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Posts from August, 2008

GPS Ratings: New models, new tests

Aug 11

Our colleagues in the Consumer Reports Cars department have just finished reviewing the latest GPS navigation systems. Among the 55 models in our latest Ratings of GPS systems (available to subscribers) are units with interesting features, including the voice-activated Garmin Nuvi 880.

We’ve updated the way we score and display the models in our GPS Ratings, based on feedback from readers and results from a survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Among the changes:

  • Models are now divided into three types: basic navigators, navigators with traffic optional, and traffic-ready navigators. We’ve learned from reader feedback and survey data that real-time traffic is an important, distinguishing feature on GPS models—though we don’t prioritize it in the ratings. Greater emphasis is placed on core navigation abilities, ease of use, and information for the driver.
  • We now score for some convenience features, particularly those that have safety and value benefits, like Bluetooth connectivity, trip computer, and whether an A/C power cable and USB cable are included.

These changes reflect the evolving nature of the GPS market, the growing number of options available to GPS shoppers, and your feedback on what you’d like to see in our Ratings. Read "New GPS navigation devices, ratings and methodology" on our Cars Blog for more details about the new test and evaluations we perform on GPS units. If you’re shopping for a new navigation unit, check out our free buying advice for GPS systems.

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Sharp offers lower-cost 1080p SB-series LCDs

Aug 11

is targeting the growing market for larger-size 1080p LCD TVs with a new, lower-priced SB series of 42-, 46-, and 52-inch LCD sets. Prices will range from $1,400 for a 42-inch model (LC-42SB45U) to $2,300 for a 52-inch set (LC-52SB55U). All have piano-black finishes.Lc52sb55u34lhires_2

Sharp says
the TVs include technology to improve black levels and contrast and wide viewing angles; we haven’t yet reviewed any of these models. The 52-inch model (click on the image at right for a closer look) has four HDMI inputs—the 42-incher has three and the 46-inch model has two. All three have two component-video inputs, plus dedicated PC inputs for use as a PC monitor.

The TVs also include Sharp’s OPC technology, a dynamic brightness feature designed to save energy by automatically adjusting the TV’s brightness according to room brightness and lighting.

The 46- and 52-inch models are in stores now, and the 42-inch will be available next month.

—James K. Willcox

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Capture your own gold medal moments this summer

Aug 11

With the summer Olympics almost upon us, you may be in the mood for photographing athletic competitions—if not in Beijing, then in your own backyard or school stadium. Here are some features that can give you winning photos.

A long zoom. A digital camera with 10x or greater optical zoom—what we call super-zoom—will let you get closer to the action while maintaining good picture quality. Digital zoom almost always degrades quality, so turn this feature off. Some zoom lenses go as high as 20x optical zoom, such as the Olympus SP-570 UZ.

Fast action. If your camera is slow, you’ll miss important
moments. In most cases, this is not an issue on SLRs, but check our
point-and-shoot Ratings (available to subscribers) for models with a short first-shot delay (also
known as shutter lag) and next-shot delay.

Burst modes. All SLRs and a growing number of point-and-shoots have burst modes that let you fire off two, three, or more frames per second. A few, like the Casio Exilim EX-F1, can even do
this with a flash. That’s enough to capture a few half-twists off a high dive or a some fancy turns in a synchronized swimming routine.

Manual controls. This will allow you to adjust shutter speeds and other settings to freeze the action, crucial if you want a crisp shot of your child kicking a soccer ball and making the ball appear as if it’s suspended just above his or her foot. Manual controls will also let you slow the shutter speed down for an artistic shot with deliberate motion blur.

Adjustable LCD viewers. Some point-and-shoots, like the Canon PowerShot A650 IS, have an LCD that can swing out from the camera body and tilt or twist up to 180 degrees. This is great if you have to hold the camera over your head for a hard-to-reach shot; you can angle the LCD so you can see what you’re shooting. Some new SLRs now have live-view LCDs that let you compose shots, just as you can with a point-and-shoot. SLRs from Sony, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and others now have this capability, but you’ll pay more for it.

Image stabilization. Almost all point-and-shoots have this feature, which can compensate for "camera shake," especially useful in low-light situations where the lens stays open longer. On a digital SLR, you’ll have to choose between cameras that include IS in select lenses (called lens-based IS) or those that include it in the camera body (called body-based IS).

Low-light capability. Check our Ratings for cameras (available to subscribers) that have high test scores for Max. ISO with Best Quality, indicating how well a camera does in low light like an indoor event.

No matter what type of digital camera you buy, put image quality first. Check our point-and-shoot camera Ratings and our Ratings for digital SLRs for models with top scores. Overall, SLRs, or single-lens reflex cameras, offer the best quality and performance, but they’re the most expensive and often the largest, and they don’t shoot video clips. If your budget is very tight, you want a tiny camera, or you need to shoot some video clips occasionally, spring for a point-and-shoot.

—Terry Sullivan

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Computer Ratings: Laptops are getting smaller, but so are desktops

Aug 11

It’s back-to-school time (how I hated that phrase when I was a kid). That means you could be in the market for a new laptop. We tested 33 of them, ranging in size from the slimmest and smallest 13.3-inch models to bulkier and more powerful 17-inchers.

Check our latest Ratings of laptops (available to subscribers) and you’ll find systems with just the right balance of price, performance, and battery life for all-around use. Among our Recommended laptops (available to subscribers), we also identified a few for the power user in your family. Those models are packed with high-end video for gaming and more powerful processors.

For those tied to a desk, we Rated desktop systems (available to subscribers) with new quad-core processors from both Intel and AMD, as well as a couple of sub-$600 models that will save you money but still perform the basics well.

Finally, all-in-one systems continue to raise the bar in terms of style and performance. Liberate yourself from those black towers!

—Donna Tapellini

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Garmin Nuvi 880 takes voice recognition to a new level

Aug 11

Our colleagues in the Cars department have just finished testing the Garmin Nuvi 880, the first GPS navigation unit with a fully-integrated voice recognition system.

An excerpt from the Consumer Reports Cars blog:

“The Garmin Nuvi 880 is a premium, full-featured portable navigation device (PND) with an impressive voice-recognition system. It has a wide vocabulary, enabling the driver to enter destinations and cycle through menus without touching the screen. And it does so in multiple languages. Other devices we have tested with voice recognition still required using the touchscreen to accomplish common tasks and they tended to interrupt conversations like an impatient child… All told, the Garmin Nuvi 880 represents the state of the art.”

In addition to the blog, be sure to check out the Nuvi 880 First Look for a detailed review and watch the accompanying video to see the unit in action.

For other models, see our Ratings of portable GPS navigators (available to subscribers).

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LG unveils its BD300 Blu-ray player

Aug 11

As we reported yesterday, at a press event in New York City last night LG Electronics took the wraps off its new BD300 Blu-ray player, which can stream movies and TV shows from the Netflix website directly to a TV.

Also unveiled were two previously announced LCD TVs—the company’s first LCD to use LED backlighting, and two additions to the company’s “Scarlet” line of highly stylized LCDs. The company also disclosed plans for a national consumer-electronics recycling program.

As we learned yesterday, the BD300 Blu-ray player will be available in the fall, and can stream movies and TV shows from Netflix’s online instant-streaming service. Last night, the company filled in a few blanks, saying that it would be priced “well under $500,” and that the streamed content would be standard definition. To access content from Netflix, users will have to have a Netflix subscription that starts at $9 per month.

LG’s first TV to use LED backlighting with local dimming is the 47LG90 (see image at right), which will be available in September with a $3,600 price tag. The 1080p TV’s backlight is broken into 128 sectors, each of which can be controlled individually for improved contrast and energy savings. The sets have a “teardrop” design and blue color accents.

Lgxfrontnew_2At the event, LG executives introduced two new super-slim Scarlet “sisters”: 42- and 47-inch LGX-series LCD models that are just 1.8 inches deep (and unlike Hitachi’s new 1.5-inch models, these sets include built-in tuners). Both models—the 42LGX ($2,700) and 47LGX ($3,000)—are 1080p sets that include LG’s TruMotion 120Hz technology to help reduce motion blur. The 42-inch set is already available (see image at left), and the 47-incher will hit stores in October. Both bear the trademark Scarlet design scheme of piano-black fronts and all-crimson back panels.

The company also announced a partnership with a company called Waste Management to launch an electronics recycling program that will allow consumers to drop off unwanted or broken CE gear at one of the company’s 106 recycling centers. The number of centers, run by its subsidiary, WM Recycle America, will continue to grow, and there will be sites in all 50 states by September, they said. There’s no charge for LG-brand goods (LG, GoldStar, or Zenith), while a “modest” fee will be imposed for items from other brands. To find the center closest to you, call a toll free number, 1-877-439-2795.

—James K. Willcox

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LCD or plasma? What’s better for watching sports?

Aug 11

If you’re buying a new flat-panel TV to watch the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing this month, you might be wrestling with what size and type to get.

We recommend at least a 40-inch or 42-inch set for a main TV used in an average-sized living room. You might want to go larger if you’ll be hosting a crowd or simply prefer a bigger screen. Many rooms can comfortably accommodate a 46- to 50-inch set, and spacious family rooms can handle a 50-plus-inch set.

Both LCD and plasma TVs come in all those sizes, so take your pick. Each has pros and cons. Plasma TVs are better than LCDs at displaying fast-moving images without blurring, a big plus if you watch a lot of sports.

Our video experts can clearly detect motion blur on most LCD sets with test patterns designed to pinpoint the problem, and you might see it when you watch soccer, basketball, and other sports where the cameraman does a lot of fast panning. Blurring is also evident when the camera focuses on a swinging tennis racket or a moving ball. You’re less likely to see it on movies and TV shows where there is little camera motion. Some newer LCD models include 120 Hz technology, which essentially doubles the TV’s frame rate to help improve motion-handling. We’ve seen a visible reduction in motion blur on those TVs.

The viewing angle is another major consideration. With most LCD TVs, the picture degrades to some extent if you sit off to the side or on the floor—a likely scenario if you have a bunch of people rooting on their favorite athletes. A few new LCD sets have addressed this problem—several Panasonic models we’ve tested for example, have a viewing angle that rivals a plasma set’s—but most still have limitations.

Plasma sets are also better than LCD screens at displaying deep blacks, and they tend to have better contrast, which makes for rich, natural-looking images.

On the other hand, LCD TVs are generally a bit brighter than plasma, and their screens are less reflective, so many look better in bright rooms. Some plasma TVs can look a bit dim in bright lighting when set to the normal or standard mode, which we recommend for home use. You can switch to the vivid mode or raise the brightness control to compensate, but the picture quality might suffer.

Another issue with many plasmas is that the glass screens are subject to reflections and glare. If you have the lights on while watching dark scenes, you might see mirror-like reflections, though the anti-reflective coating on some new plasma sets can reduce glare.

Still, you can’t go too far wrong with either type as long as you buy one of the better sets. Our Ratings of LCD and plasma
sets (available to subscribers) highlight specific models that make the most of each display technology, while minimizing the limitations.

—Eileen McCooey

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New LG Blu-ray player will stream movies from Netflix

Aug 11

Viewers seeking easy access to prerecorded movies and TV shows will soon have a new option: LG says its next high-def DVD player, the BD300 Network Blu-ray Player, can stream content from the Netflix website directly to their TVs.

The BD300, which will be available this fall, requires a broadband connection to access the Netflix website. Using the player’s remote control, users can browse movies and TV shows, and access ratings and a synopsis of a program. Desired selections are then added to a personalized queue, which is displayed on the TV screen. According to LG, once a movie is selected from the queue, it will start playing within 30 seconds, and viewers will be able to fast-forward and rewind the program as they do on a DVR.

There are several questions that hopefully will be answered at a press conference this evening. For example, the companies didn’t say if the programs would be available as high-def video streams, and if so, what the resolution would be.  Based on other deals, we presume it will be sent as standard-definition video. And so far, there’s no word on the expected price for the player. And while the companies said there would be "no additional charge" for content streamed from Netflix, they didn’t say what level of membership, if any, would be required to access the Netflix library.

The BD300, a Profile 2.0 player with Blu-ray’s BonusView (picture-in-picture) and BD Live (Internet access) features, is the second joint product announcement from LG and Netflix this year. At the CES trade show in January, the two companies said that in the second half of the year LG would offer a settop box with a similar ability to stream movies and TV episodes from Netflix to TVs. Netflix also has a deal with Microsoft that allows Xbox 360 owners to access standard-def content from the Netflix website.

We’ll be attending the LG summer line show this evening, so stay tuned for more details about the BD300 and other LG products. LG has emerged as a strong brand in multiple consumer electronics categories, including TVs, Blu-ray and DVD players and recorders, and cell phones. Several LG models are listed in our LCD and plasma TV recommendations. For other fine choices see our Ratings of LCD and plasma TVs. (Ratings and recommendations are available to subscribers.)

—James K. Willcox

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Tip of the day: Protecting your gadgets

Aug 11

Summer vacations can be tough on cell phones, digital cameras, iPods, GPS, and other mobile electronics. How do you keep your portables safe from sand, surf, and other summertime hazards when you head to the beach or pool or hit the showers after a swim?

Some of us here at Consumer Reports have stumbled on a really inexpensive solution: the reseal-able plastic bag, more commonly used to keep food fresh.

Sure, stashing your stuff in a clear sandwich bag may not seem chic—especially given the myriad choices in protective cases for portable electronics. But it is a smart (and extremely simple) way to keep things safe. After all, if that bag can keep your ham on rye dry, it’ll also keep your mobile phone moisture-free, too!

What’s more, you don’t even have to take your gadget out of its clear cocoon to use it in most cases. In one informal trial, a staffer had no trouble answering and talking on her bagged phone. That’s a neat trick—literally—if you have to take a call while applying suntan lotion or eating ice cream. Another colleague was able to listen to tunes on his zipped-up MP3 player via Bluetooth headphones.

Scoff, if you want. But some protection is better than none. Right after we talked about this idea in our offices, a friend inadvertently went into a beach shower with her phone in her pocket. When last seen, she was still trying to bring it back to life.

Of course, a plastic bag provides no crash protection if you drop your gear onto a hard surface. But it is a low-cost, easy-to-find, and easy-to-fit-in-your-pocket-or-purse solution for common summer hazards—especially for kids with sticky hands.

For other helpful summertime tips, see our free "Guide to summer health & safety" on

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The Kindle, the Reader, and e-ink: The buzz continues

Aug 11

Electronic-book (or e-book) readers, including the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, use an electronic "ink" (or e-Ink) display to reproduce text. (The image at right shows a sample of the e-Ink technology. You can click on it for a closer look.) You move through a book by pressing a button to pull the next page from the device’s electronic memory. Current versions are imperfect, but in recent weeks a leading print magazine; you, our readers; and several design and media experts have convinced me to follow this fascinating technology more closely.

The print magazine is Esquire, which announced that its September issue will appear on newsstands with a battery-powered e-ink cover. Meanwhile, our test observations on the Kindle continue to draw readers and comments some eight months after we posted them. Our tests and your comments reflect a mixed verdict, highlighting many disadvantages as well as some pluses. Our take on the second-generation Sony Reader was similarly ambivalent.

But several lectures I’ve attended in the past week or so argue that flaws are inevitable when products break significant new ground—as these devices clearly do, being more legible and more portable than past e-books. Last week, while attending Stanford University’s Stanford Professional Publishing Course, I heard professor Paul Saffo urge magazine editors to embrace the Kindle and its ilk, in spite of their flaws. Another instructor, renowned product designer Bill Moggridge, told me the Kindle has streamlined his research process by allowing him to electronically highlight passages in books and download those excerpts to his computer, saving him hours of transcription time.

Here at Consumer Reports, we recently enjoyed a lecture from Bo Sacks, an expert on so-called Electronically Coordinated Information Distribution, who predicts that e-books will command a growing share of the print market. That will happen, he says, as the devices improve and as the downsides of printed paper continue—notably its escalating cost and its long-term environmental issues.

—Paul Reynolds

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