Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Despite my rants about big business and consumerism in the wake of our national tragedy, I have been hard at work bucking up our economy by making several purchases disguised as Christmas gifts for myself (actually, let's call them Christmas gifts from my wife, since I'm billing them to the family plastic). We've been frugal most of the year, so we thought it a good time to splurge a bit. In case you're considering any of these goodies, I thought you might like a report.

First, there's my favorite toy, the Canon S110 digital camera. In short, this sucker is amazing. It's tiny, takes incredible pictures and offers plenty of controls as well as solid automatic function. As a bonus, it even takes short movies with sound (perfect for a quickie flick to send the folks via email). The accompanying software is equally intuitive and cool. My favorite program is called Photo Stitch, which allows you to take many shots of a wide object or landscape and then stitch them together seamlessly in your computer. No shit, it really works. The output can can be a panoramic image or a Quicktime VR.

Downsides? The camera offers only 2.1 megapixels of resolution, which is good but not great. It makes excellent 5x7s or smaller prints and okay 8x10s. There is no manual focus, so shots taken in low light can be tricky. The zoom is a meager 2x and it comes with an 8 meg CompactFlash memory card, which is useless. An extra 64 meg card is mandatory and costs about $30 - $50. On the plus side, this works great and is beautifully designed. I'll use it a lot.

Next up, the Canon S630 Color photo printer. Since I got the digital camera, I had to get a new printer (my rock solid HP laser is black & white only). The half-dozen prints I'm made with this have been outstanding. I've always thought low-end color printers were a joke, but this has changed my mind completely. On glossy photo paper, the output of S630 looks like a photo lab print. Installation and set-up on my Mac was quick and stress-free. Though printing is quiet, the act of pulling in a paper sheet into the printer is loud. Also, Canon skimps and doesn't include a USB cable. Be sure to order one online with the printer or grab it cheaply at Costco, unless you want to get reamed for $25 at CompUSA.

And finally, after six months of shopping, I bought a Sony 53" big screen TV. I'm not yet knocked out. It's big and bright and DVDs look great and I'm glad I went with a 4x3 ratio screen instead of a 16x9. But the problem is the quality of the signal from my cable - it doesn't look great, particularly on the digital cables channels (FYI - digital channels are compressed to 1/4 the size of analog channels). The simple fact of big screen TVs is that they blow up whatever they're given. So the stuff that looked marginal on the 27" tube set can now look grainy and nearly unbearable. It doesn't help that the settop box required for digital cable appears to degrade the signal somewhat (avoid using it if possible).

Hope awaits in the form of a manual service adjustment on the set and the arrival of a High-Definition set top box from Time Warner Cable. Although the Hi-Def box offers only 6 channels in true hi-def format, it also provide YPB compsite outputs, which should improve the picture all around. Amazingly, TW provides expensive hi-def boxes free of charge, but you have to request them and prove that you have a high def-ready TV.

Installation of the high-def box is set for January 9. I probably won't ever need to leave the house again after that.

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