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Save money and shop smarter this holiday season with Adam's detailed look at researching products online and finding legitimate discount retailers on the Internet. Then turn to Arthur Bleich's overview of accessories that any digital camera owner will find useful. In the news, we cover the releases of Virtual PC 5.0, Mac OS 9.2.2, QuicKeys X 1.0.2, and pass on how you can get a free copy of Power On Software's Action Menus.
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Mac OS 9.2.2 Update Released -- Apple last week updated Mac OS 9 with little fanfare or documentation. According to Apple's Web site, the Mac OS 9.2.2 Update "improves Classic application compatibility in Mac OS X and delivers support for Macintosh systems that are based on the PowerPC G3 or G4 processor." The update is available through the Software Update control panel, or can be downloaded separately from Apple's Web site as a 21 MB disk image. The update is available in North American and International English, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch versions, and requires Mac OS 9.2.1 and a Macintosh with a PowerPC G3 or G4 processor, excluding the original PowerBook G3. Initial user reports on sites like MacInTouch and MacFixIt have revolved around problems with unrecognized FireWire devices, loss of video resolutions, and Open Firmware booting. Solutions generally involve resetting the PRAM, and in the cause of Open Firmware booting problems, defragmenting so the System Folder is in the first 8 GB of the hard disk. As always, make sure you have a current backup before installing. [JLC]
Action Menus for Free -- For a limited (though unspecified) amount of time, Power On Software is giving the Macintosh community a holiday gift of their $30 menu utility Action Menus (download version only, and one copy per person). With Action Menus, you can create custom menus; populate them with files, folders, and volumes; use a variety of automatically generated menus of recent, favorite, and frequently used files, folders and servers; assign keyboard shortcuts to any menu items; and more. Action Menus works under Mac OS 8.6 through 9.2, as well as in Mac OS X's Classic mode. I've long been fond of Action Menus, and it's worthwhile for anyone using Mac OS 9 heavily. If you're primarily using Mac OS X, take a moment to fill out Power On's Mac OS X survey so they can better prioritize bringing their utilities to Mac OS X. [ACE]
Virtual PC 5.0 Ships for Mac OS 9 & Mac OS X -- Connectix Corporation last week shipped the latest version of Virtual PC, their Pentium emulation software for running Windows (and other PC operating systems) on a Macintosh. Virtual PC 5.0, which is available right away bundled with either Windows 98 or PC-DOS, runs in both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X, and takes advantage of multiprocessor Macs under Mac OS X. The software resolves the various shortcomings seen in the Test Drive version under Mac OS X and adds several new touches that we'll explore in detail in a later article. In brief, Virtual PC 5.0 has "undoable" hard disk images so you can back out of actions made after a specified point, networking between virtual machines under Mac OS X, support for Windows XP, and greatly improved handling of screen resolutions and full-screen mode. Performance is essentially the same as in the previous version of Virtual PC and between the Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X versions, though Mac OS X use doesn't feel quite as snappy.
Connectix is already selling Virtual PC 5.0 through its online store and says most merchants (including Apple Store retail locations) should have it in stock soon if they don't already. An upgrade to Virtual PC 5.0 from an earlier version costs $80 (free to users who purchased Virtual PC 4.0 since 01-Nov-01); Virtual PC with DOS costs $100; and Virtual PC with Windows 98 costs $200. Versions bundled with Windows 2000 and Windows XP Home Edition will ship in a few weeks, as will Connectix OS Packs for users who wish to add Windows operating systems to an existing Virtual PC installation. Virtual PC 5.0 requires a PowerPC G3- or G4-based Mac (running at least at 400 MHz for Mac OS X support) with Mac OS 9.1 or later or Mac OS X 10.1 or later. RAM requirements vary from 64 MB to 256 MB depending on whether you're running in Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X and with different PC operating systems; disk space requirements vary with the PC operating system from 260 MB to 2 GB. [MHA]
QuicKeys X 1.0.2 Adds Options -- In our recent review of QuicKeys X, we noted that the engineers at CE Software have had to rebuild the macro utility from scratch for Mac OS X, resulting in a significantly reduced feature list compared to the Mac OS 9 version (see "QuicKeys X: The Return of the Ghost" in TidBITS-602). The company is gradually building up its new utility, starting with the QuicKeys X 1.0.2 update released last week. The new version adds options for hiding and showing applications, increases the speed of inserting boilerplate text, improves AppleScript playback speed, and incorporates bug fixes and other enhancements. Most welcome, at least to some of us, is the addition of a Bring All Windows to Front action, which enables you to set up a workaround for the most annoying aspect of switching applications in Mac OS X. QuicKeys X 1.0.2 is a free update and a 5.7 MB download. [JLC]
by Adam C. Engst <email@example.com>
Chances are that if you're reading this, you've at some point ordered products over the Internet. For many of us, Internet retailers have become stalwart allies in our efforts to acquire the products we feel we need to live our lives as we wish. Internet shopping works particularly well with generic mass-produced items for which local retailers may not be able to compete in terms of selection, price, pre-sales information, or even customer service.
The promise of Internet shopping has always been based on solving the problems inherent in buying locally: it's faster than driving around town to multiple stores, cheaper thanks to economies of scale and the lack of expensive storefronts, and easier to learn about or compare similar items. So why do many people feel somewhat let down by Internet shopping experiences? Two reasons. First, even if shopping on the Internet is faster and easier than driving around town, that doesn't mean it's necessarily easy or fast when removed from that comparison. Researching products, finding retailers, and slogging through a purchasing process can chew up hours. Second, there's a lot of uncertainty in buying items over the Internet, both in the research phase and in the purchasing phase. Are you indeed buying the right widget for your needs based on the information you could find, and have you found a retailer that offers a good combination of price and service?
I haven't figured out how to make Internet shopping any quicker or easier, but I have worked out some ways you can reduce the uncertainty you may experience when shopping online. In fact, it's possible that by reducing uncertainty, I've made the shopping process slower and more difficult - if you just buy the first thing on your mind at the most well-known Internet retailer, you will save time and effort - though at a higher monetary cost. But for me, at least, the possibility that I could have gotten something better for less money would haunt me. This article is for those of you who, like me, dislike thinking that they could have done better.
Do Your Research -- The first step in any Internet shopping trip is to figure out exactly what you want. Sometimes that's trivial, such as when you know you want the latest Leonard Cohen CD because you've liked everything else he's done (well, I have anyway). But what if you're looking for a Palm OS handheld or a digital camera? The options multiply fast. And worse, what if you're looking for a fire truck for your kid? You can't exactly go to Toy Fire Trucks Monthly for a detailed comparison of the latest models.
It's always worth looking for professional reviews if the product type is appropriate. The more expensive the product, the more likely it is you'll be able to find a review, though it may take some searching to find the necessary publication. Do make sure the publication isn't just an advertising vehicle. Outside of publications, some fields have spawned Web sites dedicated to reviews - I've seen this nowhere more prominent than in the digital camera world, where it's possible to read incredibly detailed reviews that may present you with far more information than you wanted.
Barring a formal review, the next best things are short comments from others who have purchased the same product. Amazon and numerous other high-profile Internet retailers collect and present these informal reviews, and they're especially useful for toys and other hands-on items. Amazon even goes to the extent of letting people rate the reviews, which is good, since the quality of these reviews varies widely. Untrained reviewers tend not to think critically or put themselves in others' shoes, which leads to glowing or damning reviews when the product either works as advertised or fails to do so (or worse, when it works as advertised, but not the way the reviewer anticipated it would). Read these reviews carefully and try to get a sense if the reviewer is using the product like you plan to and if the reviewer has any sense of perspective. Many don't, and as such, I generally ignore any numeric or "star" ratings and concentrate instead on the comments by people who seem to have some insight.
There is one site, Epinions, dedicated to such reviews. I've found Epinions quite useful, especially since readers can (and do!) rate the reviewers. The two annoying things about Epinions are that they sometimes lump different models of a product together and you can read only a single review at a time. The first annoyance makes it difficult to determine exactly what product is being reviewed, and the second means that it's tedious to read more than a couple of reviews. Especially considering that usability guru Jakob Nielsen is (or at least was) on Epinions's advisory board, this design decision is a distressing lapse that would be easily solved by letting you read all reviews about a product on a single page.
Depending on what you're buying, it may also be worth visiting the manufacturer's site. Some are great, offering PDF versions of manuals or QuickTime VR panoramas of the products, whereas others merely offer the briefest of descriptions. Manufacturers' description of their own products are of course biased, but you may also find specs, comparisons to other models, and other bits of hard information.
Finally, there is one significant shortcut you may be able to take at times. If you have a friend whose judgement you trust and who has liked a product you're researching, you can short circuit the entire decision process and simply buy exactly the same model as your friend. We did that recently with a HEPA air filter we needed for Tristan's allergies - my sister's boyfriend had just shown me the one he had, saying it was the only model he'd found quiet enough to leave on all night. It just wasn't worth duplicating his effort.
Compare Prices -- The next step is to figure out from which retailer you wish to purchase the item. Sometimes that's a no-brainer, such as when the manufacturer is also the sole retailer, as might be the case with a Lands' End or L.L. Bean (but there's more to do even then, as we'll see in a minute). But when you're buying something that's available from many different retailers, it's a good idea to compare prices.
You could do this manually, but it's easier to rely on the many price comparison Web sites that have sprung up over the last few years. I've had excellent luck using a number of them. Price Watch is good for high-tech items like hard disks and RAM, our friend Glenn Fleishman's isbn.nu site is great for books, DealTime and mySimon and BizRate have worked well for standard consumer items, and my recent favorite has become NexTag. NexTag's database of products seems as extensive as the others, but what sets it apart is that it determines if you'll need to pay sales tax (based on your ZIP code) and adds in the retailers' shipping rates to provide the "true price." Since most low-price retailers hide some of their margin in shipping costs, and since sales tax can be significant on a high-ticket item, the "true price" is important. Don't get caught up in the assumption that a price comparison site's reported price is totally accurate - prices can change quickly.
I often end up searching in several price comparison sites because they don't carry pricing information from the same retailers. There isn't usually much difference in prices, but when you're looking for low prices, you need to pay attention to other factors, such as whether the products are new or refurbished, how return policies work, or if the low price is for a slightly different model or contingent on some other purchase. Many cut-rate retailers also push hard on you to buy higher-margin accessories or related products.
The major uncertainty here is worrying that you'll end up buying from a fly-by-night Web site that won't let you return a defective product and that may have a higher-than-average chance of sending you the aforementioned defective product. Luckily, the price comparison sites often rate retailers, and NexTag and DealTime even let consumers submit their own reviews. Don't worry about the star ratings, and instead read those reviews carefully, since you're more interested in the specific negative comments. There are also several rating organizations, like Gomez and the Better Business Bureau Online. I have no specific experience with them, but all other things being equal, I'd buy from a vendor with good ratings.
Do be careful when ordering from a cut-rate retailer. I recommend keeping your order entirely online and straightforward. A number of the complaints I saw revolved around customer service or strong-arm sales tactics related to telephone interaction. Go through the product selection process carefully so you know exactly what you're ordering, and pay special attention to your cart before you commit to the purchase. Once it's done, make sure to save the Web page confirming your order details (Internet Explorer's Scrapbook feature is ideal for this task, as well as for saving research results before you purchase), and when confirmation or tracking email arrives, always save those messages for reference. If there are problems, you want as much documentation as possible.
All that said, I've had good luck so far, saving 20 to 30 percent on recent purchases compared to some high-profile Internet retailers.
Look for Deals -- When you're buying from well-known retailers, the price generally isn't the lowest, but there is another way you can save money. Many online stores offer special promotions via codes that you enter during checkout. It might be free shipping or 15 percent off or $10 off if you ordered more than $50. The retailers send these promotional codes out to specific customers as a marketing ploy, but the codes quickly become known if they're not somehow tied to a specific customer.
Just as with price comparisons, entire sites have grown up to collect and publish these promotional codes and other special deals. I'm fondest of dealnews (and the associated dealmac and dealram), since they have a good interface and come from the Mac world, but I've also found useful promotional codes at DailyEDeals.com, 3rdCurrency, eDealFinder, DealofDay.com, and USAcodes.com.
You can peruse these sites or sign up to their email newsletters if you want to be alerted to sales or special deals as they come up. Or you can just wait until you're actually in the process of purchasing something at a site like Amazon or Road Runner Sports and when you get to the page that asks for your promotional code, just open a new browser window and go looking. Even a simple Google search along the lines of "Amazon promotional code" can turn up something useful.
Thinking Out of the Net -- With a few items I was looking for, I just kept striking out on finding anything interesting or affordable. This was cause for some consternation until I eventually settled on two solutions. The first was to start searching on eBay, the massive auction site. Whether or not anyone will have what you're looking for on eBay is total hit or miss, but the sheer number and variety of items on eBay, plus the representation of older items means it's not uncommon someone will be selling what you want. Or more to the point, someone will be selling something you hadn't considered but that would be ideal.
Shopping on eBay requires the same level of careful attention and evaluation as on other sites, if not more. Read item descriptions carefully, examine pictures closely, and make sure you're buying from a reputable seller. Go into the auction with a set price above which you will not bid - the real problem with auctions is that you can get caught up in the thrill of bidding to win and end up paying far more than you planned or the item was worth. Many auctions are decided right at the end, so there's little point in bidding on an item you want until the last few minutes (give yourself at least 10 or 15 minutes, but be ready to increase your bid at the wire if necessary). If you win an auction, act quickly to make contact with the seller and arrange for payment and shipping. Having a PayPal or Billpoint account makes payment significantly easier than mailing checks around - I won't even bid on an item if the seller doesn't accept PayPal. Finally, I encourage both buyers and sellers to submit feedback about one another, since reputation ratings are important within the eBay community.
Of course, eBay isn't the only option if the usual Internet shopping approaches haven't panned out. My second solution to failing to find a product on the Internet was to call around to local stores, since it's entirely possible that one will have exactly what you want. I ran into this just recently, when Tonya and I wanted to replace our nasty 12-year-old metal file cabinets with something more functional, safer, and more attractive. I spent quite a bit of time searching on the Internet for nicely designed file cabinets but found only a few that looked even moderately acceptable. The next time I was out, though, I stopped by a local furniture store that carries Amish oak furniture in Mission style, and poof, there was the file cabinet we wanted. Now, you could say that I was probably foolish to have spent any time searching for a file cabinet online, and you may be right, but sometimes even very large items such as area rugs are well-represented online. Since many products are in databases that are hidden to search engines, sometimes the best approach is to look for the type of retailer you want in Yahoo's directory, then visit a few of the top stores to see if you stand a chance of finding what you want.
Consumer Confidence -- I can't pretend to know everything about online shopping, and I'm sure there are additional sites or strategies that work well. But the approach I've outlined here - doing solid research into the desired product, then looking carefully for the best retailer from whom to purchase has worked well for me this year. It is a bit time-consuming, but for me, the confidence in knowing that I've found exactly the right item at a low price makes up for the extra effort.
by Arthur H. Bleich <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Digital cameras are selling briskly this holiday season and prices have finally descended from the stratosphere. For $300 to $500, you can get a digicam with the same resolution and features that would have cost almost twice as much just over a year ago. A plethora of Web sites review almost every new model in excruciating detail; instead of picking out specific camera models this year, as I have for the last few years in TidBITS, I've chosen to look at some nifty digicam accessories and peripherals.
Get a Better View -- If you yearn to shoot wider, tighter, or closer than your camera will let you, add-on lenses can open up a whole new visual world. Wide angle add-ons let you include more in a scene, telephotos bring distant objects up close (and are great for portraits), and close-up lenses can pick out the most minuscule of details. Most cameras have threads on or at the base of the lens to allow auxiliary lenses (or adapters) to be screwed on. Tiffen and Kodak make adapters, lenses, and sets of lenses that fit most digicams at prices from $40 to $125.
These next three small items can make a big difference. To prevent your LCD monitor image from disappearing in bright sunlight, get a $20 Hoodman LCD Hood which is easily attached with supplied velcro. To keep your lens squeaky clean, the $17 LensPen MiniPro will clean lenses with diameters between 7 mm and 13 mm, getting right to the edges and lifting the dirt off rather than just pushing it around. There's also the standard LensPen at the same price for larger lenses. Finally, why crouch when you can sit? When you need to shoot at a low angle or get on the same level with kids, save your knees and spring for a $6 featherweight, folding camping stool that can be opened in seconds and provides stable, comfortable seating at 15 inches off the ground.
Shoot Steady, Travel Light -- A tripod can make a big difference when shooting under low light - it will steady your digicam when slow shutter speeds are required for proper exposure. But it's no fun dragging around a big, heavy tripod, so many good shots are lost. The answer? A 2.5 pound lightweight Cullmann Magic 2 ($120 at B & H Photo Video) that extends to full tripod size. The legs, ball head, and quick-release mechanism fold absolutely flat to about 13.5 by 5 by 1.5 inches, so it can be carried in a small camera bag; you can even unscrew one of its legs, join it to the center column and, presto, you have a full-sized unipod.
Speaking of camera bags, Tamrac makes a reasonably priced selection from $25 to $80 that are custom-tailored for different digicam models. Most can be worn on your belt or slung over your shoulder, and many models are virtually waterproof. They have custom pockets for batteries, memory cards, and manuals; larger ones can hold a full line of add-on lenses. One even comes in two sections so if you travel, you can unzip the part that holds chargers, small storage drives and other non-photo stuff and leave it in the hotel room while you take off for a photo shoot with the other part which holds your camera and accessories.
Extra batteries or a battery pack are also a good investment. If your camera uses AA batteries, the Quest Q2 Premium Gold Charger Kit is available for about $50 and comes with four NiMH rechargeable batteries which can be rejuvenated in less than three hours. Each battery is monitored by a separate charging circuit that applies periodic trickle current to keep it in top shape. Need more power? Try one of UnityDigital's ProPower Packs that sell for as low as $69. It weighs only a few ounces, plugs into your digicam's AC input, and lets you shoot almost forever before it needs a recharge.
From Camera to Mac -- You'll soon find that the meager memory card that came with your digicam does not have nearly enough capacity to hold all the images you'll be taking. You'll need a bigger card, but fight the urge to buy the biggest. Why? Because if it gets corrupted, you could lose all your pictures. It's better to break up memory storage into smaller cards, like 64 MB or 128 MB, depending on the resolution and image compression you usually use when shooting. Delkin and Lexar make good cards with strong warranties - prices are now about $1 per megabyte or less.
Although most all digicams transfer images to your computer via a USB cable, it's frequently a pain to hook it all up. A better solution is a memory card reader that stays permanently attached to your Mac's USB port. Then, all you have to do is remove the card from the camera and slip it into the reader. The $89 Addonics Pocket DigiDrive has slots for five different sized cards: Compact Flash I and II, SmartMedia, MultiMedia/Secure Digital, and Memory Stick. Why do you need all five when digicams usually take just one type? Because your next camera (or other devices) may use a different card. With a memory card reader this flexible, you'll be loaded for bear - at least until yet another card standard comes along.
As you accumulate more images, your hard disk will begin to fill up until it begins to bulge. Time for some extra storage. About $300 will get you Iomega's Predator USB or FireWire CD Burner to store images on CDs; with the included Roxio Toast software it's really a snap. Or spend about the same for Western Digital's 60 GB External FireWire Drive which provides a near-bottomless pit for picture storage. As a bonus, you can back up your entire hard disk to it and still have gobs of room for photos.
Some digicams come bundled with decent imaging programs, while others do not. Regardless, for $100 you can get what I unabashedly feel is now the world's greatest imaging program value: Adobe Photoshop Elements. Don't just take my word for it - go to Adobe's Web site, download it, and try it absolutely free for 30 days. My guess is that after using the built-in how-to's that can transform you into an instant imaging expert, you'll wonder why it isn't selling for three times the price - or even more.
Once you get hooked on imaging, you'll want to check out the latest versions of flat panel computer monitors - sharp, bright, cool-running, and thin. One of my favorites is Samsung's 17-inch SyncMaster 170T, which is compatible with both analog and digital video signals. It's a top-of-the-line monitor whose images don't fade away like old soldiers when you view it from various angles; that's why it fetches a hefty price of about $850. If that's a bit too high for your budget, KDS has two analog models, the 15-inch Rad-5 at $400 and the 17-inch Rad-7 at $800 that display superb images; you can check 'em out (no kidding) at your local Wal-Mart store.
Although your photos are taken digitally, there are bound to be times when you want printed copies. Hundreds of ink jet papers are being made today, but sampling them could cost a fortune. That's why Red River Paper puts out various sample packs. Their Photographer's Sample Kit includes two letter-sized sheets of each of the company's 22 paper samples (44 sheets in all) and costs only $8 (and until 31-Dec-01, Red River is offering a special price of $4). Included are different weights of glossy, matte, and exotic watercolor papers to try before you buy your favorites in larger quantities. Also included are instruction sheets that give you optimal settings for all popular printers.
Expand Your Exposure -- Finally, if knowledge is power, you'll want to learn more about digital photography so your pictures can pack a visual punch. Digital Camera Magazine costs $18 for a year's subscription and runs in-depth articles, columns, how-to's, showcases on digital photographers, and more. The magazine uses Macs, so reviews of hardware and software are always Mac-friendly.
Want to take a class? Enroll in my Digiphoto 101, a ten-week, online course ($350) for beginners and intermediates. Classes usually have a cosmopolitan make-up- students come from diverse locations such as the UK, France, Guatemala, the Canadian north, New Zealand, and Saipan. Ten students are given assignments, get their work individually critiqued for all to see, and benefit from personal mentoring. If you want to mix education with relaxation, consider a week-long Photodigital Workshop at Sea <email@example.com>.
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He is feature editor of Digital Camera Magazine, contributing editor and columnist for CNET, and appears worldwide on CNN-TV as a digital photography expert. He invites you to click in to his Digital PhotoCorner.]
Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.
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