What better spokesperson could a company have than someone who has been arrested for assault and battery and been incarcerated on drug charges? Just ask the folks at Apple Computer, who are allegedly in negotiations with famous—or infamous, depending upon the point of view—rapper, 50 Cent. From Forbes by way of AllHipHop, it’s being reported that 50 Cent is exploring the possibility of cobranding a computer with Apple for sale to those living in the inner cities of America. Sounding both self-serving and altruistic simultaneously, 50 Cent explains that it’s not about him.
“I’m creating a foundation that will be around for a long time, because fame can come and go or get lost in the lifestyle and the splurging,” Fifty Cent explained to Forbes. “I never got into it for the music. I got into it for the business.”
Of course, between record sales, a clothing line, branded athletic shoes, and a video game, Curtis Jackson has taken in over US$40 million, so it’s not like he’s living the life of poverty he once did. Still, he at least has an understanding of that life, and an understanding of business, as Chris Lighty, 50 Cent’s manager, points out. “He [Jobs] is setting a new standard in the music business,” Lighty added. “Let’s just say we get each other.”
Does anyone else hear the lyrics to I’ll Whip Ya Head Boy reading that quote? And can anyone imagine Steve and Fiddy on stage at Macworld 2007 jamming to a profanity-laden remix of Ebony and Ivory in GarageBand? Is there any more to this than wishful thinking on the part of 50 Cent and his retinue?
Well, Apple Computer is now an influential player in the entertainment industry, if not a purveyor of entertainment. Depending upon the results of negotiations with the film studios, Apple may become the entertainment and electronics company that also sells computers. Free from dependency on hardware margins, Apple could dabble at the low end—for a good cause. After all, Steve Jobs did offer OS X as the operating system for MIT’s US$100 laptop. Finally, Apple does sell a U2-branded iPod, so there is that precedent of associating with popular culture.
But there are associations and there are associations.
Consider that Rush Limbaugh, a longtime Mac user with 15 million or so listeners, has publicly offered to advertise for Apple. It’s not impossible to imagine such an association creating increased sales for Apple within a certain demographic. A deal with 50 Cent might resonate with a youthful audience too, but at what price? Associating with controversial figures, be they from the political or cultural fringe, could do far more damage to the Apple brand than any short term gains in sales.
Einstein's theory of relativity has proved to be a remarkably robust scientific theory, having survived some of the most stringent tests we are able to perform. However, in those reams of test data there is one conspicuous absence: gravity waves. These tiny perturbations in the very fabric of space are fundamental to our understanding of gravity. If it turned out that they did not exist then it would show that we had some serious problems with our theory of gravity. Thus, there has been a pretty serious on-going effort to detect gravity waves using interferometers, which essentially measure tiny changes in the separation between distantly spaced mirrors. The problem with interferometers is that they are a bit like a television antenna, in that they are only really sensitive to gravity waves from particular directions and with particular orientations (called polarization).
An approach that is sensitive to all orientations and directions is to detect tiny distortions in a sphere. The basic idea is that as a gravity wave passes through the sphere, it distorts the sphere slightly and sets off vibrations as the sphere relaxes back into it's normal shape. The sphere is excited equally by waves from any direction and orientation. However, maximum sensitivity occurs for gravity waves that can cause the sphere to resonate, a condition which only a narrow band of gravity waves will fulfill. Test projects have been running for several years, aiming to improve instrumentation and demonstrate the feasibility of the detector. It appears that they have been successful and a new detector consisting of a 1 meter diameter sphere made from a copper aluminum alloy and weighing in at 33 ton. To obtain the sensitivity required to detect gravity waves, thermal vibrations must be suppressed, thus the sphere is to be cooled to 33 milliKelvin. Another source of noise is from environmental vibrations (ironically the colling equipment is a major source of vibrations), to overcome this the sphere's insulation from vibration must reach 350 dB. To give you an impression of what that means, to hear your 5 milliWatt iPod from inside the sphere you would need to amplify it to approximately 1030 watts. This isn't quite as daunting as it sounds since the maximum suppression only needs to be obtained for a fairly narrow range of frequencies.
The great thing about this project is that it is complementary to existing, interferometric gravity wave detectors. The sphere is optimized to detect higher frequency gravity waves, while the interferometers are more sensitive to low frequency gravity waves. Thus, between the two of them a greater range of possible gravity wave generating events are covered and the chances of detecting a gravity wave increases. Although detecting gravity waves is important, I am fascinated by the technology required to make the detectors. It simply boggles the mind to think of cooling a 33 ton block of metal down to 33 milliKelvin.
About two weeks ago, the Louisiana state legislature passed a law barring the sale of violent video games to minors. Governor Kathleen Blanco signed it into law late last week. Behind the legislation was anti-gaming-violence crusader Jack Thompson, who helped write the law and trumpeted its passage by saying that it addresses "all the complaints raised by federal courts which have struck down other video game laws."
That may not be the case after all. Late last week, the Entertainment Software Association and Entertainment Merchants Association sued the state of Louisiana, arguing that the law was unconstitutional. Judge James J. Brady of the US District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana today issued a temporary restraining order (PDF) barring its enforcement. A hearing on the possibility of granting a preliminary injunction will be held on June 30 (not the 27th, as stated in the order).
In a brief interview, Thompson said that he was not surprised by the judge’s action, saying that it is normal for a judge to preserive the status quo prior to the passage of the law when litigation is brought. He said that he and the state of Louisiana were "marshaling our facts and our cases." He feels strongly that the law is constitutional as written, but remarked that it is impossible to "predict what a court is going to do."
What is particularly interesting about the Louisiana legislation is that it tries to respond to previous court rulings by attempting to address First Amendment concerns raised in judicial review of other legislation. In particular, it uses the Miller test, which defines obscenity as something that by contemporary community standards appeals to the prurient interest; depicts sexual content specifically defined by state law in a patently offensive way; and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Typically, the Miller test is used for pornography or other sexual content, which is protected by the First Amendment as long as it is not considered obscene. What it hasn’t typically been used for is depictions of violence, which is what the Louisiana legislation is trying to do. Louisiana’s problem is a lack of judicial precedent. "Never before has the Supreme Court or a high appellate court said ‘we’re now going to use the same reasoning for subject matter other than sex,’" Steve Smith, a partner at Greenberg Glusker with extensive experience with gaming-related litigation, told Ars in an interview.
In crafting the video game bill, the sponsors also introduced much of what Thompson describes as the scientific evidence supporting the claim that violent video games are unequivocally harmful to minors. One problem with that is that the science on the effects of video game violence is anything but clear cut. Smith believes that is a big barrier to the law’s being ruled constitutional, as it doesn’t pass the test of strict scrutiny: providing "overwhelming evidence that video games cause a specific, predictable, foreseeable harm."
Despite the care put into crafting this law, it appears that it, too, will be headed for the ash heap of unconstitutional legislation. In the meantime, the ESA is becoming more proactive about the sale of M-rated games to minors; Game Politics.com reports that the group is announcing a new "Commitment to Parents" initiative to be unveiled tomorrow. At the forefront of the initiative is an effort to "enhance compliance with store policies regarding the sale of Mature-rated video games."
If the Louisiana law is overturned as expected, it will strengthen the video game industry’s position, especially if the courts rule that the Miller test cannot be applied to depicitions of violence in video games. In a perfect world, that would mark the end of ill-fated legislation. Unfortunately, where politics is involved and there are points to be scored with key constituencies, chances are good that we’ll be revisiting the topic again before long.
Microsoft today officially released Windows Live Messenger to the public, and they’re in a public relations frenzy at Redmond. But the real story isn’t a new IM client. Nay, the launch of Windows Live Messenger officially kicks off Microsoft’s new online branding strategy which will see a complete revamp of Microsoft’s MSN brand and a significant focus on developing new and improved online services. Twenty of them, to be exact.
Today’s IM launch marks the first time that Microsoft has tried to bring the new Windows Live brand to a wide swath of users. While the company did take the wraps off of its new Windows OneCare Live service just last month, that is a new product trying to build a new user base. With its new instant messaging client, Microsoft hopes to entice the majority of its 240 million-strong user base.
As I noted back in March, the new branding strategy is about burying the "Microsoft Network" concept that anchored MSN and replacing it with a Windows-centric brand, aka "Windows Live." The company publicly says that MSN is "alive and well" and isn’t going to be killed off anytime soon, but with almost all major MSN "services" being rebranded as "Live," the network will be a pale image of its former self. As such, the launch of Windows Live is rather important for Microsoft, which explains why the company is working the press big time with this one.
"The launch of Windows Live Messenger represents a significant ‘down payment’ on the Windows Live vision and an important milestone for the business. We’re proud and excited to release this product to consumers, who have helped shape the service during our beta process so we could deliver an experience that unifies their online communications experience across voice, video, sharing and more," said Martin Taylor, corporate VP of Windows Live and MSN at Microsoft.
Microsoft wants users to move en masse to Live Messenger, and they want the first major encounter with the new branding to be buzz filled and loaded with happy juice. Can they deliver? What can the Live Messenger launch tell us about future Live developments?
Make no mistake, the new Live Messenger is by and large the old MSN Messenger with a makeover and a handful of improvements. For many of the Live-branded services, this is essentially what we’ll see—the old mixed with the new, embraced and extended but not revolutionized. For example, Live Messenger prominently features "me too" features such as free PC-to-PC VoIP, improved file sharing capabilities, and offline messaging support (finally). The real focus is on complete Voice over IP support, however. PC-to-landline calling is now supported by a commercial tie-in with Verizon’s Web Calling service, which will connect you to anywhere in the world for a nominal per-minute charge. Currently calls throughout the US, Canada, China, Japan, and Australia are priced at 1.9¢ per minute, but pricing for other countries varies. Currently, Skype calls are free throughout the US and Canada through the end of the year.
The company is also lauding a series of web phones to be released by Uniden and Philips (and Motorola later this year) that will allow users to connect phones to their computers that could then be used throughout the home or office. Skype offers similar functionality through products like the Linksys CIT 200, although reviews to date have been mixed. Continuing the hardware push, Microsoft is also touting the service’s support for its new LifeCams, which offer higher quality video than most existing offerings for the PC.
The takeaway is simple: Windows Live Messenger is, among other things, a VoIP client that can compete with Skype. This is the direction that all of the major instant messaging clients are headed in, so in this way Live Messenger isn’t all that unique, new branding or not. But Microsoft hopes it can build the most compelling solution by integrating the Live experience throughout Windows. For example, Windows Live Contacts, which Microsoft claims already has 25 million users, will plug into both Windows Vista and Live Messenger, among other products. The company hopes that centralizing contact management will improve the end users’ experience as they shift from one Live product to another, and users will be able to share contacts easily, as well.
This strategy will come to envelop more and more applications if Microsoft has their way. The company has unveiled an API for implementing Windows Live ID authentication services within Windows applications, hoping that Windows Live ID can succeed where Passport largely failed. And you can see why: the company says that it has more than 20 Live-powered services and products in the pipeline, and it is dedicating more than 20 percent of its annual research budget to developing them.
"Windows Live is a huge growth opportunity for Microsoft. The online advertising opportunity will be a big growth driver for Microsoft in the coming years, as the market continues to expand. To ensure we are ready to take advantage of this opportunity, we plan to dedicate roughly US$1.1 billion of the company’s overall $6.2 billion research and development budget toward Windows Live and MSN in the 2007 fiscal year that starts next month. However, this doesn’t mean that Microsoft is backing away from our other core businesses. Windows Live is a distinct growth opportunity," Martin said in a Q&A.
How new will these new products be? Of the 18 Live products currently in testing, all but a few are MSN services that are being rebranded and retuned for the "Live Experience," although it is not entirely clear what that means. One thing is certain, though: if this is Passport 2.0, the climate may finally be right for the single sign-on concept. Google has been working in this direction for more than a year, tying most of its services to Google accounts that are obtained when users sign up for popular services such as Gmail. The Google master plan includes a proliferation of users with Google Accounts, which the company can then use for other commercial gains, including its mysterious payment service. Coincidentally, Google also has a single sign-in API in the works. Microsoft, Google, and even Yahoo all have the same desire: get accounts into as many hands as possible. Then, unveil payment/wallet systems and supporting portals for transactions, and then sit back and listen to the happy sound of cha-ching.
Side note: Speaking of cha-ching, Microsoft’s strategy is a bit confusing, as well. Live Messenger installs with a promo tile for RealNetwork’s Rhapsody music subscription service. The service is also prominently featured in the client, which leads me to ask the obvious question: why isn’t Microsoft promoting its new URGE co-brand now? MSN and RealNetworks became friends last year, but now that Microsoft is pushing URGE, I’m quite surprised to see Rhapsody featured in this new release.
One of the more popular Apple rumors to circulate since the introduction of the video-capable iPod has been the possibility of the company offering a movie-download service. Movie industry trade magazine Variety reports that Apple has a movie download service all primed and ready to go before the end of the year, but its insistence on a flat US$9.99 pricing scheme for all releases is holding up its debut, as it is a turnoff to the movie studios.
The one-price-fits-all model has worked very well for Apple with the iTunes Music Store, but the record labels have called for a tiered pricing scheme. For a time, it looked as though the labels might get their wish, but the latest agreement between the iTMS operator and the music industry keeps the flat 99¢-per-track rate intact.
Movies are a different animal, at least according to the studios. Variety reports that they want a tiered pricing scheme, where new releases would be priced as high as US$19.99 and older movies would be available for US$9.99.
"We can’t be put in a position where we lose the ability to price our most popular content higher than less popular stuff," said a studio exec close to the negotiations.
According to Variety’s sources, Steve Jobs has been personally involved in the negotiations and there are signs that he may decide to bend a bit on movie pricing. It would not be entirely unprecedented: since the iTMS began selling TV shows late last year, some more recent features have been priced higher than the usual US$1.99 per show price. The Battlestar Galactica miniseries goes for US$19.99 while the movie "High School Musical" from the Disney channel costs US$9.99.
In contrast to the music business, Jobs is a big player in Hollywood. Once Disney completed the acquisition of Pixar, Jobs became the largest stockholder in Disney. Despite its recent lackluster performance, Disney is still a force to be reckoned with. His position within the industry does not appear to be doing much to advance his argument for flat-priced movie downloads, if Variety is painting an accurate picture of the negotiations.
Assuming there is a movie download section coming to iTMS, there are still a number of unanswered questions. Will they be 320×240 movies like the TV shows, suitable for play primarily on iPods and standard-definition television sets? If not, is Apple planning on introducing something along the lines of the fabled touch-screen iPod with a larger screen? Perhaps the most interesting question is whether those who buy the movies be able to burn them to DVD like music downloads can be burned to CD? That is an innovation the movie studios have resisted so far, out of fears of piracy.
The bigger question is how readily consumers will pay US$19.99 for a movie that will be of much lower quality than they could easily get from Blockbuster and Netflix. The attractions of digital music are the low price, convenience, and ability to cherry pick particular songs off an album. At ten bucks a movie, the low price and convenience factors are there. Double it, and many people are likely to just head over to the video store or wait for the film to make it to the top of their Netflix queue.
Old models for content distribution are falling by the wayside. The music industry and broadcast television networks have finally grasped that reality and are reacting to changing consumer expectations around pricing, availability, and delivery. As we have pointed out, the movie industry has been slower to adapt. If Apple and the studios are able to reach common ground on pricing, the iTMS may be able to nudge the movie industry into the 21st century.
According to the latest stats from TheCounter.com, the market for web browsers has not changed much in the past few months. Internet Explorer still rules the roost with 86 percent share. Firefox seems to have leveled off at 10 percent after a slow climb, and the Macintosh platform makes its appearance with Safari registering a 2 percent share. The browser that everyone forgets about, Opera, winds up in fourth place with a single percentage point.
Opera is determined to do something about that statistic. Starting with version 8.5, the company made the formerly paid-for (or ad-supported) browser a completely free download. Now, they have just released version 9 of its venerable browser, after a two-month public beta period. Version 9 contains many new features integrated into the browser, yet still manages to be a fairly light download (6.2MB) and doesn’t seem to use any more memory than other browsers with fewer features.
Opera 9 contains many new features over its predecessor. One nifty addition is an integrated BitTorrent client, which adds torrent downloads to the standard file download transfer window. While it lacks many of the useful features of a full-blown BT client, such as being able to select individual files inside a package to download, or set a throttle on upload speeds, it is so cleanly integrated into the rest of the interface that I wound up using it for almost all my BitTorrent downloads. With more and more sites using torrents to save on bandwidth costs, this feature is a welcome addition.
The other major new feature is the addition of widgets. OS X 10.4 owners would find Opera’s Widgets feature remarkably similar to Dashboard—so similar, in fact, that since the beta the feature appears to have been scaled down somewhat. In the beta, you could hit a single key (or click on a tab at the top of the screen) and the Windows desktop would go dark (although not black) and the widgets would appear on top. In the final release, there appears to be no hotkey to activate widgets, the screen does not go dark when they are activated, and running widgets appear as sub-windows under the main Opera entry on the Windows Task Bar. This seems a less useful implementation of widgets than in the Beta version. However, just as with Dashboard, Opera widgets are easy to create and the community has already developed a whole host of neat tools. I’m already using the dictionary widget and the currency converter at work. Opera widgets will work on all supported platforms, including OS X, but they are not the same as Dashboard widgets. When the user closes the Opera program, all the widgets go with it.
Opera can also claim the title as the first browser to completely pass the Acid2 test for CSS compliance. While passing the Acid2 test is no guarantee that web sites will appear properly in any browser, it shows that Opera is serious about standards compliance. While browsing the web, I did not run across any sites that Opera refused to render properly, although undoubtedly there are some.
Opera 9 with 55 windows loaded. Memory usage is 80MB. Note the custom tab arrangement!
To celebrate the launch of Opera 9, the company is planning a major marketing campaign that is set to kick off with a big event on Thursday in Seattle, WA. Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner is expected to appear, and major technology executives as well as key members of the W3C organization have been invited. The event may combine the announcements of Opera 9 with the company’s alliance with Nintendo. Opera makes most of its money out of the embedded market (mostly mobile phones), but can Opera take a major bite out of the desktop browser market as well? That remains to be seen, but they have made at least one more convert with this reporter.
Summer is here, and baseball season is in full swing. Ah….the melodic sounds of the pipe organ, the succulent aroma of somewhat questionable meat in the hot dogs, the sweet smell of freshly mowed and brightly patterened grass, the sharp crack of the bat, and the soothing feel of the iPod clickwheel! Wait—what was that last one again? It seems that not only has the iPod become a favorite pastime for college students, but is firmly entrenching itself in America's National Pastime as well. According to well-known technology site ESPN, the Colorado Rockies have unwittingly started a new trend, bringing iPod videos into locker rooms and dugouts to study the pitches, swings, and hits of their opponents and improve their game.
"It wasn't like we invented the wheel," said Rockies assistant video coordinator Brian Jones, who came up with the idea after the video iPod was released last November. "We're using Apple's technology as best we can. We figured if you can watch music videos by rock 'n' roll and by country, why can't you watch at-bats by San Francisco and pitches by Jason Schmidt?"
Using video to analyze game play is nothing new to baseball, but where in the past it took miles of videotape and a handy television set, the iPod has put up to five seasons of at-bats into the palm of a player's hand. While it's still too early in the season to crunch the stats and see if the iPod play-by-plays are really working, teams like the Florida Marlins and Seattle Mariners are getting turned onto the idea as well. Others, like New York Mets manager Willie Randolph, have the crazy notion that things like extra batting practice would give better results than extra iPod time.
Either way, it looks like the iPod might be in the game to stay. While the Rockies are requiring the players to buy their own iPods for their—what, video practice?—the team bought several iPods for the general manager and the team scouts. The iPods came in handy for comparing prospective draft picks around the country and managers in the team's farm system have been able to use them to help up-and-coming players hone their skills.
It's probably just a matter of time until the Bill James Video Handbook 2007 comes out on iTunes and all the armchair players get in on the game.
Keynote, Apple's presentation application for the Mac, has powered Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" global warming presentation in both of its forms: the actual presentation (now given over 1,000 times by Mr. Gore), and the recent feature film documentary that is getting great reviews. For the former, it was simply a choice. For the latter, it became more of a necessity:
“When we were trying to figure out how to best film Al’s presentation,” Chilcott recalls, “we looked at a variety of options when designing multiple screens for him. Once we started investigating Keynote and its capabilities, we realized that it was best to actually film the presentation using Keynote on multiple screens.
Had we gone away from Keynote,” says Chilcott, “we would never have had the versatility that we were able to have.”
Although the majority of those involved in the film production had never used Keynote, they quickly adapted. In addition, Keynote allowed the use of HD media, and gave Al Gore as much control over his presentation as he needed without having to stick to a predetermined timing sequence or script while giving his presentation for the cameras. Last, the article states that Keynote allowed the film to be ready for market much swifter than other solutions would have allowed.
Let the reader be warned that the linked article is a piece straight from Apple and therefore might, just might, be a tad bit biased towards Keynote love. However, there's a good case made here for considering Keynote as more than just Apple's copycat response to PowerPoint.
Late last week, as we pondered Nielsen’s new plan to monitor all video content (as opposed to simply tracking what people watch on a television screen), Jason Miller over at WebProNews was engaged in a little Nielsen speculation of his own. His point is that Nielsen’s expansive new strategy could come into conflict with Google’s stated goal of organizing all the world’s information. The Big G has something TV-related in the works, but it’s not clear just what. After reading the tea leaves, Miller as an idea: Google might get into the TV-ratings biz.
“Interestingly, this can provide a whole new market for Google. The company will be able not only to extend its advertising offerings, but it suddenly will be able to foray in the media measurement market—a market that has been exclusively held by Nielsen.”
Lucrative as such “foraying” might be, is this really a possibility or just another Groomer (that’s “Google rumor” to those not in the know)? The above-linked Google job posting aside, a paper cowritten by some Google researchers makes the idea sound a little less crazy, and even illustrates how it might work. Keep in mind that Google’s approach to categorizing information is to prefer broad algorithmic solutions over approaches that require the company to, say, recruit a statistically meaningful pool of several thousand families who keep paper diaries of their TV watching or use special boxes that track their viewing.
The approach outlined in the paper is radically different from Nielsen’s current scheme. Michael Fink, Michele Covell, and Shumeet Baluja (who was last seen on Ars discussing pornography on mobile phones) have drafted a plan that calls for using the built-in microphones on people’s laptops to sample television audio and to report in on what’s currently being watched. Though it sounds a bit crazy at first, the system makes more sense when you read the paper, which pitches the idea primarily as a way of offering contextual services alongside television programs.
Here’s how it works: software on the laptop samples the ambient audio in five-second chunks, then “irreversibly compresses” it into summary statistics (this means that no one is eavesdropping on you; the actual audio never leaves your laptop). The statistics are transmitted to an audio database server that matches this unique audio fingerprint to a massive database of television programs, advertisements, and movies. Once a match is made, the database server passes this information to a social applications web server, which can then provide additional information about the show being watched or create ad-hoc chat rooms with others watching the same show (this of course would be viewed on the laptop, not the television). It’s a way of bringing automatic contextual information to a more passive medium without requiring people to buy new televisions or set-top boxes, or even to fire up a Web browser and manually enter an address (the current system).
Assuming such a system works, the possibilities would be staggering. Think about how Google Maps and Google Earth have gained popularity by allowing users to overlay contextual information on maps of the world. Imagined if the same thing were possible with television. When watching a Seinfeld rerun, for instance, you might choose to view a user-edited Wiki about that particular episode. Someone might write an app that popped small bubbles of text up on the laptop screen at various moments in the show (think user-created “Pop-Up Video”). As you surf, your laptop could provide you with a user-generated rating of every show on the dial, in real-time, potentially alerting you to excellent news shows you might never have discovered. And on and on.
What does all this have to do with Nielsen? The authors of the paper point out that, if they collect data on millions of TV viewers in real-time, Google (or whoever ran the system) would suddenly have access to a flood of ratings data.
Having real-time, fine-grain ratings is more valuable than ratings achieved by the Nielsen system. Real-time ratings can be used by viewers to “see what’s hot” while it is still ongoing (for example, by noticing an increased rating during the 2004 super bowl [sic] half-time). They can be used by advertisers and content providers to dynamically adjust what material is being shown to respond to drops in viewership. This is especially true for ads: the unit length the short and unpopular ads are easily replaced by other versions from the same campaign, in response to viewer rating levels.
Or, to put it another way, such a system would be a license to print money. Because it would open up so many possibilities for users as well as for advertisers, it should be easy to gain widespread adoption. Whether people will ultimately enjoy multitasking between their laptop and the TV screen remains an open question, though many no doubt do it now. Though such a system sounds impractical to implement, the paper’s authors have already done it and have achieved excellent success at recognizing TV shows, even with a conversation going on in close proximity to the laptop microphone.
Of course, the rise of networked devices (like home theater PCs) in the living room could make the same functionality even simpler to achieve. Rather than mess about with television audio and laptop microphones, Google could simply write software that provides the same benefits to users and just grabs the television data from the tuner card. The advantages of this approach should be obvious: Google has to do less work, the system is more accurate, people don’t need to use or own a laptop, and the contextual information can easily be overlaid on the television picture. Google is already involved in delivering video services to the Viiv platform, but HTPCs are still less common than laptops, so the audio system might be the way to go at the moment.
System recommendations are harder to do than most people think, but we’ve diligently worked to keep our guides up-to-date with the most mouth-watering hardware. Our last regular update in April saw some new hardware. This time? Read on…
But reader beware: we’re not going to just choose the cheapest or highest-quality stuff and throw it together and call it a system (as many "recommenders" are wont to do). Rather, our guides are meant to reflect real world issues. For example, we’ll tally up prices for you based on what we glean from our own online comparison shopping engine, not vendors that we have special deals with, or even worse, MSRPs. Real-world prices, baby.
And, of course, this is Ars Technica. We are not concerned with what you should be buying your 500-person company for the next mass upgrade. These are the systems that we, your fellow enthusiasts, either have, plan to have, or would love desperately to have. We know how you think, ’cause we think that way, too.
Now, when recommending products, you’ve got to take two main factors into account: available funds and performance. Some lucky bastards have unlimited funds; some have to pinch every penny. Most of us are somewhere in between. So, when you say something is the “best thing out there,” it’s important to ask, “Best for whom?” In recognition of this fact, our recommendations come in the form of three hypothetical computers.
Budget Box (June 2006)
If you’re trying to build on the cheap, we’ve got your answer: the Budget Box. This puppy is dedicated to finding the least expensive options possible while still giving you full functionality. The Budget Box may sound cheap, but it’s not. It’s simply inexpensive power, priced at under US$800. It will also be ready to handle everything Vista is able to throw at it when it ships in January 2007.
Hot Rod (June 2006)
Next, there’s the Hot Rod. This one’s been juiced up, but with limited funds. Think of the auto hobbyist. He may not buy the fastest car out there, but he does the best he can with what he’s got. Likewise, the Hot Rod is going to be based on a price/performance ratio, as we look for the best bang for the buck. It’s also going to be a system that almost anyone can build. Rather than cook up some mineral-oil soaked, refrigerator-powered machine, we’ve set out to bring power users systems that will rock without having to be tweaked to extremes. Extreme tweaking is cool, but it’s not the purpose of this recommendation.
We try to keep the Hot Rod right around US$1,600.
God Box (June 2006)
Last, but certainly not least, there’s the God Box. This is for the guy who has just won the lottery, or whose company is funding the purchase (same thing). Of course, this doesn’t imply adding stuff for the hell of it. Even on this spec, we don’t want to be wasting money. It will be, however, generally beyond the range of mere mortals.
So how do we define performance? Well, it depends on a lot of things, and can change from day to day. Benchmarks are important, but so are quality issues. Is the video crisp? Is the sound realistic? For each component, we’ll try to tell you what factors led to us choosing it. You may disagree. If so, we’d love to hear about it. Maybe you’ll even make us change our minds… Maybe. Keep an eye out to see what we put in these systems, and stop by often, ’cause they’ll be updated.
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