Cool Tech Reviews

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March 31, 2006

Tablet PCs small and large

Over at his PC Magazine blog, Michael J. Miller has a preliminary review of the Toshiba Portege M400 convertible tablet PC. Frankly, it doesn’t seem all that different from other convertible tablets except for the compact 12 inch screen size which is the main point:

I’m a big fan of both small notebooks and tablet computers. I like my laptops light, because I’m a train commuter, and carry my laptop a lot. And I like tablet computers mostly because I like reading on them (with the screen in a vertical position), and for occasionally annotating notes and documents with the pen.

Ultimately, Miller remarks that he prefers the Lenovo Thinkpad X41 12 inch convertible tablet which is even lighter at 3.7 pounds than the M400 at 4.5 pounds. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Eric Mack who teases his readers with news of an “ultra-wide screen” tablet PC that he is expecting shortly from an unnamed manufacturer:

I just got off the phone with an excited representative from a well known computer manufacturer who called to let me know that, because of my blog, I’ve been selected to evaluate one of their new ultra-wide screen Tablet PCs. She promised me that it was perfect for Tablet PC mind-mapping and that I would be very happy with the display resolution and size.

Since Mack also says he’d “be happy with a 2.5″ thick Tablet the size of a Tecra M4 with a fold-out screen twice the size of an M4″ which is 14.1 inches, it’s clear he’s not worried about portability.

I can see the merits of both points of view, but the real problem is that the amount of time I really want a tablet PC of either size is vanishingly small. Battery life inhibits true portability and I am not comfortable enough with tablet technology to have some monster version parked permanently on my desk taking up space. I’m hopeful though, that one of these days there will be a tablet that convinces me.

Posted at 10:55 am. Filed under Brands, Companies, Lenovo, Notebook, Tablet PC, ThinkPad, Toshiba

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March 30, 2006

A hidden downside to using Skype

Bruno Giussani has an interesting post at his blog, that also appeared in Wall Street Journal Europe, which reveals a little known downside to using Skype for VoIP telephone service. It turns out that Skype is actually a peer-to-peer application and under certain circumstances, your PC may get turned into a “supernode” spewing a ton of Internet traffic on behalf of Skype.

Consider this text from CERN’s Web site: “Skype [peer-to-peer] telephony software is not permitted on CERN’s computing or network facilities. It violates CERN’s Computing Rules by bypassing firewall protections and offering services to others.”

The issues are a bit complex. Let’s try to break them down.

First, the “supernode” question. “Skype can turn user computers into ‘supernodes’ which route traffic through CERN,” François Grey of CERN’s IT communications team explained in an email exchange: “We have encountered some operational problems as a result.” That’s because Skype’s design is based on peer-to-peer, distributed networking principles. This means that the core functions of the system are decentralized, as is the database of Skype users (the tool that lets you look up other Sykpers and tells the system where to forward a call). The calls are set up and passed on among users, flowing through a chain of computers around the world without traversing any central infrastructure.

That’s good for robustness and scalability — and for Skype, which can avoid massive investments and add new users at near-zero marginal cost. For the system to work, however, some users have to take over its vital functions: routing traffic and holding portions of the database. In Skypeville, these tasks are farmed out to those users with the most powerful computers and the biggest bandwidth, such as CERN. Skype turns them into supernodes.

Only a fraction of users are elevated to this function–currently some 20,000, according to research presented at a recent conference in the Netherlands by Philippe Biondi and Fabrice Desclaux of EADS. And only a small portion of their bandwidth is supposed to be shared. Skype CEO Niklas Zennström explained it to me in an interview last year: “When you become a supernode you share some of your resources and a little bit of bandwidth, but very little; you won’t notice.”

That’s the idea at least, but it doesn’t always work out that way:

But some do notice. San Diego-based venture capitalist and TV host Paul Kedrosky, for example, complained on his blog in January that while he was traveling his computer “was sending out enormous amounts of traffic.” The IT people at his firm discovered that the machine was routing Skype traffic as a supernode. Computerworld magazine found that “in supernode mode, Skype is reputedly able to saturate 100 Mbit/second connections.” In layman’s terms, those are fast connections. The average Skype user’s PC is much less taxed than this, obviously. The possibility of becoming a supernode is written into Skype’s end-user license agreement, but not explicitly: The word “supernode” is never used. The license speaks of “permission to utilize the processor and bandwidth of your computer for the limited purpose of facilitating the communication between Skype Software users.”

The criteria for a subscriber PC to be chosen for use as a “supernode” aren’t really clear although the Computerworld article linked above suggests that if your machine has a high speed Internet connection and a routeable IP address (e. g. not behind the average home router with Network Address Translation (NAT)), you are a good candidate.

There’s much more by following the link including worries about security and legal regulations that might require Skype users to store any traffic routed through their machines. Nicholas Carr notes how using customer machines to provide infrastructure seems to be critical to Skype’s business model and that there it is no such thing as a free ride. I’m wondering about the multitudes of other VoIP services and how many of them are really P2P applications too?

Posted at 10:53 am. Filed under Companies, Internet, P2P, Skype, VoIP

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March 22, 2006

Dell acquires Alienware

Tom Krazit at CNET:

Dell has agreed to purchase gaming PC maker Alienware, in a rare acquisition designed to improve Alienware’s supply chain and boost Dell’s standing among PC enthusiasts.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. Alienware will operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of the world’s largest PC maker, said Nelson Gonzalez, chief executive officer of Alienware. Gonzalez will now report to Jim Schneider, Dell’s chief financial officer, but the company will operate separately from Dell, he said.

A Dell representative confirmed the deal, but said the company was deferring comment until later on Wednesday.

There are more details in the article, but it appears the calim is that Alienware will operate semi-autonomously. While not as bad a match as the HP acquisition of Compaq, there still was some adverse comment about overlap:

“I still think it’s a bad idea, and a bad fit,” said Stephen Baker, an analyst with NPD Techworld. Alienware’s customers buy from that company in part because of its image as a technology-driven company that understands the needs of gamers, while Dell is viewed by those customers as a stodgy corporate supplier.

The deal also could mean that Dell has to rethink its consumer PC strategy, said Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates. The company has sunk a lot of effort into building its XPS lineup of high-end desktops and notebooks for gamers and multimedia enthusiasts. Now, it looks like those systems compete with Alienware in certain areas, he said.

Alienware sells very powerful and very expensive PCs to the top tier of the gaming market. Dell, on the other hand, has a stronger identity with casual gamers who want a good PC but don’t want to pay Alienware prices. Both companies have recently tried to appeal to gamers that fall in between those two groups, with Alienware reaching down and Dell reaching up, Kay said. It’s unclear how those strategies will continue.

Not unexpectedly, some Alienware fans are already expressing their displeasure. Ed Bott says, “So long, Alienware, it was nice to know you”:

Pretty soon Dell customers will be able to spend $10,000 for a PC.

It will be interesting to see how those first buyers react when they have a problem with that Dell PC and get shunted into the world’s worst technical support system.

In the six months or so since I last wrote about Dell, their service has become worse. I’ve now been waiting 24 days for Dell to repair a defective motherboard on a notebook computer that’s still under warranty. The sheer incompetence of their support organization is breathtaking.

If you’re thinking of buying a Dell – or an Alienware – think again. There are plenty of well-run companies you can give your business to.

Finally, John Pain from the AP has a nice background story on the people who built Alienware.

Posted at 6:39 pm. Filed under Alienware, Companies, Dell, HP

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