Archive for June 4, 2009

New speaker Ratings: Use them to make a sound choice

Speakers ratings Consumer Reports

Speaker tests are conducted in Consumer Reports' anechoic chamber.

Purchasing a new set of speakers is one quick, easy way to upgrade your sound system—and we’ve just posted new speaker Ratings (available to subscribers). These latest Ratings reflect updated testing procedures—both measured, objective scores and subjective evaluations by trained listeners—performed in our recently renovated audio labs.

Although passionate audiophiles might spend well into five figures for just a pair of speakers, you don't have to pay a fortune for decent sound. Our recommended bookshelf speakers cost as little as $90, and go up to $340, per pair. Our top-rated 5.1-channel system, from Energy, costs just $400 for four satellite speakers, a center-channel speaker, and a powered subwoofer.

One good thing about buying speakers: If you’d like a multichannel surround-sound system but are tight on cash, you can start with two speakers (front left and right models) and then add center-channel and rear surround-sound speakers later. Just stay within the same brand and choose models that are sonically similar (or timbre-matched, in audiophile parlance) so the tonal quality of the sound remains consistent throughout the room.

Best of all, you can consider the money you spend on a speaker upgrade as an investment, since speakers generally last a long time and are less likely to become outmoded than other home-theater gear. —James K. Willcox

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Palm Pre (mostly) praised in early reviews

Palm Pre smartphone early reviews news Sprint Consumer Reports

Click to get a closer look at the Palm Pre smart phone, available directly from Sprint Nextel on Saturday June 6, 2009.

The $200 Palm Pre won’t be available until Saturday, but several high-profile publications that received review units of the much-anticipated smart phone have weighed in—mostly positively.

The reviews echoes many of the positive points we made after having used the Pre a few months back at CES 2009. We liked the Pre’s unique webOS operating system, which provides a highly intuitive interface that elegantly aggregates all the relevant elements pertaining to contacts, calendars, and messaging, and stays connected to their Web-based sources to keep the most up-to-date info at your fingertips.

The interface, too, is a pleasant departure for the old icon-driven menu system started by the iPhone—which can handle only one application at a time. As I observed, the Pre shuffles open applications like a deck of cards, holding your place when you return to them.

The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg liked that interface, and also praised the Pre’s built-in keyboard—since some people don’t like virtual keyboards like those found on the iPhone. He, like me, also liked Synergy, which keeps track of all of your communications – if, say, you are both texting and e-mailing—in one “chat-style” view. He also liked the Pre’s turn-by-turn navigation and automatic wireless backup. 

The New York Time’s David Pogue liked the Pre as well, but he dinged the keyboard as too small and the ringer as too quiet.

Both reviewers criticized the Pre’s battery life as too short—Pogue even calling it a “heartbreaker”—and the dearth of applications in the Pre’s App Store, in contrast to the tens of thousands of apps now available for iPhones.

Of course, comparisons to the current iPhone may become moot on Monday, when Apple is widely expected to announce a new iPhone, which WSJ’s Mossberg says “will have lots of added features that could alter [the] calculations” when comparing iPhone to Pre.

We plan to buy the Pre on Saturday, and have more to say and show about the phone on Monday. —Mike Gikas.

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New HDTV Ratings: TVs are still getting better, and cheaper

In Consumer Reports' TV lab, Claudio Ciacci, senior project leader for electronics, puts new TVs through a battery of tests designed to show any flaws.

If you’re in the market for a new flat-panel HDTV we’ve got some good news: Based on the latest HDTV Ratings (available to subscribers), plasma and LCD TVs continue to get better, even while prices decline. In our latest TV Ratings, all but two of the 35 models we tested delivered very good or excellent high-definition picture quality.

With LCD, we’re seeing newer technologies, such as 120Hz refresh rates, becoming mainstream in all but the smallest or cheapest sets. Others, such as LED backlights, are now in wider use, although still limited to step-up models. In our just-posted Ratings, you’ll find LCD TVs from Samsung and Sony that use “full-array” LED backlights, which can be locally dimmed, as well as other models from those brands that use “edge” LEDs. We found some benefits and tradeoffs to each approach.

Among the new plasma TVs, we’ve now tested the first sets we’ve seen using what’s being called “600Hz sub-field drive.” This technology addresses an issue that, frankly, hasn’t been a real plasma problem: motion resolution, or blurring during fast-moving scenes. This is essentially the same issue being tackled by 120Hz technology in LCD sets, which have had a much more obvious problem. These 600Hz sets, from Panasonic and LG, speed up the rate at which the individual pixels are flashed onscreen. Using test patterns designed to show off this flaw, we found that this new technology can indeed minimize blurring. The improvement was more evident in sets from one brand than the other.

Both LCD and plasma sets are adding new features, such as the ability to directly access online content, including streaming movies and Web-based services from companies such as YouTube and Flickr. Some sets incorporate onscreen “widgets,” developed by Yahoo, to provide easy access to these sites and services. Recognizing that TVs are becoming multi-dimensional, we’ve added a new “versatility” column to our Ratings to reflect a TV’s extra features.

Finally, the quest for ever-thinner designs continues unabated, as new flagship LCD and plasma sets vie for the title of slimmest set, like pound-shedding contestants from The Biggest Loser.

Also, note that we’ve updated some tests and procedures to keep our Ratings in step with TV technology and your needs. For example, image and sound tests are now performed using the HDMI input, and we’ve reworked our sound-quality tests, which use both measurements taken in our updated sound labs and subjective listening tests.

We’ve also been able to increase the pace of our TV tests, so Ratings will be posted faster than they have been in the past. In fact, we’re already well under way in our tests of 16 new models, including LCD sets from some value brands such as Insignia, Dynex, and Auria, and two large 58-inch Samsung plasmas, one of which is the thinnest plasma we’ve ever seen with a built-in tuner. So keep checking back regularly for the latest TV Ratings. —James K. Willcox

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Let’s get this party started!

It looks like this time we’re really going to do it! June 12th is almost here! I really wonder what Mr. Philo T. Farnsworth would say about the digital conversion. I’m betting he’d be proud of what his invention has involved into and I doubt he ever imagined back then what inventing the first electronic TV would become. You know, one of the greatest inventions of our lifetime. The TV, right? Remember it? You have a much more comfortable chair in front of the TV than your computer?!

It’s also one of those things we take for granted. It has always been there, glowing in the living room whether we were paying attention or not and it comforts us to hear noise. Random sounds, images, and some really interesting stuff. Unless you’re up at 3AM and aren’t interested in the latest German battery operated hand tool that cleans the colon and cuts shapes out of paper. Where else can you get stupid lines like “You know the Germans always make good stuff” like in the Sham-Wow commercials, or even make a popular video from it like Rhett and Link?

Click here to view the embedded video.

With digital, you’ll actually be able to see how the latest car polish really can’t cover that scratch and blend the color like it appeared to do in analog. Digital TV may make advertisers more honest, because they won’t be able to hide those little flaws like they could in analog video.

But wait! There’s more! If you use your government coupon from www.dtv2009.gov or 1-888-388-2009, you’ll get forty dollars off that digital converter box and be enjoying crystal clean television. Easy hook-up right out of the box! Enjoy crystal clear TV tonight!

(Some assembly required. Antenna not included. Manufacturer is not responsible if you did not read the instruction manual, understand the instruction manual, or lost the instruction manual. Your reception may vary between channels. Side affects of poor reception are blocking pictures, drops in audio, nausea, anger, and that lost feeling that nothing is ever going to be right again.)

Most of us will not have a problem, though. Because we already switched and are using the new box and learning how it works for a while now. This week I have talked with several viewers that are a little scared, have “heard” conflicting information, but seem to be on the right track now with a little help. Don’t worry, we will do everything we can to help you get through this.

Next week, we will have another phone bank between 6 and 8 PM for you to ask your last minute questions before the switch on Friday. The FCC tool free number 1-888-CALL FCC is available, and electronics retailers have great resources for you to turn to.

After Friday June 12th, you’ll be saying wow every time!

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