Verizon Hub Phone Review

via Gizmodo by matt buchanan on 4/23/09

The Verizon Hub is unstuck in time. It’s a 2006 device that’s just getting here, now, in 2009, begging the question, “Is it better to be late than never?”

The Hub is a landline slayer launched in a wireless world, where the landline is almost dead. It’s a fertile garden behind a red-painted wall—red ’cause it’s Verizon, har har—found when most people are trying to break down those walls. It’s a Verizon Wireless VoIP phone coming about at a time when AT&T is killing their VoIP service entirely. It’s the phone we imagined before the iPhone, tethered to our home broadband connection for instant-pizza-ordering awesomeness. In other words, it’s a lot of interesting things, appearing in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s just unfortunate. The Hub makes sense in a very specific context: If you’re a lock, stock and barrel Verizon customer, from wireless to TV to internet to, obviously, landline phone service. That’s where the “Hub” name comes in—it brings a bunch of different Verizon services together in one spot: You can monitor cellphone locations using Verizon’s Chaperone, send maps and directions from the Hub to phones running VZ Navigator, and manage a central calendar that your entire family’s phones sync to. Eventually, you’ll be able to do more, like manage your Verizon FiOS TV DVR. While a minor point, in a sense it’s a very sore point with the Hub, since you can already do that from many Verizon cellphones this very second. Why do I need a Hub again?

The garden walls reach their greatest heights when you try to text or picture message to a non-Verizon phone—you can’t. The calendar isn’t open, using a standard like CalDAV for easy export—it’s squarely in Verizonland. A surprising amount of managing the Hub actually takes place on Verizon’s website, like uploading contacts (via CSV files) and photos. Thankfully, the Hub’s pages are better designed than the rest of Verizon’s website—there’s legit eye candy in the photo gallery, for instance. And nearly anything you can do on the Hub itself, you can do from the website remotely, like manage voicemail or check your call history. But it’s odd you can’t do something very simple like upload photos via the Hub’s USB port.

It doesn’t really matter if there are walls around the garden if you’re never tempted to leave. Unfortunately, the Hub isn’t enough of an attraction. Pretty much anything you can do on it—buy movie tickets, send text messages, check traffic or watch videos, you can do faster or better on your computer or cellphone. The virtually useless selection of VCAST videos make the average YouTube video feel like HD in comparison, and the “traffic report” isn’t a map with live traffic info, but a canned audio briefing from that you have to sit through an ad to hear.

The Linux OS itself isn’t particularly a joy. God knows, Verizon’s committed some horrible user interface atrocities over the last few years, but at least the Hub’s is alright—usable, not mind-blowing. I wish it moved faster. The keyboard is annoying to type on, but it’ll get better in the next software update, which adjusts the spacing and adds pop-up letters. A persistent set of buttons on the left gives you constant, instant access to the two main menus: The phone and the uh, menu, where you get to your apps. In the top right corner is the home button, which takes you to the desktop, where your widgets, like for weather, time, voicemail, etc. hang out. Applications tend to have a two-pane layout that’s framed by buttons on three sides, which doesn’t sound like a problem, but it becomes one since the touchscreen is not so responsive around the edges. I’ve accidentally called two people at 3 in the morning while trying to press the menu button. Not cool.

Actually, that’s one of my more concrete frustrations with this phone: The hardware feels cheap and shitty. The handset, which costs $80 a pop, is a plastic piece of garbage with a shoddy build quality and terrible screen. (It doesn’t help that you can’t do much from the handset either, like send text messages.) The touchscreen isn’t as responsive as it should be, and it distorts with even the slightest bit of pressure, adding to the whole crappy feeling. A screen designed to be touched shouldn’t freak out when you touch it. The speakers really harsh, crappy and tinny too. I couldn’t stand using it for loudspeaker calls.

There are a few bright points. While the directory isn’t as precise as say, MenuPages, it is fairly painless to find a nearby pizza place and call them in a single stroke. The synergistic—I know, that word provokes a gag reflex—stuff works well. Directions quickly went to the Samsung Sway test phone I got with it, which promptly fired up VZ Navigator and pointed to wherever I pointed it. (Too bad VZ Navigator is slow and sucky, but that’s somewhat besides the point.) And the call quality itself is pretty good—or at least I sounded “loud and clear” to the people I called.

The brightest light may end up being the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel—the promise that developers will be able to create their own apps for this thing in the future. The included ones, for the most part, just aren’t that hot, and some of the newer ones in the pipeline are definitely more head-turning. But it’s hard to see how this product can sustain itself long enough to engender a solid third-party developer community. More likely, it’ll get slightly better, then go extinct.

It’s pretty ballsy to charge $200 for a landline phone with $35/month VoIP service right now, one that does the same thing you can do on an iPhone or G1, but is tied to your desk. Which is a lot of the reason I like it. But it’s just as ridiculous to ask that much for a phone that’s built with subpar hardware and doesn’t live up to its full potential in a world where it’s already horribly outmoded. Time was up two years ago.


Apple TV deletes DMA deficiencies

When Apple first released details about what is now called Apple TV, I wrote that it would create a DVR dilemma for the Cupertino company, one that it decided by bypassing DVR functionality (at least for now). The result will be a product that avoids many setup foibles and complexities of digital video recorders while allowing use of the increasingly versatile streamlined Apple Remote. There are three main reasons why Apple’s digital media adapter will trump its predecessors, but it may not yet be enough to catapult digital content into the living room the way the iPod did into our pockets.

First from a technology perspective, Apple TV is one of the first digital media adapters to support the draft 802.11n standard. If the PCs from which it is obtaining media also have this fast a connection, Apple TV should be able to obtain digital content much faster than previous products. 802.11n should certainly be fast enough for standard-definition compressed video and reliable enough to carry movie trailers from Apple’s Web site without stuttering.

However, as good as 802.11n is, few if any unlicensed wireless technologies are completely immune to interference and range limitations, which is why the inclusion of a hard drive is a great boon for this device class. As I wrote when I looked at Brookstone’s hard disk-based SongCube last fall, there are many advantages to using a “sync and store” scenario for digital content devices on a home network. These address the reliability and performance of local storage while eliminating the need to manually update a device with the latest content. Managing this cache, however, can require a bit of configuration; Apple will need to make some tradeoffs here.

The second advantage Apple TV will have over other digital media adapters is commercial video content, or at least easy access to it. Because Apple has become the leading seller of Hollywood TV shows (followed by the recently launched Xbox Live video service), consumers can queue up TV shows or movie purchases and have them delivered to the big screen. Apple is clearly hoping to jump-start a virtuous circle here, in which the availability of a clear path to the television spurs demand for digital content, which spurs demand for AppleTV units.

It’s a more direct relationship than Apple has enjoyed with the iPod, which didn’t rely on the iTunes store for its meteoric rise. The Walkman provided a clear model for the success of the iPod. There is no such precedent for Apple TV and consumers have yet to express the collective need to move PC-based content into their living rooms. In fact, in some ways the Apple TV model reverses that of the iPod, and is one in which digital content purchases will have more weight in spurring device sales than vice versa.

Third, AppleTV will enjoy distribution in Apple’s phenomenally successful retail stores. Previous DMAs have proved flummoxing to retailers that wrestle with whether to put them in the networking or AV departments. Demonstrating AppleTV effectively may not be simple even for Apple, but its retail stores’ simpler focus and knack for attracting those interested in the digital lifestyle should help AppleTV’s entry in the fledgling category.

Unlike the iPod (but like the iPhone), Apple TV will be cross-platform from its first day on the market, continuing Apple’s embrace of the tremendous base of Windows users. But there will be other requirements that the first iPod didn’t have — broadband and a home network, the latter of which exists in about a third or fewer American households. In suck homes, AppleTV will test whether the challenge to bridge the PC and TV has been due to lack of design, lack of content, lack of appropriate shelf space or, in Apple’s worst case, lack of interest.

The Real Deal On Xbox 360 IPTV With Pics and Video


It seems that there’s been a lot of confusion over what exactly IPTV on the Xbox 360 is bringing to the table, and moreover, what it’ll take to bring it to your table. So I sat down with Microsoft to get a demo and clear up a lot of the confusion that’s been going on since the initial announcement here at CES. First off, the service will be available to all 16 of its current IPTV customers, such as AT&T, by the end of the year, as it is essentially the same as the standard Microsoft IPTV software, it’s simply running on a 360. Both deploying the service AND the available content is up to the providers, however, and who will be rolling out the service is still to be determined. No one’s confirmed yet, in other words. Continued with a gallery and videos after the jump…

It’s ultimately available to any service provider that offers Microsoft IPTV now or in the future, though. Interestingly, one option service providers may explore in getting customers to buy into the IPTV program is to lease out the 360 like a cable box, or they can follow a cell phone model, where you buy a 360 from the service provider at a subsidized price bundled with IPTV. Or, if you already have a 360, you can download the software and go from there, though this obviously requires a hard drive.

As all of the video decoding is done by software, rather than by a hardware tuner, you will be able to record HD shows (DVR and VOD capabilities are there, in other words, as long as your provider offers them) while playing a game. Moreover, due to the software decoding, the number of streams able to be recorded simultaneously is essentially a matter of bandwidth, so it’s theoretically possible to record multiple streams while gaming to boot. The priority now, however, is simply making sure that recording an HD stream while playing a game works flawlessly — the other is extra, so we’ll get exact numbers closer to launch.

So where are you going to put all of those shows, as well as the IPTV software itself? Like Michael at Kotaku, I couldn’t get a confirmation of the upcoming higher capacity drives, simply that the all 360s are “designed now” to add an HD. Asking about hot swapping drives, supposing a “theoretical” higher capacity one existed, got a reply of “stay tuned.” The rep added, however, that the digital compression used will allow HD content to fit in half the space it typically uses on a traditional cable set up and that the IPTV client software itself “isn’t very big.”

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Xbox: Your Next TV Receiver?

360Dean Takahashi — and this is a man who knows his Xbox, having written two books on the subject — says that Microsoft has yet another announcement for CES regarding Xbox 360. Apparently, after patting themselves on the back for moving ten million units, they’ll announce that the console will, later this year, be usable as a set-top box for IPTV. That’s television via the Interwebs.

For sure, there are a ton of unanswered questions here. But the prospects are interesting. Could AT&T give away Xbox 360s for free in exchange for users signing up for subscriptions to IPTV service, which gives high-definition programs, video on demand, and digital video recording? Will Microsoft have to come out with a larger hard disk drive for the Xbox 360 in order to allow it to fulfill the digital video recording function?

All very interesting questions. Will this affect the console war? Depends on how crazy they’re gonna go with it. If they do pursue partnerships like the ones Takahashi speculates about, they could see their userbase skyrocket. By the way, doesn’t this factor in somehow to the whole net-neutrality debate?

Microsoft Crosses 10 Million Xbox 360s Sold [Mercury News]

80-Hour Series2 DVRs For Free

TiVo said Wednesday that it would offer its 80-hour Series2 DVRs for free after rebate while supplies last. The box normally retails for $219.99 USD. In addition, the company would offer the 80-hour dual tuner TiVo for $69.99 USD ($349.99 retail), and the 180-hour dual tuner for $169.99 USD following rebates.

Any length of service contract would be ellgible for the discounts. Based on the length of contract, the monthly service fee would decrease. For those selecting a three-year contract, the monthly rate would be $12.95 per month or $299 if prepaid ($8.30 per month); for a two-year contract, $14.95 per month or $299 prepaid; and $19.95 for a one-year contract, or $199 when prepaid.

Check out the Tive site!

TiVo Raises Rates, Pushes ‘Free’ DVR

TiVo has silently raised its monthly service rates by as much as 54 percent depending on the plan selected, a move that has been criticized by some of its users. Effective this month, service plans with new contracts could be as high as $19.95 USD per month.

That figure is for a one-year contract, although consumers would be able to save money by extending their contract by more than one year. A two-year contract would reduce the rate to $14.95 USD per month, which would be a 15 percent increase. If the user decides on a three-year contract, the rate would remain at the current $12.95 USD per month.

The Multi-service discount rates have also changed similarly: $13.95 USD for one year, $8.95 USD for two years, and $6.95 USD for a three year contract – the same rate as it was before the price increase.

Those currently paying month-to-month appear to be grandfathered at the $12.95 per month plan under the new pricing structure. However, those on current prepaid plans would be subject to the new pricing.

Prepay plans would range from $199 for the one year, or about $16.58 per month, to $349 for three years, or $9.69 per month.

Criticism of the price hike was near immediate. “TiVo’s doing a good job here confusing consumers and pricing themselves right out of the DVR market,” Dave Zatz of the Zatz Not Funny web log wrote in a post Sunday.

Respondents to his post echoed such concerns. “Most people who are considering Tivo are on the fence at $12.95 and three years for that price is a long commitment! There is no way that people will go for $19.95 on top of their cable or satellite bill,” a poster named CheezWiz said.

However, others noted that the rates that include a box have not changed. “On closer inspection, I don’t think rates have really gone up. You’re just getting a free box no matter what,” a poster named peteypete wrote.

Others pointed to the total cost of DVR solutions from cable providers like Comcast would be roughly the same as the $19.95 monthly fee now charged by TiVo.

A request for comment from TiVo was outstanding as of press time.

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Political ads go up against DVR tech

The Horn Lake, Miss., resident lives just five minutes from Memphis, Tenn., and is being bombarded with commercials from the two candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat in Tenneesse, Republican Bob Corker and his opponent, Democrat Rep. Harold Ford.

“It seems like there (are) one to two (political) ads every break,” Ditty said.

But Ditty now has the technology to fight back: His digital video recorder (DVR), a generic model from his local cable company, allows him to skip through the barrage of increasingly nasty ads.

Fans of DVRs–those from market leader TiVo and its many competitors–have long talked up the freedom the machines give them from all kinds of commercials. Now people like Ditty are finding that the current crop of political spots are the best reason they’ve ever had to hit fast-forward.

While it’s impossible to say just how many people are using DVRs to ditch this year’s political message, few doubt, with TiVo’s increasing popularity and the growing number of DVR features being provided by cable providers, the political ad refusenik class is growing.

The question is just how much of an impact this tech-savvy crowd is having. While some leading political consultants say they’re not worried yet about wasted ad dollars due to such a phenomenon, they acknowledge it’s something to keep an eye on in future elections.

“I have thought about it,” said Kyle Roberts, the president of Smart Media Group, an Alexandria, Va., political consultancy. “Some of the polling we do, we do ask people if they have DVRs and try to gauge penetration.”

But Roberts, who said campaigns across the country have already spent a record $1.2 billion on the 2006 midterm elections, thinks it’s too early to worry about a Tivo effect on political ad campaigns. “TiVo and DVRs, in my estimation, have not reached a point yet where they’re a problem,” he said, “because the penetration just isn’t high enough yet.”

TV ads work
That DVRs could somehow be changing the way politicians spend their ad dollars may for the moment be wishful thinking among technophiles. According to David Miller, an analyst at Sanders Morris Harris Group, DVRs have a 7.5 percent penetration rate nationwide, with just 8.25 million out of 110 million households having one of the machines.

Fred Davis, who runs the Hollywood political consultancy Strategic Perception, argued that in spite of DVRs and the ability they give users to skip ads, there is nothing like television for spreading the word about political candidates and issues.

“At the end of the day, (even) if you include DVRs,” Davis said, “if you include everything, the Internet, radios, there’s still not a medium that comes anywhere close to the importance of broadcast television in politics.”

“The only sadness is that the fast-forward feature doesn’t work on live TV.”

–Christopher Ditty, Mississippi resident, DVR owner

But some experts think political advertisers should at least be thinking about the power of the fast-forward button.

“In general, advertisers have started to be concerned as adoption of DVRs increases,” said Bruce McGregor, a senior digital home services analyst at Current Analysis. “Election ads would fall into that category if (voters have) seen the same political ads the last month and want to fast-forward through them.”

Ditty is hardly alone, of course, in his bid to skip through what he sees as a worsening environment of negative political ad campaigning, even while continuing to watch a significant amount of television.

Larry Rodman, from Brookline, N.H., serves on his town’s finance committee and lives close enough to Massachusetts to be saturated with ads in that state’s gubernatorial race. He’ll sometimes watch normal commercials but has zero tolerance for political ads.

“I generally fast-forward through ads,” said Rodman. “However, if I see something that looks like it might be interesting, I usually stop and go back. Whenever I see political ads (though), I just skip through them because I think they’re all spin.”

Of course, to the political campaigns, TV is a necessity, and even if one segment of the viewing public is turned off by the ubiquity or the nastiness of the ads, there is still a significant percentage that watches. And politicos aren’t aiming high. Julie Barko Germany, the deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University’s graduate school of political management, said political advertisers are only hoping for direct-mail response rates.

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“We’ve known for a long time that people get sick” of political ads, said Barko Germany. “But (they) still seem to do them because they work, they rile up the base and they help with fundraising. They’re kind of like telemarketers or (spammers). It annoys the hell out of people, but it’s still economical enough.”

Interestingly, satellite television services like DirecTV and Dish Network are seen as a bigger problem than DVRs because those services don’t allow targeted advertising in local areas, said Roberts, who works on campaign spots for Republicans.

“Rural voters are important to Republicans,” he said, “and turning those people out (to vote) is important to our prescription for winning. And in some of those rural markets, the satellite subscriptions are higher than cable.”

Nonetheless, to increasingly cynical people like Ditty, the DVR is the best antidote to the “half-lies” and “half-truths” of political advertisements.

“There are times when we aren’t paying attention and actually see them and then we remember why we skip them now,” said Ditty, who mixes his TV watching between recorded programs and live shows. “The only sadness is that the fast-forward feature doesn’t work on live TV.”

Comcast updates digital set-top boxes

A few users are reporting that Comcast sent across an unannounced update to their digital set-top boxes. We can’t confirm exactly where or what boxes are affect just yet but we can tell you for certain that the greater Detroit area boxes received the update. So far we have found that high-def programs are now labeled as such, the DVR menu has been updated to include searches and now the main menu has an HD option. There could be more updates buried but being as Comcast hasn’t came out and told us what they are, these are the only things we could find.

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Sticking with Windows XP in a Windows Vista World

Article originally published by Paul Thurrott on

Obviously, I spend a lot of time working with beta software. If you’re envious of that for some reason, consider this little slice of “grass is always greener” logic: Sometimes I wish my PCs just worked. Sometimes I wish I just used my computers as the tools that they are, and didn’t have to spend so much time installing, reinstalling, and fixing problems. From my side of the fence, your lawn is looking pretty darned good too.

What I’m getting at is that the Next Big Thing isn’t always a given. Sure, Windows Vista is cool, sort of, and it’s got some neat new functionality. But what would you say if I told you that the vast majority of new end user features in Windows Vista were already available to you–most of them for free, no less–in Windows XP? And that by skipping Windows Vista, at least for the time being, you’d be left with a PC that was faster, more compatible with the software and hardware you own, and just about as capable as an otherwise identical PC running Windows Vista?

Well, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. No, you can’t get the Windows Aero user experience without Vista, though I suspect the wizards over at Stardock will get pretty close. But do you really need Aero, along with its annoying incompatibilities, many of which result in sudden and jarring jumps into the Windows Basic interface? And no, most of Windows Vista’s security features aren’t available to XP users either, but you know what? You might not need them either, especially if your system is adequately defended with a hardware firewall and a good security software suite.

I’m talking about pure end user goodness here. Applications that are supposed to make people want Windows Vista. Things like the Windows Sidebar, Windows Calendar, Windows Photo Gallery, and Windows Media Player 11. These and other Vista-specific applications are really neat, but you can get identical or nearly identical applications on Windows XP too. And by doing so, you can eek some more time out of your XP investment, save up for a future Vista PC, or just avoid all the headaches that go along with upgrading to a new Windows version. Sure, you’ve waited 5 years for Windows Vista, but so what? Will another 6 months or a year be a problem? Really?

If you’d like to stick with Windows XP for a while longer, here’s some good news. You don’t need Windows Vista. And as I’ll describe in the next section, there are plenty of excellent solutions out there that will make you forget all about Redmond’s next operating system. At least for a little while.

XP replacements for popular Windows Vista applications and features

Windows Search: Windows Desktop Search

Back in 2003, Microsoft proudly showed off the WinFS-based Windows Search features it then planned to include in Windows Vista. Since then, three years of delays have allowed competitors like Google and Apple to take note of Microsoft’s strategy and release desktop search packages of their own. Today, there are plenty of desktop search products available for Windows XP. You’ve got your pick.

In my mind, the contest comes down to two choices. If you’re looking for the XP search tool that most closely resembles Windows Search on Vista–mostly because it’s based on the same technology–then Microsoft’s Windows Desktop Search (WDS) is the way to go. WDS replaces XP’s Start Menu-based Search tool with a far more functional version and provides you with a handy taskbar-based Deskbar.

If you’re looking for a bit more, consider Google Desktop as well. Like WDS, Google Desktop provides a taskbar-based Deskbar for quick hard drive searching. But Google Desktop also includes an interesting Sidebar feature that is very similar–but more capable–than the Sidebar feature in Windows Vista (see below). If you think you want to use both desktop search and a Sidebar-like feature, look into Google Desktop.

Both WDS and Google Desktop are free. WDS offers better shell integration than does Google Desktop, which runs its local searches in a Web browser just like Google Web search.

Windows Defender: Anti-spyware

When Microsoft purchased Giant Company Software in December 2004, I knew Windows users were in for a treat: I was a dedicated and enthusiastic Giant Antispyware user and knew it was the best anti-spyware solution on the market. Now, Microsoft’s version of Giant Antispyware, dubbed Windows Defender, is an integrated part of Windows Vista. But here’s good news for XP fans: Windows Defender is available for free on XP as well. And unlike some Vista applications that have been made available on XP in slightly-hobbled form, the XP version of Windows Defender is just as good as the Vista version.

Unlike some other security features, such as firewalls and anti-virus solutions, it’s not only feasible but advisable to run two or more anti-spyware solutions side-by-side on the same machine. For this reason, you should consider a second anti-spyware product. There’s been a lot of confusion in this space, and many people seem to have particular favorites, often for nonsensical reasons. My choice is ZoneAlarm Anti-Spyware, which is only $19.99 (you can also get it as part of the excellent ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite).

Internet Explorer 7: Web browser

Say what you will about Internet Explorer–I certainly have–but version 7 is not just the best IE version yet, it’s also a credible challenger to the current Web browser champion, Mozilla Firefox. Best of all, Internet Explorer 7 is available for XP as well, though it loses two key Vista features, IE Protected Mode and parental controls integration. It’s still worth it: IE 7 is more capable and more secure than its predecessor. Even if you’re not going to use IE regularly, upgrade IE 6 to IE 7 as soon as possible.

It’s a tough call, but I’m going to remain with Mozilla Firefox. While I recognize that most mainstream Windows users will continue to use IE, I feel that Firefox is still safer, and it’s definitely got some unique features that are missing in IE 7, though the gap is closing. However, both IE 7 and Firefox are superior to IE 6.

Windows Sidebar and Gadgets: Mini-Applications

Windows Sidebar is an onscreen real estate-stealing panel designed to hold HTML- and script-based mini-applications that Microsoft calls Gadgets. The Sidebar is clearly a reaction to Apple’s Dashboard feature, which hosts HTML- and script-based mini-applications that Apple calls Widgets. Dashboard, in turn, was clearly ripped off from Konfabulator (since purchased by Yahoo) and other desktop customization utilities like Stardock Object Desktop.

If you’re into this kind of thing, there are a number of XP-based solutions. Microsoft is reportedly working on an XP version of Sidebar, but I haven’t seen any code since January and Microsoft has been curiously silent on the issue. But you could always go with the original, Konfabulator, which is now called Yahoo Widget Engine. This solution is more similar to Apple Dashboard–go figure–than Windows Sidebar, however, and doesn’t include a screen edge-mounted panel of any kind. So if you’re looking for something that more closely mimics Sidebar, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

I mentioned Google Desktop previously as a replacement for Windows Search. Google Desktop also includes a Sidebar-like mini application environment called the Dashboard, and it’s a decent Sidebar replacement, though it offers the standard Spartan Google interface. The Google Desktop Dashboards hosts HTML-, XML-, and COM-based mini-applications called Google Gadgets, and as you’d expect from a Google service, there are all kinds of useful Gadgets out there.

Windows Backup: File Backup and Restore

The new backup functionality in Windows is Windows Vista is as full-featured as it is attractive. In fact, it’s so full-featured that it offers both file backup and restoration features and image-based full-PC backup, the latter of which uses the VHD virtual machine format first developed for Virtual PC.

System imaging is pretty much a power user feature, but everyone should be regularly backing up their data. The problem is that virtually no one does. Vista’s Backup and Restore Center, with its automated backup feature, should help fix that problem in the future. But if you’re using Windows XP today, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.

There are plenty of decent backup applications out there, but my favorite also happens to be part of a complete PC protection and maintenance suite called Windows Live OneCare. It’s not free, but it’s not expensive either, and I’ve seen it available for as little as $15 after rebates (it’s typically about $20). Windows Live OneCare is a must have for a variety of reasons–it’s got tremendous anti-virus and firewall features, integrates with Windows Defender, and keeps your PC running at full speed by regularly defragging the hard drive. But the best feature, perhaps, is its Backup and Restore functionality, which lets you backup data automatically to external hard drives or optical media.

Windows Mail: Email

Windows Mail–aka Outlook Express 7.0–is one of the few Windows Vista applications that has almost no redeeming value. Therefore, even those who do upgrade to Windows Vista should look elsewhere for an email application. The commercial alternative–Microsoft Outlook–is your best bet. But if you don’t have Outlook and don’t feel like paying for it, fear not. There are plenty of excellent alternatives.>

If you’re looking for a standalone email client, look at both Mozilla Thunderbird and Microsoft Windows Live Mail Desktop Beta. Both are free, though WLM Desktop is ad-supported, unless you pay for a Hotmail Plus or MSN account. WLM Desktop is the most similar to Windows Mail; indeed, it’s based on the same Outlook Express underpinnings. But unlike Windows Mail, WLM Desktop supports Web mail accounts like Hotmail.

Don’t be afraid to consider a Web-based email client. Most of the new generation Web mail clients are quite nice, but the winner, by far, is Yahoo Mail (currently in beta). Gmail (from Google) and Windows Live Mail (which works with Hotmail accounts) are functionally similar, but neither is as attractive in a Web browser.

Windows Calendar: Standards-Based Scheduling

Windows Calendar is a tough one: It’s nicely designed and has all the sharing features you’d expect from an iCal-based application. Frankly, there isn’t a standalone calendar application that comes close on Windows. The only exception is the Calendar component of Microsoft Outlook: If you have that, just use Outlook. If you don’t, your options are a bit more limited.

The Mozilla Corporation, responsible for some of the finest Web browser (Firefox) and email (Thunderbird) applications on the planet, is also working on a standalone calendar application codenamed Sunbird. Mozilla Sunbird isn’t as fine-tuned as Firefox or Thunderbird, and it certainly isn’t as fully developed. But even the current pre-release Sunbird versions are decent enough for regular use. My guess is it will get more attractive over time.

If you’re already using Web-based email, the major vendors of those services–Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo–all offer Web-based calendars as well. Curiously, Yahoo’s entry isn’t particularly nice looking (unlike its new Web mail), but then neither Google Calendar nor Hotmail Calendar are particularly Web 2.0 either. If I had to pick one above the others, it would be Google Calendar. Why? Like most Google services, Google Calendar is supported by a wide range of third party add-ons and has a nice community of users. It’s also updated fairly frequently.

Windows Photo Gallery: Photo Management and Sharing

With Windows XP, Microsoft was pushing a task-based photo management scheme that was based in the files and folders of the Windows shell, and not in a standalone application. The success of Apple’s iPhoto on the Mac OS X platform proved, however, that users prefer to use a nicely-designed, attractive, and functional application for photo management. So Vista, as is so often the case, follows in OS X’s footsteps with an application, Windows Photo Gallery, that handles photo management, importing, and sharing.

To be fair, Windows Photo Gallery isn’t actually an iPhoto clone. No, as it turns out, Microsoft already had an excellent photo management solution, which it had been selling as Digital Image Suite. Photo Gallery is simply a pared down version of Digital Image Suite 2006, so if you want something that works like Photo Gallery but is even more capable, that’s the way to go.

Of course, Digital Image Suite isn’t free. What’s amazing is that you can get an application that offers much of the functionality of both Windows Photo Gallery and Digital Image Suite 2006, but is absolutely free. It’s called Google Picasa 2, and it’s a fantastic application. Since it’s a Google application, Picasa utilizes Google’s search engine to automatically find all the photos on your PC, regardless of where they’re hidden. But its editing and sharing features are excellent too, and a recent update adds Picasa Web Albums compatibility, so you can upload your photos easily to Google’s version of Flickr.

Windows Media Player 11: Digital Media Jukebox

Microsoft’s next-generation version of Windows Media Player had its thunder stolen recently when Apple finally shipped a version of iTunes, iTunes 7, that includes beautiful album art views. But the real irony here is that the best looking version of Windows Media Player 11 is available for Windows XP, not Windows Vista. Weird, eh?

Anyway, if Windows Media Player isn’t your thing, fear not. There are better digital media jukeboxes out there. My favorite is, go figure, Apple iTunes 7. It was recently updated to fix the stability issues that dogged the initial iTunes 7 release, and it’s got a much cleaner and professional-looking interface than does Windows Media Player.

Windows Movie Maker 6: Digital Movie Editingp

The version of Windows Movie Maker (WMM) included with Windows Vista is the best yet, with support for Microsoft’s recorded TV (dvr-ms) format and outputting in various HD formats. But XP users already have a very capable digital movie editor in Windows Movie Maker 2, and if you can live without those two aforementioned new features, you pretty much already have everything you need.

Windows Media Center: Digital Media in the Living Room

The Windows Vista version of Windows Media Center (WMC) is an evolutionary upgrade over the version offered in Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, though it should be more widely distributed thanks to its inclusion in two Windows Vista product editions, Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate. It also includes unique new features like DVD jukebox integration and digital/high-definition television support. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any true analog to Vista’s WMC. If you have Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, however, you get most of the best WMC features.

But what if you don’t have XP Media Center 2005? Snapstream Beyond TV 4.x offers the same digital video recording (DVR) functionality as Media Center, but without any of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) silliness that bogs down Media Center (with protected content anyway; Media Center won’t let you share certain content, such as that recorded on HBO or Cinemax). Note that Beyond TV is not free, however: The download version is $69.99, and of course you’ll need a TV tuner card and possibly other hardware. Check the Snapstream Web site for some reasonable bundles.

Final thoughts

In the interests of complete disclosure, there are definitely important new features in Windows Vista that you just can’t get anywhere else. But for many XP users–and let’s face it, we’re talking about several hundred million people here–there’s no need to upgrade to Windows Vista right away. To stave off the sense of loss that might accompany any decision to hold off on that upgrade, I hope this list of applications and services helps. But if you absolutely have to get Windows Vista right away, logic be damned, fear not: I’m working on a similar list of gotta-have-it Vista features as well. I’ll be looking into these reasons why you simply won’t want avoid Windows Vista in a future showcase. –Paul Thurrott


Windows Desktop Search

Windows Defender

Mozilla Firefox

Google Desktop

Windows Live OneCare

Mozilla Thunderbird

Yahoo Mail Beta

Mozilla Sunbird

Google Picasa 2

Apple iTunes 7

Windows Movie Maker 2

Snapstream Beyond TV 4.x

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