02 December 2007

#48. Shopping Part 1: Get Expert Advice

The holiday shopping season is upon us, and of course the Tool Bar & Grill is in on the action. In a multipart series starting today, I’ll help you kick off the festivities by pointing out the best Web sites for finding the ideal goods and rock-bottom prices for all your gift-giving needs.

Before you hit the cybermall, though, you need to know what to buy. Today I’ll show you some product review and opinion sites that will help you narrow down your shopping list to the very best of whatever you’re looking for. And in our Linux corner, alternative OS guru Mark Lautman offers his advice on running Linux on a Windows machine and vice versa.

Now let the shopping begin!

Ask the Experts

Let’s say you’ve decided to buy digital binoculars for Uncle Mervyn, a digital picture frame for Aunt Lily, a big-screen TV for your beloved, and oh yeah, an MP3 player for your spouse. What’s the best make and model to buy?

You can consult specialist Web sites for specific types of items. For example, for Uncle Mervyn’s binoculars, digital cameras, and the like, you might head straight to the expert reviews at Digital Photography Review or Photography Review, among others. For computers and peripherals as well as cameras, MP3s, and other consumer electronics, you’ll find a wealth of buying guides and reviews at such sites as CNet, PC World, and PC Magazine.

Other sites offer reviews and advice across a broader spectrum of products. Among the best known and most respected for North American-sold goods is Consumer Reports. UK and Continental shoppers can find similar information for European-sold brands at Which?, though usually with less depth of detail. Both these authoritative services restrict their sites to paid subscribers. You can also find professional reviews at Consumer Guide, a free rival to Consumer Reports now owned by HowStuffWorks.com.

Get the Pros’ Consensus

You often can save a lot of time and clicks by consulting a Web site that collates expert advice and reviews from other sources. My favorite starting point for product research is ConsumerSearch, which summarizes expert reviews from a wide variety of specialist publications. ConsumerSearch covers a diverse range of products including computers, software, cameras, kitchen and home appliances, lawn and garden tools, health and fitness aids, office equipment, cars and automotive accessories, and more.

ConsumerSearch (recently acquired by About.com) is category-oriented: It lines up all the reviewed products in one article for easy comparison among brands and models. You’ll see a high-level summary, a review consensus table, excerpts from reviews (with links to the sources), and the editors’ own commentary. ConsumerSearch also ranks its review sources by “credibility ratings” it assigns.

Sometimes the amount of material can be almost overwhelming, and the interface is a bit clunky – but I find ConsumerSearch usually tells me all I need to know, or at least is a great jumping-off point for deeper research.

Another good review aggregator is SmartRatings, which focuses on computers, consumer electronics, and photography. SmartRatings is product-oriented: In each product category, it shows the reviewed products, ranked by their prominently displayed average expert ratings. You click on each product to see a more detailed description (provided by the manufacturer) and all the expert reviewers’ scores, with links to the full reviews. Each expert is ranked by the number of reviews it has published in this product category.

SmartRatings also provides technical specifications and user comments for each product. The interface is clear and appealing. However, I find this architecture requires more clicking around than ConsumerSearch, which summarizes the reviews for you in one place. And SmartRatings offers few criteria for narrowing down a product search; for example, it lumped all digital cameras, from SLRs to simple compacts, in one listing. ConsumerSearch breaks them down into four subcategories by form factor. Retrevo (see next paragraph) offered three categories by price and features.

An attractive new entrant among review aggregators is Retrevo, which also is product-oriented. Here you also can search for a specific item or start with a product category and narrow down the selection according to the desired features, similar to price-comparison sites. You can click through to brief synopses of expert reviews of the selected item in a new window, but also like SmartRatings, you have to click again to see the full reviews. Retrevo seems to present fewer reviews than SmartRatings or ConsumerSearch.

Retrevo features thumbs-up or thumbs-down icons to represent each product’s value and community opinions on it (rather than a single numerical score like SmartRatings), and a “value map” that positions the selected product on a graph according to its price and features. Retrevo does not provide product specifications, but it does offer access to user manuals for most products. This means you have to hunt for the specifications yourself. Like SmartRatings, a lot of clicking is required.

Of course, all the review sites offer price comparisons and links to on-line merchants. But here’s a disturbing fact I cannot account for: In my (admittedly limited) testing, I found surprisingly little overlap in the top-rated items (especially LCD monitors) among these three sites.

I’ll just mention Lootist so you won’t write in to accuse me of overlooking it. Lootist is a strange bird in this flock or review aggregators. It covers many categories, but they appear to be somewhat random, because the products covered are whatever the member “specialists” decide to write in about. Other members rate the specialists to help you decide whether their advice is worth taking. However, Lootist’s coverage is limited, and I’ll take the word of a published professional review over a self-proclaimed “specialist” every day of the week.

And Now for Something Completely Different: Linux

by Mark Lautman

“Captain, I found Vortchek and his team. Their helicopter was downed in northwestern Afghanistan, near the Iranian border. Satellite feeds indicate they're being transported to the Evin prison.”

“Who do we have in the area that can rescue them?” replied a tense Captain Donahue.

“Agent Jock Adams, sir. He's the best.”

“OK, put him through.”

Adams here,” announced the superhero.

Adams, I have a downed helicopter and a platoon of my best Special Ops taken prisoner. They have 30 minutes before disappearing into the Iranian gulag. Can you free them?”

Jock Adams cracked a confident smile that was audible over the radio. “I'll get them out, captain. I have two cigars, a machine gun, a bottle of whiskey, and VMWare on CD-ROM.”

Yes, indeed, if you ever feel a need to break out into another operating system like Linux or Solaris, you can do like Jock Adams and use a virtual machine (VM). It is by far the best way to run a guest operating system on top of a host operating system. If you use Windows and you want to try Linux as a guest, take a copy of the VMWare server, then install the operating system, and off you go:

The best thing about virtual machines is that the entire guest operating system is actually a single file on your host machine. If you don't like the guest, you simply delete the file, and the entire experiment remains your little secret.

Other emulators are available. In the past I've tried QEMU with limited success, although that project has been under active development and may have improved. I was astonished to read the list of emulators at Wikipedia; it seems like there is an emulator for every possible type of host and guest combination.

The big problem with virtual machines is that they are really different machines, even though they look like they live inside your computer. If you want to share files between your host and guest machines, you need a network connection. There is also a slight performance hit when you run a guest machine from a host machine.

This brings us to the last method for crossing over between Windows and Linux: emulators. For Linux, the most popular emulator is Wine. One of Wine's objectives is to allow Linux users to run their favorite Windows programs natively. Listen, virtual network connections are bizarre, virtual machines are spooky, but running Windows programs under Linux is a complete mind-blower. Here's an example of running Windows' notepad on Ubuntu:

Another popular emulator is CrossOver, also available for the Mac.

This completes our survey of utilities available for escaping from one operating system to another. Once you choose your favorite approach--emulators, virtual machines, or virtual network connections--you'll be able to find the matching tool. —Mark Lautman

Thanks for visiting the Tool Bar & Grill again today. Come back next week for more timely tips on holiday shopping on line and more great Linux utilities. Please feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

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