30 December 2007

#51. A Giant Step Backward for Computer Art, and Comodo Revisited

So I’m sitting behind the counter in my Tool Bar & Grill a couple of weeks ago, nursing a Diet Coke and my disappointment with the new Commodo firewall (see post #47). Then the mail arrives, and my eyes are pulled to the one from Comodo. Here’s a new version, and it fixes the bugs, Comodo said. Try it, you’ll like it, they said.

But first, special guest blogger Mark Lautman takes digital art boldly back to the 1960s.

Art for the 8-Bit Crowd

by Mark Lautman

It's the waste that gets to me. The unthinking, selfish, indiscriminate use of resources that humanity exhibits in the pursuit of its own self-glorification. You see it everywhere: the large cars, the private swimming pools, the mansions. Who needs a Hummer when a Hyundai will do the same job at one-tenth the price?

You get the same thing in fine art. Below is a painting I drew of a woman with a killer smile on her face. Compare it with that over-rated da Vinci rendition. Can you really see any real difference between the two?

This brings me to the point of this week's column. For quite some time telecom companies have been investing billions in fiber-optic cabling so people can shove their “media” around the Internet. Is it really necessary? Instead of high-resolution graphics, we can move our visual images across the Web using low-bandwidth ASCII art. To this end, there are plenty of Web sites and utilities that make this possible.

One fabulous page that converts text into ASCII art is ASCII Generator. You type in a short text, select a font, and you get a very impressive rendition:

Another Web-based option is to convert a picture into ASCII art. Glass Giant offers this very impressive service, as does Photo2Text. Here is what Photo2Text did with the Mona Lisa:

If you're artistically inclined, you can use the fabulous utility Java ASCII Versatile Editor (JAVE), a drawing program for creating ASCII art. It includes everything a standard drawing program has, such as lines, fills, arcs, text, and even a variety of “patterns” you can use that are built from ASCII characters. Below are the first few strokes of my own Mona Lisa:

Go ahead. Renounce the world of 256-gazillion bit graphics, and join the ASCII commune closest to your place of residence. —Mark Lautman

Ah yes, ASCII art invokes my less-than-fond memories of undergraduate evenings in the computer room, back in the punch-card days. If the sites Mark cites don’t work for you, others that turn art into plain characters include Make ASCII and PageCurve. And if you want this so-last-century capability on your own computer, download the open-source ASCII Generator dotNet.

Exit the Dragon

I’ve been recommending the Comodo firewall (version 2) for a long time, and it always excels in independent tests. So I eagerly awaited Comodo Firewall Pro version 3, with its HIPS features and Vista compatibility, which was released in late November. So eagerly, in fact, that I discovered and announced its availability even before Comodo did (see my PC World blog).

Alas, my first installation didn’t go well, as described in post #47. So when the mail brought news of the bug-fix version two weeks later, I hastened to try it out. It installed just fine and seemed to work, with its new and improved interface and, better yet, without the problem I previously encountered. That is, until it hit fatal errors and crashed several times, each time leaving my computer defenseless until I noticed the problem and restarted.

The Comodo firewall also is slow to load, so after a reboot, my computer was on line well before it was protected. And I felt my computer ran sluggishly with Comodo, though I didn’t benchmark it with a stopwatch.

Comodo claims to recognize most applications, which should reduce its need to ask annoying questions about every program action. However, I found myself constantly clicking on pop-up questions, even for common programs that I expect the firewall to know about, and it didn’t recognize updates from Microsoft after Patch Tuesday.

Heaving a sigh of disappointment, I disabled Comodo again. I have seen the new Comodo highly recommended by some usually authoritative bloggers, so perhaps I am the only one having problems with it. But I have returned to the free ZoneAlarm 7 firewall (I’ve got it bundled with ZoneAlarm Anti-Spyware), which has been performing unobtrusively and apparently reliably, and that’s what I now recommend.

We always appreciate your patronage at the Tool Bar & Grill, and we hope you’ll come back for more great utility reviews every week. Don’t forget to tell all your friends about us, too! Please feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

16 December 2007

#50. Shopping 3: How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?

It’s holiday shopping crunch time. If you have not finalized your gift choices yet, today’s Tool Bar & Grill special can help you get it done quickly – and save you some money too. Don’t forget to show your appreciation for these valuable shopping tips by leaving a tip for your devoted Tool Bar & Grill staff!

Price Comparison Proliferation

Price comparison Web sites help you find the right product at the lowest price. They don’t sell the goods, but rather provide links to the actual merchants. I could not believe the great number of price comparison Web sites I found when I went looking. Perhaps this time I really bit off more than I could chew (not uncommon, actually, considering the generous helpings in the Tool Bar & Grill).

Like last week, I tested the sites by shopping for a popular compact digital camera. I also double-checked my impressions by searching for a men’s electric shaver. I compared about 20 sites on their user-friendliness, ease of finding products, amount of product information, merchant coverage, product range (e.g., clothing, household goods, music, books, personal care items, etc. as well as electronic gear), and lowest price found. My methods are not very scientific, but do approximate what you would do when you go price-shopping.

All the recommended comparison sites enable you to select a product by drilling down through a sequence of filters (price, manufacturer, and other salient features relevant to the product type), as well as searching by name. For exact comparisons, they all can show the total price including sales tax and shipping, after you enter a US zip code. (However, at this point you’ll probably want to investigate expedited shipping for holiday delivery.) Nearly all let you sort the price results, generally by rating (customer or merchant), price, or popularity.

The recommended sites all provide some sort of merchant rating, generally based on customer feedback. Many sites also provide customer ratings of products, and some give excerpts from or links to professional reviews (I surveyed the best specialized review and opinion sites in last week’s post). The better sites also enable you to select a number of products for a side-by-side comparison of their features.

Interesting side note: A number of the tested sites showed separate listings for available body colors of the camera I sought. I assume this results from the merchants’ maintaining separate listings by color. Stranger still, however, is that the prices for different body colors often differed, though there is no other difference between the cameras.

8 Best Price Comparison Sites

Here, then, is my somewhat unscientific list of the eight best pricing sites and their outstanding features. I ranked them in ascending order according to the lowest price found for my camera. The sites I like best are marked *Pick*.

NexTag: Broad product range; graphs historical price trend for the product; price alerts (notification if price drops); customer ratings; only basic product specs; generally decent filters, but failed to find my camera; side-by-side comparisons for some items and not others; wide merchant coverage. Low price for my camera: $174.

PriceScan: Broad product range; graphs historical price trend; price alerts; user ratings (relatively few); no product specs; ineffective filter (did not find my camera); gives many identical results; unfriendly interface; good merchant coverage. Low price for my camera: $175.

Smarter: Buying guides; expert and user (relatively few) ratings; less detailed specs; effective filter; side-by-side comparisons; decent merchant range; “Smarter Choice” is not the lowest price, and cheaper merchant had the same customer rating (but from a much smaller sample). Low price for my camera: $179.

Yahoo! Shopping: *Pick* Broad product range; provides buying guides and notes the top-ranked items and individual item rankings from Consumer Reports; price alerts; capsule user and expert reviews; detailed product specifications; good product selection filters; side-by-side product comparisons; wide merchant coverage. Low price for my camera: $183.

PriceRunner: Broad product range; buying guides; expert and user (relatively few) ratings; not very effective filter for camera (did not find my camera), and no filter for shaver; side-by-side comparisons; moderate merchant coverage; side-by-side comparisons for cameras, but not for shavers; good merchant coverage. Low price for my camera: $189.

Shopping: *Pick* The pioneer among price comparison sites. Broad product range; Epinions user ratings; detailed specs; thorough, relevant filters, but criteria a bit disorganized; side by side comparisons; decent merchant coverage; suggests “Smart Buy” (lowest price from a trusted store), but the other listings had same price and same merchant rating. Low price for my camera: $195.

MySimon: *Pick* Broad product range; provides Consumer Reports buying guides for a number of products; ratings from CNet editors; detailed product specs; good product-relevant filters; side-by-side comparisons; relatively few merchant results. Low price for my camera: $195.

PriceGrabber: Broad product range; user and expert reviews; detailed specs; good filters, with many product-specific criteria; side-by-side comparisons; wide merchant coverage. Low price for my camera: $195.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping

RoboShopper offers a primitive form of metasearch – it searches multiple price comparison engines for you (including many of those listed here) in one sweep. This saves you having to open multiple browser pages and enter your search term on each one. However, I can’t bring myself to recommend RoboShopper. You must know the exact name of the product you want, because RoboShopper has no selection filters or buying guides. RoboShopper doesn’t collate or rank its search results; instead you have to click a button to visit each separate page from each of the sites it visited. And its interface is cluttered and downright ugly.

Before you write in to complain that your favorite shopping site is not on my list, please note that I also evaluated all these price comparison sites and ranked them lower for various reasons: Become, Bizrate, Bountii, Compare, Dealio, Google Product Search (formerly Froogle), Mpire, MSN Shopping, Pricewatch, Pronto, Shopzilla, and TheFind.

Finally, ShoppingCzar is a one-page listing of many kinds of shopping Web sites. The lists are not comprehensive, but there are more shopping links here than I ever have found anywhere else. The editor even indicates his favorites.

[Note: This survey does not include specialized price comparison sites that cover a narrow product range; so-called deal aggregator Web sites that recommend “hot bargains” from unrelated merchants’ sites; coupon and rebate sites that collect discount codes and money-back offers; while-you-shop price comparisons on items you are looking at on a merchant site; or mobile phone price comparison services. However, I might review some of these in future columns.]

Update On Review Sites

Last week I showed you a number of Web sites that specialize in product reviews and ratings by experts and by ordinary users. This week, I turned up another: Summize summarizes user and blog reviews of specified products, music, movies, and more, and shows overall sentiment. This site is a worthy addition to your research library. (Most price comparison sites, including those reviewed here today, also provide user and/or professional ratings and reviews, but usually in capsule format.)

As I did last week, I apologize again for the North American-centricity of today’s post. That’s where most of the action is, especially when English is the language. However, some of the shopping sites also have branch operations in other countries and other languages. And many of the major US merchants do handle foreign orders, though you have to check the shipping and customs rules individually.

< knowledge="power" money="friends">

Special guest contributor Mark Lautman is back with some valuable tips for technical writers and others who want the benefits of authoring in XML.

The biggest problem with user documentation is that nobody reads it. I did the user guide for one of Altec-Lansing's most popular speaker sets, and do you think anyone took a look at it? Hardly.

The second biggest problem is how to put documentation into the appropriate format. Nowadays people like to receive documentation as a PDF, a Word file, HTML, or OpenOffice. I've been in my own share of projects that involve double maintenance of the same content in different formats. It's no fun. Neither is working.

The Powers That Be at the World Wide Web consortium did a lot of work in making XML (eXtended Markup Language) the platform of choice for delivering content in a variety of formats. I was part of a recent single-sourcing project, and was able to evaluate the following utilities.

Have you ever looked at some XML or HTML files that are one line long but 20,000 characters wide? That may be OK for a browser, but for humans to look at, it's bewildering. HTML Tidy (Win/Linux/Mac) is a utility that takes any XML or HTML file and puts one element on each line, neatly indenting every level. Another utility is xmllint (Linux). Both these utilities will also make sure your elements are properly opened and closed.

An XML editor helps you navigate through a document tree that is deep and long. I tried several of these editors, and what they have in common is that they don't work on Linux, in spite of their claims to the contrary. Aside from that, I enjoyed using the Exchanger XML editor. It provides a variety of ways to traverse, view, and validate an XML file. It will even try to generate a schema from your existing XML file.

Another tool you need is a rendering engine. A popular one is the XSL-FO engine sponsored by the Apache Foundation. This engine is great for simple formatting. For more feature-rich deliverables, similar to the PDFs generated by FrameMaker, you need a more powerful engine available from RenderX or Antenna House.

The last tool you need is an XSL debugger. Again, XML Exchanger provides a fabulous tool for observing the flow of an XSL transformation. Each step in the style sheet is accompanied by jumps in the XML source, so you can easily detect opportunities for fixing bugs.

Once you have all the tools, you need a specification for the format to which you're transforming the XML. For PDF, things are straightforward: the Apache XSL-FO, RenderX, and Antenna House engines provide solid PDFs, so you don't have to worry about learning specifications.

If you want to output a Word document (yes, you can make native Word documents without Word itself), you need the WordprocessingML specification. The top-level elements are supplied by Microsoft; you'll have to dig further into the Microsoft site to get details for a particular element. The classic HTML specification is available from the World Wide Web Consortium, the prevalent RTF specification is available from Microsoft, and the OpenOffice specification is available from OASIS.

In conclusion, XML is a great way to compose content and deliver it in a variety of popular formats. There also are many tools available for making that job easier. —Mark Lautman

Note: Thank you for your attention through this extra-long, extra-informative edition. Your dedicated chef needs a rest, so there will be no new Tool Bar & Grill post next week. Be sure to come back for more great utility and Web site reviews on December 30 and every week thereafter – and bring everyone you know!

Please feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

09 December 2007

#49. Shopping Part 2: The Wisdom of the Masses

Good morning, holiday shoppers, and welcome back to the Tool Bar & Grill for the second installment of our on-line buying guide. Last week we looked at some Web sites that collate professional reviews of consumer goods. But your research need not stop there. Many Web sites also give you the lowdown on actual customers’ experiences with the products you’re thinking of buying, on the assumption that the mass of users must be right.

Your Neighbors Weigh In

Perhaps your peers know best, but I still advise taking their opinions with a grain or two of salt.

Anyone can write a review, and no one vets their qualifications in advance. This might mean that only disgruntled customers with an axe to grind will take the time and trouble to submit reviews; satisfied (gruntled?) users might not be as motivated to send in their happy thoughts. However, the better sites provide at least a rough way to evaluate reviewers’ reliability. And you can get a good sense of a product’s quality if it has been reviewed many times and the reviews are close to unanimous, whether positive or negative.

In this column, I’ll survey my favorite well-known user review services. These sites all are product-oriented, meaning you get all the reviews of a particular product. If you have not narrowed down your search to a few competing products, these sites won’t be much help.

User Review Sites

Number one shopping mall Amazon pioneered user reviews, and appears to have the largest numbers of them. More reviews means a broader, and therefore more reliable, sampling of opinions. When I searched for a particular compact camera, Amazon turned up 46 user reviews.

Each product entry starts by showing the product’s average overall rating on a 1–5 star scale, alongside bars illustrating the number of reviews at each step of the scale. The individual reviews lead off with the single favorable and critical reviews ranked most helpful by other readers. The rest of the reviews can be sorted by “most helpful first” or “newest first.”

There are no ratings for separate product traits, so you have to read each review (which can be quite long) to discover the good and bad points of the product.

Amazon customers rank reviewers according to their reviews’ helpfulness. This doesn’t tell you much about their qualifications for reviewing the product in question, though. You can view the list of top reviewers, and read their other reviews.

Epinions is another established site, and specializes in user reviews. It carried 10 reviews of my camera.

Epinions shows a summary 1–5-star overall average product ranking similar to Amazon, but also separate rankings in five product-relevant characteristics. The full text review starts with summary pros and cons and a “bottom line” recommendation. You can sort the reviews by date or product rating.

You can view basic information about an Epinions reviewer, including the number of reviews written and length of membership. Epinions touts its “Web of Trust,” which shows how many members have chosen to trust the reviewer, and how many others the reviewer trusts. However, my clicking around the site revealed few reviewers with any trust rankings at all, and even fewer trusted by more than one member.

PriceGrabber, a price comparison site, shows the average scores of user reviews and expert reviews at the top of the User Reviews page. Each review carries a 1–5-star overall rating, a concise summary of the product’s strengths and weaknesses, and a brief text explanation. Other customers rank the reviews by usefulness (though this might not reflect the reviewers’ credentials). You can sort the reviews by their usefulness rankings, product ratings, or date.

PriceGrabber has three listings for my sample camera, one for each body color. Strangely, user reviews are shown with the separate listings for each body color; there were 10 in all (four for the silver camera and three each for red and blue).

I mentioned SmartRatings in my preceding post for its expert reviews, but this site publishes user reviews, too. However, there were only four for my camera. SmartRatings give no average score of user ratings, and reviews are ranked simply as “positive” or “negative.” The reviews are short and to the point. You can sort the reviews only by date.

Perhaps the best-known and most established price comparison service, Shopping.com, acquired Epinions before it was itself bought by eBay; so when you drill down to the consumer reviews on Shopping.com, you’ll find the Epinions listings. And if you happen across Ratings.net, don’t bother with it. It merely displays Epinions reviews.

Bottom Line

So what’s my final recommendation? Each of these user review sites has its charms, but I found that Amazon has the broadest sampling and Epinions has the most useful review format. I would consult both of them before making a major purchase.

You might have noticed a pronounced North American focus in this shopping series of columns. In fact, over 60% of my readers are there, but I also have readers in at least 125 other countries. Unfortunately, I am not equipped to cover all the markets in the world. Other countries might have their own product review and comparison sites, and some of the major merchants – for example Amazon – have country-specific sites in many countries outside North America.

I have happened upon two professional product review sites to update my preceding post on expert ratings. Trusted Reviews is a UK site that uses its own reviewers. Choice appears to be the Australian counterpart to Consumer Reports and Which?, and like them, requires a paid subscription.

Mark Lautman is out shopping this week.

Thank you for your attention. I’ll bring you more valuable holiday shopping advice next week. I hope you’ll keep coming back every week for great utility reviews and helpful Web sites, and tell everyone you know about Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill! Please feel free to tell us what you think by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

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.