Saturday, June 26, 2010

How Tracking Cookies Should Be Handled

I stumbled across this tidbit on Walt Mossberg's D|All Things Digital site when reading his review of the iPhone 4. This is the first time I've seen a website be very upfront about tracking cookies and conveniently link site visitors to opt-out pages. What a customer-friendly move!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Firefox: The Best Mac Browser

Simply the best... (Mac) Browser
Firefox 3.0

Apple recently removed the beta tag from Safari 4 and released an (apparently popular) final version for both OS X and Windows. I used Safari 2 when I first switched from PC to Mac but later began using Firefox, as it allowed me to keep my bookmarks synchronized between my iMac and my Windows PCs via the fantastic little plugin Foxmarks. Now that Foxmarks allows bookmark sync with Safari (and sports a new, browser-neutral name, Xmarks), I thought I would try using Safari for a week to see if there were any compelling reasons to switch back from Firefox. I didn't find any.

Apple has been bragging about Safari's speed advantage over Firefox and Opera, but my informal and completely subjective browsing tests haven't left me convinced that it's any faster. Safari seems to load just as quickly as Firefox, and it even seems that new tabs load more slowly in Safari than in Firefox (at least with Safari's default "Top Sites" feature enabled). Speaking of Top Sites, I find this feature visually appealing--my browsing history has never looked better--but not particularly productive. All of my frequently visited sites already appear in my bookmarks bar, which is both faster and easier for me to use than Top Sites.

The key phrase in that last statement is for me--Safari 4 just doesn't fit into my workflow as well as Firefox, and I've found myself becoming increasingly irritated at the way Safari handles some of my routine web browsing tasks.

I don't like clutter, physical or digital. I like my desk and my office to be organized, and I expect the same thing of my computer. When I download a file, therefore, I immediately want to file it away in the proper folder, which by the way is rarely the Downloads folder. Unfortunately, Safari forces me to save all downloaded files to a single folder, which then requires me to open the Downloads folder and drag my recently-downloaded files to their proper place. Why require this extra step? Why not allow me to choose where to store each new download?

Firefox gives me precise control over the behavior of its tabs so that just about everything I open appears in a new tab instead of a new window. Safari's behavior is not nearly as customizable, and I was frequently annoyed by links that opened new windows instead of new tabs. I also sorely missed Firefox's ability to reload all previously opened tabs when I start the browser. This allowed me to restart my browser or computer without having to worry about remembering where I had left off in my browsing. With Safari, I had to make sure I was finished with all tabs before closing the browser.

The "Awesome Bar"
Both Firefox and Safari have an "awesome" navigation bar that attempts to save the user a great deal of URL typing by guessing which page she would like to visit. Firefox's implementation of this feature worked far more effectively than Safari's for me. Safari seemed to suggest only pages that I had bookmarked or recently visited, while Firefox added Google search results to the mix. For instance, typing "fox news channel" into Safari's navigation bar returns an error page that suggests performing a Google search for the term "fox news channel." Firefox, on the other hand, takes me straight to

Another venue in which Firefox trumps Safari is customization and extensibility. There are literally thousands of add-ons for Firefox that make web browsing much more productive and enjoyable, and I really began to miss the functionality added by plug-ins such as AdBlock Plus and Hyperwords.

Final Thoughts
Safari 4 isn't a bad browser, and given some time, I could probably get used to its idiosyncrasies. At the end of the day, though, Firefox allows me to work and browse more efficiently, even if it may render pages and JavaScript more slowly than its competitor from Cupertino. And with Firefox 3.5 right around the corner, I'm perfectly content to restore Firefox to its "default browser" status on my Macs.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

What Mac Could Learn from PC

Three years ago, I purchased my first Apple computer, a shiny white Core 2 Duo iMac. I had grown so tired of dealing with the instability, insecurity, and inelegance of Windows PCs that I decided to sample Apple's wares in hopes that Macs really were better than PCs. To make a long story short, I became a Mac convert. I love the design, simplicity, and performance of my iMac and OS X.

As much as I love my Mac, though, it's not perfect. As a matter of fact, there are some elements of the Mac experience where Apple could learn a thing or two from Microsoft (a fact that is even more relevant with the impending release of Microsoft's slick Windows 7 operating system). In no particular order, here are some lessons I think Mac needs to learn from PC.
  1. Adding media shouldn't be hard. Apple's iTunes software is probably the most popular music jukebox application on any operating system (thanks to the ubiquitous iPod), but it still inexplicably lacks a feature included in Windows Media Player for years: the ability to monitor folders and automatically add new media to a user's library. If I download an album into my music folder, I shouldn't also have to drag it into iTunes to add it to my library--it should be added automatically!
  2. Buttons aren't all that bad. Everyone knows about Stephen P. Jobs' disdain for buttons (Exhibit A: the button-less iPod shuffle), but it's time for Apple to realize that two-button mice (and touchpads) make our computing experience more productive. No, I don't want to control-click, and no, the Mighty Mouse isn't good enough (just try playing a game where you have to click the left and right buttons simultaneously). Just give us our second mouse button already!
  3. When it comes to media, more is better. There's no question that OS X's Front Row interface is clear, uncluttered, and easy to use--textbook Apple design--but there's also no doubt that Windows Media Center can pull in more content from more sources. I understand that Apple has a vested interest in channeling users to the iTunes Store for all their media cravings, but the simple fact of the matter is that I'm not going to pay for the privilege of watching a show that I can view for free on Hulu, Netflix (with a subscription), or via an over-the-air antenna.
Again, I absolutely love my Mac, but it's not perfect. These are just a few areas in which Cupertino could learn a thing or two from Redmond and make OS X an even better product. Are there any lessons you think Mac could learn from PC? Sound off in the comments and let us know your thoughts!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Simply the Best... Video Games

I just finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect for Xbox 360, and--I don't say this lightly--it's the best video game I've ever played. Period. I just can't remember ever being so immersed in a game world or impressed by such massive investment of time and attention to detail.

All this got me thinking. Is Mass Effect the best video game ever? Surely there have been other games just as immersive and impressive. I'm going to mull this over for a while, but here are a few other video games that immediately come to mind as very good, in no particular order.
  • Quest for Glory (PC)
  • Final Fantasy VI (SNES)
  • Bioshock (Xbox 360)
  • Fable 2 (Xbox 360)
Reflecting on these titles, it's very clear that games with deep, involved stories are appealing to me. I'll be updating this post with some more thoughts once I have an opportunity for further reflection.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Toyota Prius: Simply the Best Car?

(Credit: Toyota)

I just finished reading the test drive report of the 2008 Toyota Prius at After living with a 2008 Prius for half a year now, I can say that this report is spot on. Here's part of what editor James Riswick has to say:

"Well, the simple answer is that the Prius is actually quite good. Given its superb interior packaging, ample features list and unbeatable fuel economy, the Prius was designed to be the epitome of practical, head-over-heart automotive choices. Its driving experience will never excite and its styling is hardly what most folks would deem attractive, yet for those who view cars as simple transportation devices, it's easy to recommend the Prius."

Most people who ask about my Prius seem surprised when I tell them that it's a car that really doesn't make any compromises. Some folks actually have a hard time believing that a car with a combined EPA rating of 46 mpg (my average for the first six months has been just over 52 mpg) is roomy enough inside to be classified as a midsize sedan and rides smoothly enough to be called "almost Lincoln-like." When people hear the name Prius, they typically lump it into the same category as infamous fuel sippers like the Geo Metro or smart fortwo, which they don't realize are considerably smaller and have lower EPA ratings than the Prius (the smart car even requires premium gasoline). The Prius is also a really fun car to drive (albeit not in a top-down, hair-on-fire, Corvette sort of way), as it becomes almost an obsession to try to squeeze just a few more miles per gallon out of its Hybrid Synergy Drive.

So is the Prius simply the best car available? That's an impossible question to answer, as it depends upon your transportation requirements, driving habits, and personal preference. I would venture to say, however, that the combination of utility, comfort, and economy available in the Prius really is tough to beat.

Review: Canon PIXMA MX850 All-in-One

Simply the Best... Home Office All-in-One
Canon PIXMA MX850

(Credit: Canon USA)

Strengths: Outstanding text quality, built-in duplexing and automatic document feeder, two paper trays, Mac (Leopard) compatibility

Weaknesses: Big and heavy, networking/sharing support could be improved, photo quality not fantastic

I purchased the MX850 as a replacement for a similar HP Photosmart 3310 that I had been using for several years with my Mac and Windows PCs. I was generally satisfied with the HP; it included built-in wireless networking and had outstanding photo quality. After upgrading to OS X 10.5 Leopard, however, the HP model was rendered useless for anything other than basic printing on my iMac, even with drivers updated for Leopard. I was very happy, therefore, to find that Canon's MX850 works flawlessly with my iMac running Leopard.

The first thing you notice about the MX850 is its size; it's considerably larger and heavier than my HP multifunction printer. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but you'll want to take note of the dimensions and make sure you have room for this device before purchasing. This is likely due to the added functionality Canon has squeezed into the device. It includes an auto duplexer, automatic document feeder, and two paper trays (one at bottom front and one on the back). If you frequently scan multi-page documents, print double-sided materials, or switch between two types/sources of paper, then this machine will undoubtedly prove very convenient.

Printer output is very good, with a few caveats. Everyday printing is very speedy, and the text output of the MX850 is fantastic, giving some laser printers a run for their money. There is one caveat pertaining to duplex printing which causes duplex-printed text documents to appear dark gray instead of black. In order to reduce bleeding through on double-sided documents, the printer uses only colored inks (no black) for double-sided printing. If you prefer to print most of your documents using black ink only (which I would recommend in order to conserve the expensive colored inks), know that you won't be able to do so when printing in duplex mode. Unfortunately, the photo quality of the MX850 is not as outstanding as the text quality. It produces nice-looking (even frame-worthy) prints on photo paper, but you won't mistake them for professional prints. This is the one area where the Photosmart beats the MX850 hands-down.

The other features of this device also work very well. Scan quality is very good, and the automatic document feeder makes it very easy to scan multiple-page documents. Fax capabilities are built in as well, and I was pleased to note the inclusion of speed dial and a standard telephone-style number pad for inputting numbers.

The MX850 also includes network connectivity in the form of an ethernet port, but it would have been nice to see built-in WiFi networking included as well. Even though Canon includes fully-featured drivers for both Windows and Mac OS X, it's not possible to attach the device to a Mac and share it with Windows PCs (I was able to use Bonjour printer sharing and a generic driver to allow my Windows PCs to print to the device, but you don't have the ability to scan or to set or use any advanced device functions such as the duplexer or print quality settings).

The MX850 is clearly designed with a home office environment in mind, as its advanced document-handling abilities and unexceptional photo quality suggest. If you're looking for a full-time photo printer, then you should look elsewhere; but if your scanning and printing needs routinely call for excellent text quality, convenient duplexing, scanning multipage documents, and the flexibility offered by two paper trays, then the MX850 will fit the bill perfectly.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tip: Finding the Best Deals Online

Simply the Best... Prices!
Where to find great deals on the Web

Another question that I get frequently is a variation of "Where can I find the best price on product X?" The Internet is a fantastic tool for bargain shopping in two respects. First, online retailers almost always offer prices that are significantly lower than brick-and-mortar retail stores such as Wal-Mart or Best Buy (even more so because most online retailers offer free shipping and don't assess sales taxes). Second, the vast amount of information available online makes researching products (which is why you're here, right?) and comparison shopping far easier than it's ever been before. Let's look at comparison shopping first.

When it comes to comparison shopping on the web, there are two web addresses you should remember: (the destination of the "Find the best deal on.." links at the end of each of my reviews) and A search for product name or model number on either site will return a list of online vendors offering the product and the prices, shipping fees, and taxes (if applicable) that each assesses. Most of the time, you'll find that it's the same selection of retailers that offer the best value (personally, I'm a frequent satisfied customer of,, and When comparison shopping, don't forget to consider the cost of shipping. Free shipping offers can considerably reduce the total amount of a purchase, and it usually doesn't result in a longer wait for your order. Case in point:'s free shipping saved me almost $50 on the Canon printer we recently purchased, and the printer arrived the next day (ordered at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday and delivered at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday). You can't beat that!

As far as research is concerned, I find that Cnet and PC Magazine provide consistently thorough and accurate expert reviews, but it's always a good idea to check user reviews (found on any of the retail sites mentioned above) before purchasing. Sometimes, a product tests well in a lab, but quality and useage issues creep up over the months (and sometimes years) that consumers use it on a daily basis.

To sum up, if you research expert and consumer reviews of a product and use a shopping tool like Pricegrabber to find the best price, you really can't go wrong.