Archive for November 19, 2009

The scary side of "free" TV

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The ability to watch TV programs on the Web for free, to download cheap or free programming to your iPod, and to stream video as part of your Netflix subscription is great news—or is it?

That’s the question raised by a thought-provoking article in the New York Times this week. The author, Nicholas Carr, says:
“The more I play movies and TV shows from the Web, the less I use my cable TV service.” He’s cut down on pay-per-view movies, canceled Showtime because he can stream movies and programs like Dexter through Nextflix, download programs from Apple’s iTunes store, and watch full TV episodes on sites like Hulu, CNN.com, PBS.org and more.

What’s not to like? Carr and viewers like him can obviously save a bundle while still enjoying lots of TV shows and movies.

The problem, says Carr, is that this is eating into revenues for the companies that produce the programs we love to watch (especially when they’re free). He observes: “If the changes in our viewing habits stanch the flow of money back to studios, producing [the smartest, most creative] programs may no longer be possible. In their place, we’ll get more junk: dopey reality shows, cookie-cutter police dramas, inane gab fests. The vast wasteland will become even vaster. Even ‘free’ has a price.”

I love free as much as anyone and have taken some of these steps to trim my own entertainment costs. We’ve also talked here at Consumer Reports about the notion that consumers might want to ditch their pay-TV service, get free off-air HD, and use these other venues to get premium programming for much less than they’re paying now.

Still, I see Carr’s point, and friends of mine in the TV business are very worried about the future. Which worries me.

What’s your take? —Eileen McCooey

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Poll: Video games & accessories top choices for Black Friday

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Consumer Reports Black Friday shopping poll results. (Click to enlarge.)

A new Consumer Reports poll finds video games and accessories top the list of electronics products consumers will be shopping for over the Black Friday weekend.

Forty-six percent of electronics shoppers said they’d be looking for items in the category, which also ranked high on the list of popular gifts from our October poll.
The next-most-popular electronics items people plan to shop for over the Black Friday weekend are MP3 players, video-game systems, and laptop and netbook computers; all were mentioned by about one in five shoppers. Other choices high on the list: digital cameras (16 percent), flat-panel TVs (13 percent), and GPS units (12 percent).

About 70 percent of shoppers plan to buy electronics over the Black Friday weekend, with men a little more likely (at 73 percent) to seek out gear than women (at 68 percent). For the most part, interest in particular product categories is fairly comparable by gender. The biggest differences: Men are more likely than women to be shopping for headphones, and women are more likely to be shopping for a digital photo frame.

Overall, about a quarter of people plan to brave stores on Black Friday, about the same percentage who planned to do so in the past two holiday seasons. It’s perhaps surprising that the trend held this year, given that most consumers are cutting back, according to the October poll, and that the electronics deals started early this season, with the likes of Sears offering deals since Halloween.

We’ll have more on the what stores will be offering on Black Friday in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. –Paul Reynolds

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Some surprises as California adopts new TV power standards

The controversial regulations by the California Energy Commission (CEC), requiring all TVs sold in the state to meet new energy-efficiency standards, have mostly drawn the expected reactions, with energy-conservation advocates generally lining up behind the proposal and manufacturers opposing it. But the measure has also drawn some reactions that aren't necessarily predictable, and may point to an interesting and nuanced debate to come as the impact of the regulations, for California and the country, are assessed.

The CEC estimates the new energy-consumption threshold, set to go in effect in 2011, will save $8.1 million over 10 years.“The real winners of these new TV energy efficiencies are California consumers who will be saving billions of dollars and conserving energy while preserving their choice to buy any size or type of TV. Californians buy four million televisions each year and they deserve the most energy efficient models available," said Energy Commission Chairman Karen Douglas.”

On the whole, as expected, the Consumer Electronics Association, one of several industry groups which opposed the regulatory proposals, criticized the CEC’s actions:

CEA is extremely disappointed in the CEC’s decision to regulate TV energy use. Simply put, this is bad policy—dangerous for the California economy, dangerous for technology innovation and dangerous for consumer freedom. Instead of allowing customers to choose the products they want, the Commission has decided to impose arbitrary standards that will hamper innovation and limit consumer choice. It will result in higher prices for consumers, job losses for Californians, and lost tax revenue for the state.

But at least one manufacturer, Vizio, based in California, supports the measure–and proudly posts a news article on its Web site saying so.

On the other side, the California legislation has received flak from the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, hardly known as a conservative voice. In an editorial last month, the paper wrote that "[w]e're strong supporters of energy conservation, but we don't see why the state should impose performance standards on an industry that is making so much progress on its own. The risk is that it will block new technologies that gain efficiency over time, deterring innovation and undermining its own goals." The paper also knocks the legislation for overlooking the total economic burden to consumers of owning a TV set: "The commission cites such power-saving innovations as LED backlighting, laser-lit screens and organic LED without mentioning that these technologies raise the price of a set significantly."

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Microsoft announces development of Internet Explorer 9

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Developers have long complained about Internet Explorer’s lack of adherence to Web standards as the below Google Sidewiki entry from the Microsoft home page details.

This lack of standardization has affected consumer experiences as sites are forced to either dumb down their web sites to work adequately on all browsers or develop a separately designed site to work just with Internet Explorer.

Today, Microsoft announced that they had begun development on IE9 and they promised that this version would take steps toward compatibility with standards that matter most to web developers.

The work we do here, both in the product and on test suites, is a means to an end: a rich interoperable platform that developers can rely on.

Microsoft is also promising to improve the speed of JavaScript execution in the browser as IE has lagged behind its competitors in this area. This JavaScript speed improvement has the potential to make for faster and smoother web experiences for IE users when IE9 is released.

No release date has been set for IE9, but Microsoft’s dedication to improving IE ensures continued competition and innovation, as browser producers fight to be your first choice when you access the Internet.

new iMac computer review

An Early Look At IE9 for Developers [IEBLog]

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