Archive for August, 2009

Tip of the week: Get free tech support online

Questions

[Image: Courtesy of Ivan Petrov]

We recently blogged about the frustration many of us feel when we can't figure out how to get balky electronics gear to do what we want it to. Here are some ideas on where to get help.

The user guide that came with the TV, digital camera, or other gadget is the obvious place to start—provided you can find it. If you can't locate a hard copy, see if the manufacturer has an electronic copy on its Web site. Many companies do. We quickly located downloadable manuals for Nikon cameras, Nokia phones, and Sharp Blu-ray players simply by searching for "product manual Nikon cameras" and so on. You can also get manuals from some retailers, such as online retailer Crutchfield, and third-party sites such as Fixya, Retrevo, and DiploDocs.

See what other support services the manufacturer might offer. Many have quite a bit. Samsung's online support center, for instance, has FAQs and troubleshooting and how-to guides. It's possible the answer to your question or solution for your problem might already be addressed. Sony's eSupport center online has much the same. Panasonic, meanwhile, has set up a Concierge service for users of its flat-panel TVs.

Retailers might back you up as well. Costco stands out with its concierge service, which provides free setup and troubleshooting advice on electronic products purchased at its stores or online. Crutchfield offers free tech support for the life of most products, both by phone and online. Its Web site has an extensive FAQ, which you can search by product.

Other users can help too, so check out user forums. Some are sponsored by retailers, like Best Buy. Others are hosted by third parties, including Consumer Reports. AVS.com is well-known in the audio/video field.

Fixya offers free advice and information on a wide range of products, from electronics to appliances, cars, and more—1 million specific products, according to information on the site. You can browse through a list of common problems, chat with an expert, check out service providers, or ask other users for buying recommendations.

Do you have any tips on getting product support? Let us know. —Eileen McCooey

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Sagging video game industry looks to price cuts, new titles

xbox sony playstation price cut video game industry[PHOTO: Courtesy of Rebecca]

While major home electronics are still selling despite the sagging economy, smaller personal electronics are sitting on store shelves, according to the Consumer Reports Index, our new economic survey.  I expect that finding is hardly a surprise to the video game industry–sales of video games and game consoles have been dropping for months.

The decisions by Sony and Microsoft to slash $100 off the price of their Playstation 3 and X-Box 360 Elite systems, respectively, could help slumping sales. (With the cuts both consoles now cost $299.) Those price cuts could increase unit sales by as much as 60 percent, NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier told Gamasutra recently. That’s welcome news to both console and game makers: NPD has reported a year-over-year sales drop of 37 percent in console sales and 29 percent drop in game sales.

New game titles may also help not only manufacturers but the retailers that sell their wares, such as game-rental giant GameStop, which reported a 32 percent profit dive in the second quarter. GameStop CEO Daniel DeMatteo sees some hope with the impending release of several new games this fall (including Halo 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2), according to Reuters, but says his company is “cautious” given ongoing concern about the economy and consumer spending.

Less than a year ago, some analysts speculated that the video-game industry could be recession-proof. Obviously, that’s not the case. Nintendo, the third of the “Big 3” game-console manufacturers, is now facing pressure to drop the price of its $250 Wii.

Are you considering buying any video games or consoles this fall, or are they still too expensive? Let us know. –Nick K. Mandle

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Social networks leak personal information, study finds

Spying eye Facebook social networks tracking cookies privacy risk security research study LinkedIn Myspace Twitter Hi5

A new study suggests so-called tracking cookies used by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter may help reveal users' sensitive personal information to third-party advertisers, hackers and online criminals.

[ PHOTO: Courtesy of Sean Carpenter ]

In our 2009 State of the Net survey, roughly 13 percent of people using social networks such as Facebook and Myspace reported being subjected to some kind of abuse and 17 percent of all online users reported having recently experienced identity theft online.

Now a new study (PDF) raises another, possibly more serious threat to users of social networks: the leaking of their personal information to third-party tracking sites that run banner ads on those social networks.

Such tracking sites are known to compile, over a period of years and using cookie files on people's home computers, anonymous records of users' online behavior. For example, they track which web sites people visit. Having the ability to tie those anonymous records to the identities of social network users would all but eliminate their anonymity.

The study, co-authored by a researcher at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, examined the practices of 12 social networking services, including Bobo, Digg, Facebook, Friendster, Hi5, Imeem, LinkedIn, LiveJournal, MySpace, Orkut, Twitter, and Xanga.

Those social networks tag each user by assigning him or her a unique identifier. Normally, such a tag is used internally by the social network to access the user's personal profile. But if an outside tracking site were to obtain that tag, it could easily locate personal information in an individual's social network profile.

What the researchers found is this: When a social network communicates with a third-party tracking site, typically for the purpose of displaying a banner ad on the user’s screen, the social network is disclosing the user’s tag to the tracking site. It's not known whether any tracking site has abused such a disclosure. But one could, by combining the personal information obtained from the social network with its own records of that user’s online behavior to compile a dossier on that individual, including his or her name.

Many social network users have access to privacy controls that can protect their personal information from such tracking sites. But, the study found, on some services such sensitive information as the user’s name, gender, age, and location remain unprotected by privacy controls. The study also estimated that between 55 and 90 percent of the users of the social networks hadn't taken advantage of privacy controls to limit access to their profile information. As a result, much of their personal information was widely exposed. (Besides being of use to third-party tracking sites, such detailed information could be useful to online scammers and other criminals.)

The bottom line: Social networks should offer users a wide range of privacy protections and make sure those are enabled by default. Users of social networks shouldn't assume their identity and personal information is private from advertisers and scammers, and should take all necessary precautions to protect themselves.

I'll cover those recommended steps in a follow-up blog. —Jeff Fox

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FCC to probe competition in wireless service, and other issues

With concern rising among legislators of both parties over a range of issues in the wireless industry, the Federal Communications Commission today decided to launch a broad investigation (PDF) into the competitiveness of wireless service. They also approved two additional inquiries to address other consumer issues in telecom service—including one in which they cited a study finding by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

The Commission is interested in how the level of competition between cell-phone carriers may be affecting their customers and the level of investment in the industry, including the entry of new carriers to the market.

At today's meeting, the first with its new roster of commissioners, the Commission was responding to petitions that asserted that a lack of competition in wireless has resulted in some unwelcome developments. Those include a rise in deals that make certain cell phones available exclusively from a particular carrier, the continuation of often-hefty termination fees when consumers end their cell-phone contracts early, and the blocking from certain phones of software to allow consumers to make calls
outside of their carrier's cell-phone network. (The concern about such blocking is now extending beyond merely voice-calling applications, as our advocacy colleagues at Consumers Union, the parent company for Consumer Reports, recently covered.)

The Commission also launched an inquiry into other ways in which telecom consumers might be empowered and protected. In doing so, it cited results from the most recent report on bundled phone, TV, and Internet service by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. That survey showed a high incidence of complaints about billing, support, and fees with the so-called "triple play" packages offered by some telecom providers. The Commission cited the study because it wants to further establish how widespread are the complaints it highlights, according to FCC staff member Lisa Boehley.

The Commission also confirmed a third inquiry, into wireless innovation and investment, including such issues as the use of the wireless spectrum in ways that benefit consumers and help "solve real-world problems in areas such as health care,
energy, education, and public safety."

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Apple’s Snow Leopard: What you need to know

Apple Snow Leopard OS X upgrade Consumer Reports

[PHOTO: Courtesy of Apple]

Tomorrow, Apple is releasing “Snow Leopard,” a new version (10.6) of its OS X operating system. That the newcomer’s name is merely a variant of the previous version, “Leopard,” suggests that this is less of a major upgrade than Leopard was. Even the pricing indicates that: a single upgrade license costs only $29, compared with Apple’s usual $129 for major upgrades.

The most significant improvement Apple has been claiming for Snow Leopard is that the speed of many of the operating system’s components have been improved and that there is improved stability and security, plus better compatibility between the Safari browser and third-party plug-ins. Snow Leopard is supposed to require half as much hard drive space as Leopard, once the installation is complete.

In our brief testing of the recent version released to developers, using a late model MacBook Pro laptop in our labs, Snow Leopard’s default installation took about 6 GB less hard-drive space than Leopard (after updating), a reduction of about 38 percent. Snow Leopard booted up 15 percent faster, and ran our speed benchmarks about 5 percent faster than its predecessor. Loading complex web pages (like ConsumerReports.org ) was noticeably faster in the new version of Safari. We also encountered an oddity: To get the full benefit of the 64-bit mode of the operating system, you must hold down the “6” and “4” keys on the keyboard while booting. We think Apple should make 64-bit boot-up a settable option.

Here are some other improvements in Snow Leopard that Apple has been crowing about:

  • An improved developer interface that will make it easier for developers to take better advantage of multi-core processors and large memory size, and a new development environment that allows the graphics processor to perform multiple complex tasks.
  • The QuickTime media player has been upped to “QuickTime X”, with a cleaner interface and the ability to trim video and upload it to YouTube. Despite Mac OS’s reputation for having a low attack profile, Apple has added a real-time malware scanner.
  • For office workers, Apple has built support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 into the OS for email, address book, and calendar functions. (We suspect that most offices that use Exchange will eventually move Mac users to the new Microsoft Office 2010, which will have a fully-functional Outlook information manager replacing the creaky Entourage program users have put up with for years. )

If you want to upgrade to Snow Leopard, you can pre-order it online, or wait until tomorrow to get it at Apple’s retail stores. Besides individual copies, pricing options include: a $49 “family pack” of five upgrade licenses for; a $169 box set for Mac OS X Tiger users with an Intel-processor-based Mac, that includes the latest iLife multimedia application suite and the iWork office suite; a $229 box-set family pack; and a $10 special upgrade for Macs purchased from June 8 through Dec 29, 2009.

The timing of Snow Leopard’s release relative to that of Microsoft Windows 7 (due in October) is obvious, and the comparison inescapable. Both are enhancements to prior major versions of their respective OS and make similar claims: leaner code, faster performance, more security, applet enhancements, and better use of the graphics processor. Both have free upgrades for recent computer purchasers, though, for paid upgrades, Apple’s $29 beats Microsoft’s $119. (Microsoft argues that Snow Leopard is really a “service pack” update for Leopard, and that Microsoft provides those at no charge —there were three service packs for XP, and one thus far for Vista.) The debate about the relative merits of the two new releases will, undoubtedly, continue for some time.

We’ll have more on Windows 7 in an upcoming blog, including our impressions based on taking the final version for a test drive.

Apple users: Does Snow Leopard sound like an upgrade worth $29? Do you plan to upgrade? Let us know in the space below. —Dean Gallea

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