If you've been postponing yourholiday gift preparations, or if you just need a few extra gifts to stuff the stockings of friends and family, Ars is here to help. We've compiled a short list of great gifts (all under fifty bucks) that you can give without fear of disappointment.
If you're ordering online, move quick; Christmas arrival guarantees are set to expire in the next couple of days, if they haven't already. Should the deadline pass you by, there are always brick-and-mortar (gasp) stores, though these are likely to crowded with mobs of folks doing exactly the same thing you are.
eMusic gift subscription card Price: $30 for 3 months (90 tracks total)
Amazon.com gift card Price: Any (Shop.Ars)
Want to give a gift card to a music buff, but worried about the "DRM frown" when she realizes that many songs will still be encumbered? Consider a gift subscription from eMusic (for indie types) or an Amazon gift card (for more mainstream tastes). Both have a huge variety of music in MP3 format.
SanDisk 2GB Cruzer USB Flash Drive Price: $30 (Shop.Ars)
Flash drives: yes, they're everywhere, and yes, your friends and relations already have them, but who doesn't need a second one? For Vista users in particular, fast flash drives have taken on new utility now that Microsoft supports their use with its ReadyBoost caching feature. U3 functionality is an added bonus (but doesn't work in Vista).
The Lord of the Rings (DVD trilogy) Price: $20 (Shop.Ars)
Star Wars (DVD trilogy) Price: $35 (Shop.Ars)
If you've got some time over the holidays, what better way to spend it than by taking in quality geek filmmaking? Both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are available in handsome box sets and make classic gifts for the discerning geek who doesn't yet own both.
Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga Price: $45 (Shop.Ars)
Speaking of Star Wars, the recent release of Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga is a perfect stocking stuffer that the whole family can enjoy. Available for the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360, the game is an especially good choice for adults who want to play co-op with their kids. What the game lacks in difficulty it makes up for in flat-out fun and goofy humor, and when you can pick up the complete saga for under fifty bucks, even a prissy protocol droid could find little to complain about.
Although it may well be getting further Exchange support in the future, that one feature alone won't keep the iPhone from being labeled as unfit for the enterprise world. A number of arguments have been presented for and against the inclusion of the iPhone in corporate IT departments, some of which hold more water than others. Fortunately for IT departments (and unfortunately for corporate users of the iPhone), CIO has covered a recent Forrester Research study listing 10 reasons the iPhone shouldn't be supported.
Keep in mind that Forrester's report lists current shortcomings of the iPhone—even ones that -may be remedied in the future. For instance, the iPhone gets dinged for the lack of an official SDK for third-party applications, even though we know one is coming in a couple of months. The lack of extensive Exchange support is also mentioned, despite Apple job postings to the contrary. The report does make a few good points, however, by mentioning both the lack of data encryption and the lack of any ability to remotely disable iPhones if they are lost or stolen. Most of the remaining reasons listed are design flaws more than IT-specific issues, such as the non-replaceable battery, carrier locks, and the multi-touch keyboard.
The lack of any productivity data for the iPhone also gets some attention, and Forrester advises the most extensive iPhone corporate user (Apple) to release some case studies or supporting material to help convince other large companies. I think we'll eventually see evidence like this, which will cause a number of these downfalls to get crossed off the list. As with most devices, IT departments that are dead set against the iPhone will still be able to find reasons not to give it the time of day, no matter what Apple adds or changes.
We've covered Dell's less-than-stellar 2007 performance and the company's determined efforts to change it throughout 2007. Now, it seems that the Round Rock company's year-long efforts may finally be paying off. As Computerworld discusses, Dell's revisions to its direct model sales, and its parternships with multiple big box retailers are paying off, but are only the tip of the iceberg. During the company's third-quarter conference call two weeks ago, CEO Michael Dell announced the firm's new "Simplify IT" initiative aimed at cutting IT costs for various small and medium-size firms.
Actually competing in the IT management and service field will require an entirely different approach than Dell has traditionally taken with its direct sales model. At the moment, Dell is known for delivering standardized systems on standardized software. The company provides business-class hardware support and a certain amount of software training, but Dell has always focused more on selling boxes and less on selling an overall service. The company will have to build new types of relationships with its various business customers, and focus more on delivering the particular hardware and software its clients need, if it intends to compete in this new market space.
Dell may not have a current reptuation for building strong relationships with its clients or for attending closely to their needs, but that could begin to change in the coming year as the company pushes ahead with its "Simplify IT" plans. The company also continues to acquire businesses it hopes will provide it with a specialized portfolio to present to potential customers. Despite its market troubles this year, Dell is clearly thinking long-term with its acquisition of SAN vendor EqualLogic and two managed services companies—Everdream and Silverback.
Dell company may have cut its teeth in direct sales, but Michael Dell clearly isn't going to sit on his laurels even as changing market conditions leech away at Dell's once-impregnable stronghold. Whether or not this particular approach to the market will work for Dell or not remains to be seen, but I'd personally council IBM, Sun, and HP against resting easy.
A Boston man has filed a class-action lawsuit accusing hardware maker HP and office supply retailer Staples of colluding to inflate the price of printer ink cartridges in violation of federal antitrust law. According to the suit, HP allegedly paid Staples $100 million to refrain from selling inexpensive third-party ink cartridges, although the suit doesn't make it clear how plaintiff Ranjit Bedi arrived at that figure.
For most printer companies, ink is the bread and butter of their business. The price of ink for HP ink-jet printers can be as much as $8,000 per gallon, a figure that makes gas-pump price gouging look tame. HP is currently the dominant company in the printing market, and a considerable portion of the company's profits come from ink.
The printer makers have been waging an all-out war against third-party vendors that sell replacement cartridges at a fraction of the price. The tactics employed by the printer makers to maintain monopoly control over ink distribution for their printing products have become increasingly aggressive. In the past, we have seen HP, Epson, Lenovo and other companies attempt to use patents and even the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in their efforts to crush third-party ink distributors.
The companies have also turned to using the ink equivalent of DRM, the use of microchips embedded in ink cartridges that work with a corresponding technical mechanism in the printer that blocks the use of unauthorized third-party ink. Adding insult to injury, most printers are lying, filthy ink thieves, according to a recent study, misreporting that they are low on ink when they are not.
Bedi's suit asks for unspecified damages and an injunction barring the two companies from engaging in anticompetitive business practices.
Let's face it: we live in an age where it's relatively rare to run into someone who watches anything on TV at its scheduled time. Here at Ars, we have learned not to discuss things like baseball games or the votes in reality TV shows until after the last staffer has caught up. Even my parents record things on DVR or get a pay-per-view movie to watch every so often. Time-shifted viewing has definitely exploded over the last few years and will continue to do so through the next five years, according to a report by SNL Kagan.
The communications research firm said in its "Video-On-Demand: A Strategic and Economic Analysis" study that the revenue generated by video-on-demand (VOD), pay-per-view (PPV), and near-video-on-demand (NVOD) will cross the $6 billion mark within five years. It expects the average revenue per user—which includes offerings from cable, satellite, and telcos—to top $5 per month in 2010, and $6.56 per month over ten years.
"We're starting to see factors align that can enable operators to translate the rise in on-demand traffic into more significant sales," said SNL Kagan senior analyst Ian Olgeirson in a statement. Olgeirson is referring to the increase in demand for sponsorship revenue that VOD providers have seen recently—SNL Kagan notes that since 95 percent of all VOD content is currently free, advertising will play an increasingly important part in the future of VOD.
The company's predictions fall in line with previous data on the growth in demand for VOD-like services. In August, The Diffusion Group said that newer rental methods (such as Netflix, VOD, and PPV) were growing in popularity, especially among those who currently rent movies from a brick-and-mortar store. It noted that 27 percent of that group already made use of VOD or PPV services, and that number is only going up. In September, Pike & Fischer threw in its two cents, saying that one-third of TV watching would be VOD by 2012.
"Digital video is not only a competitive necessity for cable operators, but it also provides the foundation for future revenue growth," wrote SNL Kagan. It estimates that by 2011, the combined installed base of digital set-top boxes will be over 110 million.
Speaking of set-top boxes, ABI research noted this week that a "new breed" of set-top boxes have emerged recently—ones that depend upon the Internet to deliver video to the TV screen. Of those, the struggling Apple TV is apparently the most popular, going to show that Internet-based video is still having a hard time making its way into the hearts—and TV sets—of consumers. This, ABI says, has been due to high prices and a lack of content, but things are getting better. VOD services for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Amazon Unbox, and perhaps even the iTunes Store (pretty please, Stevie Claus?) could continue to change the public's view of downloadable video—ABI believes that 1.2 million of these new set-top devices will sell in 2008.
Apple and Japan: two things that seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly, but may not when it comes to the iPhone. Japan is notorious for being far more advanced than the US when it comes to the world of mobile phones. This can hard to challenge with a lowly phone from the west, no matter how cool it may seem to us plebes. Apple is confident that the iPhone can hold its ground in Japan, though, and has even allegedly begun talks to launch it there next year.
"People familiar with the situation" have told the Wall Street Journal (subscription) that Steve Jobs recently met with NTT DoCoMo—Japan's largest mobile operator—to discuss the iPhone. He has also apparently chatted with Softbank Corp., which holds the number three spot in Japan, "and executives from both companies have made multiple trips to its Cupertino, Calif. headquarters."
Naturally, none of the parties involved have made an official comment about the talks. The WSJ's sources, however, say that while Softbank is working hard to strike a deal with Apple, Jobs would much prefer to go through DoCoMo if possible, "because of the strong preference it has shown so far for signing agreements with top mobile operators." Obviously, if a carrier has a larger base following, there will be a larger pool of people who might be more willing to buy the iPhone right away than switchers.
Like last month's news on China, however, these are only talks—talks that could easily break down at any time. Indeed, just a few weeks after news spread that Apple might sign something in China, a Chinese newspaper reported that the talks had failed due to revenue sharing disagreements.
Excited and whimsical speculation about future versions of Windows is a popular pastime, almost as much as complaining that newly-released versions are too different from the "old reliable" releases that everybody knows and (sometimes) loves. With Windows Vista recently celebrating its first birthday and preparing for the release of Service Pack 1, a team of developers at Microsoft is already busy working on its successor. While Microsoft has been pretty good about keeping the details of "Windows 7" under wraps, a few enthusiastic employees have leaked out a few details. As is usually the case in these situations, people have taken these tiny tidbits and added their own—often highly improbable—speculation. In this brief report, we'll review what we know, what we expect, and what we're calling bunk on, all based on our knowledge of Windows 7 from inside sources at Microsoft.
Separating the wheat from the chaff Would you buy a new operating system from this man?
One thing we all know about Windows 7 is the management team that will be leading the project. Jim Allchin—the veteran who led the Windows XP and Vista teams—is gone, and in his place is Steven Sinofsky, who previously headed up the Office 2007 project. This has raised all sorts of speculation that the Windows user interface will be getting a similar sort of "face lift" as the venerable Office suite did in its last release. Some have even gone so far as to say it would be "Ribbon-based."
Windows 7 will get a facelift, but the extent of the UI changes are not yet known at Microsoft: current Windows 7 builds, which we have seen in person, use the Vista interface. Final designs for the UI have not yet been decided, and likely will not be for several months. If someone shows you any leaked screenshots of Windows 7, you can tell them that they have almost certainly been duped by enthusiastic fakers with a copy of Photoshop. Humans are visual creatures, and for most people the user interface is the only way to know that something has changed with a new release of the operating system. Unfortunately, the UI is typically the last thing to be finalized. Those of you who have watched the development of previous versions of Windows know that even once you start seeing concept UIs, nothing is set in stone.
With Windows 7, even the boot screen hasn't been designed yet. Currently, when Windows 7 boots, it displays a stylized "7" taking up most of the screen, drawn like an artist's quick sketch with thin lines using the Windows logo colors.
Don't throw away those Win32 apps just yet
Another common prediction is that Windows 7 will do away with backwards compatibility, and instead, run all previous Win32 applications in a built-in virtual machine. This rumor is false. The theme of "throwing it all away" and starting over with something fresh and new is a common desire in computer enthusiast circles. Typically, people will reference Apple's decision to virtualize the "Classic" Mac OS when the company released OS X, and assume that Microsoft is eager to do the same.
However, this argument completely ignores the reasons why Apple went the virtualization route in the first place: "Classic" applications were written to run on an OS with no memory protection and assumed that they could address any piece of memory they wanted. Such applications could only run in a virtual sandbox on a modern OS with full memory protection, such as Mac OS X.
Microsoft has no such limitation with Win32 applications, which ran natively on Windows NT ever since its first release in 1993. The Win32 subsystem has worked well ever since. Why would Microsoft throw away years of working, tested code to run Win32 apps in a VM sandbox, with all the attendant extra RAM requirements and barriers to inter-application communication?
We believe that Microsoft will be bundling the ability to run older applications in virtual machines if desired as part of the base Windows 7 product. Microsoft has been on this track for a while now: it released an older version of Virtual PC as a free download last year, and included a stripped-down version as part of Windows Vista Ultimate and Enterprise. Building a VM into Windows 7 will be the ultimate way of handling older applications that misbehave on modern versions of Windows. It will not be required, however.
The kernel gets smaller, but don't expect MinWin miracles
Some technology journalists who read about the "MinWin" demonstration immediately thought that the Windows 7 core would magically shrink to MinWin's specs of 25MB of disk and 40MB of RAM. Unfortunately, that excitement is a little misguided: MinWin is missing the entire graphical interface of Windows, as well as 90 percent of its functionality. Much of the bulk of Windows 7 will be due to the operating system supporting extra features that are not part of MinWin. However, the point of the exercise was to show that the Windows NT kernel continues to be developed and optimized.
Still, you can expect the trend of modularizing Windows to continue with Windows 7—Windows Server 2008 can already be run without the GUI, and this feature might eventually find itself in the consumer versions of Windows as well.
The Internet was abuzz when a Microsoft employee in the Tablet PC division posted an excited message on his blog. Pulling no punches, he boasted that "if you are impressed by the "touch features" in the iPhone, you'll be blown away by what's coming in Windows 7."
Microsoft has been working on multitouch technology with its Surface technology, and parts of this technology are indeed coming to Tablet PCs and laptops—Microsoft Research's Steve Hodges demonstrated one possible way this transition could happen. Multitouch is definitely the future, and it looks like Windows 7 will be ready.
But when will Windows 7 be ready for the public? Microsoft isn't saying, but my source tells me it is farther along than most people think: most of the features have been locked down, and work is proceeding at a steady pace. Longhorn this isn't: Windows 7 is unlikely to fall into the tar pits of multiple, interlocking dependencies that plagued the Vista development team. Current estimates are for Windows 7 to appear in 2010, but it could arrive in late 2009 if all continues to go well.
Much like the great Capcom vs. SNK 2 and other compilations like Marvel vs. Capcom, and even Mugen, NeoGeo Battle Coliseum offers a fairly straightforward 2D fighting engine that is a culmination of the series' evolving battle system. The focus is on the sheer number of characters: a diverse rainbow of different styles and personalities. Coliseum is a two-on-two tag-team game featuring 40 characters from tons of NeoGeo classics, including Samurai Showdown, Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, King of Fighters, and even other random games like Metal Slug. Simply put, this is a NeoGeo fan's dream.
The combat engine is a general version of the four-button system from SNK's fighters. There are a few differences though. Attack dodging via dashing (previously rolling) consumes part of your super gouge, meaning dodge-abuse won't be possible. Tag-team attacks, which consume none of your super gauge and can only be activated if both of your characters are alive, add an interesting new dynamic to the mix. Outside of these changes, the play will be familiar to SNK fans.
In addition to the bevy of expected modes including arcade play, survival, team battles, and versus, there are some nice higher-end features including some unlockable characters, color customization, and a command edit that lets you customize your characters moves and supers.
Like most great 2D fighters, Coliseum features excellent hand-drawn art and fantastic animation. Though Guilty Gear may remain the pinnacle of the genre presentation-wise, Coliseum definitely holds up: the sprites have been polished to a sheen, and you won't find any that feel as distinctly out of place as, say, Morrigan in Capcom vs. SNK 2. Just make sure that if you're playing on the PlayStation 3, you turn off the graphics enhancement; it makes the sprites a tad muddy.
The only real downside to the title is that it suffers from some pretty long load times. I'm not sure what SNK did with the sprite-caching on the PS2—as there are numerous other 2D fighting games on the system that have nowhere near the lengthy loading that this one does, including some of SNK's own games—but you can expect to wait a good bit of time before finally getting into a match.
If you're a fan of the long and rich history of NeoGeo, in particular the fighting games bred by SNK, then you need look no further for the ultimate culmination of 20 years of 2D fighting glory. Though hardcore purists may debate some of the gameplay changes, the nostalgia runs deep in this title and the unique take on the series is a nice change of pace from the standard practice of compilation rereleasing. All that and a bargain basement price makes this a hard fighter to pass up.
Verdict: Buy Price: $19.99 System: PS2 Developer: Crave Entertainment Publisher: SNK Playmore ESRB Rating: Teen Other recent reviews:
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"We don't have to remind retailers of the strength we have right now. We are simply making an observation and that reinforces our point quite nicely with retailers."
Those words were spoken by Reggie Fils-Aime in a Reuters interview when asked if Nintendo would threaten retailers who were forcing bundles on consumers trying to buy the still hard-to-find Wii. One retailer I spoke with told me that a Nintendo shipment wasn't so much a box of systems as it was a briefcase full of money; the store was assured a good sales day as the systems flew off the shelves along with extra controllers and games.
Still, it's a safe bet—with the coveted status of the Wii and the holiday season being what it is—that some retailers will still try to force bundles or other unscrupulous things on gamers. We thought we'd give you some advice as to how handle this situation should it arise.
Stay calm. Yelling or threatening isn't going to do much in the store. The managers are overworked, underpaid, and if you don't want the system, the next person will. Take a deep breath and realize there isn't much you can do right at that moment.Ask for the manager's name, and be sure to get the store number. Ask who the next person up in the chain of command is, and ask for that person's contact information as well.Ask once more to simply buy what you want, and say if this isn't allowed, you'll be contacting corporate to lodge a complaint. This is the store's get out of jail card: they can take it and make you go away, or they can say no and you get to go home and let slip the dogs of war.Still no love? Leave. Nothing else you can do there. Carpet bomb the company with complaints. Make sure everyone, all the way up the chain of command, knows what happened. Be specific and clear in your language with what happened, who you spoke to, and at which store.Contact Nintendo. Give them all the information about the store, the manager, the area—everything you have. Let them know that retailers are forcing bundles, and that it makes you less likely to buy Nintendo products if the store continues the practice.Contact me. If we get enough complaints, we'll launch a hall of shame for retailers taking advantage of the shortage. Bad publicity is a quick way to make sure the retailer gets the message. Since no one likes being taken advantage of, I think it's unlikely that we'll be the only gaming site that runs the story.
"Retailers have already been given feedback that we are not big fans of [forced bundles]. We think it masks some of the price advantage we have versus our competition and, frankly, the consumer should decide what they want," Fils-Aime said, and we agree. Forced bundles suck, and for retail managers looking to make a quick profit off the shortage, the temptation will be there. The following steps above may take a little bit of time, but it will make sure that the retailers get the message that we won't be gouged for our consoles. If done properly and with a clear head, it should spur action against the location and the manager very quickly; no one wants to lose shipments of hardware.
The newest firmware update for Sony's PlayStation 3 was released today, and while many gamers may groan at the inclusion of voice filters for online communication, the big news is the support for the Blu-ray 1.1 spec as well as the ability to play back DivX files. For a system that Sony wants to be at the heart of your entertainment center, adding support for one of the most popular video file formats is a large step in the right direction. But we're left with one more question for both Sony and Microsoft: what took you guys so long to support DivX?
Even though Sony's plans to support of DivX files were announced some time ago, Microsoft beat the PlayStation 3 to the punch with its fall update that included support for both DivX and Xvid files. The only issue remaining is how you get those files to the 360. Microsoft only supports streaming from your computer to your system for some codecs, while other video files can be played back from a flash drive. If you want support for all the codecs possible, you'll need to use Windows Media Player 11—a bummer if you've only got a Mac or a Linux box.
You've come a long way, baby…
In some ways, Microsoft's move was a bit of a surprise; back in 2005 Microsoft's Major Nelson expressed skepticism over Microsoft ever supporting DivX. "Commercial folks are not using DivX in a commercial fashion. People are using it to 'back up' their DVDs, and I'm using backup in quotes… some of the other folks are probably using it to share files and break a lot of copyright laws," he said in a podcast. Apparently Microsoft's views on what their users are doing with DivX has changed in the past two years.
Sony has been much more upfront about wanting an open system, and the company's media-heavy approach makes DivX support a savvy move. One advantage for Sony over Microsoft is that the PS3 will actually be DivX Certified. "The recent Xbox update does not support full DivX playback; Microsoft has added support for MPEG-4, which is not the same thing as full DivX Certification," Bruce Lidl, PR manager for DivX Inc., told Ars Technica. "In practical terms, it is true that some DivX files will playback on the Xbox, because DivX is in part based on the MPEG-4 standard. But many early versions of DivX video will not play back on the console, and the device has not been tested to guarantee an acceptable level of quality and full support for DivX video at the proper resolution."
While DivX support is certainly welcome, the lack of Xvid support while streaming means that PS3 owners won't be able to stream Xvid-encoded files to their PS3. These files won't work through standard SMB network sharing either, or via Windows Media Connect. You'll need to have Windows Media Player 11 installed to be able to stream DivX files, which might not be the ideal setup for home theater enthusiasts. XviD files seem to only work when put on the PS3's hard drive, external storage, or played from a burnt disc.
…but not long enough
Both Sony and Microsoft want a piece of your living room, and creating the most attractive home theater component is one way to make sure one their products are at the center of your entertainment world. While users have been asking for the support of these common formats since the launch of both systems, the perception of Xvid and DivX as the format of choice of pirates and other undesirables, and—real or imagined—the need to appease Big Content to get movies and music onto the system, have kept Microsoft and Sony from giving in, until now.
Now that it's more important to Microsoft and Sony to expand their role in your living room, they've shown just how easily DivX support can be added. Lidl pointed out to Ars that Sony has been working with DivX on DVD Players and in-car devices "for some time." The problem is that each system has list of caveats and "gotchas" involved with streaming the content, making the process troublesome and confusing to consumers who aren't already tech-savvy. We know that most people aren't aware of the media functions of their consoles, and the less-than-user-friendly methods of getting DivX content onto the consoles most likely won't do much to turn those numbers around.
Two years too late and imperfect in execution, Microsoft and Sony are finally supporting something that should have been a launch spec. Better late than never! We can only hope this is a sign that more tech companies will pay real attention to the audio and video codecs we actually want to use.