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Scott's Column
Windows 7 Computer, Smart DJ vs. Genius, Apple Table

November 1, 2009
By Scott Lewis

This month I am going to spec out a new computer I plan to build to run Windows 7. I also take a look at the new intelligent playlist generating tools built into the iTunes and Zune software. Finally I speculate on what I think the Apple Table will be... when it comes out... and I do mean when, not if.

Current Topics:

Windows 7 PC - The Hardware

I pre-ordered my copy of Windows 7. I am pretty sure I am going to hold onto it until I can build a new computer. So, that means it's time to start investigating the parts to build a computer.

This time I am not going to scavenge parts from my existing computer. I plan to keep the exiting computer as a guinea pig of sorts. I will wipe it's hard drives and use it as a test bed for other stuff. Windows XP, Windows Vista, Linux, etc. So I will need all new parts for my Windows 7 PC... including a case and optical drive.

I will cheap out on the keyboard and mouse. I like the mouse I have, and a keyboard is a keyboard. I plan to get a KVM switch someday to allow me to connect to both machines with a single keyboard, mouse & monitor.

I was mainly going to go with a Intel Core 2 Quad CPU. I would like to stay below $200 for this part. However, Intel released a new set of Core i7 and an all new Core i5 CPU just after I completed my list. The Core i5 is a stripped down i7. I don't know all the specifics, but the Core i5 should be better than the Core 2 Quad. I will outline all the parts I selected... right before the Core i5 came out then I will modify the configuration to include the Core i5 and see how much more it will be.

Purpose

It is important to know what you will use the computer for. However, most computing tasks are easy. Video editing and hard core gaming are the only real things to get you to spend extra. I don't do video editing, but I am hoping to get more into photography. That will not really be an issue. Working with RAW images and Photoshop mostly means getting RAM enough memory. I will be doing some "semi" hard core gaming with this machine. It must br able to play Crysis Maximum Edition, so a good video card (or two) will be in the cards. Other than that I just need a reasonably fast computer to handle these tasks:

1) Gaming
2) Web Site Maintenance (Expression Web)
3) E-mail and web surfing
4) Run Microsoft Office (2003 or 2007)
5) Run all of my media tools for file conversion/ripping/recording/etc.
6) Stream media to my XBox 360
7) Possible photography with Photoshop and large images (file sizes)

NOTE: All prices below were current on 9/1/2009, except the parts for the Core i5 which I priced on 9/13/2009. I am sure they have changed already, but the point is clear... prices may vary.

CPU - I am looking at the Intel Core 2 Quad Q8400 running at 2.66 GHz. It was $170 at NewEgg and seems to be the best compromise between price and speed. I will not go over $200 for a Core 2 Quad CPU. There is just no need. My performance requirements will be met more appropriately with a better video card that a CPU.

Motherboard - I prefer ASUS and GIGABYTE, just because I have had really good luck with both of them. I will definitely need support for at least 8GB of memory. I might like to go to 16 GB, but that is not critical. The Core 2 Quad will dictate a motherboard with a LGA 775 socket. When I looked for a motherboard I just narrowed the list to the brands I like on NewEgg and started with the cheapest and went up until my needs were met.

For ASUS I found the P5G41-M for $70. This is a Micro-ATX board that supports 1333 MHz FSB and DDR2 Memory that runs up to 1066 MHz with capacity to 8 GB. All the minimum requirements are covered. However, if I continue up the price ladder I see the ASUS P5N-D for $120 which supports SLI with 2 PCI-E 2.0 x16 slots for running two nVidia video cards. If you go this route there are always issues. It costs about the same to buy one smoking hot video card as it does to buy two medium cards and run them in SLI mode. But you end up with more complexity with two cards, and in the end you don't save any real money (don't forget the extra $50 for the motherboard). However, you can buy one card now and another later and at least spread the cost over a longer period of time. Plus, if one card is good enough now then maybe going to two cards later will be enough to stall off a faster single card later. This is an extremely personal choice. I will most likely skip SLI, but I like to keep my options open.

From GIGABYTE I came across the GA-EP43-UD3L for $80 which goes to 1333 MHz on the FSB, and to 1066 with DDR2 Memory, but goes up to 16 GB. It also has more overclocking features, should that interest you. It seems GIGABYTE leans toward ATI with there multiple video card options, so I skipped looking for that since I prefer nVidia.

Memory - This is easy. We want DDR2 memory with a 240 pin configuration and we will start with 4 GB and plan to upgrade to 8 GB later. The two motherboards under $100 above both handle 1066 MHz. Of course we want name brand memory so I checked out Kingston and found KHX8500D2K4/4G which is a single 4GB memory stick (leaving the other memory slot open) for $86.49.

Video Card - I am out of it. I have not been keeping up with video cards. And they seem to be changing all the time. So I just went with my gut and looked for an nVidia card close to $200 (about as much as I would want to spend). I found an EVGA 896-P3-1257-AR GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 card for $205. I am guessing this is a good card, at least it should be good enough.

Hard Drive - Here's where I need to be clear what I will use this computer for. If it is strictly a computer to work and play on I don't need tons of disc space. It does need enough space to hold everything but video content, which will go on my file server or an external hard drive. On my current computer I am strangled with two 100 GB drives. I like the idea of two drives... for dual booting, but I am planning to build this computer from scratch and keep my old computer for experimenting, so I don't plan to dual boot this Win 7 machine. That means one big drive, but not so big I am going to have a hard time backing it up to an external drive. I think 500 GB is more than enough, 320 GB would be the minimum. I have had incredibly good luck with Western Digital and NewEgg had a Western Digital Caviar Green WD5000AADS 500GB drive for only $55. I like the idea of the green aspect more for its quite operation than its power savings.

Case - I am a fan of Antec cases, and have wanted to try out their very cool black cases. But I plan to keep my case out of site, so are looks important? Regardless, there are a few choices here. First up is the high end with the Antec Sonata Elite Black which goes for $100 without a power supply. To get a good size power supply in the case I had to go to the Antec Sonata III 500 Black for $110. I could get a cheap case for $50 and ad $25 for a cheap 500W power supply. The good Antec power supplies at 500W were $50. So I figure $75 - $150 depending on how much I want to spend in this area. For this exercise I went with the Sonata III for $110.

Optical Drive - I want Blu-Ray. However, I do not need Blu-Ray recording, just a reader to play movies. I expect to get a 1920x1080 monitor, so 1080p is a given. I am a huge fan of Plextor, but they get expensive. I found the Plextor PX-B320SA which is a CD/DVD Burner and Blu-Ray reader. That's perfect, since I don't need to burn Blu-Ray discs. The Plextor is $135. I also saw a Lite-On drive with similar specs for $110 if I get to pinching pennies, which I did for today's selection.

Monitor - I want 1920 x 1080 or 1920 x 1200 in a fairly large display. I found an ASUS VW266H which is a 25.5" monitor with 1920 x 1200 resolution for $300. That's more than I want to spend, so I found the ASUS VK246H which is a 24" monitor at 1920 x 1080 and includes a built-in web cam for $230. I can save $10 and get the model without the web cam, but I might want to try video conferencing someday. I have a friend in Houston that would definitely be into doing it.

Well that's it. I left out the little things like speakers, keyboard and mouse. I will worry about those things after I am up and running. I will most likely get a KVM (Keyboard/Video/Mouse) switch to use my existing stuff. I will probably start with my current monitor with its built in speakers as well. Then the bigger monitor, and some nice speakers will come later.

So... if we total all this up we are at $806.43 for the cheapest selection of parts. That included the least expensive ASUS motherboard and the Lite-On BD drive. Of course I would add the monitor and a decent set of speakers which together will probably set me back about $300. That brings the total to approximately $1,100.

Core i5 - If I want to get more advanced I can go with the new Core i5. The Core i5 was $210 at NewEgg. A GIGABYTE motherboard with an LGA 1156 socket was $110. The cheapest ASUS motherboard with the Core i5's LGA 1156 socket was $135 and did not include SLI. Getting to SLI would take it up to $170. The GIGABYTE motherboard takes DDR3 memory so a quick check on Kingston HyperX showed a 2 x 2GB set for about $95.

The total for the Core i5 setup would be $896.43 for the base system, bringing the total with monitor and good speakers to right at $1,200.

However, if I were to go with the Core i5, and not go with SLI I might just get a better video card. I saw a nice nVidia GeForce GTX 285 1GB from ASUS on NewEgg for $340. I don't know if I would be willing to spend an additional $135 for one video card, but it would turn this system into a very good gaming machine.

I hope to build this system early next year. I need to get through the holiday's and see how much money I can spare for a new computer before doing this. Stay tuned.

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Zune's Smart DJ vs. iTunes Genius

I have a Zune, but my sons have iPods. So I have the Zune application and iTunes on my computer. I thought I would play around with each application's ability to generate playlists based on my music tastes.

The Zune calls its playlist generator Smart DJ. I found the general mix of songs selected were reasonable, but the Smart DJ fills in songs from the Zune marketplace. Not a bad thing by itself. You have the option to turn off Marketplace content, but then you get playlists that with half as many songs. The real problem is that the playlists generated include songs from the Zune Marketplace that I have in my collection. Oops!

I like the way they display the currently playing artist in the background while the song is playing. I assume the song plays is for the number of times the song was played by all Zune members that are sharing their info. I surely didn't listen to some songs over 44,000 times.

Even though I like how they display the artists during their song plays, the images SUCK! Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart were all relatively recent pictures... like they look now... old. How about some period pictures of classic rock artists from when the songs were originally released? That would be cool.

Also, the resolution of the pictures are fairly low. They look pixilated even when I have the application covering no more than about 75% of my 1680 x 1050 display. Yuck! Let's get some higher resolution images.

Next, they don't have enough artists with images. What gives? ELO, Meatloaf, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Peter Frampton, The Cars, George Harrison, Huey Lewis, Dire Straights, Supertramp, The Who, Journey & Warren Zevon. O.K. Warren Zevon I get, but George Harrison... an ex Beatle, The Who, John Mellencamp. These guys deserve images of their own. Granted, it puts up a really nice collage of album art from your collection if it doesn't display images of the artist playing.

The Zune application builds its playlists from a single artist. Not bad, but it can be too simple. For instance... I like Billy Joel... a lot. If I pick Billy Joel then I get some of his really mellow stuff and some of his more popular rock songs. I would not normally build a large playlist of Billy Joel songs with both Captain Jack & Honesty. If I want stronger rock songs like Only The Good Die Young Zune's Smart DJ can't tell the difference. This is even worse for The Beatles. Do I want songs based on their earlier pop songs (Love Me Do, Help, etc) or do I want later rock & roll songs (Back in the USSR, I Am The Walrus).

How about iTunes. It builds a quickie playlist on the fly... from a single song. This has the potential to be a better method than Zune's Smart DJ, assuming they are doing a good job on the back end keeping track of hard rock songs versus soft ballads from the same artist (Rock You Like A Hurricane & Winds of Change by The Scorpions for instance). Unfortunately I did not get the feeling they do this. I was getting wide reaching songs from the artists it selected. This is about even with the Zune application.

iTunes seems to select songs by genre as much as anything else. I started the Genius feature with Yesterday by The Beatles, a mellow Beatles tune. But I got some hard rock songs like Led Zeppelin's Good Times Bad Times & Kashmir. I would not have put those together. So even though iTunes has the potential to get this right, it is no better than Zune's Smart DJ at picking the songs. Where was Led Zeppelin's Going To California? Now that would be the selection of a real genius to go with Yesterday.

A big plus... iTunes lets you delete songs from the playlists it generates right there. And you can save them for later. Zune will rebuild its list every time you start playing a Smart DJ item... even if it was already playing. But it does let you save the list as a playlist that you can treat as a regular playlist. iTunes is much more flexible than Zune's approach. But I must admit... I like the Zune's style much better than iTunes. Take that Apple!

Zune's playlist is only 30 songs long... with content from your collection and content from the Marketplace. If you turn off the Marketplace it drops to about half of that. iTunes lets you build 25, 50, 75 or 100 song playlists with its genius feature. I like that. Granted... if you have the Zune Pass, the monthly subscription to any song in the Marketplace, then Zune's mixing of songs from the Marketplace with your own is a great way to hear new music similar to your own music taste.

I do not have my songs rated in iTunes, so I can not say how it will use the ratings to help with song selection. I have my music rated in the Zune application because I sync my music to a Zune. The Smart DJ does not pick songs that are listed as "Hate It." Alas, Zune only has three ratings for a song. Love It, Hate It and nothing.

So iTunes ends up picking songs that I don't like. This may or may not be bad. If it picked a song I don't like because others on iTunes like it then maybe just adding ratings in iTunes would have this work better. If it just picked a random song from my Beatles collection then it is dumb. I am not going to start rating my songs in iTunes to see how that improves its Genius selection.

iTunes does not have any visualizations that I can find. The best it can do is show a Cover Flow of the album art... which is not very good when it doesn't have half the album art.

Speaking of album art... where is the option in iTunes to add album art to songs it does not find album art for? Oh yea... right click on a song and select Get Info. Then select the Artwork tab and click Add... to find the image to use. In Zune you just right-click on the album icon and select Update Album Art. Much nicer.

So which is better. Well, that depends. For style we go with Microsoft and the Zune application and its Smart DJ. For substance we go with iTunes. However, if you have a Zune Pass then substance goes back to the Zune's Smart DJ.

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What I want in an Apple Tablet

I have heard a lot of rumors that Apple will come out with some kind of tablet. It is supposed to look like a 10" iPod Touch... I think. Can this be what we can expect? A 10" diagonal screen with no keyboard and a touch interface? I think so.

The Apple Tablet will have to be more than just a giant iPod Touch. I am going to mention a few items here that are a given for such a device, plus I will tell you some of the things I want in such a device to get me to buy it. I will also cover a couple of points that Apple needs to keep in mind for other buyers.

There are two very simple and deal breaking issues if it were only a super-sized iPod Touch. 1) The iPod Touch (and iPhone) apps do not run in the background. This is unacceptable in a tablet device, which would have to function as a computer. 2) The look of iPod Touch apps won't benefit from a jumbo screen.

Let's address the later of those in more detail. The iPod Touch (and iPhone, though I am already tired of typing both names so this is the last time I will mention the iPhone unless it is specific to that device) runs a version of Mac OS X, but with a custom interface. Each app gets the entire screen when it runs. Simple enough, but this won't work on a large screen device with a screen as big as a NetBook's. People are going to want to run a lot of those 85,000+ apps from the App Store. That means the Apple Tablet will have to run programs from the App Store in a window of some kind. Almost like an emulator.

This should not be difficult for Apple to do. I don't have a Mac, but if I did I would probably download the developer kit for the iPod Touch and try my hand at writing an app. The developer kit must have some kind of emulator to test your code before loading it on a device. We just need a super simple way of running these apps that does not use all the screen real estate. This emulator would be slick, similar to running Windows Application in VMWare Fusion or Parallels Desktop. Think of it as a virtual iPod Touch running on the Apple Tablet. You would be able to run multiple virtual iPod Touches on the huge 10" Apple Tablet. Wow, we just solved both problems above with the Virtual iPod Touch method of running App Store apps. Multiple apps running at the same time and how they will look on the device.

But what about the iPhone. Some people suspect that the Apple tablet will be a phone. I don't think so. Surely Apple does not want people holding a 10" screen to their face. That does not show Apple style. But the Apple Tablet will have to have cellular broadband access... similar to laptops and NetBooks. It will connect to AT&T's 3G network (Yuck!) so that all those iPhone apps that only work when you are online will be useful when out and about. I know I don't use my iPod Touch much for those apps because they stop working as soon as I leave the house. An Apple Tablet will get around the WiFi limitation using AT&T's 3G network or another cellular carrier. It can get around its AT&T exclusive deal and use other carriers because it is not a phone.

Of course... with a broadband connection it can be used as a phone with a headset, but I just don't think Apple will set that up. Vonage! Skype!

With the basics covered we have a few other items to talk about. Let's start with what I want from the device to get me to buy it:

  • It must run regular applications (e-mail, web browser, spreadsheet, etc.), not just App Store programs for the iPod Touch.
  • It must run Photoshop. This really belongs in the list of regular applications, but I give Photoshop special attention because of the touch interface. People are going to want to do photo editing on an Apple Tablet, and I can think of no better way than with Photoshop. Granted, the Apple Tablet will be slow compared to a regular computer, but it should be able to handle Photoshop, if a bit slower than a full size computer.
  • It must work with a stylus. This is an extension of running Photoshop to give you more precise control that your finger tip. You can't edit photos with your finger, so you need a stylus or...
  • Support a keyboard and mouse. They don't have to be included in the price of the tablet, but I should be able to plug in a USB keyboard and mouse and use it like a real computer at a desk. Granted, this means we need a stand for the device as well, but that is an accessory we will have no trouble finding with keyboard and mouse support on the device.
  • 1 USB Port. That's right... only 1. Who needs more than 1. If I hook up a keyboard and mouse I will do it through a USB hub. The same goes for printing & optical drives... through a USB hub is more than good enough.

That does it for me. Not too much to ask. I assume it will have a speaker jack to hook up to external speakers. An Ethernet port would be nice to have, but not a necessity.

I could see this device as a great living room computer. It sits on an end table plugged into the wall (with one of those cool magnetic plugs Apple's laptops have). It sits on a stand and acts as a high resolution picture display. Is it any coincidence that Snow Leopard added a picture slide show as a screen saver. I don't think so. So the pictures rotate around until you need to look something up on the web. You reach over and pick up the tablet and use it on battery power. Just pass it around for everyone to get the info from the web. When your done you put it back and let it be a digital picture frame again. Very simple, very elegant, very Apple.

But what about things other people will want... and what Apple may be trying to do? E-Reader!

It is more than a guess that the Apple Tablet will be some kind of electronic reader. Kindle, watch out! This is where the built-in broadband will come in. People will need to download content from anywhere. I have heard rumors that Apple is trying to get subscriptions lined up. Can you imaging getting People Magazine in electronic format on your Apple Tablet? How about The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal? Books?

Of course this is Apple we are talking about so anything you can think of they have... and have thought of a way to make money doing it. We are talking subscriptions to publications through the iTunes Store. We are also talking about books. Watch out Barnes & Nobles and Amazon.

You can expect some kind of e-Reader on the Apple Tablet. My concern is for the broadband access. Will there be a required broadband feature with a monthly fee? Can this device piggy back off your iPhone contract with AT&T? I think it should. It would push more people to the iPhone if they get both an iPhone and an Apple Tablet on the same service plan. Otherwise people will just Jailbreak their iPhone to use as a tether for the Tablet.

What do you think?

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Conclusion

Next month I am going to take a look as DropBox vs. SugarSync. I started with one and temporarily switched to the other. I will give the details next month so you will just have to come back.

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