Archive for April, 2009

Much-anticipated Palm Pre will be $200 and scarce, say reports

Speculation is again swirling about how much the upcoming Palm Pre, the new smart phone we called a “game changer” when it was unveiled, might cost and how many might be available. The phone is expected by June or so.

According to FierceWireless.com, Palm will limit production to about 375,000 units to create a buzz when supplies run out. Analyst iSuppli says each new Pre will cost $170 to build and will be sold to Sprint for $300, which will offer it to customers for $200 with a two-year contract. .

If that's not enough, according to Engadget, the Pre may have a little brother as early as this fall, which BoyGeniusReport.com says will be called the Eos. The carrier: AT&T Wireless.

Of course, as most smart-phone followers know, success in today's market rests as much or more on software, rather than hardware, as the New York Time's Matt Richtel writes. —Mike Gikas

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Tech Talk: ISO setting

TechTalk icon

As summer approaches, you may find yourself shooting in many different lighting scenarios, including low light. For example, you might be photographing an evening party where there just isn’t that much available light. One solution is to turn on your flash. But if you don’t want to do that, you might opt for increasing the camera’s ISO setting. If you’re not familiar with the term ISO, here’s some help:

ISO stands for International Standards Organization, the association that developed this specification for film many years ago. As with film, an ISO setting measures how sensitive a camera is to light.

A lower number, 100 or 200 ISO, means that the camera is less sensitive to light than at 1600 or 3200 ISO. When the lighting is less than ideal, using a higher ISO setting gives you more flexibility in adjusting other exposure settings (such as aperture or shutter speed) to capture a well-exposed photo or freeze action. It also lets you avoid having to use your camera’s built-in flash.

Click here for an example of two images captured at different ISO settings.

This flexibility comes at a price, however. Making a camera more sensitive increases the strength of the signal from the sensor, akin to turning up the volume on your car radio. Yes, you’d definitely hear more sound, but if there’s any static or background noise on the radio, that will also get amplified. Likewise, in digital cameras: When you capture an image in low light with a high ISO setting, the camera may be forced to “guess” at details in the image, thereby producing specs of false color (called artifacts), also known as visual noise. This can degrade the quality of the image.

Some cameras do a better job than others with high ISO settings. Our Ratings (available to subscribers) tell you which ones to look for. When choosing a rated model, check its “Max. ISO with best quality” column, which indicates the highest ISO setting at which that camera can still produce a good-quality image without a flash. —Terry Sullivan

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How to track swine flu on your cellphone and computer

Modern science may not yet have saved us from the swine flu virus (aka H1N1), but modern technology can help you to track it. Here’s how:

Sign up for text message updates. The website CellPhones.org will text you up to three times a day with swine flu info from the CDC, WHO, and other authorities. The service is free, but your standard text message rates apply.

Follow the CDC on Twitter. Do you tweet? If so, follow the Center for Disease Control as they post short, frequent swine flu news updates, information, and reminders (“CDC reminds you that you can NOT get swine flu from eating pork”).

Watch the virus spread. Not the prettiest picture, but you can track confirmed flu cases across the U.S. at PandemicFlu.gov. Click on your state for local flu-related information and resources.

Get e-mail alerts. You can have Google monitor the news for “swine flu” and e-mail you whenever a story or blog of interest surfaces.

Check the WHO and CDC websites. Both organizations are regularly posting updates on the swine flu: WHO provides a daily, world-scope briefing, and the CDC has travel notices, infection reports, and guidance for health professionals.

Check in with the Consumer Reports Health Blog for ongoing coverage of the swine flu, tips for avoiding and recognizing it, and advice from CU's experts.

Additionally, beware of online, well, swine who are sending out phishing e-mails with swine-flu subject lines.  —Nick K. Mandle

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Cellphone plans: Is tiny Alltel better than giant Verizon?

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Subscribers to Alltel, the relatively small cellphone carrier acquired by Verizon Wireless last January, will be able to keep their Alltel plans as Verizon takes over their accounts, according to a Verizon spokeswoman. And they probably should do so, according to our head-to-head analysis of comparable Alltel and Verizon plans.

In fact, our numbers suggest that Alltel’s 11 million customers will be able to get more minutes of talk time and save $60 to $420 a year by hanging on to their old plans rather than switching to a Verizon one, as they are allowed to do, if they wish.

Since Verizon’s and Alltel’s wireless national-plan rates don’t vary by city, we picked a representative city, Cleveland, in which both Verizon and Alltel (available in 118 metro areas and 259 rural and other markets) are active. We then compared what Alltel customers there would gain and lose if they switched their existing one-line or family two-line national voice plans to the most comparable Verizon plans.

The results show that the existing Alltel plans delivered more talk time for the same or lower price, or lower monthly fees, in 9 of the 11 of the match-ups we studied.

Sometimes that edge was not immediately apparent.  For example Verizon’s 900-minute $60 per month Nationwide Basic one-line plan looks as good as Alltel’s 900-minute $60 per month National Freedom one-line plan. But the Alltel plan allows free unlimited calls to and from 10 My Circle designated phone numbers on any networkwhile the Verizon plan allows the same for only five Friends & Family numbers. That’s a big value disparity, especially if you designate My Circle numbers to friends who aren’t on the Verizon network and would otherwise be billable. Verizon customers can also make unlimited free mobile-to-mobile calls to 80 million other Verizon Wireless customers; the newly acquired Alltel customers got that same benefit starting last February.

(The Alltel and Verizon plans also both provide unlimited free night and weekend calling, a nationwide home calling area, and no extra charge for long-distance calling. Our latest, September 2008, survey of cellular service satisfaction among 51,740 ConsumerReports.org subscribers in 23 U.S. cities found Verizon top-rated in all of those markets, and on-par with Alltel in four markets where that carrier also operated—Charlotte, Cleveland, Phoenix, and Tampa.)

Commenting on our findings, Robin Nicol, a Verizon spokeswoman, said that Verizon customers had gained “greater value” with the addition of Friends & Family calling, which was modeled around My Circle and wasn’t available before Alltel joined the Verizon family.

In May, Verizon will begin phasing out the Alltel brand name, a process that should be completed by next fall. The Alltel My Circle feature will be re-named Friends & Family.  Regardless of the name changes, however, Alltel customers are not required to switch to a Verizon plan; they can keep their current Alltel price plan as long as they want, says Nicol.

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, led efforts to oppose Verizon’s purchase of Alltel on grounds that it would reduce competition. Our plan comparison shows that Verizon’s buy-out removed an often lower-priced competitor from the marketplace. 

We recommend that Alltel customers carefully compare the value of their options and hang on to their Alltel plan if it’s a better deal and meets their calling needs.

As for the 71 million customers who were with Verizon before the Alltel acquisition, they might want to ask about getting access to those often-better Alltel plans, or something similar. After all, it’s all in the family now… —Jeff Blyskal

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Don’t let the swine flu infect your computer

A new variant of the swine flu is looking to make your computer sick. E-mail phishers are now sending unsolicited messages using subject lines like “First US swine flu victims” and “Swine flu worldwide” to entice readers to follow harmful links or open malicious attachments.

If you receive such an email, delete it immediately. McAfee’s Avert Labs Blog has a list of other known subject lines, including ones claiming that Madonna and Salma Hayek have been infected.

Readers with real swine flu questions should visit the FAQ at the Center for Disease Control’s website.

Related: Can you spot a cleverly disguised phishing e-mail? Take our quiz and find out. For more on Internet safety, visit our Guide to Online Security.

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