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October 2005 - Vol. 5, Issue No. 73
By Scot Finnie
IN THIS ISSUE
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The initiation of more widespread interim beta releases represents a change for typical Windows development over the last 10 years. The last time we had this sort of widespread release of Windows code was during Windows 95's development. Microsoft is attempting to compress the time needed to deliver Windows Vista by the end of next year. By releasing interim betas, it will get more bug reports earlier in the process, thereby giving itself a longer time to process and diagnose bugs. This will also bring the company feedback about new features earlier in the process, while it still has time enough to tweak them.
I thought it was a mistake when, after the Windows 95 development effort, Microsoft curtailed broadly distributed interim releases to the development community and the press over the last 10 years relying on a smaller corps of beta testers. I hope this new process, which the company calls "CTP" (for Community Technical Preview) will become the new standard for all major Microsoft development efforts, including Windows and Office. If you're serious about improving software quality, you have to focus on giving the dev team more time to squash bugs after a widespread beta, instead of lumping those bug reports into one big crazy effort after beta 2. In that scenario, inevitably, you'll be forced to ignore things that take longer to diagnose and fix.
It should also help Microsoft to be a bit more customer focused. Over the last decade, Microsoft has become increasingly insular to end-user concerns. The CTP releases are no panacea, but they're a step in the right direction. I see no sign so far, though, that Microsoft is applying this to other development efforts.
Performance and Reliability
So enough of Microsoft's development process. The first thing anyone will notice about this build of Vista is performance. The CTP 5219 build is noticeably faster than previous Vista pre-releases. It also feels faster than my cluttered up Windows XP installations. The real proof of performance improvement comes after 20 or so applications have been installed and hardware added, and so forth. But at least Microsoft is trying to live up to its performance goals. Very often we don't begin to see that sort of difference until Release Candidates, which are probably almost a year away. Of course, there are a lot of features left to add. It's way too early to assess performance.
Microsoft is claiming that Windows Vista will turn on and off in two to three seconds "as quickly and reliably as a TV set." Part of this is will be based on Microsoft's new hybrid Sleep mode, but surprisingly, even in this early pre-release build (on a freshly installed machine), the system shuts down in about six seconds. Start up takes a good deal longer.
A new utility called Windows SuperFetch is enabled in build 5219. It loads all or part of a user's most frequently used programs and files into unallocated system memory *before* they are called for. The idea is to improve application performance by reducing the need to load data from the hard disk when starting or using applications. SuperFetch continually adjusts the set of data it pre-fetches based on user directed activities with apps and files.
I've also seen fewer reliability issues in this build so far. Networking is faster, and so far more reliable. The problems with Windows Explorer found in earlier builds have not yet made an appearance. One hiccup I've seen occurs after the screensaver bumps you back to the login screen (the default setting in XP and Vista). Upon re-entry, there's about 10 seconds of errant pause accompanied by some graphical disturbance. The problem rights itself without any further issue. Even more serious, there's a bug in Display Properties, Settings area. When you change screen resolution twice, the second time you try to do this, Vista may spontaneously reboot. This sort of thing is very common in early betas, and may be specific to my video hardware (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro). So it doesn't mean anything. The point is, I'm seeing less dysfunctional, ah, functionality overall.
What's New in Vista Build 5219
If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a video worth? I'm going to try something a little different. There are two highly visual new features in Windows Vista's CTP build that I'm going to show you instead of just telling you about them.
Note: Several things might go wrong with this experiment. My guess is this could pull down my website if too many people demand to see these screencam "movies" simultaneously. Also, it requires Shockwave Flash to be installed in your browser. Bottom line: I can't guarantee this experience. It may be great, or it may not be so. And a lot of that variance will be dictated by your Internet connection and how bombed my Web server is when you hit it.
The first is a Microsoft feature called Live Thumbnails. The feature gives you a large, dynamic thumbnail preview of applications minimized to the Vista Taskbar. Just pause the mouse button for a second over the taskbar button for any program, and the image will open. If the program is in motion say, for example, a video running on a Web page you'll see that video running in the thumbnail. Those of you who appreciate the use of quality graphics to enhance the user interface experience will appreciate Live Thumbnails. The rest of you will probably think it's eye candy. But I believe most users of the final Vista product will find this feature useful, even invaluable. Especially those of you and you know who you are who tend to work with 20 or 30 windows open pretty much at all times.
Microsoft has also finally decided to embrace Task Switcher, also known as Alt-Tab. This tool is used by many more experienced Windows users to rapidly switch among multiple running applications. For Vista, there's a new 2D version that shows the Live Thumbnails and lets you switch among them by holding down the Alt key and repeatedly pressing Tab to advance among your running apps. Microsoft has given this the working name "Flip."
There's also a new 3D version of Task Switcher, which, you guessed it, has the code name "Flip 3D." You really have to see this to get it. To launch Flip 3D in build 5219, you hold down the Windows key and press the spacebar. When you do this, all the program windows running on your system magically stack themselves left to right and turn to show their edges in a 3D presentation. You can see the program windows at a roughly 45-degree angle, but they're, well ... program windows in space. As you scroll your mouse wheel or click the cursor keys, the programs cycle through, the one on top jumping to the back and the one just behind it coming to the fore. Just click any program window with the mouse to revert your windows to their normal open positions. The one you clicked will be on the top.
In the March 2005 issue of the newsletter I reviewed the Mac Mini. In talking about OS X toward the end of the review, I was very positive about a feature called Expose, which is designed to manage Window clutter. Flip 3D appears to me to be Microsoft's return volley on Expose. Although it doesn't offer as many options as Expose (in build 5219), Flip 3D does solve the same basic problem: "I have a zillion windows open, how do I find the one I need fast?"
So, What Else Is New?
Microsoft has turned on User Account Protection (UAP) in this build of Windows Vista by default. UAP is an important change to the way Windows user accounts are extended or denied permissions. In essence, UAP is designed to make working in a Limited user account more tolerable, without reducing security. Most current Windows users employ the Administrator login or use a login that has Administrator privileges. That's a convenient way of working, since you need administrator rights in order to do things like install applications, make changes to your network stack, or adjust the time and date. But it's also a huge security vulnerability, since anyone who hacks into your computer suddenly has all those rights too.
For more detail on how UAP works, and what I think about it, please see my Vista And User Accounts column in November 2005 issue of PC Today magazine.
One Windows Vista feature I haven't written about to date is something Microsoft has recently dubbed "Windows SideShow." Previously it was called Auxiliary Displays. The auxiliary display idea is for mobile computers. You'll have to buy new hardware that supports it, and that new hardware will have a small second display visible when machine is closed. So, while your computer is in a sleep state, it's just awake enough to send data to the auxiliary display, like how many new emails you have, how many instant messages, network alerts, the date and time, a snapshot of your calendar, and so on. SideShow can be used with notebook computers, but Microsoft suggests that it will also be built into remote controls, keyboard, and smart phones. Vista build 5219 adds new control features for SideShow not available in Vista Beta 1.
Microsoft hasn't talked much about the peer-to-peer features that will ship in Windows Vista. But it's talking about one now, which has the working name of Meeting Space. Microsoft's description reads: "Meeting Space allows a meeting participant to quickly create or join a meeting and simply and more securely transfer files or broadcast presentations and documents directly to other participants' personal computers on any shared network." In other words, virtual meetings. Meeting Space, or whatever it will eventually be called, is the first application to harness Microsoft's People Near Me capability, which identifies only people on a nearby subnet. More on this when I've had a chance to actually try it. In this CTP version of Vista (unlike Windows Vista Beta 1), the new "Peer-to-Peer" Control Panel has peer functionality turned off by default.
Finally, according to the document Microsoft circulated with this version of the software, a whole bunch of aspects of Vista's desktop searching functionality have been turned on or improved, but the reality is that none of what's talked about is something you can see or try, so I'll leave that for when Windows desktop search gets further along.
Sidebar is back. Microsoft recently announced the return of the Windows Sidebar, a feature that was in the originally PDC2003 alpha release of Windows Longhorn. Just like Mac OS X's widgets, Windows Sidebar will run "mini applications" that Microsoft calls Gadgets. I think Microsoft has a good chance to do something better with this than Apple did. Apple's implementation in OS X 1.4 is scotch-taped onto the OS X interface in a way that I find pretty useless. But the idea has promise. For more about Microsoft's effort, see the Microsoft Gadgets site, which is aimed at developers not you and me. Still there's useful information on this site for everyone.
More for Internet Explorer 7
These security features for Internet Explorer 7 will be added in the October CTP of Windows Vista:
I will give you more detail on these features as soon as I'm not reading it from Microsoft's cue cards.
The next release will also provide a first look at IE's promised new Favorites Center, which is described as a "newly designed panel available directly from the IE toolbar" that provides access to Favorites, History, and Web Feeds. Let's hope they don't forget to rework the appallingly bad "Organize Favorites" tool. There's also a feature called Quick Tabs, which will let us "view and manage multiple tabs with an at-a-glance thumbnail view in a single window." Finally, also, Microsoft is adding the Page Zoom feature, that will let us zoom in and out on individual Web pages.
Microsoft is also hinting at an update of its Web standards compliance, but the details are scant with the only real facts being further improvements to its CSS 2.1 support and support for international domain names.
I expect to have another new build of Vista for the next edition of the newsletter. So more details to come. In the meantime, Microsoft offered this gallery of Windows Vista, Office 12, and IE 7 images the same day it released build 5219. You might want to check them out.
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Office 12 will output PDF documents compatible with any PDF viewer that supports version 1.4 of the specification, such as Adobe Acrobat 5.0 or later. PDF documents created with Office 12 can contain live hyperlinks. Office 12 PDF documents will be accessible to screen readers as well. In addition, PDF documents produced from Microsoft Office Publisher 12 will include support for pre-press specific functionality, such as CMYK color models and printing page marks. PDF documents created with Office 12 will not support Adobe DRM or password systems. Microsoft SharePoint Products and Technologies will be able to index PDF documents for use in enterprise content-management scenarios.
Note that Microsoft is not saying that Office 12 will be able to read PDFs, just output them. To read PDFs, you need to download and install Adobe's Acrobat 5.0 or later. For more information, see the following Web page.
The new Office service pack is mostly a roll up of previous security and bug fixes, with some new functionality and some reliability improvements. There is also an update to Outlook 2003's Junk Email filter, which now renders HTML mail as text only and disabled links. There's also a revision to make Outlook less vulnerable to phishing scams.
Support has been added for Microsoft SQL Server 2005 and Microsoft Visual Studio 2005. Microsoft updated Windows SharePoint Services and Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003 to include support for the upcoming releases of SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005.
Combined, the Office 2003 Service Pack 2 and Update for Outlook 2003 Junk Mail Filter are a 48MB download. You can get them two ways:
Check out these links for more information:
Microsoft has also announced a reorganization of its Windows-related efforts that narrows the number of separate teams from seven to three. That is apt to have a large impact on Windows development and marketing. Take a few minutes to read these stories to catch up.
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The hopes expressed by some Mozilla personnel of breaking through into double-digit U.S. market share by the end of this year appear to be dashed. At the current rate of growth, it might take until around 2007 before that would happen. And there's no guarantee that the rate of growth won't continue to slow.
The product most affected by Firefox growth over the last year hasn't been Internet Explorer. It's been Opera Software's Opera browser suite, which for the last several years offered ad-sponsored free versions and $40 no-ads paid versions of its browser and email product. Because Mozilla's open-source Firefox browser and Thunderbird email program are free, that has put lots of pressure on Opera. According to NetApplications, Internet Explorer has 86.3% of the browser market, Firefox has 8.3%, and Opera has only 0.62%. Before Firefox hit the scene, Opera was doing much better. Internet Explorer enjoyed an over-90% market share before Firefox; but Opera's share has been all but erased by the emergence of Firefox.
On September 20, Opera released version 8.5 of its powerful browser suite in a new variation: No ads at no charge. In other words, the previous paid version of the product is now the only version, and the ad-sponsored version has disappeared. There is a $29-per-year charge for email-based support from Opera Software. The mobile versions of Opera also continue to cost $29 to purchase.
Firefox 1.5 and IE 7
Opera is not the only browser maker to have released a new version recently. I'm currently testing both Firefox 1.5 Beta 1 and Internet Explorer 7. I've already written about the latter, and my most recent comments appeared in the first article in this edition of the newsletter, as well as in more depth as part of my Windows Vista Beta 1 coverage in the last issue of the newsletter.
I like IE 7 in this early guise, which I think may be something less than "Beta 1." As implemented in this early build, it probably won't displace Firefox on my desktop. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be successful for Microsoft. Most people in the U.S. don't think about what browser they use, and they don't think Internet Explorer is broken. The early Firefox adopters have had issues with extension conflicts, messed up Firefox profiles, and performance issues. I've waded through some of these problems personally. Mozilla needs to lean heavily on the quality issues.
I can't predict the outcome of Mozilla's efforts with Firefox (although, Firefox is still a huge long shot). But I can say confidently that if either product is annoying to use, because of poorly implemented features or overall reliability, that product might lose ground to the other. The usability of Internet Explorer's security features since Windows XP Service Pack 2 has degraded. The constant need to interact with the "info bar" to extend permission for downloads, ActiveX applets, and so forth even when you've already allowed these behaviors with a specific site was the last straw for me. I don't want to be protected from myself with absolutely no recourse to workaround that protection. Especially when I begin to feel like a rat in a lab test, having to go click, click, click to actually use the product. For experienced users, this is a senseless over-correction.
By contrast, Firefox, which is no more secure than Internet Explorer (and, if anything, may be less secure though any comparison is complex), has much better usability with respect to security protections. The difference was enough to make Firefox my favorite browser for at least the last year.
Testing Firefox 1.5
Firefox's Version 1.5 Beta 1 has been surprisingly trouble free for me. I have it installed on two production machines, including the PC that I use the second-most often. I installed 1.5 as soon as it was released, and the only problems I had at all were that in the first week, several of the extensions I like to use weren't supported yet. Firefox 1.5, though, handled that very adroitly. It's too early to say whether extensions will operate more reliably under 1.5, but the extensions module has been expanded to provide more management of these plug-in tools.
The biggest new feature in Firefox 1.5 is "automated update," which beta testers have little experience with or detail about because there have been no Firefox program updates since Firefox 1.5 Beta 1 was released. (You can see positive differences in the way Firefox extensions update.) According to the Firefox 1.5 Beta 1 release notes, automated update is designed "to streamline product upgrades. Notification is more prominent, and updates to Firefox may now be half a megabyte or smaller." For more details about specific fixes to the program-updating features and other aspects, check out this list of bug fixes in 1.5 Beta 1.
My colleague at TechWeb, Barbara Krasnoff, wrote a first look of Firefox 1.5 Beta 1, including screenshots, that you might like to check out:
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Cyndy and I try our best not to carry any long-term debt. Of our three vehicles, we own two outright and the other is a loan with zero-percent interest. We have three cars because the 10-year-old one gets great gas mileage, and with a little educated prescience a couple of years ago, my gut told me to keep it instead of selling it. [Editor's Note: This is a major change for a guy who used to "trade in" every two to three years. --Cyndy.] [It's all because of your wonderful influence, honey. --Scot.] So, anyway, taking out a short-term "loan" with my credit card isn't something I do lightly. But some things are more important than money. My kids are only going to be this age once, and I haven't been taking shots of them because I've needed a digital that worked like a film SLR.
Well, now I'm taking pictures of my wife and kids.
I bought the 8.2 Megapixel Canon EOS 20D with Canon's EF-S 17-85mm F4.5-F5.6 Image Stabilization (IS) Ultrasonic (USM) lens, which is designed specifically for Canon's "prosumer" digital SLRs, and the 20D in particular. The 17-85mm range is equivalent to a 27-136mm zoom range on a film SLR camera.
Canon's made-for-digital 17-85mm EF-S IS zoom lens cannot be used by conventional Canon film cameras, like my 11-year-old Canon Rebel XS film SLR. It isn't as fast as the kit lens Nikon offers for its D70/D70s digital SLR. The image-stabilization feature eats up camera battery juice. And with a list price around $600, the Canon 17-85mm isn't cheap. But there's a flip side to the argument that's compelling.
The Image Stabilization feature lets you shoot without a tripod at slower shutter speeds without concern about camera shake and blurriness. So while the lens is slower than the Nikon kit lens, you effectively gain a stop or so in some situations. (I'm sure you film SLR purists are shaking your heads at this, but digital is a different medium.) Perhaps even more importantly, it's not what the 17-85mm lens does that's important so much as the drawbacks of the alternative. The junky entry-level Canon 18-55mm kit lens for the 20D isn't worth the $50 or so you'd pay for it. The 17-85mm lens, which is roughly the equivalent of a 28-135mm zoom for a full-format 35mm camera, is the best choice as your first or only lens for the 20D. (Canon also offers the EF-S 10-22mm wide-angle zoom lens for the 20D, which would make the perfect holiday gift to 20D owners ... hint, hint.) [Editor's Note: Um, yawn, Santa's too sleep deprived to be taking note of anything right now ... --Cyndy.] If I'd been forced to choose between Canon's 20D with the cheap 18-55mm kit lens and the Nikon D70s, I almost certainly would have picked the Nikon product, whose kit lens I prefer.
My biggest problem with the Nikon D70/D70s is the fact that it doesn't let you take RAW and full-quality JPGs simultaneously and automatically. After more than a year of pre-purchase research, I determined that I wanted to take both those file formats at the same time. RAW files are often called the "digital negative" for good reason. You can do amazing things to improve RAW file image quality with a software product like Adobe PhotoShop CS2. The most useful thing is the ability to radically change white balance (color temperature for white, which affects the tint of all other colors). One of the Canon 20D's few weaknesses is that its automatic-white-balance control doesn't work well under standard incandescent (or tungsten) light bulbs. The result is usually images with yellowy-orange cast. But Canon's EOSViewerUtility (a fully licensed copy comes with the Canon 20D), Adobe PhotoShop CS2, Phase One's Capture One, Corel's Paint Shop Pro X, and several other applications make short work of correcting the color balance after the fact. The process is as simple as choosing "Tungsten" from a pull-down menu, and the result is a dramatic improvement in overall picture quality.
Meanwhile, you can't see RAW files at all unless they're opened in an image-manipulation program, like PhotoShop or the Canon utility. (Microsoft offers the RAW Image Thumbnailer for Windows XP, but its only real use is for taking a quick peek at RAW files on your hard drive, perhaps as a way to figure out which ones to open with PhotoShop or its like. It doesn't help you publish or manipulate your images. Microsoft plans to incorporate this functionality in Windows Vista.) They aren't, in fact, images, but a way of storing the image data so that it's more easily manipulated. To take pictures and see them on your camera's display, you need JPG versions. JPGs are also readily publishable to the Web or sent via attachment with email. It's actually quite easy to create JPGs (or GIFs or PNGs or PhotoShop PSDs, etc.) from a RAW file. But when you want to use your camera more like a point-and-shoot to record, say, family events for other family members, opening every RAW file to do the post-processing work may be more trouble than some people will go to.
I wanted to support both of these ways of working in one camera. If I accidentally take some amazing shot (the only way I'm liable to take an amazing shot), I want the ability to edit the RAW file. That's the best way to tweak small things (exposure problems, for example) or prepare a photo to be enlarged or used for a publishing application. The Nikon D70s really doesn't do both things well. You can either get the full quality, full-size JPG or the RAW file, not both. If Nikon ever offers that capability something it might even be able to do with a firmware upgrade the D70s would be a significantly lower-cost option to the 20D with the 17-85mm IS lens. There are a lot of other good things about the Nikon D70/D70s.
Realistically, you need a lot of CompactFlash memory to support taking RAW files and full-quality JPGs simultaneously. The RAW files average 8.7MB and the large/fine quality JPGs average 3.6MB, according to Canon. That means that every shot I take requires 12MB+ of storage on the CF card. Remember, though, if you take a shot and it's bad, it's easy to delete to make room for better shots to come. Even so, I wound up buying two 2GB 80x Lexar CF cards. That wasn't cheap at something like $180 a pop.
But I'm completely content with that decision because I'm very unlikely to ever run out of memory, even on longer trips, say, without access to a PC. Also, I have several other devices that use CF, so it's not like this is the only thing I might use the memory with. Many people might question my reasoning behind spending for the 80x rating, but the Canon 20D does take advantage of faster memory, which helps it to flush its generously-sized buffer. The main use for that would be action sports shots, where the 20D's five-frames-per-second continuous shooting capability will make it a standout on soccer weekends when my kids get a little older. The faster CompactFlash will primarily give you shorter latency periods between bursts, but also slightly longer bursts.
Costs and Value
I've given you some of the reasons why it was important to me to shell out a small fortune on this particular digital camera. Together with the lens, it cost about $1,740 from BuyDig.com. Add in the two 2GB CompactFlash cards and the extra battery I felt was absolutely necessary, and the darn thing cost me just over $2,300. Interestingly, I happened to stumble upon the receipt for my Canon Rebel XS film SLR camera I purchased at a camera show in 1994 with a Canon EF Ultrasonic AF 28-135mm F3.5-F4.5 lens. Combined, they cost me less than $700.
It's clear that it's still early days for digital SLRs. They are bigger and bulkier than film SLRs, and there are compromises that need to be worked out better. But one thing they deliver that's hard to beat is instant pictures that you can see as soon as you shoot. Any post-processing they may need requires a little effort, but most of it (short of printing) is free to you. The digital image is also the best way to go for most electronic publishing applications.
I suspect that five years from now the 20D will be an antique next to the digital SLRs of that day. I hope those future cameras will be smaller, full frame (meaning that the image sensor is the same size as a 35mm film camera), will use the same lenses that film SLRs use, and they'll sport large displays.
But the 20D isn't just a set of compromises that leave you dissatisfied. In fact, it's a very exciting camera. It's large, although, it still feels great in my hands. The first time I held it my fingers found a relaxed and natural shooting position. And Cyndy, who has photographic skill and talent, doesn't have trouble using it. The controls, while not exactly intuitive, are easy to remember once you understand the logic behind them. The control read-out on top of the camera is a very busy little panel, but it's exceedingly well thought out, and a pleasure to work with. Canon supplies an excellent hand-sized manual that gives you everything you need to know. There's also a wallet-sized cheat sheet that can help you remember things. I had expected the camera to have a steep learning curve, but it really didn't. That's not to say I've totally mastered it, but I'm on the way.
Shooting and exposure modes are important in digital SLRs. The 20D offers a basic automatic mode that is way too limiting for my needs. But the P mode (Program Auto Exposure) solves the problem by providing automatic functionality while giving you a long list of control settings and overrides. For example, you can set the "film" speed, or ISO, exposure compensation, and specify simultaneous RAW and full-quality JPG. For standard point-and-shoot operation, this is the mode I'm the most comfortable with. The main automatic mode is really for people who should have bought a much less expensive point-and-shoot.
In addition to the P exposure mode, there is also Tv (shutter priority), Av (aperture priority), M (full manual exposure), and A-DEP (automatic depth of field auto exposure). Each of these has its uses, and for the types of photography I like to do, I could see myself using shutter priority, aperture priority, and manual exposure at times.
Image Sensor: A Major Advantage
One of the most pronounced advantages of the Canon 20D over its competition is the quality and sensitivity of its image sensor. By all accounts (and I read and re-read over a dozen in-depth reviews of the 20D and the Nikon D70), the 20D's sensor has both a wide range of sensitivity and also delivers amazing artifact-free color, even at higher sensitivity levels (ISOs) where most other digital SLRs tend to introduce image noise.
ISO numbers are equivalent to film speeds, like 100, 200, 400. Film photographers sometimes use the graininess of 400-speed film for effect. But you're unlikely to see much difference between the 20D's 100 and 400 ISO settings. And the camera is capable of ISOs up to 3200. The image quality at ISO 800 is nearly as good 100, making the 20D a great extended-night-time exposure or low-light camera. It's also the primary way along with the image stabilization on the 17-85mm EF-S lens this camera compensates for the slightly slower speed of the F4.5-5.6 lens. True photography buffs are apt to shudder at the notion of choosing image stabilization and sensor quality over lens quality. But this isn't a film camera. It's digital. It's important to understand this new medium's strengths and weaknesses, and to make the right choices.
What I've come to realize is that Canon, better than any other company currently, understands this technology and how to make money with it while at the same time delivering quality to its customers. Nikon's Nikkor lenses are world renowned. In the 35mm camera format, they make better lenses than Canon does (though some may disagree with me). I was a Nikon guy for 15 years before I switched to Canon. So I've used both. But Nikon, which doesn't make its own image sensors (they're manufactured by Sony), has not taken the same leading role in digital cameras that it long enjoyed with 35mm-format film cameras. Canon is the leader because it does make its own sensors, and it has created a strategy that delivers high quality images, flexibility, and user convenience. You definitely pay for the privilege of getting all that in one camera. But it's worth it.
So, back to the actual camera. In use, I feel completely comfortable with the 20D's ability to balance aperture, shutter speed, lens quality, ISO level to advantage or to let me do these things. I don't feel like I'm bumping up against limitations that cause issues with exposure, the potential for camera shake and therefore blurriness or the requirement to use a tripod, diminished depth of field, and so forth, the way you do when you use a slow zoom lens on a film SLR. If anything, the 20D with the 17-85mm EF-S lens feels a tad more versatile to me than my Canon film SLR. I don't have enough shooting time with it yet to be fully sure of that statement, but the results from this camera are impressive. It is more forgiving, more able to turn a badly lit shot into something intentionally interesting than any digital camera I have ever used.
Additional Fine Points
The 20D has lots of advantages, some of which are shared by its primary competition, but worth listing here: Less than half-a-second turn-on time, five-frames-per-second continuous shooting, 9-point auto-focus that sets up very quickly, significant built-in buffer ensures that the camera is ready for the next shot, decent companion software that comes with a full user license (unlike Nikon's deficient trial-ware), remote capture software for controlling camera from a computer, excellent battery life, tall pop-up flash unit helps reduce red eye, superb hot-shoe add-on flash (the Canon Speedlite 580EX, another great gift idea), and USB 2.0 connection.
There are also some drawbacks to the 20D, naturally. Again, a couple of these criticisms could be leveled at the competition as well: Default sharpness setting is a little soft (and the problem is compounded by the quality of the basic kit lens), loud mechanical shutter release, no spot metering, flash sync tops out at 1/250th of a second (not as good as the 1/500th of a second supported by the Nikon D70), the 1.8-inch LCD display is smaller than that of the competition and also fades away in sunny conditions, and the automatic white balance feature doesn't work well under incandescent lighting.
What About the Digital Rebel XT?
I could have saved just under $400 on the more recently introduced Canon 350D Digital Rebel XT digital SLR with the 17-85mm EF-S lens. (Actually, at the time that I purchased the 20D I couldn't find the 350D in a lower-cost kit with the EF-S 17-85mm lens; it is available now, so the difference in price was $300 then.) The 350D is a very good camera and an excellent value. With the more expensive lens, it sells for around $1,350, and in this configuration it's a small step up from the Nikon D70s. The 350D also lets you take RAW and large/fine JPG files simultaneously. Although its 8-Megapixel image sensor is not the same as the 20D's, the 350D has excellent noiseless image quality in the same class as the 20D. The 350D represents a huge upgrade from its predecessor, the 300D Digital Rebel, with many tweaks and improvements, many of which are similar to the 20D.
But I had some concerns about changes to the controls, which placed some settings on the LCD instead of the control read-out on the top of the camera. There's also an awkward extra step for custom functions. The maximum flash sync is 1/200th of a second, even slower than the 20D. I also didn't like the small viewfinder. And my feeling is, if you don't like the viewfinder, don't buy the camera. There's actually a pretty long list of other minor things that the 20D does better, some of them pretty minor. But overall I felt that if I was going to spend and arm and a leg for a digital camera, I wanted to be completely satisfied, not annoyed by a small limitations and peccadilloes.
The Last Stop
This isn't my first digital camera. In fact, I got my first one about 10 years ago from Logitech. It was huge, and little more than a novelty. Cyndy and I have also purchased both Kodak DC4800 and Nikon Coolpix 995 point-and-shoot digitals over the last five years. The Kodak was retired a couple years back, and the Coolpix could be headed in the same direction, although it's so light and small we may hang onto it at least until we stop toting car seats, port-o-cribs, and other essential child-rearing accoutrements everywhere we go.
Despite glowing reviews from a variety of sources back in 2001, I was hugely disappointed with the Nikon Coolpix 995. The instamatic lens and limited controls made it annoying to use especially for anyone long-used to a 35mm SLR. Its pictures were decent quality. The delay between when you press the shutter and when the shot is actually taken made me want to throw it against the wall more times than I'd care to admit. After trying it for a year, I went back to my film camera. It's not fair to compare a Nikon digital point-and-shoot to a Canon digital SLR. But that's literally my point of comparison. That and my Canon EOS Rebel XS film SLR.
It wasn't long after we got the Coolpix 995 that I started seeing ads for a new crop of 6-Megapixel digital SLRs, like the Nikon D100 selling for around $2,000. I knew the very moment I saw these high-end consumer models that I wanted one. The Canon D60 and later the Canon Digital Rebel 300D were talking to me. But as I dug into the specs, I realized that these expensive digital SLRs had problems, such as taking forever to power on, being poorly constructed, having image-quality issues, or being hobbled by missing features. I decided to wait, putting them out of my mind for a couple of years.
I made the statement in a recent edition of the newsletter that I hoped the digital camera I buy next will last me 10 years. No way that's going to happen. But if I had bought a lesser digital SLR than the Canon EOS 20D, I doubt it would have lasted me three years.
To support my new digital photography habit I've picked up a copy of Adobe PhotoShop CS2. I'm also planning to explore Phase One's Capture One Pro. I've also tried Canon's EOSViewerUtility and Corel's new Paint Shop Pro X. I hope to learn enough to write more about this aspect of digital photography in a future issue. Until then, I'll leave you with some of the best sites I read and re-read in considering my digital SLR purchase.
Note: This story has nothing to do with Windows or Broadband although it is computer related. I've offered two or three shorter pieces on digital cameras over the last year or so. Every time I write on this subject, I get a solid little barrage of email offering insights, advice, recommendations, and questions about digital cameras and photography. I usually also get an angry message or two about how this isn't what you signed up for. For those of you in that latter category, I will always come back to Windows and broadband. Were I ever to decide to change the focus of this newsletter (not going to happen), I would be very upfront about it. It's not my style to gradually migrate my coverage (at least, not on purpose). However, I reserve the right to write wherever my technology interests take me. And I will likely cover digital photography again. I may do another large article or even a series. One topic I may explore is the software used to edit RAW files as well as additional insights specific to digital photography. Feel free to send email to let me know whether this troubles you or you like the idea.
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I think some people took this out of context. I did not represent this as good security, or something that would replace your firewall, intrusion-detection functionality, or even wireless networking protection provided by 802.11i, including key-based access and wireless encryption. This is simply an extra tool that can help you watch home-based wireless peer networks, most of which we all know aren't well protected to begin with.
Nevertheless, because those who wrote me about this raised concerns, and because I refuse to take chances with your security, and most of all because one person who wrote me to thank me for the tip clearly didn't understand all the angles I'd like to revisit this whole deal. So let me make a few things plain:
Screening MAC addresses will only work against casual bandwidth poachers who don't know much about networking and MAC addresses. The kind of people who stumble upon your wireless network more or less by accident. Why? Because there's software available to all that will let knowledgeable users both scan your network for MAC addresses and then spoof their own MAC address by masking it appear to be the same as one of your local MAC addresses. A determined hacker, as I did say, will not be prevented from gaining access to your network via the Internet with this MAC address filtering move. And that's only one technique. So, this is *not* a replacement for true security.
As for making your SSID address "invisible" or changing it, c'mon people. There's a difference between playing hide-and-seek and being secure. But concealing your SSID from casual snooping is almost tantamount to the advantage you get by using network address translation with your firewall to "stealth" your ports. Neither one is truly secure, and both ideas have a little merit. The only real problem with hiding your SSID name concerns your perception of the minor advantage it gives you. If you believe it to be a true security measure, then you're worse off than not using it at all. There's really no such thing as a hidden SSID name; it's only an advantage when the people you're trying to thwart know nothing about networking. And, of course, there's no guarantee of that. On the other hand, most people who run true wireless security on home networks probably also have a false sense of that security. By its nature, wireless networking is an insecure means of transferring information.
The underlying problem with my writing about these little tips is that over the last three or four years a number of people have passed them along as urban myths about how to protect yourself. Numerous experts have tried to disabuse people of the notion that tips like these leave their networks safe and sound. But in the process, they've effectively taken away little added measures that could help people prevent casual abuses. And, frankly, it's these casual abuses that are far more common for home networks than determined hacking.
I agree that I should have done a better job explaining this. I don't agree that the measures I mentioned are worthless, or dangerous to your security. So long as you understand that they are not first or even second lines of defense or any lines of true defense at all. In my opinion they're useful tools in some settings especially in less population-dense areas. Both are pointless in a high-rise apartment building where your network comes in contact with many others. But they could be useful in rural or suburban areas where "war chalking" is virtually non-existent and neighbors close enough to matter can be counted on one hand. Even so, I need to be clear. Such measures are not security.
I would also renew the call for wireless network specifications bodies and hardware makers to clean up the security of their products. 802.11i is a failure for home networks, in my considered opinion. It offers barely passable enterprise security, but the overhead for home-based peer networks is too severe and implementation is made complex by the number of variations and lack of instruction.
Finally, Microsoft had a chance to make this better in Windows XP Service Pack 2. While the wireless networking features delivered by the service pack are easier to use, they don't work better, and nothing about XP SP2 made dealing with wireless security measures easier.
When you consider how many millions of wireless networks there are now, the computer industry hasn't done a great job of all this.
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Since the beginning with Scot's Newsletter, and with the newsletters that preceded it, I have tried very hard to interact with newsletter readers via email and polls. That interaction has been hugely beneficial for the newsletter, because there are important gems in the things some of you write to me. Some of the best stories in Scot's Newsletter have come from reader tips, observations, and ideas.
I think that some people who write believe there's a whole staff of people behind the newsletter. Not true. It really is me, Cyndy, and Bruno on Linux Explorer. And I'm the only person reading the email. I do publish things from other professional writers from time to time, as well as things readers contribute. But truth is, it's mostly me.
All that's the introduction to something unpleasant I want to ensure SFNL readers know: I do not and cannot read all the email to the newsletter. I'm lucky to get through a third of that mail, and I'm only able to respond to about half the messages I read. So, on a good day, you have roughly a 15% chance of getting a response from me. (On a bad day it's a lot less than that.) None of this is your fault or my fault. Some days I get well over a thousand messages addressed to the newsletter. Most days it's a steady trickle, 20, 30, 50 or 100 messages. But whatever kind of day, there's just no possible way I can answer it all.
If you send me email and don't get a response, please don't take that personally. It doesn't mean anything at all. It just means I was too busy to reply.
I also want to make the point that I consider all email I receive to be publishable in the newsletter. I never publish people's email addresses or mailing addresses, but I do like to publish first and last names not "Internet aliases." In some cases I may withhold your name if I think publishing it might in some way hurt you. People who write to me about things their company, for example, may find their names withheld if I think they might get in trouble with their employers. If you send me mail you do not want published, please say that in the message.
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Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows or broadband related website that's a little amazing? Please send me the URL so I can check it out and let everyone know about it.
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The next edition is expected on or just after November 1.
You can always find out when the next issue of Scot's Newsletter is expected to appear by visiting the Scot's Newsletter home page.
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