gaming comes close to Xbox Live. You can download TV shows, movies, games, applications and much more via the online service. The audience is bigger than the competition’s, so if you want a game of online “Madden” at 3 in the morning, there’s always half a gazillion 5-star rated guys ready to take on you and your digital Steve Smith.

PS3 Advantages: In most cases, the PlayStation games are better-looking when compared to their Xbox 360 counterparts. The PlayStation 3 has a built-in Internet browser, and the PlayStation online experience is getting better. The PS3 controller (thankfully available with the rumble feature once again) is also easier to use and fits better in the hand than the Xbox’s.

Knockout Blow: The PlayStation 3 comes bundled with a Blu-Ray high-definition DVD player. Blu-Ray’s picture quality is so amazing, you might not want to go to the movie theater again. Given that some Blu-Ray players cost more than the PS3 itself, you’re basically getting two gadgets for the price of one. And there’s even a new 160-gigabyte version of the PS3 to help store your downloads.

Winner: PlayStation 3, by a Blu-Ray disc.

Coming up:
Tuesday: Mac vs PC
Wednesday: DSL vs. cable Internet
Thursday: wireless vs. wired network
Friday: satellite vs cable

Everybody's got a "band" game these days

Let’s get through a lot of reviews today, OK?
Ultimate Band (Nintendo DS): Everybody’s got a band game, these days and this one, for the Nintendo hand-held, allows gamers to create real music using lead, rhythm and bass guitars plus drums. You can play with friends via Wi-Fi and this one is easy to pick up (Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars).
PopStar Guitar (Nintendo Wii/PS2): Told you everybody had a band game, right? XS Games loads this one with a special controller on the Wii version and more than 50 songs from artists like the Jonas Brothers, Rihanna and Maroon 5. Nice to have one of these music games be not so much about one genre of music (hard rock).
Using the “Air G” controller for Wii (the version I prefer here), you take the “role” of a lead guitarist for a battle of the bands competition, or you can go solo. There are six female and six male characters to choose from and 60 guitars and 10 drum sets. Your family will have fun with this one (Rating: 3 out of 4 stars)
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts (Xbox 360): Sonic-like game heroes Banjo and Kazooie face off with the evil witch Gruntilla (gotta love that name). The winner gets control of Spiral Mountain. The evil “Lord Of Games” is tired of the fighting between the heroes and witch and designs a series of challenges you must get through to win. Only the witch keeps trying to stop you.
In the battle, you’ll built boats and planes and use them in the fight. Graphics are really good and you can play online, too. I liked the fast-paced play (Rating: 3 out of 4 stars).
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (Xbox 360/PS3): This game looks amazing and traces the adventures of Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo on a mission to save the African safari. A multiplayer mode should make for some fun family times this holiday, too (Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars)
Carnival Games MiniGolf (Wii): This is a the goony golf of video games. It’s got 25 holes on nine golf course, that are more theme park than golf course. It’s easy to play and definitely more for the putt-putt crowd than the hardcore golfer. Taken for what it is, it’s not bad (Rating: 2 out of 4 stars)